Enter the Lost World of
Sword of the Atom
by Simon Brown
When Julius Schwartz tried to revive the super-hero genre in the early 1960's, he drew on DC's rich history, and updated old characters and concepts for a modern generation. Flash and Green Lantern were basically unchanged in their powers, as were Hawkman and Hawkgirl, but their backgrounds were new. Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman stayed the same, as they had survived the hero drought of the 50's, and didn't need updating. The Atom however was given a complete overhaul. To compete with these new flashy characters, Atom needed a gimmick, and what would suit his name better than the ability to shrink? Out of costume, he was physicist Ray Palmer (named after a science-fiction editor who was a friend of Schwartz'), but in costume, the six inch 'Mighty Mite'!
Like his peers, Atom premiered in Showcase, and soon graduated to the pages of his own book. There he fought villains like Doctor Light and Chronos, and travelled through time thanks to the inventions of Professor Hyatt. He also pursued beautiful attorney Jean Loring, but she wouldn't commit to him until she had established her career. The book faltered somewhat, and even art by such masters as Gil Kane, Sid Greene, Murphy Anderson, and Dick Dillin couldn't save it. 'The Atom' became 'The Atom and Hawkman' with 39, and folded with issue 45.
cancelation didn't mean retirement by any means. A prominent JLA member, Atom was seen regularly in that book as well as appearing in such places as 'Super Team Family' where a 4-issue arc teamed him with Flash, Supergirl, and Green Lantern among others. In JLA #157 he and Jean finally married, and he enjoyed a rotating backup slot in Action for a while.
the early 1980's the slogans screamed that the 'New' DC was 'On
The Move'. The company was undergoing a revamp, possibly caused
by the new Vice President, Dick Giordano. Amid this time of change,
Gil Kane and Jan Strnad pitched the idea of turning Atom into a
Sword-and-Sorcery type of character. The idea obviously sat well
with the powers that be, and issue 1 of Sword Of The Atom
appeared dated September 1983.
The story begins on a rainy night with Ray waiting at home for Jean, slightly bitter at her for working late again. He sees headlights in the driveway and goes to investigate, finding Jean and her new partner Paul Hoben kissing in the car. After the ensuing argument, Ray suggests that they spend some time apart. He leaves for six weeks in South America where he hopes to find a piece of white dwarf material to study. The pilots he hires to look for the site of the dwarf fragment are drug dealers, and when he insists they take the plane close to their fields, they attack him. In the battle the pilot is killed and the plane crashes in the rainforest.
His suit in tatters and his size controls shorted, the 6-inch-tall Atom is found by a group of miniature yellow-skinned warriors. Mistaken for a dumb fool he is chained and taken with a group of prisoners to a king's palace. The lead prisoner, named Taren, had been organising rebellion against his unjust king, a move initiated by the kings rejection of Taren's proposal to his daughter, Laethwen. As a reward for speaking his mind, the king's guards start to beat him. Atom joins the fray and they both find themselves in the dungeon. The king's advisor, Deraegis, takes them from the dungeon to fight in the arena for the people's pleasure. Deraegis is also trying to stir rebellion, but for his own means. In order to turn the people against the king, Deraegis has Taren blinded. When the people see this, they revolt, and in the confusion Laethwen, helps them to escape.
Laethwen explains that the earth was used as a penal planet by her race, and these tribes had 'devolved' as their links to the home planets technology became more distant. Now they are mainly a race of barbarians, fighting each other, and the jungle.
Taren, realizing that his blindness makes him a liability, sacrifices himself to the jungle after appointing Atom leader of his men. Atom takes command, and organises an attack on the city. When they arrive there is already a rebellion underway, incited by Deraegis' treachery. He stabs the king and escapes to the ancient power plant, which is powered by the white dwarf fragment Atom was looking for. Atom and Laethwen reach the king's side just before his death, where he sends them to stop Deraegis. The power plant has been started, and the radiation poison sends Deraegis completely mad. Atom races into the power plant to try and shut it down, but absorbing the white-dwarf radiation causes him to start to revert to his normal size. To save the people he forces them out of the city, and then collapses unconscious, to be found by passing fishermen.
