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The Atom

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The above is not a complete list of the Atom stories. Rather, it consists of my picks of the best tales in the magazines, the ones I enjoyed reading, and recommend to others.

These best stories of the comic books are preceded by their issue number. They were edited by Julius Schwartz.


The Atom

The Atom stories were written by Gardner Fox, and drawn by Gil Kane.

Origin

Birth of the Atom (1961). Physicist Ray Palmer finds a piece of a white dwarf star in the woods behind the campus; it gives him the power to shrink down to any size. Later he rescues some children in a cave. This is the origin story of the Atom. The story is consistent with future directions in The Atom in that its events occur purely by chance. Unlike Green Lantern, Ray is not given his powers deliberately, nor does he have any mission. He is simply linked by chance to the powers of the stars and the atom, two of the basic forces in the entire universe. The fact that Ray first uses them in a cave suggests that he is undergoing a rebirth. Ray is free to use his powers in any way he pleases.

The tale's best feature is its splash panel, which shows Ray surrounded by circles representing a giant atom. (By the way, the term "splash panel" shows up in the letter column of The Atom #6, so it was already an established phrase in this era.) This image will be the series' logo: it will reappear in simplified form whenever Ray transforms himself into the Atom. Gil Kane's art is at its best here. It combines a representational portrait of its hero, with abstract images of the circles. It does not represent a physical event. Instead, it is a symbolic portrait of an invisible change the hero is undergoing: he is now linked to the properties of the atom. Such symbolic portraits are very rare in the entire range of art, whether in the comics or in fine art painting.

The symbolism here perhaps recalls the non-objective paintings of the early days of abstract art. Many abstract artists, such as Kandinsky, Malevich and Mondrian, thought that abstract paintings represented spiritual states which humans could experience. Such paintings were termed "non-objective": they were portraits of real but intangible mental states, things that could be experienced only subjectively, not as part of the objective physical world. Kane's painting here is in a somewhat similar tradition. It is unusual in that it contains a human being at its center, instead of being entirely abstract. This mix of humans and abstraction is also found in other Silver Age comic artists, such as Carmine Infantino and Steve Ditko: witness his Dr. Strange series. Kane's image also differs from the early abstractionists in that it deals will events that are partly physical, partly science fictional, unlike the purely mental or spiritual images of the early non-objective school. It represents new powers the hero has, new relationships with the atom he has, and a new state the hero is now in. The fact that the painting depicts a new state links it to the non-objective artists, who depicted spiritual states.

The overlapping, three dimensional circles resemble the constructions of Malevich's contemporary among the Constructivists, Alexander Rodchenko. His sculptures often were built up out of circles. These circles would be of similar radii, and all tilted at angles to each other, just as in Kane's image. The articles on Green Lantern discusses Kane's relationship to the art of Malevich and the Constructivists.

Ray holds him arms and legs rigid; their straight lines contrast with the circles of the atom. His arms are parallel to the planes of the tilting circles: his left arm parallel to the right circle, and vice versa. Both arms are extended through two circles, a tilting one and the horizontal circle around his waist. Passing the body through hoops was a major image of the early 1960's: everybody loved the hula-hoop toys that were a craze back then. TV magic shows always featured a hoop passed over he body to demonstrate there were no hidden wires on stage. The background is full of both circles and circular starbursts, making the image seem even more Constructivist. The zigzag line around the starbursts is very Kane like; he did similar border lines to mark out Green Lantern and Star Sapphire's rays, for example. One might note that there is a similar illustration in the companion story, "Battle of the Tiny Titans" in the same issue; both illustrations have the small background circles.

Transformation images in comic books often featured circles, but these tend to be very large, indicating that the human was passing through them. By contrast, the background circles and starbursts in The Atom are small. The Atom is shrinking; he is not passing through a barrier such as another dimension or time, as is indicated by the large circle tradition.

Fox sets up a transformation cycle in this tale. Ray Palmer is trying to shrink down objects to a small size, then expand them again. He feels this would be very useful to society, for transportation, for instance. The completed cycle would look like this:

Like all Fox cycles, the objects are always in the same state at the end as in the beginning. As in many Fox cycles, transportation is involved: Fox is always trying to get his heroes and other objects from point A to point B. This cycle is different from most in that it is incomplete at the start of the tale. Ray can shrink objects, but not expand them again. It is a cycle-in-progress; Ray keeps researching ways to complete it. We see the birth of a cycle here, a unique event in Fox. Eventually, Ray is able to make himself the protagonist of the cycle, but not other objects. This restricts the cycle, for the time being, to Ray himself.

Fox also points out how farmers could grow much shrunken food on a tiny plot of land. Food shortages were much on the mind of DC comic book writers in the early 1960's. Although I do not recall the words "population explosion" ever being mentioned in the books, feeding a growing population was clearly seen as a major issue by them. The Green Revolution of the era saw its sf reflection in the comic book stories.

Jean Loring is introduced in this story. We learn she has a high IQ, and went through law school in just two years. She is the most accomplished of all the non-super heroines of the DC Silver Age. The educational aspects of The Atom begin in this first tale. It is full of education tidbits about dwarf stars and caves. Two issues later, the very first letter of the first letter column ("Inside the Atom") praises the magazine for its educational aspects, and for the inspirational nature of the two main characters, with their advanced degrees and noble ambitions. Schwartz endorsed the letter's content in his reply. It is clearly a manifesto for the magazine. Oddly enough, there is less educational material in the next two Showcase issues of the Atom; but the educational material returns spectacularly with the first issue of The Atom magazine.

A couple of points about the Atom's origin. He lives in Ivy Town, and works at Ivy University. Schwartz explained in a letters column that Ivy Town is supposed to be the home of one of the Ivy League universities in the Northeast. Schwartz correctly felt that this was an innovative location for a superhero comic. Ray Palmer is named for the real life editor of the science fiction pulp magazine Amazing Stories, Ray Palmer, who was a good friend of Schwartz.

One of the students trapped in the cave is black. Like most of the other kids, he has no dialogue. Still, this is a key moment in the integration of the DC world.

Kane's depiction of the cave interiors are very beautiful. They mix irregular depictions of rocks, with circular cave openings. Ray is often depicted against a background of these circles. The diamond ring on his arm forms another circle. The colorist also did a spectacular job. The rocks are a beautiful mix of pink, green and yellow. It is a visionary experience.

The Oddest Man on Earth (#2, 1962). Oscar D. Dollar, nicknamed Mister Odd, is a catalyst for fantastic coincidences to occur; he seeks the Atom's help to understand this. For example, when Mister Odd walks down a street, it is likely that an earthquake or some other unlikely event will happen. Mister Odd is a poetic condensation into one man of the basic premise of the entire Atom series: coincidences are always happening to the hero, Ray Palmer /The Atom. Ray stumbles into almost all of his cases by chance. If he visits a town, he is sure to encounter an alien being; if he goes to the lake, he'll meet a mysterious Native American legend. The scripts do not underline these coincidences, or point them out. But they are definitely the plot engine of the entire series.

Ray is the freest of Fox's heroes, and of all the heroes in Julius Schwartz's magazines. The fact that he lives in a universe governed by long shot chances just reinforces that freedom.

Ray eventually gets to the root of Mister Odd's problems. Poetically, they are linked to the same dwarf star that led to the Atom's origin. The story takes place one year after that origin: itself a poetic coincidence.

The coincidences that keep happening to Ray, and to Mister Odd, recall the menaces that just keep showing up whenever Adam Strange arrives on Rann. These too were never explained. However, Adam Strange's menaces arrived on a definite time table, while the Atom's challenges seem far more random. This is in keeping with the aleatory nature of the series.

Revolt of the Atom's Uniform (1964). The Atom's uniform develops a life of its own, and battles Ray. This plot idea is contained in Gil Kane's cover.

Although there is a brief scene towards the beginning where Ray foils a robbery at a museum, most of this tale has no crime element. Instead it is a pure science fiction story. The focus is relentlessly on Ray's struggle with his uniform, and its science fictional explanation.

This tale develops entirely in terms of ideas involving Ray, his shrinking ability, and the white dwarf star that caused it. The ideas in the tale are all extensions of ideas present in his origin, in the first Showcase issue. The story is very pure: it sticks entirely to these concepts that make up Ray's mythos, of how he got his powers. There is a quality of interiority to this: it takes place completely within the Atom's personal mythos. The same thing is largely true of "The Oddest Man on Earth", the earlier story based on - and extending - Ray's origin concepts.

