Friday, May 11, 2007

The Comics Page #13: The All-New Atom: My Life In Miniature

If I may briefly interject something personal into my posting, today I made a very big stab at both the "professional writer" and "moving to England" parts of my ambition by sending a radio script to the BBC Writersroom. Vibes, prayers, blessings of the Muses, etc. would be welcome.

On to new business. Gail Simone's ALL-NEW ATOM is the best comic out there that you're not reading, and now it has a trade out so you can at least make up for it. I don't want to sound too haranguing, but it's easy to get frustrated when something great slips past public attention. I won't get into a rehash of the stuff I already talked about in my BLUE BEETLE review. Suffice it to say, THE ALL-NEW ATOM: MY LIFE IN MINIATURE collects the first arc of the new series, including material that previously appeared in BRAVE NEW WORLD. It's a very fun book, full of wild ideas and crazy plot twists that recall the limitless imagination of DC's Silver Age.

Dr. Ryan Choi is the newest professor of Nuclear Physics at Ivy University in Ivy Town, U.S.A., having recently arrived from Hong Kong. A friend of Ray Palmer's, Ray being the miniature hero the Atom up until his mysterious disappearance (at the end of IDENTITY CRISIS, which wild boars could not force me to read), the young doctor wonders where his mentor has got to when he starts finding cryptic messages that lead him to the location of the Atom's shrinking belt. The belt allows Ryan not only to shrink to subatomic size, but control his mass and density, so he can deliver a full-sized punch when the size of an ant and so on. At first he simply wants to continue Palmer's experiments, but he's quickly drawn into a developing war in Ivy Town, one between science and magic, order and chaos, between a group of miniature weird-talking aliens and the Lovecraftian horror M'Nagalah. It seems that Palmer's experiments in shrinking, scientifically impossible as they were, actually managed to distort the fabric of reality, making Ivy Town a nexus for the bizarre, a nexus that will be very useful if either the forces of reason or chaos manage to control it. The upshot of all this is that the Twin Peaks-ian inhabitants of Ivy Town find their cozy little hamlet beset by alien armies, B-list supervillains, and a giant naked woman. There only hope is the Atom, but he's new to all of this.

A sense of joyful craziness pervades this book. Gail Simone is best known for her long run on the more sedate and down-to-earth title BIRDS OF PREY, and here she gets to cut loose in a very Silver Age sort of way. The tone is often comic- the Waiting, the aliens on the side of "order", live on dogs and will have had a sideways relationship to time which been had the effect of will altering their speech. And yet, I wouldn't class this as a "funny" book like the Giffen/DeMatteis JUSTICE LEAGUE- it comes close, but the emphasis is more on action and surrealism. But it is a book that is funny, if the distinction isn't too fine, and the emphasis on humor and imagination is welcome.

It's very hard to tell if something in a DC or Marvel comic that seems like a new idea actually is; some of the characters have fairly solid pedigrees, such as M'Nagalah, created by Len Wein for SWAMP THING before Alan Moore rebooted the series (not to mention the triumphant return of Liza Warner, Lady Cop), but I'm fairly sure the Waiting always having been new, and there's also the serial killer Dwarfstar, who is given a size-changing belt of his own by a mysterious benefactor with instructions to kill either Ryan or everyone close to him or both. The book's blend of old and new is particularly well handled in that there isn't much of a difference between what's "original" and what isn't- the old stuff isn't fanservice, the new stuff isn't pushed more heavily, it's all there to dazzle the reader with neat ideas and sights.

On top of which, the characters work. Ryan Choi is neither a cipher nor a token minority, but a young man with the energy of an undergrad and the curiosity of a mad scientist, not quite as insane as some of his associates but still all too willing to find out exactly what his new toy is capable of, as well as invent some others. (One nice running gag is that, unlike the stereotypical science geek, Choi has a lot of women making the eye at him, students and professors both.) The arrival of his father in the last issue provides some great family tension, and the supporting cast of fellow academics is charming.

The one area where this book falls short of greatness is the art. The first few issues (and the BRAVE NEW WORLD piece) were handled by John Byrne, who has done some very fine work in his career, but here his pencilling seems sloppy and even excessive- there are a lot of unnecessary lines that give images a scratchy and not wholly pleasant look. Eddy Barrows pencils the rest, and his art works out better, but the overall look is inconsistent, and initial dislike of Byrne's art, coupled with dislike of Barrows' art by those fans who had liked Byrne's, probably contributed to the title's struggling sales. I've always followed writers more than artists, so this meant nothing to me, but obviously someone cares.

With a slick cover, a decent price, and a quote from Entertainment Weekly proclaiming THE ALL-NEW ATOM "the best new ongoing comic of 2006", this trade is definitely packaged to reach out to everyone who hasn't been following this book. I hope it works, because I will be very upset if yet another good title goes down while the sales charts continue to be dominated by the same books every month. MY LIFE IN MINIATURE is witty, snazzy, sharp, and sexy, a trade that reflects so much of what draws me to the superhero comic. It's a world where everything's more bizarre, more fantastic, more dangerous and more fun than reality. You will believe a man can shrink.

Grade: A-

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