Comic Book / The Atom
Pratt (left) and Palmer (right)

The Shrinking Superhero.

The Atom is a DC Comics superhero character, best known for being "the tiny one in the Justice League" (because of his shrinking powers- he's usually 6 inches tall.) He has starred in his own series many times. (Should not be confused with Captain Atom. Or Atom Smasher. Or an actual atom.)

Actually, there have been three superheroes named The Atom. The first was Al Pratt. He first appeared in "All-American Comics" #19 (October, 1940), created by Ben Flinton and Bill O'Conner. Pratt was a short guy who got a boost in confidence after being trained in boxing, so he became the masked hero The Atom (because he was small but powerful, get it?) He had no actual superpowers, but was instead a Badass Normal. (It was later retconned that exposure to radiation gave him super strength.) His series continued appearing in "All-American Comics" until its 72nd issue (April, 1946). He was a founding member of the Justice Society, appearing in most of its adventures between 1940 and to 1951. He got a second series of his own in the back pages of "Flash Comics", lasting from issues #80 to #104 (February, 1947-February, 1949). The character went into hiatus in 1953, but was revived in 1963 along with other Justice Society members. He became the father of the superhero Damage and the godfather of the superhero Nuklon.

The second Atom was introduced during the The Silver Age of Comic Books and had nothing in common with the first other than the name. He first appeared in "Showcase" #34 (September, 1961), created by Gardner Fox and Gil Kane. Ray Palmer was a physicist who found a meteor made of "white dwarf star matter" that had shrinking powers (white dwarfs are "compressed" stars and so smaller than normal) so he used it to create a costume that gave him the power to shrink (all the way to subatomic size!) and also change his weight. Despite these unlikely powers he became a successful hero and joined the Justice League. Palmer is also known for having one of the worst romantic lives of any superhero: Jean Loring, his long-time girlfriend (then wife) not only cheated on him, she later went insane and even later became a supervillain. At one point Palmer had a series of Low Fantasy adventures in the Amazon Jungle involving a tribe of really tiny aliens (in the "Sword of the Atom" miniseries.)

The Palmer Atom got a regular series, named "Atom", in July, 1962. It lasted in its original format to issue #38 (August, 1968). He was then paired up with Hawkman, for the remaining issues of his series. "Atom and Hawkman" lasted from issue #39 to #45 (October, 1968-October, 1969). Then the series was cancelled. Palmer got a 4-issue mini-series called "Sword of the Atom" (September - December, 1983). Three "Sword of the Atom" special issues appeared between 1984 and 1988. Palmer then got a regular series, "Power of the Atom", which lasted 18 issues, from August, 1988 to November, 1989. After that the character mostly had regular appearances in team books and crossovers.

The third Atom was Ryan Choi, an Asian American scientist who inherited Palmer's costume after he disappeared following the events of Identity Crisis. He first appeared in the one-shot "DCU: Brave New World" (2006), created by Gail Simone and Grant Morrison. He starred in his own series for 25 issues (September, 2006-September, 2008). He was then unceremoniously killed off, to the chagrin of his fans (and Gail Simone). Being one of the few superheroes of color, Choi's death sparked a major controversy.

Following Flashpoint and the New 52, Palmer appeared as a major supporting character in Jeff Lemire's Frankenstein: Agent of S.H.A.D.E., without the Atom identity. Also in the New 52, Al Pratt was moved with the rest of the Golden Age JSA members to the Earth 2 series, written by James Robinson, and given Nuklon's power set.

The Justice League series of the New 52 introduced a new character with the Atom mantle in issue 18. Her name was Rhonda Pineda, a Latina college student at Ivy University. She initially made a few cameos during the Throne of Atlantis arc, where Cyborg signalled her and several other heroes to help the League stop an Atlantean invasion. Rhonda formally met the League in issue 18 and was recruited along with Firestorm and Element Woman. Issue 20 revealed that she was a mole working for Amanda Waller and Steve Trevor's Justice League of America, gaining intel on how to defeat the Justice League. However, issue 23 revealed she was playing both the Justice League and the JLA. Her real name was Atomica and she was working for the Secret Society all along. She was a native of Earth-3 and essentially the Atom's evil counterpart in the Crime Syndicate. She eventually got killed by Lex Luthor at the end of Forever Evil.

DC Universe: Rebirth #1 introduced Ryan Choi to the post-Flashpoint continuity, now several years younger, as an assistant to Palmer at Ivy University. Palmer by this point had taken up the Atom identity and costume; Choi inherited a copy of the costume after he went missing, similarly to his original version.

The Ryan Choi Atom was the most often seen in the Batman: The Brave and the Bold show, though Palmer also appeared in one episode (that was based on Sword Of The Atom). Ray Palmer was the one in Justice League Unlimited, and referenced in Justice League (regular). Prior to that, a future version of the Atom known as Micron appeared in Batman Beyond as a member of the future Justice League. Additionally, a series of shorts dubbed Sword of the Atom were aired on the DC Nation block on Cartoon Network. Ray Palmer also has a minor recurring role in Young Justice: Invasion as the mentor of Bumblebee. The first appearance for the Atom in other media was in the late 60's Superman/Aquaman Hour Filmation series (other DC heroes also took part in rotating segments). Palmer appears in live-action, played by Brandon Routh in the CW series Arrow, though his role was originally intended to be filled by the Blue Beetle, and bears rather more similarities to him than the comics' Atom. However, Palmer's shrinking abilities will be introduced in the spinoff, Legends of Tomorrow.

