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: