It’s maybe hard to believe when viewed from the vantage point of 60 years of additional history, but heading into the Silver Age of Comics, the Atom was at one point a successful and viable character–more viable than, say, Hawkman, whom he beat to having a series to call his own and in gaining membership in the Justice League of America. The Atom’s appeal seems a bit limited, really: his wasn’t a strip about fighting ultra-powerful super-villains, not as a matter of course. Rather, he dealt with, ahem, smaller themes, local crimes and weird science and the occasional trip into the past via the “Time Pool”. By the mid-1960s when this issue was released, a sense of absurdity was beginning to permeate the DC line. Ultimately, it would swing all the way over into camp in just another short year or so once the BATMAN television program debuted. But you cannot look at this cover showcasing the Atom having been smashed flat by a guy with an iron and take it entirely seriously. It’s absolutely an absurd image and idea. And inevitably, it was likely conceived first, with the story based on it written afterwards, as was the style in that era.

Believe it or not, this was also a rare book-length adventure for the Mighty Mite. Editors Julie Schwartz and Mort Weisinger had found some success with full-length epics in their other assorted titles, so it makes sense that Julie would try something similar on THE ATOM. What it was about that cover image that suggested that the story rationalizing it would need to take up the full book is a mystery lost to time. But the Tiny Titan’s usual scribe Gardner Fox was certainly up to the challenge–this was far from the strangest situation he’d has to base a story upon in his long career as a writer.

Art-wise, the issue was penciled by the Atom’s regular artist Gil Kane, who had been with the strip since its inception. But the finish was a bit different, as here it’s handled by Sid greene, who had been an artist on his own in Schwartz’s stable, working primarily on the science fiction comics. At a certain point, possibly because penciling work dried up for Sid, Julie began using him as an inker over not only Kane but also Mike Sekowsky and Carmine Infantino as well. I must confess that I’ve never liked Greene’s inks–they look muddy and overdone to me, losing much of the simple grace and elegance of his pencilers. In this instance, Kane was still working twice up–the reduction in original art size was still in the future–and yet the final pages are a bit dead, devoid of life. And everybody looks just a little bit as though they haven’t showered in a while, the incessant hatching on their faces reading a bit like dirt and grime. Not my favorite combo.

So what’s the story about? Well, it opens with the Atom concluding what has apparently been a busy week of crime-busting by tackling a random group of heisters who are trying to loot vintage toy trains from a display at the the Ivy Town Museum. Definitely a crime in the Atom’s league. After taking care of the malefactors, the Atom races off to a date with his fiancée lady lawyer Jean Loring. But he’s so beat from his constant activities that he falls asleep while waiting for Jean to get ready, and she cancels their date to give Ray Palmer a chance to rest up. Ray can’t understand why he’s feeling so enervated.

But the reason for Ray’s weariness is more predatory than he realizes. Because we switch locations to the home of Andrew Frost, a scientist who specializes in extra-sensory perception. It turns out that through some unexplained quirk, whenever the Atom reduces himself in size and goes into action in his vicinity, Frost is able to predict the future. The Ato-Energy caused by the Atom’s reduction in size triggers this ability, and Frost has been studying it. But how he’s ready to go further, as his precognition ability tells him that, if he goes to capture the Atom now, he will succeed. And if he’s got the Atom, he’ll be able to use the Mighty Mite to increase the power of his precognitive abilities. So Frost sets out to do that, and triumphs over his tiny foe due to happenstances that Frost knew would occur to trip up the diminutive hero.

A pause here for this issue’s Inside the Atom letters page. It’s a nice, literate forum, with serious-minded readers having their communications printed and answered in a jovial style. It’s clinical, not likely to excite anybody too greatly, but it’s all professionally put over.

So now we get down to the nitty-gritty. Having worked out that if he flattens out the Atom’s body with, well, a magic iron, it will cause his foe to release a huge amount of Ato-Energy that will super-charge Frost’s abilities. Not to mention it will justify that cover image, which is important, too! Having done so, the power mad scientist encases the flattened-out Atom in a special transparent case that links to a pair of spectacles that Frost puts on, channeling the Ato-Energy to his brain. With his new predictive power assured, Frost heads off to a local casino to cash in on his abilities, leaving the Atom trapped.

But the Atom is a scientist, too, and he works out that it’s his fatigue that’s been causing his body to produce the Ato-Energy that Frost has honed in on. He’s able to counteract his fatigue by working himself up into a heightened state of fear and anxiety, which causes his adrenal glands to operate, thus cutting off Frost’s abilities. When the bad guy returns to see what the problem is, despite the fact that he’s still wafer-thin (and yet somehow can move in ways that defy understanding) the Atom clobbers Frost despite his handicap, then is able to restore his body to its regular shape entirely off-panel. In the end, the police lead the scientist away, though I’m not quite sure what they can charge him with apart from having abducted the Atom. Still, we got that cover image to work, and that was the most important thing, even if the story it inspired was a bit lackluster and ridiculous. Such was the direction the Atom’s adventures were trending at that moment.

And the issue closes out with an Ira Schnapp advert for the SHOWCASE debut of GI Joe, something of a loose tie-in to the popular “action figure” that was then hitting the marketplace (and which is advertised elsewhere in the issue.) Despite the famous name and the appeal of the toy. GI Joe failed to achieve the success necessary to spin it off into a series of its own. For that, another almost two decades would need to go by.

4 thoughts on “WC: THE ATOM #16

  1. I was a huge Atom fan in my youth, mainly because of Gil (& lunged at the chance, in the ’90s, to do a GL-Atom teamup with him), but it’s something of a stretch to say he was ever that successful a character. He was passably successful; unlike most other DC superhero titles, his book was never published more frequently than bi-monthly (if I remember correctly), never an especially good sign. I think it alternated on the schedule with Hawkman, in fact, which is why, in their last desperate days, their books were combined into Atom-Hawkman. I always suspected his early induction in the Justice League wasn’t because his series was so popular but so they could promote him to JLA fans who might be unaware of him. (Same with Hawkman later, I’d guess.)

    The character was always more fun than Hawkman, tho’, & paralleled The Flash for little tidbits of science that Julie Schwartz used to like to throw into the stories. But even in the ’60s he was considered a (no pun intended) minor superhero…


  2. I never much liked the Atom but bought his comics because I was buying all the DC’s at the time. I liked Sid Greene’s art, both his SF stories that he also penciled and his inking on Kane and Infantino. He was certainly much more preferred than Joe Giella.


  3. I read where Stan Lee said they should have showcased Ant Man against backgrounds that highlighted his being shrunk and that it might have saved teh original set up. Atom doing better lends credence to that belief since Kane did just that but I think the series also proved that engaging and exciting stories must be there too since it wasn’t a lasting success either. I checked once and I believe Doll Man had the longest run of any shrinking hero but I don’t know what conclusion that leads to having only read one or two reprints of the character.


  4. “The Atom’s appeal seems a bit limited, really: his wasn’t a strip about fighting ultra-powerful super-villains, not as a matter of course.”
    I’d say most villains of the Silver Age weren’t ultra-powerful. Kind of nice rereading them to enjoy the days when every story didn’t have to have cosmic significance.
    The Atom series was tailored to his low-key abilities: a lot of detective work, small-time villains, and one of the better girlfriends of the Silver Age. And Kane’s amazing art. It works for me, though it wasn’t a formula for the long long haul.


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