The Atom is a fine example of what one might call, with no disrespect intended, the Silver Medal class of DC heroes. These are characters who are hard-working, successful, and enduring but who never manage to break into the front ranks. The current TV show, Legends of Tomorrow, incorporated this aspect of the character into its storyline when Ray Palmer, the Atom, played by Brandon Routh, observed that he died – naturally a temporary comic-book death – and no one seemed to miss him very much. Now, that is of an over-the-top dismissal, particularly when one considers Al Pratt, the original Atom who first joined the adventures of the Justice Society of America in 1940. Pratt served as a valued and stalwart member of the JSA for decades, although his signature powers never included shrinking, which I suspect most people associate with the Atom. Ray Palmer, who made his debut in 1961, introduced that aspect of the character.
In Justice League of America: The Atom Rebirth #1, writer Steve Orlando folds decades of the Atom’s history into one dense, well-crafted story. Ray Palmer is now a professor of physics at Ivy University. Ryan Choi, his successor in a previous continuity, is his protege. Meanwhile, Adam Cray, himself an Atom of the previous universe, appears as Ryan’s roommate. Orlando wisely plays the historical references quietly, allowing longtime fans to revel in the deep story while newcomers simply enjoy the tale at hand. Instead of exploring the many levels of reference, Orlando focuses on character. Ryan, an immigrant from Hong Kong, is a bundle of insecurity and neuroses, his sense of inferiority a plain metaphor referencing the smallness of the microscopic world in which the Atom’s adventures play out. Ray Palmer is brilliant and heroic, but also distracted and somewhat cold. The Atom has always been one of DC’s more scientific heroes, and Orlando invokes the time-worn trope of the distant, slightly inhuman genius with enough clarity to convince while maintaining a touch light enough to keep the cliche from overwhelming the story. In the end, Orlando skillfully knits this book to the panels of DC Universe Rebirth that revealed Ray Palmer is trapped, lost while trying to investigate an anomaly in the nanostructure of the timeline. One senses the blue hand of Doctor Manhattan at work.
Andy MacDonald makes use of a relatively simple pattern of panels slightly differing in size, skillfully inserting the occasional splash page to highlight key moments and developments. This arrangement provides a sense of regularity to the narrative while providing enough variety to hold visual interest. His figures are elongated and somewhat disproportionate, as if the reader is looking through a slightly distorted lense or viewing a film projected in off-kilter ratios. Combined with John Rauch’s color palette of subdued blues and greens, we have the impression of a documentary aged just enough to be out of style.
The story of the Atom as well begun for this era of DC history. The question remains of how Ryan Choi will figure in the greater struggle against Doctor Manhattan. The fault in the nanostructure of time may well be a mission for the new Justice League of America. But then, the new team has to have something to do, doesn't It?