Soundtrack: A Christmas mix–featuring the Ramones, Bing Crosby’s “Christmas Dinner Country-Style”, Boney M’s “Auld Lang Syne”, Frank Sinatra’s superlative version of “Jingle Bells” and lots of other stuff…

So why’s Dave on about Power of the Atom anyway? I thought he was fixating on Marvel this year?

Well. Yes. I am. But, of course, the DC story–from the sixties to the Crisis on IE–is one of gradual Marvelization. As we now know (some may disagree, I’m sure) the Crisis was a catastrophic failure. You didn’t need to have “one universe” to do Marvel-type stories. All you had to do was write and draw them. Roy Thomas had been doing exactly that (well, the writing anyway) in his Earth-2 books, and the Crisis fouled that up big time.

Anyway, if Crisis was a mistake, hiring Roger Stern–fresh off of a great stint on The Avengers (and not so far removed from fantastic work on Amazing/Spectacular Spider-Man, Dr. Strange, and Captain America)–almost made up for it. Stern didn’t require the vaporization of worlds upon worlds to revamp the Atom. He didn’t take the easy “reboot” way out. He did what a good maintream comics writer is supposed to do–he took the continuity he inherited and worked with it. Now, if there was ever a concept that deserved to have its’ ass booted into oblivion, it was Sword of the Atom (which Darren Madigan calls SORT OF THE ATOM), in which the formerly rocksteady hero finds his wife necking with a co-worker from her law firm, gets dumped and then flips out and goes Medieval with a bunch of little yellow people (and a little yellow princess) in South America. There’s some nice work (as always) by Gil Kane. But that’s absolutely all. I don’t have any of those issues anymore and I can truly say I don’t want them back…

But Stern took what was good about the mini-series (that weirdly powerful sequence of shots wherein Ray Palmer discovers–the hard way–that he’s been taking his marriage for granted) and literally firebombed the rest of it! More about that later–maybe tomorrow, because my time is growin’ short here–man, can I digress or what?

What I want to establish, before I get back to reading about Emerson, Dickenson, and Hawthorne, is what the Atom was like in the sixties–so that Stern’s subtle “Marvelization” of the series can be appreciated. So! I own two issues of the original series, which ran from 1962 to 1969. I used to have a few more, but they’ll do for our purposes, I think.

Issue number seven features a classic early appearance by the Silver Age Hawkman, in which the mace-wielding alien has this conversation with a cute little bird:

H: Brother Redpoll, you are far off course! Why have you strayed from your regular route?

Bird: ::Wheet:: I do not know Hawkman! The bodily changes that tell us it is time to fly north caused us also to abandon our normal routes. I cannot explain it any other way!

H: The only thing that would cause such a change is some form of– Radiation!

Of course, Hawkman’s surmise is correct, and he helps Ray Palmer to protect Ivytown from Alien Invaders in the “Case of the Cosmic Camera”.

If you think I’m belittling the issue, believe me, I’m not. I actually love it. The Gil Kane/Murphy Anderson artwork is top-notch, and, believe it or not, I find that scene between Hawkman and Redpoll extremely affecting. To achieve that kind of intimacy with the natural world would be unbelievable–it plays to a very real longing for “wholeness” (Melville calls it the “All Feeling”) that all of “fallen” humanity understands…

Of course, over at Marvel, around the same time, you are apt to find similar things happening in their size-changing hero’s book–Ant-Man himself holds regular pow-wows with his insect friends. However, at the “House of Ideas”, you get to share this experience of unmediated knowledge of the natural world without escaping your alienated state. The pressure stays on, so to speak. The fantasy element is there, but it becomes recognizable for what it is–a metaphorical reference to an exalted condition that we would all like to achieve, but know we cannot, except in unsustainable, inexplicable moods, generally brought on by powerful drugs or an even more powerful infatuation. How is all of this done? Well, let’s take this exchange from Avengers #12, f’rinstance:

Ant-Man: The ants are so panicky I can’t make out the details, but they’re warning of a great danger! We’ll have to call an Avengers Emergency Meeting!

the Wonderful Wasp: Henry Pym! Aren’t you embarassed? What will you say when they come charging in? They’re needed to stop a riot in some ant hills?

A-M: I’ll worry about that, honey! I don’t embarass easy!

Wasp:(crosses her arms and looks at the ceiling)

A-M: Don’t just stand there… Let’s Go!

Wasp: Sure! Mustn’t keep the ants waiting!

The sequence, drawn by Don Heck–a master at rendering normal human body language–succeeds in conveying, simultaneously, the wondrous revelations that Hank Pym is privy to (& the ants are not wrong! the mole man is up to all kinds of bad things), and his inability to escape from his existential prison through ideal communion with the world (represented by the woman he loves, who has her back to him throughout!).

Hmm… Hawkman and the Avengers seem to have hijacked this column… But no matter! I’ve got some things to say about the Silver Age Atom himself, and issue #28 in particular. But I’ll do that tomorrow! And then I’ll finally get to Power of the Atom #1.

Good Night friends



  1. I’d love to take credit for SORT OF THE ATOM, but Kurt Busiek was writing for DC (some JLAs and a few other things for Mike Gold) at the time he first used the phrase with me, and I do not know where it originated, but it has the sound and feel of something Rich Howell would coin… if you’ve never had any experience with Rich, well, he’s a truly whacky and brilliantly witty guy, and a genuinely pleasant human being, or used to be, anyway.

    All I know for sure is, Kurt threw it around rather casually but never claimed to have originated it, and I got the feeling from the way he used it that it was fairly common usage among many pro’s at that point… very few old time pro’s really liked what Strnad did to the Atom.

    So, yes, it’s how I refer to Sword, but I didn’t originate it, I got it from Kurt, and I believe he probably got it from Rich Howell.

    Interesting story: In one of his lattermost JLA scripts, and the last JLA/JSA crossover pre-Crisis, Kurt used ‘Sort of the Atom’ in a line of dialogue that Mike Gold cut, since Mike knew full well the term was a derisive one. Kurt showed an alien intelligence scanning various members of the JLA who were scattered around the world, and had the intelligence think to itself when looking at Ray Palmer “this one has a strange name… sort of… the Atom…” I thought it was hilarious, but, as I say, Mike Gold knew it was a shot at Strnad and cut it.

  2. Darren,

    Hmm… well, if you didn’t invent “Sort of the Atom”, at least you brought it to the people (and the people are grateful, believe me!!)


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