Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Dr. Solar, Man of the Atom Archives Vol. 1 Reviewed

Dr. Solar, Man of the Atom #1(Oct. 1962).
“Solar's Secret.” Grade: A+. I can't say if this art was a house style at Gold Key or not, but the borderless panels, minimalist sound effects, and box-shaped word balloons definitely feel fresh and different even after 46 years! The art is gorgeous and dynamic. The characters are interesting and both written and drawn to be distinctive from each other. A sense of drama completes this compellingly science-based origin story.
“Atomic Inferno.” Grade: A+. This story, really part 2 of the origin, highlights the remarkable versatility of the Man of the Atom as a superhero, being both enormously powerful and very vulnerable. The action and danger is tense and realistic, particularly when Gail is in danger. Dr. Rasp is like Ivan in the Hulk's origin, the man inadvertently responsible for it all, but even more sympathetic.
Dr. Solar, Man of the Atom #2 (Dec. 1962).
“Remote-Control Traitor.” Grade: A. In synopsis, as presented here, Solar's origin looks even more like the Hulk's, though instead of being a monster he's more of a ghost, like a sci fi-version of the Spectre. As such, it becomes increasingly clear that any real suspense will come from endangering Gail. That our expectations are reversed so quickly by making Gail a would-be assassin is very clever writing.
“Night of the Volcano.” Grade: B. A promising premise that makes a surprisingly slight story. It's hard to say if stories like this, where Solar needs Dr. Clarkson to literally ride to the rescue, are highlighting the supporting cast or undermining Solar's credentials as a superhero.
Dr. Solar, Man of the Atom #3 (Mar. 1963).
“Hidden Hands.” Grade: A-. The mystery of an invisible man drags out a little long (didn’t we all know that’s how all those objects moved?) and Dr. Solar doesn’t so much solve it so much as he keeps coincidentally running into him, but once the President is in danger the drama really ratchets up. Magnetizing an invisible foe is a solution I’ve not seen done since then.

Nuro, the man behind the scenes, was probably intended to be like James Bond's Blofeld (or resembling the post-Crisis Lex Luthor). Here is a man capable of great scientific thought, yet he's not a scientist. Other scientists are employed by him like thugs, all tools for his manipulation.

“Solar’s Deadly Double.” Grade: B-. Dr. Solar’s “Superman red, Superman blue” story doesn’t create an evil duplicate so much as an annoying one that seems intent on messing with Solar for no reason. Just as the “Gail’s in danger” thing is starting to get old, Gail gets menaced by something new – hailstones! I like that, while the weather machine represents the “science is bad” trope, it is a cyclotron, another machine, that saves the day. This is nicely mirrored with the rainbows – the first indicating danger and the second, at the end, being a sign of hope.
Dr. Solar, Man of the Atom #4 (Jun. 1963)
“Deadly Sea.” Grade: B+. This is a strong story, leading with a plot hook about dead fish and building to a climax where Nuro must be stopped from using radiation to mine gold out of the ocean. Perhaps because Nuro and Solar come so close to meeting in this story and Nuro is acting on his own instead of through underlings, Nuro finally begins to emerge as a threat to be taken seriously. The science seems stronger again this issue, with Nuro and Solar using their knowledge of chemistry to counter each other. And yet...the need to find new ways to get radiation to Solar when he's used up his energy is already starting to look like a cliché. At least Dr. Clarkson doesn't save him again, but the nuclear explosion just seems too convenient.
“Treacherous Trap.” Grade: A-. Here comes the soap opera! Thor Neilsen shows up in Atom Valley as a love interest for Gail and a rival for Solar. He's neither dashing nor evil; he's just a nice guy and a good scientist – which makes it all the more ironic when Thor's radiation-draining machine inadvertently becomes Solar's deadliest threat yet. Sadly, this is another “Dr. Clarkson saves the day” story. Also, the monitors that Solar uses to watch Gail and Thor are like the viewscreen on Star Trek – Solar can see anything on it. It raises privacy issues that are never addressed. Must science and surveillance go hand in hand?
Dr. Solar, Man of the Atom #5 (Sep. 1963)
“Crystallized Killers.” Grade: B. There are some nice bits here, like the juxtaposed panels of two men unlocking doors, hinting at their parallel paths, the nice puzzle of being trapped in the expanding crystal (though it is too easily solved, and if force expands the crystal, then why not shoot it with the gun again rather than spend minutes hammering on it with fists?), and most interesting of all is the reversal of the costume trope – here, Solar is wearing a half-cape and gloves in his real identity, but, before using his powers, strips down to his T-shirt.

