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The Untold Truth Of DC's The Atom

When it comes to shrinking heroes, the world may be more familiar with Marvel's Ant-Man these days, what with his inclusion in the MCU, where the ever-charming Paul Rudd portrays him. However, not everyone realizes that his DC counterpart, The Atom, actually debuted a year earlier! That's right, while Hank Pym was stuck in an anthill in 1962's "Tales to Astonish" #27 (he would become Ant-Man later that year in #35), Ray Palmer had already found a white dwarf star fragment that would lead to his hero career in 1961's "Showcase" #34.

Ray Palmer was already a genius before he even got superpowers. A graduate student of physics at Ivy University, he performed his own experiments in size compression all while dating lawyer Jean Loring. Though the shrinking process was initially unstable, Ray was forced to use it on himself — and survived. After creating some fail-safes and controls, he began his superhero career as The Atom. In addition to altering his size, the hero can also control his density, which means that even at his smallest he can hit like a full-sized adult.

Since then, The Atom has become a stalwart member of the Justice League, a major player in the Arrowverse, and one of the biggest brains in the DCU. Major stories have surrounded him, and he's saved his fellow super folks on numerous occasions across a variety of realities and platforms. Here's the untold truth about a tiny hero who's made a big impact over the decades.

He was fan-inspired ... maybe

In the mid-50s, DC Comics changed the landscape of comics with "Showcase" #4. This 1956 issue not only introduced a new Flash, but also ushered in what is now known as the Silver Age of comic books. This issue did not simply offer up a new hero for readers but took an older concept — a speedster named Jay Garrick had been The Flash since the 1940s and was a founding member of the Justice Society of America — and reinvented it for a new audience. Sure, Barry Allen had the same powers as Garrick, but he had a new look, career, social life, and a new set of villains. 

DC would continue this winning formula for the likes of Green Lantern to great success. In "Showcase" #22, Hal Jordan took over the name from Alan Scott. There was another JSA member named Al Pratt who went by The Atom. He started out as a peak-physical specimen type and eventually got amorphous nuclear powers. According to documentation published in "Alter Ego" Vol 2 #2, a fan by the name of Jerry Bails wrote letters to DC writer Gardner Fox and editor Julius Schwartz with the idea of creating a new Atom with shrinking abilities. Gil Kane, the person who would actually draw The Atom's debut with Fox in "Showcase" #34, stated that he already had the idea for DC's version of a diminutive hero before that. It seems possible that both things could have been happening independently, especially considering the trend towards rebooting those familiar names. However it ended up happening, Ray "The Atom" Palmer was born in 1961!

He's a bit of a Silver Age sleeper

There's only so much room at the top of the mountain. Flash and Green Lantern became so popular that their first volumes — which began in 1959 and 1960, respectively — went on through the mid-'80s when DC reset reality with "Crisis on Infinite Earths." Since that time, both characters — or those carrying on their legacies — have anchored their own titles right on up through today. The same can not be said for The Atom, though. After his debut in "Showcase" #34, he appeared in two more issues of that title before moving over to "The Atom," which debuted in 1962.

Palmer's initial series, "The Atom," ran for a respectable 45 issues but ended in 1969. He was even joined by his pal from the Justice League — and another DC Silver Age relaunch who never quite reached solo star status — Hawkman, in "The Atom" #39 until the series ended six issues later. These stories expanded on the exploits of the Ivy Town professor who often utilized his shrinking abilities to help his girlfriend Jean Loring with her cases while also introducing villains like the time-traveling Chronos. Though the character has been around in a variety of forms and realities since then, he has not anchored a title that surpasses that original 45-issue mark!

He's a pillar of the Justice League

The Atom might not have been such a big shot when it came to starring in his own titles, but he became an integral part of DC's premiere super-team, the Justice League. Established in 1960's "Brave and the Bold" #28, the team initially consisted of Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, Flash, Aquaman, and Martian Manhunter. They moved into their own series, "Justice League of America," that same year. The roster expanded to include Superman, Batman, Green Arrow, and The Atom, who officially made the squad, but under unusual circumstances.

In "Justice League of America" #14, The Atom received unanimous votes from the members to become the latest JLAer, but no one could remember him — including the hero himself. A villain named Mister Memory provides De-Memorizors to a variety of villains who use them on the Leaguers, making them forget their own identities. Atom accidentally shrinks so quickly that he regains his memories and saves the rest of the team. 

The Atom would stay with the squad long after his initial solo series bit the dust. Over the ensuing years, he participates in several team-ups with the Justice Society of Earth-2, even meeting the other Atom a few times and helping to save the world for years until the team went through a major overhaul, starting with "Justice League of America" #228 in 1984. He's assisted various Leagues since then, but that was his longest streak to date.

He's pretty good with a sword

In 1986, DC began cleaning up its continuity with a 12-part series called "Crisis on Infinite Earths," which compressed everything into just one world (previously, the Justice League was on Earth-1 and the Justice Society was on Earth-2). Even before that, though, the company began to shake things up with some of its older characters. In 1983, a four-issue limited series called "Sword of the Atom" came out and flipped the script for Ray. After catching Jean cheating on him, he takes off to find another piece of the white dwarf star in South America.

