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Showcase Presents: The Atom, Vol. 1

Showcase Presents: The Atom, Vol. 1 - Gardner Fox;Gil Kane Now these are The Atom comics I loved as a kid!A few weeks back, I bought the first edition of the new, re-booted, graphic novel form of The Atom, and I was disappointed. As I noted in my review, it has nice artwork, but the writing is so bad, it’s embarrassing. "All style and no substance", as they say. The difference between the old and new is striking. The DC Showcase series reprints old editions, in inexpensive uncolorized form. This particular collection covers The Atom from 1961-1965. [Note: the first Atom comics came out in the 40's, then went away. It was reintroduced in the early 60's, and now has come back again in 2010.] Whatever original prints of this series may survive from those days would be too expensive for most non-collectors to buy. Showcase recognizes that most readers don’t care about obtaining an expensive collector’s relic; they just want to enjoy some of the old stories. This a great value: 500 pages for $15. Even a very cursory inspection of this book confirms how much better the old writing was. I’m not just being nostalgic for childhood memories; these stories are obviously much more intelligently written; nothing is dumbed down. Examples?- On page 249, the destruction following an alien attack on Earth is measured on the Mercalli Scale (don’t know what that is, kids? Go look it up!) On page 10, Ray Palmer explains what a dwarf star is, and why a piece of one would be incredibly dense. Again on page 442, the evolution of a star is explained from giant to dwarf. In issue #7 (July 1963), an alien menace alters the Earth’s magnetic field. All the consequences of this are at least reasonably plausible, including alteration of birds’ migratory patterns, which really are influenced by the Earth’s magnetic field. From what I’ve seen, present-day comics aren’t that smart. Why The Atom is the best comic heroI’ve said this before, but The Atom only has one superpower: he can manipulate his size from normal down to subatomic. That’s it. Since he is really the brilliant scientist Ray Palmer, he continually finds new ways to exploit this one power. He travels through the telephone system to anywhere in the world, at practically light speed. He gets inside mechanical and electronic devices and alters their function. He gets inside of people and animals, to perform surgery, predating Fantastic Voyage! He gets into airtight spaces, walks through walls, etc. Everything he does comes from an understanding of how things work, and how he can alter them to his advantage, if he understands them. Next to The Atom, characters like Superman and Batman only have vulgar brute force. I also like that The Atom seems to be unique in that his powers result from a calculated, intentionally constructed device which Palmer himself invented. No nuclear accidents, no magical toxic waste, no alien DNA, or powers bestowed by the gods. In all of comics, The Atom may be the only hero whose powers were brought into being entirely by design! Why should that be so novel? Fun for adults in 2011!It is a kick to read these old stories… partly for my above reasons, but also for the observable differences between the era of these comics and present day. This collection begins in 1961 - the Kennedy administration! It definitely has an early 60’s sensibility to it. Most of the adults, most of the time, are wearing suits and ties. Ray Palmer’s love interest, Jean Loring (a smart and capable lawyer) dresses like Jackie O -complete with pillbox hat! Naturally, Ray’s interaction with Jean is entirely platonic, and as gentlemanly as Ward Cleaver. Telephone numbers are five or six digits, or even more antiquated, like “Oceanside-637”. (I wonder what the phonebooks looked like back then) As with Superman, villains tend to be either small-time crooks, malevolent space entities, or superpower-enhanced evil super villains. These are the villains of a less cynical age. More recent editions of Superman have him fighting terrorists and corporations. That’s not much of an escape from reality.Some of the innocence and naiveté also makes for great unintentional humor. In January ’64, the Atom is battling with a woman who can transform herself into a swan (cool, but I’d rather be a puffin). On page 339, a lawyer is attempting to establish her identity in court. He calls an expert witness… a PhD entomologist, who describes to the jury how a caterpillar transforms into a butterfly. He then concludes “In my expert opinion, a similar transformation from human to swan, or vice versa, should not be impossible!” Instead of laughing him out of court, the jury takes his testimony with solemn seriousness. Naturally, testimony like that would have gotten you laughed out of court in 1961... but my point is that it wasn't too ridiculous to offer this as a plot element in a comic. I‘m not so sure about today. I don’t think the title “expert”, or a doctorate degree, is met with such star-struck awe any more, even by children. To wrap up here, if you have any interest in comics, this is a wonderful value. And if the only way you can get your kids to read is with comics, don’t indulge them in the crap currently being published; get them some of the old, good stuff; look into this DC Showcase series, and The Atom in particular! (get it? particle...?)