As an aside, it is interesting to note how pervasive, and diverse, is the use of duality as a meta-textual theme in the Solar stories. All superhero stories deal with duality to some degree, even if it's just good vs. evil. Here, though, we have the benefits vs. the drawbacks of science, life vs. death, one life path vs. another, two different versions of oneself, and choosing one man over another. We see more of this “rule of two” in “The Crystallized Killers”, where the crooks disguise themselves as twins. Those same crooks are, in the end, to be judged as either insane and innocent or lying and guilty. There is no room for third alternatives in stories running 16 or fewer pages long – the solution always has to be one or the other. And the penalty for the wrong choice is usually severe; the death penalty for the two crooks shows us how harsh life is to those who make the wrong choice.

“New Man of the Atom.” Grade: B+. It had to happen! Solar finally gets a superhero costume. The reason is a bit odd – a delayed side effect of the radiation keeping him alive is that his hair turns white with one black streak down the middle, making him look more distinctive and harder for him to act anonymously (apparently, no one thought about hair dye). The really important thing is that Gail notices and, instead of coming up with some elaborate scheme to trick Gail, Solar comes right out and tells her the truth finally (and many years before Clark would tell Lois!). The Superman parallels continue, with Solar ripping open his shirt ala Superman, revealing his costume underneath for the first time. When he does go into action, the threat is rather mundane – two guys with flame throwers – and it's not too credible when the author tries to up the ante by suggesting the fire they've started could accidentally trigger a nuclear missile in a nearby silo (what is THAT doing in a populated area??). Interestingly, Nuro calls the Man of the Atom a “supernatural creature with extraordinary powers”. It's an interesting choice of words, given the connotations with magic associated with the word “supernatural”, Nuro stops short of calling him magic and could just be ranting anyway.

Dr. Solar, Man of the Atom #6 (Nov. 1963)
“Imposter.” Grade: B-. Deja vu? Nuro has forced a not-evil scientist to work for him again, ala “The Hidden Hands.” Then the android the scientist creates is disguised as – I hate to give it away, but we've already seen this in “The Remote-Control Traitor.” We even see Dr. Thor Neilsen and his de-radiation ray return from “The Treacherous Trap.” But what's going on here is a bit of continuity building, like Gold Key's own version of Marvel's tight sense of continuity (only without the editor's comments telling you which issue to go back and re-read).
“Android Against the Atom.” Grade: C. Maybe after all that build-up, it was too much to hope that an android with no superpowers would be able to believably hold its own against someone as powerful as the Man of the Atom for six whole pages. The android certainly gives it its all, basically just surviving except for when it has a raygun in hand, but Solar seems to be holding back just to give the android a sporting chance. He should be able to dodge as fast as he can turn into light and, knowing his opponent is not real, he could change into a drill of atomic force again, like he did to burrow into the ground in “The New Man of the Atom”, and pulverize the android. And then, as if the story was not slight enough, it ends in a “Scooby Doo moment” where everyone has a good laugh.
Dr. Solar, Man of the Atom #7 (Mar. 1964)
“Vanishing Oceans.” Grade: A. Solar is back! The ante is genuinely bumped up this time, with aliens from outer space threatening to dry up Earth's oceans. Sharks keep turning up in the background of this aquatic adventure, as if to foreshadow the vicious intentions of the aliens, but it is a red herring. The plot twist is that they are not here for conquest at all, but to plunder our elements. Though their means of conveyance is the stereotypical flying saucer, the aliens are unique-looking, with bulbous faces and stomachs, but skinny limbs. There are some fantastic art moments in this story, from the flying saucer passing a submarine and sharks, to the stranded ships in a dry harbor, to a silhouetted Solar being bathed in radiation via speed lines, to Solar straining to lift a super-dense wafer, to the almost-a-splash page of a deluge of water falling out of space into the Atlantic Ocean. But more importantly, all the genuine emotion that draws us into the story come from good ol' Gail, at first sobbing over her missing brother and later gushing with joy at his return.
“Guided Comet.” Grade: A. Nuro is up to his “old” tricks, though we are not in danger of rote formula just yet. For one thing, there is an organically growing sense of menace to the Nuro stories, with Nuro becoming more of a threat the more he learns about Solar. For a change, the scientist working for Nuro is not being coerced into it this time. The meteor threat is a sci fi staple and would not make for much of a story alone, but it becomes clearer by page 5 that the comet is just bait in a trap. Nuro has somehow figured out how much energy Solar has (or is just a good guesser?) and has calculated that Solar will expend it all in orbit and be stranded there. Dr. Clarkson, perhaps realizing he saves Solar too often, almost looks to the reader and says, “If only we could help him!” Unfortunately, only a plot convenience saves Solar, as a satellite with rocket fuel just happens to float by. Compensating for this is the clever -- and visually spectacular – way the comet is ultimately stopped after Solar is recharged.

A satisfying ending to a volume that, at times, felt like one continuous story – quite a feat for a comic book that came out quarterly!

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