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Showcase 34
"Birth of the Atom!"

COVER IMAGE NOT FOUND September/October, 1961

Writer: Gardner Fox Artist: Gil Kane Inker: Murphy Anderson Editor: Julie Schwartz

With the aid of a white dwarf star and some sunlight, a new star made his way to the Silver Age in the form of Ray Palmer, the scientist who would shortly become the Atom!

Ever wonder about those comic book scientists who aren't as prominent as Reed Richards, and have their own setbacks, which have nothing to do with curing their best friends of their stony complexions?

Ray Palmer hadn't yet acquired the colorful costume of the Atom, but in this story by Gardner Fox, Murphy Anderson, and edited by Julie Schwartz, he learned what it took to be a hero, as well as imparting some practical scientific knowledge to those future geologists in the Silver Age reading audience.

Best of all, his fiancee, Jean Loring, had her own profession as a lawyer and wasn't obsessed with finding out about what Ray was up to with his experiments, while he thinks that she's the best thing that ever happened to him. Find out what happens when Ray discovers what really "matters" in "Birth of the Atom!" Although he has his size-changing abilities, it is his scientific mind which enables him to make use of these abilities.

At the nuclear physics lab on the campus of Ivy University, Ray Palmer shines an ultraviolet light through a special lens onto a wooden chair. The chair begins to shrink until it is only a few inches high, as Ray kneels before the tiny object and sees if experiment #145 experiences the same results as the other 144. BAMM! The chair explodes into splinters as Ray Palmer is determined to prove that matter can be compressed into a small space. He presses his tape recorder and thinks about how farmers could grow more food on the same land, while a single freight train could transport the goods that several ordinarily would.

Ray remembers when he came across a meteor which fell out of the sky and landed nearby. After some digging, he pulled a piece of the white dwarf star to the surface, realizing that this piece probably struck another in space. He's aware that white dwarf stars are dense because they're formed of degenerate matter from which the electrons have been stripped, greatly compressing them. It is with this piece of white dwarf that he hopes to learn how to compress matter without losing its physical and chemical properties, which is how he designed the lens. Ray began with shrinking his typewriter (no doubt knowing that personal computers were on the way).

But his experiments would end explosively due to the instability of the compressed atoms. As he switches off his recorder, he turns and sees Jean Loring enter the room. He's glad to see her, dressed in the latest 1961 fashions, complete with Jackie Kennedy pillbox hat. Since her court case has ended early, she decided to accompany Ray on his nature club hike. Whipping out an engagement ring, Ray proposes to Jean, who's determined to prove successful as a lawyer before she gives up her career and settles down, while Ray is determined to prove himself as a research scientist. Jean wonders about his latest experiments, which he's hidden from her, until he's successful. An hour passes and we find Ray and Jean leading their fellow nature lovers on a hike. Ray's amazed that Jean only took two years to go through law school and he's determined to be worthy of her.

In the giant caverns, Ray advises the others on the collection of rock samples, as they explore the underground caves. In the grottoes, Ray asks the group what the calcium deposits on the ground and on the ceiling are called. One student says stalgmites on the ceiling, while another says stalactites, but Ray points out that stalactites hang from the ceiling, "C" for ceiling and stalagmites are "G" for ground. (Gee, I feel smarter already!) RRROAR! Part of the ceiling caves in, blocking the passageway! When the falling rocks and dust settle, Ray and the others strive to find a way out, realizing that natural gas seeps from the floor at irregular intervals.

Ray pulls Jean aside and tells her that he's going to look for another way out. He's aware that no one on the outside knows of their peril, but he's determined to save the kids, regardless. A half hour later, Ray's eyes spy a tiny hole on the ceiling, which only an ant could crawl through, but this gives him an intriguing idea. Quickly, he places two large flat rocks onto two stalagmites and places the lens atop the rocks, intending to stand beneath its rays, as he adjusts it to focus on his entire body, pausing only to leave the diamond ring off to one side.

As the ray of sunlight strikes the lens, Ray Palmer begins to shrink... until he rushes from the light and grabs the diamond ring, placing it over one shoulder, as he heads for the cavern wall, where he sees several hand and toe holds. Using his size to his advantage, he realizes that he's grown stronger than he was at normal size, and hopes that it'll be enough to save Jean and the kids.

Using the diamond ring, he cuts a gash into the tiny hole, soon making it large enough for normal-sized people to escape through. Ray feels strange rumblings in his body and realizes that he may not have much time left. He flings the diamond ring to the ground and leaps down, using it as a target.

He races between the twin stalagmites and feels shock waves ripple through him as he regains his proper size, attributing this to some water which dripped from the rock ceiling, and figures that some special chemical must have played a part in his survival. Ray returns to the group and mentions the tunnel, but Jean is aware of no tunnel when they both explored the caves on a previous occasion. Ray points to the opening and tells Jean that he enlarged the opening, but realizes that Jean is liable to ask him how he was able to scale the smooth rock walls... (Hey, well, at least he didn't have to worry about a secret identity yet, and he did tell Jean the truth!)

He lifts Jean to the opening as a hand stretches to lift her to safety, unconcerned how her fiancee was able to dig the tunnel if everyone is saved. Ray's anxious to test his reducing lens and his hypothesis about the chemically-treated water. But at the lab, another object meets an explosive end, as the water is of no consequence whatsoever. Ray speaks into his tape recorder and comes to the realization that some force in his own body enables him to control his size-changes, and further experiments will enable him to tackle this problem. Since he is now able to turn into a human atom, who knows what strange adventures, if not tales may happen to him next?

Yessir, Garder Fox, Gil Kane, Murphy Anderson, and Julie Schwartz gave us another Silver Age star with scientist Ray Palmer, the Atom! I love the dramatic transformation as illustrated by Gil and Murphy. Gil Kane is renowned for truly dramatic action shots, while Murphy Anderson embellishes them with dynamic delineation.

The splash page illustration of Ray Palmer surrounded by the now-familiar atomic symbol - as the horizon is lit, neither by the moon, the sun, nor the stars in the sky, but micro-worlds -- is incredible.

I like the fact that Ray isn't successful at first with his experiments, but they prove to come in handy for when Jean and the nature club need his aid. Reed Richards he isn't, but he's a scientist, first with an inquiring mind.

It was nice being acquainted with Jean Loring, a person with a profession, who wants to establish her career before she settles down. No jealousy, no pettiness between the two, and it makes me wish that this Silver Age couple wouldn't experience the breakup they'd have in the early 1980s. Oh, well... there's always Hypertime!

What I enjoy about the Schwartz-edited stories is how we learn a bit about science and not feel like it's being injected just to gloss over the lack of action. I got an impression that the character of Ray enjoys science and geology, and sincerely wishes to impart this information with other inquiring minds.

It was symbolic of Ray to use the diamond ring as an escape device and the way that we know he's a hero is because he didn't place the diamond ring under those rays for profit. Of course, it would have exploded...

Steve Chung
"Birth of the Review!"