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Atom 23
"Riddle of the Far-Out Robbery!"

COVER IMAGE NOT FOUND As long as we're doing holiday reviews...

Feb-Mar 1966
Story by Gardner Fox Art by Gil Kane and Sid Greene

I know what you're thinking: "Atom #23? A holiday story? What th'?" Just be patient...

Detective Inspector Bill Ames (who looks an awful lot like a middle aged Fred MacMurray) is investigating a case at Nuclear Laboratories, Inc. in Ivy Town. As he's conferring with Dr. Barnes, the lab director, the Atom arrives through a nearby window and announces that the case is solved. The two men are amazed! Ames knew the Atom was good, but to have solved a crime before he was even told about it...! Atom asks Dr. Barnes to tell him how the case began, and he'll pick up the story from there.

Dr. Barnes explains how his company has been developing Radion-Balls, nuclear fuel cells to be used in spacecraft of the future. Yesterday, he was removing a Radion-Ball from storage, when it suddenly vanished from the waldo's grasp right before his eyes! When he dictated a report on the inexplicable incident for the government, his secretary suggested that the ball might have been stolen by an invisible thief. Barnes thought this to be sheer nonsense, but to be on the safe side, he called in the police.

Atom then picks up the story. He explains that yesterday he was passing near the lab, when his uniform began to emit a strange blue glow. He then noticed a bulbous-headed humanoid leaving the lab, walking right through the wall, carrying a glowing orb. From the reactions of passers-by, Atom concluded that the alien was invisible to others, and that only the orb's radiation reacting with the white dwarf matter of his costume enabled him to see what others couldn't. Suspecting that the alien had stolen the sphere from the lab, Atom moved to apprehend him.

A couple walking by saw what appeared to be the Atom swinging his fists at empty air. The husband (who somewhat resembled Sid Caesar) suggested that this was his way of keeping in shape. But when the Atom appeared to be losing his shadow-boxing match, the wife decided that this was too weird a spectacle, and insisted they move on.

The alien then drew a weapon which enveloped Atom in multi-colored bubbles, carrying him up and away. By the time the bubbles popped, the alien had gotten a headstart. Atom followed on the wind currents, catching up with him just as he entered his invisible ship. Still groggy from the fight, Atom could only watch as his opponent adapted the Radion-Ball to his ship's engine, and took off into hyper-space.

The Atom then explains to Ames and Barnes that, as he later learned, the alien was named Oban Thokol, and he was the hero of the planet Davarian. The evil Krommer Pav had opened up a fissure in the surface of Davarian, spewing out poisonous gases, and he demanded to be named ruler of the planet or millions would die from the fumes. Oban Thokol was on a mission in another galaxy, and needed two days to return to his homeworld with a sackful of chemicals that could neutralize Krommer Pav's poisons. But his ship was short on fuel, and he had to land on Earth to borrow a new fuel source.

As Thokol and Atom landed on Davarian, they were ambushed by Pav's henchmen. Atom assisted Thokol in the fight, but the pair was overcome and incarcerated in an inescapable light-prison (which resembled a cube of stained glass). Their captors had not reckoned with the power of the Atom, though, and by reducing himself to submolecular size he escaped the cell by racing between the photons. Locating the sack of chemical antidote, he distracted Pav and his assistant by dragging it across the room, then slipped through the cracks in the floor, came up behind them, and clobbered them with a heavy microphone. He then put them out of action with a bubble-gun, dumped the antidote into the fissure, and released Oban Thokol from his cell, saving the day.

He concludes the story by telling Ames and Barnes that, since Oban Thokol had only intended to borrow the Radion-Ball, he would be returning it to the lab shortly. Inspector Ames is impressed... he thinks that this is the most amazing adventure the Atom has ever had. Dr. Barnes agrees, saying that it sounds too incredible to be true.

Atom tells Barnes that he's right... not a word of the story IS true. It's been months since he's had a really exciting adventure, so he decided to make one up just for fun. The truth is that Enrichetta Negrini, Ray Palmer's lab assistant at Ivy University, was conducting experiments in her pet project, hyperspace travel. Her magnetic probe accidentally grabbed hold of the Radion-Ball and teleported it into hyperspace. She's since corrected the problem, and will be bringing the ball back in a few moments. Atom, Ames, and Barnes watch through the shielded glass window at the Radion-Ball reappears in the pile chamber.

The Atom leaves through the window, as the men wonder... Ames likes the excitement of the Oban Thokol story, while Barnes prefers the logical simplicity of the hyperspace explanation... but will they ever know for sure which one is true?

Personal note: When I was six and just getting into comics, my parents left a stack of comics under the Christmas tree for me. There's a photo in the family album of little Bob reading this issue. I still vividly remember sitting on the floor by the tree, with its blinking lights, watching the Atom race through the maze of multi-colored photons. Those two images have been linked in my mind ever since, and I rarely see a Christmas tree without thinking of the Atom. I've reread this story almost every Christmas season since then.

The letterer of the story, whoever he was, must not have been accustomed to space opera names. The villain is called Krommer Pav three times, Kommer Pav twice, and Krommer Dav once.

Enrichetta Negrini's hyperspace experiments also caused trouble in Atom #15, and almost destroyed Earths-One and Two in the 1966 JLA-JSA teamup. It took the combined efforts of the Atom and the Spectre to save both worlds. And you thought Batman and Superman was a mismatched team...!

He may not have been DC's most impressive superhero, but I always thought the Atom had some of the most consistently entertaining stories of the Silver Age. In his magazine's short run, his adventures ran the gamut of science fiction, fantasy, murder mystery, espionage, historical fiction, straight crimefighting, and campy humor, and he never seemed out of place. Many of the concepts were totally off the wall, and the dialogue was often cringeworthy, but Gardner Fox's writing was usually solid and the artwork was some of Gil Kane's best.

-- Bob