GRAPHIC NOVEL and TRADE PAPERBACK (TPB) REVIEWS

by The Masked Bookwyrm

Miscellaneous (non-Superhero) - "S" page 6



 

Sword of the Atom  2007 (SC TPB) 232 pages

Written by Jan Strnad. Illustrated by Gil Kane, with Pat Broderick.
Colours: Tom Ziuko. Letters: John Costanza. Editors: Dick Giordano, Gil Kane, Alan Gold.

Reprinting: the four issue mini-series and the three specials (1983-1988)

Rating: * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 2

Published by DC Comics

The Sword of the Atom presumably came about because DC had a fairly high profile character -- The Atom -- who hadn't managed to hold a title for years and was basically in creative limbo: too high profile to discard, not popular enough to market. Actually, it may've been one of the earliest examples of giving an old property a radical facelift -- within a few years, such revamps would be an entire cottage industry at DC!

The other hook, presumably, was that the Atom's original artist, Gil Kane, was known to have a penchant for sword & sorcery type tales. So the powers-that-be clearly thought, hey, let's take the Atom, turn him into a sword & sorcery hero, and woo Kane back to drawing him again after 20 years or so (although maybe Kane himself was one of the instigators).

Anyway, it was a kind of odd-ball attempt to revitalize the Atom. The premise has Prof. Ray Palmer (a.k.a. the Atom) discovering his wife, Jean, has been having an affair. Deciding they need a break from each other, Ray goes off on a solo scientific mission in South America only to crash in the jungle -- stuck at his six inch height! But there he discovers a society of six inch aliens, with swords and gladiators, but also a smidgen of high technology. He becomes allied with rebels, seeking to overthrow a tyrant, and falls for the princess Laethwen (who is also allied with the rebels).

The original mini-series isn't bad, but neither is it great. Strnad and Kane jettison the whole superhero aspect (save the costume -- with some modifications) in favour of this new sword & sorcery, Burroughsian template. But they haven't really delivered the kind of serial-like, roller-coaster ride Edgar Rice Burroughs could. As I get older, I freely acknowledge Burroughs' stuff could be racist, sexist, even fascist...but he knew how to write adventure like no other author I've ever come across. Strnad isn't in the same league. The plot isn't all that fast paced or twisty for a four issue story.

Another problem was the decision to throw themselves entirely into this new genre. Comics have often benefitted from a willingness to mix milieus in a way that novelists and film makers might be afraid to try. If the Atom had retained his ability to shrink (that is, he could be unable to grow above six inches, but could still shrink below it) the mini-series could've mixed the comic book super-heroics of the Atom with the swords & sandals genre. Instead, they discard the former and we're left with an O.K., but unremarkable, even common place, adventure with a hero who could be anyone. And the plot's pretty loose -- for instance, the Atom learns there is a traitor among the rebels, but when he is finally exposed...it turns out to be someone the reader hasn't even seen before!

Strnad's dialogue is good, though ironically the early, urban scenes between Ray and Jean are more effective than the later jungle stuff, making you wish he'd spent more time in the city. And like a lot of fantasy stories, the ethics are a bit skewed. At one point, the audience attending a gladiatorial tournament is horrified to learn one of the captured rebels has been blinded before being put into the ring. But such moral distinctions are ludicrous. Is it somehow just and humane to force condemned prisoners to fight to the death for the entertainment of a mob as long as they can see?

Kane's art is Kane's art. At his best, he's a dynamic storyteller with an unusually good eye for anatomy and the like. No mismatched limbs, or ludicrous contortions for Kane. On the other hand, he's an artist that can get a bit lazy at times, particularly with a multi-issue story like this, and his attention to details is a bit lax (at one point drawing fingernails on the Atom...when he's wearing gloves, etc.).

The first of the subsequent specials has The Atom back in civilization, pining for his jungle life and his lost love, Laethwen. Told in an off beat style, as though excerpts from a tell all book (written by Ray & Jean), the comic is heavy on the captions, yet flows quite well and is atmospheric. It spends a lot of time recapping the original mini-series, which might be problematic reprinted in the same collection, but nonetheless works well, and effectively captures the character and human drama aspects of the Ivy Town scenes, further chronicling the disintegration of the Atom's marriage to Jean. In fact, as with the original mini-series, Strnad seems to do a better, more thoughtful job at writing when staying focused on the civilization scenes. Though there is some action-adventure, it's much more of a drama -- but effective for that. In fact, it's probably my favourite of the Sword of the Atom stories!

The second special is more squarely a pulpy action-adventure, as the Atom, now back with his jungle people, ends up teaming up with Jean's boyfriend when Laethwen and Jean (who had accidentally been shrunken) are kidnapped by an evil warlord. It's a briskly paced tale, and makes use of the size-changing gimmick in a way that the earlier stories hadn't, as Atom gives Paul his size changing belt (and one wonders if there had been some intent that, if the Sword of the Atom concept succeeded and Ray stayed in the jungle, then Paul might have become a new Atom in civilization).

