“The Incident That Made a Man Out of ‘Mac'”

I was down at the office today, and ran into some of the contestants — at last, I think they were contestants — at The Arnold bodybuilding competition. Comparing their bulky physiques to my puny, flabby body reminded me of the Charles Atlas ad on the back of comic books when I was a kid. If you’ve ever seen it, you will remember it. It featured a photo of a grinning Charles Atlas with clenched fists, barechested, and wearing a leopard skin speedo-type bathing suit. The photo looked like it was taken in about 1928. We were told that Charles Atlas had been voted “The World’s Most Perfectly Developed Man,” or “The World’s Most Perfectly Proportioned Man,” or something like that. Do they still have that election?

The most memorable part of the ad was the accompanying comic, which was carefully calculated to strike directly at the core insecurities of virtually every boy. In the comic, a skinny, bespectacled “Mac” has taken his girlfriend to the beach. A bully comes by, takes the girl, kicks sand in Mac’s face, and laughs at him. The girl, apparently disgusted by having a boyfriend who turns out to be a humiliated wuss, says something dismissive like: “Don’t let it bother you, little man.” In the next panel, “Mac” is at home, where he says he is tired of being a “scarecrow,” kicks over a chair in frustration, and decides to use the Charles Atlas program. We then see a muscular, cut-up “Mac” punch the beach bully on the chin, and “Mac” finally is shown walking away with a girl on each arm. All this, just by using the Charles Atlas “dynamic tension” method!

It was tempting to send in for the Charles Atlas program, but the ad really raised more questions in my 10-year-old brain than it answered. First, was Charles Atlas still alive, and if so what did he look like? Where was this beach, anyway? Wasn’t there any security? Could mean-spirited bullies just roam the beach, terrorizing the weak, without any fear of punishment? If so, I was very glad to be growing up in the Midwest, where there weren’t any beaches for hundreds of miles. And what about the girl with “Mac”? Nice girlfriend, huh? My God, were all girls so shallow? If so, could “Mac” have compensated for his failings by driving a nice-looking car or buying the girl a nice meal? I guess the bully deserved his comeuppance, but wouldn’t he just have felt embarrassed and ashamed, like “Mac” did? At the end, when “Mac” walked away with the two girls, what were they going to do, anyway?

These questions never got answered, but they certainly were capable of occupying the mind of a 10-year-old kid on a rainy afternoon.

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