I just finished Showcase Presents: The Atom #1, one of those 500-page black-and-white reprint tomes put out by DC. (Don’t ask me why; I got it free last time I was at DC’s offices.) The book includes three issues of Showcase and 17 issues of The Atom‘s own title. All the stories are by Gardner Fox, with art by Gil Kane and inks by Murphy Anderson and Sid Greene.
Although it was a bit of a slog, there was something satisfying in really immersing myslf in DC’s Silver Age. I was never actually emotionally engaged with any of the tales, but they were fun in a goofy, kidlike way. One thing that really impressed me was the pure craftsmanship of the form back then. There was definitely a different standard for artwork back in the early-to-mid-60s, and you could see that professional pride in Fox, Kane, and Anderson’s work. And Fox was a true polymath: in the course of a couple years (1963–1965) of The Atom, he tackled the 1956 Hungarian revolution, the space race, 18th-century English history, miniature card painting, Norse mythology, and numismatics, just to name a few. You could enjoy these stories and actually learn something about the real world in the process. How quaint.
Another striking thing about the stories is how much of the plots were devoted to the Atom’s alter-ego Ray Palmer. Palmer is such a geek — he really enjoys his job as a scientist and is always shown at his lab, working on some obscure experiment or another when trouble hits. He’s a total “square,” enjoying reading, art, classical music, and long drives in the countryside. Very much the “man in the gray flannel suit,” very emblematic of DC during that period. (Don’t forget this is the same era that Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Steve Ditko were debuting such oddball, almost countercultural heroes as Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, the Hulk, and the X-Men for Marvel.)
Ray’s then-girlfriend-later-wife Jean Loring is also a featured character, though not via the melodramatic romance angle we’re familiar with from Superman and Lois Lane. Instead, many of the stories revolve around the Atom helping “lady lawyer” Jean defend falsely accused clients from criminal charges. Jean’s goal during is to make her mark as a lawyer before she acquiesces to Ray’s repeated (milksop) marriage proposals! Sort of a mixed message for feminists, that. (This early look at their romance and relationship gains added interest given what later happened to Ray and Jean in the 2004 Brad Meltzer-written classic Identity Crisis.)
Before reading these comics, I didn’t know much about Fox other than that he was a Silver Age scribe who re-imagined moribund characters like the Flash, Hawkman, and, yes, the Atom. Researching him a little on Wikipedia, I learned that Fox was an amazingly prolific writer, churning out over 4,000 stories — as well as over 100 novels! — during his long career. That must be some kind of record.
As for Gil Kane, I was first exposed to his work when he drew Action in the mid-80s. He was famous then as a master of human anatomy, with a very distinctive look and inking style. But looking at this early 60s stuff, he was more of an all-around cartoonist, doing everything well but nothing particularly flashy. With Anderson inking him, his work here is protoypically “Silver Age.”
Which brings me to Murphy Anderson’s exquisite inks. I’ve always loved his inking over Curt Swan’s pencils on Superman and Action. (That “Swanderson” period from the the early 1970s is my all-time favorite Superman era.) Anderson is truly an inker’s inker. There’s just something “real” about the way he renders, his brushwork giving texture, weight, and solidity to everything from spaceships and ray guns, to everyday objects like clothing, cars, the natural world, and office buildings. And he can ink hair like a mofo! (I really need to study his technique in that arena, because I can’t ink hair for shit.) A number of the later stories in the collection are inked by a guy named Sid Greene. Not to be too harsh, but Green’s inks prove how much Anderson contributed to the look of these Atom stories — the Green pages are not nearly as attractive to look at.