Anyone with a penchant for comic books from yesteryear has encountered the story of the 97-pound weakling. Losing his girl after having sand kicked in his face by a bully, he discovers the miracle of “dynamic tension” and comes back a mountain of muscle, exacting revenge upon his former tormentor. This comic strip advertisement would be enough of an enticement to get millions of males between the ages of 15-25 to send Charles Atlas their money and make him a household name the world over.
Born in Italy in 1893, Angelo Charles Siciliano was a sickly child who was self-described as pale, skinny and weak. An incident at a Coney Island beach one day, where sand was indeed kicked in his face, would serve as a catalyst for his desire to perfect his physique. He did everything he could, from training at the gym to becoming a student of Alois Swaboda’s renowned muscle-building techniques. This intensive training gave him a body to die for. When his gym buddies notices a resemblance to the mythical character, Atlas, it gave Siciliano inspiration and he legally changed his name to Charles Atlas. With a combination of the techniques he had learned, mixed with various observations he had made of tigers and how they keep their muscles in shape, he developed a system that would come to be known as “Dynamic Tension,” a virtual tug of war between muscles that anybody could do, no matter their location, and with absolutely no equipment necessary.
To demonstrate the effectiveness of his techniques, Atlas signed up for a Coney Island circus sideshow and wowed the crowds by hammering nails with his bare hands, ripping telephone books in half, and laying upon a bed of nails while people stood on him. He began to get the attention of artists, always looking for an ideal physique to model. As a result, the sculpted body of Charles Atlas was immortalized in a number of famous works of art such as the sculpture of Alexander Hamilton that stands in front of the U.S. Treasury building, “The Dawn of Glory” in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, and the torso of George Washington in Washington Square. He was even the model for Abraham Lincoln on one occasion.
When the publisher of “Physical Culture” magazine decided to have contest at Madison Square Garden in 1922 for “The World’s Most Perfectly Developed Man”, Atlas took first place. The following year, he did the same. At this point, the contest was discontinued as those running it felt that Atlas really had no competition. Using the money he had won, Atlas started a mail-order business to share his muscle-building methods with the world. In 1928, a man named Charles Roman would take over the marketing and the familiar comic strip was born. It would make Atlas a millionaire many times over.
Over the years, Charles would personally train such athletes as Rocky Marciano, Max Baer and Joe DiMaggio. He would travel the country bending railroad spikes and pulling such items as cars, trains, and boats with his mighty musculature. The world’s most perfectly developed man spent his final years sculpting driftwood and signing autographs in Palm Beach, Florida before passing away at the age of 79. And yet, the Atlas legacy and the company with his name continue on to this day.
It is no surprise that a man as iconic as Charles Atlas would be honored with numerous popular culture references. He is sung about by name and mentioned numerous times in the cult classic The Rocky Horror Picture Show. An eclectic mix of artists such as Bob Dylan, Pink Floyd and The Who have referenced the famous strongman in song. And author, Kurt Vonnegut made mention of Atlas in his book, Cat’s Cradle. But none of these have managed to promote the superhuman image of Charles Atlas quite as effectively as a simply comic strip that guaranteed to make you a man, big and strong enough to ensure that you were never the victim of a merciless sand-kicking in front of the lady folk.
Did you stare at these ads in your youth, imagining yourself with the build of Charles Atlas? Did you actually send away for his kit? Or, do you just remember seeing all that sand kicking in just about every comic book you opened? Share your memories of Charles Atlas and his comic book ads with all of us at Retroland, in our comments section, as we tip our hat to this cultural icon from yesteryear.