Take one scientist, add a strange meteor, stir in a touch of Silver Age DC, and what do you get? That tiny titan of the Justice League, The Atom! Your Major Spoilers Retro Review of Showcase #34 awaits!
Writer: Gardner Fox
Penciler: Gil Kane
Inker: Murphy Anderson
Letterer: Gaspar Saladino
Editor: Julius Schwartz
Publisher: DC Comics
Cover Price: 10 Cents
Current Near-Mint Pricing: $34,000.00
Release Date: July 27, 1961
Previously in Showcase: The Showcase anthology was an ingenious editorial idea: Take a regular monthly book, but rotate the cast to introduce, reintroduce or reimagine characters. Since the sales figures of the day usually required 90 days to be fully processed, a three-issue arc could help to measure interest in a given character or genre. Julie Schwartz successfully revamped The Flash, gave us the Challengers of the Unknown, Space Ranger, and I guess Hal Jordan, too. But where do you go after you re-create two of the founders of the Justice Society of America?
Well, they say “Three’s the charm.” Meet Professor Raymond Palmer!
A physicist by trade, Professor Palmer’s obsession is compression of matter, allowing for better use of existing space and increasing the efficiency of travel. The problem is, everything he shrinks tends to explode, possibly because his shrink-ray is powered by a lens made of white-dwarf star matter. (The fact that he was able to pick it up seems… Ummmm… Questionable?) He’s also got an incredibly successful lady friend in the form of Jean Loring, an attorney to whom he is constantly proposing, and a side gig taking local children on nature hikes. It’s a good thing, too, as his group ventures into the wrong cave and ends up trapped by a cave-in. With the threat of natural gas seeping in, Ray chooses to break out his shrinking lens and save them all, with the possibility that it’s the last thing he’ll ever do!
As a late Bronze Age entrant to comics, I wasn’t as impressed by Gil Kane as I should have been. By 1984, his style had evolved to become more impressionistic than the Cockrums, Byrnes, and Perezes that I loved. I’ve since realized the error of my ways, but I still love Kane’s clean style from this era, especially with Murphy Anderson inking. Professor Palmer doesn’t even have a costume through the first half of this issue, adventuring in a bowling shirt and slacks, and it still makes for exciting images. Ray is disappointed to find that he hasn’t fixed the ray so much as discovered that his own body is immune to it, but as every scientist did back in the day, he decided to deal with his discovery by making a cool costume!
Even better, since it’s also made of that star matter, it appears automatically when he shrinks, officially making him a human atom! By a startling coincidence, the moment he gets really small, a tiny “genie” appears in his lab, looking to loot his chemical stash! Not only that, but he also matches the description given by Ray’s girlfriend’s newest client of the creature who could prove her innocence in a bank robbery! The man calls himself Kulan Dar from the planet Julnar and he needs to find the rare element Europium in order to get home. Unfortunately, he’s being held hostage by a human who forces him to steal.
There’s a cool trick with a telephone, an “ionized bottle,” and some alien gadgetry nonsense involved, but what it all breaks down to is that Kulan Dar is freed from the control of the criminal just in time to help save “girl lawyer” (UGH) Jean Loring’s client from jail!
Apparently, the wheels of jurisprudence turned much more quickly in 1961.
The story ends with Jean, having won her first case, promising that she might even marry him if she manages to win a few more cases, with Ray silently thinking that The Atom has his work cut out for him. It’s not a good look for our hero, to be honest. But, aside from the fact that Showcase #34 has a complex Rube Goldberg device of a plot doing a few too many things, it’s also got clean, exciting art, and some ingenious ideas at its core, earning 3.5 out of 5 stars overall. It’s pretty easy to see why Atom never caught fire the way The Flash and Green Lantern did, but it seems unfair that he ended up being the last of DC’s Golden Age revamps.
At least Professor Palmer became an important member of the Justice League of America for the next twenty years, allowing him to become a Super Friend and make it to the ranks of The Legends of Tomorrow, so things could have been much worse.
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Ray Palmer's debut gives us a ton of inventive Gardner Foxisms and some inventive Gil Kane art, but I can't help but feel like there's TOO much going on.