Secret Origins #29: The Atom, Red Tornado, and Mr. America

Ryan Daly and guest Diabolu Frank review the origin of The Atom from Secret Origins #29. Then, Ryan and Jon M. Wilson discuss the Golden Age Red Tornado (in a story that’s totally not an origin). Finally, Jon returns to help cover the origin of Mr. America.

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“Premonition” (Theme for Secret Origins Podcast) written and performed by Neil Daly.

Additional music: “Mama Said Knock You Out” by LL Cool J; “Ballad of the Green Beret” by SSgt. Barry Sadler; “Telephone Line” by Electric Light Orchestra.

Thanks for listening!

33 responses to “Secret Origins #29: The Atom, Red Tornado, and Mr. America

  1. Some interesting insights into the Atom. I agree with Frank (I think I may need to get to a doctor), I like Ray Palmer as a slightly over-confident man of action, as opposed to the Justice Leaguer who quips to cover his self-esteem issues. It’s odd that Graham Nolan drew the cover, since he ends up finishing the series when Dwayne Turner moved on.

    Also some nice discussion on Identity Crisis. I have to agree the character bits are well-written, but man I wish that thing had been an Elseworlds. It raked the DCU through the mud and cast aspersions on my childhood heroes. It was the first shot of the NEW DC that DiDio and company were forcing upon us, and forced many old timers like me out the door, eventually.

    Red Tornado (Ma Hunkel) DID sorta kinda appear in the first appearance of the android Red Tornado. In JLA # 64, the android Reddy shows up at JSA headquarters, claiming to be the real Red Tornado, and Dr. Fate conjures up an image of what Ma Hunkel looked like. She also appeared in a JSA group shot drawn by Murphy Anderson in a later JLA issue. But other than her Who’s Who entry and this, I think that’s it until the Johns JSA series.

    Like Jon, I associate Mr. America with Robinson’s Golden Age. Which given what happens to the character, isn’t necessarily a good thing. But damn, that’s a great comic. And it’s an Elseworlds, so no harm, no foul as it sullies some GA heroes.

    Great show!

    Chris

  2. Love that Gil Kane always drew Chronos as Dick Nixon.

    Huh, that Ma Hunkel origin is the same as Ted Grant’s – inspired to be a super-hero by the Green Lantern comic. She was the curator of the JSA museum, and acted as surrogate mom to the younger JSAers like Cyclone, Stargirl, and Jakeem Thunder.

    Tex was never shown on panel, but he was the Coordinator of Hero Hotline. The Paul Kirk Manhunter also fell victim to the super-hero bug once Simon and Kirby took over.

  3. As you alluded to on the show, this issue is one of my favorites because of the three pages by Sheldon Mayer, who proved he lost none of his storytelling and art skills even at this advanced age. I LOVE that segment, as silly as it is.

    In this age of 5-6 comic book movies a year, how far away are we from a Red Tomato film starring Melissa McCarthy?

    Great show, even accounting for Frank, who was unusually upbeat.

  4. Wow, it’s so great to have a weekly Secret Origins podcast again – fine guests, top chat, insight to spare… it’s a total Tuesday treat.

    The first time you said ‘Sword of the Atom’, Ryan, I thought you said ‘Sort of the Atom’, which pretty much sums up my attitude to that BOLD NEW DIRECTION. Loincloths over underpants, needles for swords, giant frogs and a leading woman whose name sound Welsh. I was so thrilled when we got back to the US and fun with Norman Brawler. What’s the point of being a superhero if you can’t pop down the shops?

    The association of shrinking with disintegration also came up in the classic Superman issue in which Kandor was finally, permanently enlarged – it expands, and all the buildings crumble; happily, the folks were OK and soon Rokyn all over a new world. I don’t recall Superman ever asking Ray’s help with his desire to get bigger – anyone?

    So, you’re running around the neighbourhood with a pan on your head, metal pan banging against your cranium – how come Ma Hunkel never gave herself a concussion?

