While The Atom didn’t get a place in the starting line-up of Zack Snyder’s Justice League, the shrinking superhero has been enjoying more on-screen popularity than ever thanks to Brandon Routh’s portrayal in the CW’s Arrowverse. First introduced as the civilian Ray Palmer in Arrow a few years back, Ray has grown into a hero in his own right, complete with a fully-functional shrinking suit just like in the comics. He’s also gotten to take the spotlight in his very own show, starring as one of the leads of Legends of Tomorrow. But while you may think you know The Atom, we’re betting his long history holds a few surprises for all but the most devoted Atom fans.
With Ray back in action in season two of Legends of Tomorrow, we decided to explore the character’s long history and revisit some little-known facts about The Atom (see what we did there?).
Here are 15 Things You Don’t Know About The Atom.
15. He wasn’t the first shrinking superhero
Even though he’s never been as famous as Superman or Batman, The Atom was probably the best-known shrinking superhero in pop-culture history — at least until a hit movie made Ant-Man a household name in 2015. The Atom did beat Marvel’s Ant-Man into print, however: Atom debuted in October 1961’s Showcase #34, and Ant-Man in January 1962’s Tales to Astonish #27. Both of them, however, got beat to the shrinking punch by the Golden Age hero Doll Man. Created by the legendary Will Eisner, Doll Man arrived on the scene in Quality Comics’ Feature Comics #27 — in December 1939.
Like Ray Palmer and Hank Pym/Ant-Man, the original Doll Man was a scientist. Darrel Dane was a chemist who invented a serum that allowed him to shrink down to only six inches tall. And, like the shrinking superheroes who followed, Doll Man still packed quite a punch, retaining the his full-size strength even when in miniature form. And while Doll Man definitely helped inspire The Atom, the two would eventually occupy the same universe… well, multiverse. After Quality Comics went out of business in 1956, DC bought up Doll Man and other characters, bringing them into the DC canon.
14. He was named after a classic sci-fi editor
When it came time for DC to update The Atom for the Silver Age, editor Julius Schwartz, writer Gardner Fox, and penciler Gil Kane pulled inspiration from Doll Man, the Golden Age Atom, and articles Schwartz had read about dwarf stars. But every hero needs a real name for the man behind the mask, and so The Atom became scientist Ray Palmer. The name suggests a probably unintentional joke about him being able to fit in the palm of your hand, but Palmer was actually named after a real person: pulp-era science fiction editor Raymond A. Palmer.
Palmer rose through the ranks of Golden Age fandom, editing the very first fanzine, entitled The Comet. His love of science fiction would eventually land him in the big chair at the legendary Amazing Stories. Palmer served as editor of that classic publication from 1939 to 1949, where, among other things, he purchased Isaac Asimov’s very first professionally published story, “Marooned Off Vesta.” Those real-life roots were honored in the Silver Age’s more science fiction-y take on The Atom; a scientist/adventurer fighting evil in a suit powered by a dwarf star fragment.
13. He had a pet/steed/mascot named Major Mynah
You might think that shrinking would just mean it takes even longer to get anywhere, but thankfully The Atom figured out a handy trick where he could call somewhere, shrink down to subatomic speeds, and then travel through the phone lines to pop out the other side. But that’s gotta rack up the long-distance charges, right? So for a while during the late ‘60s, Ray Palmer found another way of getting around — on the back of a Mynah Bird… named “Major Mynah”… who had artificial wings built by Hawkman. No, seriously.
Ray first encountered the bird during an adventure near a Cambodian archaeological dig. Major Mynah wound up helping The Atom stop a bunch of would-be tomb raiders — because that’s just the sort of bonkers thing that happened all the time during the Silver Age. The mynah’s wings were wounded during the escapade, so Ray took him back to Ivy Town, called his buddy Hawkman to help replace the bird’s wings with Thanagarian tech, and was soon riding Major Mynah into battle against aliens and spies. Sadly, Major Mynah has been MIA in DC canon since 1969. Maybe Ray needs a pet on Legends of Tomorrow?
12. His life got really weird after his divorce
Ray’s relationship with his wife, Jean Loring, was a huge part of his story over the years… even after they got divorced in the mid-’80s. In fact, that divorce was the inciting incident for The Atom’s life to get deeply, deeply weird. Most guys rebound from a divorce by buying an ill-advised sports car or dating somebody too young for them. Ray Palmer? He cut the top off his mask, moved to South America, and hooked up with a tiny alien princess.
