I will become small

Showcase Presents the Atom. Gardner Fox and Gil Kane. DC, 2007. $16.99, 528 pages.

Everybody knows that superheroes are wish-fulfilment figures. First, there’s the secret identity. Everyone wants to be special, and the secret identity cleverly embodies both the fantasy and the reality: in reality, I may be just schlubbish Clark Kent but in fantasy I am Superman. Whoosh—that’s the sound of me flying away to fight crime.

In my mind.

Second, the adventures. Saving a world that hates and fears you, scaring the superstitious and cowardly lot, making a deal with the devil to ruin your marriage and save your aunt from her three-hundredth brush with the grim reaper, and so on—all more interesting than humdrum everyday life. In principle, anyway.

And third, the most distinctive feature of superheroes, the superpowers of course. Who hasn’t ever dreamed of flying like Superman? Running like the Flash? Eating matter like Matter-Eater Lad?

Er, okay, maybe you haven’t dreamed of eating matter. Still, at the core of every superpower is a fantasy of power and being special. I am not like everyone else. I can bend steel bars/control the elements/shoot laser beams out of my eyes. Whoosh.

Even lame powers—even proverbially lame powers—are still powers. Talking to fish or bouncing around or turning into different “forms of water” might not keep you from getting your arse kicked by Doctor Doom. Or Turner D. Century, for that matter. But they’re still powers.

Which is what makes a book like DC Showcase Presents The Atom such an odd read. For what is the Atom’s superpower? He can shrink.

Now, shrinking certainly opens up plenty of opportunities for adventure, as seen in comics like the fondly-remembered Micronauts. And shrinking has a long history in comics, stretching back to Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland (and, to a lesser extent, his Dream of the Rarebit Fiend).

It’s worth talking about McCay a bit more, since little Nemo seemed to dream about shrinking every other week. The early Slumberland strips are structured with the pacing of a nightmare, the perils growing ever worse until the sleeping Nemo can handle no more and wakes himself up in the inevitable final panel. Shrinking was the perfect tool for McCay’s purposes: as Nemo grows smaller and smaller, even everyday objects or animals loom more and more dangerously. (Plus, McCay just loved messing with perspective; Nemo grew to giant-size as often as he shrank).

And that’s exactly the problem with shrinking as a superpower: it isn’t one. Sure, the Atom can control his mass when he shrinks so that his punches carry more force. But he’s still a teensy tiny little guy; he can be trapped in a test-tube (and sometimes is). Shrinking is a super-weakness, not a super-power. It makes you vulnerable. It’s like being made out of glass. Certainly, life would be dangerous if you were made of glass. It might well be interesting to read about how a person made of glass would navigate the dangers of everyday life created by her condition. But such a person could never be a superhero. There’s a reason it was Bruce Willis’ character, not Samuel L. Jackson’s, who was the hero of the (dreadful) film Unbreakable. Being made of glass, literally or metaphorically, kind of puts a damper on the whole fighting crime thing.

(While being allergic to water—as Jackson unforgettably tells Willis, “water is your kryptonite!”—apparently doesn’t. But I digress.)

In the stories reprinted in the Showcase volume, the poor little Atom is constantly being menaced by everyday objects, newly dangerous to him in his reduced state. The Atom is threatened by tweezers, light bulbs, domestic animals and, for all we know, specks of dust, feathers and powder puffs. What a revoltin development.

Not only is The Atom not a symbol of power-fantasy for a child reader, it symbolises the grim reality instead: you are a small thing in a world of giants, and their ordinary artefacts are dangerous to you. Obviously kids can relate to that, but why would they want to?

No wonder, then, that the Atom never managed to sustain his own title for too long. Nor did his Marvel counterpart, Ant-Man. It wasn’t long before they changed him into Giant Man. Come to think of it, when DC revived the Atom in the 80s they transformed him into a fantasy adventure hero and called the series Sword of the Atom.

Hmmm, Ant-Man becomes Giant Man, the Atom gets a sword. Psychoanalysts would call that overcompensating.

Thanks very much, I’ll be here all night. Tune in next time, when I suggest there may be something going on between Batman and Robin and that the Marston/Peters Wonder Woman sure did like getting tied up.

But, really, my point isn’t that there’s a sexual subtext to shrinking. I don’t actually buy that (notwithstanding Craig Yoe’s old gallery of suggestive Doll Man covers). The point is rather just that shrinking and superheroes don’t mix.

On the other hand, The Amazing Glass-Man would probably sell like gangbusters.

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