  5. I have to say I have never really been a fan of the Atom. But I might like to read one with Frank’s idea of Ray thinking his powers are the best. I have recently read the Broderick drawn ‘plague special’ and was frightened. What a weird issue.

    As for Mister America, Grant Morrison had a character called Yankee Doodle in the Doom Patrol. He always left a feather for his foes and whistled Yankee Doodle. But he had a faceless mask like the Question. Any connection?

    Now the confession. I haven’t read Robinson’s Golden Age. Guess I better get it.

    1. Anj, I think you would find The Golden Age more than worthwhile for your money and time. Highly recommended.

    2. Golden Age is easily one of the best Elseworld stories out there and just an amazing story in general. Unless you are a huge fan of Dan the Dyna-Mite and TNT, I highly suggest reading it.

  6. Maybe the red, white and blue wings come off an eagle he’s painted? Unseen whistling is far more unnerving than a bat.

    Ray’s floating JLA chair was t Coolest Thing Ever!

    1. That whistling concept (and feather) was used quite effectively in the seminal Japanese adventure cartoon, Science Ninja Team Gatchaman, better known in the US as Battle of the Planets. The leader of the team, Ken (Mark, in BOTP), would whistle a tune from the shadows, before striking, especially against the villain, Berg Katse (Zoltar, in BOTP). The became a major element when Ken’s father is killed fighting Glactor (the bad guys) and Ken is consumed with a desire for vengeance. In a couple of episodes, he gets his hands on Katse and scares the bejesus out of him, with the whistling tune. He didn’t use a feather though. That was the calling card of one of the other team members, Joe (Jason, in BOTP). He carried feather darts, with which he often killed Galactor grunts, by impaling them in the throat! Of course, all of that was edited out of the BOTP version.

      1. Thank you for bringing up Gatchaman/BOTP, Jeff. Didn’t want to muddy the waters further with the G-Force or Eagle Riders versions? Haha. I know that strays far far from your point, but I am just glad to know somebody else out there remembers that show.

        1. Well, of course, G-Force was a more faithful translation of the plot; just with horrible voice acting, new headache-inducing incidental music, and childish names (Dirk Daring? Ace Goodheart? ugh!!!!!!!!!) They actually stuck with (SPOILER………………………………………)the concept that Berg Katse (or Glactor, as G-Force called him) could take male or female form (speaking of trans characters). BOTP turned the female version into either a Spectra agent or Zoltar’s sister (they weren’t consistent). Sadly, neither version gave us the finale of the series, as there was too much violence to edit out. I got my hands on a bootleg of the Gatchaman movie (which is made up of the Turtle King opening episode, the sequences focusing on Ken and Red Impulse, and the finale), which finally let me see the ending, and Katse without the mask. Then, a few years later, we got the English translations from ADV Films.

          Eagle Riders, as I’m sure you know, was a combination of Gatchaman II and Gatchaman Fighter, the sequel series to the original Gatchaman. The more notable element, though, is that the Condor character, Joe, was voiced by Bryan Cranston.

  7. I’ve heard the term “Ma Hunkle” tossed around as a joke and/or put down on occasion across the comic centric blogosphere, and it’s nice to finally have some context for that. Can’t say I would have ever called that this is what it referred to. Seriously though, why aren’t cross-dressing or gender swapped superheroes the expansive sub-genre they aught to be? I’m not even kidding, you’d think we’d at least have gotten a superhero rip off of Ranma 1/2, but instead we’ve got… well Ma Hunkle I guess.

    1. And Madame Fatal; a man who disguised himself as an old woman to track down a kidnapped niece (I think it was his niece). The character got a mention at the start of the Robinson-led JSA series, at the funeral for Wesley Dodds; but made the character sound like a drag queen, as the only mourners to the hero’s death were the road company of La Cage aux Falles.