Most of this unfolded in the Sword of the Atom miniseries, and subsequent specials, launched in September 1983. After discovering Jean had been cheating on him, a heartbroken Ray takes a trip to South America — the guy loves South America, for some reason — in search of another dwarf star fragment. Unfortunately, a plane crash leaves him stranded in the jungle and temporarily stuck at six inches high. Thankfully he soon meets a tribe of similarly sized, yellow-skinned aliens called the Morlaidhans. He leads a rebellion, swings a sword, romances a princess, braves a swarm of army ants… it’s coo-coo bananas stuff straight out of Edgar Rice Burroughs, and all of it needs to happen to Ray in the Arrowverse immediately.
11. He led the Teen Titans…as a temporary teenager
If you thought Sword of the Atom smacked of a mid-life crisis, Ray took things to the next level after the events of the 1994 Zero Hour event. That hullabaloo saw former Green Lantern Hal Jordan trying to reboot the DC universe as the power-mad Parallax. One of the results of all that mucking about in time is that Ray Palmer got rejuvenated into the body of a teenager. He also gained the Giant Man-esque ability to grow larger as well as shrink, and he could suddenly control his powers without having to use his size-changing belt. He lost some of his memories, but otherwise it was pretty much an upgrade in every way, right? Not according to Ray Palmer.
Ray took over leadership of a new incarnation of the Teen Titans, but given that he was a former member of the freaking Justice League, he viewed this as a serious demotion. Why couldn’t teenage Atom just go back to the League? Because the DC Universe is super ageist, maybe. If you’re currently experiencing any of the effects of puberty, it’s banishment to the Teen Titans for you. With some help from the time-traveling hero Waverider, Ray eventually aged back up and regained all his memories. Unfortunately, the events of Identity Crisis would eventually make Ray realize he’d had it pretty damn good during this period…
10. He replaced his own dead alternate-universe self
Identity Crisis was the epic 2004 DC miniseries event penned by Brad Meltzer. It dropped the stunning revelation that the Justice League had been mind-wiping supervillains for years in order to protect their own identities, and also saw the tragic death of Elongated Man’s wife, Sue Dibny. The culprit behind the crime was eventually revealed to be Ray Palmer’s ex, Jean Loring, who by this point was all-out crazy and enacting an ill-conceived murderous scheme to try and regain Ray’s affections. Needless to say, the events left Ray crushed, so much so that he shrank and shrank and shrank… and just vanished.
The hunt for Ray’s location became one of the main storylines of the Countdown limited series in 2007. Believing Ray was the key to averting a looming crisis, Kyle Rayner, Donna Troy, and Jason Todd scoured the multiverse hunting for him. And they finally find him, hiding in plain sight on Earth-51… as Ray Palmer. That’s right, Ray went into hiding as himself… well, as an alternate-universe version of himself. And he had quite a setup: Earth-51 was a virtual paradise, with all the world’s supervillains having been wiped out and a non-crazy Jean Loring on hand and still in love with Ray. Shame it didn’t last.
9. He worked with Frankenstein’s Monster
As a veteran member of the Justice League, Ray Palmer has worked with damn near everybody who’s anybody in the DC universe. And as we mentioned, he even ran the Teen Titans for a while, albeit not during one of its more popular incarnations. But when Flashpoint rebooted the DC universe into the New 52, The Atom’s career took a turn for the seriously surreal. And we’re saying that even taking into account the whole Sword of the Atom/alien princess era.
While Ray Palmer was nowhere to be found in the reconstituted New 52 Justice League, he did turn up in a wholly unexpected place. Palmer appeared in Frankenstein: Agent of S.H.A.D.E., a series initially written by Jeff Lemire. S.H.A.D.E. stands for Super-Human Advanced Defense Executive, a top-secret government agency tasked with investigating and containing metahuman disasters. One of their chief agents was Frankenstein’s monster himself, and Ray Palmer served as S.H.A.D.E.’s science adviser. While his new gig doesn’t send him into the field much, his miniaturization technology is a key element of the series — the group operates out of “the Ant Farm,” a portable three-inch globe that S.H.A.D.E. agents teleport into.
8. He was in a terrible ’70s TV special with Adam West
Ray Palmer has gotten a solid run in the Arrowverse, but prior to that his live-action TV and film track record was… let’s just call it “spotty.” His earliest such appearance was in the regrettable 1979 Legends of the Superheroes TV special. Designed to combine the popularity of the Super Friends cartoon with lingering nostalgia for the ’60s Batman series, Legends involved the heroes reuniting to wish the retired Scarlet Cyclone a happy birthday. The Atom appeared in the second part, which involved, god help us, a “roast” hosted by Ed McMahon.
