Saturday, December 22, 2007

My Ten Favorite Comics of 2007: The All-New Atom

"Stupid Jetpack Hitler!"

There's a problem common to DC Universe launches I like to call "Kyle Rayner Syndrome." It's when a new character is launched in an old identity (like Kyle Rayner as Green Lantern), and the character immediately meets resistance from fandom, not for any fault in the character or execution of the new book, but because the fans of the old guy refuse to touch it.

All-New Atom has a case of KRS so virulent it makes ebola look like jock itch. It's not just that the book's numbers are terrible; it's that they're terrible in spite of the presence of one of DC's most popular writers (and, for the first few issues, one of comics' modern living legends on the art chores). Which is a damn shame, because it's secretly one of the best books DC's been doing for the past year and a half.

The All-New Atom is Ryan Choi. Before the old Atom, Ray Palmer, left for parts unknown, he recommended Ryan, a longtime correspondent of his living in Hong Kong, to fill his teaching spot at Ivy University. Shortly after his arrival, Ryan found Ray's spare Atom costume and size-changing belt, and learned that Ray's various adventures in bending the laws of physics had caused Ivytown to become a nexus of improbability. In other words, there's an ancient god-being living in the sewers, a civilization of microscopic techno-freaks living on Ryan's dog, and a grammar-challenged floating head watching Happy Days in his living room. It's kinda fucked up, but in a way that's good for stories.

Under the pen of Gail Simone and the brush of Mike Norton, All-New Atom has become a fascinating bizarre adventure title plumbing the depths of the DC Universe. It mixes cutting-edge science (and pseudoscience) in the famous Julie Schwartz manner with the well-tested "awkward nerd gets superpowers" manner of superhero storytelling. Example: In the book's best arc of the year, "Jia," Ryan is called back to Hong Kong by the eponymous lady, his childhood unrequited love, who wants him to protect her from her homicidal husband, his childhood bully. The reason hubby is homicidal, though, is that she beat his brains out with a golf club, and he and his drinking buddies have come back from the grave to take revenge. Taking us on a journey through Ryan's adolescence and early adulthood, the story taps Chinese mythology, John Hughes movies, and the structure of the Bildungsroman to produce a very weird, but very heartfelt, journey through the mind of a fledgling hero with a heart of gold and feet of clay. And a bang-stick to hit people with.

And it goes on like this. Ryan traverses the multiverse in search of Ray (meeting Kyle Rayner along the way), ending up in a micro-world ravaged by religious schism and a fake heaven populated by jetpack-wearing superheroes. (And if there's a fake heaven, there has to be a fake hell, and now you know where that quote comes from.) At home, he faces an assault of mind-controlling pop groups, a date with a twenty-foot0tall woman, and the US government (and his best friend) trying to kill him.

All-New Atom is, at various points, hilarious, thrilling, heartwrenching, uplifting, logical, irrational, and super-scientific adventure fiction at its finest. Its hero is not particularly good at keeping his secret identity a secret, and gets led around by his equipment by an expert femme fatale, but he's brilliant, honest, loyal, resourceful, and nowhere near easy to put down for the count. You find yourself rooting for him because, deep down, we all want to see the nice guy finish first for once.

I've barely begun to touch on so many aspects of this book (the running sequitur quotes from famous scientists and thinkers; the Amish occultists; Ryan's continual inability to teach a class without screwing up or getting attacked; Lady Cop) that make it an enjoyable read, and just the kind of comics people keep saying they want, then not buying. The book's pulling numbers in the high teens now, and the Simone/Norton team leaves in February. While the new crew, Rick Remender and Pat Oliffe, are good blokes, I can't see them setting the charts on fire. Barring an act of God, or an extremely sympathetic editor, I doubt All-New Atom will make it all the way through its first year.

Which is such a shame, because this is such a good book. And Ryan is such a good character. No, he's not Ray, but that's hardly his fault. There's nothing wrong with legacy heroes; if there were, Ray himself would never have taken over from Al Pratt. Good comics like this deserve a fair chance to succeed, and to thrive, and I can't say it doesn't bug me to see them dismissed out of hand because of the audience's fear of change. Still, I'm thankful for every issue I do get of this goofy, awesome fun-house-thrill-ride of a comic.

And the covers by Ladronn are feakin' gorgeous.

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