Who's the Atom?

Who's This? The most diminutive hero of all.
The facts: One of the Golden Age heroes Julius Schwartz decided to bring back in the nascent Silver Age was the Atom, but unlike the other heroes who got his revamp treatment, it was in name only. While Al Pratt had been just another masked mystery man, albeit a short one, Ray Palmer was a hero of the Science Age, with the power to shrink down to the size of an action figure, and ultimately, to subatomic size. He first appeared in Showcase #31 (October 1961) by Gardner Fox and Gil Kane, and went on to star in his own series in 1962, then sharing his title with Hawkman in 1968 in an effort to save both heroes from cancellation. Alas, a year later, it was all over. Still, he was by then in the Justice League. In 1983, a revival called Sword of the Atom (mini-series and special) put him in the jungle, living with a tiny tribe, but it failed to go to series. Another try in 1988, called Power of the Atom, failed to last even two years. After that, the pressure was on to replace Ray Palmer with various other Atoms, with Ray often just appearing as a scientist, mostly retired from action. And no one talks about that time his body was regressed to that of a teenager and he joined no-name Teen Titans. At least, *I* don't.
How you could have heard of him: He's a TV star, although what Brandon Routh actually seems to be playing on Arrow and Legends of Tomorrow is the Ted Kord's Blue Beetle. But he can still shrink, so that's the Atom.
Example story: Sword of the Atom #1 (September 1983) "Stormy Passage" by Jan Strnad and Gil Kane
So what was that whole "Sword of..." thing all about? And did they know the series sounded like it was called "Sort of the Atom"? Let's look at the first issue and how Ray Palmer got into this mess. The cover promises to have him ride a frog, so I buy the premise. Do I buy the bit?

Well... he rides a frog on the splash page and in a pin-up, but not until issue 2, in-story. So let's let that go. One of the things Sword of the Atom is historically important for is setting up the villainizing of Jean Loring. The first issue of Sword recaps what has gone before and makes Jean hotter than she ever was before.
Bless you, Gil Kane. BUT look at that writing. It really, really, really wants you to believe Jean is an ungrateful, self-destructive brat for what happens next:
If Ray had been writing this himself, he couldn't have been more self-serving. The start of the story has this university professor/scientist/superhero playing house husband and waiting up late for his lawyer wife who keeps coming home late. You've got a crazy schedule yourself, Ray, now come on. He spots a car in the rain, walks over, and Jean is cheating on him. Fair enough. In the moment, she breaks it off with "Paul", so I'm guessing it hasn't been going on long, and while I don't condone adultery, I surely can understand her point about his not making much time for her, and when he does, it's just to talk technobabble. Not to mention how he spends her money on scientific equipment. Or how he gallivants in spandex as the Atom.
So they have problems, and it's going to lead to their divorce. Rather than work on it, he leaves the next morning for South America to work on a project for six weeks. Way to go, champ. Now, it's a big leap from understandable infidelity and murdering beloved character Sue Dibney, which thankfully only happened in Identity Crisis and thus never happened (and I'm sticking to that), but then she becomes the new Eclipso, etc. etc. If it all starts here, I call shenanigans.

So South America... Ray is looking for a piece of dwarf star material (which has always been nonsense science and always will be) that might have fallen in the jungle. Flying over it, his detector makes the plane come too close to coca fields and the less-than-trustworthy plane staff pistol whip him rather than he find out about their drug operation. Dude rips his wedding ring off his finger, and Ray awakens and become the Atom, who you'd think would be better about staging fights in close quarters.
The plane crashes, he gets hit by lightning, as he is shot out of it and falls into a stream, unconscious... they're over-egging the pudding a little bit. He's sore, but fine, though his costume rips so to exactly reveal his hair - his new look is developing already. And when a snake attacks, he realizes the lightning short-circuited his size and weight controls. He's just a tiny man now.
He's rescued by tiny, yellow-skinned barbarian frog-riders accompanied by the beautiful Princess Laethwen (which makes her sound Welsh - indeed, the king is called Caellich, and the Atom doesn't understand their language). So there's a whole civilization of tiny people in the jungle, and Ray gets involved in their politics almost immediately, going to bat for his capturer Taren, who has been plotting against the king and so gets soundly beaten for his trouble. The Atom doesn't know a damn thing about what's going on, but he abide what looks like an unfair fight.
The Atom's training regimen: Erasers. And really, you can here why, Kane's beautiful draftsmanship aside, Sword of the Atom doesn't really work (I do NOT buy the bit). First, the Atom has lost his size-changing powers, which removes all the cool comic book physics from his adventures. He's just Doll Man, and while I like Doll Man fine, there were more interesting stories to tell with Ray Palmer as a hero who could use science to bend the universe to his will. Second, it doesn't even matter if he's small, because his entire world is inhabited by small people. He's just a sword and sorcery hero for some reason dressed in a superhero costume. The world outside is over-sized, but are these rats, for example, any different from the dinosaurs of Skartaris, in function?
Not really. The last page of the issue has Jean Loring get call from South American authorities telling her a charred corpse in a plane crash had her husband's wedding ring, and she'll spend the rest the of the mini-series moping in bed with "Paul". No worries because Ray is going to wind up with the jungle princess. It's an approach that did not save the character (for one thing, despite DC's many fantasy books in the 80s, they were years late in trying to cash in on the success of Marvel's Conan), and ultimately would go on to justify irreparable damage to Jean Loring.

But I can't say the attempt wasn't bold.

Who's Next? A dalmatian rider.


Martin Gray said...

Exactly! Take away everything that makes Ray unique and of course it’s not a hit.

I never liked Jean in the first place, mind, so off course she snogs a guy with a tache.


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