- The Atom in DC Bonus Book #8!
- By Joe Calchi, Jim Balent, & Dan Schaefer!
- From DC Comics's November 1988 cover-dated Power of the Atom #4!
Comic books were pretty much all anthologies in the early days, and very nearly entirely staffed with new and unproven talent. After all, it was a new and unproven medium. Once the industry got some successful properties under its belt, they got a little pickier about who got to do what. A lot of art was produced by studios back then, so an assistant could train up to a larger role on a more successful feature. The price of comics stayed the same for decades, so they got smaller and smaller for the same dime, with fewer opportunities for younger, unpolished talent. Most typically, they landed in the oldest type of comics, the anthologies; usually horror, romance, or some other genre that allowed for short stories or rotating creative team on done-in-one tales. Truth to tell, the tendency to use less desirable creatives on anthologies probably helped destroy the viability of that format going into the 1980s. DC still wanted to have a farm team, but with anthologies dying off, they had fewer avenues to developing talent in house and in print. Ultimately, the '80s indie comics boom subsidized small press feeders where the Big Two publishers could cherry-pick from other publishers' best prospects. In 1988 though, DC still had that nursery club mentality, and tried to facilitate it through their Bonus Book program.
The New Teen Titans was arguably DC's biggest success story of at minimum the early '80s, and it launched with a 16-page original preview story given away as a bound-in premium with DC Comics Presents #26 at no additional cost. DC tried to replicate that hit formula throughout the first half of the '80s to no avail. Then DC took two failures and tried to mash them up with 1988's Bonus Book program. Put simply, they'd try-out green talent in the free bonus stories, and hope that the added value would help sales on a given book while potentially offering exposure to the next great talent find. Rob Liefeld was the biggest name to come out of the program, but he'd already been producing work for Megaton Comics, and was already booked for the Hawk and Dove mini-series the month after his Jennifer Morgan solo story ran in the low-selling Warlord title. The next biggest was Jim Balent, the oldest rookie in town. He'd been kicking around the industry since 1984, failing to catch on with back-ups in DC war titles. He spent most of the late '80s doing heavy metal inspired cheesecake and splatter covers for Malibu titles, and the odd assignment for First or Dark Horse; just another one of those guys who seemed to spend too much time on a gigantic stylized signature. He finally started getting traction with the 1990 vampire series From The Darkness, which survived multiple volumes and publishers on his now trademark blend of buxom babes and gothic fantasy adventure. That gave him an in for the Batman family of titles, which led to his 6 1/2 year run on Catwoman, his moonlighting at Chaos! Comics on Purgatori, and finally his self-publishing Tarot: Witch of the Black Rose for twenty-one years and counting.
In 1988 though, Balent was still lucky to do the occasional Ex-Mutants cover. No, I'm not taking a did at the X-Men franchise-- there was literally a franchise of post-apocalyptic titles that was the biggest hit Eternity Comics ever saw based mostly on infringing Marvel trademarks and the early work of Ron Lim. Marvel had the last laugh though when they stole Ron Lim and bought out Eternity's parent company. Like main series artist Dwayne Turner, Jim Balent was part of the generation who lost years of income in serve to the principles of the book How To Draw Comics The Marvel Way. In the 1970s, there were only three kinds of comics-- the good Marvel ones, Brand Ecch, and stoner comix with an x. Nobody wanted to drawn Brand Ecch, so scores of young artists tried to draw as much like John Buscema and John Romita as possible with an over-emphasis on realistic anatomy, perspective, and background. The Marvel house style was a more dynamic take on standard issue commercial art, and it was as rigidly applied in the Bronze Age as DC's clinical Swandersonization in the Silver Age. The alternative was '70s Jack Kirby, and nobody was buying that. The tyranny of the Marvel Way was so fascistic that every artist on the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe was inked by Josef Rubinstein to make sure they looked uniformly "right." Neither Turner nor Balent garnered fans until they threw off those shackles and got jiggy with it, as was the fashion of the coming times.
While Turner probably had more "correct" fundamentals in 1988, Balent had a lot more energy and fun going for him, even considering how dodgy and crude his work was on the Atom Bonus Book. Balent is really a poor man's amateurish version of his future self, but there's an enthusiasm that patches over the rough patch that is every single panel of this story. Low rent and basic as the faux cover is, it still betters most of the actual run's, and the splash page of a human-sized Katarthan Skul-Rider on a giant bird crashing through the window of the Palmers' former suburban home at least rivals any other in the series. Writer Norman Brawler isn't who the yellow-skinned barbarian is looking for, but it's immediately odd that his main concern is more about Jean Loring than the former Atomic sword-wielder best known in Morlaidh. I talked too much on the front of this episode to now explain to a highly hypothetical young listener what a Rolodex is, so just know that it was equally weird for the barbarian to figure out how to find Ray Palmer via the analog version of Brawler's email contacts. It all seems to turn out to be a nightmare Ray's having anyway, though he was oddly upset about having slit the barbarian's throat, which isn't the Ray that you and I know.