During a plane crash, Palmer shrinks himself, but the size-altering controls are damaged in the fall, leaving him just six inches tall. However, that makes him exactly the same size as a race of aliens, the Katarthans, living in the area. Though they initially capture him, he soon proves his heroic nature and soon learns their language. He also comes to understand and navigate the more barbaric nature of this society, even picking up a sword and fighting alongside them! Even so, after a trio of "Sword of the Atom" specials and the destruction of the people he had lived with, Palmer returns to the larger world with an ongoing series called "Power of the Atom" that launched in the wake of "Crisis on Infinite Earths."

He got mixed up with the Suicide Squad

During the last few issues of "Power of the Atom," Ray exacts revenge on those responsible for murdering the Katarthans. Instead of killing them, though, he shrinks them down and leaves them that way, including the bee-themed villain Sting and assassin Blacksnake. They use their smaller size to continue their bloody line of work as the Micro/Squad. Feeling the need to clean up that mess, Ray makes a deal with the Suicide Squad's head honcho Amanda Waller to fake his death and go after them by taking on Sting's identity. Meanwhile, he sets up a man named Adam Cray with one of his old size-changing belts so that he can become a new Atom.

Cray acts as a secret member of the Suicide Squad, with Waller deploying him as needed, first showing up in 1990 when he appears in "Suicide Squad" #44. Though he had bad blood with Deadshot, who killed his senator father, his missions are relatively successful until he encounters the Micro/Squad. When Ray isn't around, Blacksnake impales Cray, thinking it was the original Atom ("Suicide Squad" #61). Ray reveals himself and defeats the villain before explaining his plan after the fact to Batman, Superman, and Aquaman, who were investigating the mysterious circumstances of his supposed death ("Suicide Squad" #62). Though he was a short-lived character, there is a nod to Adam Cray's Atom in James Gunn's "The Suicide Squad" when Waller says she needs to speak to Senator Cray.

He survived being a teen, twice!

Just under a decade after DC attempted to clean things up with "Crisis on Infinite Earths," they tried again with an event called "Zero Hour: Crisis in Time!" which came out in 1994. In this case, most of the Justice Society were killed off, and a variety of younger characters were set up to take their places. According to series writer and artist Dan Jurgens, Ray Palmer was also on the chopping block — Hal Jordan and Barry Allen had already been replaced by Kyle Rayner and Wally West as Green Lantern and Flash by this point — but the creator managed to save Ray by de-aging the hero into a teen.

The Atom soon became the co-star of the 1996 "Teen Titans" series. However, instead of the youthful sidekicks of established heroes, this group consisted of new young heroes tied to a mysterious alien race. The series lasted 24 issues but never seemed to get its feet under it. In the same interview, Jurgens said that he felt like his hands were tied because DC wanted to use the familiar "Teen Titans" name but did not want to get bogged down by the older characters. That is, aside from Ray, who had no real ties to this particular team and spent most of his appearances complaining about not being an adult anymore. With so few connections to the classic Titans, the book stuck around for a few years, returned Ray to his usual age, and ended. 

His ex nearly tore the Justice League apart

After getting re-aged and bopping around the DC Universe as a guest star, The Atom gets involved with the Justice League again — at least on an advisory level. In 2004, Palmer is stunned to find himself embroiled in one of the most heartbreaking stories to hit comic shelves in years, "Identity Crisis." That seven-issue series starts with the brutal murder of Sue Dibny, the wife of fellow JLAer Elongated Man. The entire hero community begins investigating, including Atom, but along the way, a nasty truth about a bygone era comes to light.

Even with every hero fearing for the safety of their loved ones, there are more attacks. Atom manages to show up in just enough time to save Jean, which leads to the rekindling of their romance. Sue's autopsy reveals footprints on her brain that blocked her blood flow resulting in her death. It soon becomes clear that Jean has found one of the old Atom costumes with built-in size-changing tech. She wants Ray back and tries to simply scare Sue — but accidentally kills her. The rest of her moves are made to further drive Palmer back to her. Upon figuring out the truth, he arranges for her to be locked up in Arkham Asylum and shrinks himself down into seeming nothingness before going away for quite a while.

His successor filled some mighty small shoes

In the wake of "Identity Crisis," DC went in various new directions, some of which were presented in the 2006 one-shot "Brave New World." That comic introduced the world to Ryan Choi, the new Atom. From there, he became the lead character of "The All-New Atom," which ran for 25 issues from 2006 to 2008. Hailing from Hong Kong, Professor Choi moves to Ivy Town to take up Palmer's old teaching job at the university. However, he winds up filling yet another role of Ray's when he finds Ray's Atom gear and takes over as the hero.

During his time in costume, Choi utilized not only his shrinking powers but the knowledge of his fellow scientists. He also starts a relationship with the growing villain Giganta while mixing it up with old villains like Chronos and new ones like the shrinking murderer Dwarfstar. Unfortunately, his short career as a hero was cut short when he was killed in the pages of "Titans: Villains for Hire" #1 in 2010. 

