Friday, April 10, 2009

Books I Love: Sword of the Atom.

Or 'Let's Get Small!'

In the echelons of the superheroic elite, there are champions aplenty who make the grade and attain the upper tier of recognizability and popularity. Amongst these esteemed ranks you have heroes like Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, the Flash, Green Arrow, Green Lantern, hell even the Wonder Twins have some modicum of fame amongst pop culture junkies, if not comicbook fans proper. And all of the above have a bevy of interesting powers and abilities that make them characters rife with storytelling potential(okay, maybe not the Wonder Twins. A girl who can become any animal and a guy who can become anything as long as it's made of water? Riiiiight).

And then there's the Atom.

For those in the audience who just drew a blank when I dropped the above name don't worry, I'll bring you up to speed as best I can. I should warn you that this piece is going to get very geeky very fast, but I promise to do my best to keep things as free and breezy as possible and keep the dreaded c-word (continuity!) to the barest of bare minimums.

Back during the 1950s in the wake of the crackdown on comicbooks spearheaded by America's conservatives, DC Comics turned to its stable of superheroes to draw in the youth readership market with good, clean, wholesome fun. By that period though most of the DC heroes had faded into obscurity save for the holy trinity of Superman, Wonder Woman, and Batman. Rather than rehash the same old characters, editor Julie Schwartz decided a full revamp of the lesser known and second tier heroes was in order. Thus the Flash, Green Lantern, and the Atom were divested completely of their 1940s characters and origins and rebuilt from the ground up.

The Atom was scientist Ray Palmer, a professor at Ivy University in the quaint Midwestern metropolis of Ivy Town. A falling meteor provides a mysterious energy source, emitted from a white dwarf star, that when harnessed grants Ray the ability to alter his size and mass. Armed with this newfound power, he creates a size-changing belt and dons a colorful red and blue costume to fight crime and keep the peace in Ivy Town as the heroic crusader men know as the Atom!

Okay, I'm trying here but it's very hard to make the character's initial concept sound cool. The Atom gets small. That's his power. We have people who can run at incredible speeds, wield rings that make their will a reality, have trained themselves to be the greatest martial artists and deductive minds on the planet. . .and the guy who gets tiny. Wow.

While a staple of the Justice League's roster, it can be understood when stacking him up alongside other heroes that the Atom isn't exactly a character to set the eyes of readers ablaze with passion in hearing more and more of his adventures, and by about the early '80s DC was working to find some way—any way—to make the character seem cool. In 1983, Jan Strnad and Gil Kane accomplished the impossible with their four-issue mini-series Sword of the Atom, a series which gleefully tore the Atom's status quo apart and rebuilt something wonderfully and maniacally insane in its place.

By this point in his career the Atom is in a bit of a holding pattern. He's married attorney Jean Loring (his Lois Lane figure in the classic stories) but their lives are pulling them in different directions and their marriage is suffering for it. Ray is dedicated to his scientific research and his crimefighting heroics as the Atom, while Jean has thrown herself in her work as an attorney and wants a normal life with someone who cares for her and can commit to her full time. As the series dawns, Ray catches Jean with a coworker of hers, Paul Hoben, and the couple decide a trail separation might be in order. Ray decides to head to South America and the Amazon in order to track a piece of white dwarf star that he believes fell in the jungle some years ago. Unfortunately, the quality of his native guides leaves much to be desired and in his efforts to get an aerial sweep of the jungle his pilots turn out to be very protective of their coca fields. They jump Ray, but the hero is prepared and soon engages the two in battle as the Atom. Of course, loaded guns and a bounding tiny man lead to the plane spiraling out of control in a storm, only to be hit by a bolt of lightning. The Atom falls as the plane crashes and lands smack dab in the middle of the Amazon jungle. His size-changing belt damaged by the lightning, the diminutive hero finds himself trapped at only six inches(152mm) tall!

There's a joke I could make about six inches, size, and shrinkage, but I'm just gonna stick to the high ground. I swear to you I'll keep all size jokes to a minimum. Hah! Y'get it? Minimum. . .heh. . .okay, moving on.

