Destroying the Atom, Shredding the Elongated Man

Are Ray “Atom” Palmer and Ralph “Elongated Man” Dibny, ditto their respective spouses Sue Dibny and Jean Loring, the most shoddily treated members of the DCU?

July 7, 2005

By Avi Green

“You know, the Atom is one of the DC comics characters I've always thought could be the medium for some really trippy stuff: I mean, the man can shrink below the subatomic plane and enter whole new universes, explore the cellular, and harness the power of white dwarf star material. I'd love to see a story where Ray Palmer decides to explore 'microspace' in more detail, or gets involved in an adventure against a cancer invasion or something.” – From a comment on Dave Fiore’s Culture Blog

“I thought they really missed the boat with the Atom when they de-aged him. I forget how it happened; I think it happened during Zero Hour. Regardless, that was a hell of an idea; to be 18 years old, with all the memories of your former life. What do you do differently? Do you even want to be a scientist this time around? Do you want to avoid becoming the man you used to be? But they never really dealt with it, just stuck him in the Teen Titans and re-aged him a couple years later.” – From another comment on Dave Fiore’s Culture Blog

I once thought Martian Manhunter and Green Lantern were some of the most shoddily treated characters in the DCU. But then again, a lot of characters in the DC Universe, and even in the Marvel Universe, have been subject to cold-shoulder misuse over the years, and it’s almost astonishing.

The Elongated Man first appeared in The Flash #112 Vol. 1 in 1960, and Sue Dibny debuted a few issues afterwards, in The Flash #119 Vol. 1 in 1961. The second Atom and Jean Loring first appeared in Showcase #34 in 1961, and the Atom’s own series began shortly afterwards in 1962.

As a lead character, Ray got his own solo series soon after his first appearances, and despite having some good storylines by Gardner Fox and artwork by Gil Kane, in the end, the series never proved as successful as it could’ve, and after even a merge with Hawkman proved unsuccessful, was cancelled in late 1969. Later on, his adventures continued in backup stories published mainly in Action Comics, and even some Detective Comics, during the Bronze Age, for 9 years. Sword of the Atom was a breakthrough in the 1980s, as a way of offering both Ray and his co-stars a way to develop themselves, as both he and Jean first became estranged, then got divorced, in the process of one 4-part miniseries and three specials over a period of five years. Following that, Power of the Atom built upon what was established in Sword, as Ray returned to Ivy Town after being targeted by evil government agents who wanted to recruit him as a member of the Suicide Squad.

Elongated Man never had a real solo series at the time, but did get his very own segment in Detective Comics for 17 years in 1964-81 (with 4 stories published in The Flash and one in Justice League of America), in which he and his lovely wife Sue (who looks so adorable with both long and short ‘dos, which she alternated between for many years), went on many lighthearted adventures in crimefighting together, in a Thin Man-inspired concept. Even after Detective stopped carrying their feature, they still turned up in backup stories in various other books until the late 70s, and Ralph got his own miniseries during 1992.

Both characters, sadly enough, never got their fair share of treatment over the years, and, come to think of it, neither did their respective spouses, as evidenced by the quotes above.

It’s nothing new that Ralph, Sue, Ray and Jean have been subject to character degradation/assassination in Identity Crisis, by only so many knee-jerk, politically correct advocates who claim to enjoy comics, but decidedly don’t. But what really shocked me was that some people who’re supposedly knowledgeable about the characters, including Wizard magazine, Movie Poop Shoot, and Andrew Smith, writer of the "Captain Comics" columns for Scripps-Howard News and the "Dear Captain" columns for the Comics Buyer’s Guide, seemed to either ignore a lot about what many appreciated in all these characters, or to distort/trash them altogether. And worst of all…they didn’t seem to have much affection for the characters. Not genuinely anyway. Mr. Smith never seemed to like Ralph Dibny much, and certainly didn’t seem to care about him as a character. On Silver Bullet Comics, there was even a column by someone who pretty much showed why the miniseries was an artistic failure: he said that Ralph was lame(!). What's the use of praising the miniseries if the opiners don't even care about the characters, nor how they were being reduced to minor players in a book built upon their deaths and degradations? And even with the Mighty Mite, they didn’t seem to really care.

My assumption is that it has something to do with the two superheroes and their spouses being “minor” characters. In other words, if they’re not Spider-Man, Mary Jane Watson, Hawkeye or even Scarlet Witch, then they don’t care what’s done with them. Is that it?

This is, of course, a very ludicrous and insulting psychology to go by. Does being a minor character mean they’re 100% worthless? That they have no potential whatsoever? That they’re literally unlikable, and that it’s 100% okay to subject them whatever degradation the company pleases? I don’t think so.

