DC Histories: Ray Palmer (Atom II)

Welcome back to another DC History. We’re well into the New 52 at this point, but there’s still much that can be gained by examining how we got here. Only by looking back at what came before can we understand where we’re going.

This week, we’re looking at Ray Palmer, the second person in the DCU to be known as the Atom. In just the last 30 years alone he’s been a scientist, a superhero, a jungle barbarian, a counter-espionage agent, a teenager, a concerned ex-husband, and a border guard of the multiverse. Let’s take those all one at a time, shall we? WARNING: I will be talking about the endings to several stories, including the ending of Identity Crisis. Be aware.

Showcase #34 (1961) Cover

The Atom first jumped onto the scene in the early 1960s where he was one of the first in a new wave of comic book superheroes. Ray Palmer was a scientist and teacher who worked out of Ivy University. When he found a white dwarf star’s core, he learned how to use it to shrink himself all the way down to microscopic size. If he didn’t need to be that tiny, he could just shrink a little.

From Secret Origins (Vol. 3) #29 (1988)

Ray also found a way to change his density while small so that his tiny fists could pack a wallop the size of a full grown man. The PSI of force in his tiny fists was even greater than Drago’s in Rocky IV. Realizing that he could do great good with these abilities, he put on a blue and red costume and called himself the Atom. He jumped around for years in solo adventures in titles like Showcase and Atom. During these tales, he split his time between teaching at Ivy University and having adventures. Eventually, these appearances slackened off and the Atom’s monthly adventures came to a slow halt.

There were a few down years in the early 1980s where Ray didn’t have his own ongoing tales. Atom’s life, and his published adventures, would be driven back into high gear when he discovered his wife, Jean, was cheating on him with another man.

From Sword of the Atom #1 (1983)

This was a bad day for Ray. To give himself some space, he headed off to Brazil to throw himself into his scientific studies. While there, he found himself aboard a plane flying over the rainforest. During the trip, a brawl broke out aboard the aircraft. Ray’s size controls were damaged in the melee, making him unable to grow or shrink. He was stuck at 6 inches tall. He still had some fight in him anyway, and try though he did, Ray couldn’t stop the fight from causing the plane to crash into the jungle below. He survived and groggily stumbled into the rainforest. Through sheer chance, Ray stumbled upon a camp site filled with yellow skinned aliens who also happened to be 6 inches tall.

Surprisingly, Ray took to all of this with pretty quickly. Sure, yellow tiny aliens. Why not? It was revealed that these small yellow people were called Morlaidhans. Their spaceship had also crashed in the rainforest and they were just trying to survive in their new environment. In a shockingly short length of time, Ray found himself liking the Morlaidhans so much that he went native. It certainly helped that he was able to completely learn their language in less than three days. Ray was also gung-ho in helping the Morlaidhans overthrow their evil ruler. In order to do his part, he picked up a small sword and began riding a frog.

From Sword of the Atom #4 (1983)

If any of this sounds like it’d be up your alley, seek this 4 issue miniseries out. The story is a lot of fun and it has some classic Gil Kane art.

Eventually, Ray regained his ability to grow and he left the Morlaidhans for the normal world. However, his time in the rainforest was a still fresh in his mind even after he sees his wife again. His heart was still in Brazil. Citing irreconcilable differences, Ray and Jean got a divorce and Ray immediately went back to the jungle to be with the Morlaidhans’ ruler, Princess Laethwyn.

From Sword of the Atom Special #2 (1985)

Things have a way of not working out well in Ray’s life. Shortly after devoting himself to his new alien brethren, the Morlaidhans were completely wiped out due to an illegal rainforest slash-and-burn operation. As bad as seeing his wife cheat on him with another man had been, this was certainly the worst day in Ray’s life.