Returning to civilisation, he tries to re-adjust, and patch things up with Jean, but it feels to him like pretence, and that he's cheating on Laethwen. Part of the re-adjustment is returning to the JLA, and in JLA #225 he stumbles on a plot by a mystic group called Fiatlux to steal a substance called Luciferase which is a non-powered light source. The story continues through to JLA #227, after which Ray mounts an expedition back to the jungle to find his tribe.
Reconciliation with Jean didn't work, as explained in
1984's Sword Of The Atom special. Ray and Jean have recounted their
stories to biographer Norm Brawler, and the subsequent book forms the
basis of the special. It tells of the breakdown of their marriage,
Homing in on the white dwarf material, Ray and Norman travel through the jungle until they unwittingly come across a group of drug smugglers. Atom escapes and rescues Norm, but they are confronted by the leader of the smugglers. He is about to shoot them when he keels over, and Atom finds Voss' arrows stick in his hand. Norm returns to civilisation, and Atom returns to his people.
Sword Of The Atom returned in 1984 with another special, again by Kane and Strnad. The twist in this tale is that 'civilisation' comes to the jungle. Jean is having all Ray's equipment dismantled, and is accidentally hit by a shrinking ray. In order to restore her, she and Paul travel to the jungle to find Atom. While searching, Skul-Riders from one of the tribes fly in on their Skul-birds, and kidnap Jean. Atom, Paul and Norm try to set a trap: to pin a homing device on one of the birds and follow it back to the camp. In the fight the homing device gets dropped, and Paul uses Atom's old size control belt to hitch a ride on one of the Skul-birds. When he gets to the camp he finds Jean, who has been imprisoned with Laethwen, and rescues her by growing and destroying the dungeon.
A captured Atom is brought before the leaded of the Skul-raiders, Torbul. Torbul has been controlling his men with electronic implants. Atom destroys the machinery controlling them, and they flee, leaving Atom and Torbul to fight. Torbul is about to kill Laethwen when Paul comes smashing through the floor. One of Torbul's ex-slaves finishes him with an arrow through the head, freeing the people to rule themselves once more.
The special ends with Jean and Paul returning to civilisation, both at their correct size. However Paul still has the size control belt, something that would return to haunt Ray a few years later in the Power Of The Atom series.
The next appearance of Ray Palmer is in Crisis On Infinite Earths. Red Tornado has been damaged and the JLA find Atom to enter Tornado's body and see what is wrong. Without his belt, he requires Superman's shrinking ray to help him reduce his size. This is merely a cameo appearance, but it ties into his jungle life, and he wears his Sword costume. There is also a one-panel mention of Atom in JLA #250.
The final Sword Of The Atom special appeared in 1988. Again written by Strnad, this time the pencils are by Pat Broderick, and inks by Dennis Janke. Atom and Laethwen visit the city of the Skul-riders on a scientific research mission. Atom wants to look at Torbul's laboratories, as his science seemed to be the most advanced of the colonists. Upon entering the laboratory, a bomb goes off, releasing a bacterial agent into the air. Atom and Laethwen are imprisoned for releasing the epidemic. People all over the region are becoming infected and running high fevers, including the current ruler, Lord Drogo. Interestingly, in this special we see many 'pink skins', who seem to be discriminated against slightly by the yellow skinned individuals.
People start dying of their illnesses, and hundreds are dumped in a mass grave. Atom and Laethwen escape in time to see the dead coming back to life. The hundreds in the giant dumping site all rise up and march on the city, and Atom and Laethwen narrowly escape by riding a Skul-bird to safety. They return to the city and find the 'walking dead' have burned out, and the bodies are to be burned. The pair then make their way back to New Morlaidh.
Although only 7 issues in total, this 5-year period showed significant change in Atom's life. The genre is one that is rarely touched on these days, and in a dwindling market, an established 'brand name' is needed to help sell a slightly more diverse book (for example, The Kents). Atom returned in mid 1988 with Power Of The Atom. This regular series by Roger Stern, Dwayne Turner and K.S. Wilson followed on strongly from the Sword series, and used plot devices built on this up to the last issue, #18. It's rare that an experiment like Sword Of The Atom would be embraced so whole-heartedly, and this alone makes it worth picking up. If you can find it in the back-issue bins at your local comic store, don't hesitate to grab it. It's a great series, and well worth spending a bit of money on.
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