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Subj: The Power of the Atom - Reflections on Ray Palmer...
Posted: Thu Jan 30, 2014 at 02:23:48 pm EST (Viewed 237 times)
While having a clearance of old, defunct, and obsolete comics, one series I came across is the all but forgotten The Power of the Atom, a 1988 series starring none other than Ray Palmer.
This is the era I consider my comicbook reading golden-age, DC comics had just reinvigorated their line and along with Marvel comics there was a lot of very memorable output. To put The Power of the Atom into its proper historical context consider that in the same month that issue #1 debuted other books DC put out included Grant Morrison's Animal Man #1, Justice League #17, Manhunter by John Ostrander had reached its third issue, Action Comics Weekly had just begun, while Ostrander's Suicide Squad reached issue #17, The New Titans was nearing #50 and the return of George Perez, Captain Atom reached issue #19 with it's blend of military politics and subterfuge, Grant/Wagner & Breyfogle were impressing in Detective Comics with #590, Mike Grell's fresh take on Green Arrow was making an impression on the stands, Wonder Woman investigated the death of Myndi Mayer... in short DC was putting out some quite sophisticated and wordy material. The overriding directive of the company was to look forward and, as you can gauge from the above titles, think fresh. Another point to note is that at this time their books were paced much slower than todays output as characterisation was everything, a key ingredient in aiding the reinvigoration of their comics line. As a result many books from that era do read rather slowly today, particular examples of this style are Captain Atom, Wonder Woman and the soon to debut Hawkworld.
It is into this environment that The Power of the Atom entered the DC universe... And upon reading the all important first issue, for probably the first time since I bought it in back in 1988, the basic errors in judgement made within are remarkable given the surrounding company it keeps.
Written by the highly respected Roger Stern The Power of the Atom is not a book typical of DC at this time. By virtue of the new dawn that came after the Crisis the majority of DC's books started afresh with a clean sweep being made to aid in presenting old characters anew and to a fresh audience. This was zero hour, and We followed Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman through their formative days, We experienced the birth of Captain Atom and saw how he adapted to a new world, we watched as Hawkman came to earth and the culture shock that resulted.
With The Power of the Atom though this successful mandate was put aside, with the unusual step being made to link the series directly to what had gone before. To understand Ray Palmer's recent history by this first issue you had to have known about his self-exile to the Amazon forest, what led him to that decision, and his discovery while there of a lost tribe of extra-terrestials who were a mere six inches high - a height Ray too was now stuck at. Ray's first meeting with these new friends was in a 1983 mini-series entitles Sword of the Atom, and three subsequent one-shots spread across the next five years took us up to the debut of The Power of the Atom in 1988. And the assumption seems to have been that readers would be familiar with all of this history and more to the point actually care about it.
So while other books at DC were starting with a page one rewrite and the realtime reintroduction of the characters as they began their journey, The Power of the Atom goes entirely the other route and instead spends an incredible Fifteen of its twenty-two pages as a flashback of the Atom's story-so-far!
To be fair to Roger Stern this might not have been his own preference or decision. It is known that editors at the time could dictate directions and make some poor choices in key areas when it came to reintroducing characters, so this is not an article that is attempting to point any fingers. Indeed the initial three pages of the Atom are very well executed and designed to hook the potential buyer straight way - our first page is a dynamic splash of The Atom exploding out of a picked up telephone receiver, and makes for an incredible debut for Ray Palmer. As he grows in size he collapses to the floor barely conscious, and we learn that he is in the house of old friend Norman Brawler. As Ray comes to consciousness he notes that not only has his Atom costume disappeared but he is stuck at a mere three feet in size!
So a fine opening sequence. Stuck at a diminished stature makes for a compelling and bizarre visual element, but then it's page four and suddenly we are deep into flashback territory... for the next fifteen pages, as Ray relates his story with the Katarthans, meeting a new love, and the ultimate fate of this race. Essentially then we learn what led up to the explosive entrance on the first page as he exits the phone receiver, and that the Katarthans are all dead. A closed chapter.
A first issue, and an incredible three-quarters of the books page count,Fifteen pages, to tie up unseen events that a great many readers would have been completely ignorant to or even care much about anyway. That is appalling misjudgement. One that almost certainly contributed to the short run of this series - just eighteen issues.
But there's more - As he completes his story to the listening Norman Ray notices this house he is in is his house, in his dazed condition it was his own phone number he dialled to enter!
We learn Ray's ex-wife sold the house to Norman at a reduced price and as Ray walks through familiar surroundings finds a trunk with his old momento's, whereon he reminisces on his days with the Justice League and his 'retirement' to the Amazon and so on and so on... this first issue of the reclusive Atom is what could kindly be described as his biography. Rather than let us discover Ray Palmer as the series progresses naturally his story is instead front-loaded into the first issue and in a strange sense there is almost the feeling of a man living his life backwards because of this.
