And then the Internet brought Charles Atlas back to life.
It turned out the World Wide Web was the perfect marketing tool: cheaper even than the back pages of comics, international in scope, the ideal vehicle for mail- order sales. Seemingly immune from inflation—the course now sells for $49.95, only $20 more than in the early 1930s—Atlas' promise to "Make You a New Man!" was only a click away in banner ads on youth-oriented sites. The company says it now does 80 percent of its business online. "We are literally overwhelmed by the Web site activity," says Hogue, who declines to provide figures on revenue or growth. And such high-profile brands as the Gap, Mercedes and IBM have licensed the Atlas image or "Hey, Skinny!" comic strips for retro advertisements.
Charles Atlas came from a simpler time. His publicity stunts would hardly have interested today's celebrity magazines. He neither drank nor smoked, and his personal life was free of scandal. Steroids, had they been available then, would not have interested him. He sprang from the back pages of comic books and promised every bullied, insecure young man the means to take control of his life.
If he hadn't been real, no one would have believed him.
Jonathan Black wrote Yes, You Can! (2006), about motivational speaking. He is now at work on a book on fakery.
Editor's Note: This article has been revised to make the following corrections: The name of the co-author of Yours in Perfect Manhood is Charles Gaines. Fellow bodybuilder Terry Robinson used the nickname of "Angie" to refer to Charles Atlas.