WC: THE ATOM #10

The Atom is one of those characters who hasn’t quite stood the test of time as well as many of his contemporaries. While he’s still around in one form or another, it seems like attempts to give him his own series are sporadic at best, and often not long-lasting. In part, that’s because of the changing tastes and expectations of the audience. As comic books became more and more about physical contests of strength and power throughout the 1960s and 1970s, characters such as the Atom, who weren’t that physically impressive, fared less well. The Atom’s stock-in-trade, as with many of the DC heroes before the influence of Marvel started to be felt, was in gimmick stories, little mysteries or puzzles that needed to be solved. Brain versus brawn. On a more primal level, I don’t truly know how appealing becoming smaller is as a power fantasy–interesting, sure, but desirable?

In any event, THE ATOM was popular in the early 1960s, and so a number of issues were among that windfall box of comics that I bought for fifty bucks back in 1988. As was typical of his output, editor Julie Schwartz divided the issue up into two stories, although in this case both of them featured the titular character rather than a separate back-up feature. Relatively unique for Schwartz and for DC as a whole, he also credited the creators of the stories on the splash page–something that Marvel had started doing but which wouldn’t become standard for DC for another half-decade yet. I’m not quite sure why THE ATOM was the one title so honored, but, you know, good for Gardner Fox, Gil Kane and Murphy Anderson.

This opening tale, the one featured on the cover, is about as down-to-Earth as the series got, revolving around international spies and intrigue and a new scientific discovery. In specific, Professor Ferdinand Alt has created a new anti-gravity material he calls Cavorite (after a term in an H.G. Wells story–Schwartz comics were often littered with these sorts of factoids) and fashioned what looks like a toy flying saucer out of it as a proof of concept. But when Alt is gunned down by enemy agents of a foreign government (which is as specific as DC would ever get to narrowing down who the bad guys were meant to be–they were from behind the Iron Curtain but that’s as much as they’d ever say) the CIA needs somebody to go to Vienna and retrieve the saucer. The Atom volunteers–but when he attempts to phone call himself to Vienna, the enemy agents have the line bugged and divert the call to their headquarters, where they attempt to finish off the Tiny Titan. The final page of this opening chapter includes a half-page ad for other DC releases from the Schwartz-stable, and relied on the hooks of their covers to interest prospective buyer into snatching them up when next they were at a news outlet.

As the second chapter opens, for reasons that are really more about justifying the “grabber” cover image than anything else, rather than straight up murdering the Mighty Mite, the bad guys strap him to a grenade and hurl him to his doom. But the Atom is able to activate the size-and-weight controls in his gloves and shrink out of his bonds and to safety before he can be caught in the detonation of the grenade. Fortunately, thanks to the Comics Code, no bystander was injured by the thrown grenade either. I feel the need to mention the clean and wonderfully composed artwork of Gil Kane and Murphy Anderson here. This was very much the house look of the DC super hero titles of the era, with lots of bright, open spaces and everything depicted with a certain degree of clinical reserve. Kane himself apparently felt constrained working in such a manner, like drawing in a straitjacket, and he would cut loose with more explosive action once he was permitted to in the years to come.

Anyway, the Atom makes his way to the model flying saucer and succeeds in purloining it despite the efforts of the enemy operatives to stop him. But in a bit of a twist, he’s worked out that Professor Alt was working for them all along (he wasn’t actually gunned down) and that the prototype itself would detonate destructively upon being experimented on. It’s really a weapon the enemy couldn’t sneak across the border into America, so they contrived this whole adventure to trick the CIA in the person of the Atom into delivering it for them. The bad guys wanted him to steal it and were only putting up a token resistance–which explains why they didn’t kill him, but not quite why they tried to blow him up on a grenade. As the story wraps up, we get cover ads for another pair of Schwartz-edited titles.

Next up was a letters page, which occupied something of a middle point between those of fellow DC editor Mort Weisinger and rival editor Stan Lee. Schwartz’s letters pages tended to skew towards intelligent, well-written correspondence that evidenced some seriousness. While not above dropping a groaner of a pun or a witty remark, the replies were meant to be more informative than informational. And Schwartz himself was only ever identified here as Editor. For a period of time, Schwartz began to award his letter writers the original artwork to the stories they were commenting on–which was a good thing in the final analysis, as this prevented DC from destroying all of that original art as they did with a lot of other pages from this period.

Schwartz’s books would also often include these sorts of fun science facts pages, as opposed to the more general public service features that ran elsewhere in the DC line (and sometimes in Julie’s books as well.) I have to assume that Schwartz liked this kind of feature since he used it with such regularity, and it did give his comics at least a veneer of being educational. Given how often he and his creative teams would mangle basic science in the service of fantasy in the main stories, perhaps this was an equitable bit of scale-balancing.

The second Atom story in this issue was inked by Sid Greene rather than Murphy Anderson–the letters page tells us that this has begun to happen because Murphy has started penciling and inking the new Hawkman strip in MYSTERY IN SPACE. And this is a really lovely splash page. Speaking for myself, while fans of the era tended to like Greene’s work over Kane just fine, I didn’t find it all that appealing a combination. Greene had a certain cartooniness to his faces and figures, one that occasionally came through even when he was inking other people. And he was something of a “thick sauce” as an inker, smothering the style of the penciler with his own.