      I had an idea pop in my head, after reading about a comic con incident, in one of Peter David’s But I Digress columns. A volunteer at a convention was a drag performer and appeared as the Michelle Pfeiffer Catwoman, at the convention. No one realized the person was a male, until he revealed it. At first, the staffers at the DC booth were cool about it; but, they started getting nervous and finally pressured the convention hosts to ask the person to leave. None of the convention goers seemed to have a problem with it, though.

      Anyway, I thought that a cross-dressing, drag-oriented, or even transgender superhero could make for an interesting and unique book, and had a few plot ideas; but, doubted there would be a huge audience for it, unless it came from someone with the stature of a Neil Gaiman.

      In terms of Ranma 1/2, though, Japanese literature and drama is filled with characters who hide as the opposite gender. It appears in western literature, but, not to the same degree and it’s more often used for comedy (at least, in more recent-era literature and entertainment).

      1. I’m pretty sure there was a transgender costumed villain in the first Batgirl of Burnside arc that drew some controversy* over the fact that DC created a transgender “cape” who was emotionally unstable and psychopathic.

        * controversy = angry tweets.

        1. Just to clarify, Peter David said the conventiongoers had no problems with the crossdressed Catwoman. They all thought the person did a fantastic job and got pictures taken. David also posed the “what if” had the volunteer then purchased a ticket to the con, what would have happened? Would DC force the issue, which would set a dangerous precedent, where cosplay is concerned; or would they get over it?

          I also mention Neil Gaiman as someone who has written sensitive portrayals of trans characters, in Sandman, thus making it more attractive to a wide audience (enough to get it published by a DC or Marvel).

    2. Malibu’s character Mantra (or the first one anyway) was essentially a male warrior trapped in a housewife’s body. And that was back in the 90’s (something I believe you are familiar with, Nathaniel). Also, in the vein of Ranma 1/2 superhero rip-offs, there is a children’s cartoon called SheZow where a boy has to transform into a girl when he activates his powers (or something like that). It’s up on Netflix if you care to give it a shot.

      1. Lest we forget, several years before Mantra, there was Camelot 3000. In the story Sir Tristan is reincarnated as a female, the irony being that he was the most macho of the Knights of the Round Table. His pain about the situation is bad enough, then he discovers that Isolde is also reincarnated, as a woman. By the end of the series, Tristan comes to terms with his new gender identity and his/her love for Isolde.

        1. You reminded me that in Grant Morrison’s 7 Soldiers reboot, Sir Justin the Shining Knight was re-imagined as Sir Ystin, a tomboyish girl posing as a knight in a sort of Joan of Arc way.

  8. As a concept, I’m quite fond of Ma Hunkle as an everywoman vigilante of minor crime. Not everyone has to be a grim nighttime avenger fighting for the soul of a city at the cost of their own, and I appreciate Ma’s atypical but practical proportions (thick gals can literally kick your average ass.) In my limited exposure, Sheldon Meyer’s mode of comedy doesn’t align with my own, so I would have no serious interest in reading any more vintage Scribbly/Red Tornado stories, but I’m glad he basically said “I already did this Secret Origin fifty years ago so here’s three pages of gags I thought up since. Pay me.” Now, that’s funny! No, I’m more interested in Ma Hunkle’s legacy, and I don’t mean as an Easter egg den mother to JSA Jr.

