Saturday, June 09, 2007

Atomic Age #1

Atomic Age #1, November 1990, Epic Comics
writer: Frank Lovece
penciller: Mike Okamoto
inker: Al Williamson
letterer: Jim Novak
colorist: Steve Oliff & OliOptics

We fanboys take quite a few things for granted: Baxter paper and gatefold covers, for instance, and aliens. The fact we can watch any movie or read any comic book that introduces a new alien character or race and not feel a sense of wonder speaks to both the commonality of extraterrestials in contemporary fiction and the callousness of the fans that pursue them. Interestingly, "contemporary" in this context dates back to the '30s, when comicdom's first superhero rocketed to Earth from his doomed planet Krypton, a phenomenon that has become so integrated into pop culture that recent commentaries focus less on the incredible interstellar implications of Superman's origins and more on his role as an immigrant, of all things. Never mind that the Kal-El was, at the time, just a gust of wind away from landing in Hitler's backyard, where his upbringing may have inspired a less noble allegory -- you know what I'm saying? If Superman became the despot his creators originally intended, the term (and, arguably, subgenre) alien would've had a much different connotation today. I wonder, could Gene Roddenberry's and George Lucas' penchant for space be subconsciously attributed to the fact that our modern Achilles is alien by birth?

Epic Comics' Atomic Age #1, a forty-eight page first chapter in a four-part miniseries, is one part miniseries, one part alien epic, boasting the charm of the former while asserting the implications of the latter. At the beginning of this story, on a dormant military base home to quasi-retired veterans and spoiled rich kid rookies, two mysterious aliens suddenly arrive and fight to the death, one a coal black Silver Surfer-type with the power of lightning, the other an armored drone whose jetpack contrasts his crude stone axe. The drone is no match for Nimbus, dubbed by soldiers for the clouds overhead, who, as we readers learn from an excessively narrative-driven character study, is a proverbial infant, unaware of his origins or purpose. Seeking solace in both the sky and in the jungle, Nimbus eventually receives a subspace revelation from his makers, the Master Race; similarly, before the drone finally dies on the military's examination table, his life flashes before his eyes and reveals the reasons for the aliens' conflict. From both perspectives, we observe a DNA-shaped cosmic configuration called the Helix, the homeworld of the Master Race that created a subservient species of mouthless drones that eventually rose against them and are currently on an interstellar mission to find their genetic building blocks presumably to destroy them, lest their people face an eternity of mute slavery. The socio-political basis for this alien conflict are just plain palpable . . .

emphasized even more so by the human protagonists in this story. For a tale that proudly takes place in the '50s, a time where, as the back cover explains, "kids were kids [and] women were housewives," writer Frank Lovece's characters take some pretty bold steps forward, perhaps before their time. Nan, for instance, is beautiful blonde that longs to pursue a graphic arts career in New York, is the stereotypically defiant daughter to her military scientist father, in both her vocational wishes and her romantic pursuits. Yes, her boyfriend is a Hispanic reporter for a Los Angeles newspaper, and Lovece goes to great lengths to establish an overwhelming sense of racism in this pre-Civil Rights era. Every scene that features Jose subjects him to a prejudicial slur or circumstance, not that he isn't asking for it when he pours on the "spanglish" accent to score a developing scoop. Still, his determination to get to the bottom of this whole alien invasion story makes him the most likable of all of these characters, and the way he shrugs off the unnecessary bigotry (why no one respects that he writes for a major metropolitan newspaper isn't explained) exhibits an innocence and a strength that makes him the perfect makeshift guide to readers unfamiliar with the Leave It to Beaver lifestyle of post-WWII America. After all, as twenty-first century fanboys completely accustomed to wireless Internet connections and crimefighting aliens, we're the real aliens to this former way of life.

And I thought Marty McFly had it bad!

Though this first issue, again a whopping 48 pages, was an ambitious inaugural effort, something was lacking for me to feel completely engrossed in this story's circumstances, and I believe it was the contrast between the characters' sense of befuddlement about these mysterious aliens and the writer's willingness to present them sans long-standing ambiguity. In other words, I cannot really sympathize with the characters encountering aliens for the first time when Lovece goes to such great lengths to present both sides of their interstellar conflict via respective flashbacks. This issue would've been a much more potent experience if the focus was more terrestrial, creating a virtual virgins-to-space rapport with its readers rather than this comprehensive cosmic epic, not to mention a shorter read, and with very little action, I felt this issue's length, for sure. If the aliens' origins were that critical to the story, might I recommend a supplemental essay section with currently dated analysis from the fictional context of this take on yesteryear -- you know, a Watchman like retrospective evaluation affirming the culture and characters of this dynamic atomic age. Sometimes the best way to assert the strengths of a story is to simply not tell it all.

Generally speaking, I liked this issue, but I don't feel the need to buy the next three issues, because I feel like I already know the story. Could too many aliens in the soup actually alienate their core fanbase, or is the potential of this genre as never ending as the void of space itself?

1 comment:

CheckMait said...

I'm flattered that you found one of the first comics I wrote, and that you make so many cogent comments — you "get" it in the subtextual way a writer always hopes his readers will. There's indeed a lot of narrative — I grew up reading Jim Steranko and Don McGregor comics, what can I say? — and that was a deliberate counterreaction to the more plot-driven, two- or three-note characterizations we were seeing even then. I'd just say that the first issue is set-up ... and for those who like this sort of thing, well, you get the history or a transport plane, the background of an orphaned farmer, and Joe's closeted-lesbian editor in later issues. Plus the four 1950s food groups: Eggs, bacon, coffee and cigarettes.

Thank you again for writing about Atomic Age. It wasn't the usual kind of thing — and let me just give props to artists Mike Okamoto and Al Williamson, who each won an award for their work on it.

With happy surprise,
Frank Lovece