Splitting the Atoms

The original Justice Society of America was a pretty formidable group. You’ve got guys like Hourman, who can throw cars around like luggage, and the Flash, whose blinding speed makes him practically untouchable. Then there are folks like Green Lantern and Dr. Fate, who possess unthinkable power at their very fingertips. As if that wasn’t bad enough, there’s the Spectre, who looks to channel the divine power of the Almighty himself.

Then there was the Atom.

He was short.

Unlike his Silver Age descendant, who at least had the ability to shrink to microscopic size, the original Atom fought crime with nothing but his dukes, a cape and a bad attitude, probably stemming from too many years of short jokes. This week, we’ll be taking a look at DC’s long-running “Atom” characters, from the ‘40s to today. Let’s get to it.

The Atom (originally dubbed “the Mighty Atom”) first appeared in the pages of ALL-AMERICAN COMICS #19 in 1940. Created by rookie artists Bill O’Connor and Ben Flinton, the Atom was intended by editor Sheldon Mayer from the start as filler material, in the form of 6-page stories in ALL-STAR COMICS. In SECRET ORIGINS OF THE DC SUPER HEROES, Denny O’Neil puts forward the theory that part of the reason the Atom never received a big promotional push was the draft status of its young creators. Since O’Connor and Flinton were most likely headed for the Army sooner rather than later, Mayer didn’t see the point in giving the Atom heavy promotion when his creators would soon be away, and sure enough, it wasn’t long before O’Connor and Flinton were off to war, and the ATOM strip was in the hands of various staff artists and freelancers.

In the story, “Introducing the Mighty Atom,” we meet diminutive college student Al Pratt, who’s constantly belittled for his height by his classmates. The final straw comes when Al and his girl Mary James are mugged by a fellow who doesn’t seem to be armed, although he is wearing a dangerously orange suit. Mary dumps Al in disgust afterward, and the depressed Al is at his wit’s end.

Al runs into a derelict and generously agrees to buy him dinner, then pours out his tale of height-challenged woe. As chance would have it, the derelict is actually famed fight trainer Joe Morgan, who’s a little down on his luck.

Morgan offers to train the pint-size Pratt, and the two convene to Pratt’s family farm, for a year of intensive athletic and fight training. When Morgan and Pratt return to the city, the first fellow to push Al around gets a taste of his newfound skills and physique:

Later, Al discovers just how well the training has worked, as he tries to open a jammed door:

While out for a walk, Al decides to pay Mary James a visit, and arrives at her house just as she is being kidnapped. (Isn’t that always the way? Timing is everything…) His small stature allows him to leap on the sedan’s rear bumper unnoticed and hitch a ride to the kidnappers’ hideout.

Al overhears their plan to hold the blindfolded Mary for ransom, and crashes the party, handily trouncing the four kidnappers.

When the police arrive in response to Al’s call, they find the kidnappers tied up, alongside his calling card, reading simply “The Atom.”

Before too long, Al has adopted a distinctive costume to wear when in action as the Atom, consisting of what looks like a weightlifter’s leather trunks and wristguards, a yellow V-neck t-shirt, red boots, and a blue cape and full-face mask.

Granted, not the most manly of outfits, but considering the fact that his superpower largely consisted of just being a pissed-off little asskicker, I doubt anyone told him that twice.

Since the Atom’s ALL-AMERICAN appearances have yet to be reprinted, I don’t have access to many of his solo appearances. However, if his solo chapters in the pages of the JSA stories in ALL-STAR COMICS, are any indication, generally, Al Pratt would investigate a potentially criminal situation, be vastly underestimated by a group of thugs due to his size, thrash them, then return later as the Atom and thrash them some more. A simple yet apparently satisfying formula, which worked equally well when applied to Nazi college students, as here in ALL-STAR #4 …

…or crooked gym instructors, as in ALL-STAR #5…

Basically, in the Atom’s world, there was no problem that couldn’t be solved by swift and blinding violence. God bless America.