    Ryan & I share a strong appreciation for comic book icons, but you know who isn’t an icon so much as an automated ambulatory cliche? Not-The-Vision himself, “John Smith.” The Fire Engine Red (and required) Ford Pinto of super-heroics (with perpetual Nancy Kerrigan “Why!?!” Cryface) whose only legacy is a landfill of heel turns, re-retcons, emotion chips and arms-fall-off lad battle damaged parts (Image 7 era team leaders alone take up one square acre) is neither the Red Tornado we want or need in (ever, but more specifically) 2016. The manga explosion of the aughts primed lady-type-peoples for super heroines, and DC has little of pedigree to offer that didn’t derive from “JLA hero drawn with b00bs.” Lois Lane does not need a codename, costume or powers, but I thought her Earth-2 version was a step in the right direction for a feminine mantle hijacked for far too long by a robutt who chooses to represent as another white heterosexual male. My pet revamp has always involved moving Kathy Sutton into the role so that everything set up for John Smith (adoptive daughter Traya, ties to JLA/T.O. Morrow) would buoy the newish take while maybe diminishing the more convoluted elements (Tornado Tyrant/Champion.) Sutton would be closer to Silver Age heroes like Hal Jordan in succeeding an immediate failed/dead predecessor while also acknowledging an older antiquated model, but owning the role as the iconic version. Take back the Red Tomato as a hardy gender-challenging heroine (single mother and possible lesbian, given her only major relationship was with a vibrating appliance with a mere semblance of the masculine) from a Red Tornadroid who had embraced only the worst feminine stereotypes. Do Ma Hunkle proud!

  9. Dr. Occult and Slam Bradley were early efforts by the creative team behind the single most important character in comic book history. One of them, the writer, also co-created the relatively minor Spectre. Then the artist on that strip; the guy who had nothing to do with Superman; created Tex Thompson, one of the many forgotten strips that happened to see print in Action Comics #1. So if Superman is Kevin Bacon, Tex is the guy who played Stork in Animal House. “Mr. America” is the nickname you give the sports/war hero on a poorly written TV show when you want to tip the audience off that the dude’s a tool. “Americommando” is the name of a character introduced in a ’90s annual as the member of a prefabricated team that you kill off early in a stunt, like in Exiles or Titans East, but not like Bloodstrike, because the name has way too many syllables for early Image. Tex kind of looks like Zorro, but he’s apparently just another Anglo with the fashion sense of a color blind New Romantic. He’s also a National character, which means his strip was probably perfunctorily produced. Tex is basically tailor-made for a sordid retcon involving sex crimes or questionable sympathies, which is the sort of thing they did in The Golden Age without even the most diehard continuity cop issuing worse than a warning not to be so cavalier with Percival Popp when his turn comes up. I see no reason to start caring enough about this dude to carry over into a second paragraph, so I’ll just point out that I liked Mike Harris’ art (who drew a lot of Marvel Universe trading cards around Series 3) and that the story ends at exactly the moment where Tex looked to become the least bit interesting as a Gestapo spy.

  10. “Gil Kane…Nice simple name there.” Also very Gentile, for a man born as Eli Katz.

    I always liked the Atom’s costume; but, kind of liked the revamp better, even with the sun roof on the mask. It kind of updated him from the Silver Age look and made him seem younger. I enjoyed the Power of the Atom series. It wasn’t groundbreaking; but, it was good, entertaining adventure, something at which Roger Stern excelled.

    I do have to wonder why the heck he is wearing the loin cloth, since he still has pants? I mean, I know why Kane added the loincloth, since he was drawing from John Carter, one of his favorite Burroughs characters (who Kane got to handle, at Marvel). However, it makes no logical sense, other than, “Because, comics……”

    In regards to the older style of adventurer scientist, that isn’t as out of touch as you might think. You have to remember that the culture was more physical in the Golden and Silver Ages and that there were tons of precedents for scientists who were also adventurers. Even scientists of that era had childhoods outdoors. In fact, it was quite common to have scientists and engineers involved in university athletics. I kind of feel that image changed as the Boomers came of age and you had more people who grew up in front of the tv, rather than playing outdoors. It has gotten far worse, with the internet and video gaming adding to sedentary childhoods, and greater separation between those who pursue physical activities and those who follow academic urges.

    Ah, Sheldon Mayer……..Scribbly and the Red Tornado stories are some of the quintissential Golden Age comics that still hold up today. What’s amazing is when you take Mayer’s age into account. He was pretty young then, though it was a young man’s industry. He was a brilliant cartoonist and storyteller and just got better and better, as the years progressed, creating the sublime and wonderful Sugar and Spike.