One might point out this mythos is very small, compared to say Superman's, or Green Lantern's. Both of these heroes have very elaborate backgrounds, involving Krypton, or the Guardians of the Universe. Ray's involves only his shrinking experiments, his uniform, and the white dwarf star, and much narrower in focus. That makes the canvas within which Fox is working all the tighter here.

This tale is a book length story. Fox and Schwartz clearly realized that they would never have a second chance to explore the elements of a battle with Ray's uniform. This story explores every possible implication and plot element that can be attached to this concept. The tale starts out with small steps of revolt by the uniform, and gradually escalates them. The tale passes through a number of stages, each of which involves a different level of revolt and conflict with the uniform. It is more like an anthology of stories that a single work. Each deals with a logical succession to the last. Fox was very good about creating series of Adam Strange or Atom tales which were logical variations on a single theme. Here he does something similar, entirely within a single issue of The Atom.

The opening of the tale has Ray coming home, exhausted after a hard day. The end of the story has him in exactly the same position as the tale's opening. There is an element of circularity here. It is a memorable figure of style. Fox's cycle's all show the hero in the same state at the end as in the beginning. While this tale is not a cycle - it is not repeatable, for example, and has way too many incidents for a Fox cycle - it shows the same sort of circular movement. The dialogue in the story explicitly underlines this circular quality. It is something recognized and pointed out to the reader. Ray's exhaustion is also a running thematic element in The Atom. Unlike other superheroes, he gets tired, and is often sleeping in the series, something that is both comic and emotionally involving.

The splash panels in this tale are especially good. The second one shows an aerial view of a house, with a rectangular sidewalk spiralling around it: a beautiful geometric design.

Teleportation Crimes and the Telephone Trick

Battle of the Tiny Titans (1961). A tiny alien, Kulan Dar of Julnar, steals objects, then teleports himself to safety. This is the tale in which the Atom first wears his costume, and functions as a named, public appearing super-hero. It completes the development of the Atom as a character, and should also be considered as an origin story for the Atom. It is the second tale in the first Showcase issue about the Atom, immediately following "Birth of the Atom", his origin.

This story originated the Atom's "telephone trick": his ability to travel anywhere on Earth through the phone lines, at the speed of light. This ability derives from the Golden Age super-hero, the Spectre. The Spectre also had the ability to shrink to a tiny size, and travel through phone wires, beginning in writer Jerry Siegel's tale "Terror at Lytell's" (More Fun Comics #56, June 1940).

Formally, this is very close to teleportation: the ability to move instantly from one place to another. Teleportation has always been a Fox theme. One notes that the Atom's telephone trick, like Adam Strange's teleportation to Rann, follows along the line of pre-arranged paths: the Atom moves only along existing phone lines, just as Adam Strange can be teleported only where the zeta-beam is due to strike. However, in practice the Atom has a vastly greater range of choices than Adam Strange. The Atom is in fact the freest of all of Gardner Fox's heroes.

The Atom's pursuit of a teleporting alien at first resembles his Star Rovers tales of hunters tracking teleporting alien animals. However, much less ingenuity is used by the Atom in the tracking than in those stories.

The mixture of teleportation used to commit crimes by the villain, and the telephone trick used by the Atom, will recur in several later stories. This mixture is a basic paradigm for one series of Atom tales.

This story is the first example of a pattern that will be paradigmatic for many Atom tales. It has the following steps:

This cycle is by no means as regularly employed as the zeta-beam cycle in Adam Strange. Still, it is the framework of quite a few Atom stories. This story differs from most Fox cycles in that there is not one central protagonist. Instead, it has three leading characters, Jean, Ray and the witness. Also, it does not allow new protagonists to be substituted for Jean or Ray, only for the witness. In this it is unlike most Fox cycles, which allow any person or large or small group of people to participate in the cycle. Still, it is has a structural role in the building of Fox stories similar to that of many other Fox cycles.

The witness in this tale is a woman. Jean's helping her perhaps has an implicit feminist theme. In later stories, the witnesses accused of crimes are typically men. This is perhaps simply realism: most of the people engulfed in the criminal justice system as defendants are in fact men. Still, it seems a pity that the feminist aspects of this tale were not followed up.

Kane's art shows one of his most inventive interiors (lower right panel on page 7), with square panels on the walls, a graph framed on the wall, and repeated square ceiling lights. Although this is just a small illustration, it is remarkably geometric, all involving straight lines.

The "Disappearing Act" Robberies (Showcase #36, January-February 1962). Valuable objects are suddenly disappearing into thin air. This tale follows the innocent witness pattern. In fact it is a sequel of sorts to "Battle of the Tiny Titans": the witness here is the fiancé of the witness of the earlier tale. In this tale, the Atom decides to accompany the objects on their journey, to see where they go and how they disappear. This will be one of his basic detective strategies in future tales. It reminds one of some of the various objects and beings that sometimes accompany the teleporting Adam Strange, in some of Fox's most ingenious tales. The Atom's small size allows him to tag along with the various objects.

The phrase "Disappearing Act" is in quotes; The Atom had a penchant for titles containing words wrapped in quotes. "Disappearing Act" is a reference to stage magic tricks. Many of The Atom tales had such magic tricks as the starting point of the story. An apparently magical event would take place; the Atom would try to explain it rationally.

There is some very good art late in the tale, when the Atom hides in the box of chess pieces. The pieces look like huge Constructivist objects, full of rounded cylindrical sections and spheres. Swirling around them are curving lines representing poisonous fumes.

The Prisoners Who Vanished (1962). Criminals develop the ability to teleport themselves out of Ivy Town's jail. This story is a sequel to "Battle of the Tiny Titans". Teleportation has always been one of Fox's key themes. The Adam Strange tales look at teleportation between Earth and Rann. This story takes a different approach: it looks at what teleportation might be like if it were used on contemporary Earth. Fox rings many ingenious changes on the theme. As the story opens, the teleportation is controlled not by the Atom, or other good guys, but by the villainous gangster Carl Ballard. Much of the story involves the Atom's attempt to work himself into the teleportation system, and gain control of it. The villain has a cycle; the hero tries to insert himself into the cycle, then control it. There are other Fox mysteries with a somewhat similar structure: in "World War on Earth and Rann" (Mystery in Space #82, March 1963), Adam Strange tries to understand how the giant lens threatening Rann is controlled. One also sees related elements in "The Duel of the Two Adam Stranges" (Mystery in Space #59, May 1960).

At the start of the tale, teleportation is entirely controlled. It behaves in rigid channels, with a clear start, a step by step development, and an end. It is NOT a cycle, at least apparently: the state at the end is different from the state at the beginning. Otherwise, its step by step rigid nature is similar to a Fox cycle, as is its repeatability with different protagonists. As the story progresses, the Atom loosens up and frees the teleportation process. The villain invents a variation of it, and puts the Atom in it. This is threatening, but it also serves to alter the original rigid process. It is a step towards freedom. At the end of the story, the process is entirely uncontrolled: teleportation can be done under any circumstances. The teleportation process has achieved complete freedom. This is a little different from a traditional mystery, in which a hidden truth is uncovered, to use Raymond Chandler's phrase. Here, the Atom both uncovers the hidden truth, and uses it to free a process. This is an unusual structure for a mystery story.

The Atom also learns that the original teleportation process has hidden features. These turn out to make the process be a complete cycle, one that starts at a much earlier point than anyone but the villain realized. The process is "exposed" as a hidden or disguised cycle. This too is an unusual architecture for a mystery tale.

Schwartz had two science fiction magazines for which Fox frequently wrote. Mystery in Space tended to deal with stories set in outer space, while Strange Adventures tended to be based on Earth, and have tales grounded in daily life. There is something of a similar dichotomy between Fox's two science fiction series for Schwartz, Adam Strange and The Atom. Adam Strange was set on another planet, while the Atom was set on the daily life of Earth. Both series involved Fox's favorite theme teleportation; Adam Strange used it to go back and forth to another planet, while the Atom explored its implications on Earth. Both series also looked at alien invasions; in Adam Strange, these came to Rann; in the Atom, the aliens come to Earth (see below for a discussion of Atom stories on this topic).

