The Atom was created by writer Bill O’Connor and artist Ben Flinton for All-American Comics issue 19, though it’s also been said that the pair wrote and drew interchangeably. Neither men were stars, neither appear to have created anything apart from The Atom, and they left the industry in 1942, to go into the Armed Services, never to return.
The Atom was college student Al Pratt, of Calvin College. Pratt was distinguished by red hair and by being only 5’1” tall, which led to his being mocked and picked on. Pratt was further demeaned when, having finally persuaded classmate Mary James to go on a date with him, the pair were stopped by a mugger. Furious that Pratt did nothing to stop the crook taking her jewels, Mary walked away.
Frustrated, Pratt ended up in a local coffee bar, where he bought a starving bum a meal. The bum turned out to be former boxing trainer Joe Morgan, who spent the next year training Pratt as a fighter. Pratt intended to build a ring career in a mask, as The Mighty Atom, but was diverted from his course when he prevented Mary James from being kidnapped. Instead, he turned to crime-fighting.
As the Atom, Pratt wore a full face blue hood incorporating a short cape (that looked more like a towel!), a loose fronted yellow blouse, high-waisted brown leather trunks, blue gauntlets and boots. He was a founder member of the Justice Society of America and was second only to Hawkman in terms of appearances. He was present in the opening and closing chapters of All-Star 21, but his solo chapter was, for some unknown reason, overdrawn as Dr Fate, replaced by Wildcat in issue 27, supposedly permanently but instead only for one issue, and absent for issue 36 due to an injury in a basketball game (!), for which he was replaced by Batman.
The Atom’s solo career was somewhat disrupted. He appeared in all issues of All-American bar one from 19-61 before disappearing for eight issues. He returned for three more issues but it seems likely that he was going to be dropped, and replaced in the JSA, until some scheduling issues in All-Star forced his being kept on. His series transferred to Flash Comics with issue 80, where it appeared intermittently until the series’ cancellation with issue 104.
To be frank, the Atom was never better than second-rate. He had no superpowers, not until much later in the decade, and O’Connor and Flinton’s work was generally very poor in comparison with the early Golden Age comics. It was an era of crude art, but of great vigour and enthusiasm, with flashes of untrained but vivid imagination, against which O’Connor and Flinton could not compete. As time went by, Flinton’s art grew looser and more ill-defined, avoiding faces as much as possible.
Even after they left, the Atom still failed to get decent art, except for an Alex Toth chapter in All-Star 37. Then, suddenly, the Atom displayed super-strength in All-Star, and a couple of issues later changed his costume – yellow top and leggings, blue boots and a blue head-cap/eye-mask with a red fin whose shape continually changed. It didn’t do much for him, and the advent of super-strength wasn’t explained until the 1980’s, where an awkward 1942-set All-Star Squadron story had Pratt exposed to radiation that has no immediate effect upon him but might have a delayed effect…
Having said all this, it seems strange that the Atom should be chosen as the fourth, and in the event final Golden Age hero to be revived at the beginning of the Silver Age. Though Julius Schwartz was again the editor, and Gardner Fox the writer, the initial notion appears to have come from artist Gil Kane, who suggested reviving the Atom with the powers of Doll-Man.
The latter was a character created at Forties’ Quality Comics. Scientist Darrell Dane swallowed an amazing formula that enables him, by the force of his will, to shrink himself to six inches in height. Schwartz and Fox came up with research physicist Ray Palmer (named for a friend who was a prominent – and short – SF magazine editor), of Ivy Town University, researching the compression of matter. Palmer discovers a fragment of white dwarf star matter fallen to Earth (disbelief has to be severely suspended when it comes to Palmer picking it up, no matter how heavy he makes it out to be).
Palmer uses the star to grind a reducing lens that can indeed shrink objects to microscopic size. Unfortunately, when the object returns to its normal size, it explodes. Before Palmer can get round this difficulty, he joins his fiancée, lady lawyer Jean Loring, on an expedition taking the Scouts to nearby caves. A landslide seals them in and Palmer makes the ultimate sacrifice by using the lens to reduce himself to a small enough size to escape and rescue everyone.