    Ma Hunkel was a great character and I loved the idea of a neighborhood superhero, even if it was played just for laughs. You have this impression of someone who just fought to keep her little part of the world safe. which is often the way that urban neighborhoods were. They used to be microcosms, with their own stores, bars, medical offices and other neighborhood businesses. People lived within their blocks, rather than across cities. So, you had the local beat cop, the local thugs, and the local gangs. Ma Hunkel reminds us of that time.

    For those who want to read Mayer, I would also recommend his less well known (today, anyway) Three Mousketeers stories. They are like little comic book Looney Tunes stories, in their style and tone, and lots of fun.

    Mr America was pretty much a derivative character throughout his life and only truly became interesting, for me, in James Robinson’s The Golden Age. Even there, it is less the character than his role. That series used a lot of lesser and obscure characters well, while also paying service to the big guns. I always grumble, a bit (You, grumble? The hell you say!) when I hear it referred as an Elseworlds. it wasn’t sold as such and doesn’t read as one; and, Robinson mostly used it as canon, in Starman and, to a lesser extent, in JSA. I think it makes a more logical conclusion to the Golden Age era than HUAC, as it treads the same territory, yet takes into account the heroic nature of the characters. They wouldn’t just walk away because of some right wing paranoia. They would carry more clout and would probably take down the McCarthyites. Instead, their ranks are decimated, people are hurt, and their simpler worlds are long gone. They were changed by the war and struggled to find their place afterwards.

    The story here tries to reconcile the various changes that Tex Thompson went through, as his creative team struggled to chase trends, without ever creating an interesting character. Thus, he spent his career buried inside the book, quickly forgotten. This story is fine and I would have liked to have seen someone take up this concept and run with it; Thompson as a super-OSS agent (same with Paul Kirk). In a sense, that was the sort of thing you saw in DC’s Unknown Soldier stories (well, a good portion of them). The Bllad of the Green Berets seems an odd choice; but, it fits. The Green Berets trace their legacy to the OSS Jedburgh teams, who operated in occupied territory, helping to coordinate resistance activities (like the British SOE), though they were mostly active in the run-up to D-Day. Col. Aaron Bank, who was the architect of the Special Forces concept, was a veteran of the Jedburgh teams. I could see a series that follows Tex Thompson as an OSS agent, in German territory, until the end of the war, then through the post-war CIA, bringing him in touch with other former mystery men and current heroes. Send me a contract DC and I’ll whip you up a hit. :)

  11. ps. I get what you are saying about Mr. America’s whip; but, it was a favorite weapon in movie serials, of the era (Lash Larue, Zorro, etc…). that’s why Indiana Jones has one.

    It beats a flintlock.

  12. To chime in a little bit on the IDENTITY CRISIS conversation that Ryan and Frank had:

    I agree quite a bit with you guys that the series was both well-written and very well-drawn. Rags Morales is a definite favorite of mine, and I think he did the characters justice. And Brad Meltzer is a good writer, with a strong sense of character…

    …but…

    He was totally wrong for this book, and this book was totally wrong for these characters.

    Brad Meltzer is primarily a crime fiction writer, which is a genre built on moral ambiguity… There are a lot of great crime stories about good people who do a bad thing for the best of reasons and the consequences they pay for their choices.

    That’s not a story you tell using the actual DC characters, particularly the Justice League. The idea that they would not only wipe Dr. Light’s memory, but re-write his personality to make him less harmful? This is exactly the horrible thing that the JLA’s analogs over in SQUADRON SUPREME did, and were rightly branded monsters for doing it.

    These are exactly the sort of stories that you *have* to use analog characters for. This is why Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons didn’t use the actual Charlton heroes in WATCHMEN: Because they actually wanted to use them again.

