The Atom: Where Do I Start?

Some people thing that for superheroes, one size fits all. But you’ve got a hero like the Atom, you find that size matters — even when you’re at your smallest.

Over a half-dozen individuals have used the moniker of ‘The Atom’ in DC Comics, ranging from the original Al Pratt from the 1940s to the most popular (and primary) ones Ray Palmer and Ryan Choi — and not to be confused with DC’s Captain Atom or Gold Key’s Solar, Man of the Atom. Despite his sometimes diminutive size, the Atom and his size-shifting powers have come in handy from solo adventures to Justice League and Suicide Squad stories, even rating a major role in Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Strikes Again. But in many of those roles the Atom played only a small part (no pun intended), making the character on his own someone most fans don’t really know.

The Atom is more than just a size-shifting superhero one-step removed from Ant-Man; epic comics writer Gardner Fox turned him into a epic adventurer our of shady sci-fi pulp novels, covering everything from interstellar travel, 1700s England, to fighting in miniature worlds decades before anyone ever heard of Micronauts. The Atom has been everything from scientist to superhero to super-spy and even an outer space border patrol agent. Fox, along with creators like Gil Kane, John Ostrander, Gail Simone, Tom Peyer, John Byrne and others have contributed to the Atom’s legacy… although his size may fool you.

The Atom Archives Vol. 1: Although the Atom’s adventures began back in 1940s, the best of his early years takes place from 1961 to 1963 in his stories from three issues of Showcase and the early issues of his solo series launched in 1961. Relaunched just after DC successfully revived the Flash and kick-starting the Silver Age, the Atom — and its new hero Ray Palmer — criss-crosses time, space and matter doing some classic stories of that era — replete with pulpy roots. Written by Silver Age dynamos Gardner Fox and Jules Schwartz and illustrated by Gil Kane, Murphy Anderson and Mike Sekowsky, these stories mixed science with movie serial adventure with a side of silliness

The All-New Atom, Vol. 4: Small Wonder: TThis is the final volume of the 2006-08 Atom series, and these final issues show writer Gail Simone passing the torch to Rick Remender — a surprising and invigorating choice if you’ve read his Marvel work. Remender and artist Pat Olliffe dig into this material with aplomb, harkening back to the Gardner Fox stories of the 60s as well as Remender’s own “sci-fi with balls” series Fear Agent. In it, Ryan Choi-as-Atom is sent in microscopically into his own bloodstream to fight off some ravaging creatures that are somehow connected to Choi’s size-shifting powers. You can tell Remender is a fan of this kind of material, and this rare DC work shows off a different side of this now top-tier comics writer.

The Atom Special #1: This simple one-shot is anything but simple. Long-time Atom writer Tom Peyer was joined by then new comics artist Steve Dillon to tackle Ray Palmer as he travels through time to stop one of his biggest adversaries, Chronos. A fun little story, that is an easy find in back-issue bins and a condensed primer on the Atom.

Adventure Comics #516-621 and Giant-Size Atom Special: Never collected but worth the trouble, these multi-part story-arc was serialized over issues of Adventure Comics with its finale justifying a special one-shot. In this, writer Jeff Lemire and artist Mahmud Asrar redefine Ray Palmer as the go-to guy for all-things science in the DCU, effectively becoming DC’s answer to Reed Richards. Lemire introduces new adversaries in the sci-fi think tank the Colony, and also introduced Ray’s Uncle David, a past-his-prime James Bond type that pulls the Atom into unfamiliar territory. DC’s revamping into “The New 52” cut short the chance to see how this would’ve played out for Ray Palmer, but these seven issues are worth tracking down to see DC’s science superhero growing up.

Sword of the Atom: This collection is a real treat, pairing writer Jan Strnad with the Atom’s most famous artist Gil Kane to give this diminutive hero a sword and a cause. After finding his wife shacking up with another man, Ray Palmer skips town and finds himself in South America — where he finds that at half the size, the jungles are twice as dangerous.The Atom finds a new civilization in the underbrush of the Amazon jungle called the Morlaidhans, falling into the role of their resident protector in Conan-style battles. A really fun story that is one of the Atom’s finest!




  1. Avatar photo Mickey (@GeeksOfChrist) says:

    Sword of the Atom is one of the best series ever. Gil Kane is at his best.
    And it gave the Atom something cool and Conan-y to do.

  2. i was a big Ryan Choi fan, was so disappointed when he was unceremoniously killed off…

  3. I have a serious affection for Ray Palmer.

    I can certainly understand why it’s not included here, but Identity Crisis is pretty essential to Ray’s pre-relaunch character evolution. For anyone who reads all the great suggestions here, and wants more Ray Palmer, I would definitely check out Identity Crisis and Countdown (second half). Countdown’s kinda tough to get through, but if I recall correctly it’s got some pretty cool Atom moments.

    As much as I miss him donning the costume, I thought the choice to fit Ray into Frankenstein as S.H.A.D.E.’s resident Reed Richard was an inspired one. I really enjoy him in that type of role.

    • I’d like to see them put some costumed heroics into Palmer’s new background. Maybe a one off issue of Frankenstein could reveal he stopped being the Atom when the Morlaidhans were wiped out due to deforestation? He’s a cool character that I think could stand a little more attention.

    • That’s a good idea, but they have addressed the idea of him being a traditional superhero already. Somewhere around issue 8 or 9, Father Time says something along the lines of “We’ve gotta get you a costume one of these days.” and Palmer responds with “Not in this lifetime.” So it would seem that our current Ray Palmer lacks the desire to be included in the capes and tights crowd. But ya never know. I’m sure he’ll be sporting the blue and red in no time.

  4. The Blackest Night Atom and Hawkman issue was pretty damn good too imo.