Showcase Presents THE ATOM

Comics, Geek, Review

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 (click to see in detail), 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.

3 thoughts on “Showcase Presents THE ATOM

  1. I’ve always loved Gil Kane’s work. Although I do admire his maintained level of quality til the end (he used to do many sketches every morning before drawing a page, like an athlete stretching), I agree that his Silver Age stuff is the IT! Anderson is good, but Dan Adkins didn’t do a bad job of being faithful to Kane’s powerfully operatic sensibility (mostly at Marvel).
    Kane’s absolute best work from that era, though, is the few issues he did of Hawk & Dove, Captain Action, Spider-Man and Captain Marvel. Aside from Spidey, those are the stories that should be archived; unfortunately, they are not.

    1. Odd coincidence
      I recently happened to visit Roger’s Time Machine (on 14th & 7th in Manhattan), one of my favorite old-school comic book stores, and picked up a few beat-up reading copies of Strange Adventures. I was looking for stories featuring future private eye Star Hawkins and his robot secretary Ilda. I remembered those stories from when I was a kid, and wanted to wallow in a little nostalgia. Lo and behold if those Star Hawkins stories weren’t illustrated by, you guessed it… GIL KANE!
      Even though the Star Hawkins stories were contemporaneous with the Atom comics, Kane inked them himself, and as I guessed, they look totally different from the Murphy Anderson-inked stories. Much more how Kane’s art looked in the 80s, actually. So to me it just shows how much of his aesthetic Anderson added to Swan and Kane (and undoubtedly everyone he inked).

      1. sorry I missed you at Mocca
        I think Roger’s Time Machine is one of the best comic book stores ever. It was the only shop that carried Chaykin’s Time2 when I came to visit NY for the first time ever 12 years ago. He’s been the sweetest, coolest guys since. I always get my old comics there.
        A recent find (at Roger’s, natch) is an old Jose Luis Garcia Lopez Superman story inked by Anderson! What a weird combo! While I don’t think the art team worked on that one, you may finally come to actually like Garcia Lopez through your appreciation of Anderson. In fact, I’ve come across a few stellar GL short stories that may just change your mind altogether, although I kinda doubt it.

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