Luckily for Choi and his fans, DC altered reality once more, first with "The New 52" and then again with Rebirth. He re-debuted with "DC Universe: Rebirth" #1 and became a member of the 2017 series "Justice League of America." Choi also played a part in the extended cut of "Zack Snyder's Justice League," where he is portrayed by Ryan Zheng. The nanotech expert did not shrink down himself, but it seemed like the stage was set. In addition, Osric Chau plays Ryan Choi in The CW's Arrowverse series.

He got involved in some cosmic shenanigans

Meanwhile, Ray Palmer hopped around the multiverse for a while, trying to escape what Jean had done. He soon learns of the multiverse and figures out how to move from one reality to another. He winds up on Earth-51, where Ray Palmer is a brilliant scientist but not a superhero. When he dies, the traveling Ray takes his place, becomes The Atom, and works with his fellow heroes to stop all crime in just five years. He also meets and marries that world's Jean Loring, leading to everyone living happily ever after, as seen in "Countdown to Final Crisis" #18. Throughout the rest of that series (which counted backward to #1), Ray helps avert the apocalyptic Great Disaster. After all that reality-hopping, he decides to join up with another group of heroes to keep watch over the various Earths.

That doesn't last long, however. Ray eventually returns to Earth, teams up with Ryan Choi, and then finds out that Jean has died after briefly becoming the supervillain Eclipso. The Atom has an unexpected reunion with her in "Blackest Night," an event that saw many dead beings rise and attack their former loved ones. During the ensuing war with the undead, Ray becomes an Indigo Lantern, harnessing the power of compassion, though that ends after the day is saved.

He carries on as a super scientist

In 2011, DC gave its reality yet another overhaul with "The New 52" initiative. Ray Palmer appeared in one of the launch titles, "Frankenstein, Agent of S.H.A.D.E." — but not as the Atom. At that point, he was the United Nations' science liaison for the Super Human Advanced Defense Executive and designed the Ant Farm, an entire miniature city inside a 3-inch ball that only its agents could access. In "Superman/Batman" #10, the Man of Steel recruits Ray to help save the Dark Knight's life. After finding a personal shrinking device and a familiar, Ray decides to become a hero himself, and thus The Atom is reborn.

Ray has not yet established himself as a solo star but has made his presence felt around the DC Universe. Palmer and Ryan Choi both appear in the "Justice League of America: The Atom Rebirth" one-shot in 2017 that established both men as The Atom and introduced Adam Cray to the new reality. Since then, Ray has set up a lab in the Microverse, helped out his old friend Hawkman, and offered his brilliance whenever the world needs it.

He's an Arrowverse legend

In the early days of The CW's "Arrow," viewers were very curious to see how expansive the world would become. What started as a series chronicling the adventures of a very human vigilante soon expanded to include a variety of interconnected shows and alternate realities with an army of characters based on the ones in the comics, all of which exist in what is known as the Arrowverse.

In the Season 3 premiere of "Arrow," Ray Palmer appears as a brilliant businessman who buys Oliver Queen's company and absorbs it into his own Palmer Technologies. Played by "Superman Returns" star Brandon Routh, the character shows up on the concurrently running first season of "The Flash" and soon dons armor to help fight crime.

Talk of an "Arrow" and "Flash" spinoff featuring the Atom — whose suit eventually featured shrinking capabilities — began in 2015. By 2016, "DC's Legends of Tomorrow" had debuted on The CW with Routh in a major leading role as the team hopped its way through time. The fifth season of that series, however, would be Routh's last, as the episode "Romeo V. Juliet: Dawn of Justness" marked his last appearance as Palmer.

He's a small screen staple

While Routh's portrayal of The Atom is probably the most well-known, the character has appeared in a variety of other forms over the years, mostly on television. Though he was not a regular on the series, Atom was considered a Super Friend and appeared in segments like "The Cable Car Rescue" with Wonder Woman, where he was voiced by Wally Burr.

Atom's live-action debut came in the 1979 TV comedy special "Legends of the Superheroes: The Roast" thanks to Alfie Wise, who also played a character called Batman in "The Cannonball Run." This version of Atom was dating Giganta, just like Choi did in his series.

The Tiny Titan was next in the pilot for a sitcom-ish "Justice League of America" pilot that never aired. Interestingly, John Kassir — best known as the voice of Crypt Keeper on the HBO "Tales From The Crypt" — not only played the character but also wore an armored suit similar to what was eventually seen in the Arrowverse.

A surprising number of well-known actors have gotten small with The Atom. "Scrubs" star John C. McGinley voiced the character on both "Justice League" and "Justice League Unlimited," and actor-comedian Patton Oswalt brought him to life in "Teen Titans Go!" and "Teen Titans GO! To the Movies." Peter Scolari took on the role of Ray Palmer in "Batman: The Brave and the Bold," while James Sie played Ryan Choi in that same series. In addition, Palmer was also voiced by Jerry O'Connell in the "Justice League Action" series. Given all of those appearances in TV and movies, don't be surprised if the Atom gets small on the big screen before long!