    This is why reboots and continuity ultimately don’t matter, because characters are not continuity. Characters are MEMES. And when you use a character in a poorly thought-out way, you add to that meme. And sometimes, if the idea is shocking enough or memorable enough, no number of reboots or retcons can ever make fans forget about it.

    Henry Pym is the perfect example. The moment Marvel published a comic book that had Hank striking Jan, they set that character’s destiny for decades. This is likely why he isn’t the main character in the Ant-Man movie. And it’s absolutely the reason why every writer who wants to portray him in a heroic light have to first have the character apologize (again) for a poorly thought-out story written about him from 30 years ago.

    What is the first thing many fans will tell you about Henry Pym if the subject comes up? That he’s a wife beater.

    And that’s why it’s dangerous to turn the second tier of the JLA into amoral mind-scramblers and Dr. Light into a rapist. And this is especially why it’s dangerous to imply that Superman knows about it and turns a blind eye — or ear.

    Because these are serial characters that have to be handed off to a new creative team, and stories like this really run the risk of permanently damaging them.

    Take the JLA out of IDENTITY CRISIS and replace them with a different space cop, archer, sorceress, and speedster, and all of my issues disappear.

    One-story analog characters are allowed to be broken and left unusable at the end of the story. And there are some questions – and some elements of realism — that you just can’t bring into superhero comics. They only expose the absurdity at the center of the genre.

    1. It took me years, Mike. Not quite so recently, but as a kid I took it as any other mystery related title like “Scarecrow and Mrs. King” or “Jake and the Fat Man.” I just thought it was her name. I guess we were both checked out when that pun came around the first time.

    2. It never struck me until fairly recently. It was also years (since I hadn’t really read much of the series) that I realized that Ms Tree was essentially Velda, Mike Hammer’s secretary and occasional lover.

      On a similar, but unrelated token, I read on the internet (wikipedia or IMDB) that th Masters of the Universe movie director had thrown in homages to Jack Kirby’s New Gods. I remember thinking, “What the heck are you smoking?” Then, I watched it on dvd, with the director’s commentary, where he namedrops Kirby. As I watch the scenes, it becomes rather clear, the key device creates a Boom Tube, Skeletor’s hencmen parallel Darkseid’s minions, Skeletor and He-Man have a sort of Darkseid/Orion vibe, when Skeletor crosses worlds and has He-Man in his clutches, he’s riding a big, Kirby-esque machine, the flying disc that He-Man appropriates parallels Mister Miracle’s discs, and there’s a bit of Doctor Doom mixed in, as well (and Thor). By the end, I thought, this is probably the closest live action thing to an actual Kirby comic (at the time). really, even the Marvel films haven’t channeled Kirby that much (maybe Thor); certainly not the FF films (among their many sins).

  13. Thanks for comparing Sword of the Atom to the John Carter stories. I never had thought of them like that before, but now it helps renew my interest in both of them.

    How can anybody not love the Ma Hunkle/Red Tornado segment? It’s pure comics joy, and yes, it does remind readers why these things became known as comic books.

    Did I miss a mention of the more modern Misters America seem in the Geoff Johns Justice Society of America or did you guys really not mention them? Trey Thompson, a relative to Tex, appears very briefly only to be killed and his mantle taken up by FBI agent Jeffrey Graves. It all happened in the same era when Cyclone became a member and Ma Hunkle was a much more regular character (aka the major expansion of the legacy characters era). Somehow he still uses whips, although Mr. Terrific says he upgraded them, but read what you will into a black character working on white character’s whips all while being associated with America I guess.

  14. Red Tornado’s story may not have been an origin proper, but it WAS a “what is this character all about?” story that fit in fine.

    Hey, any time the Red Tornado is evoked and ISN’T the Satellite era android, I’m happy. I hate that guy.

  15. Great episode!! Frank was a lot kinder to the Power of the Atom series than I expected him to be. He must have taken his meds that day.

    Everything else has been said already in the comments. So I’ll leave you with..

    Ma Hunkle is Hot!

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