Preparing for death, Palmer returns to his normal size unharmed. Some mysterious, mutant force in his body clearly protects him. So he devises a costume that he can wear at all times, over his street clothing (again, yeuch!), which is only visible when he shrinks himself to his regular height of six inches. The costume is a one-piece, blue at the top, red below, with blue boots, red gloves and a pull-over head-cowl and eye-mask. Palmer sets out to fight crime as the Atom.
Unlike the other revivals, the Atom’s motivation was intimately entwined with his romantic life. Like Barry Allen, Ray Palmer had a fiancée, but unlike Allen, Palmer was continually urging Jean to set a date. But Jean was determined to make a success of her legal career before agreeing to marry Palmer and, impliedly, give it up to become a housewife. So Palmer became the Atom to help Jean win her cases, so that she would become a success, and marry him, all the sooner.
Bearing in mind that this was an era in which the relatively recently established Comics Code Authority presided, whose iron rule ensured that good girls didn’t until they were married. So Ray Palmer became a superhero in order to get laid… not that anyone would ever have admitted that.
The Atom, unlike Hawkman, needed only two Showcase appearances to step up into his own bi-monthly series. He became the second hero to be inducted into the Justice League, in issue 14 of their series, although he was to become one of the ‘Small 5’, whose appearances were somewhat rationed. Although the JLA did organise for him a floating chair so that at the meeting table he could hover in everybody’s eye-line.
Nor was his series anything more than steady in terms of sales. Fox introduced a couple of villains, the longest-lasting being Chronos, the time-manipulating thief. He refined Palmer’s size-and-weight controls by adding fingertip controls within the Atom’s gloves, to get over the need to keep fumbling at his belly-button, and introduced a charming, erudite and offbeat series of adventures where the Atom would go through Dr Hyatt’s ‘Time Pool’ into the past, and meet luminaries with no obvious appeal to ten year old boys, such as Edgar Allan Poe.
The Atom 1 returned in the first JLA/JSA team-up, and continued to appear irregularly in following years.
Ray Palmer teamed up with Al Pratt on a couple of occasions, the second of which allowed us an update on the original Atom’s later years. Pratt was still at Calvin College but now as a Professor, in nuclear physics. Like Hawkman, he had retained his latter-day costume, plus his super-strength, but in their second adventure together, we learned that Pratt was still single. A blind date with the wealthy Marion Theyer who, suddenly, aged to over 50, led to a fast-moving, criss-crossing story of women ageing on Earth-2, men de-aging on Earth-1 and two Atoms fighting.
It ended with Pratt and Marion getting off to a good second start, but Marion Thayer never reappeared, and ever since the case has been that Pratt eventually managed to get Mary James to overlook his size and marry him (though if any stories were ever published showing them as a married couple, interacting, I confess I’ve never read them).
Palmer was also allowed a friendship with Carter (Hawkman) Hall, in the manner of the Superman/Batman, Flash/Green Lantern pairings, with occasional team-ups and crossovers.
But by 1969, The Atom’s sales were declining. Hawkman was cancelled and merged into The Atom, alternating between half-length shorts and full-length team-ups, but this merely delayed the inevitable for a year or so, and the series was cancelled after issue 45. This issue had seen Jean Loring driven temporarily insane, but this plotline was resolved in Justice League of America 81, when her mind was restored.
Little happened for either Atom during the Seventies. Palmer continued to appear with the Justice League, off and on. In 1977, the year that Steve Engelhart wrote Justice League of America, Palmer displayed a certain resentment at the more prominent JLAers – i.e., the ‘Big 5’ over how he and the less-powerful members were not being treated as equals.