The Gold Hunters of 49 (1964). This tale is discussed below under the Time Pool stories. It has a formal mystery plot, dealing with mysteriously vanishing gold, that reminds one of the disappearing objects in the teleportation stories.

The Super-Safecracker Who Defied the Law (1964). A Hyper-Thief announces to the police that he can steal through teleportation, and challenges them to stop him. This is one of the most appealing of the Atom stories. It combines many different Atom approaches, all successfully. For example, it is equally a science fiction tale and a mystery tale, doing a good job with each. Most of the series' continuing good guy characters return here, something I enjoy, and which I believe The Atom could have done more with in general.

The mystery elements here recall "The Gold Hunters of 49" (1964).

The series breaks new ground here with its look at electronic signals traveling through the air. Fox will continue to expand these ideas in "World of the Magic Atom" (#19, June-July 1965), where he applies them to the Atom's costume. Fox's ideas about control through electronic signals are intelligent. But they are around forty years ahead of their time. They look as if they will become much more of a common reality in the next millennium, with the rise of wireless Internet transmission and telephony.

Electronic signals are used in this story to extend the Atom's telephone trick. There are also looks at the long range implication to humanity of teleportation. The story is a forward extension of Fox's ideas on these subjects.

Jean actually works as a lawyer in this tale, something rare in the comics, or most other media. The integration of legal business into the story recalls Erle Stanley Gardner's Perry Mason stories. Gardner Fox went to law school himself, and the legal detail seems authentic. Fox, like Gardner, admires and respects lawyers, and lawyers and the law are presented to young people as something they should want to emulate and learn about. This is such a contrast to today's fiction, in which lawyers tend so often to be crooks. Jean supplies a fascinating piece of legal information at the end of the story, which is similar to the educational science tidbits dispensed throughout The Atom. Fox actually cites case numbers in his footnotes.

Spy Tales

Prisoner in a Test Tube (1962). Spies send a duplicate of atomic scientist Anton Kraft to work in the USA, while holding the real scientist captive in Hungary. The story sticks to Fox's familiar theme of the double, here treated in a realistic, non-science fictional manner. This is one of the few spy tales in The Atom. The DC Silver Age occasionally did spy tales, but mainly stuck to conventional crime stories, instead. Spies were extremely popular in books and films the 1960's. Unfortunately, they tended to be associated with a "license to kill". This murderous approach violated the law-abiding, non-violent sprit of the comic books, in which heroes never killed anybody. It also contradicted the strict Comics Code of the day. The Atom never became any sort of employee of the US Government or its spy agencies. Instead, he helped out on these cases following an appeal by Jean Loring. This distanced him as well from the whole spy ethos.

The spy tales do not involve teleportation. But they are heavily involved with the telephone trick, linking them to the series of "teleportation and telephone trick" tales. The openings of the tales, in which the Atom is summoned to Jean's aid, also spotlights the theme of transportation for the Atom.

In general, the first half of this story shows plot ingenuity, the second part degenerates into a series of fights and conventional spy material. The opening of this tale shows Jean Loring doing some good detective work on this case. This approach tended not to be repeated in later stories, which tended to be solved more by the Atom, solo. One wishes there were more of these Loring contributions in the later tales.

Both spy tales get their title from traps depicted on Gil Kane's covers. These traps are placed by Fox in the second, most action oriented parts of each story.

Ride a Deadly Grenade (1964). The Atom has a second spy adventure. Here he involved with an anti-gravity device made by a physicist in Vienna.

What is most interesting about this tale is the way it repeats the opening of "Prisoner in a Test Tube", the first Atom spy adventure. One sees a prototype Fox cycle here being born. Each step is deliberately varied from that of the original tale. The earlier story took place in Hungary; here we are in the neighboring country of Austria. These two nations seem to symbolize for Fox all the barriers of the Cold War and the Iron Curtain. The scene where Jean summons the Atom is also a close variation on the original. It is explicitly billed in the story as an "improvement", being faster and more efficient. This sort of improvement recalls the improvements made to the Time Pool in each tale.

Finally, we see the Atom using his telephone trick to go the Europe, just as he did in the earlier story. Here Fox works a variation. This variation recalls the variations Fox rang on the zeta-beam cycle in the Adam Strange tales. It opens the possibility that the Atom tales will work a series of variations on this device, just as the Adam Strange stories do with the zeta-beam.

The rest of the spy adventure is nowhere as good as these opening variations. When the Atom reaches Europe, the second half of the tale largely consists of fights between him and the bad guys.

Gil Kane does a good job with the horseman statue (p 8). Its dashing figure recalls the equally glamorous highwaymen riders in "The Highwayman and the Mighty Mite" (#6, April-May 1963). He clearly had an affinity to such historical figures.

Detective Stories

The Case of the Innocent Thief (1962). A man seems to have committed a theft and to have addressed a convention at the same time; he comes to Jean Loring for help. This crime story focuses on a Fox cycle involving criminal activity, one that is repeatable with many protagonists, like all Fox cycles. The story opens with this crime cycle being interfered with, by another cycle the protagonist takes part in. This sort of interference is a basic pattern of Fox story construction. The two cycles are highly ingenious; there is nothing like them in all of Fox. They do involve such perennial Fox themes as doubles (the crime cycle) and sleep and dreams (the interfering cycle).

As in "The Prisoners Who Vanished", the Atom has to learn about the hidden features of the crime cycle. Much of the detection in the tale involves him elucidating such features. He uses good reasoning here to uncover them.

The pure mystery tales in The Atom have a number of common features. They tend to take place where large numbers of men are congregated together, at conventions, theaters or exhibitions. These environments tend to be pleasant and upbeat. They often involve some form of the arts, such as photography, painting or theatrical events like magic. They tend to be genuine mysteries, with puzzle plots whose solution is only revealed to the reader at the end of the story. The crimes often seem to be impossible. Doubles are common. There is more high technology, and more reliance on hypnosis and other mind control devices, than is traditional in prose mysteries. Such devices might not seem like fair play in a prose mystery, but they are very appropriate in the high tech, science fictional world of the Atom.

This first story in the mystery series follows the Jean Loring cycle first established in "Battle of the Tiny Titans" (1961). That seminal tale was the jumping off point not just for the "teleportation crime" stories, but also of the pure mysteries here as well.

Gil Kane draws two of the characters in the tale in his best leading man style: Tom Parks and Elkins. This is not common in the Atom stories, unlike his earlier stories for Mystery in Space.

The Riddle of the Two-Faced Astronaut (1963). A magician's assistant who dresses as an astronaut as part of the act is accused of theft. The Atom sometimes featured stories that were pure mystery tales, without any sf elements; this is one of them. The theater background of this tale is one that has been used in countless mystery prose stories and films. This story has as its background magic, and other stage illusion shows. It is full of facts about such performances. As a child, it stimulated my imagination greatly, as did several other Gardner Fox tales.

The quick-change ideas in this tale are especially appealing. One might note that the Atom himself is a quick-change artist. Much is made in the series about the way he is wearing his uniform at all times over his street clothes, and how it only becomes visible when he shrinks. People are often disguised in the Atom mystery tales. They tend to be masked or hooded, so their face cannot be seen, and their identity is unknown.

The Atom resembles Steve Ditko's later character the Creeper in several ways. Both push buttons concealed on their person, and immediately transform themselves. Both men look fairly similar in facial features. Both are usually in suits and ties before their transform; both favor horizontally striped ties, and both artists sometimes depict their heroes running with their ties streaming out into space. Both men are tough guys, with more of an attitude than is common in comic book super-heroes of the 1960's. Both frequently get involved in crime stories, set in the contemporary urban United States. Both often get involved under their civilian secret identities, as well; neither is a Clark Kent type shrinking violet as their civilian self.

The Purloined Miniatures (#8, August-September 1963). The Atom investigates the robbery of hand painted Renaissance playing cards in an art gallery. This is a routine mystery tale. It has some good art historical material about cards. It also casually introduces a landmark element in the Schwartz world: one of the policemen in the tale is black. He has no dialogue, and only appears in one panel, but he is drawn with dignity and respect. This is a harbinger of the much more integrated comics to come.

