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All-New Atom #5

Posted: Monday, November 20, 2006
By: Thom Young



“My Life in Miniature: Part Five: Redline Shift”

Writer: Gail Simone
Artists: Eddy Barrows (p), Trevor Scott (i)

Publisher: DC Comics


I believe Gail Simone believes she’s writing The All-New Atom with a great deal of humor. Last month we had the all-new Atom standing in classic superhero pose with fists on hips and a goofy look on his face as he shouted “Take that, alien dorks!” at the parasitic creatures that live on dogs. (No, he wasn’t shouting at fleas..., at least, not exactly. The tiny parasitic people who live on dogs are called “The Waiting.” I was waiting to know why, but I won’t wait any longer.)

Anyway, this month we have several bits that I believe are supposed to be funny.

First, we continue to have the running gag of The Waiting speaking in sentences with peculiar syntactical structures and random shifts between verb tenses, such as, “Yesterday, giant world beings were have stupid, eating mainly each other and vegetables, and with scratching of their own loins.”

Initially, I didn’t believe this dialog was supposed to be amusing. I thought it was supposed to be “alien.” It only bothered me because it doesn’t seem to follow any set rule as to how the verb tenses get shifted, such as past tense verbs always being shifted to future perfect, et cetera.

However, I let it go even though I thought Simone could do more with this game of odd syntax and shifting verb tense. I would have liked to have seen it used as an exploration of how language creates our view of reality. It would have been interesting to see what insights into our perception of reality could have been achieved if she had applied specific post-structural principles to the sentence structures used by The Waiting.

Regardless, in light of other supposedly humorous bits in this issue, I’ve now decided that Simone has been writing The Waiting’s dialog the way she has because she thinks it’s hilarious. And it would be hilarious . . . in another context.

Second, we have Dr. Mayland (an Ivy University dean) intervening in Dr. Ryan Choi’s life by bringing Choi’s father over from China. At first, I was astounded that Simone would have a university dean contact the parent of one of the university’s professors. As an English professor, I can’t imagine either my department chair or the dean of the liberal arts college calling my parents for any reason short of my death.

However, I then considered what I would do if my department chair or dean actually did call my father and told him that I had become emotionally unstable, and that he needed to fly across the country to take me back to Idaho. It was this thought that caused me to realize that Simone may be intentionally playing with the notion of absurdism.

However, because Dr. Mayland is also one of the villains of the story (and seems to be in league with The Waiting), this plot point has an even bigger problem than being inappropriately absurd. Within the story, Dr. Mayland’s call to Dr. Choi’s father can’t simply be attributed to the dean having an idiotic way of getting Choi out of the way in preparation for the invasion by The Waiting.

Why? Because the dean had already hired a psychotic hit man with a knife fetish to kill Choi (after providing that psychotic hit man with his own Ray Palmer devices so he can shrink down to subatomic size).

As this contradiction dawned on me, I became more convinced that Simone is playing around with absurdist humor. Simone must think it’s hilarious to have the father of a tenure-track professor come halfway around the world to discipline his PhD son for causing a disturbance on campus. Again, it would be . . . in another context.

Third, we have Choi and Panda fight off a mini-invasion of Choi’s house by a giant, floating head (and its two lackeys). After disposing of the lackeys, Choi and Panda fend off the giant, floating head by punching it in the nose (I kid you not). The floating head shouts, “Death or submission! Ow. Death or . . . ow” as Choi and Panda punch.

Then, once they’ve subdued this giant, floating alien head with their punches to its nose, they put a bandage across its forehead, tape its mouth shut, and stuff it in Choi’s kitchen pantry. Later, Choi’s father fails to notice it as he looks for a tin of loose Oolong tea. Of course, all of this would be hilarious . . . in another context.

I’m a firm believer that any story concept can be made to work . . . within the proper context. The problem is that The All-New Atom seemed to start off as a fairly straightforward science fiction superhero series that didn’t deviate much from the old Ray Palmer concept established by Julius Schwartz and Gardner Fox 45 years ago.

The only real difference is that Palmer has been replaced by Choi (as the all-new Atom). Other than that, Simone and John Byrne (the original illustrator) had created a science fiction plot of an invasion by aliens from a subatomic world that could only be thwarted by the all-new Atom.

The supporting cast was “quirky,” consisting of a clichéd group of eccentric university professors and a pretty, blonde co-ed who kept making passes at Choi. I enjoyed those first three issues, plus the preview in DCU: Brave New World. My only complaint was a single incidence of bad expository dialog in the preview. After the first two issues, The All-New Atom quickly made its way to the top of my reading list each month as it was becoming one of my favorite series.

However, it has now become a title that I’ve decided to drop even though the writer remains the same (and the writing is almost always more important to me than the illustrations, and this series is no exception). Despite the fact that I don’t care for Eddy Barrows pencils at all, I’m not dropping the series because DC changed illustrators. Rather, I’m dropping it due to what I perceive as a change in Simone’s approach to the material.

The absurd elements that started creeping in last issue (and that have inundated this issue) come off as stupid within the context that was expecting after the first three issues. Don’t get me wrong, I love absurdist literature. Two of my all-time favorite plays are Waiting for Godot and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, and Samuel Beckett’s collection of short stories More Pricks than Kicks is simply a fantastic book.

However, the absurdist elements in such works go beyond being humorous (which they are). Absurdist literature should comment on the absurdity of everyday life, usually by focusing on the poor condition of humanity’s spiritual, philosophical, and/or cultural foundations. Unfortunately, the absurdity in The All-New Atom doesn’t do any of that. Instead, it just seems silly for no reason other than silliness.

The proper superhero comic book context for the absurd elements that Simone has introduced in her story is Plastic Man. I didn’t read the recent Kyle Baker series, but I’ve read the old Jack Cole stories (as well as the old Steve Skeates and Ramona Fradon stories).

One of the things that a good Plastic Man story should do is point out the absurdity of the human condition. Within the context of a Plastic Man story, Simone’s absurd story elements would have been truly hilarious, and I may have bought such a Plastic Man story. As it is, though, this is my final issue of The All-New Atom.



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