CHANCES ARE you've never heard of Charles P. Roman, an ad man who died recently in New York at the age of 92. But if you've ever read a comic book, or just about any magazine not printed on slick paper, you're probably familiar with his primary creation: the former 97-pound weakling known as Charles Atlas. The late Mr. Atlas (he died in 1972), whose photo appeared in ads alongside the description "World's Most Perfectly Developed Man," saw his name become a synonym for muscleman. He was a shining example of the American belief that you can always remake yourself into something better, given enough determination and a little help.

Mr. Atlas got his help from Charles Roman. He had done a pretty good job on his own in converting his 97-pound physique into a mass of rippling muscles, but he wasn't doing so well in the body-building business until he ran into Mr. Roman, a $35-a-week ad account executive. According to Mr. Roman's obituary in the New York Times, he came up with a new advertising campaign for Mr. Atlas. The result was a long-running series of comic-strip ads, crudely drawn by today's standards, in which scrawny young Mac, angered at having sand kicked in his face by a bully at the beach, sends away for a booklet outlining the Charles Atlas "Dynamic-Tension" system, bulks up dramatically, and returns to the seashore to avenge the insult with a punch to the jaw, while his girlfriend exclaims, "Oh, Mac! You are a REAL man after all!"

The ads had an undeniable appeal to skinny boys in about their 12th year (the last point in life at which many Americans see their ribs) who wondered if they were ever going to develop enough brawn to stand up to the class bully. In fact, those who actually sent away for books on Mr. Atlas's system were a little older, 15 to 25. Mr. Roman said many continued with the program into their fifties, sixties and seventies. At some point, most probably realized that the Charles Atlas promise -- "I'll PROVE You Can Have a Body Like Mine!" -- hadn't quite been fulfilled, but reasoned that at least they were still around and kicking, even if Charles Atlas wasn't.