For completeness, we should mention Adam Cray, a senator's son who temporarily used Ray Palmer's belt and Atom codename in the Suicide Squad series. He too was killed off.

The Atom(s) display examples of the following:

  • Affirmative Action Legacy: Choi.
  • Badass Bookworm: Palmer and Choi.
  • Breakout Villain: Chronos the Time Thief, who quickly became the Silver Age version's Arch-Nemesis, returns as a major villain in every subsequent Atom series, and is popular enough that he keeps appearing in various other heroes' comics whenever the Atom doesn't have one.
  • Back from the Dead: Ryan Choi in Convergence: The Atom, when it turns out the voice in Ray Palmer's head is actually Ryan. After a fight with Barracuda, Ryan makes himself a new body from Ray's severed hand, before the two Atoms face down Deathstroke, who's come back to finish the job. In the end Ryan steals mass from his hands rather than kill him in revenge, leaving him with teeny little baby hands!
  • Chick Magnet: Ryan Choi is so weirded out by the female attention he receives upon arriving at Ivy Town that he thinks it's part of the town's paranormal activity.
  • City of Weirdos: Ivytown is a bit like this in Choi's series. Basically, the locals - even the scientists at the university - have learnt to accept the laws of the universe are just broken here.
  • Clothes Make the Superman: Palmer, Choi, and Pineda
  • Dating Catwoman: Choi was in a relationship with Wonder Woman villainess Giganta.
  • Determinator: Ray Palmer works on problems with single-minded pursuit.
  • Downer Beginning: The first issue of the Power of the Atom series began with the Morlaidhan tribe Ray was living with throughout the Sword of the Atom storyline killed by government agents posing as loggers. Ray escaped, but ended up trapped at three feet tall for a time.
  • Evil Counterpart: Ryan Choi's archenemy was Dwarfstar. Now, however, there's Atomica, a.k.a. Rhonda Pineda, who for over a year was billed as the new Atom in the Justice League, before she revealed herself as The Mole in both the Justice League and the Justice League of America. Rhonda is actually a native of Earth-3 and a member of the Crime Syndicate, essentially making her the evil alternate universe counterpart to the Atom.
  • Heart Is an Awesome Power: Shrinking and changing your weight.
  • Height Angst: Al Pratt. He was only five feet and one inch tall, constantly being taunted for his size. Even after a boxing coach helps him become stronger, Pratt continues to get teased at his college over his size.
    • A variation occurred with the Ray Palmer version during the Bronze Age, where the fact that his power to shrink caused him to be ignored at times by his normal-sized teammates gave him an inferiority complex for a while.
  • Heterosexual Life-Partners: Ray Palmer and Hawkman (both Katar Hol and the retconned version of Carter Hall) are often portrayed this way. They even shared Ray's comic for a while in the late 1960s.
  • In-Name-Only: Atom's reimagination in the Silver Age. He went from a short and Badass Normal boxer to a physicist who could shrink by using the power of white dwarf star.
  • I Love Nuclear Power: Pratt
  • Incredible Shrinking Man: No kidding.
  • Killed Off for Real: Played with in The All-New Atom where, searching for Ray Palmer, the heroes find themselves in what appears to be heaven and are greeted by the spirit of former Blue Beetle Ted Kord. Ted lampshades the uneven reversibility of comics death, lamenting that he and Batman's parents are the "only people with a permanent parking spot" in the afterlife. (It turns out not really to be heaven, in fact, and not really to be Ted, but the dude has a point; it took the Cosmic Retcon of Flashpoint to bring him back in the end.)
  • Legacy Character: Choi and Cray to Palmer.
  • Mouse World: Often invoked, but only really applied in Sword Of The Atom (where Palmer was stuck at six inches tall.)
  • Size Shifter
  • Square/Cube Law: Explained away by the "miraculous" effects of white-dwarf star matter.
  • Squashed Flat: The focus of a Silver Age story, Fate of The Flattened Out Atom.
  • Telephone Teleport: The Atom could shrink himself down to a size where he could travel along phone lines, propelled by soundwaves. He would leave a metronome ticking at his end of the phone to provide propulsion. However, he found out the hard way that phoning using satellite hookups results in a very rough ride for him.
  • Tiny Guy, Huge Girl: Choi had a relationship with Giganta.
  • Token Minority: Choi was seen as this at first by some. The fact that they killed him off as soon as his series failed doesn't help. That said, they did bring him back subsequently, in cartoons and comics.
  • Unrequited Love: Ray's assistant Enrichetta Negrini has a crush on Ray during the Power of the Atom series.