Ray Palmer was not the first hero named The Atom. However, unlike his Silver Age colleagues, The Flash (Barry Allen) or Green Lantern (Hal Jordan), Palmer has little to nothing in common with his Golden Age counterpart. While the original Atom (Al Pratt) was the cliché 98-pound weakling who trained to become a two-fisted powerhouse, this 1960s reinvention was focused on his name’s scientific aspects.
Palmer debuted as the new Atom in Showcase #34 (October 1961) on the heels of the smash hit of The Flash and Green Lantern. The legendary DC Comics editor Julius Schwartz had recently read about dwarf stars and came up with the idea of the new Atom incorporating a fragment into his belt, which would allow him to shrink down in unimaginable proportions. Writer Gardener Fox and artist Gil Kane collaborated on the details, and the world was introduced to the marvelous shrinking hero.
Ray Palmer was a physicist and professor at Ivy University in Ivy Town, somewhere in New England, and modeled about the prestigious colleges there. He is determined to figure out how to compress matter to deal with famine and overpopulation, so he experiments on a dwarf star fragment as part of his research. While on a weekend spelunking excursion with his girlfriend Jean Loring and some students, they become trapped in a cave-in. Palmer cobbles together a device using lenses to focus the white dwarf fragment’s explosive energy and can shrink himself and escape to go get help. The lenses prove to be the missing piece that makes the technology safe.
Back in his laboratory, Palmer creates a suit and belt that turns him into The Atom. In his early exploits, he mostly helps Jean, a practicing lawyer, deal with unsolved cases and helping her clients prove themselves innocent. Eventually, Gardener and Kane began to introduce supervillains into the mix that followed with the scientific nature of The Atom. Some of his most famous nemeses include The Bug-Eyed Bandit, The Floronic Man, and the time-traveling Chronos. Slowly but surely, he spread his wings and ended up as a later addition to the first version of the Justice League. His most famous superhero partnership would be with the alien police officer Hawkman. It could never be said that The Atom was ever a major tier hero despite being on the Justice League, but he was a consistently reliable scientific mind to help solve problems.
Twenty-two years after his debut, he got his own mini-series intended to shake-up the stagnant character. In the pages of The Sword of the Atom, Palmer abandons civilization after learning his now-wife, Jean Loring, had cheated on him with a colleague. The Atom divorces Jean and shrinks down while on a trip in the Amazon rainforest. He discovers a tribe of miniature people living there, fighting against the jungle’s predators and loggers tearing down the trees. Despite his best attempts, Palmer would fail to save the small tribe and was forced to shrink down so small he rode an electrical current through a phone line to safety back in the United States.
Palmer discovered that one of his colleagues at Ivy University had written a tell-all book that revealed the superhero’s identity to the world. He had to deal with that and rebuild his technology that was damaged in his escape from the Amazon. In the wake of the Crisis on Infinite Earths, The Atom got his own ongoing, The Power of the Atom, and in those pages, he discovers his beloved Amazonian tribe was systematically targeted by CIA agents working for a group called The Cabal. Palmer would eventually work with Adam Cray, the son of a senator murdered by the Cabal, to track down these men and bring them to justice, which went down in the pages of Suicide Squad.
When the Zero Hour event occurred, it was used as an opportunity to try and revamp The Atom. A blast of chronal energy in the big finale de-aged Palmer to a teenager and imbued his shrinking powers within his cells, as well as allowing him to grow to gigantic proportions. A couple of years later, still a teenager, he becomes the leader of a very strange incarnation of the Teen Titans, composed of youths descended from an alien race. After a crossover with Superman titled The Millennium Giants, Palmer was suddenly aged back to where he was initially and lost his innate powers, becoming the classic Atom everyone had known for decades. Palmer would return to being a supporting character, popping up in Grant Morrison’s run on JLA from time to time.
The moment that changed everything for Palmer came in the pages of Identity Crisis, an event comic that kicked off a multi-year saga that would culminate in Final Crisis. In this story, a killer seems to have discovered heroes’ secret identities and is targeting their loved ones. The first to be killed is Sue Dibny, the wife of Justice League regular Elongated Man. The most deductive minds of the DC Universe are trying to figure out which villain is responsible as heroes stay closer to their loved ones. Palmer is reunited with his ex-wife Jean Loring, and they decide to get back together. Then the knife twists, and it’s revealed Jean stole some of Ray’s shrinking technology and used it to commit these murders. She has lost her mind and did this so that Palmer would come running back to her. Jean is locked up in Arkham Asylum, and Palmer once again shrinks down, shying away from society.
In the year-long lead-up to Final Crisis, Donna Troy, Jason Todd (Red Hood), and Kyle Rayner (Green Lantern) were tasked with scouring the multiverse to find Ray Palmer as the Monitors said he was the key to repairing problems that were occurring across reality. This is a genuinely dreadful comic that no one should ever read…though one day, I might revisit it to dissect what a piece of garbage it was. Eventually, the trio finds Palmer on Earth-51, where he lives as his counterpart who died there. In this world, heroes have eliminated all crime, and it is a utopia. Jean is also entirely sane here, which is one of the reasons Ray made it his home. Palmer reluctantly joins them and gets into a battle with Darkseid, where he uncovers the nature of what is to come in the Final Crisis. He also meets his replacement on Earth-1 when he returns, former student Ryan Choi now the All-New Atom.
Once again, Palmer would fade into a supporting role for the remainder of the Post-Crisis DCU’s existence. With the rebooted New 52 universe, Palmer first shows up as a science advisor in the pages of Frankenstein: Agent of SHADE. He is essentially the same character, just with his history with the Justice League and Hawkman erased. In 2015, when DC attempted to course-correct with Rebirth, Palmer had his history restored and was once again a professor at Ivy University. His most important story to date during this period occurred when he was a member of Batman’s Justice League of America, and the team traveled to the Microverse and encountered the strange beings who live there.
I can’t say I’ve ever read anything I would consider an excellent Atom story. He’s been a part of fantastic stories but never anything centered entirely on him. I think The Atom has the potential to be the focus of a great story, but no writer has really tapped into it. When you compare him to his obvious analog in Marvel Comics, Ant-Man/Dr. Henry Pym, there’s just no chance. Pym has had much more fascinating events in his life and has been a legendary member of the Avengers, creating Ultron and going through his own melodramatic relationship issues. For right now, The Atom remains a perennial Justice Leaguer and background player but doesn’t seem to have anything big planned soon.