Sword of the Atom

Finally breaking free from the sea of backstory comics I was engulfed in, I found myself inadvertently feeling like I was thrown back into a bygone era of comics.

Seriously, I’m never going to escape the past where comics are concerned, am I?

Sword of the Atom collects a four-part miniseries and a few annuals that tell the story of how Ray Palmer gave up his full-size life in favor of living in his 6-inch form amongst a race of miniature aliens deep in the Amazon.

…yeah, it’s pretty much as far-fetched as it sounds.

The collection is rife with drama, featuring infidelity, assumed deaths, traitorous advisers, and any number of tension-causing issues.  After learning that his wife Jean is having an affair, Ray takes a trip to the Amazon to seek out a piece of a dying star.  Ray’s curiousity eventually lead to a plane crash, leaving Ray stuck in his 6-inch form.  He is soon rescued by a race of like-sized aliens, and the story goes from there, as Ray ultimately decides to forgo returning to his old life in favor of this new miniature life in the Amazon.

While reading this comic I was struck by how reminiscent it was of old Jack Kirby comics.  I saw hints of Kamandi in these pages, and the entire comic felt as though it could have been a Kirby creation for DC.

That’s certainly not a bad thing, but after some of the more contemporary comics on the shelf, the style of storytelling just felt like it was moving in the wrong direction.  I found myself longing for the more subtle, human touch of the recent Batgirl or Green Arrow comics I’d read.

The overall style could have been overcome, but unfortunately it caused the characters to feel a bit stale and unrealistic.  The most obvious example of this was Atom’s entire relationship with his new alien lady-love, Laethwen.

Laethwen was the daughter of the alien city’s ruler, and also happened to be in love with the rebel leader, Taren.  After Taren’s untimely death, Laethwen wastes literally no time in asking Atom if it’s too soon to talk of love between the two of them, to which Atom responds:

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WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT OF COURSE IT’S TOO SOON YOU LITERALLY HELPED BURY HER BOYFRIEND LESS THAN TWENTY MINUTES AGO.

I have no problem suspending disbelief where comics are concerned, accepting superheros and alien beings as a common occurrence on this planet.  It only works, though, if all of those elements are grounded in some form of reality.  More specifically, in the realm of human emotion.  I can deal with mini aliens and well-developed scientific gizmos as long as they’re tied together with realistic emotions.  Without that, the stories just end up feeling completely disconnected from reality.

These moments continue throughout the trade, with Atom and Laethwen eventually getting married and attempting to unite the various tribes in the Amazon.  The latter portion of the comic starts to take a grim turn, with the culminating issue featuring a gruesome plague that wipes out an entire city.  Barely escaping with their lives, Atom recounts his story the following day, noting the many horrors he witnessed as the city was engulfed by death.  He and Laethwen vow to remain in the jungle for a few weeks to ensure that they aren’t infected:

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Sure, no big deal, you just watched an entire city be destroyed by pestilence (which you just happened to be responsible for releasing), but yes, go flirt and have sex with your wife.  Perfect timing.

Okay, so maybe that’s being a little harsh, but it just further ties into what was said about the human emotion behind the story.  The characters rarely ever show any true emotion, and what little is shown feels forced and unrealistic.  It creates a disconnect between the reader and the story.  I didn’t feel invested in the characters, and so the story was less moving than it could have been.

I will admit, I see the importance the story plays on “the shelf”, and I’m curious what becomes of Ray Palmer after this.  Does he live happily ever after with Laethwen?  Will Paul, Ray’s ex-wife’s new husband and the new owner of the Atom belt, adopt the Atom persona, or will Ray come out of retirement to make future appearances in comics?  The story leaves the ending open, and I can honestly say I’m not sure which way it will go.  I’ll give the writers credit there; it left me wanting to know what happens after the story ends.

This may not have been my favorite comic, but I think it’s just because I’m starting to get a feel for what type of comics I really enjoy reading.  The human element is a major factor for me, as well as very good characterization.  A character-driven story always seems to catch my eye more than a basic action adventure.  I like when the comics take their time and slowly introduce the story to the character, rather than try to rush it and fit everything into a single issue.  For what it was, Sword of the Atom was a good comic.  It may not be my exact cup of tea, but it was strong enough that I can still appreciate it for its story.

-Jess

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