No Minor Superheroes


By Avi Green

My family immigrated to Israel in late 1983, just before I’d turned 9 years old.

Even before that, there were several comics my parents bought for me that I enjoyed, like issues of Fantastic Four #139, Spider-Man #138, The Flash #230 (also my introduction to Green Lantern); and Justice League of America #220. In Israel comics were not easy to find initially, but I eventually managed to find used book stores and specialty stores for magazines that sold them. I also spent plenty of time reading newspaper comics like Peanuts and Garfield.

My father and mother worked as high school teachers in Pennsylvania and New Jersey when they were younger, and moving here, my father took up a career as a language translator, with one of his biggest jobs being the assignment of translating a French medical dictionary. My mother took up jobs as a tutor in addition to continuing her work as a high school teacher. In the mid-90s I got a job working in libraries where there was some comics material available, although not much. This job helped me to keep up on comics a bit.

As time went by and I came into my adult years I began developing an appreciation for minor superheroes and their supporting casts. Doctor Strange, Hawkman, Metamorpho, Elongated Man, Moon Knight, Cloak & Dagger, The Defenders, The Outsiders, Sub-Mariner, Hawkeye, The Question, Quasar, and also, what is to be the main subject of this article, the Silver Age Atom. Besides owning plenty of back issues of gems like Avengers and New Teen Titans from the yesteryear, I also own a sizable number of trade paperbacks collecting some of the best stories like The Kree-Skrull War from Avengers, New Mutants, and Iron Man’s Demon in a Bottle from 1979. Much of these I was able to buy – along with various back issues – at two stores in Tel Aviv, one called Comics & Vegetables and the other called Comikaza.

Speaking as someone who took offense and felt revulsion at DC’s Identity Crisis miniseries (and similarly at Marvel's Avengers: Disassembled), and the shocking abuse of many heroes and supporting cast members who appeared in it, I was relieved to later find and buy a copy of the Sword of the Atom TP which reprints the 4-part miniseries and 3 specials published during 1983-88. For the time it was published, it was very surprisingly well written. The story detailed how Ray Palmer, following the discovery Jean Loring had cheated on him with a fellow lawyer named Paul Hoben (who, let me note, was the one who drew her into the affair), took a trip to the Amazon forests of Brazil where he met and fell in love with the princess of a tiny alien race called the Katarthans; this affair lead to Palmer's decision to retire from superheroing and marry her. But the best part of this arc was that it respected its cast of characters and, contrary to what DC told fans at the time of Identity Crisis, it wasn’t Jean who started the affair with Paul. Rather, it was Paul who’d talked her into it. Jean was upset when Ray found out, since she still had respect for Ray and didn’t feel so great about philandering, even after Ray used some of her own monetary reserves for buying a scintillator.

As the story by Jan Strnad tells, after nearly being killed by a pair of drug dealers who don’t want him to blow the whistle on where they’re growing some cocaine fields, Ray is stranded in the Brazilian forests, stuck at the Atom's 6-inch height after his gear short-circuits. Worse, he's been captured by the troops from the Katarthans’ tiny city called Morlaidh, where the leader’s advisor, Deraegis, is plotting an overthrow to control the population himself. He subsequently manages to flee with a band of rebels, princess Laethwen included, and they eventually manage to return and defeat Deraegis and his thugs. Thanks to an exploding engine, Ray’s size-and-weight controls as the Atom are restored, and he returns to his regular height. He goes back to the USA, where he convinces Jean to divorce and go her own way with Paul. He decides to reveal his own identity as the Atom through a book published by a pal named Norman Brawler before returning to the Amazon forests to be with Laethwen.

Besides the impressive writing by Strnad, which again respects the main stars, there’s also the excellent artwork by Gil Kane. His art talents, which I’d first gotten a good look at through the first Spider-Man issue I read (138), had advanced splendidly over the years. I sense that he too had a lot of love for both Ray and Jean, even if at the time, they were going to break them up. Pat Broderick’s art on the last story was also very good.

Plus, as mentioned, these books tell a very different story than what Identity Crisis and the profiling you’d see afterwards did: Ray was the one who revealed his own secret identity with Norman publishing it, and Jean provided her own input with Ray’s approval. And she acknowledged she’d committed infidelity with Paul Hoben, willing to face the risk of hurting her reputation in the legal business. A very honest, inspiring presentation.

If Dan DiDio thought he could discourage me from reading all about Golden/Silver Age heroes with Identity Crisis and turn me against Jean Loring, he was throughly mistaken. The crude miniseries from 2004 only had the effect of making me appreciate older, better material even more, and explaining why I reject a lot of their modern output because of its disrespect for their past products. I also found a couple examples from before and after Sword of the Atom, like The Atom #29 from the Silver Age, that gave a much different picture than what Identity Crisis would have you believe about Jean too, showing her as caring about a mother’s right to custody of her child. And someday, I hope I’ll be able to own much of those classic gems of yesteryear, the stuff we should all really be reading.

Sword of the Atom is a very good story depicting what would mark a shift in the life of Ray Palmer and his co-stars, and a worthy example of good writing with respect for the cast of characters that everybody should own. I highly recommend it.

Avi Green works as a librarian at an urban library in Israel and blogs about the state of the comics medium at The Four Color Media Monitor He strongly believes criticism of comics should be based on how good or bad the efforts of the writers are, not the characters appearing in the books, and feels that even third-tier superheroes and co-stars can make for good storylines with the right talent and dedication involved.