The Friars Club this is not. The whole thing is mostly noteworthy for the fact that we get to see live-action versions of relatively obscure characters like Sinestro, Black Canary, and Mordru. But the comedy is hackneyed when it isn’t outright cringe-inducing, as in the case of the stand-up routine by — no joke — “Ghetto Man.” As for The Atom, he shows up played by Alfie Wise and married to Giganta. You can clips from the whole unfunny mess on YouTube.
7. He was in a Justice League TV pilot
The Atom’s second live-action appearance came two decades later, and granted him a bit more dignity — but only a bit. Produced by CBS in 1997, the Justice League of America pilot is one hell of an odd duck. It borrows a lot, including its lighter, more comedic tone, from Keith Giffen and J. M. DeMatteis’ run on the League books in the late ’80s and early ’90s, including Justice League International and Justice League Europe. The result is, frankly, a hot mess, but it does give us live-action takes on characters rarely seen outside of the comics page or animation, including Guy Gardner, Fire & Ice, the Martian Manhunter, and John Kassir as The Atom. Probably the best highlight is Miguel Ferrer as a weather-controlling supervillain, but that’s mainly just because it’s Miguel Ferrer being snarky, but with weather powers.
The Justice League pilot has been a staple of convention bootleg tables ever since, sharing space with Roger Corman’s Fantastic Four movie and the 1978 Doctor Strange TV movie. It never actually aired in the States, and rightly so. Comics legend Mark Waid even called it “80 minutes of my life I’ll never get back.” But on the upside, The Atom was played by the guy who voiced the Crypt Keeper in Tales from the Crypt!
6. Warren Ellis wrote his Justice League Unlimited episode
Thankfully, The Atom fared quite a bit better in the so-called Diniverse. The interconnected animated universe kicked off with Batman: The Animated Series in 1992, and by 2004 it had spawned several spinoffs culminating in Justice League Unlimited. Ray Palmer appeared in two episodes of Justice League Unlimited: “Dark Heart” and “The Return”, in both cases voiced by Scrubs actor John C. McGinley. That casting alone would be worth an entry on this list, but JLU’s Atom has an even cooler footnote to boast about. “Dark Heart” was penned by fan-favorite comics writer Warren Ellis.
In addition to stints on various mainstream superhero titles, Ellis is best known for creating brilliant series such as Planetary, Transmetropolitan, and Global Frequency. He also had defining runs on Wildstorm’s Stormwatch and The Authority. In JLU’s “Dark Heart,” Ellis spins a tale of alien technology spinning out of control, forcing the Justice League to call in Ray Palmer’s unique talents. After the humiliations doled out by the superhero roast and the Justice League pilot, Warren Ellis finally did right by old Ray Palmer.
5. His suit keeps him from exploding
Ray took his first steps toward becoming The Atom when he invented a lens made of dwarf star matter, which allowed him to shrink things. Unfortunately, the laws of physics don’t enjoy being monkeyed with, so these objects had a tendency to explode. In fact, the first time Ray used the device to shrink himself, he wasn’t sure he’d survive the process. Ray soon theorizes that there must be some quirk of his own biology that allows him to use his powers without going boom. An eventual retcon introduced the idea that his costume is enhanced with a “compression matrix” that stabilizes his atoms as he changes size. As explanations go, it’s a helluva lot better than “my body is magic!”
His suit also added some other features handy for the costumed crime fighter: it’s designed to only become visible when he shrinks significantly. So, no need to find a phone booth to change. During Sword of the Atom he created a new suit made of dwarf star matter; this one which included a headpiece keyed to his brainwaves. It allowed him to shift his mass in and out of another dimension, which opened the door for all manner of nifty tricks: he could change his weight regardless of his size, he could dial up his mass and hit like a charging elephant, and he could even make his costume appear or disappear at will. Great for vigilantism and also fun at parties.
4. His Arrow origins reference another obscure DC character
Arrow introduced Ray Palmer as a charming, handsome tech billionaire who swoops in to take over the beleaguered Queen Consolidated and flirt with Felicity. The show soon revealed a tragic backstory however, explaining that Ray’s wife had been murdered by one of Slade Wilson’s Mirakuru-crazed thugs. Naturally, family tragedy plus extraordinary wealth can only mean one thing, and sure enough, Ray eventually told Felicity of his plans to build a super-suit so he could help protect Starling City. But while this sets him up as The Atom, the Arrow writers also included a cool Easter egg reference to an even more obscure DC character: OMAC.
