Long before the advent of the UFC and the subsequent proliferation of MMA gyms from coast to coast, a young man wishing to take a stand against a bully could find wishful solace in any number of comic book ads promising physical superiority. The earliest of these, and most enduring, featured Charles Atlas…
In the early 1900s, an Italian-immigrant Brooklynite by the name of Angelo Siciliano, transformed himself from a “97-pound weakling” into a statuesque bodybuilder. The bulked-up Siciliano Americanized his name to Charles Atlas and paired with fitness writer Dr. Frederick Tilney to produce a strength-building system which later came to be known as “dynamic tension”.
A hagiographical single-page comic depicting Atlas’ journey from zero to hero first appeared as an ad in boy’s magazines, before becoming a fixture in comic books starting in the 1940s. A couple formulations of the “The Insult” were made, both of which chronicled a bullied beachgoer’s speedy transformation into a hunk of vengeful punching power.
Atlas’ mail-in offering included free “outline courses” in jiu jitsu, boxing, wrestling, feats of strength and hand balancing to become the first de-facto mixed martial arts program. As dojos started popping on every other street corner in the United States, Atlas’ alpha-male regimen was forced to competed with a slew of other over-the-top alternatives on the pages of comics from Archie to The Amazing Spider Man.
POWER FOR SELF DEFENSE
MASTER OF KARATE
JOE WEIDER’S SYSTEM
AMERICAN COMBAT JUDO
COUNT DANTE’S DIM MAK
Of all the increasingly braggadocious and menacing ads, none could match the outrageousness of Count Dante’s “Dim Mak Death Touch”, which appeared regularly in comic books of the 1970s. Dante, born John Keehan, was a martial artist from Chicago who wildly reimagined his personal history to claim Spanish nobility and weave a tale of having participated in secret death matches in China and Thailand.
Dante, who supplanted martial arts income with work as a hairdresser, died of a bleeding ulcer in 1975. Among the more colorful aspects of his enigmatic story were his involvement in Chicagoland dojo wars that cost a student his life, and being a suspect of interest in the notorious 1974 Chicago Purolator vault robbery in which 4.3 million dollars was stolen.