Or – “Does Whatever An Atom Can!”

There are a lot of reasons why a book might make it into my Retro Review pile.  Some books are fan-favorites, others are culturally significant.  Some are wonderful, while others are awful in the most charming of ways.  Some are suggested by Faithful Spoilerites, others commanded by the Powers That Be

And sometimes, just sometimes, a book is only special enough to become a Retro Review because of the fact that, at some point, it utterly fascinated me.  This is one of those cases.  Your Major Spoilers (retro) review awaits!

Atoman1CoverATOMAN #1
Writer: Ken Crossen
Penciler: Jerry Robinson/Mort Meskin/Marve Lev/JCA
Inker: Jerry Robinson/Mort Meskin/George Roussos/Marv Lev/JCA
Colorist: Uncredited
Letterer: Rhoda Lewis
Editor: Joseph Greene
Publisher: Spark Publications
Cover Price: 10 Cents
Current Near-Mint Price: $1000.00

Previously, in Atoman:  In the early 80s, the comic-book industry went through one of its periodic “boom” periods, as an influx of independent comics challenged the Big Two out of their 70s doldrums.  (It’s a bit more complicated than that, in many ways, especially at DC, but the basic premise still holds true.)  One of the upstart companies was AC Comics, one of the first companies to really mine the rich vein of public domain characters from the Golden Age to the fullest extent, filling their Femforce and Sentinels of Justice titles with updated and upgraded versions of characters from the 1940s, and it was there that I first met Atoman.  Possessor of one of the greatest names in comics, at least to my ear, Atoman fascinated me, and his story only became more fascinated when I discovered how EARLY he was in the “atomic power=magic” game, debuting scant months after the atomic bombs ended the second World War.  The day when I finally tracked down a copy of this issue is one I well remember, especially since I got a good deal on this somewhat rare issue.  We begin our issue in a very unusual way for a Golden Age book, with the aftermath of the Enola Gay’s bombing run on Japan…


This three-page prologue is surprisingly well-written and detailed (especially for the time period in question) and uses the backdrop of a world forever changed by the potential of atomic power to set up our hero’s exploits.  At a think-tank known as the Atomic Institute, a young man named Barry Dale is pulled into conference with some of the greatest minds in the world.  Their cause?  Keeping the secrets of atomic power out of the wrong hands…


This issue’s lead story is remarkable not only in its writing, but in the visuals as well, with art provided by Jerry Robinson (best known for drawing Batman back in the day, mostly in strips that were still signed by creator Bob Kane, as well as being credited with the creation of Batsy’s iconic nemesis The Joker.)  Robinson’s art on the cover is one of my single favorite Golden Age pieces, and perhaps one of the greatest covers of the first thirty years of comics.  The mysterious Mr. Twist has one of his gunsels plant the flower on Barry, allowing its built-in camera to access the secrets of atomic energy.  That night, Twist’s goons capture Barry as well…


Rejecting the bad guy’s offer, Barry is unceremoniously thrown from the villain’s balcony, left to die, broken and bleeding, in the streets below.  The power of the atom, however, may have a different fate in mind…


Quickly returning to his lab, Barry susses out that his studies of atomic power and radiation have started a chain reaction in his body, giving him immense atomic powers and like that…  In a fascinating turn of events, the erstwhile Atoman considers whether or not to use his newfound abilities for personal gain (a twist that presages Stan Lee’s early Spider-Man stories, if only briefly) before settling on his decision…


The sight of Atoman in action is just gorgeous, ain’t it?  I love everything about that suit, especially how it serves as a forerunner to later nuclear powered heroes Captain Atom and Firestorm, making me wonder whether that was intentional on the part of those heroes’ creators.  (Granted, it’s a red and yellow bodysuit with a blasty-looking emblem, so it may just be a case of obvious symbology, but…  still an intriguing question.)  Atoman arrives at Twist’s lair just in time to stop the villain from blackmailing one of his fellow scientists (in a modern twist, the fellow brain is a woman) and using his powers in unusually thoughtful ways for 1946.


There is more than a little Superman at work here, granted, but Atoman faces off against the bad man’s autogyro with the greatest of ease, taking the villain down Golden Age-style (which is to say, in a very lethal fashion.)


Next up is a tale featuring the Kid Crusaders, another iteration of the ‘Newsboy Legion’ concept seen so often in the forties, with another female character, and more unexpectedly complex writing…


Being the Golden Age, this book is a classic anthology, featuring the cowboy exploits of Will Bill Hickok…


…wherein, amazingly, the Indians not only aren’t the villains of the piece, the cowboy hero respects and KNOWS their traditions, which becomes key to the plot!  Hickok’s tale ends with a moment that saddens me a little bit, though, as we see an ad for what were meant to be Spark Comics big three titles…


Given the quality of this issue, and knowing that they bought the Green Lama license from Crestwood, it’s just a little deflating to known that Spark’s entire output consisted of only 15 comic books.  Also on the menu circa the spring of ’46, the adventures of Sergeant Bradshaw, District Attorney!


There’s something just not quite right with this guy’s head, there.  So, we’ve got cowboys, crime and superheroes, we need only one thing to round out the issue for newstand presentation:  A comedy piece!


Unbelievably, this story is actually amusing, and features a character who looks remarkably like later hero Son Of Vulcan.  Atoman got a second issue before Spark Publications finally went under, but his influence (or, more properly, the influence of Robinson and his studio partner Mort Meskin) is clearly widespread.  All in all, this is one of the most balanced Golden Age issues I’ve read, a book where you don’t have to skip past goofy or embarrassing features to get to the good stuff.  Atoman #1 is refreshingly literate, well-drawn, and fun to read, which is why it’s one of my favorite single issues of The Golden (or any) Age, earning 4 out of 5 stars overall.  This book is a perfect example of how a comic book doesn’t always have to be something shocking or world-shattering to still be effective and memorable.

Rating: ★★★★☆


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About Author

Once upon a time, there was a young nerd from the Midwest, who loved Matter-Eater Lad and the McKenzie Brothers... If pop culture were a maze, Matthew would be the Minotaur at its center. Were it a mall, he'd be the Food Court. Were it a parking lot, he’d be the distant Cart Corral where the weird kids gather to smoke, but that’s not important right now... Matthew enjoys body surfing (so long as the bodies are fresh), writing in the third person, and dark-eyed women. Amongst his weaponry are such diverse elements as: Fear! Surprise! Ruthless efficiency! An almost fanatical devotion to pop culture! And a nice red uniform.

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