Trouble at the Ten-Year Club (1964). A thief targets exhibits at a ten year reunion of Ivy University graduates. Exuberant mystery story that shows considerable imagination.

This tale is constructed in two parts, like many Fox stories. The first half itself consists of two mystery cases. Each case shows a different crime by the thief. The first tale focuses on the security guards, the second on the Atom himself. Each is loaded with plot surprises about the thief's abilities. Each case is also liberally sprinkled with clues about the thief's modus operandi. This serial construction is typical of Fox. The two cases can each be considered part of a cycle, a cycle involving theft from a guarded room. The instances of the cycle have different protagonists: the guards and the Atom. The ability to run a cycle with different protagonists is also typical of Fox cycles.

The first half of the story is a mystery. We see the events without understanding the secrets of the thief, and the many mysteries of his operation. At the end of Part I of the tale, the Atom announces the key to the solution of the mystery, in skeletal form. The second half presents all the details of the mystery's solution, based on this fundamental idea. This time we see all the events of the thief's operation, in full detail, and with understanding how they worked. Fox times his revelation at the exact mid point of the story, and exactly where the next chapter starts, complete with splash panel. This is a nice bit of symmetry.

The two parts of the story correspond to two modes of narration popular in Silver Age comic books (and in other media). The first half shows us a puzzle plot mystery. The second half is an inside look at a detailed plot or hoax. Many comic book tales are written in one mode or another. Fox has combined the two modes in one story, to get the best of both worlds.

The clues in the tale show real logic. Those in the second crime are largely based on what we know about the Atom himself, his uniform, his shrinking ability, his skill at combat, and so on. The tale is built on the established mythos of the Atom, as set forth in previous stories. This tale would therefore not be a good place for anyone to start reading the Atom stories; but for any regular reader of the magazine, it makes for a satisfyingly logically constructed mystery plot.

The members of the Ten-Year Club have mainly excelled in the arts. This tale shows great respect for their accomplishments. It runs parallel to the many similarly respectful stories about science in The Atom.

The thief in the story seems to be able to enter locked rooms at will. This is both similar to and different from the teleportation crime series in The Atom. The thief here can go anywhere, just like the teleportation criminals. But the story makes clear that he seems neither to arrive nor leave the scenes of crimes by teleportation. There is also a difference in how we perceive the crimes. In the teleportation stories, we seem to "know" right away how the thief is committing the crimes: he uses teleportation. Eventually we often discover that this is not the full story, that other hidden factors are involved that extend this picture. But the initial impression is that we have a full explanation for the crimes. "Ten-Year Club" is fundamentally different. The means the thief uses to commit the crimes is puzzling right from the start. We see part of what he does, his ability to go anywhere, but it never makes full logical sense. There are always elements that seem puzzling, illogical and mysterious. These elements are given a full logical explanation by the end of the story. So formally, this is a different kind of mystery from the teleportation stories.

I Accuse Ray Palmer -- Of Robbery (#13, June-July 1964). Circumstantial evidence suggests Ray is responsible for a theft from a New York City coin show; he has to find the real thieves to clear his name. This pleasant but minor tale is nearly all action. I mildly enjoyed reading it, but found little in it that was distinguished. The opening of the tale stresses what a hard worker Ray is: this is a persistent theme in the stories. I liked the special flashbulbs of the bad guys, and how they guard against them. This guarding is typical of Fox: one can be sure if he invents a menace, that he will also create an antidote to the menace. His mind runs in cycles. The photographers and the convention background recall the earlier "The Case of the Innocent Thief" (1962). Both stories are mainly crime tales, with few science fiction elements.

The Man in the Ion Mask (1966). A man in a metallic mask robs guests at Ivy Unversity's annual costume party. This delightful mystery story echoes many Fox traditions. It is another of his Atom mystery tales, ones with a science fiction twist. It also recalls elements of his Adam Strange stories. The structure of the mystery plot has strong affinities with such Adam Strange mystery tales as "World War on Earth and Rann" (Mystery in Space #82, March 1963) and "Riddle of the Runaway Rockets" (Mystery in Space #85, August 1963). In fact, it is what these tales might be like, if they were adapted to a robber on contemporary Earth. Also, the villain's powers echo those of such Adam Strange menaces as "The Planet That Came to a Standstill" (Mystery in Space #75, May 1962).

The tale has tongue in cheek storytelling by Fox. Fox's narration is continually commenting on the plot, explaining that what is happening is designed to advance the plot in certain ways. It is lively and fun, as well as having interesting formal properties in the narration. The letters column of the issue asks readers to write in, telling whether they like such Atom stories in a "lighter vein".

There is also a nice little mini-mystery that opens the tale. This too shows good plotting.

The story opens with that Fox favorite, a costume party. Kane does a good job with the many glamorous and fun looking costumes here. Ray Palmer gets a spaceman costume, which looks a lot like something that might be worn by a super-hero, and even more by the denizens of sf comic books like Mystery in Space. Other costumes at the party, such as cowboy clothes or fancy uniforms, also look like clothes worn by various comic book heroes. They are all non super-hero types, and remind one the vanished world of 1950's comic books, in which Westerns, sf and other non-super-hero stories predominated. Gil Kane used to draw both Western and sf comics in the 50's. Ray's costume features the colors blue and red, just like his Atom costume.

Weird Menace Mysteries

The Dooms from Beyond (1961). A doctor, who works as a medical volunteer in the South Pacific, is met by a series of suspicious "accidents" when he inherits a large fortune in Ivy Town; the accidents are attributed to a family curse. This tale is similar to 1930's whodunit movies, many of which featured an innocent heir in jeopardy at a spooky mansion. It also recalls the Weird Menace prose mystery stories that appeared in the pulp magazines. Weird Menace tales were full of "supernatural" events that were later given natural explanations. Some of the murder attempts in this story are in this tradition, especially the cover image of fire bolts shooting from the sky. As is usual in the Weird Menace tales, the explanation here involves ingenious mechanical devices. This tale is pleasant without being exceptional. Its basic whodunit framework is familiar, but the details make enjoyable reading.

There is a good deal of material about the South Seas, including some realistic, dignified drawings of black residents. Right from the start, The Atom was attempting a greater racial integration than many previous comic books. The background about medical volunteer work is supposed to be inspirational for the young readers of the magazine. It also continues Fox's fascination with locations in the Southern Hemisphere, a principal feature of his Adam Strange tales.

Kane's covers tended to get the Atom involved with small objects. This starts right here, in his second issue, with the Atom in a sling shot.

Ray Palmer wears a distinctive type of suit in this story, a single breasted, slim cut 1960's model, but which has peaked lapels. These lapels look aggressive, as if he has a chip on his shoulder. He also looks affluent, like a JFK style young executive. Ray looks slim, slight and non-hulking. He is not a big man, even before his shrinking down into the Atom. Kane will repeat this look for Ray in many later tales.

The Specter of 3000-Moons Lake (#5, February-March 1963). The Atom deals with an Indian legend that seems to come to life at a lake. This is a minor mystery story. Its best feature is some of Gil Kane's art. I liked the glowing footprints. Kane's depiction of the villain in a frogman's outfit is outstanding (pages 6, 7).

The Mysterious Swan-Maiden (#10, December 1963 - January 1964). Robberies seem to be committed by a woman who can transform herself from a human being into a swan. This is a routine detective story. It is in the weird menace tradition of the pulps. Like the earlier "The Specter of 3000-Moons Lake", it is about a legendary being who seems to come to life. All three of the weird menace tales in the early Atom have watery settings, near lakes, rivers or marshes. Gil Kane's depiction of a Viking is cool (p3).

The Fusion Crime Stories

Case of the Hooded Hijackers (1965). "Bullets" Andrews' gang repeatedly hijacks the loot that "Highbrow" Dillon's gang has just stolen; the Atom intervenes.

During 1965, Fox wrote a series of crime stories for The Atom. These stories had ingenious, complex plots. But they lack elements of mystery - the reader usually knows what is going on from the start. They do not fall directly into any of the series of Atom stories that Fox had developed up till that time. Instead, they offer a fusion of ideas that Fox had developed in previous tales. They tend to be especially close to the stories that Fox wrote about "teleportation crimes and the telephone trick", although most do not actually involve either of these elements! Rather, they draw on crime plots and story structures Fox used in those tales.