The early Atom stories were definitely crude, both in terms of the art and the story, and certainly not up to the standards being set by such features as Superman, Hawkman and the Spectre. Still, just the notion of a littler hero always coming out on top over larger opponents in superior numbers must have appealed to young readers of the time. The Atom remained a steady presence in the Justice Society long after losing his solo feature over in ALL-AMERICAN. By the late ‘40s, the advent of the atomic bomb had changed the public’s perception of the term “atom,” and where in 1940, those who even knew the word only connected it with something small and insignificant, the shadow of Hiroshima had permanently altered its connotation, to one of “power.” Accordingly, in 1948, the Atom received a new costume with an “atomic power”-looking symbol on his chest, and mysteriously began exhibiting heretofore unexplained superpowers, in the form of an “atomic punch.”

(In the 1980s, writer Roy Thomas would retroactively explain the superpowers in an issue of his WWII-era series ALL-STAR SQUADRON, as having been gained by Pratt due to exposure to radiation during a battle with the Ultra-Humanite in 1942.) The Atom stuck with the Justice Society until the very end, when the series was discontinued with ALL-STAR COMICS #67.

Jump ahead a decade or so to 1961. National editor Julius Schwartz had found great success in his more science-fiction influenced revamps of some of the classic National superhero concepts. Having already revitalized the Flash, Green Lantern and Hawkman, it was only a matter of time before it was the Atom’s turn. Most likely inspired by Will Eisner’s “Doll Man” character of the 1940s, Schwartz abandoned the original Atom’s pugilistic emphasis for a more sci-fi approach, opting to give his new Atom the ability to shrink in size.

To launch his new hero, Schwartz turned to two of the creative forces behind some of his biggest hits. Writing the new character (with heavy influence from Schwartz on plots) would be veteran comics writer Gardner Fox, who at the time was writing National’s hit series JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA. Handling the art was penciller Gil Kane, whose classical, graceful style was in full effect on GREEN LANTERN, with inks provided by HAWKMAN’s Murphy Anderson, who added a polished smoothness to the art.

The new Atom made his first appearance in SHOWCASE #34 (September/October 1961), in “Birth of the Atom!” Therein, Ivy University physicist Ray Palmer (named for Schwartz’s friend, the four-foot-six editor if the long-running pulp AMAZING STORIES) continues his research in the field of matter compression. If successful, Palmer foresees matter compression ending such ills as overpopulation and famine. The break in Ray’s research comes when he stumbles across a fragment of a white dwarf star which has crashed to Earth. Palmer cuts a piece of the fragment (which is made of tremendously dense material) and fashions a reducing lens, discovering that passing ultraviolet light through the lens successfully shrinks inanimate objects. Unfortunately, every shrunken object exploded not long after being shrunk.

Ray’s failures in the lab are compounded by his frustrated love life, as his girlfriend, Jean Loring, refuses to marry him until she’s proved herself a success as a lawyer, “before I give up my career and settle down.” Ah, the sixties.

Correspondingly, she expected Ray to prove himself as a scientist before she would agree to marry him. No pressure or anything.

As it happened, Jean accompanied Palmer and his Nature Club on a hike through Giant Caverns, when the group was trapped inside the underground caverns by a cave-in. Even worse, natural gas was seeping in through the ground, threatening to suffocate the students and Jean. Ray comes up with a dangerous plan, and leaves the rest of the party to go put it into effect.

Spotting a lone shaft of sunlight eking through the caves, Ray sets up his reducing lens (why he brought it along remains a mystery) on two stalagmites to focus the ultraviolent light.

Stepping beneath the lens, Palmer swiftly shrinks down to mere inches in height, and races to the cave wall. At his new reduced height, the smooth cave wall is now replete with hand and toe holds, and Palmer is easily able to climb to the cave ceiling and carve a hole in the solid rock with the diamond engagement ring he has repeatedly offered to Jean. (Aside: Ray Palmer may be the most whipped superhero in the history of comics. He carries that ring around for rejection after rejection? Man. Get a little self-respect.)

Having created a hole large enough for full-size folk to climb through, the tiny Palmer runs to find Jean and his students, to tell them about the escape hatch before he explodes, as he fully expects to do. On his way back, Palmer inadvertently runs through the lens’ ray once more, and returns to his normal height. Ray discovers that the lens was now covered with water from the cavern, and assumes that some unknown element in the water reacted with the dwarf star material to allow him to reverse the process. After leading the group to safety, Palmer heads back to the lab, but his experiments remain a failure: for some reason, the process only works on him.

In the Atom’s next appearance, “Battle of the Tiny Titans,” Ray continues his work with dwarf star material, fashioning a miniature costume out of it, which is invisible and nearly intangible when stretched to normal height. However, when Ray touches a control on the belt, a wave of ultraviolet rays is sent through the costume, causing the costume and Palmer to shrink. In addition, Ray discovered a way to reduce and control his weight as well.