But one thing’s for sure: by trivializing Atom, Elongated Man, Sue and Jean, all that people of the above news sources' standing are doing is insulting every Mary Jane Watson and Scarlet Witch out there too. Because isn’t it obvious that, if Mary Jane and Wanda were minor characters too, or even DC owned characters instead of Marvel owned ones, that they might very easily have had an entirely different opinion upon them as well?

Which is a shame of course, considering that, while they might not have come even close to the popularity of Marvel’s own leading ladies, both Sue and Jean have both got some really good qualities and potential waiting to get out. As a respondent to this entry on Howling Curmudgeons said about Sue:

“Grant's column was excellent - and he's exactly right. And, thinking it over, it's probably also why the murder of Sue Dibny seemed extra-terrible in its way. Here was a woman who had been written as an actual strong female character, not a Claremont strong female, but like a real person. And she's killed for what seems to be some cheap shock and pathos. And the way they layered it on - first she's murdered, then she'd been retroactively raped, then she was pregnant when she was murdered. It was like she'd been such a strong woman in the past that they needed to pile the degradation onto her post-mortem, just to make sure we all got the point and that the male characters around her would get their vengeance on.

I'm afraid there may be something even more disturbing going on though. Superhero comics are often described as "escapist fantasy," and they largely are. Is this kind of rape and degradation of female characters part of some folk's escapism? Is that part of what is driving this in the marketplace? I'd like to think not, but I don't know that I have that much faith in my fellow man anymore.”

On Sue: I fully agree. She was real and believable in ways that most Marvel women couldn’t hold a candle to. Due in part to the fact that DC, when creating their female characters, didn’t usually try to flood them in the kind of melodramatics that Stan Lee was doing with some of Marvel’s own leading ladies when he created them (Gwen Stacy, Lady Dorma). They were pretty strong in characterization, didn’t just follow after the leads like they were some lost puppy dogs, and most importantly of all: they stood up for themselves.

And as for Sue's stretchable sleuth husband, while he may not have rated a favorite to every reader, he most certainly did have his qualities in the department of slapstick and adventure, and a very likable personality to boot, so it's an utter shame that DC would so callously think to even sell out on poor Ralph as badly as they did. The same goes for Ray Palmer, who, with the exception of two specials and a two-part story in Legends of the DCU published in the late 1990s, has never had another series or even a miniseries spotlighting him since. Because little superheroes just aren't workable, is that it? Gimme a break, DC.

And, as this page on the Atom from Cheeks the Toy Wonder points out in discussion of Jean Loring:

"Having been referenced in the paragraph preceding, the Ray Palmer/Jean Loring relationship merits some further explication. As the leading criminal attorney in their mutual home town of "Ivytown," Ms. Loring was portrayed (long before such things became "politically correct" and de rigueur) as being in the putative "driver's seat," re her romantic involvement with Ray Palmer. (A characteristic she shared, incidentally, with -- among other notable comic book women of the day -- Carol Ferris [GREEN LANTERN] and Iris Allen [THE FLASH]) In THE ATOM, it was Ray Palmer who continually "pushed" for marriage, while the career-conscious Jean repeatedly avowed that "my work comes first." "Old hat," today, to be sure... but as a recurring leit motif throughout the DC titles of the 60's and early 70's, ground-breaking in the extreme.

(Compare, if you will with the Marvel comics women of the period; even when legged in spandex, such ostensible "action heroines" as Sue Richards [FANTASTIC FOUR] and Marvel Girl [THE X-MEN] were just as likely to spend the bulk of their "face time" mooning like lovesick calves over their respective romantic idee fixees as they were demonstrating actual Competence or Self-Sufficiency. "Point," in this instance DC.)"

That right, even Jean Loring qualified for many of the points I made about the DC women too. She both stood up for and thought for herself, and knew what she wanted.

So it was truly insulting when Mr. Smith, as I discovered some time ago, seems to entirely misinterpret Jean’s character, and took her characterization, or whatever was implied by just one mere panel in her debut, far too seriously, as shown in the quote below from a topic on his own website:

“Jean Loring kept turning down Ray Palmer's proposals until she had made her name as a lawyer. As a genre convention it makes sense, but from a real-world perspective, it had a number of uncomfortable elements -- such as the implication that as soon as Jean married she had to stop being a lawyer, and Jean's cruelty in keeping Ray on a string.

So when a later writer had Jean cheat on Ray, it actually didn't strike me as a clumsy writer's fiat -- in context of the character, it made an uncomfortable amount of sense. She had always taken Ray for granted, and her lawyer life (she slept with another lawyer) had always been more important.

(From my perspective, I thought Ray was better off without her.)” – Andrew Smith, March 22, 2004

I have to vehemently disagree with how he distorts all this.

