Monday, October 10, 2011

The Secret Origin of the Atom (Ray Palmer)

This came up in a chatroom yesterday, and since I haven't talked about it before, I thought it was the perfect topic for a post. Of all the DC Silver Age reboots, only the Atom was significantly different than his Golden Age counterpart. Barry Allen and Jay Garrick had essentially the same power of blinding speed. Hal Jordan and Alan Scott were interchangeable; they had green rings of incredible power but smite either of them with a club of yellow wood and they'd be helpless. There was no real difference between the two Hawkmen or the dueling Aquamen.

But Ray Palmer's Atom was nothing like the Al Pratt version. The Golden Age Atom had no real super-powers; he was just a very strong short guy who never got shorter or bigger. The Silver Age version, of course, had the ability to shrink himself down to a very tiny size and then become much larger again; he could also control his weight so that one moment he was as light as a feather, and the next had the full force of 180 pounds behind him. So it is worth wondering why Julius Schwartz and Gardner Fox decided to give Ray Palmer significantly different abilities from Al Pratt.

For starters, I suspect that Palmer was intended to be a much more important character than his Golden Age counterpart. The GA Atom was never a cover feature; while he did appear on the covers of All-Star with his fellow Justice Society members, he never headlined All-American Comics, where his solo adventures appeared. The Silver Age Atom would have to hold down his own title.

But I suspect that other tiny heroes in the movies and on TV also influenced the decision. In 1957 (about four years before Ray Palmer's first appearance in Showcase #34), Richard Matheson's story, the Incredible Shrinking Man was brought to the silver screen. It's a terrific and suspenseful story of a man who suddenly finds himself becoming shorter and shorter with time. In the end, he discovers how threatening life is for a miniature man, as he's attacked in succession by the family cat and a spider in the basement. Here are some key moments in the film:


But there was also a 1959 TV series, obviously inspired by the Incredible Shrinking Man, that appears a more direct inspiration for the Ray Palmer Atom. World of Giants is the story of a six-inch high FBI agent:
Although the Atom could change his size to virtually anything under his normal height, the most common size that Ray Palmer assumed was six inches high, exactly the same height as Mel Hunter. For example:
So it seems pretty apparent that the Silver Age Atom was inspired by this long-forgotten TV series. A hat tip to my comicchat buddy Jon for mentioning the TV show, which I confess I'd never seen before last night.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the link to the WOG video. Wow, Marsh from Daktari!

Line of the day: "Another inch and that pencil could have crushed me to death."

Jacque Nodell said...

Never heard of WOG either! Good to know!

Scipio said...

That's fascinating, I had NO idea! Must also have been the source for "Tom of T.H.U.M.B." and "Inch-High Private Eye".

Commander Benson said...

I'm embarrassed, Pat.

You see, not only had I heard of World of Giants (or, as that stentorian voice in the opening credits would say it, "WOG!"), I used to watch it all the time when I was a boy.

It was a syndicated ZIV production and came on early Sunday evenings where I grew up.

I loved all the gimmicks---the customised attache case that Mel Hunter travelled in, when the case was shackled to his normal-size partner, Bill Winters' wrist; Marshall Thompson's melodramatic narration; and---the one I liked most---later on in the season, the small house that Mel had installed in Bill's home. It was recessed in the wall behind a table, and when it was safe from prying eyes, Bill would push a button and the tiny house would slide out of the wall.

I'm not surprised that the other posters had not heard of this show. It's virtually forgotten. For years---to this day---whenever I bring it up, the person to whom I am talking will inevitably say, "Oh, you mean Land of the Giants!"

No, I don't.

But I am embarrassed because I never made the connexion between WOG and the creation of the Silver-Age Atom.

You're right, though. It's all there---the stunts with the oversized props, Mel Hunter's six-inch height. There's no way to be absolutely sure, of course, but I think your surmise is spot on.

Good headwork, Pat!

Seth Finkelstein said...

The revived Atom might have been more directly inspired by the Golden Age Quality Comics "Doll Man", who had the power to shrink to six inches in height.

Irv the Nerve said...

World of Giants was one of my favorite shows during my kidhood.

Anonymous said...

When it comes to cover appearances of the Golden Age Atom, isn't he on the left in the back row of the following?:

Anonymous said...

And concerning not appearing on any covers except All-Star, doesn't that apply to Dr. Midnite?

And with regard to a Golden Age DC superhero who never appeared on a cover until the Silver Age (Brave & Bold #28), doesn't that apply to Aquaman?

Getting back to the Atom, if DC wants to do a good job of reviving him, they should find a writer who is into nanotechnology.

Pat said...

Seth, Doll Man had occurred to me, but I didn't realize that he was supposed to be six inches tall (although Wikipedia confirms it). In the stories I have read, his size certainly seemed much larger; I would have guessed more like 18 inches to 2 feet.

Anonymous, good catch on the Big All-American book. On the other heroes (Dr Midnight, Aquaman etc), I certainly wasn't saying that the Atom was the only GA hero to never appear on a cover.

Seth Finkelstein said...

Pat, check out the Doll Man story posted on this blog:

Take a look especially at pages 7 and 8, where Doll Man finds he can get even smaller. It's basically a Ray Palmer Atom story from then on. I hadn't known about this story before, but I think it makes a very strong case that the revived Atom was an updated Doll Man.

Doll Man was one of the longest-lasting Quality Comics heroes, so it makes a lot of sense that he'd be brought back in some form. They probably though the name "Atom" was much more dynamic for the new hero than the rather dull "Doll Man".

Anonymous said...

Ron Goulart surmises that Doll Man was possibly inspired by the 1936 movie “The Devil Doll.”
There’s no question that the Silver-Age Atom was inspired by the Golden-Age Doll Man. Gil Kane has often stated that in interviews. I think it was Julius Schwartz who decided to call him the Atom. That said, the six inches tall bit could well have come from “World of Giants”
consciously or subconsciously.

The story from Doll Man Quarterly #6 (Summer 1943) that Seth linked to seems to be something of an anomaly. Did Doll Man ever again exhibit the power to “will himself smaller” before or after this? Reminds me of “Mary Jane & Sniffles,” a backup feature in the Looney Tunes comic
books. Mary Jane was a little girl, Sniffles was a mouse. “Magic words of poof poof piffles, make me just as small as Sniffles!” Or something like that.

Wikipedia is wrong about Doll Man supposed to be six inches tall. From the Doll Man stories I’ve seen he appears to be about the size of a Barbie doll or the original G.I. Joe. In other words, Doll Man appears to be lot closer to twelve inches tall than he is to six inches.

Jake Oster