Monday, August 12, 2013

The Atom

Sword of the Atom (Gil Kane & Jan Strnad) - This miniseries represented a radical reinvention of Ray Palmer, the Atom, a decisive break and a fresh new status quo for the character. This kind of story, taking a character out of his familiar surroundings, has often been used to provide a new perspective on a character — it seems to be popular at Marvel over the past few years with books like "Planet Hulk" or Rick Remender's Captain America — and it's rarely been as effective as it is here. Writer Jan Strnad completely destabilizes Palmer's life in the first issue's opening pages, as Palmer discovers his wife Jean cheating on him with a partner in her law firm. Enraged and depressed, instead of trying to reconcile, Palmer decides to flee to the Amazon jungle on a scientific research mission, but his plane crashes and his shrinking equipment malfunctions, leaving him permanently shrunken to six inches tall. This turns out to be the perfect size to get picked up by a tribe of tiny yellow-skinned aliens living in a miniscule city in the midst of the jungle, and the Atom becomes a warrior in an alien rebellion, assisting a group of rebels in fighting against a king whose rule has been compromised by a scheming, evil advisor. In the process, the Atom falls in love with the princess who is aiding the rebellion against her own father, and once her current lover is conveniently killed off, she immediately falls in love with the Atom too, seemingly before her previous suitor's body has even been fully devoured by the ants that kill him.

It's all somewhat silly pulp, but that's kind of the point: the series transforms the Atom into a barbarian hero, riding into battle on a frog and attacking lizards or rats or alien soldiers with a sword held aloft. It's very fun, though it wouldn't be nearly as compelling if it wasn't drawn by Gil Kane, whose sharp, realistic renderings give weight and intensity to the pulpy action. It's very dynamic work, quickly making this tiny world feel real, its over-sized animals menacing and frightening, the alien supporting cast quickly delineated into a handful of strong personalities who form the political backdrop for the Atom's adventures here. Strnad checks in every so often with Jean, who believes Ray to be dead and tries to move on with her new lover before abruptly (and inexplicably) deciding that Ray must be alive after all. The emphasis is always on the Atom's adventures in the jungle, though, and the few brief detours to the normal-sized world don't distract from the series' focus. It's not the most sophisticated series, and there seems to be an unfortunate editorial mandate to summarize the whole plot every issue despite it being just a four-issue miniseries, but for its inventive concept and Kane's elegant realization of it, it is well worth seeking out.

The original miniseries was followed over the next few years by three one-off specials that continued the story, and despite repeated editorial pleas for readers to demand an ongoing series, one never took off. The first special is an extended recounting of the miniseries with narration taken from a book written about the Atom's adventures, and climaxing with Ray and Jean calling it quits for good so Ray can go back to the Amazon to find his yellow-skinned princess again. The second special is more substantial, dealing with a war between the Atom's tribe and a rival group of aliens — though the rather contrived plotting necessary to bring Jean down to the Amazon again suggests some reluctance to truly make a clean break with the past and run with this new direction for the characters. The third special, with Pat Broderick doing a fine job of replacing Kane on art, is a bit sluggish to start and has some odd narrative inconsistencies with the rest of this material, but it climaxes with a chilling, gory second half packed with zombie horror, suggesting a desire to turn the Atom into a real pulp/genre hero, comfortable in Conan-esque warrior action, sci-fi adventures, and EC-style horror alike. It was not to be, though, and Sword never transitioned into the ongoing series that might have pursued this genre-hopping direction further.

Power of the Atom (Roger Stern, William Messner-Loebs, Tom Peyer & various artists) - Instead of embracing Sword's direction, the Atom returned in a new series that brought him traumatically back to normal-sized civilization, his lover and her alien society destroyed in a fire, leaving the grief-stricken Atom to pick up the pieces of his old life again. Written by Roger Stern and drawn at first by Dwayne Turner, the series got off to a very slow start by rehashing the Sword material and throwing the Atom against a number of generic threats while various suplots slowly percolated. Also, Turner's art over the first 5 issues is really rough and boring — once he's replaced by John Byrne (for a one-issue fill-in on #6) and Graham Nolan, the more dynamic art makes the series much more palatable. Still, despite some interesting character beats for Ray in these early issues, things don't fully take off until Stern introduced the creepy, very odd new villain Humbug in #10, and then developed the character of Jean's new husband Paul into an actual compelling, if unlikeable, character.

