I was pretty surprised to hear that Ryan “The Atom” Choi was apparently killed off during violent fight with Deathstroke the Terminator and a gang of supervillains in May 12’s Titans: Villains For Hire Special #1, by Eric Wallace and Fabrizio Fiorentino.
The special was a kick-off to a new direction for the troubled Titans ongoing series, in which the sometimes Titans villain Deathstroke would be the new star.
Now there’s nothing all that shocking about a super-character getting killed off at the beginning of a new story or series, particularly at DC. It’s happened so often throughout the course of the last decade that, as I’ve mentioned here and elsewhere before, I’ve begun to suspect the process is some sort of profane pagan ritual, in which DC staffers offer the imaginary blood of fictional characters to an extra-dimensional deity they believe in and worship, in exchange for its blessings in the form of monthly sales in excess of 40,000 units a month.
The Outsiders/Teen Titans relaunches began with the deaths of Donna Troy and Omen, Identity Crisis began with the death of Sue Dibny, the build-up to Infinite Crisis with the death of Blue Beetle, Infinite Crisis itself with the death of The Freedom Fighters (and a good dozen more before it was all over), Final Crisis with the deaths of Martian Manhunter and all of the New Gods, Titans with the deaths of the new “Titans East” team, Blackest Night with the death of Hawkman and Hawkgirl, the new volume of Green Arrow with the death of Lian Harper in Cry For Justice, and on and on.
But Ryan Choi being killed off at the beginning of a new direction of Titans came as a big surprise—of the “Oh God, are they still doing this?” variety, not the “OMG, I can’t wait to see what happens next!” variety—and not simply because he’s a character that’s never had anything to do with the Titans or Deathstroke before.
Why was it so surprising? Let me count the ways.
First, the comic in which Ryan Choi was killed was one of the first comics of DC’s “Brightest Day” effort, presented as the lighter, brighter dawn after all the dark, violent comics about heart-eating, friend-taunting reanimated corpses in Blackest Night.
That series, the central conflict of which revolved around the death and resurrection of super-characters in the DCU, ended with two characters standing in a grave yard talking about what it all means, with one of them literally quoting Joe Quesada from old Newsarama interviews.
“Do you think without Nekron pulling the strings, the resurrections are over?” Barry Allen asked Hal Jordan, and Jordan replied, “I think Dead is dead from here on out–”
One would be forgiven for expecting at least a month or two to pass before went right back to that particular well.
Second, when The Atom appeared in the current Batman cartoon, Batman: The Brave and the Bold, the version they used was thew newer Ryan Choi version of The Atom, not the Silver Age Ray Palmer version.
It’s easy to see why the show’s producers might have opted for Choi over Palmer, as doing so added some diversity to the superheroes Batman was teaming up with, and I assumed Choi’s presence on the show presaged his continued existence in the comics.
The comics aren’t exactly beholden to the media adaptations, of course, but the comics have changed in the past to reflect what was going on in the cartoons. In 2003, Green Lantern Kyle Rayner left the JLA comic to be replaced by John Stewart to reflect the line-up of the Justice League cartoon, for example, and when Young Justice was canceled and replaced with a new volume of Teen Titans, the line-up was a DCU version of the one on the Teen Titans cartoon.
With DC recently becoming DC Entertainment and a big deal being made of how the company was being reorganized and streamlined to better exploit their characters throughout various media, it wasn’t unreasonable to expect Choi to stick around a bit—at least until The Brave and The Bold ceased production, anyway.
But thirdly, and most importantly, Ryan Choi wasn’t exactly an underused character who had been gathering dust in character limbo for years.
He was created only a few years ago, and the book he starred in was in conception something of a collaboration between Grant Morrison, DC’s second most popular writer, and Gail Simone. While Simone was the first writer on the title and had said in interviews it contained many elements from an non-Atom-specific pitch she had made to DC, it was one of a few comics from the period that featured a credit reading “Based on ideas and concepts developed by Grant Morrison.”