Pratt was not included in the All-Star revival series, an omission stemming from Paul Levitz’s decision to ignore the supposed ‘Earth-2-is-twenty-years-behind’ theory and treat the JSAers as being heroes now in their fifties: as a more-or-less non-powered hero, The Atom 1’s plausibility was threatened and he was side-lined. He was however going to feature in that decidedly oddball mid-Seventies series, Secret Society of Super-Villains, which ran for 16 issues without ever settling to a theme or direction for more than four and a half: in its final period, the scene had shifted to Earth-2 and the then-writer (Gerry Conway? David Kraft? Bob Rozakis?) had decided to bring out the JSA members Levitz wasn’t using in All-Star when a kindly fate intervened and it was cancelled, mid-series, with one complete issue unpublished.
He would, however, feature to an unexpected degree in All-Star Squadron, in his original costume, being something of a favourite with Roy Thomas. From this point on, Pratt’s character would be developed as a hot-headed, aggressive, punch-first-and-ask-questions-later youngster, for whom his Atom costume was a release from the frustrations of being picked on for being short.
Thomas would also retcon Pratt’s sudden and unexplained acquisition of super-strength and change of costume, though in highly contrived manner (an unfortunately common characteristic of all Thomas’s retcons in this period). In 1942, Dr Terry Curtis, a physicist, would be forced to become the radiation-wielding villain Cyclotron, in a costume identical to Pratt’s later uniform: Pratt would be exposed to radiation from Cyclotron, who sacrificed himself to defeat the ultimate villain. Pratt and the superheroine Firebrand would look after Curtis’s baby daughter, and Pratt would be godfather to her son Albert Rothstein, aka Infinity, Inc. member Nuklon, but in the short term, the delayed effect of the radiation would give Pratt his super-strength in 1948.
Throughout the Seventies, Palmer and Jean Loring remained steadfastly engaged, though with no sign of marriage (maybe Palmer had now got lucky in an age where moral standards and the CCA were shifting). Eventually, though, it was decided to fulfil the pair’s happiness. A short-series in the equally oddball Super-Team Family saw Loring kidnapped by the villain T.O.Morrow, and Palmer enlisting the aid of several different heroes to rescue her, as a result of which Jean finally agreed to set the date.
The marriage took place in Justice League of America 154, which started with Palmer’s ‘bachelor night’, at which point he revealed that he’d still not revealed his Atom identity to Jean. Having been persuaded that he’d better do so, and in double-quick time, Palmer was shocked when Jean repudiated him for lying to her all these years. Fortunately, by issues end she recanted, and the two wed at long last.
Funnily, enough, having taken almost two whole decades to bring this clearly loving pair together, the marriage didn’t last five years. The Atom 2’s original artist, Gil Kane, a fiercely independent creator, had been pushing for more barbarian comics for several years and, with writer Jan Strnad, finally had a proposal accepted to completely revolutionise Ray Palmer.
Via a four-part Sword of the Atom mini-series and two Specials, Palmer firstly discovered that his preoccupation with his work at Ivy University and his superheroics had driven an increasingly lonely Jean into an affair with her Law partner, Paul Hoben (they call it an affair now, but in 1983 it was being caught snogging in the car). Hurt, Palmer jetted off to a South American conference to think, but the plane crashed in the Amazon jungle. Palmer escaped by shrinking to Atom-size but, in the fall, his controls were destroyed and he was stuck at six inches (with his hair flapping in the breeze as the top of his cowl was torn off).
Palmer then discovered a colony of six inch tall, yellow-skinned barbarian pygmies called Mohrlaidians. He became their protector, a frog-rider, and decided not to return to civilisation, except for once, to grant Jean a divorce, tell his life-story to a thinly-disguised Norman Mailer (Brawler) which revealed his identity to the world, hand his Atom costume and belt to the afore-mentioned Paul Hoben (who in some quarters is regarded as The Atom 3, but not here, given that the new Protector of Ivy Town never even used them once), and returned to the jungle to re-unite himself with the lovely five-and-a-bit-inches tall Princess Laethwyn.