I've yet to acquire the third special, which was still written by Strnad, but drawn by Pat Broderick.

In the end, the whole Sword of the Atom concept never quite took off for me. Despite good art and decent pacing, it never quite rose above being blandly generic in its evocation of its genre, with the characters remaining kind of blandly workmanlike, the adventure scenes with lots of action, but rarely generating true suspense or intrigue. Yet, with that being said, it's not bad, either. Maybe that explains why it kept getting try-outs (mini-series, specials) but never quite graduated to a monthly series -- because it worked well enough, without quite jumping the bar. (I still think if Atom had retained his shrinking power, allowing them to mix the S&S genre with super heroic abilities, it might've carved out more of a distinctive tone).

As mentioned, this presumably all came about because DC had a property -- the Atom -- that no one knew what to do with. And, all things considered, given what would occur in later years to similar properties -- and to the Atom himself! -- this was a pretty benign shake up. In fact, DC subsequently gave up on the concept and wiped out the whole alien tribe and killed off Laethwen in order to return Atom to civilization, and still later -- well, I'm not even going to tell you what they did to Jean. And they even replaced Ray Palmer as the Atom (at least for a while).

Which, of course, makes the decision to collect this run of tales all these years later kind of curious.

This is a review of the stories as they were published in the vomics.

Cover price: $__ CDN. / $19.99 USA.



Swords of the Swashbucklers  1984 (SC GN) 64 pages

cover by GuiceWritten by Bill Mantlo. Illustrated by Jackson Guice.
Colours: Alfred Ramirez. Letters: Ken Bruzenak. Editor: Archie Goodwin, Mary Jo Duffy.

Rating: * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Published by Marvel Comics (graphic novel #14) in over-sized tabloid format.

On modern earth, a spunky young girl uncovers an ancient alien device on the beach which sends out a signal...CUT TO: a distant galaxy where a race called Colonizers goes around, well, colonizing unsuspecting planets. The only force that stands up to them are pirates who are only marginally better, ethically speaking. Chief among these pirates is Raader, a half-human/half-alien lady pirate, and her multi-species crew who pick up the mysterious signal from beyond the "space cloud" where no ships have ever gone before. Or so they thought.

The intent here was to unapologetically transpose a pirate saga into space, married with the usual (and usually problematic) wish-fulfillment element of a human teen-ager thrown in -- a teen who, because it's a comicbook, and comics are ruled by superheroes, develops a superpower. I don't object to the idea of space pirates, but by plopping the idea so literally into the science fiction milieu (right down to the space ships looking like sailing vessels and the pirates brandishing swords while uttering lines about "me hearties") there's a feeling of: why bother? Why not just do a pirate comic -- something which has rarely, if ever, been tried before?

Swords of the Swashbucklers led into a 12 issue mini-series and, frankly, that intention shows...rather to the detriment of this graphic novel. As a stand alone work, it's not much. Most of the questions that are introduced over the course of this book are left unanswered by the end, and writer Bill Mantlo and artist Jackson Guice seem sufficiently preoccupied with just introducing the relevant elements (the premise, the main characters), that they don't put much effort into crafting an interesting story in and of itself. There're a couple of battles, a visit to the pirate world, etc. But everything's workmanlike at best. There're no scenes that, after the fact, make you go, "Gee, wasn't it cool when...?" When Raader's ship, the Starshadow, breaches the ominous and mysterious space cloud...well, nothing actually happens.

This is less a story than the bare bones of an idea. It's the sort of thing you pitch to your editor, but should embellish upon long before publication.

This was created by Mantlo and Guice, who, I believe, collaborated in the later days of the old Micronauts comic. In an afterward we're given the impression they were keen to do it. Which is a sad reminder that just because something is close to one's creative heart, doesn't mean it'll be one's best work. The writing is a tad bland, the tempo weighed down with kind of pointless captions that often reiterate what we can easily glean from the pictures and the dialogue, and are written in a flat manner, to boot.

Guice's art is O.K., but likewise a bit flat and it never really enlivens the characters...not that there's much characterization to illustrate. It doesn't help that, though the colours are beautiful, there seems to have been a problem with the printing process, often causing the colours to be a millimetre over from where they should be. Though Guice does throw in a cute visual in-joke, with one of the pirates in the background looking like Cerebus the Aardvark.

Ultimately this is a story in which we continually observe the action, but the writing and art never quite draw us into it. There's not much plot or characteriation in what amounts to a teaser for a subsequent mini-series.

Cover price: $6.95 CDN. / $5.95 USA.



 

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