That’s a pretty good pedigree for a character, and you don’t see DC offing many other Morrison co-recreations, even other redundant ones with lower Q-ratings, like The Shining Knight or Manhattan Guardian.
And the new character was certainly pretty well promoted for a time. He first appeared in 2006 one-shot, DCU: Brave New World, an eighty-page, $1 book featuring six short stories, each of which lead into a new miniseries or ongoing, plus a few pages offering the first teases of Countdown.
If the book’s huge-page-count-for-ridiculously-cheap-price format wasn’t push enough, DC sold it as a sort of companion to the similar DC Countdown, the 2005 book that kicked off the Infinite Crisis event cycle. Brave New World was the start of the next big thing.
The Atom story was an eleven-pager by Simone and the art team of John Byrne and Trevor Scott, and it was the only character/concept being primed for an ongoing. The rest of those featured in the book received miniseries (Uncle Sam and The Freedom Fighters, OMAC, Martian Manhunter, The Marvel Family and The Creeper. Of those, The Freedom Fighters were the most successful, getting a second miniseries before disappearing).
The All-New Atom lasted 25 issues before ultimately getting the axe. That’s obviously not very long, but its certainly respectable for a new super-comic from the second half of the decade.
In that time, the book had two different writers—Gail Simone for #1-#20 and Rick Remender for #21-#25. The art wasn’t anywhere near that consistent, with six different pencil artists in that time: John Byrne, Eddy Barrows, Mike Norton, Andy Smith, Jerry Ordway and Pat Olliffe.
Each of those artists have very different styles, and their work wasn’t contributed in a terribly consistent fashion. For example, Byrne drew the first half of the first story arc, and Barrow finished it. Norton came on for a few issues, then Barrows returned, than Norton returned.
The result was that the book—its hero, its cast, its setting—never developed a consistent look. That may not be all that important for mediocre superhero comics once they’re up and running (Superman, Batman, X-Men or Spider-Man comics, for example, could switch artists every issue and would probably sell no worse than they do with regular creative teams), but can be deadly on a new character and concept.
If I were asked to diagnose the major problem with Ryan Choi and The All-New Atom, it was that—despite the effort DC put into promoting it with a splashy debut in Brave New World and, later, Countdown tie-ins, the book looked rushed, slapdash and unimportant. It wasn’t anyone’s baby, with the possible exception of Gail Simone’s…for a while, anyway.
And then, because it was cancelled once Ray “The Atom” Palmer returned to the DCU proper in Countdown, Choi was off-panel while Palmer was on. The new Atom became pretty irrelevant, especially with Geoff Johns and James Robinson using Palmer so prominently in Blackest Night and Justice League: Cry For Justice (although Robinson did flirt with having The Atoms team-up and hang out together in an early issue, the way all the Flashes and Arrows do).
That doesn’t mean they had to kill him off of course—it’s still silly to kill off a character, as live ones almost always have more potential than dead ones—but it’s not hard to see how Choi went from the list of characters deserving of their own series to the list of Characters That Can Be Killed Off For Cheap Attempt At Shock Value in a matter of a few years.
I’m not sure what the conventional wisdom will end up being, what the take away of the short career of Ryan “The Atom III” Choi will ultimately be, but I hope it’s not simply that people don’t like Chinese-American heroes, or legacy characters created after 1969, or funny/lighthearted superhero comics or new things.
Because whatever else you can say about The All-New Atom–and I can say a lot of negative things about it; at the end of the day it wasn’t a very good comic book—it was something new.
Simone took some risks with her writing, and many of them didn’t quite pay off, but it was one of the few American superhero comics that was written as a sitcom rather than a melodrama, with a large cast of supporting characters, a distinct (if not ever visually so) setting and both humor and drama derived from the characters’ interactions with one another and that setting.
I’m not going to miss the character Ryan Choi, and I can’t imagine anyone else is missing him—his title has been canceled for over a year and a half, so if anyone misses him, they’ve been missing him for a while already anyway.
But I’m probably going to remain confused by the decision to kill him for a while yet.