The All-New Atom: My Life in Miniature

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There’s always a sense of loss when someone new takes up the mantle of the hero. You want to cling to the past, remember the person you looked up to for so long, not wanting to see change.  The Atom wasn’t really one of those characters for me.  I had read a bit about Ray Palmer, but I was never so invested in his story to feel any sense of legacy or importance to his role as Atom.

Plus, let’s be real, his ex-wife went completely kooky and killed an innocent woman. His life is sort of a mess right now. He’s well within his right to give up the superhero gig for a while.

Enter Ryan Choi, a brilliant physics professor who just arrived in the states from China. He had communicated with Ray Palmer all throughout his life, looking up to the former Atom not because he was a superhero, but because he was an encouraging scientist. Effectively taking over Palmer’s life, Ryan also quickly locates Ray’s belt, a present purposely left for him to find.  Ryan leaps at the chance to study the belt’s scientific implications, but as always happens in these cases, the world gets in the way, and Ryan is forced to use his newfound abilities to save the world.

Damn crises. Always getting in the way of science.

Let me just say that I was torn before starting this comic. I never really cared much about the Atom, so I worried that I’d have to slog through this trade.  Of course, then I realized that this comic was written by Gail Simone, and I perked up a bit. Let’s see what Ms. Simone can do with a slightly obscure character like Atom.

Suffice it to say, Gail Simone did for the Atom what Grant Morrison did for Animal Man.  Namely, she breathed new life into the character, creating an unexpected but wholly enthralling new comic.

To be fair, Simone’s story isn’t quite as groundbreaking or existential as Morrison’s, but they’re on par with one another in so far as they both brought a new spin to an overlooked character, adding their own personal touch to create an eminently readable comic.

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One of my favorite aspects of Simone’s Atom is that she addresses the real-world implications of changing one’s size/mass.  In an older comic, the above panels would never have been included. Scientific asides would have been forgone in favor of action scenes.  Why though? I found these inclusions to add to the realism of the story, as well as the character of Ryan himself. He’s a scientist after all; he would no doubt notice any number of things when shrunken down, and comment on them frequently.  It’s clear that Simone did her homework, throwing in scientific notations frequently, and employing them as major plot points throughout the comic. This is realistic for the character, and helps make him feel more fully realized than if he was just another guy in a mask running around saving people. The Atom’s focus is on science, both studying it and using it to help others. Simone found the perfect balance of knowledge and action, creating a story that isn’t over-simplified for its readers.

That being said, there is also a healthy dose of humor and, quite frankly, absurdity, interspersed throughout the comic. I mean come on, when your main antagonist is a society of bug-like beings who live on and worship dogs, how serious-minded can the story be?

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Somehow, despite these plot points that could easily devolve into childish prattle, Simone struck a balance between humor and intensity, so that even when we’re laughing at one of Ryan’s numerous jokes or the sheer oddity of a canine-worshipping race, we can still appreciate the severity of a criminal killing innocent people. It’s an impressive skill, and not one all writers have.

As for the more serious side of the comic, we come to Dwarfstar: an Atom copycat who has a bit of a weak backstory, but who is also unhinged enough that it doesn’t really matter.  He likes to kill people, and when a benefactor shows up with a fancy new gadget that makes killing easier, he’s all in.

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Atom defeats him rather ingeniously. As they both shrink down to a microscopic level, Atom steals Dwarfstar’s belt, trapping him at his current size. Given that this happens in the middle of a battle, it seems unlikely that Dwarfstar could have possibly survived this. Odds are he would have been squished under some random person’s boot, never to be heard from again. But hey, this is a comic, and one generally doesn’t waste a good villain by killing him off after only a handful of issues. No, I’m sure Dwarfstar will be back, but he’s twisted and intriguing enough that I look forward to his return.

As a reintroduction to a lesser-known character, this comic is spot on. Actually, scratch that: this comic is spot on, period. Gail Simone crafted such a unique, interesting story that I actually want to read about the Atom now, something I could never say before.  Not only did she pluck a character out of the vacuum of comics obscurity and give him new life, she also did so by crafting a brand new character to adopt the mantle of Atom.  She succeeded with both tasks, creating a comic that is equal parts funny, informative, and forceful.  I hope I get to continue reading about Ryan Choi’s exploits as The Atom, but even more than that, I hope Gail Simone’s run on the title is long-lasting.  Her unique blend of silliness and intellectualism makes for a perfect read.

-Jess

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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