ImageTexT: Interdisciplinary Comics Studies

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The Atom

The Atom was introduced in All-American (October 1940) as Al Pratt, a redheaded college student who stood just over five feet tall. His schoolmates “constantly kid him about his small size” and nicknamed him the “Atom.” Pratt vows to do something about his weakling condition and undertakes a grueling regimen of training and transforms himself into a muscleman who “now has a tremendous strength that is unbelievable in one so small.” Pratt adopts a costumed secret identity as the Atom and begins a career of crime-fighting. His costume was a unique facet of his appearance, featuring short leather trunks, leather wrist bands, a blue mask and cape, and a yellow tunic open to the navel. As DC heroes went, the Atom was one of the more anguished heroes of the 1940s since hardly anyone treated his civilian self with any respect.

The stories consisted mainly of the macho Atom thrashing criminals startled by the great strength in his tiny body. Artist Joe Gallagher began drawing the hero in 1942. His style suggested more of the action than he showed and his Atom stories were rich with the props and locations of the meaner edge of big-city life: ashcans and alleys, street cleaners, pushcarts, junk wagons, tenements and shanties, pool halls, junkyards, mom-and-pop grocery stores, lampposts and fire hydrants. He stayed with the Atom for several years and drew him as a member of the Justice Society in All Star Comics (Winter 1941 to March 1951). The Atom moved to Flash Comics in 1947 and acquired a new, flashier costume in 1948. He also made sporadic appearances in Comic Cavalcade and several other titles.

The new Atom was revived in Showcase (October 1961) as Ray Palmer, a scientist who upon finding a piece of a white dwarf star constructed a device which allowed him to change his size and alter his weight. The new stories, mostly by John Broome and Gardner Fox, concentrated on scientific plots and sub-plots. For example, the Atom was able to transport himself through telephone lines and there were several well-received “time pool” stories. Chronos, the Atom’s major villain, was also scientifically based.

Julius Schwartz, DC editor who worked up the concept with Fox, remembered, “I always felt the Atom of the 1940s was misnamed. He was simply called the Atom because he was a short fellow. I got the idea of having him a regular sixfooter able to reduce himself to any size he wanted to. It just struck us as we were groping around for a them that wasn’t being done by any superheroes.”

The Atom was given his own magazine in the spring of 1962. It became Atom and Hawkman in 1968 and folded the next year. There have been subsequent revivals, including The Sword of the Atom which involved the hero in sword-and-sorcery adventures in a world where everybody is six inches tall, and Power of the Atom, a short-lived series in 1988-1989. The character appeared regularly in the Justice League of America.

POWER AND WEAPONS (Silver Age)

The size and weight controls developed by Ray Palmer allow him to reduce himself to any, even subatomic, size. When changing size Palmer is also able to change his weight from 180 pounds to virtually nothing, though his average battle size is six inches and six pounds. While no expert, Palmer has mastered hand-to-hand combat at a variety of sizes and weights and he has exhibited great adaptability to fighting at any size. Over time, the Mighty Mite has learned to use his size controls to great advantage, including the ability to travel through phone lines, allowing electronic impulses to move him along, or travel through subatomic particles.

Comics on Display

“Thief With the Tricky Toy,” The Atom 23 (February-March 1966) Story by Gardner Fox; art by Gil Kane and Sid Greene

“The Atom-Destruction of the Earth,” The Atom 24 (April-May 1966) Story by Gardner Fox; art by Gil Kane and Sid Greene

“The Man in the Ion Mask,” The Atom 25 (June-July 1966) Story by Gardner Fox; art by Gil Kane and Sid Greene

“The Eye-Popping Perils of the Insect Bandit,” The Atom 26 (August-September 1966) Story by Gardner Fox; art by Gil Kane and Sid Greene

“Stowaway on a Hot-Air Balloon,” The Atom 27 (October- November 1966) Story by Gil Kane; art by Sid Greene

“Meet Major Mynah!” The Atom 37 (June-July 1968) Story by Gardner Fox; art by Gil Kane and Sid Greene

“Ragnarok Night,” Super-Team Family 13 (October-November 1977) Story by Gerry Conway; art by Arvell Jones and Romeo Tanghal

“The Corpse That Wouldn’t Die,” The Brave and the Bold 115 (October-November 1974) Story by Bob Haney; art by Jim Aparo; and

“The Case of the Innocent Thief,” The Brave and the Bold 115 (October-November 1974) Story by Gardner Fox; art by Gil Kane and Murphy Anderson

“Death has a Golden Grab,” The Brave and the Bold 152 (July 1979) Story by Bob Haney; art by Jim Aparo and Jerry Serpe

“Stormy Passage,” Sword of the Atom 1 (September 1983) Story by Jan Strnad; art by Gil Kane

“A Choice of Two Dooms,” Sword of the Atom 2 (October 1983) Story by Jan Strnad; art by Gil Kane

“Mourning’s End,” Sword of the Atom 3 (November 1983) Story by Jan Strnad; art by Gil Kane

“Look Homeward, Atom,” Sword of the Atom 4 (December 1983) Story by Jan Strnad; art by Gil Kane

Exhibit 1: Main

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