Ray explains that the internal Queen Consolidated codename for his suit’s tech was O.M.A.C., but he’s changing it to A.T.O.M. In the comics, there have been a couple of OMACs. Short for “One Man Army Corps,” the character was originally created by Jack Kirby in 1974 as a sort of futuristic supersoldier in the vein of Captain America (but with bad hair). In Infinite Crisis, the concept was rejiggered into hordes of covert sleeper agents controlled by the Brother Eye satellite; normal humans who’ve been infected by nanites and can be “switched on” and converted into killer cyborgs. Thankfully, Ray Palmer’s O.M.A.C. suit origins didn’t come back to haunt him, but it was a clever little nod to hardcore DC fans.
3. Arrow’s Ray Palmer was supposed to be somebody else
A.T.O.M. may have once been O.M.A.C., but die-hard Arrowverse fans also know that Ray Palmer wasn’t even originally supposed to be Ray Palmer. Arrow was referencing Kord Industries as early as the show’s first season, and Felicity even worked for the company after Oliver’s family lost control of Queen Consolidated. Kord is a name many DC fans would instantly recognize as belonging to Ted Kord, the civilian alias of the Blue Beetle. He’s a superhero very much like what we eventually saw in Ray Palmer: a genius inventor who uses his mind and a bevy of gadgets to fight crime. And there’s a reason why Arrow’s Ray Palmer doesn’t initially seem terribly Ray Palmer-y: because he was supposed to be Ted Kord.
Arrowverse producer Andrew Kreisberg revealed in 2015 that the show’s writers had indeed originally been planning to bring Kord onto the show, but DC put the kibosh on the idea. Had things gone as originally envisioned, it would have been Kord Industries that took over Queen Consolidated, and no doubt Ted Kord would eventually have started bouncing around Starling City in a blue costume. However, since DC had “other plans” for the character, they recommended using Ray Palmer/The Atom instead, and the Arrowverse ran with it. Starling got a new hero, and Brandon Routh got the honor of having played two major DC Universe superheroes!
2. He was an Indigo Lantern
Things got pretty crazy during the Blackest Night crossover event in 2009-2010. Ray’s guilt over the deaths of Ralph and Sue Dibny during Identity Crisis came back to haunt him as he found himself facing resurrected Black Lantern versions of both the Dibnys and his crazed ex Jean. Ray’s compassion for others became his greatest strength, however, as he was recruited into the Indigo Tribe, the Lantern Corps that draws their power from the Indigo light of compassion. He gains the Indigo Tribe’s powers of flight, teleportation, and healing, and he even gets a snazzy new costume that evokes his Sword of the Atom days.
Even cooler, his Indigo powers allow him to temporarily take on the look and powers of the various other Corps as well, because what is compassion all about if not truly understanding and appreciating someone different? While battling the Black Lanterns, Ray channels the power of the Orange Lanterns (Avarice), and even the Green Lanterns to defeat Jean through sheer force of will. Not every hero could handle the mantle of a Lantern, but Ray Palmer did it like it was no big thing.
1. He killed Darkseid
Darkseid is one of the baddest mofos in the DC Universe, an Apokoliptian menace who has taken on Superman without breaking a sweat. You wouldn’t expect The Atom to be much of a threat against a guy who can stand toe-to-toe with the Man of Steel himself. But in Grant Morrison’s 1997 “Rock of Ages” Justice League storyline, The Atom not only defeats Darkseid… he kills him.
“Rock of Ages” envisions a terrible future in which Darkseid has successfully learned the Anti-Life Equation and now rules both New Genesis and Earth. Naturally, there are still some who stand against him, but the Anti-Life Equation keeps most of the populace helpless under his bootheel. With many of the Earth’s most powerful heroes dead or imprisoned, hope is sparse in this depressing timeline. However, Ray Palmer soon becomes part of a renewed resistance against Darkseid and his forces.
In a desperate last battle, Ray realizes that he alone can penetrate Darkseid’s forcefield and save the day. He shrinks to subatomic size, rides a stream of photons through the forcefield and in through Darkseid’s eye… where he then unleashes white dwarf star radiation into Darkseid’s brain, killing them both. Darkseid should have heeded the lesson of the first Star Wars film: sometimes it’s not the obvious threat that you have to worry about.
The Atom can be seen on Legends of Tomorrow, which continues Thursday, October 27 with ‘Shogun’ at 8pm on The CW.
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