Sword Of The Atom Needs To Be In Your Collection

In 1983, Ray Palmer was a hero without direction. If it hadn’t been for his role in the JLA, he wouldn’t even have been published. This was a time for change, though. The industry was seeing a rise in creativity, although the great British invasion had not yet occurred. The reasons for this rise in creativity need to be explored on their own, so we’ll stick a pin in it.

The person behind the Atom’s creation was the one that pitched changing the hero into a sword and sorcery character. He met writer Jan Strnad, better known at the time for work on independent comics, especially collaborating with Richard Corben. Two struck up a rapport and Strand was brought on to the project. As word got out, comic fans began to voice their objections to changing the character. DC had been known as very conservative with their characters, but Gil Kane was trusted with the character by Dick Giordano, and every effort was made by Strand to make the changes organic and true to the character.

The creative process with Jan Strnad and Gil Kane also mirrored many of the writer/artist combinations of the era. The two would not only trade off scripts and pages, but converse on the phone. The different backgrounds of the pair complemented each other. Strnad’s background in independent comics gave the series a decidedly different feeling in a marketplace that was just beginning to see the developments that would mark the difference between the comics of the 1970s and the 1980s. Once the decision was made to make Sword of the Atom a mini-series, it let the pair create this story with a definitive ending rather than keeping it open ended.

By the way, if you don’t want to know how all this turns out, stop now. There are spoilers ahead for comic books from the 1980s.

The mini-series threw Atom into the Amazon rain forest, trapped at six inches tall. There he encounters a civilization of yellow-skinned aliens all six inches tall, abandoned as a penal colony. Here is where Atom sees himself find a new purpose in his life, he leads a rebellion against an ambitious adviser to the king. That adviser stokes the flames of rebellion, hoping to fill the vacuum left by a deposed king. Unfortunately, his plan depends upon reactivating the damaged star drive of one of the ships that brought them to Earth. He also doesn’t account for the Atom stepping up to lead the rebels. Atom finds himself falling in love with the Princess Laethwen. Unfortunately, they are separated at the end by Atom taking in the energy of the overloading star drive, powered by white dwarf matter. He reunites with his wife, but everything is different.

A sequel to the mini-series came the next year with Ray failing to reconcile with his wife. He has a preoccupation with trying to determine what the problem is with his size-changing powers. Unfortunately, the problem is the amount of white dwarf energy he has absorbed. This also leads to Ray and Jean discussing their feelings for their new loves, Paul and Laethwen. They agree to go their separate ways instead of trying to fix something so broken. Ray goes back with his friend Norman, running afoul of drug traffickers. As the Atom, using the skills he learned in Morlaidh, he destroys their camp and bids his friend goodbye, after seeing proof that they are close to the survivors of Morlaidh. He reunites with Laethwen.

A second special arrived a year later. New Morlaidh is threatened by a tribe using some recovered technology to command bird riders that kidnap the women of New Morlaidh. This coincides with Jean accidentally finding herself shrunk to six inches tall by some of Atom’s lab equipment. Jean is also kidnapped by the bird riders, after Atom has given his old size-changing belt to her new fiance, Paul. He shrinks himself to sneak into the bird riders base. Paul breaks out Jean and Laethwen while Atom and his men defeat the bird riders’ despot leader, working to unify the tribes peacefully. 

There is a third special, but Gil Kane did not return for it. Pat Broderick did an admirable job, but it gets forgotten halfway through the issue that everyone is six inches tall, as the dead are shown being consumed by maggots, that are depicted as normal size. It destroys the premise of the entire series and is a sad ending to an otherwise magnificent series.

That naturally brings me to how gorgeously the elements in this series worked. The Atom and the people of Morlaidh ride frogs. The second special adds birds to animals used by the little yellow aliens as steeds. In the arena, rats are used as lions. One of the most dramatic moments comes as  the rebel forces have to flee from a wave of hungry ants, devouring everything in their way. The forest acts as a nemesis as much as the villains in the story.

The series also provides some of the best Gil Kane art in existence. There are times when the details get fudged as a lot of information gets fed into the panels. The book definitely feels like Jan Strnad and Gil Kane set out to write a John Carter of Mars story and put Atom into it. In the mini-series, they never forget about the life he left behind. While it would have been convenient to leave him in Morlaidh, having him sacrifice his happiness for his new people is a perfect story ending. The first Special makes a way for Atom to return and resolve the story of the dissolution of his marriage to Jean Loring. The second Special ties up a loose end that cements the Atom in Mordlaidh. It also opens the possibility of a new Atom, as his size-changing belt is given to Jean’s boyfriend Paul Hoben.

Given how the third Special was such a failure in capturing the feel of the other Specials and the mini-series, the magic came from the interaction between Strnad and Gil Kane. The same thing generally happens whenever editors treat the parts of a collaboration as pieces of a machine. That may not have been the case here, but with Pat Broderick, there seems to have been something lost by replacing Gil Kane with Pat Broderick.

There was a collection of all the issues of this series, and I recommend it for anyone that loves good comics. It’s not a straight super-hero comic, but the action in the first two specials satisfy that itch for any fan trying to adjust to the sword and sorcery style of story. If your collection is single issues, make these easy to pull out and re-read.