Like Wonder Woman, the Atom was one of the last of the Justice League of America members with their own book whose solo adventures I decided to give a try. I’m not sure exactly what took me so long to get around to gambling twelve cents on the Mighty Mite — his book was another Julius Schwartz-edited book, after all, regularly featuring the art of Gil Kane, whose work I’d been enjoying on Green Lantern since the fall of 1965. My best guess is that I simply hadn’t been that impressed with the Atom in most of the JLA adventures I’d read featuring him. Let’s face it — in a team featuring heavy hitters like Superman and Green Lantern, it could be difficult for even the cleverest comic book storytellers, such as JLA scripter Gardner Fox and his editor Schwartz, to find ways for a six-inch hero to shine — and, with the notable exception of 1966’s Justice League-Justice Society two–part team-up story, in which the Atom played a decisive role in helping to save both Earth-One and Earth-Two, the Tiny Titan tended to fade (or perhaps shrink) into the background.
So, what was it about The Atom #32 that finally convinced me to give the series a go? Again, I can’t be sure, but I’m inclined to think it was the striking Gil Kane-Murphy Anderson cover — a particularly dramatic piece of work that upended reader expectations by depicting the World’s Smallest Hero as a giant, and a pretty badass one at that — looming menacingly over a bunch of the horned-helmeted barbarian warriors Kane was so fond of drawing. Whatever the reason, I did buy the issue, and was thus privileged to enjoy a book-length adventure — “The Up and Down Dooms of the Atom” — scripted by Fox, penciled by Kane, and inked by Sid Greene.
The story opens with the Atom, in his civilian identity as Ray Palmer, physicist and professor at Ivy University, demonstrating his latest invention, an energy beam that can make metal malleable. Unfortunately, the explosion of a boiler elsewhere in the building jostles the device, causing the beam to strike Ray (I know, what are the odds?). Ray is immediately immobilized — but though he can’t move or speak, he is still awake and alert. In the hospital, he gets the idea that, if he thinks really, really hard, maybe he can get his distraught fiancée, lawyer Jean Loring, to activate the invisible size-and-weight controls in his palms. As Ray has never demonstrated any signs of telepathic ability before, this seems a pretty broad leap of logic for a research scientist — but, as it turns out…
Eventually, Jean does indeed perform the needed act, and Ray subsequently appears to vanish — although, of course, what’s really happened is that our hero has simply shrunk down so tiny that he can no longer be seen with the naked eye.
Now in his Atom uniform (actually, he’s been in it all this time, but as the series’ regular readers would know, it only becomes visible when he shrinks), Ray descends into the sub-atomic realm, becoming smaller and smaller as he goes — and as he descends, his internal monologue helpfully fills us readers in on what exactly has happened to him, and how he’s going to deal with it:
Poor Ray continues his journey until he eventually comes upon an Earth-like sub-atomic world, and decides it’s as good a place as any to endure his exile Here, he immediately encounters some human-looking fellows who are trapped on an island, and who take the Mighty Mite for a divine emissary:
The newly-gargantuan Atom scoops the hapless prisoners up in one hand, and begins carrying them to safety — but then…
We’re treated to exactly one page of the giant-sized Atom fighting the Honds in Gulliver-versus-Lilliputians style, and then…
Considering how much the comic’s cover emphasizes the Atom-as-giant story element, truncating this sequence after a measly couple of pages feels like a bit of a cheat. Oh, well.
Back at “normal” size, the Atom readily overcomes the Hond warriors — and then, it’s time for some more exposition:
The marauding Honds (gee, that sounds a lot like “Huns”, doesn’t it?) swiftly overwhelmed the weaponless Palonds, and then enslaved them:
(Apparently the peaceful Palonds are so primitive that their language hasn’t even developed a word for “sun”, so that they have to constantly refer to “the great fireball in the sky”. Poor, poor Palonds.)
Chagon secretly crafted four “fireball-stones”, which he shared with three of his pals, and then the four of them turned the paralyzing power of the stones against their Hond overlords. Things were going great for a while, until, suddenly, there was a total eclipse of the sun — excuse me, the great fireball in the sky — which negated the stones’ power. Our four hapless rebels were immediately taken prisoner, and after the Honds confiscated the fireball-stones, were marooned on the sinking island where the Atom, and we, first met them.