From Power of the Atom #1 (1988)

Distraught, Ray fled back to Ivy Town where he reentered the real world. There, he made a go of once again having a human life. As the Atom, he had a run of regular adventures, fighting old villains like Chronos and teaming up with the Justice League International. Ray was doing just fine, thank you very much. Then, he learned that the forest fire that caused the genocide of his alien comrades was set by a rogue set of CIA operatives. The CIA wanted the Atom to work for them doing Cold War espionage and knew that Ray would only return to America if he had no reason to stay in Brazil.

Ray didn’t take this well. In a rage, he sought out the rogue sect and got his revenge.

From Power of the Atom #16 (1989)

Then, Ray went off the grid for a number of years. That’s right, once again instead of dealing with a problem head-on, Ray ran away and attempted to get lost. At least this time, he stuck to American soil. Knowing that he hadn’t taken out everyone involved with the CIA’s operation, Ray joined forces with Amanda Waller of the Suicide Squad. Her knowledge of the government and its inner workings allowed Ray to flush out the rest of the organization and expose it to the world. Sadly, Ray wasn’t able to do this before a member of the Squad died due to someone thinking this other Squad member was Ray.

Superman, Batman, and Aquaman, who were looking for the missing Ray, got a little testy when they finally found him. Ray tried to explain why he didn’t come to them first, but they just didn’t get it.

From Suicide Squad (Vol. 1) #62 (1992)

It doesn’t really need to be spelled out that Ray had a tough few years. However, his next adventure would that anyway. Seeing that the Atom has returned to superheroing for the second time, the villain Chronos attempted to drive Ray insane by projecting Ray’s worst life moments to him on a constant loop. Ray assumed he was hallucinating but realized his error when a friend finally saw the same things that he did. It really sums up just how much crap the poor guy had been through since 1983. Between his wife’s infidelity, his princess burning, his father dying, and a member of the Suicide Squad being killed in his stead, it had been a tough few years.

From The Atom Special #1 (1993)

DC’s writers and editors must have thought that Ray had too much going on because they gave him a completely new life shortly thereafter. During the events of Zero Hour, another apocalyptic crisis, Ray was turned into a teenager thanks to the villain Extant.

From Zero Hour #1 (1994)

I really can’t speak much on this time period in Ray’s life as I don’t personally own many of Ray’s immediate post-Zero Hour appearances. I do know that Ray was a teen again. He began to forget everything he learned as an adult. Overnight, he was just a punk kid running around the DC Universe. To gain some perspective, he joined the Teen Titans, but it wasn’t any of the Teen Titans you know about. It was some weird new group that hasn’t been mentioned again since their series ended. By that series’ end, Ray had regained his lost age and memories. Say what you will about Ray’s time as a teenager, but he didn’t run away and hide in the face of adversity this time.

While Ray had been getting on with his life, Jean had been getting lonely. After separating from the man whom she left Ray for, Jean realized that she wanted Ray to love her again. So, her brilliant idea was to attack Sue Dibny, wife of the Elongated Man. Her theory was that every hero would run and protect their own families when they heard about someone attacking Sue. Jean was the only family that Ray had left, so she was sure they’d be together in the end. Jean accidentally went one step too far and killed Sue instead of just injuring her. This turned out to make her plan even more successful. Ray and Jean’s relationship was rekindled. That ended when Ray figured out that Jean was responsible for Sue’s death. He didn’t take it well.

From Identity Crisis #7 (2005)

Just like when he found out Jean was cheating on him and when he found out the CIA was after him, Ray ran away. This time, he didn’t just run away from humanity or the mainstream superhero community. He ran away from his entire plane of existence.

Look. This part is a bit hard to explain. It’s one heck of a convoluted story. Somehow, someway, Ray was able to shrink down so small that he entered another universe. In this universe, Jean was still sane and wonderful so our Ray shacked up with that Jean. However, it was foretold that only Ray could save all the multiverse from total destruction, so a group of heroes, including Kyle Rayner, Donna Troy, and Jason Todd, tracked him down. After finding Ray and having an adventure together, the multiverse was saved. The group then decides that they would be the people who guard and protect everyone and everything that travels between the various dimensions. To that end, Ray told a collection of Monitors, powerful beings who try to influence people willy-nilly, that Ray and his friends were now in charge.