This tale has two groups of crooks, one of which is practicing high tech based manipulation on the other. In this, it resembles "The Prisoners Who Vanished" (1962).

The tale has a highly unusual construction. Fox keeps repeating parallel series of events, but each time with variations. These involve the Atom being tipped off about a crime, then catching the thieves in the act. These events keep differing by switching the roles of the two gangs. Fox often used repeating events in his cycle stories. He also often switched protagonists in such tales, just as here he swaps the gangs' roles in the event series. But things are different here: the cycle of tipping off and the Atom catching the thieves has two protagonists, unlike the typical Fox single-protagonist cycle. This cycle needs one person to do the tipping off, and another group to be the thieves that are caught. Fox switches both protagonists around, in complex ways. This makes for beautiful, intricate plot patterns. It is an extension and change to Fox's typical way of using cycles.

The cycles also interlink through the ability of one gang to eavesdrop on the other, something that is exploited in a number of different, ingenious ways by Fox in the story. This eavesdropping forms a second dimension in the tale, running perpendicular to the informing-catching-in-the-act cycle. However, all events in "Case of the Hooded Hijackers" are tied up in one complex pattern, with both the repeated cycle events and the eavesdropping arranged into one large continuously linked set of plot actions. The pattern as a whole is quite beautiful, with its complex interwoven plotting.

By the end of the story, the Atom has caught the crooks. This is a finale that all readers expect. But it takes the Atom a slow dance through all the logical permutations of the story to reach this point. The rules of the story simply do not allow him enough evidence and opportunity to catch the crooks before this. Some of Fox's Adam Strange tales involve a similar slow dance, with the protagonist making steady, slow progress through an intricate series of plot situations before his victory at the end.

Gil Kane has modeled "Bullets" Andrews' visual appearance on the real life Hollywood character actor Donald Meek. The letters column of #20 pointed out the many such guest appearances by Hollywood performers that Kane has snuck into the series. I've only managed to track down a few of these. Ray Palmer himself is modeled on leading man Robert Taylor, especially his youthful performances in the 1930's. See such films as George Cukor's Camille (1937) and W. S. Van Dyke's Personal Property (1937). Mad Magazine during the 1960's used to publish delicious caricatures of actors in its movie spoofs. So this was apparently a bit more common in comics than one might think.

The Hole-in-the-Wall Lawman (1965). While on a crime case, the Atom enters a time loop in which he repeats an entire day of his life. The loop is caused by the Atom's participation in the Time Pool in other tales, so this story represents a fusion between the science fictional Time Pool and the non-sf crime series of the rest of The Atom. Like many other 1965 tales, this story involves a fusion of previous Atom series without belonging strictly to any one of them.

This story opens with a situation identical to that of Fox's earlier "The Super-Safecracker Who Defied the Law" (1964), as his dialogue explicitly points out. Already, Fox is setting up a cycle, a series of repeatable events in which the Atom is the protagonist. Fox ascribes this repeating situation to coincidence. Fox also attributed Adam Strange's repeated encounters with menaces on Rann to coincidence. In both works, this explanation is given early in the stories, and stands unchanged and unchallenged through the tales. A use of coincidence like this has an intriguing quality.

This opening already creates a strong sense in the reader of déja vu. It is an exact echo of events that the reader and the Atom have experienced before.

Later, when the Atom gets trapped in a time loop, and re-lives these events, the sense of being trapped in an infinite loop is all the stronger. The Atom only goes through the time loop twice. But since the opening situation is itself the echo of an earlier tale, the reader feels as if they have experienced the situation repeatedly, and that the loop is indeed infinite. This is a remarkable use of mise-en-scène by Fox. Only an author with as deep an understanding of cycles could have come up with such a delicate approach.

Fox had always written about attempts to interfere with cycles, and thus escape from their influence. But such feelings became more emotionally desperate around 1965 in his work. Protagonists feel that they are in a rut, and need to break free and change their lives. The Atom's feelings while in the loop are especially vividly presented here. This story does not link these feelings up with a "need to change one's life patterns", as do other tales of this era. But the story is perhaps strongest in conveying a sense of being in helpless control of a cycle.

This story actually does have some mystery elements. But these are not related to the crime, unlike other mystery tales in The Atom. Instead, the mystery here is "how can the Atom break out of the time loop?" Fox treats this as a clued mystery, just as in any other of his tales.

This story has some of Gil Kane's zingiest art. Gil Kane has apparently modeled sophisticated jewel thief The Black Phantom on movie star David Niven. Niven sometimes played such gentlemen cat burglars on film. The Black Phantom is a little more sinister and unsympathetic than such Raffles-like Rogues, however.

The Atomic Flea (1965). When the Atom gets amnesia, he joins an entrepreneur's flea circus. This is a demented idea for a plot, both hilarious and bizarre. Fox liked unusual facts and strange phenomena on the fringes of everyday life. A flea circus is just such a realistic but uncommon environment.

Fox does not make it the whole story; he mixes in many other perennial elements of his Atom stories, especially his detective tales. Fox's earlier detective tales usually focused on some non-series character who was innocently at the center of a strange conspiracy, and who was being manipulated and framed in complex ways by bad guys. Usually the Atom comes to the aid of this character, and unravels the mystery, often at lawyer Jean Loring's request. Here the Atom himself is at the center of such a sinister conspiracy, and is its targeted, innocent victim. Because we see most events from the Atom's point of view, we are for the first time seeing such a Fox mystery tale from the perspective of its focal point. This gives a different effect to the tale. Also, the Atom has a secret identity, unlike all the ordinary humans were at the center of previous tales. Fox weaves this into his plot in pleasantly ingenious ways.

Challenge of the Computer Crooks (1965). When Ray Palmer builds a computer, crooks take it over to utilize the information in it. This is a mild but pleasant tale. It is not a high point, but it makes one smile.

The computer aspects of this tale are under-imagined. Ray mainly uses the computer to store modus operandi information about crooks. This approach was already old hat in the comics by 1965: see the much earlier "The 10,000 Secrets of Batman / Batman's Electronic Crime-File" (Detective Comics #229, March 1956) with an identical theme. The romantic comedy aspects of the computer are much better, and form an appealing subplot. It is also pleasant to see scientist Ray Palmer get involved with computers. Ray is an appealing hero. Unlike many comic hero's secret identities, Ray is a wholly admirable figure.

The computer here is one of Kane's beautiful machines. It resembles the space ship control panels he used to draw in such 1950's sf comics as Mystery in Space. Like them, it is full of recessed circular holes, very short cylindrical recesses. It also has groups of repeating rectangles, also a personal feature of Kane's architecture and machinery. The whole surface is organized into a series of rectangular panels, of an irregular and visually pleasing nature. The large size of the splash allows us to see these features in detail. The mixture of pure geometric figures, such as rectangles and cylinders, links this image to the traditions of Constructivist art, a tradition to which Gil Kane belongs. Also notable: the image of the Atom floating in a sea of molecules, represented by multi-colored circles (p9).

Kane's cover shows a gang of masked crooks. They are in suits, and their faces are covered with form fitting black masks that adhere to the contours of their faces. It is a striking image. The story explains that these are rubberoid face masks. Kane had come up with a different but equally unusual set of masks two issues before in "Case of the Hooded Hijackers" (1965). The white masks in that tale were not form fitting, but instead formed a series of complex 3D curved surfaces, especially in the rear of the hood.

The Night of the Little People (1965). The Atom impersonates a leprechaun. This story is like an reversed version of the Weird Menace stories. In them, villains create a hoax that looks like supernatural or fantasy based events come to life. In this tale, the Atom himself creates such events, for a good cause. This tale is not a mystery; the reader sees the events through the Atom's eyes, and is more or less fully informed of everything going on at all stages. This is different from the Weird Menace stories, in which both the Atom and the reader have to try to find an explanation for the mysterious events.

Fox comes up with a small but pleasant variation on the telephone trick in this tale.

Aliens Coming to Earth

Master of the Plant World (1962). The Atom battles a man from another dimension who is breeding plantoids: plants with menacing powers he can use as weapons. The tale includes a wide variety of real life facts about plants, all of which are developed into weapons in the tale. Like many of the stories in The Atom, it contains a wide variety of scientific and cultural facts. These interesting facts are all explained very carefully to the reader. The explanations are usually done by characters the Atom meets, or by the narrator, instead of by the Atom himself. The ideas give the stories a rich basis in science fiction: the tales are all based in real science. The facts also make reading The Atom an educational event, and a delightful one. Many of the tales in the magazine were eye-opening experiences for its young readers, as I can testify myself from my childhood reading of the book.

