Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Sword Of The Atom!

I was not following DC when Dick Giordano decided to shake up the Atom's status quo and greenlighted a proposal by veteran Atom artist Gil Kane and writer Jan Strnad. So it was only a few years ago that I found a very cheap copy of the 2008 reprint collection of those vigorous Sword of the Atom stories. I've been reading a bunch of lost world stuff lately, so I figured this collection would fit right in.

They took the venerable Silver Age superhero and member in good standing of the Justice League of America and kicked him out of this world and into a whole other one, one overflowing with high science-fantasy concepts. Professor Ray Palmer quit being the resident superhero of Ivy Town and became something of a John Carter wannabe in the hidden depths of the Amazon jungle. It was a bold move, powered to no small extent by Gil Kane's pure and potent artwork.

In the first issue of the four-issue limited series, Ray discovers his wife Jean is having an affair and in a snit heads off to South America to put some distance between them. He quickly falls victim to drug smugglers while trying to locate the source of some white dwarf star radiation and finds himself stranded at six-inches tall in the vast Amazonian jungle. Quickly though he encounters savage golden-skinned warriors led by a red-haired beauty named Laethwen who is the daughter of the king of a local city called Morlaidh.

We quickly learn that the tiny golden people descended from the stars many years before and their society fragmented into various tribes spread through the jungle, savage warriors living alongside super science which had become unreliable. Ray Palmer now calling himself merely "Atom" becomes a gladiator and later a member of the resistance who seek to free the people from a tyrant who it turns out is Laethwen's father.

Atom becomes a leader of the opposition preparing the rebels for an attack on the city and meanwhile falling love with the lovely princess. He also takes time to learn to ride frogs,  and battle the creatures of the jungle such as snakes and crocodiles which have become even more dangerous to our six-inch sword-wielding protagonist.

The battles are furious and this DC comic dishes up some real life and death struggles as the rebels find that the attack has released the toxic radiation of the very power which brought them to this world. As the city crumbles, the Atom growing all the while seeks to drive the population to safety before the inevitable explosion. He does so, but himself is knocked unconscious and is discovered on the bank of the river to be returned eventually to his wife who has since come to Brazil to find him. The story ends on some thing of an unfinished note as the two prepare to talk about what life has delivered to them.

The results of that conversation was not revealed for a full year when the relative success of the four-issue limited series produced a one-shot special. This story is somewhat cleverly told, at least in part, as selections from a tell-all book written by one Norman Brawler. In this tale we learn that Ray and Lori have separated amicably and that Ray returns to the jungle to try and find the golden-skin lover he left behind some time before. He does and that forms what seems to be the basis for many a new story.

Alas it only yields a few more. The first picks up the next year when Jean is shrunk and by a complex series of events ends up lost inside the Amazonian jungle. The Atom and his people work to find and free her from the grip of a tyrant to uses mind-controlled hawk-riding warriors to do his bidding. It's not a story which the premise suggested, but it is nonetheless another bonanza of Gil Kane artwork. There is a resolution of sorts and the saga then ends for several years.

In 1988 Jan Strnad teams with Pat Broderick to tell one more tale of Atom and his golden princess, but this one is not really all that good to be honest. Broderick's work is a big decline from Kane's elegant drawing, and frankly the story itself has precious little to do with Atom himself. Instead we get a somewhat overwrought morality yarn about civic duty and zombies. It's a poor finish to a series which had all the potential in the world to yield up some barnstorming fantasy adventure.

Either the writers didn't know what to do, or editorial was reluctant to go whole hog on the concept. But that doesn't mean there isn't some wonderful adventure sequences in these stories. The Atom brandishing a sword is not a notion that would've occurred to me, but it's an image I am most fond of having seen it presented with such gusto, at least in the beginning.

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