The story is a potboiler framed through the conceit of the Atom testifying to events at the trial of the perpetrator. (The Ivy Town court allows him to testify without revealing his true identity, despite the protests of the defense counsel.) It’s about a lady criminal who uses trickery to make it appear that she could transform herself into a swan, based on a legend. The Atom gets himself tied to the pendulum of a clock in this one, but as usual, any excitement is intellectual rather than visceral. There’s a niceness to these stories, an inoffensiveness, that makes on admire the craft with which they are performed while remaining distant from them emotionally. The Atom had only really become a super hero in order to help out his girl friend lawyer Jean Loring in the first place, in the hopes that she would marry him once her law practice was successful enough–so adventures like this one, where he helps her to solve a crime and put away a bad guy only to once again have his overtures rejected were typical of the form. Also, right here at the end, we get an ad for a non-Schwartz-edited comic, the second issue of BRAVE AND THE BOLD devoted to its new team-up format. While Batman would eventually come to own B&B, at this point it was a clearing house for assorted random adventures bringing together two super-stars from all across the DC line, Aquaman and Hawkman in this case. (There was a bunch of fan interest in Hawkman at this moment, but he hadn’t yet earned his own series despite two runs of tryouts in BRAVE AND THE BOLD, which led to Schwartz featuring him in MYSTERY IN SPACE and changing his artist. All of which is to say, the Schwartz audience would have been interested in this issue of B&B consequently.)

And before we get to the “junk” ads devoted to toy soldiers and stamp collecting and the like, there’s one more DC house ad, this one devoted to two more of their 80 Page Annuals. This ad was produced more in the Weisinger style, touting the story hooks contained in each release as well as showing off each attractive cover. The whole ad is attractively calligraphed by DC’s in-house logo and typography expert Ira Schnapp. It’s almost better than the comics it’s hawking–almost.

7 thoughts on “WC: THE ATOM #10

  1. I think the Atom would work better contemporarily, if you combined later attributes that the original Al Pratt incanation had , with Ray Palmer’s shrinking. Still embodied in Ryan Choi, but have Ryan’s normal height be in between his 2 predecessors.

    He’d be able to increase his density and have super strength and durability at full, normal size, but then could also shrink to microscopic size. That would keep him out of that lower,more dismissive power range.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. A pretty good take on why the Atom hasn’t lasted (though i did enjoy both Roger Stern’s and Gail Simone’s later takes on the Tiny Titan). I think it works in the Silver Age because the detective/superhero mix marks him as different from most books (and his puzzles were quite different from Batman’s).
    Jean is a remarkably cool character — not nagging the way Iris West often was, clearly into Ray but determined they both get their careers under way before marriage. That was a radical idea for comics in the 1960s (certainly more independent than any of Marvel’s love interests).
    Nobody ever made size shrinking look as cool as Gil Kane did. Kirby’s Ant-Man art was pallid by comparison — but then, the stories weren’t as tight as Fox’s either.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. The Atom only has a couple memorable villains. His powers are terrifyingly lethal in the hands of someone more villainous or ruthless, but that string never gets pulled. If someone had put him in a starring role in a cartoon back in the 60’s or whenever he could be a more prominent character. But he’s relegated to Hawkman’s buddy as a second stringer Justice League member with a gimmick powerset.

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    1. I knew the Atom from animated cartoon re-runs first. I pieced together he was a former JLA’er. Vintage Silver Age, a legacy from the Golden Age Atom. “All-Star Squadron” featured that Atom semi-frequently. I dug his later look, with the partially exposed face and head fin, and the actual super strength. I dug how A-SS (sorry) introduced that via Cyclotron (another cool look). The other comics version I know from around then was the “Sword of the Atom”, again with unique Gil Kane art on the cool weirdness. Why he wore a loincloth/tunic over his full Atom costume (minus the head covering was never explained. Hahaha. Dwayne Truner’s rendition of Ray Palmer back as the Atom in the house ads for Roger Stern’s late 80’s series looked good. The suit kept the “open top” mask from Kane’s SotA design. But the series failed to keep me. Same for Roger’s Will Payton Starman, but that was more to do with Tom Lyle’s work. And the mullet. I was a fan of Roger’s mid80’s Avengers and Spider-Man stories.

      Maybe the most memorable use of the Atom for me was by Grant Morrisson in “JLA: Rock of Ages”. In a possible near future where Apokolips has conquered Earth, Superman is dead, and only a ragtag remnant of the League remains as resistance fighters. Green Arrow Conner Hawk shoots the Atom @ Darkseid (call back for me to that Avengers cover where Ant-Man is staged on the head of one of Hawkeye’s arrows that the archer is about to let fly), in their penultimate moment before the heroes lose everything. Despite big D’s “impenetrable” force field, Atom says something like, hey, I know what CAN pass through your force field; LIGHT, Then he’s inside the god-tyrant’s skull with his belt-mounted laser, and notices something about Darkseid’s brain. “Four lobes”. Boom.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. John Ostrander gave a glimpse at how lethal and ruthless Atom’s powers can be in his “Suicide Squad”. I think the villain was called Sting? What a mean POS.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. As much as I disliked much of what Weisenger did with the relationships in the Superman titles, any kid in 1962 can tell you how effective those ads were. Either covers or the “feature attractions” type always made us feel we NEEDED these comics!

    Liked by 2 people

  5. I remember a quote from Stan Lee where he thinks ant-Man would have been more successful had the artists played up Pym surrounded by small items that would be large in perspective to him. The Atom proves him wrong because he’s arguably less successful than Pym in the long run and Kane had done just that.

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