Now the challenges of a man of merely six inches in height trying to survive and escape the Amazon jungle—one of the most potentially lethal environments on the planet—would be exciting enough(it even opens with an awesome battle between the Atom and a snake that's dangerously larger than he is). But it is here that the series completely loses its mind, as the Atom finds himself suddenly beset upon by a band of tribal, yellow-skinned alien warriors riding frogs and is captured, led off with a band of prisoners to an alien city hidden in the depths of the jungle.

I will say that again: tribal alien warriors riding frogs. I love comicbooks so very, very much.

Taken to the city of Morlaidh, Atom quickly becomes enmeshed in the affairs of a band of freedom fighters to rid the city of the tyrannical king Caellich and his scheming vizier Deraegis. Along the way, the Atom learns that the people of Morlaidh were part of a penal colony established on Earth centuries ago whose technology and culture has degraded to a medievalist society over time. All this is learned on the run as Atom battles giant(for him) rats, marauding imperial warriors riding hawks, and other assorted perils of the jungle and the Morlaidhian hordes. Along the way he gets to know the charismatic rebel leader Taren, the lovely and defiant Princess Laethwin, and the shifty but reliable archer Voss. Meanwhile, Jean Loring doesn't get lost in the shuffle as she does her best to track down the missing Ray Palmer. Does she succeed? Will the Atom overthrow the tyrannical ruling elite of Morlaidh and restore justice? Will he and the Princess get close in the wake of Taren's untimely death? Will the Atom regain his size-changing powers(not making the joke, not making it. . .)? Can riding a bullfrog whilst wielding a sword look cool? All these questions and more can be answered within the thrilling pages of Sword of the Atom!

This book is purest, simplest joy, at once completely deconstructing a Silver Age hero while at the same time telling an amazing and thrilling 'Planet Story' in the best tradition of Edgar Rice Burroughs' Martian stories or the Skaith stories of Leigh Brackett. Taking a normally staid and science-fiction themed hero like the Atom and dropping him into the middle of a sword and sorcery story is a concept that shouldn't work and yet does so brilliantly. The tale must've been popular, as there were a number of follow-ups included in this collection. The Atom actually became the first hero in the DCU to have an in-universe tell-all biography written about him, one that not only revealed his identity to the world but was in effect a swan song for the characters as he had been. After that there were a number of adventures starring the Atom and Laethwen, including one in which Jean Loring and Paul Hoben find themselves involved in the tiny world of flashing blades and giant snakes. Simply put, the entire concept and execution of the series was a blast, and it's clear Strnad and Kane were having fun tipping over the applecart of the Atom's previous status quo and just going nuts with an adventure that Robert E. Howard would've approved of. Strnad's writing is crisp, and while it occasionally gets a bit on the florid side it's still thrilling and entertaining. Gil Kane is one of the legendary DC artists, and his work here is that of a master in his prime. His style may take some getting used to for those who prefer the uber-rendering of an Alex Ross, but to me his work has a primal vitality and a passion to it that just screams 'this is a comicbook'. It may not be 'realistic', but its energy is palpable on the page.

Of course, comicbooks being what they are it wasn't long before this storyline was swept completely aside to make way for the Atom's return to Ivy Town and hardcore superheroing, which later led to his return to obscurity and then eventual replacement by the newest Atom, scientist Ryan Choi in Gail Simone's excellent The All-New Atom series. That made it all of twenty-five issues before it met the inevitable death knell of cancellation.

But for one brief, shining moment the Atom had a chance to stand tall (no pun intended) in a world where his detriments were unexpected strengths and his concept was not only tweaked and twisted, but completely reworked. And it was glorious. Sword of the Atom is no perfect masterpiece, but it is a helluva lot of fun being done at a time when DC wasn't afraid to experiment with their characters and take some risks. It's a storytelling alchemical brew that you should definitely check out if you haven't already. Everything you need is between the covers, and like a good movie it'll keep you entertained pretty much from beginning to end. It's the kind of comic that never won an Eisner, but they don't all need to be. Sometimes you just want something to kick back with on a Saturday afternoon on a hot summer day on the patio, maybe with a cola slurpee within easy reach of your deck chair. In this, Sword of the Atom remains one of my absolute favorite books you've probably never heard of. Highly recommended.


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