Swiftly, Ray Palmer found himself caught up fighting crime as “the Atom,” and was learning to use his shrinking powers in innovative ways: by reducing his weight to practically nil, the Atom was able to float on currents of air, then attack his opponents by throwing a punch just after switching to his full 180-pound weight, while remaining at six inches. In an even cooler revelation, the Atom was able to traverse vast distances almost instantaneously by shrinking to microscopic size, and then traveling via electric impulses along telephone lines. Although I’ll bet his phone bills were atrocious…

A great deal of the Atom’s cases were linked to Jean Loring’s legal career, as Ray Palmer was desperate to help Jean become a great success as a lawyer, so she’d give it all up and marry him. Way to be supportive. As for arch-enemies, the Atom didn’t have many of note, the most significant being Chronos the Time Thief, who first appeared in “The Time Trap!” (THE ATOM #3, October/November 1962) Chronos was a fairly standard bad guy with clock and hourglass-themed weapons, who is notable for one of the gaudiest costumes in supervillain history.

Sure, I get the hourglass chest emblem, and the clock hands on the face are almost cool, even, but what is up with the stripey pants? Hey, Chronos, what time is it? Time for some new pants.

The Atom’s place in the DC firmament was established for good in JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA #14, in “The Menace of the ‘Atom’ Bomb!” by Gardner Fox and Mike Sekowsky.

In the issue, the Atom was voted in as the newest member, alongside founders Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, J’Onn J’Onzz, Flash, Green Lantern and Aquaman, and previous recruit Green Arrow. However, thanks to the machinations of JLA foe Amos Fortune, posing as “Mister Memory,” none of the JLA members remember who the Atom is just moments after they’ve inducted him. Soon all the JLAers except the Atom have had their memories wiped clean, and it’s up to the Justice League’s newest (and smallest) member to make things right. After the Atom has helped close the case, he attends his first JLA meeting, at which he’s given an only slightly demeaning gift, although I’m sure it was well-intended: a high chair.

Ray Palmer eventually married Jean Loring, and although his solo magazine didn’t last long, the Atom settled into a healthy existence as a guest-star, with monthly appearances in JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA for decades, as well as frequent guest-shots in everything from HAWKMAN to THE FLASH to BRAVE AND THE BOLD to WORLD”S FINEST.

However, the Atom’s status quo took an unexpected twist in 1983, with the publication of SWORD OF THE ATOM, a 4-issue miniseries by writer Jan Strnad and original Atom artist Gil Kane that took the character in a brand-new direction. After his wife’s infidelity led to the end of their marriage (I always knew Jean was bad news), Ray Palmer discovered a miniature alien culture hidden in the jungles of South America, and, having fallen in love with the tribe’s yellow-skinned princess, abandoned his life and his size-changing belt to live permanently with the tribe at a height of six inches. There were several one-shot specials about the new jungle Atom following the miniseries, all by Strnad and Kane.

Writer Roger Stern booted Ray Palmer from his jungle paradise in 1988 with the first issue of the new monthly series POWER OF THE ATOM, in which a slash-and-burn operation destroyed the Atom’s new home and killed his new love, after which a demoralized Ray Palmer returned to Ivy Town.

Atom’s new series only lasted 18 issues, following which the character faked his own death and began working for the government, as seen in issues of John Ostrander’s SUICIDE SQUAD.

By the mid-1990s, the Atom had fallen out of the spotlight entirely, until JLA writer Grant Morrison began using the character as a supporting member in the revitalized series. After that, Ray Palmer returned to his Silver Age status as guest-star extraordinaire, appearing all over the DC Universe, most recently in issues of HAWKMAN and JSA, before being relegated to the background in favor of a new, younger, more “modern” version.

As for the original Atom, Al Pratt returned with the rest of the Golden Age Justice Society in the pages of JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA in the 1960s, and appeared frequently in guest appearances along with the rest of the JSA, until his rather pointless death at the hands of Extant in the 1994 DC event miniseries ZERO HOUR. However, Pratt’s name and legacy are carried on by his godson Albert Rothstein, who can currently be seen as Atom-Smasher in theatres worldwide in BLACK ADAM. It all comes around…


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