The only part of the nightmare that wasn't real was Ray's victory, since Brawler was being taken out of his rental by EMTs after the Skul-Rider's attack. Given the rider's ranting, Ray's most concerned with Jean's safety, but she's incommunicado at that moment. Cut to day drinkers at a first class hotel heading back to his room for favors. When the male of the two appears to shrink in stature, the soon to be murdered female gently mocks his sudden shrimpyness. As blood ran down her limp wrist in the next panel, I have to figure someone was influenced by such woman-killing luminaries of the day as "The Death of Jean DeWolf" and Major Force introductory arc in Captain Atom. They sure knew how to brutally murdered women to the furthest extreme the Comics Code Authority would allow in the '80s, let me tell you. These cold chops were to bloody for the refrigerator, y'knowahmean?
Cal Thornton is maybe five feet as drawn, but the poor little rich boy is still so homicidally entitled that when the ur-generically named Labtech Research Incorporated can't guarantee their ability to keep adding a foot in length indefinitely due to his increasing tolerance of the experimental size-altering procedure, he goes all White Boy Summer on the world. Oh hey, you probably thought I meant that he got rapey. I can't say for certain that didn't happen, too. There's a lot of bedroom action at play in this story, but I should specify that this will primarily be grievance-based mass murder. I myself am technically a white boy, and this is kind of our thing, especially lately, but also the entirety of human history with all the colonization and genociding and stuff. Cal Thornton is the one man Mickey and Mallory of last chance YOLO spree killing, starting with blowing the scientist's head off with a Magnum and turning the dial up to "11" on full body girth enhancement. It turns out that he was Jean Loring's stalker ex before Ray Palmer, which tracks, until Ray beat him bloody, which also tracks. Ray is the Chad of advanced theoretical physics, let me tell you. Even though Cal only adds about a foot, his raptor steed Deodata gets into Them territory when it gets hit with Vita Rays.
Cal Thornton rides his bird to the penthouse apartment of his ritzy parents, changes into a robe and pajamas, bursts into their bedroom, makes his being slightly below average height the cause of all the world's troubles, changes clothes again, single-handed bare-handed Menendez-Bro'd his folks extreme Mo Howard style. Next morning, smears himself in yellow greasepaint head to toe, cosplays as a Skul-Rider, flies to Ivy University where Ray is teaching a class under an alias unconvincingly before being called out by a student. Cosplay Cal crashes class, Ray somehow shrinks them both plus the bird, and they all tumble into a replica of Mayan temples Ray was using as a teaching aid. We're running on Golden Age, Fletcher Hanks logic here. Just go with it. Ray flips the bird with a power cable. The fake Skul-Rider literally pulls the plug. We're not going to get into Skul-Rider feeling like a double entendre but doesn't make sense as such. That's a Sword of the Atom joke and we're already running long here.
The Atom doesn't buy the Skul-Rider act for a second and immediately makes Cal Thornton. This is the most realistic thing to happen in the Power of the Atom series to date. No amount of body paint is going to render your ex's creepy stalker unrecognizable, and you never forget an ass you kicked. Those are Hallmark moments in life. The fight moves underwater, and the Atom has to punch a fish. I'm not going to lie, being more exciting than 1988 Dwayne Turner is not actual very good in the grand scheme of things, and it was at this point that I had to go back a couple of pages to be reminded that this was not a local Ivy Town lake but the model in the classroom. Also, isn't it some form of animal cruelty to keep a common aquarium fish in the tiny sliver of actual water within a scale model of Mayan civilization in a college classroom. Balent's a good man who makes a point of drawing the water filtration system for that poor fishy.
Cal Thornton isn't as good a marksman as he thinks he is with a bow and arrow, plus when it comes down to swordfighting, the Tiny Titans does that density shifting thing that allows him to shatter Cal's blade. The Mighty Mite even breaks dude's arm in the same blow. Ray Palmer then threatens that he could execute this mother-murderer and no jury would convict him, but he's a civilized man now. That's code for they're both white guys. Cal Thornton was just having a really bad day, ya'll. Besides, it's not like he's literally an extremely rich madman who can hire the finest lawyers to get him the lightest possible sentence. He's only been nursing a homicidal grudge against Jean Loring and Ray Palmer since college. Why would the Atom see this Caucasian man as a more immediate and indefinite threat than a six-inch yellow guy from an opposing tribe who was probably only raiding New Morlaidh for rations whose body Atom dumped on a pile of corpses he personally delivered to Katarthan Hell five issues back.
Wow, the art has gotten really bad by this point. Like, printed locally so you have to buy a few pity copies to collect dust on the most poorly lit and remote part of the comics rack bad. Yet somehow still better than looking at Dwayne Turner's creepy weird disproportionate talking heads on supporting characters. Also, this is scripter Joe Calchi's second and last Bonus Book and also book full stop which operates on sometimes literally dream logic and I'd still rather read his Power of the Atom over what Stern's offered so far. I'll take insanity over numbing predictability, plus the only flashback is actually necessary and provides new information. File "I wish this mainstream comics series had the creative team from Ex-Mutants instead" under sentences never before uttered. I bet Ron Lim would have been a blast on the Atom.
Random fact, I think Joe Calchi went on to become General Manager / Advertising Director for Southern Jersey's Daily Journal and the Courier-Post. All thanks to his DC Bonus books, I'm absolutely certain.
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