To say the least, Mr. Smith, know-it-all journalist that he sadly is, is apparently taking what she said in that one, single panel there, about her wanting to prove herself as a lawyer before giving up her career, much too seriously. Worse, he’s certainly confusing – and obscuring – something there.

First off, there were some women at the time Jean first appeared in the 1960s, feminists and such, who were trying to prove themselves capable of earning a living for themselves without having the men in their lives be the ones to earn their bread. It was an expression of independent decision that they were making, considering that up until that time, many men expected their fioncees to give up their jobs upon marriage. And while Ray, as far as I know, may not have asked, and certainly didn’t tell her, that she had to give up her job after they married each other, there were still some women who would nevertheless hold out on a confirmation as an expression of their personal independence in making a personal choice. And one sure thing – when they did marry eventually, she DIDN’T give up her job. She just kept working onwards, not just for her own living, but also for Ray’s too, and for the sake of justice, and Ray, in his alter ego as the Atom, would often try to help her in some of the cases she was investigating as a lawyer.

If anything, Jean’s positions at the time weren’t all that different from many early women’s libbers, and that Mr. Smith went and obscured that part was particularly insulting.

Second, what’s this about an implication that she had to stop being a lawyer, as if that was required by law when getting married? Whatever she said there, that doesn’t mean that she literally, flat-out meant it seriously, that she would actually give up her career upon marrying him, nor was she ever required to. Whether or not she would was her own personal freedom of choice.

My parents lived through the sixties, and from what they told me about feminists of the times, it's not hard to figure out that she was just telling him, in as polite a manner as she could, that she makes her own decisions, and is her own girl, just like Mary Jane Watson told it to Harry Osborn back in 1971 when she was mad at him for the jerk he’d become, and how, because that was the time that the late son of the Green Goblin had become addicted to drugs. And that if Ray thought that she, Jean, was going to give up her career when marrying him, that he was quite mistaken. I’m sure that by no means did she ever assume that Ray was the kind of guy who’d want her to do that, but nevertheless, like I said before, her response wasn’t all that far removed from how some pioneer feminists could think during that time.

I will admit that from a modern-day perspective, it probably doesn’t have all that comfortable a ring to it, but, isn’t that why today, a lot of that no longer stands as relevant? In fact, I’m not sure if it ever did remain relevant after just a few years, and by the time they’d agreed to marriage, it had already become irrelevant.

But in any case, what Mr. Smith does here is to take a simple “reflection of the times” about feminists out of context by not even mentioning it, distort it almost entirely, and he certainly seems to be mouthing off at both ends here. And which certainly puts in doubt his genuine feelings about the characters.

Add to that the shocking belittling of all these characters, superheroes and spouses alike, and is it any wonder that Atom and Elongated Man have ended up becoming as badly trashed as they have over the years? As Brian Hibbs pointed out when reviewing the last issue of that horrorfest last year on his store’s weblog at ComixExperience:

“What this means is that the HORROR of the story, the slaughters of Sue and her unborn child, the orphaning of Robin (which dramatically works against Tim -- HE became Robin out of belief of the mantle, not rage at loss like Bruce or Dick or even Cassandra), the absolutely bewilderingly so out-of-character destruction of Jean (and thus functionally Ray, the single most s[p]at upon of all of DC's "icons"), not one of those things had to have happened in order to tell the MAIN story, the brainwashing plot. And that to me, is repugnant.”

Hibbs is absolutely correct there. None of this had to happen, and for both Ray and Jean, this served as nothing more than horrific character assassination, furthered even more by just about every distortion the biased members of the comics media wrote. And the going-ons in Day of Vengeance, as revealed in Columbus Alive last April, certainly don’t help matters. Judging from how much money DC made in publishing IC, I guess they couldn’t care less though, and seeing how much superfluous laudings they’ve put out, backed by such an awful magazine as Wizard, they must really be proud of it.


I haven’t stopped reeling in disgust at how such PC lunatics as Wizard magazine, Captain Comics, The Comic Fanatic, Movie Poop Shoot, Hero Realm, and Newsarama, went and gushed, fawned, and apologized over DC’s ghastly debacle. Or shaking my head in disbelief at how others such as Four Color Explosion, and even Comics Fairplay went and took double-stances by panning other execrable jobs as Amazing Spider-Man: Sins Past, and Avengers Disassembled while at the same time praising Identity Crisis in superficial terms with both items, and one of the aforementioned websites even – gasp! – expressed distaste in how Robin was going the dark route, and yet went along and praised IC at the same time. Gee! Isn’t that very miniseries what’s lead to and advocated the problems recently experienced in the new Teen Wonder’s own solo book? What’s the world coming to?

Is the woman seen in the following pages, from Power of the Atom #9, what they think is a woman who deserves this kind of treatment?

I’m going to be 100% crystal clear here now:


Copyright 2005 Avi Green. All rights reserved.

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