I’m sorry, I apologise. It was by Kane, whose art is tremendous, and Strnad’s a good, subtle writer, and it’s far better than I’ve made it sound. But it’s hardly surprising that it didn’t last.
Palmer did not return until post-Crisis on Infinite Earths in Power of the Atom, written by Roger Stern. Pratt, at this point, had gone into a Teutonic Gods limbo with the Justice Society, holding back Gotterdammerung.
Stern quickly dispensed with Princess Laethwyn and her Mohrlaidians, having an illegal logging operation slash-and-burn that quarter of the jungle, and them, forcing Palmer to return to civilisation. At first he went back to superhero stuff and his old villains, though another new direction came in after Palmer learned that the rainforest raid had been deliberately aimed at driving him back to America, where a sinister CIA offshoot wanted to recruit him as an operative. Palmer got his revenge, which involved killing the director of the operation and shrinking the five operatives to the standard six inches.
These operatives then formed a Micro/Squad working for the Cabal. With Power of the Atom cancelled after only 18 issues, Palmer’s story carried on into Suicide Squad, working deep cover, assisting the Squad, and attracting the Cabal’s attention. This backfired spectacularly when Blacksnake of the Squad suddenly turned on the Atom and impaled him.
It was a stunning shock, but it was also a cheat. Palmer then revealed himself as having infiltrated the Micro/Squad by impersonating one of its fallen members: the Atom who has assisted the Suicide Squad and fought against the Cabal is The Atom 3, aka Adam Cray, son of a Senator murdered by the Cabal, who had been working with Palmer to facilitate Palmer’s infiltration. A retrospective Atom 3, like Fel Andar as Hawkman 3. Cray, incidentally, was using the costume and controls Palmer had left with Paul Hoben.
In the meantime, Al Pratt had returned to the scene in 1992. The success of the Justice Society of America mini-series, from which he’d been omitted, led to a short-lived ongoing series, with Al Pratt as a regular. Pratt returned from limbo in his original costume, but rapidly changed it for a blue face-hood, sleeveless yellow top and blue pants. He was now bald, with a bushy moustache, a touchy, defensive, stocky man, protective of team-mate Wildcat (who had been crippled for life before the JSA had gone to limbo and been mystically rejuvenated), and quietly heartbroken that, whilst he had gone, his wife Mary had died, without him being able to say goodbye.
Pratt was not long for the DC Universe. Justice Society of America was cancelled after 10 issues, amid allegations that it was a political, not commercial issue. The JSA next appeared in Zero Hour, when they gathered to face the apparent villain, The Extant. Hot-headed as usual, The Atom 1 was the first to spring into the attack. He was killed instantly by a blast of radiation. Apart from the occasional flashback, he would never return.
DC were thus left with one Atom, Ray Palmer, and his life had been put through so many changes that DC decided to use Zero Hour to completely reset him. In the final confrontation, The Atom tries to slip into the molecules of The Extant’s body, but finds him to be composed of pure energy: Extant reverses Palmer’s ageing, intending to send him all the way back past his birth, but Waverider intervenes, stopping the reversal with Palmer aged about eighteen, albeit with all his memories. Adopting an Animal Man style jacket over his re-redesigned costume, Palmer founds and leads a new incarnation of the Teen Titans.
That didn’t last long either, just 24 issues, ending with Palmer returning to his standard 30-ish age and disappearing into the background again, until Identity Crisis.
I’ve written about this series elsewhere: suffice to know that the death of Sue Dibny, wife of the Elongated Man, starts a frenzy of concern for the superhero community, who fear attacks on their loved ones. One such attack is made on Jean Loring, now single again. Palmer’s fear for her safety is manifest and indeed he saves her at the last moment, bringing them back together, to his intense delight. It’s short-lived however, as a casual remark from Jean exposes her as Sue Dibny’s killer, albeit clumsily rather than deliberately, and that she has done everything in the hope of winning Palmer back to her: instead, it gets her into Arkham Asylum.