This story includes the full range of the Atom's powers. It took up the entire first issue of the Atom's own magazine. It was clearly designed to explain everything there was to know about the Atom, and to serve as an introduction to the character. In this, it succeeds very well.

Jean Loring, Ray Palmer's girl friend, is a pleasant and feminist creation. She is a lawyer, and is in love with Ray. However, she is determined to succeed as a lawyer before marrying Ray. She keeps turning down Ray's proposals of marriage. This set-up recalls the Green Lantern stories, in which Hal Jordan is in love with his high powered woman boss, Carol Ferris, who rejects him. However, there are some differences. Carol is already a top business woman, while Jean is just starting out on her career. However Jean is a self made woman, whereas Carol inherited her company. Jean is much nicer as a person than Carol. Her rejection of Ray is due to principle, not to any lack of feeling she has for him.

The fact that Jean is a lawyer plays a major role in the series. Many of the stories, including "Master of the Plant World", begin when a man innocently accused of a crime comes to Jean Loring for legal counsel. She defends him, and the Atom in turn assists her to solve the case. This structure means that the Atom, Jean and the authorities are all working in the same direction, and toward the same goals. There is no conflict, and no cross purposes. This gives the Atom tales a sweetness typical of Gardner Fox. Similarly, Adam Strange and Alanna will always work together. However, the Atom treats Jean less as a partner than Adam Strange does Alanna. He will often go out and start investigating on his own. Jean does not know his secret identity, and will not accompany him on his cases.

There is a two part construction to this tale. In the first part, the villain uses the plants to commit crimes; in the second, he tries to conquer the world. This increase of scope is typical of Fox: he often went from a solitary protagonist taking part in some cycle, to having an entire world undergo similar experiences.

At the end of this tale, immediately after Adam has saved the world from conquest, there is a reference to the fact that Jean's innocent client has been acquitted. This seems like a somewhat anti-climactic moment, even silly. However, it serves some purposes. For one thing, it is important to both Fox and the readers that justice is done. Fox would never leave a character dangling in an unjust situation. Secondly, this tale is an example of Fox's "innocent witness" cycle. This cycle always ends with the witness being acquitted, and Jean Loring winning her case. Fox is faithful to his cycles, including as many steps from them as possible in the construction of his stories.

The Machine That Made "Miracles" (1962). The Atom assists Snapper Carr, the teenager who chronicles the Justice League of America, in investigating when wishes suddenly start coming true in his town. Fox also wrote the Justice League of America tales, and there will be frequent cross references to them in the Atom stories.

All the wishes involve an object turning into something else. Just as "The Prisoners Who Vanished" looks at teleportation, this story is a systematic look at transmutation. This is a science fiction tale, similar in genre to those Fox wrote for Mystery in Space. Unlike some of the mystery tales, in which the hero clarifies what is hidden, here the original cycle is used to create a plot of snowballing complexity. Fox keeps using his basic cycle to make a more and more elaborate story. The effect is most pleasant. This is somewhat traditional in the way Fox used his cycles in his sf tales: he would start out introducing them in their purest form, then he would use them in ever more ingenious ways. The progress of the zeta-beam cycle through the Adam Strange tales follows such a pattern. So do several individual Fox sf tales.

Like many long Fox stories, this one breaks into two parts, each with its own subject, characters, and resolution.

The aliens in this tale are tiny, the same size as the Atom himself. This was a frequent motif in the stories. It began right in the Atom's origin issue, in "Battle of the Tiny Titans", and also showed up in the first issue of his own magazine, "Master of the Plant World". No explanation of this coincidence is ever given: the Atom just keeps meeting small alien beings. It makes for a good story: only the Atom can deal with these characters on a direct eye to eye basis. These aliens tend to be more good than bad. Sometimes they are temporarily coerced into fighting the Atom, but usually they make friends with him in the end. The aliens often assume the folk lore role of tiny friendly spirits who live around us: the aliens in this tale grant wishes, like leprechauns or fairies, and the beings in "Master of the Plant World" resemble traditional plant-spirits such as nymphs and dryads.

Kane does a good job with the Society party here. This sort of locale was much more frequent in Green Lantern. He has always been skilled at drawing men in tuxes.

The Case of the Cosmic Camera (1963). The Atom teams with Hawkman to investigate an alien camera that appears on Earth. Hawkman was another Fox series character, and there would later be a consistent teaming up of the two heroes, different as they seemed. Both were frequently involved in mystery tales, both had happy romantic relationships, and both were especially science fiction oriented characters, so there are more similarities than one might think.

The first half of this story (up through page 11) is especially rich in scientific background information. Some of the best deals with either birds or flight, appropriate material for a Hawkman story.

Hawkman had the only space ship in the world of Gardner Fox. Some of his Justice League characters such as Superman and Green Lantern could travel through space on their own power. Otherwise, space ships did not exist. This means that when Hawkman shows up in the stories of the Atom or Adam Strange, the existence of space ships had a major implication on the stories. This tale is one of the few which got the Atom out into space.

Hawkman had been a Golden Age character. He had recently been revived in the Silver Age by Fox and artist Joe Kubert, in the DC tryout magazine The Brave and the Bold. He had not succeeded in getting his own magazine, so this story was a way of keeping the character alive. Soon afterwards, he began a regular run in Mystery in Space (1963 - 1964), as the second feature following Adam Strange. The article on Adam Strange describes his collaborations with that character. Finally in 1964 he got his own magazine.

The Atom does not share his adventures with the other continuing characters in the magazine, such as Jean Loring or Chief of Police Baxter. Instead, his joint ventures tend to be with Fox characters brought in from other magazines: Snapper Carr or Hawkman. The advent of these characters is welcome: it allows the Atom to start genuinely sharing his work with others.

Voyage to Beyond (1964). Mysterious events happen on a cruise Ray and Jean take. Exuberantly inventive science fiction mystery. The travel elements of this tale recall Fox's Adam Strange tales. Those stories took place all over the Southern Hemisphere, reflecting locations where the star Alpha Centauri is visible. The classic origin story of Adam Strange opens in Peru among the Incas: "Secret of the Eternal City" (Showcase #17, November-December 1958). Both elements return, but in new original ways, in this tale: the Southern Hemisphere and the Incas. They seem overwhelmingly personal: the development of one of Fox's signature themes.

The whole story is also joyous. Most of the events in it are happy, even carnival like. The tale seems to reflect longings within Ray Palmer, which get fulfilled in happy ways. The story is an extravaganza, where anything might happen, and does.

Many of the later parts of this tale resemble alien invasion stories that Fox wrote for Mystery in Space. These tend to be non-violent and stress plot ingenuity, and this one is no exception. It has elements of humor. The specific plot ideas are adapted for the Atom, and recall running themes in The Atom of mythological beings. See "Master of the Plant World" and "The Machine That Made "Miracles"".

Kane's art here also contributes to the party feel. He does a great job with the ship's crew and their naval white uniforms. He also gets in spectacular shots of Ray Palmer, dressed completely differently here that in most of the series.

Bat-Knights of Darkness (#22, December 1965 - January 1966). The Atom battles tiny humanoids known as Elverans dressed as medieval Knights, who ride flying bats into battle. Weird subject for a story that doesn't quite make it. There is too much celebration of battle and fighting. Also, the story mainly celebrates military "virtues". It is mildly interesting to see the Atom encounter beings of his own size. Fox includes a whole history of the Elverans and their relations to humans. In this, the story resembles some of the "Alien History" tales Fox was writing for Hawkman around this time, such as "World Where Evolution Ran Wild" (Hawkman #6, February-March 1965), "Battle of the Bird-Man Bandits" (Hawkman #8, June-July 1965) and "Master Trap of the Matter Master" (Hawkman #9, August-September 1965), the last tale guest starring the Atom.