It's not that strong>The Power of the Atom is unreadable, on the contrary, it's a perfectly enjoyable book, for those familiar with Ray and his history that is. But put yourself in the place of a newer reader in 1988, with all those other books DC are putting out, and ask is this character accessible? Does the debut issue do anything to embolden The Atom to this fresh audience?
I would say no. The book is flawed for fundamental reasons of its unwarranted weight of history, The Atom has always been a difficult character for DC to sell, in part due to the character of Ray Palmer being adult and a distinguished physics professor, but also because of the weight of years of turmoil and strife he carries around with him. Here is a character who has much in common with Green Lantern John Stewart, both have tragedy in their past, both carry the weight of their experiences with them constantly. The flaw with Power of the Atom as a book is that it doesn't take the opportunity presented to introduce Ray Palmer with a clean slate, someone unburdened by his past and able to have some degree of enjoyment out of his life as the Atom.
The first issue is leaden with Ray's tragedies and heartache, virtually every page is devoted to the characters considerable baggage, and as this book progressed we would be routinely bombarded with more of the same. His ex-wife Jean is a prominent feature, old foe Chronos torments him by replaying his story-so-far, a visit to the new Justice League and his withering assessment of them unwittingly cements Ray's seemingly pessimistic outlook on the world he finds himself back in, readers are then introduced to ex-wife Jean's new partner who begins a running feud with Ray under the belief he is stealing Jean from him, another running subplot is in the form of the CIA who want Ray back as an operative, and as we find out in the final issues it was they who orchestrated the extermination of the Katarthans, in order to draw Ray out from his safe haven and back into working for the agency - thus in a real sense the series ends exactly how it started.
Here then is a book not so much about The Atom's extraordinary adventures, rather it is about Ray's inability to move on from his past and forge a new beginning. Despite half hearted attempts early in the series to carve a new life Ray drifts inexorably back to his dead past and the book is dragged down into 'avenging' the dead of the Katarthans. There is no new dawn for The Atom.
Despite this strong undertone of melancholy there is nonetheless a lot to enjoy about the series. Roger Stern wrote and plotted the first several issues before leaving for his Starman launch and Superman, he handed over to first William Messner-Looebs then Tom Peyer. Peyer's writing style in particular is so similar to Stern's that the change is barely noticeable, but on Art too there are changes over the eighteen issue run, with original artist Dwayne Turner's crisp lines giving way to Graham Nolan's more workmanlike approach from issue #7. One surprise of these early issues is seeing John Byrne pitching in for a one-off issue with #6, this then reuniting him once again with his old friend and fellow Captain America creator Roger Stern. Their issue together focuses on a revamped Chronos capturing Ray and forcing his to relive the worst moments of his life, it's an odd issue in many ways as this is far from Byrne's best work and the story is a cut & paste mish-mash of The Atom's greatest hits. Despite a new look for Chronos there is little here to excite, making it an unusual entry from such a pair of celebrated creators, and despite being an element in the next two issues Chronos himself never makes good on his initial threat to the Atom, instead he disappears completely from the Atoms life thereafter.
With an ex-wife and her jealous partner, university campuses, a somewhat worldweary superhero, heavy reminiscing and mourning over a distant hazy past, washed down with a sprinkling of paranoia, The Power of the Atom is a book that is almost archaic in the DC line-up of the late 80s. It has no place in what was generally a refreshed company outlook.
While the Hawks were inseperable in Midway City, and Ralph & Sue Dibney captured the hearts of a new generation of readers with their sense of youth, romance and devotion to the other Ray Palmer was both weary and divorced, bitterly so. While other established heroes like Manhunter, Batman, Nightwing, Green Arrow, and Donna Troy looked forward, the Atom couldn't stop looking backwards. The shame of the series is not so much that it missed the opportunity to be free of the past, but that it couldn't aspire to what was going on around it by capturing the energy that was powering DC's comics.
The Atom was never a book that would last any great length of time, the character and the concept are too limited to have any mass appeal, and yet if DC had been true to the spirit of the time, made the character more outgoing and unburdened, I do feel confident that The Power of the Atom might have had a longer run than the mere eighteen issues it did have and given us a different Ray Palmer. It is a truism that when a character becomes defined by his pain and misery that misery and pain then becomes the characters defining trait. We saw the process with John Stewart at around this time, for him reaching genuine peace of mind would take the next two decades, and fortunately a stronger John Stewart did come out of it. For the Atom though pain and self-pity became the norm, Even as late as Blackest Night Ray Palmer's shortcomings are driving not just his character, but the plot. A man who just cannot let go of his misery... but it never had to be this way. That is the shame of this 1988 series, by zealously embracing the mini-series' of Sword of the Atom, and embellishing it, what should have been a story quickly brushed aside became The Atom's defining moment. The betrayal from wife Jean, his fleeing to the Amazon in the aftermath, meeting an alien tribe of little people, all of this became Ray Palmer's burden and signature motif for writers thereon after. The effects of which influenced the perceptions of the readership and served to taint whatever popularity The Atom might have. This perception of failure lasts to this day...
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