Sword of the Atom

June 14, 2008

DC’s wave of nostalgia surges in this new century, with old quirky superheroes like Booster Gold, Captain Comet, and even Captain Carrot and his Zoo Crew returning as if they have never left. Long unavailable series such as Denny O’Neil’s Question, Keith Giffen and Alan Grant’s Lobo, Time Masters, and Supeman/Batman: Saga of the Super Sons (now there’s one from the hippy generation!) are also starting to get their deserving reprints. With these comes the current title, whose importance is unique for more than the usual sentimental reason. Developments from the twist in Identity Crisis reviving Jean Loring as villain to the major countdown event The Search for Ray Palmer have practically canonised its freak occurrence in DC history.

Sword of the Atom seems so much to be a series DC wants to pay homage to these days that it is easy to forget how embarrassing its premise really is. The basic story goes like this: Ray Palmer’s marriage to Jean has fallen apart because both are workaholics and Jean’s work includes regular adultery with her new business partner. So the scientist-superhero takes a working vacation to deep Amazonia where he ends up shrunk and left to fend for his life. He is then caught by coincidentally same-size humanoids of an alien colony (what’s the chance of that?), finds himself drawn to its rebels’ cause, and soon becomes the rebels’ leader. Technically, he becomes the rebels’ leader’s leader first, but that’s not a detail anyone cares about for long.

So, marriage forgotten, Ray Palmer picks up a hot alien squeeze, who happens to be the ex-leader’s moll. But, right after his death, she turns to ask Ray “Is it too late for something between us?”, and he replies “Heck no, baby, woohoo!”… and you know what happens next. Flashback to Jean having heard news about her husband’s apparent death in South America: she sits up in bed to call you-know-who to say how lonely she feels, how big and empty her house is, etc., and, you know what happens there too. That’s right, folks: this series has absolutely zero interest in confusing you with old morals, the great meaning of love, civility, and all those high ideals adults still fight over. In fact, its 3 subsequent specials go on to have a re-enlarged Ray reject human civilisation altogether and, after divorcing Jean, plunge straight back into more swashbuckling jungle fun with his exotic yellow woman.

You could easily come up with a string of cheap jokes about its working title being Atom the BarbarianSuper Tom Thumb, Gullivers’ Tarzan Travels, etc. You could propound a message that sets modern civilisation against the law of the jungle, the complex entanglements of marriage against plain animal lust. You could even make a compelling case for the Freudian allegory of a 6-inch libido on the loose. (Ray rides with his fiery under-clothed woman on a big slimey frog whose motion he obsesses over — hello?) All that aside, the story’s most powerful aspect is the portrayal of simple relationships between very difficult characters, primarily fated on-off lovers, Ray and Jean. The narrative techniques are also quite clever and certainly worth noting. More realistically, the themes will be a cosmic puzzle for anyone who wasn’t there in the 1980s.

Gweek equates this collection to the worth of 6 VHR tapes.

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