The story is best with its inventions. The lances of the knights look like medieval weapons, but they are in fact high tech devices. Fox did a similarly cool mix of high technology and traditional implements in his Ancient Egypt rhapsody, "Attack of the Crocodile-Men" (Hawkman #7, April-May 1965). Also noteworthy are the Knights' machine for reassembling molten metal. This allows melting metal to resume its original shape. In other words, it turns metal melting into a Fox cycle, a set of events in which the object resumes its initial state. This piece of technology is an exemplar of deeply personal approaches in Fox's imagination.

The armor of the Knights has a Constructivist quality. In this, it resembles the Constructivist costumes Gil Kane would create for "Green Lantern Lives Again" (Green Lantern #47, September 1966). The armor lacks the tremendous variety and inventiveness Kane brought to that tale, but it is part of the same creative impulse. The armor also resembles Gil Kane's costumes for "Prince Peril's Power Play" (Green Lantern #45, June 1966), which similarly combine medieval and Constructivist elements.

Riddle of the Far-Out Robbery (#23, February - March 1966). When Radon-Balls are mysteriously teleported from a research lab, the Atom explains it by telling a story of his encounter with the alien being Oban Thokol of the planet Davarian. The main part of this tale is a routine outer space adventure tale. It does have an inventive fight between the Atom and an invisible being, one that shows the humor that the magazine often brought to its hero's exploits. It also continues the magazine's interest in the possibilities of teleportation.

The story's best feature is its finale, which develops some experimental and even avant-garde approaches to narrative structure. It is an inventive end, and shows all the creativity that went into narrative approaches in the Silver Age. It recalls, yet is different from, the Imaginary tales that frequently appeared in the Superman family of magazines. Its playfulness is consistent with Ray Palmer's character. Ray often has a mischievous streak. His playfulness about his work as the Atom reflects that fact that Ray has no given mission - he is performing his Atom role completely on his own initiative, and doing it with a sense of adventure. It is hard to tell if the word "Riddle" in the title links this tale to the Riddle stories that were popular in late 19th Century America; such stories have a similarly experimental narrative structure.

The Time Pool

The Secret of "Al Atom's" Lamp (#3, October-November 1962). The Atom goes back in time to the era of the Arabian Nights, and helps Sinbad's grandson find his treasure. At one point we learn that Ray can understand Arabic, because he took a course in it at his university. This is perhaps mainly a device to move the story forward, but it is also a sign of the deep respect in which learning was held during the Silver Age. It was natural for a scientist like Ray Palmer to learn things, just out of a thirst for knowledge.

Ray Palmer's old teacher, Professor Alpheus V. Hyatt, had developed the Time Pool, a device that allows the Atom to explore other eras. This is the first of the series of Time Pool stories that occasionally appeared in The Atom. They were full of educational tidbits about other times and cultures. The stories were often essentially tales in which the Atom fought crime and criminals in other eras, making them oddly similar to his contemporary stories. This story has a nice mystery subplot, involving the locking of the treasure hoard.

The Atom differs from other super-heroes, in that he has no special motor power to get around. He depends on transportation, just like an ordinary person. Fox loved to get him in things, to move him around. These elements are often comic, although the Atom is blissfully unaware of this. The story proceeds with a straight face, with no underlining that this is a comic moment. The Atom clearly enjoys being in things. He often settles back and gets comfortable, with luxurious postures drawn by Kane. Here he likes being in Sinbad's lamp, and is mistaken for a genie.

The Highwayman and the Mighty Mite (#6, April-May 1963). Using the Time Pool, the Atom goes back to 1739 England, where he encounters the notorious robber Dick Turpin. This is a minor story. Fox makes some technical improvements in the operation of the Time Pool. Fox makes Turpin be a relative of Ray Palmer, claiming his name is really Tom Palmer, and Kane draws him to look an awful lot like the Atom himself. Kane does a good job with some of the drawings of Turpin, especially the one with the flowing cape (p 6).

The Seaman and the Spyglass (1963). The Time Pool sends Ray back to 1609 Holland, where he meets some key figures in the history of science. This historical tale is pleasant, mainly because of the interesting people it depicts. The Atom's involvement is mainly that of an observer; he takes little direct role in the tale. Fox shows the scientists interacting; they have effects on each other in a positive way that somewhat recall the way one of Fox's cycles "interferes" with another.

The Time Pool stories used a whole Fox cycle, one that repeats in every tale. Its steps are:

In many ways, this is a typical Fox cycle. It returns the Atom to his same state at the beginning as at the end, like most Fox cycles. It involves the Atom journeying between two "worlds", the world of the past and the world of the present. Many Fox cycles involve such a shuttling back and forth, notably Adam Strange's trips between Earth and Rann, and the Flash's journeys to other dimensions and back.

What is highly unusual about the cycle is step two: the improvement in the Time Pool technology. It happens every time, so it is a regular part of the cycle. Yet it is a different improvement in each story. The improvements are cumulative. They are not forgotten about by Fox. Instead, we see a steadily improved invention, one that gets better in story after story. The whole series of improvements paints a vivid picture of the process of scientific invention.

Such an ever improving step in a Fox cycle is a rare event in this author's work. It requires a lot of ingenuity on the author's part. It also requires him to keep track of previous events in the series, which typically happened six months before (the Time Pool stories appeared roughly every three issues, in #3,6,9,12 17 and 21, plus a special reference in #18).

The time travel buffeting scene involves some good Kane abstract art in this tale. It involves both circular starbursts, and curved, swirling lines, that were used to represent the gas in "The "Disappearing Act" Robberies" (Showcase #36, January-February 1962).

The Gold Hunters of 49 (1964). The Time Pool takes Ray to the Baltimore of 1849, where Edgar Allan Poe solves an impossible crime. This is my favorite of the Time Pool tales. Poe is celebrated in the tale as the father of the detective story, and he makes a fitting appearance in this magazine which deals with mystery fiction.

Jules Verne's Crystal Ball (#17, February-March 1965). In 1888 Nantes, France, the Atom aids pioneer science fiction writer Jules Verne when his souvenir crystal ball is stolen by thieves who think it can predict the future. The tribute to Jules Verne in this story is pleasant. Annoying: equal time given to alleged prophet Nostradamus. In 1965, Fox began to introduce para-psychology, Charles Fort and other pseudo-science into The Atom. This seems most unfortunate, because up to this time the magazine had concentrated on genuine science.

Once again, we are told that Ray Palmer knows French, and so can understand everything around him.

The Adventure of the Canceled Birthday (1965). In 1752 London, the Atom helps Alpheus V. Hyatt's ancestor when his fifth birthday is canceled. Nice story is which Fox mixes several real life personages and a great deal of historical lore. Once again, Fox looks at the roots of his genres, here exploring early crime detection in London.

This story is similar to "The Highwayman and the Mighty Mite". Both look at a colorful 18th Century England of highwaymen and adventure; both show us ancestors of the central characters of the Time Pool series.

This story is unusual in that Ray Palmer actually influences history here. In Superman family stories, especially, it was a rule that it was impossible for a time traveler to change history, no matter how hard they struggle. This story blithely ignores any such notion, and has Ray make a contribution to the evolution of society in that period.

While having his adventure in the past, the Atom never switches back to his identity as Ray Palmer. His 20th Century clothes would be hard to explain, and make him conspicuous. I recall few or no scenes in which Ray resumes his full height, then tries to pass himself of as a native of an earlier historical era. Instead, he stays in his Atom role throughout. He tends to hide himself from others, and mainly interfere in fights. This story, however, has a delightful exception to this. It does not do anything as extreme as has Ray Palmer reveal himself to others. But it does have Ray resume his full size.

Science Fiction Inventions

The Atom's Phantom Double (#9, October-November 1963). A lab accident creates a phantom duplicate of Ray Palmer, who wants to take over his body and life. Convoluted story without much inspiration. The Phantom aspects of the double recall the Phantom Zone tales popular in the Superman family during this period. Doubles are one of Fox's perennial themes, and there is mild interest in the scene in which the Atom fights a judo match with his double.

The best bit has nothing to do with the main plot of the tale. It is one of the science tidbits in the tale, in which Ray uses a radiation detector to trail some crooks. Such trailing devices were very common in the Atom stories. The Atom series was at its core a detective comic book, and the Atom often trailed suspects, just like other detectives do. He often used a high tech, science based approach. This bit has a delightful inspiration out of proportion with the rest of this minor story.

