Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The Atom: Big Little Man

Doll Man was introduced in 1939, probably the first shrunken super-hero, and I suspect inspired by the 1936 Todd Browing horror flick The Devil-Doll. While never really an aspirational concept, Doll Man had visually interesting adventures. Coupled with the success of the 1957 sci-fi classic The Incredible Shrinking Man, it's easy to see where Julie Schwartz would get the idea to revamp the diminutive Golden Age DC hero the Atom as an even smaller scale Tiny Titan. Despite solid stories and fantastic art, the Atom never caught on in a big way. After a few years, he partnered with the similarly flailing Hawkman, until their shared book was cancelled not too terribly long after. Previously, the Atom had anticipated the creation of Marvel's Ant-Man, and both became more famous as insecure members of super-teams than as soloists. The Justice League of America was the Mighty Mite's primary vehicle in the 1970s, where he married Jean Loring, just as Hank Pym had Janet Van Dyne in the Avengers.

Recognizing that shrinking alone wasn't a marketable novelty anymore, creators had physicist Ray Palmer become trapped among a race of six inch tall alien barbarians in the early '80s, riding a wave of popularity in the sword and sorcery genre. When that faltered, DC tried to sell a hard-edged Post-Crisis revamp, but it lacked the talent and direction of contemporary efforts company marketing unfortunately directly compared it to. A positive step was made in making the Atom a spy, but there was little follow through. He was soon back to being the uptight old fogey Silver Ager, then de-aged to lead a lame Teen Titans relaunch. Re-aged, the Atom puttered around the periphery, until his suddenly murderous ex-wife Jean Loring turned him into a bit of a pariah. At least she was the one who was ruined as a character, as opposed to Hank Pym, who will forever be the wife-beater with emotional problems of the Marvel Universe.

Infinite Crisis launched a new Latino Blue Beetle, and chased that with an Asian Atom who was soon joined by a Latina Question. I've argued a number of times that a Chinese scientist with the power of shortness is a cluster of stereotypes just waiting to be mocked by general audiences, but Ryan Choi had a good-natured everyman charm that many responded to. His solo book only lasted two years, but given the state of the industry, that reads as more of a success than Ray Palmer's previous attempts at an ongoing. Still, Ryan Choi was killed off for shock value, giving Ray Palmer the chance to hanging out with all the white guys who were reclaiming their mantles (often from minorities) in the early '00s, like Hal Jordan, Barry Allen and Oliver Queen.

Despite running an Atom blog, I'm not especially interested in the premise. There are a bunch of other underwhelming shrinking characters in comics, and Ant-Man is far more relevant to the Marvel Universe than the Atom is to DC's. Al Pratt was rather dull, his legacy Damage was annoyingly emo, Atom Smasher was the poor man's Colossus, and Ryan Choi was just an Asian Peter Parker-- The Walking Dead if it starred Glenn. No, what I am is a fan of Ray Palmer, and specifically one take on the character. I hate it when Ray questions his value and place in the universe. The Atom of Gardner Fox and Gil Kane was an alpha male working to tame the one a-type gal worthy of his good looks, athletic prowess, and superior brain. His ego was quiet, but inversely proportionate to how small he could shrink. That guy vanished in the '70s, but resurfaced in the '80s through the Sword of the Atom. I love Ray Palmer for his convoluted history, his brutal effectiveness, and for being so intense for such a little guy.

Ray Palmer is everything that's supposed to be appealing about Hal Jordan, if Hal wasn't the flip-flopping, pandering, backstabbing Mitt Romney of comics. Speaking of which, I think comic books need a non-white Green Lantern, if only because Jamie Foxx can swagger in a way Ryan Reynolds can't and get a response from international audiences. I don't see the relevance of Barry Allen or Wally West as the Flash when the biggest Latino hero in the present DC Universe is Vibe. I would vastly prefer Connor Hawke as a zen archer than Oliver Queen and Clint Barton battling over which can be a more perfect duplicate of the other (or more often lately, how well Green Arrow can stand in for Batman on the CW.) On the other hand, like Aquaman, the Atom isn't an especially desirable role to play, and wouldn't even necessarily be recognizable as anything but a white dude. A female, Asian or not, begs immediate comparison to the Wasp. Latinos and Asians suffer enough short jokes without a hero to associate the jab with. I could see an East Indian, though that would be more fun with John Jones, since his Silver Age tales were constantly on the verge of breaking out into an outrageous Bollywood musical number. The best bet at pulling off a racial shift would be African-American, since that would run contrary to a lot of old cultural biases, and would be a damned sight finer than Cyborg's token role in the Justice League. A white Ray Palmer has already been introduced in the New 52, and while he need not become the Mighty Mite in this continuity, I hope he either wholly owns the role or is completely divorced from a truly All-New Atom of color who creates their own legacy without his assistance. I still want my type of Atom to be manifested, because there are far too many Shrinking Violets already. Regardless of race, if the Atom lacks punch and cannot truly separate from the packs of human dolls out there, he'll just repeat the same failures as the tired old one.

Post-Racial DC Comics?

No comments: