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Comic Book / The Atom

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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 had his own series for most of the Silver Age, though hasn't been much of a headliner since then. (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 he fashioned into a lens capable of shrinking and expanding objects although the latter process would cause said objects to explode. After getting trapped in a cave with his girlfriend Jean Loring and a group of students, Ray uses the lens to shrink himself to create an escape route knowing full well he will die in the process of regaining normal size. Much to his shock, he does not explode but instead instantly and safely returns to normal size when he reenters the lens' beam, which he attributes to a unique energy inside his body.note  Ray incorporates the lens in a costume that allows him 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 and position at Ivy University 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. 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 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 23 revealed that her real name was Atomica and she was essentially the Atom's evil counterpart from Earth-3. She spent her time with the Justice League so she could incapacitate them just before the evil Earth-3 Justice League arrived on Earth, allowing them to take over the world unopposed. She eventually got killed by Lex Luthor at the end of Forever Evil (2013).

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, and Choi inherited a copy of the costume after he went missing, similarly to his original version. He subsequently got a one-shot written by Steve Orlando, Justice League of America: The Atom - Rebirth, explaining how he had become Palmer's assistant and helped him in his adventures as the Atom before he took up the mantle himself, as a prelude to joining the Orlando-written Justice League of America.

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). He also represents the costume in Injustice 2. 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 had 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 feature in the spinoff, Legends of Tomorrow. Choi would make his Arrowverse debut in the latter three parts of the universe’s Crisis on Infinite Earths adaptation. Choi also appears as a STAR Labs scientist in the DC Extended Universe, in Zack Snyder's Justice League, played by Ryan Zheng.

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.

Notable Appearances of Al Prat

    Comic Books 

New Earth

Earth 2

Notable Appearances of Ray Palmer

    Comic Books 

    Live-Action TV 

    Western Animation 

Notable Appearances of Ryan Choi

    Comic Books 
New Earth

Prime Earth


    Video Games 

    Western Animation 

Notable Appearances of other versions

    Comic Books 

    Western Animation 

The Atom(s) display examples of the following:

  • Affirmative-Action Legacy: Choi.
  • 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!
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Clothes Make the Superman: Palmer, Choi, and Pineda
  • Dating Catwoman: Choi was in a relationship with Wonder Woman villainess Giganta.
  • Death is Cheap: Lampshaded in the All-New Atom's crossover with the Search for Ray Palmer, where the gang find themselves in fake heaven with a Blue Beetle who cheerfully points out that Donna Troy and Jason Todd have both been dead before, and that the "recidivism rate" for dead superheroes was frankly shocking.
  • Detachable Doorknob: Played with in the first incarnation from the 1940's. There, he was just a small man who underwent an intensive training routine that boosted his strength to Peak Human. Not knowing how strong he'd become, he tried opening a stuck door and ripped the knob right out when it wouldn't open.
  • 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.
  • Dressed in Layers: Palmer's costume inverted the trope: he wears his costume over his usual clothes, but is stretched so thin around him that it is invisible. It only becomes visible when Palmer shrinks significantly.
  • Evil Counterpart: Ryan Choi's archenemy was Dwarfstar. Then came 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 was actually a native of Earth-3 and a member of the Crime Syndicate, essentially making her the evil alternate universe counterpart to the Atom.
  • Handwave: One arc of Grant Morrison's run on Justice League of America has Ray explain to Kyle Rayner that the reason at they can see things like photons when shrunken is because human senses adapt into something that allows them to still perceive their environment without going insane. The same effect is how they're still breathing even though it's no longer oxygen they're inhaling. He says not to think about it too hard.
  • Heart Is an Awesome Power: Shrinking and changing your weight.
  • Have a Gay Old Time: When he was brought back for the Silver Age, Al Pratt could travel between universes by way of an "atomic vibrator." Mounted on his belt, no less.
  • 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 reimagining 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.
  • 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.
  • The Magic Versus Technology War: The first arc of The All-New Atom reveals that thanks to Ray's unintentional influence, Ivy Town is a "nexus for the forces of both science and magic," setting up a war between the tiny alien species the Waiting and their science-based allies and cancer god M'nagalah and his worshippers and magic-users.
  • Missing Mom: Pre-Flashpoint, Ryan's mother died shortly before he became the Atom; post-Flashpoint, she's still alive.
  • Mission Control: Ryan's role for Ray in the Rebirth one-shot before taking up the mantle himself.
  • Mouse World: Often invoked, but only really applied in Sword Of The Atom (where Palmer was stuck at six inches tall.)
  • Mythology Gag: From the Rebirth one-shot:
    • The comic opens with Ryan fantasising about having adventures in a Civvie Spandex version of Ray's Sword of the Atom-era costume, complete with sword.
    • Ivy University has a Gardner Hall, possibly a reference to Ray's co-creator Gardner Fox.
    • Ryan's roommate is Adam Cray, the short-lived Suicide Squad Atom, and the two of them become friends.
  • Naturalized Name: Rebirth has 'Lun' as Choi's original name and 'Ryan' as his naturalized one.
  • Nerd Glasses: Rebirth-era Ryan wears chunky black plastic glasses to help with his nearsightedness.
  • Quirky Town: 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.
    • In this case "a bit like this" means that there's a neighborhood in which the people have reverted to 18th-century puritanism, and worship the local cancer-god who lives in the sewers by watching cheesy B-movies at the drive-in theater.
    • The floating heads that only talk in the future tense and plan to Take Over the World might be worth mentioning, too.
  • Ret-Canon: Ryan's Rebirth Atom suit being Powered Armor is imported from Legends of Tomorrow, where Ray's ATOM suit is Powered Armor.
  • Secret-Keeper: In Rebirth continuity, Ryan was the first person Ray told about being the Atom.
  • Sizeshifter
  • Square-Cube Law: Explained away by the "miraculous" effects of white-dwarf star matter. It's implied in Choi's series that his predecessor's frequent violation of this law of physics is why Ivytown went a bit... kooky.
  • Squashed Flat: The focus of a Silver Age story, Fate of The Flattened Out Atom.
  • Starter Villain:
    • Al Pratt's was an unnamed crime boss who held his girlfriend as ransom against her rich father. He's clobbered and arrested at the end of his first appearance.
    • Ray Palmer had Carl Ballard, who captured a tiny, teleporting alien and forced him to rob banks, being arrested at the end of the issue.
  • Stupid Jetpack Hitler: Ryan provides the page quote and trope name, in fact.
  • Take That!: Ryan briefly considered using ants for transportation while shrunk, but opted against it for several reasons.
    First, it's stupid. It is not a clever bug. Let's just get that right out. Second, I don't want a hoopty that gets distracted by a few dropped grains of sugar. But most of smells like a huge fart.
  • The Taxi: A consistent plot point in Ryan's series has a taxi driver frequently telling him anagrams. He grows very tired of it after awhile, accidentally ripping the driver's head off (he's fine) and having to figure out how to drive the car while in traffic.
  • 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.
    • By Rebirth, Choi had started surfing on WiFi signals.
  • 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.
  • Weirdness Magnet: Dean Mayland of Ivy University claims that the Atom (both Ray and Ryan incarnations) is one, and that they spread this to the town. Ryan seems to have accepted it.
    Ryan: I now think of normality as a village other people visit.