The History of the Atom


“DC’s Legends of Tomorrow” is delivering some very classic DC icons to TV audiences for the first time. The coolest thing about these heroes and rogues is that behind each Legend, there is a rich and diverse history. This is optimized in Ray Palmer, the Atom, a hero who has been a DC mainstay for many generations.

Of course fans of DC on The CW met Ray Palmer last season. Played by Brandon Routh, viewers fell in love with Palmer’s brave earnestness and even before the hero got small, Palmer became a DCU TV mainstay. Now as one of the central heroes on “DC’s Legends of Tomorrow,” the Atom is poised to take his place as a true DC TV superstar. But the legend of the Atom began long ago in the bygone days of World War II and the Golden Age. In fact, the original Atom was not Ray Palmer at all but a non-powered, short of stature, two fisted hero named Al Pratt. Intrigued? Then let us jump into our Time Sphere and take a look at the history of the Atom!


Al Pratt, the first hero known as the Atom, first appeared in “All-American Comics” #19 (Oct 1940) and was created by Ben Flinton and Bill O’Conner. This primarily colored clad champion was the proverbial 98 pound weakling; bullied, pushed around, and laughed at for his small stature. Soon Pratt got fed up with being a patsy and trained with a championship level boxer. Pratt donned the mask of the Atom and became the fireplug champion of the early DCU. Pratt quickly joined up with the Justice Society of America and took his place as a one of the true DC greats. Later in the Golden Age, Pratt lost his signature full face mask and donned a new fin headed costume to go with new found nuclear powers. This atomic powered Atom didn’t last long and Pratt faded from the comic scene with the rest of the JSA at the end of the Golden Age.

With the coming of Barry Allen as a brand new Flash, DC’s pantheon of super heroes were back. New heroes were taking up Golden Age identities and DC had great success with both Flash and Green Lantern. The Atom was next as DC presented a very literal interpretation of the Tiny Titan. In the pages of “Showcase” #34 (Oct. 1961), legendary writer Gardner Fox and equally legendary artist Gil Kane introduced PHD Ray Palmer, a brilliant scientist who worked for Ivy University. Palmer invented a method of shrinking with the radiation of a white dwarf star fragment. During a camping trip, Palmer and his class get trapped in a cave in and Palmer uses his invention for the first time to shrink down in order to free himself and his students. Thus a legend was born. A legend which now extends to Brandon Routh’s eminently likable version of Ray Palmer on both “Arrow” and “DC’s Legends of Tomorrow.” After “Showcase,” Palmer was given his own book which lasted for six years and along the way DC introduced a rogue’s gallery of strange aliens and criminals that required Palmer’s unique talents in order to defeat. A few notable villains that should be of interest to fans of DC’s CW output were Chronus, a time and clock themed villain who made his TV debut (albeit in a very different form) in the first part of the “Legends” pilot, and the Bug Eyed Bandit, a villain that was morphed into an insect themed female villain last year on “The Flash.” Another villain to make his debut in the pages of “The Atom,” was the Floronic Man, a villain who would be a major player in the pages of Alan Moore’s immortal run on “Swamp Thing.” What made Palmer so special was the idea that he was DC’s go-to science hero, an idea later writers would play to the hilt. This idea truly fuels CW’s version of Palmer and it all began in the Silver Age where a brave and brilliant teacher became very big by getting very small.


The Atom’s solo book may have ended, but the Tiny Titan continued on as a major part of the DC Universe. Not only did Palmer become a member in good standing of the Justice League of America (the image of the Atom sitting on the shoulder of one of his JLA comrades became one of the most oft seen and iconic images of the Silver Age), he also began to co-star in “The Atom and Hawkman,” a co- headlining book with another revived DC superstar. At this time, the Atom became a constant presence in the DCU as the smallest hero made a huge impact in any story he appeared in.


After the cancellation of “The Atom and Hawkman,” Ray Palmer bounced around the DC Universe frequently appearing in back up stories in books like “Action Comics” and Adventure Comics,” and as in co-starring roles in books like “The Brave and the Bold” and “World’s Finest.” Palmer remained a core member of the Justice League, but in the 70s and early 80s, the Atom was reduced to the role of a very small second banana. The Atom’s next great adventure took place in the pages of the first “Atom” series in many years; a pulpish throwback book entitled “The Sword of the Atom.” In this 1963 series, creators Jan Strnad, Gil Kane, and Pat Broderick took Ray Palmer to a strange new world. For years the Atom had been married to his constant sweetheart Jean Loring. When “Sword of the Atom” begins, Loring leaves Palmer for another man. Lost and betrayed, DC’s smallest hero abandons civilization and (because comics) discovers a microscopic civilization in the rain forests of South America. There Palmer falls in love with a yellow skinned beauty named Laethwyn and becomes the protector of her people the Morlaidhans. It was like an Edgar Rice Burroughs story being played out on the head of a pin as the Atom protected his adopted people from all sorts of tiny, potent threats. “Sword of the Atom,” featured Palmer, permanently shrunken, riding into battle on the back of a frog, wielding a clothespin against all manner of strange threats. The whole thing was so bugnuts it worked and let’s hope the CW knows about this series because it really needs to be adapted for TV. The whole thing ended tragically; like many super hero stories of the eighties had a tendency to do. A team of CIA operates burnt the jungle and killed the Morlaidhans. Palmer returned to avenge his people which led us to the first “Atom” ongoing series in many years.


