Peril In A Very Small Place!

For most of its long history, World's Finest Comics was home to Superman and Batman, first as parallel "lead features" and later as co-stars in shared adventures. For a brief period in 1971-72, however, DC shook things up a bit, pairing Superman with a rotating cast of guest stars just as they did for Batman over in Brave and The Bold.

Interestingly, I'm pretty sure my first issue of the title (and one of my first comics, period) was from this period. I have powerful memories of #208, with its tremendous Neal Adams cover showing Superman and Dr Fate pulling the Earth back into orbit with massive chains. That one sparked a lifelong fascination with both Fate and Adams.

So it was with some eagerness that I dug into the team-up tale in WF #213, titled "Peril In A Tiny Place". I mean, with Superman, The Atom and a great Nick Cardy cover, how can you go wrong, right? Well...

Writer Elliot Maggin (this one's so early, he hasn't adopted the "S!" in the middle yet) starts us off at Ivy University, where Professor Ray Palmer is researching the gene factor that allows him to become the Atom without blowing up (as everything else does when he shrinks it). When the culture on his microscope slide shrinks beyond the point where he can see it, he hopes to get an assist from Superman's famous microscopic vision. Placing a phone call to Clark Kent, he shrinks to his Atom persona and prepares to perform his famous trick of riding electronic impulses along the phone lines.

Not knowing he's about to get a momentous phone call, Clark is trying to relax at his Metropolis apartment...

Perhaps confusing him with Bruce Wayne (or Hugh Hefner?), artists Dick Dillin and Joe Giella have dressed Clark in a purple smoking jacket with a yellow cravat; decidedly aristocratic duds for a working stiff like our Clark, but at least they skipped the cigarette holder.

The phone rings, and The Atom begins his journey along the phone lines to Metropolis. Suddenly, however, he comes to an electronic disturbance that blocks his way and looks ready to fry him. Meanwhile Clark is frustrated at the silence that greets him when he picks up the phone. He's about to trace the call with his vision powers when he hears a disturbance outside and goes to investigate as Superman.

All along Clinton Street, traffic has come to a standstill as drivers have abandoned their cars and crowded the sidewalks. A police officer informs Superman that "every piece of metal for three blocks around is charged with electricity!" (including all those cars). Superman leaves the patrolman -- who bears a distinct resemblance to editor Julie Schwartz -- to pay a visit to an art store run by two shopkeepers with familiar names.

I'm not sure if art store employees really dress like pharmacists, but who would know better than "Dillin" and "Giella"?

Anyway, with his newly purchased spray cans in hand, Superman races through the streets, spraying the door handles of all those stopped cars with "non-conducting enamel" so the drivers can return to their vehicles and leave the area. For good measure, he also sprays the doorknobs on the local apartment buildings...

That's one powerful stream coming out of those cans, huh? He hit those doorknobs from 20 feet away. I sure hope the owners of those cars agree that having their rides sprayed with red and yellow paint is a fair trade-off for avoiding electric shock. And you know what, somehow having Superman pump all those aerosols into the atmosphere strikes me as running a bit counter to Maggin's usual sensibilities, but then again it's 1971...who knew?

Still stuck in his sub-atomic limbo, The Atom turns on his Justice League emergency signal, albeit without much hope it will help him. Spotting a planet-like structure, he manages to maneuver himself to it and begins exploring.

By now, Superman has traced his neighborhood's electrical problems to the phone lines under the street. He returns to his phone, still off the hook, and listening closely he faintly detects a distant sound in "the same pattern" as a JLA emergency signal. Using the Kandorian Shrinking Ray from his Fortress, he reduces himself to miniature size and jumps into the phone to investigate.

The Atom, meanwhile, has discovered an alien race, led by a yellow and green Mark Twain lookalike. We know Dick Dillin designed him because, as usual, we can never quite tell whether he's wearing gloves or not. His shirt sleeves are pushed up to expose his bare forearms but a close-up shows seams stitched in his fingers.

Here's where I get lost, frankly. If I understand correctly, these humanoid, English-speaking aliens live inside the phone line, their tiny world powered by the flow of electrons going through the lines. Recently, however, an electronic something-or-other (the same disturbance Atom saw earlier) appeared in their "sky" and started absorbing the electrons, weakening the denizens of this subatomic world and causing them to start dying off.