Danger -- Atom-Gun at Work! (1964). A criminal develops a disintegrator ray gun that is powered by a captive Atom inside. This story is mainly a science fiction tale. Like most sf stories in the Atom, it concerns new technological events, taking place on Earth close to Ray's Ivy Town home. The events tend to be physics-based, in keeping with Ray Palmer's profession. Sf invention tales were a recurring element in the Atom stories, never dominant, but regularly present as a change of pace. They usually have a mystery aspect, involving crooks and thefts, in keeping with The Atom magazine's mystery orientation.

All of the educational details in the story are physics related as well. These must have been wonderful to kids in the 1960's, bringing them up to date on some genuinely fascinating new physics and robotics. They are still delightful today. I especially like the turtle. The science information in the Atom tales plays a somewhat similar role that the openings in exotic locations perform in the Adam Strange stories. Both are pieces of real world information that get included in an otherwise largely fictional tale. Both are somewhat distinct from the story around them, yet both have thematic similarities and ties to the fictional story that is unfolding. Both give an anchor in reality to the story that contains them.

This story involves a new Fox cycle. It has the following steps:

At the end of this cycle, the Atom is in the same state as in the beginning. As is often in Fox cycles, Fox includes an antidote, which reverses the initial effects of the cycle. We are not specifying the antidote event here, to avoid spoiling Fox's storytelling. The Atom-Gun is the centerpiece of Gil Kane's cover, one suspects Fox's cycle was invented to rationalize this cover, and build a story around it. It is one of several Kane covers in which the Atom is trapped inside some machine. The distinctive spiral piece of glass reminds us of Kane's interest in geometric forms.

This tale introduces Enrichetta Negrini, Ray's new grad student lab assistant from Italy. As a highly intellectual woman scientist, she gives further evidence of how respected scholarly women are in The Atom, along with woman lawyer Jean Loring.

Illusions For Sale (#15, October-November 1964). In this spy tale, Ray and his scientist friend have hallucinations in which they see events around them in different form from other people. The illusions are caused by an illusion machine, an sf invention. I enjoyed the illusions in the story. They are different from the hallucinations in other stories, in that they involve a different perspective by a single character. For example, the scientist sees it as raining one day, while everyone else sees sunshine. Such a solipsistic experience seems almost related to the Virtual Reality stories Fox wrote in the early 1950's, such as "The Perfect Planet" (Mystery in Space #9, August-September 1952) and "The Dream Adventurer" (Mystery in Space #10, October-November 1952). However here the protagonist is partially sharing experiences with everyone around him - they are all walking down the same city street - and is partially having a unique experience - seeing the weather differently. It is a very unusual idea.

This story does not keep to the paradigm of "Prisoner in a Test Tube" (1962) and "Ride a Deadly Grenade" (1964), although the letter column a few issues later treats them all as part of a single series of "spy stories". The illusions aside, it is much less creative than the earlier tales, being mainly action.

Gil Kane shows his skill at drawing scientific machinery in this tale. A panel on page 5 is especially striking, with a floor lamp in the foreground and machinery in the background. The three lights of the lamp are each pointing in a different direction, and they form a creative 3D design with the differently oriented human figures of the story.

Series Villains

The Time Trap (#3, October-November 1962) Chronos, the Time Thief, captures the Atom and imprisons him in his watch. The tale has a neat cover by Kane, showing the Atom in the watch, but the minor tale written around it is by the numbers. Chronos is the sort of theme oriented villain found more often in John Broome's Flash stories: everything he does is related to time. Just as in Broome's tales, we see the villain starting out as an ordinary convict, learning and obsessing over time, developing his persona, working as a watch repairman and horologist, etc. Broome does all this with a lot more pizzazz. Fox was always a lot more interested in his heroes than in his villains, which is not necessarily a bad thing! One can compare a far more successful tale written by Fox with a horologist hero: "The Invisible Dinosaur" (Strange Adventures #133, October 1961).

Fox does much better with some of the scientific ideas in the early part of the story, such as the historic clocks, and the Flying Sundial: the latter being a really neat idea. These concepts are in the educational tradition of The Atom. This is also the first Atom story with an alliterative title. Subsequent titles will be even more elaborate. Fox especially used alliteration for his stories concentrating on villains. The titles of the stories also focus on the villains' weapons, and the traps they lay for the Atom. These traps are often shown right on Gil Kane's covers.

The Diamond of Deadly Dooms (#5, February-March 1963). The Atom shrinks down to a microscopic universe inside a diamond. This is a minor tale. Its best feature is the microscopic world itself, Utolia, which is full of flying trees, animals and rocks floating in the air: a clever idea. This is the sort of little alien world which Gardner Fox could create: see the insect world in "The Green Lantern Disasters" (Green Lantern #23, September 1963). The name Utolia sounds like a cross between Utopia and Anatolia.

The Atom meets a globe trotting archaeologist here, who is basically similar to the Earth identity of Adam Strange, although considerably older. At one point, the story moves to Mount Pico in the Azores. This is the sort of exotic location Fox frequently used for his Adam Strange stories, although the Azores are in the Northern Hemisphere, and hence not eligible for Adam Strange.

Lockup in the Lethal Lightbulb (#8, August-September 1963). Dr. Light, a villain who uses light as a weapon, captures the Atom and puts him in a light bulb in a parallel universe. This is a minor tale, which brings back Dr. Light from his appearance in Justice League of America #12. Dr. Light is an appropriate villain to introduce in the physics oriented Atom. One of Dr. Light's nicknames is "The Prince of Photons", and the best panel in the story shows the Atom, reduced in size and traveling among numerous spherical photons of light. The Schwartz edited sf books had regularly showed heroes moving among spheres representing giant atoms. But this is the first time I can recall any hero traveling among the much smaller photons. The Atom will reduce himself to the size of a photon again in the much better tale, "The Super-Safecracker Who Defied the Law" (1964).

Weapon Watches of the Time-Wise Guy (#13, June-July 1964). The time thief Chronos returns, targeting valuable clocks smuggled in from the Iron Curtain. This minor tale is only a little better than the first Chronos story. It has a subplot about refugees from Hungary, recalling the earlier Hungary set "Prisoner in a Test Tube" (1962). Fox deserves credit for remembering the Hungarian uprising of 1956.

It is perhaps poetically appropriate that the Atom, who is a master of space, fights a villain who is obsessed with time. Space and time are the two most important subjects of physics, which is Ray Palmer's specialty. This gives an elemental quality to the Chronos series. The Atom's ability to physically get inside clocks is also interesting. Of all the ordinary objects one would like to see from the inside, clocks are perhaps the most charming and appealing. Some British mystery writers of the realist school wrote stories about clocks, notably R. Austin Freeman's Mr. Polton Explains (1940), and some of Dorothy L. Sayers' Montague Egg tales. It is odd that clocks in the Chronos stories are presented as good, whereas wristwatches are the source of sinister weaponry and traps for Chronos.

What is best in this story is the flow of information. No one character here knows everything. Instead, each of the key characters in the tale, the Atom, Jean and Chronos, keeps learning different partial facts about the case, in different ways. Jean explicitly wonders at one point how the Atom knew something. The Atom is gathering information in two modes, as Ray Palmer and as the Atom, and he has to be careful that his "information total" does not reveal his secret identity, to either Jean or Chronos.

The effect that ticking watches have in this tale's prison scenes recalls other Gardner Fox tales, such as the Space Museum story "Secret of the Tick-Tock World" (Strange Adventures #109, October 1959). Prison escapes occur regularly in The Atom tales. They are part of the mystery background of the magazine. Fox has a certain repertoire of crime fiction elements that he, Schwartz and the comics industry think are suitable for children's reading: thefts, hypnosis, tracking crooks, spies, prison escapes, traps involving poison gas, apparently fantastic events that turn out to be part of naturalistic criminal schemes. Fox will use these again and again to make up his stories.

A Revival

Whatever Happened to the Golden Age Atom? (1981). Writer: Bob Rozakis. Art: Alex Saviuk. The Earth 2 Atom begins to experience unusual powers. This tale resembles Silver Age tales in that it is very plot oriented. It offers pleasant character sketches of the Atom and his wife, but mainly it has an ingenious plot rooted in the Atom's mythos. The story is upbeat and happy, sticking to its graceful science fiction idea.