A Tribute to the of

I saw the Hulk movie (ho-hum) and I was not even remotely surprised when the box office receipts plunged the second week.  I think I'll paraphrase what one of my readers had to say about Marvel in general during a recent very enjoyable exchange of e-mails.  The soap opera nature of the competition's storylines gets pretty old.  The poor Hulk has it particularly bad, too.  Not only is he yet another victim of fate, but also his status as a hero is even questionable.  He's essentially a ticked-off juggernaut that just wants to be left alone, reminiscent of Frankenstein's monster and seemingly doomed to a solitary existence.  Ugh.  I'm just glad that I was able to view it in the cheap seats theater.  Obviously the majority of the theater going public was less than impressed, too.  Let's get on to better things.

I've decided to go from behemoth to miniscule as we behold the "Birth of the Atom!", first appearing between the covers of Showcase #34 (along with the cover story "Battle of the Tiny Titans!" and a two page text feature on the Golden Age Atom) dated September/October of 1961. Later reprinted in the source for this review 80pg. GIANT #8: More Secret Origins. Cover date: March of 1965, on sale January 14, 1965. Cover art by Murphy Anderson. Edited by Jack Schiff and Julius Schwartz. [FYI: Manufacture of this mag is attributed to the All American Printing Co., Inc. and not the usual National Periodical Publications. I'm going to go out on a limb here and assume that they are one and the same since they both share the familiar, at least to us staunch DC fans, address 2nd & Dickey Streets, Sparta, Ill.] The tale comes once again from that pillar of the Silver Age, Gardner Fox with art, original cover and interior, provided by the great Gil Kane and Murphy Anderson. All guided by the firm editorial hand of Julius Schwartz. 

Things begin in the Ivy University Nuclear Physics laboratory where Ray Palmer, (named after the late publisher/editor of Fate magazine and friend of Julius Schwartz) graduate student and fellowship research physicist is busily experimenting with the beam from an ultraviolet lamp passed through a highly polished lens.  He is directing the beam at a chair and it soon begins to shrink until it would make a fine addition to a dollhouse.  Palmer observes the object for a little while until it abruptly explodes.  Experiment #145 is another failure.  Ray ponders the notion that in theory matter can be compressed into a small space through atomic level compression.  This could be a potential boon to the farming and transportation industries, but not if the compressed objects continue to blow up.  Soon Ray thinks back to a significant event from three months prior when he saw a meteor fall to earth in a field.  The scientist in him was drawn immediately to the site of impact where he dug until he uncovered a fragment of a white dwarf star.  Struggling with the weight of the object while carrying it to his car, his thoughts enlighten us:  "White dwarf stars are dense because they're formed of degenerate matter.  Matter, from which the electrons have been stripped, greatly compressing them!"  We then learn that after studying the fragment he attempted to unlock the secret of how to compress matter without losing any physical or chemical properties.  He fashioned the reducing lens from the bit of white dwarf star, eventually discovering the shrinking properties of ultraviolet rays when passed through the lens.  Unfortunately each of the inanimate objects he successfully shrank exploded due to the instability of the compressed atoms.  Palmer knows that the only way he can qualify his experiments as successful is when he's able to prevent the explosions and restore objects to their original size.

He finishes his musing, which he had also been recording onto the deluxe reel to reel when his love interest, Jean Loring arrives at his lab.  She says she's come to accompany Ray on the nature club hike.  He produces an engagement ring and proposes, apparently not for the first time, but Jean puts him off, explaining that she wants to get her career as a lawyer off the ground before taking such a significant step.

Later, Ray and Jean are on the hike with a group of youth when they enter some caverns.  They examine the stalactites and stalagmites for a few minutes when a sudden cave-in occurs, blocking their exit.  Ray frets about this development, particularly since natural gas is known to seep up from the cave floor at irregular intervals.  Having no initial success in finding a new way out, he instructs Jean to keep the kids busy while he continues his search.  With no one aware of their location things are looking a bit grim for the young scientist. 

Half an hour of nearly fruitless searching later, Ray opts for a desperate gamble.  He's found a tiny opening in the ceiling, so he decides to set up a crude method of channeling the ultraviolet radiation of the sun through the reducing lens, which he just happens to have on his person, to shrink him to a size compatible with the miniscule opening he's discovered.  He carefully adjusts the lens to cover his body and then sets the engagement ring aside, having another plan for it.  Taking his place under the lens, he is soon bathed in the focused light and the experiment works.  He shrinks until the engagement ring can be easily slung over his shoulder an d then begins his onerous climb up the cavern wall.  He notes that he seems to have greater strength in his diminished condition as he works his way ever upward.  Despite the fact that the walls are smooth in his smaller state he can easily find hand and footholds.   

Upon reaching his objective, he uses the diamond in the ring to score the stone around the opening and gradually enlarge it by pulling away pieces.  He works furiously, ever aware of his precarious position.  As a matter of fact, he expects to follow the history of his other experiments and to eventually explode.  His task is soon complete, so he drops the ring and follows after it.  In the next fateful moment, he begins to run to alert the rest of the party when he again passes under the lens.  To his great surprise, he is restored to his original stature.  His agile scientific curiosity aroused, he removes the lens from it's resting place and discovers that water from the ceiling has dripped on it, obviously containing a particular chemical that allowed the reversal of the shrinking property.  There is no further time to study though as the group is ready to evacuate from the subterranean chamber.

As Ray helps to hoist the members of the expedition up through the opening his mind continues to ponder the fascinating results of the day.

Later, back at the laboratory, Palmer continues to experiment, but to his disappointment he encounters the same destruction of the items he exposes to the lens and radiation.  The story closes with more information on the scientist's tape journal:  "I can come to but one conclusion—that some mysterious force in my own body—whatever it is, I don't yet know—enabled me to regain my proper size!  With further experiments, I'll be able to solve this problem!  Now that I am able to turn myself into a human atom—who knows what strange and wonderful things may happen?"

Obviously many more strange and wonderful things were in store for Ray Palmer as he later was given a title of his own, was often found teaming up with Hawkman and of course became a full-fledged member in good standing with the Justice League of America. 

This origin story was a little different than many of the other familiar heroes from the Silver Age.  While Ray had been experimenting with shrinking inanimate objects as part of his scientific research, he hadn't planned to try it on anything organic, much less himself until desperate times called for it.  Furthermore, no sign of the later familiar red and blue uniform with the belt control that would evolve into the palm controls that would manipulate not only the size, but the weight of the Atom.  Of course as we can easily see, this was a work in progress, so heroics would come in it's own due time. 

I enjoyed the science fiction aspect of this story, as usual and the artistic talents of Gil Kane and Murphy Anderson were outstanding.  While this was another brief tale it was a groundbreaker and I think it deserves classic status, so I'll rate it a 10.  This reincarnated Atom, so very different from his predecessor of the same name, was a winner.              

The next edition of this feature will be on the web in approximately two weeks right here at the Silver Lantern.  Be sure to take some time to come by and check it out and don't be bashful with the feedback.  I'm always glad to discuss this important era.  E-mail me at silveragesage@thesilverlantern.com.

Long live the Silver Age!

© 2000-2003 by B.D.S.

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