Friday, July 9, 2010

On a successful destruction of another part of my childhood

I've told these stories before, but I told them long enough ago I think I can get away with telling them again. I've always had a sort of emotional attachment to The Atom, DC's Silver-age version of the Mighty Mite. One of my few memories of my father is of him reading me the origin of the Atom. And from way back then, I remembered Ray Palmer's little mnemonic for the difference between stalactites and stalagmites -

Stalactite has a 'C' in it! Let that stand for Ceiling! Stalagmite has a 'G' in it! Let that stand for ground!
Over a decade and change later, in high school Earth Science class, our teacher had just finished this really horrible story that was supposed to help us remember the difference between stalactites and stalagmites. As soon as he finished, I raised my hand, and quoted Professor Palmer's mnemonic perfectly. My teacher looked at me, and to paraphrase Robin Harris, he hung up cause he knew I was right.

So suffice to say, I know the origin of the Atom pretty well. Ray Palmer finds a piece of dwarf star matter and uses it to perfect his shrink ray. By passing sunlight through a lens he created (now with a dwarf star coating) he can shrink things, but they promptly explode due to instability. During a spelunking expedition (from which came the aforementioned mnemonic) there's a cave-in, trapping the class. He happens to have the lens with him, so he decides to sacrifice himself by using it on himself. He sets the lens between two outcroppings and aims a beam of sunlight through it. He succeeds and makes a small hole large enough to let everyone escape. With seconds to go before he expects to explode, he passes through the beam again, and is surprised and relieved to find out he is restored to normal. Apparently some water dripped onto the lens, water that passed through the walls of the cave and picked up trace minerals that somehow stabilized the shrinking process. He retrieves the lens and helps everyone escape through the opening he created. And by his next appearance he perfected the process, made himself a costume and joined the DC pantheon of heroes.

Now that's pretty much a textbook silver-age origin. A series of wild coincidences, some pseudo science and heaping helping of OH, COME ON. But it works. It's a jumping off point, it's a story that doesn't need to be addressed all that often and serves to get the hero into the costume. It's not changed one iota (which would have been a great name for the character as well) since it was written. Through Crisis and revamp, Ray's simple tale has remained unassailed. The only nod to reality it got was the space rock was now merely infused with Dwarf Star Matter, as opposed to being a solid chunk. I believe that tweak came some time back, as some clever arse noticed that a solid piece of dwarf star matter A) wouldn't exist since stars are made of incendescent gas, and B) would weigh something like 14 godzillion pounds (or 6.350293178 godzillion kilograms). But other than that, nothing.

Until yesterday, when Jeff (Sweet Tooth) Lemire all but entirely rewrote it in the Brightest Day Atom Special.

Now here's where you expect the old fart comics fan to rail and moan about change for the sake of change, and how it was perfectly acceptable before and why did it have to ruin it, yakkity schmakkity blither blather.

But here's the thing. He NAILED it. He makes several major changes, but none are negative, and none make Ray any less Ray.

Let me explain. There's a sort of paradoxical concept from literature know as the Ship of Theseus. They all center around the idea that a beloved object, over time, gets fixed, parts replaced, and eventually, there's not a bit of the original object left, but it's still that object. Terry Pratchett used the "my Grandfather's Axe" version of the story twice, once in Strata and more recently in The Fifth Elephant. The point is, you can swap out all the bits of something, but if you're careful, never lose the intrinsic…thingness of the thing.

Sometimes some comic revamps are so radical they DO lose "the thing and the whole of the thing". The threatened Fantastic Four moving to the suburbs, for example. And in most cases, the really embarrassing missteps go away, either via another revamp or just a sort of embarrassed shuffling of the feet and everyone kind of agreeing to never mention that again. But here, the changes are not outlandish, and even when they contradict previous stories, they do so in ways that interest me, and not outrage me.

Case in point - In the new origin, he perfects the shrinking process himself, as opposed to a freak accident involving dripping water. It's not as exciting and dramatic, but it actually makes Ray a BETTER scientist. He solved his own problem, as opposed to a lucky accident.

In the new origin, he already had the costume ready. Well, so what? Come on, he says it himself, you don't build a shrink ray without at least thinking of using it on yourself. And he explains that the suit is to house the shrinking apparatus and not just to save people and get babes. It's similar to the idea they tried in the Flash TV series, that the suit was originally designed to monitor his vitals and keep from overheating (tho how wearing foam rubber from head to toe keeps you from overheating is beyond me). Having his first appearance still be connected to a cave-in is a nice tip of the hat to the original story.

Jeff's also added a whole family for Ray to have sad memories about. Now to be fair, that's becoming somewhat de rigueur nowadays, as in Geoff Johns' revamps of both Green Lantern and Flash. And it seems pretty obvious to me that Ray's mysterious uncle is either...

A) His real father
B) Himself, or possibly one of his enemies (most likely Chronos or someone with access to the Time Pool) trying to make sure his eventual adulthood and shrink-ray creation goes smoothly.
C) Some mad combination of the two.

Don't get me wrong, these are pretty major changes. But like so many DC characters, The Atom went through more than a few radical changes in vector. He became a teeny-weeny John Carter Of The Front Lawn, got de-aged to a teenager, and had more shit piled onto his fragile psyche by his ex-wife than any one man deserves. Roger Stern gave him a family background in the Power of the Atom series - supposedly he's an only child. But AFAIC, since that was added DECADES after the character first appeared, it's not quite the same level of cement-solid canon as other details.

Now I won't lie to you, I REALLY liked Ryan Choi. Or perhaps more correctly, I liked Gail Simone's writing on All New Atom, and the absolutely wacky concepts she introduced. Of them all, the idea that Ivy Town, as a result of all the quantum compression, time travel and dimensional experimentation it's hosted over the years, is now parked halfway into the Outer Limits. I LOVED that. It was an easy setup for a ridiculous amount of story ideas. It's something I'd sorely love to see again.

But by re-telling Ray's origin, Jeff gives a whole new audience a chance to jump on with the character, and pretty much takes him back closer to his original concept than he's been at for quite a long time. He's more sure of himself, no more of that "size=self-esteem" crap. He's back at Ivy U, with Professor Hyatt. And he's a hero again.  These are good things.

In short, Jeff ends up with a story that is still the story my father told me.

Tell you what, Jeff...have him use the Stalactite/Stalagmite story in a future episode, and it'll be perfect.

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