Right about now, Superman is drawing near. He sees the electrical disturbance and exclaims, "Oh,no, it's...a GENESIS MOLECULE!" My sentiments exactly.

Locating The Atom, Superman explains that the molecule "is going to reproduce by fission any moment...and this whole universe will blow up! I have to get you out of here and move this THING to an uninhabited world. It may be the basis of a new form of life -- based on electrical rather than chemical energy."

"You want to move that thing," asks the Atom, "and let it absorb everything in this sub-atomic universe?" "Yeah," answers Superman, even though the Atom's question presents a complete contradiction in terms. How can he move it elsewhere AND at the same time leave it to destroy the place where it is now? Anyway, Atom introduces Superman to the local population, the existence of which moots the "absorb everything" option.

So it is that Superman and The Atom fly around for two solid pages doing...well, it's unclear what they're doing, but the captions relate an inspiring "Pledge of A Superman" (more on that later). The Atom is finding it hard to survive near the Genesis Molecule, so Superman comes up with a plan to help him. Sort of. I think. Heck, even the Atom is lost by this point, and he's a physicist.

Note our pal Dick Dillin at work again in the above image. We know The Atom is wearing gloves, but Dillin draws him with fingernails. Maybe Dick lived in a Bizarro world where gloves have nails and hands have seams?

"The molecule is about to split into two!" says Superman (in a panel where Dillin and Giella are drawing it as two molecules already). "The only way to destroy it to HIT the two nucleii with our force at the exact moment of fission!" So, hitting a nucleus keeps it together instead of splitting it apart? Right, got it.

At exactly the right moment, the heroes hit the nucleii. The resulting explosion sends them back along the phone line and out of Clark Kent's phone. Atom enlarges to his Ray Palmer ID and enlarges Superman with the Kandorian Shrinking Ray (good thing you found someone in that phone line, Superman, or else who would've enlarged you?). Superman (now Clark) says he saw that the alien race survived, and Ray is happy, but Clark points out that they had to destroy one thing -- and the life it may have spawned -- to save other lives, a choice that is causing him some emotional turmoil. For some reason, Ray is turned on by this revelation.

This panel is just weird. Since when does Ray Palmer, physicist, university professor and all-around square have the anti-establishment, hippy sensibilities of Oliver Queen? Would he really use a term like "Superguy"? Was there ever anything in his past potrayals to suggest he'd see Superman as "a muscle-bound enforcer of his definition of Justice"? If he thinks the guy is such a lumbering fascist, why did he seek his aid in the first place?

However, even if he botched the Atom's character (for me, anyway), it's great fun to see the still-new-at-it Maggin developing his distinctive vision of Superman. There's an early bit where Clark is listening to his favorite music, "the classic Sonic Flare Patterns -- by the musicians of the planet Polaris Four," establishing the exotic tastes and unique sensibilities acquired by a veteran of interstellar and inter-dimensional travels, and adding to what will become a long list of arcane references to alien cultures and peculiar hobbies for the Man of Steel.

Better yet is Maggin's "Pledge of A Superman," still inspiring despite the accompanying pictures of our heroes flying around in an incomprehensible aerial dance of some sort:

I will use this power for all the good that can be done...
To work for peace...
To encourage virtue...
And above all, to preserve life, in all its forms...
Or failing in that, to give up this power...forever!

Nice bit, that; a proverbial diamond in the rough that is this plot. Other than that, the high point of the book is a pair of ads for other books due to hit the shelves in the coming months. One is a mysterious Jack Kirby project featuring a hideous, yellow-skinned monster in spandex and cape: "From the mists of the past comes a strange, unearthly hero! The Demon! Like nothing you've ever read before!" The other is a much more low-key ad saying simply, "A different comic mag is coming..." while a nearby picture shows a shadowy, green creature looking at us over his shoulder. Beneath him a legend reads: "Swamp Thing."

Yeah, as if. I ask you, who would waste their 20 cents on two such weird and unappealing concepts as those, when everyone knows that in a few years, collectors will be offering me big bucks for this here Superman/Atom team-up?