Saturday, 12 July 2008

The Atomics

by Mike Allred and Laura Allred

Published by AAA Pop Comics

Mike Allred's The Atomics evokes the garish spirit and feverish intensity of Jack Kirby and Stan Lee's Marvel Comics heyday, while bringing a surreal, dreamy logic to proceedings.

The plot is straightforward but lively: a group of teenage freaks find their unpleasant mutations eventually give way to shiny new powers, and they kind-of, sort-of decide to form a super-group. Complications inevitably ensue, as the Atomics come to terms with their new powers, an embittered old friend returns to hound the team, and spacemen and monsters drop out of the sky. But the plot's not really what's going on here: Mike's work tends to use plot as a hook on which to hang audacious set-pieces, nifty bits of character business and, crucially, his trademark low-key musings on the human condition. There's less of the latter than we've seen elsewhere from Allred, but themes of fame, relationships, family, sex and love can clearly be discerned behind the gonzo, four-colour trappings.

There's also an evident love of Lichtenstein and his pop art kin. While the panels effectively move the story along, each stands alone as a quasi-satirical, archly overblown decorative piece, ripe for individual consideration.

Like the best artists (and especially, now I think of it, like the aforementioned Iris Murdoch), Allred wants to do interesting things while having fun. The Atomics can be read on any number of levels: as an affectionate swipe at superhero excess, as a string of goofily engaging pop art asides, as a philosophical discourse on the nature of time, and love, and God; as a superhero sitcom (this edition made me laugh more than any other comic in recent memory), as a callback to the oddball "anything goes" plots of the Golden Age - and as a semi-ironic review of the comics of the 1960s, and the dawn of Kirby and Lee's vibrant, pretentious, witty Marvel Age. But for all its sophistication and subtext, The Atomics' most resonant and abiding element is the unabashed love of the form which hums from every page, and it's this honest excitement which will bring me back to Allred's deceptively straightforward world time and time again.

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