William Messner-Loebs then guested as writer for issues #12-13, and immediately elevated the series to a new level. His two issues explore some of the obvious ramifications of dealing with a size-changing hero, ideas that, strangely enough, had been ignored in the Stern-written issues. In #12, Ray and Paul shrink down, first so that they're surrounding by an enormous carpet jungle, then shrink even further until they pass into a strange alien universe of electrons and microscopic particles, with Nolan rendering this miniature world as outer space, with atoms as planets floating in the void. It's potent stuff, and Messner-Loebs makes this journey into the microscopic as metaphysical and emotional as it is physical. In #13, Ray enters a woman's body to stitch together some hemorrhaging blood vessels, and again it provides an opportunity for Nolan's visual imagination to cut loose, as well as really confronting what it means for a man to be able to shrink like this and enter spaces usually reserved for remote scientific study. Messner-Loebs brings to this series an emotional and thematic depth missing from the uneven Stern issues that preceded this point, as well as a strong sense of humor and attention to character, as seen especially in the comically staged riot, juxtaposed against a warm, funny Jean/Ray scene, that closes this two-issue run.

It's a shame that Messner-Loebs didn't stay with the Atom for longer, but by this point the title's impending cancellation must have been obvious. Stern brought in Tom Peyer, then a new name in comics, to write the series' final storyline. Peyer did a good job of wrapping up this 18-issue run, pushing Atom to the breaking point, bringing out darker aspects of the character not seen since the Sword days. In Peyer's first issue, he juxtaposes some dark comedy with a pair of inept kidnappers against the Atom's gradual realization that the CIA has betrayed him, and this issue climaxes when he learns the full extent of that betrayal. Issue #17, with a ferocious Atom launching himself on a mad revenge quest, is a real scorched-earth blast of a comic, doing a great job of channelling everything that was so fun about the barbarian warrior Atom from Sword. It's a strong ending to a series that took way too long to find its footing, but the second half of its run has lots of good stuff, mostly from Messner-Loebs and Peyer, though even the Stern issues in the second half are stronger than they had been at first.

The Atom Special #1-2 (Tom Peyer & Steve Dillon/Luke McDonnell) - A pair of one-shots from 1993 and 1995, during a stretch when Ray Palmer once again had no ongoing series of his own. The first of these specials is a fun, free-wheeling bit of weirdness that draws on the character's complicated recent history and approaches him with equal doses of humor and seriousness. Steve Dillon's deadpan art is equally well-suited to the wry humor and the sudden bursts of darkness or violence that dot this very odd comic. Palmer is depicted as an immature jerk, with a supporting cast — his ex-wife, the man she cheated on him with, and the friend who exposed his secret identity to the world — who are just as unlikeable. Palmer is confronted with visions of his past (drawn from both preceding series and his appearances in Suicide Squad), believing he's going crazy as he's haunted by the various deaths and betrayals that have troubled him over the years.

Peyer packs the book with wacky images: a tiny time portal with a periscope poking out of it, a man with a clock embedded in his face, the Atom judo-flipping a cat, the Atom building a microscopic house made of actual atoms in a sad attempt to escape humanity. It all climaxes with a deliciously gory end for the story's villain, and Palmer being reunited with his nasty supporting cast so they can all trade cruel barbs again. Ha ha, good times. Unfortunately, when Peyer returned with a second special two years later (this one drawn by Suicide Squad veteran Luke McDonnell), Palmer had inexplicably been de-aged to 17 years old by Zero Hour, one of DC's periodic obsessive continuity reshufflings. It's an odd choice, and it takes a lot of the air out of this issue, since much of it concerns tired fish-out-of-water jokes with Palmer not understanding the ways in which society or technology had changed since he was 17 — if DC for some reason thought this change was necessary to reinvigorate the character, it obviously did not work.

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