In 1988 fan favorite writer Roger Stern and artist Dwayne Turner presented Ray Palmer, back in civilization and fighting mad. Palmer’s mission was to find the CIA operative responsible for the death of the Morlaidhans. The series was much darker in tone; the usually peaceful Palmer was driven by his desire for revenge. This series also introduced a number of new Atom rogues as the series did not just play the hits, it attempted to add to the legacy of the Atom. This new book saw Ray Palmer go super badass and join with the Suicide Squad to help track down the black ops team that destroyed his adopted jungle home. It was intense, but it was not to last long. After the Atom achieved his vengeance and in the pages of the eighteen issues of “Power of the Atom” and also in the pages of “Suicide Squad,” Ray Palmer was once again back in the DC Universe. The Atom may have been present, but he was once again without purpose and rudderless. But very big changes were coming for DC’s smallest hero.

In his long and storied DC Comics career, the Atom had been a Justice Leaguer, a swashbuckling lost world adventurer, and a divorcee, but after DC’s “Zero Hour” event, the Atom was about to undergo his strangest transformation yet. During the timey wimey “Zero Hour,” Ray Palmer was transformed into a teenager. So it was acne and ennui for one of DC’s greatest hero as the once very adult Ray Palmer had to contend with being sweet sixteen again. Palmer didn’t just hangout on Snapchat and listen to Fetty Wap, oh no, Palmer became the leader of a very different group of Teen Titans. At first, Atom considered his membership in the Titans as a demotion, but Palmer proved just as capable a leader to the Titans as he was an indispensable member of the Justice League back in the day.


The Atom was restored to his normal age by the heroic Waverider, but things would not remain bright and shiny. In DC’s “Identity Crisis,” the Atom would face his greatest tragedy. When Sue Dibny, wife of the heroic Elongated Man, was brutally murdered the Justice League swore to find and punish the killer. They assumed it was one of their many villains but it turned out that Sue’s killer was none other than Jean Loring, Ray Palmer’s ex-wife. Loring thought that by murdering the wife of a Justice Leaguer that she could lore Palmer back into her arms. She even faked her own attack in order to protect herself from suspicion, but Loring was eventually caught. Shockingly, she used Palmer’s shrinking technology to shrink herself down and walk on Dibny’s brain causing a massive stroke. Horrified by the vile sins of his former life partner, the Atom shrunk to almost nothing in order to process this dark turn in his life.

With Palmer gone, a new Atom rose to defend Ivy Town. Ryan Choi was brilliant teacher at Ivy University. The legend of the Atom permeated every aspect of Ivy Town and when Choi found one of Palmer’s old shrinking belts he became an All New Atom. Choi was gifted with some A-list creators during his book’s short run as John Byrne, Gail Simone, and Rick Remender all guided Choi’s weird adventures and rediscovered some of that old school Atom magic. Later, Choi even got to team with Ray Palmer as the legend that Al Pratt began in the 40s now stretched to two great diminutive heroes.


Things got darker before they got brighter. After “Identity Crisis,” Palmer played a major role in “Countdown,” and if I have to explain that series to you, I might have a stroke. But in “Blackest Night,” Palmer found the light he had been searching for since the destruction of the Morlaidhans in “Sword of the Atom.” When zombie versions of DC’s deceased heroes invaded Earth, all the colors of the Lantern spectrum arrived. Among them were the Indigo Lanterns, beings of pure compassion. At this time, Loring was transformed into a Black Lantern zombie and the always compassionate Ray Palmer is given the power of an Indigo Lantern to defeat her. Horrified by what his ex-wife has become, Palmer found it in his heart to forgive and understand her pain. This allowed Palmer to defeat Loring and take his place as an Indigo Lantern. As a Lantern, Palmer wore a semblance of his old “Sword of the Atom” costume. He even had to fight tiny zombie versions of the Morlaidhans. Despite all the pain Palmer went through, his skill and bravery won the day as he took his place as one of DC’s greats once again. Palmer would not stay an Indigo Lantern after “Blackest Night,” but his bravery in defeating Loring and facing the darkness of the past proved that Palmer may be small, but his conviction and compassion were immeasurably large.


Ray Palmer has not had many appearances in the New 52 but he was a member of Frankenstein’s Agents of SHADE. It was established that the still brilliant Palmer still has his shrinking powers in the New 52 but after “Frankenstein and the Agents of SHADE” was canceled, Palmer has yet to make an appearance in the new continuity. One has to assume with the characters surge of popularity thanks to the CW, that won’t last for long.


Brandon Routh’s version of the Mighty Mite isn’t the first Atom to appear on television. The Atom’s first TV appearance was on the old Filmation series “The Superman/Aquaman Hour of Adventure.” The Atom was part of a rotating series of guest heroes that would be featured along with the two titular DC stars. The Atom appeared in three separate shorts and was also a member of the FIlmation Justice League. The Atom next appeared on “Super Friends.” Oddly, the Atom never appeared with the entire team of Super Friends, instead, the Tiny Titans always appeared in a short feature teaming with a single core Super Friends member. The Atom also never appeared in the “Challenge of the Super Friends” becoming one of the very few DC heroes to appear on this legendary that didn’t take part in the team’s season long struggle with the Legion of Doom. Many years later, the Atom’s next cartoon appearance was on “Justice League Unlimited” where DC’s smallest hero really got to shine. Now, fans are thrilling to the very first live action Atom on “DC’s Legend of Tomorrow,” “Arrow,” and “The Flash.” CW’s Atom may be very different than any incarnation that came before. I mean, this Atom wears a suit of Iron Man armor, is played by an actor that once played Superman, and has only gotten small twice since he debuted, but even with all these difference, it is very clear that Brandon Routh has found the formula to show the world what old school DC fans have known ever since Al Pratt first donned that distinctive blue mask so many years ago- the Atom may be small, but where he goes, big adventure follows.