Of course, the Atom quickly comes up with a plan to turn the tables on the Honds, which starts with having the skillful Chagon whip up some mirror-shields. Once that’s done, the Tiny Titan leads the Palonds into battle:
Of course, the Honds assume the Palonds’ mirror-shields will be no match for their own fireball-stones. But then — science!
The Palonds grab up the fallen fireball-stones and turn them against the other Honds, while the Atom does his Atom-thing — until he sees a chance to take down the invaders’ chieftain:
As it turns out, the solar beam of the fireball-stone has cancelled out the effects of the energy-beam that got the Atom into this mess in the first place. (Again, what are the odds?) Ray Palmer is once again as right as rain, and with the Honds soundly defeated, all’s well that ends well:
Awww, ain’t that sweet?
Of course, as longtime DC comics readers know, the romance of Jean Loring and Ray Palmer was destined to end unhappily. The two eventually married, in Justice League of America #157 (August, 1978), but later divorced, following Ray’s discovery of Jean’s extramarital affair, as depicted in Sword of the Atom #1 (September, 1983). Things got even worse from there, however, as Jean eventually had a mental breakdown and murdered Sue Dibny, wife of the Elongated Man, in the 2004 Identity Crisis miniseries — and, after that, became the mortal host of the malevolent supernatural villain Eclipso. As far as Silver Age superhero comics romances go, Ray and Jean definitely got the short end of the stick.
The Atom’s marital troubles in the comics were paralleled by “real-world” publishing difficulties over the decades as well. His original Sixties solo series only ran another six issues (following the one we’ve been discussing here) before being combined with his super-buddy Hawkman’s cancelled series as The Atom & Hawkman. That book in turn only lasted another seven issues before it, too, was cancelled, in 1969. After that, Ray Palmer would continue to appear in JLA as well as holding down occasional back-up slots in books like Detective and Action, until he got another solo shot with the aforementioned Sword of the Atom — which re-positioned him as a sword-wielding adventurer in a hidden South American jungle realm of six-inch-high aliens. Once that concept ran its course, Ray returned to his traditional superhero persona for a while in the late-80s series Power of the Atom (18 issues), before being suddenly transformed into a teenager (!) during 1994’s Zero Hour event, and subsequently becoming leader of the Teen Titans.
As one might expect, the Atom’s teen status didn’t last very long, and soon he was back to normal, more-or-less, though still without a regular solo series. After the events of Identity Crisis, a despairing Ray Palmer fled our universe by shrinking himself to sub-atomic size, an event which eventually led to the “Search for Ray Palmer” storyline in the Countdown to Final Crisis limited series (2007-2008), as well as the debut of Ray’s protege Ryan Choi as The All-New Atom (2006-2008).
Ray did eventually resume residence in the normal-sized world, and even landed another (short-lived) back-up series, this time in Adventure Comics, prior to DC’s 2011 rebooting of its continuity in Flashpoint. In the “New 52” DC Universe that followed, Ray showed up occasionally, but was kept pretty much on the fringes. That’s largely been the case in the current “DC Rebirth” continuity as well, at least so far — although there’s yet another “Search for Ray Palmer” storyline coming up this August in Justice League of America, so we’ll have to wait and see how that goes.
Ironically, Ray Palmer is probably more visible in the broader culture right now than he’s ever been, due to his inclusion in the CW network’s Legends of Tomorrow television show — though this armored, flying version owes as much to Marvel’s Iron Man as it does Schwartz, Fox, and Kane’s original character concept.
So much for the Atom’s later history and current status and prospects. What about 1967, and my nine-year-old self? Did I enjoy my first issue of The Atom enough to try another one?
Apparently so, as I picked up both of the next two issues — a pretty solid endorsement at a time when I wasn’t buying any comic book on a regular basis, other than Justice League of America. It’s true that I skipped Atom #35, for whatever reason (and it’s entirely possible I simply never saw it, since my opportunities to shop for comic books was almost entirely dependent on my parents’ willingness to drive me to a convenience store), but was back for #36, featuring a team-up between Ray Palmer and his Golden Age predecessor — Al Pratt, the Atom of Earth-Two.
But that one’s good enough to deserve its own blog post — which it’ll get, come February of next year. See you then!