By Gardner Fox & Gil Kane with Murphy Anderson, Sid Greene, Mike Sekowsky & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-1363-3 (TPB)
There’s a glorious wealth of classic comics superhero material available for fans these days, but whether in archival volumes or digital editions, an inexplicable amount of classy material remains in limbo. Prime case in point is the subject of today’s re-review: a veteran champion with an immaculate pedigree, a TV presence and sublime creative teams, who yet languishes in the realm of the currently unavailable…
Julius Schwartz had already ushered in the Silver Age of American Comics with his Showcase successes Flash, Adam Strange and Green Lantern, but his fourth attempt to revive and revitalize a “Golden Age Great” had stalled when Hawkman (who debuted in Brave and the Bold #34, February/March 1961) could not find an immediate audience. Undeterred, Schwartz persevered with the Winged Wonder, whilst moving forward. For Showcase #34 (September/October 1961) he revived and retooled a pint-sized strongman of the 1940’s Justice Society of America, resulting in a fascinating science-fiction champion and eternal underdog.
Professor Ray Palmer is a young physicist working on the compression of matter whose day job is teaching at Ivy Town University. He is wooing career girl Jean Loring, who wants to make her name as a trial lawyer before settling down as Mrs. Palmer (c’mon, it was the 1960s). One evening, Ray finds an ultra-dense fragment of White Dwarf Star Matter, which propels his researches in a new direction. By converting some of the degenerate matter into a lens he is able to shrink objects, but frustratingly, they always explode when he attempts to restore them to their original state.
As fiercely competitive as his intended bride, Ray keeps his progress secret until he can perfect the process. One day, the couple take a group of youngsters on a science hike to Giant Caverns, where a cave-in traps the entire party. As they all lie trapped and dying Ray secretly activates his reducing lens to shrink himself, and employs the diamond engagement ring he carries to carve a tiny fissure in the rock face into an escape hole. Expecting to explode at any second, he is astounded to discover that some peculiar combination of circumstances permit to him to safely return to his normal 6-foot height with no ill effects.
With his junior charges safe, Ray returns to his lab to find the process only works on his own body: all other subjects still catastrophically detonate. Somewhat disheartened, he ponders his situation and his new-found abilities…
And thus ended ‘The Birth of the Atom!’:a taut and intriguing short tale written by Gardner Fox and dynamically illustrated by Gil Kane & Murphy Anderson, which was supplemented in that Showcase issue by the spectacular ‘Battle of the Tiny Titans!’, wherein a 6-inch tall, teleporting alien becomes the unwilling slave of petty thief Carl Ballard and goes on a crime-spree in Ivy Town.
Jean is called in to defend a bank-teller accused of embezzlement – after all, the woman claims her cash-drawer was emptied by a little genie – and Ray determines to clandestinely help her using his newest innovation, a suit made from White Dwarf material, which can alter not only his height but also his weight and mass.
The story is thrilling and entrancing, not to mention astonishingly inventive – including such gimmicks as the molecule-sized Atom traveling along telephone wires – but the art – which allowed Kane to combine the usual long-shots, mid-shots and close-ups with glorious, balletic, full-body action poses – made this and all subsequent Atom adventures a symphony of human dynamism.
Ray’s patronising sexism in secretly aiding his dearly beloved was explained away over the years as a simple eagerness to help her achieve her career goals so she could then settle down as his bride…
Some text pages featuring a potted history of the original Al Pratt Atom and the science behind that phone trick filled out Showcase #34… and Schwartz was back on track with another instant hit.
The second try-out issue opted for a complete done-in-one story. ‘The Dooms from Beyond!’ is a spectacular tale of witches, curses and murderous trickery in pursuit of an inheritance, capped with biographies of Fox, Kane and Anderson – a true rarity in a time when most publishers preferred their staff to toil in anonymity.
The final Showcase try-out again featured two adventures; the first of which – ‘Prisoner in a Test Tube!’ – introduced a recurrent theme in the Tiny Titan’s career: Cold War Espionage. The American/Soviet arms-and-ideas race figured heavily in the life of patriotic physicist Ray Palmer and in the collegiate circle of Ivy Town where even Jean’s father was a scientist carefully watched by both CIA and KGB.
In this pensive thriller, a brief moment of East-West détente allows the Reds to replace a visiting Hungarian professor with a deadly doppelganger until the Atom takes a diminutive hand, after which it’s back to basics with super-science and criminal conundrums in the mystery of ‘The “Disappearing Act” Robberies!’
Editor Schwartz knew he had a sure thing. Barely breaking stride to count the sales figures, the bi-monthly Showcase stint segued into a bi-monthly feature title. The Atom #1 debuted with a June/July 1962 cover-date highlighting a spectacular full-length yarn entitled ‘Master of the Plant World!’ This pitted the hero against Jason Woodrue (later famed as the sentient vegetable Floronic Man) as an extra-dimensional botanist who enslaves Earth’s supernatural plant spirits in a scheme to conquer our world.