(Where she becomes the new Eclipso, and becomes a forever-tainted character, in a way that Carol Ferris was never so irretrievably tainted by being Star Sapphire. It was a bad move, cutting off an avenue for Palmer’s life.)
Hurt beyond measure, bitterly ashamed and distraught, Palmer shrunk himself into oblivion, pausing only to tell his close friend Carter Hall (the restored Hawkman 1) that he was never coming back. And throughout Infinite Crisis, One Year Later and 52, there was no Ray Palmer. But one of the underlying stories of DC’s next weekly, Countdown (to Final Crisis) was the hunt for Ray Palmer.
Palmer’s shrinking had taken him into a microscopic universe where, after Infinite Crisis, he found himself on Earth-51 of the new Multiverse, a seemingly-idyllic world in which their Ray Palmer had just died before going on a blind date with a woman named Jean Loring. It seemed too good to be true. Palmer’s friends were all his old Silver Age colleagues, all of whom had retired after crime was eradicated (due, it seemed, to Batman killing all the villains).But Palmer found his Earth-51 equivalent had been working on something to avert a danger to the whole Multiverse,which made it essential that he complete the research.
This idyll ended when he was finally found by a search team from his own Earth, bringing with them an unsuspected danger who ruins Palmer’s life in exile. He teams up with his colleagues to help save the Multiverse.
Meanwhile, in the wake of Infinite Crisis, DC came forward with The Atom no 4, whose series was entitled The All-New Atom, but which was as short-lived as the others before it. The Atom 4, who was developed from ideas put forward by Grant Morrison at a time when he’d been trying to re-write virtually the entire DC Universe, was Ryan Choi, a Hong Kong-born and based Physics Professor and a correspondent with Palmer, who took his place among Ivy University’s faculty. Choi then found Palmer’s old size-and-weight belt and became the latest Atom.
Over the 25 issues of the series, Choi was initially mentored by a mysterious figure whom everyone assumed was Palmer, but who instead was exposed as Palmer’s oldest foe, Chronos, who had manipulated everything, up to and including Palmer’s side of the original correspondence. Choi was part of the team that retrieved Palmer from Earth-51, and eventually impressed Palmer sufficiently that Palmer insisted both use the name, The Atom.
During Blackest Night, Palmer took on another role by being deputised into the Indigo Tribe, the Corps that wields the light of compassion, though he retained his size and weight command, which has long since been keyed to his thoughts so as to make things easy for unimaginative writers. Then, in Brightest Day, Choi was found to have been murdered, offstage, by the mercenary assassin Deathstroke, arousing controversy over the killing of one of the very few Asian-American heroes at DC.
Once again, that left only The Atom 2.
It seems clear, down the years, that there is a small fandom for the shrinking Atom, but not one large enough to sustain Ray Palmer, in any form, as other than a supporting character.
It should be mentioned in passing that, in addition to his godson Nuklon, who would later be admitted to the new JSA as Atom-Smasher (i.e., a cyclotron) in a new costume based on The Atom 1’s, Al Pratt was later credited with a son he never knew, Grant Emerson, aka Damage. Emerson’s origin was eventually that he was conceived by Pratt and his wife Mary, but she was kidnapped by an old JSA foe, during which ordeal she was led to believe she had miscarried. Instead, the foetus had been removed and, treated with DNA taken from every JSA member, was born artificially, As Damage, Emerson could channel energy into explosions: he was used to re-start the Universe in Zero Hour, after Parallax was attacked. He too ended up donning an Atom-inspired costume and joining the even newer JSA, post Infinite Crisis, only to be killed off some years later.
So now it’s the New 52. Ray Palmer appears as a scientist and supporting character in Frankenstein, Agent of S.H.A.D.E but not as a superhero. Sgt. Al Pratt appears in Earth-2 and has now have received superpowers that once again make him The Atom. Ryan Choi was supposed to be resurrected and appear in Justice League, but the frontline Atom is actually The Atom 5, aka latina student at Ivy University (apparently, nobody can learn to shrink anywhere else), Rhonda Pineda. Good luck to her.