The Man Wit No Voice and The Pure Mood dig out and review a comic from their expansive back issue collection. It could be a pivotal story, a forgotten classic, or even a giant mistake not worth the staples binding it together. From the ’40′s to the ’00′s, come by every week as we take an in-depth look at comics history in CHRONICLES OF COMICS!
SWORD OF THE ATOM exemplifies everything great about the Bronze Age of comics, and specifically the post-Crisis DC Universe. Released in 1983, it really was the closest thing to the unstoppable inventiveness and imagination seen in ’60’s Marvel – the Terra story in THE NEW TEEN TITANS, AMETHYST: PRINCESS OF GEM WORLD, INFINITY INC., and of course, SWAMP THING, it really did feel as if there was no stopping DC.
SWORD OF THE ATOM features every trademark of that wonderful and bizarre time in comics – mature, adult themes were creeping into superhero stories, but they still read like comics. It may be a comic about a microscopic warrior battling in an alien war atop frogs, but it’s also a painfully sincere look at a crumbling marriage. Gil Kane and Jan Strand bare Ray Palmer and Jean Loring’s relationship so realistically that it’s almost difficult to read, and most wonderfully, they never lay the blame on either partner. It’s an extremely complicated and honest situation.
As Ray arrives home early, surprised to find his wife not waiting for him, he sees a pair of headlights roll up to the drive. Inside is his wife Jean, in a moment of physical embrace with her new law-partner Paul. At first, Ray plays the victim, ready with heaps of accusation and guilt. But this is where Kane and Strand reveal the level of maturity they’re writing at – it’s not as simple as a superhero with a cheating wife. In fact, rather surprisingly, we learn Ray has been spending money Jean’s been earning on devices for his crime-fighting pursuits.
Ray has become so single minded in both of his careers that he failed to notice he was beginning to lose his wife – as pointed out in a brilliant analysis on AIRSHIP OVER WATER, Ray’s relationship with Jean may never have existed in a real, adult sense. Their relationship began and was defined by Ray’s love of conquering challenges – Jean was something he couldn’t have. When their relationship was straining without a sense of trust, Ray revealed his secret identity of the Atom to her, and she was touched to know his deepest secret. But maybe that was the weakness of their relationship – maybe they defined things in a rather adolescent sense. Maybe my saying love was revealing secrets and conquering goals, they reached a point where there was nothing less to reveal, and they didn’t know where to go from there.
The most brilliant thing about SWORD OF THE ATOM is the visual metaphor that serves as the genesis for the series – a man becomes afraid of losing his wife, and shrinks away into nothingness to avoid dealing with it. Before the moment happens, Kane even foreshadows this with subtle clues – in every single panel with Ray and Jean, she is always in the foreground, leaving Ray small and helpless behind her. Most shots of Jean are billboard size close-ups – Kane makes it clear that the Atom’s biggest fault as a husband is his ability to disappear when things get tense. And that’s exactly what he does, deciding that perhaps all the two lovers need is some time apart, Ray takes a trip to South America. When his plane is hijacked by terrorists, the belt controlling his size-shifting powers is damaged, and he finds himself permanently shrunken.
It’s here that the action begins to pick up, and it proves to be just as memorable as the emotional conflict that opens the issue. SWORD OF THE ATOM is superhero/sci-fi/fantasy mash-up, a genre-bending joyride illustrated by one of the absolute best artists to ever grace the comics page. As the miniscule Atom looks for safety, he meets with a strange alien race of yellow skinned warriors, and it isn’t long before he’s battling their guards and fighting off hungry rats. It’s simply amazing how wonderfully Gil Kane’s art has aged – though now three decades old, this comic has such kinetic energy and insatiable creativity it looks as fresh as anything currently on the stands.
SWORD OF THE ATOM #1 is completely of it’s era, but it’s also a timeless classic. It reminds the modern reader that it is possible to tell superhero stories dealing with mature and uncomfortable themes, and still have the kind of larger-than-life fun that makes the genre so incredible. Put simply, it’s a perfect superhero comic book of epic proportions – it takes a classic character and does something fresh with him, it handles grown-up problems without seeming tacky or sensational. SWORD OF THE ATOM is everything right about post-Crisis DC comics.