From Countdown to Final Crisis #1 (2008)

None of this was ever mentioned again. The next time we saw Ray, he was bouncing around the regular DC Universe, once again battling supervillains and hanging out with his superhero pals. Multiverse? What multiverse?

And that’s how Ray Palmer became a jungle barbarian, a counter-espionage agent, a teenager, a concerned ex-husband, and a border guard of the multiverse.

So, where is Ray in the new 52? Well, he surprised nearly everyone when he popped up in Frankenstein: Agent of S.H.A.D.E. as a United Nations science liaison. Apparently, he developed the technology that allowed S.H.A.D.E. to shrink its headquarters. Is Ray still the Atom? Hopefully, the answer will come in time.

From Frankenstein: Agent of S.H.A.D.E. #1 (2011)

Jeff Reid really hopes that an Atom, any Atom, pops up in the New 52 soon. With Earth 2 on the horizon, he’ll even take Atom: Multiverse Border Guard again. Find out more things that Jeff wishes for by following him on Twitter.


  1. The Atom’s probably my favorite character I’ve read least about. To rectify that, I just picked up The Atom Special #1, primarily because of the Steve Dillon(!) art. I’ll have to pick up Sword of the Atom some time soon as well.

  2. Mickey (@GeeksOfChrist) says:

    The Sword of the Atom is my favorite superhero mini-series. It’s a fun sci-fi twist on some old Conan stories, expertly illustrated by Gil Kane. You can tell that Kane saw this as an important piece for his career. His skills had been honed to near-perfection by that point.

    I don’t think the Atom really needed to continue after that. It seems to me that he was trotted out just to remind people that DC owned the property.

  3. I’m confused about those panels from Sword of the Atom where he’s with his new wife

    How did the new wife meat Jean Loring? I am imagining a panel where Jean talks to the tiny princess and tells her all about Ray’s idiosyncracies and i’m laughing hard in my brain

    • If I recall correctly, Jean was actually shrunk down and kidnapped by evil alien rebels earlier in the story. She and Laethwyn had a chat after Jean was saved but before she was changed back to her normal size.

    • lol that’s awesome, i need to get this miniseries

  4. Ray’s easily one of my favorite B-listers. The time between ID Crisis and Countdown (ugh) left a void in my soul. As much as I miss him in costume, I’m quite fond of his place in SHADE. It’s a new twist that actually makes sense. But yeah, I hope he’s back in costume kicking some tiny ass sooner rather than later.

    These have all been great Jeff. Keep it up. Surprised to see Blackest Night missing from this crash course though. I suppose it’s not crucial to his history, but it was great to see him back in top form and heroing again. I prefer to think of that as his return instead of Countdown.

  5. So size matters huh?

  6. Wish Ifanboy would do a video show on The Atom, but sadly that will never happen

  7. The only story of the Atom that I’ve been exposed to was the one in Justice League Unlimited. I miss that show.

  8. No mention of his brief stint as an Indigo Lantern during Blackest Night?

    • This was already a surprisingly long article. I figured that a good chunk of the readership already knew that story so I made the choice to not bring it up. Plus, it gave you something to comment about! 🙂

  9. So is he in Frankenstein a lot? I’ve only read the first issue. I would looove it if he had his own series in the New 52. I’ve always felt like he’s been criminally underused. If anyone thinks his powers are limited to stories, read the original silver age stuff, it’s bonkers!

  10. I’m glad you left out Jeff Lemire’s reboot of Ray Palmer. His “new” origin negates and contradicts everything from Sword of the Atom to Blackest Night. That and the fact he re-imagined Ray into the stereotypical wimpy science geek instead of the confident athlete that chose science and teaching over track and gymnastics, like Gardner Fox envisioned and Roger Stern fleshed out. Lemire’s version makes Ray rather bland and unappealing, always having to prove himself.