It’s followed by ‘The Oddest Man on Earth!’: another superb scientific mystery, counter-pointed by the return of Carl Ballard in the action-packed revenge thriller ‘The Prisoners who Vanished!’, and with #3 our hero finally faces a costumed arch-foe as flamboyant thief Chronos begins his obsessive career in ‘The Time Trap!’
That issue was doubly significant, if singly themed. Second tale ‘The Secret of the Atom’s Lamp!’ introduces Ray’s mentor and colleague Professor Alpheus Hyatt and his “Time-Pool”: a 6-inch wide energy field that opened onto other eras. Hyatt believed it to be an intriguing but useless scientific oddity, occasionally extracting oddments from it by blindly dropping a fishing line through it. Little did he know his erstwhile student was secretly using it to experience rousing adventures in other times and locations, such as this initial exploit in which the diminutive daredevil visits Arabia in 850 AD and unravels the true story of Aladdin. This charming, thrilling and unbelievably educational yarn set a format and high benchmark for some of the Atom’s best and most well-loved exploits…
Our hero joined the Justice League of America with issue #14 (September 1962) and The Atom #4 (December 1962/January 1963) featured ‘The Machine that Made Miracles!’: a prototypical crossover story in which the hero helps League mascot Snapper Carr solve a baffling mystery with aliens at the bottom of it, whilst ‘The Case of the Innocent Thief!’ offers a cool procedural crime yarn, as once more a client of Jean Loring’s occasions some clandestine legal aid from the Tiny Titan…
Issue #5 opened with a smart science-fiction thriller as the Mighty Mite journeys to a sub-atomic civilisation in ‘The Diamond of Deadly Dooms!’ (with a delightful art contribution from the great Mike Sekowsky) before ‘The Specter of 3000-Moons Lake!’ tests the hero’s detective skills in an eerie tale of bogeymen and bandits.
‘The Riddle of the Two-Faced Astronaut!’ in #6 was actually a cunning crime-caper, but the real highlight is another Time-Pool tale wherein our hero meets and masters infamous rogue Dick Turpin in ‘The Highwayman and the Mighty Mite!’ The next issue formed part of Editor Schwartz’s charm offensive to promote Hawkman as Winged Wonder encounters Tiny Titan in a full-length spectacular, world-threatening epic ‘The Case of the Cosmic Camera!’
Justice League villain Dr. Light opens a campaign to pick off his foes one by one when he subjects the Atom to a ‘Lock-up in the Lethal Lightbulb!’ in #8 and master craftsman Sid Greene began occasional inking duties with the deft mystery of ‘The Purloined Miniatures’ which completed that issue.
‘The Atom’s Phantom Double!’ is another high-tech fantasy of deadly doppelgangers, complimented by ‘The Seaman and the Spyglass!’ (Greene inks again) wherein the Mighty Mite proves instrumental in Hans Lippershey’s invention of telescopes, incidentally aiding explorer Henry Hudson shape the destiny of the USA, courtesy of the ubiquitous Time-Pool.
‘Ride a Deadly Grenade!’ is another breathtaking all-action Cold-War spy-thriller, whilst ‘The Mysterious Swan-Maiden!’ was just a crafty scam exposed by the scientific adventurer, but Atom #11 truly tested the Tiny Titan’s deductive mettle with both ‘Trouble at the Ten-Year Club’ and the Greene inked fantasy thriller ‘Voyage to Beyond!’
A technological master-criminal briefly made our hero his weapon-of-choice in ‘Danger… Atom-Gun at Work!’ after which charming Time-Pool tale ‘The Gold-Hunters of ’49!’ allows the compact champion to meet his literary hero Edgar Allan Poe in #12, with which issue Greene became regular inker (necessitated by Hawkman finally getting his long-awaited and Murphy Anderson-illustrated solo-feature).
Chronos returned in #13’s ‘Weapon Watches of the Time-Wise Guy!’, with Anderson returning to ink procedural drama ‘I Accuse Ray Palmer… of Robbery!’, but super-science was increasingly the order of the day as our hero then endures ‘The Revolt of the Atom’s Uniform!’ in #14, and battles spies with ‘Illusions for Sale!’ and the crafty Hyper-Thief in ‘The Super-Cracker who Defied the Law!’ in #15.
Atom #16 was another mind-boggling novel where yet another criminal scientist brought about the bizarre ‘Fate of the Flattened-Out Atom!’ before this immensely dynamic treat for eyes and imagination concludes with #17’s ‘Case of the Hooded Hijackers!’ (wherein Gil Kane displayed his love of gangster movies and potent talent for caricature) and finishes big with another magical Time-Pool extravaganza as the Tiny Titan visits the year 1888 and retrieves ‘Jules Verne’s Crystal Ball!’
The Atom was never a major name or huge success, but from reading these witty, compelling tales by Gardner Fox, where Gil Kane first mastered the fluid human dynamism that made him a legend, you’d be hard-pressed to understand why. This is sheer superhero perfection, and long overdue for a closer look.
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