Dennis O’Neil: Small Scientists In Big Packages

Glad tidings for all you superhero fans out there. A new Atom! And this one didn’t debut in the pages of a comic book, as his predecessors did. No, he sort of snuck in to the zeitgeist through whatever portal is reserved for television-spawned characters. If he eventually does appear in the comics, it’ll be a reversal of the usual procedure of going from comics to other media.

Since you’re reading this no earlier than Thursday morning (unless you’re a ComicMix staffer) you may have already seen him on Wednesday night’s episode of Arrow, where I’m sure he’ll put in an appearance. Fact is, if you’re a fan of that show, you’ve already seen him. He’s been on the set for a while now, introduced in the same way as Arrow’s people introduced The Flash last year. At first he was just a part of the storyline and only gradually did it become obvious that he had a larger destiny. (Introducing a character in a show other than the one said character will star in is an old television trick. There’s even a name for it: back door pilot.)

So, what about this new Atom? Take a look at him. Compare him to the first Atom, introduced in 1940. Anything familiar? Certainly not the costume. How about his superpowers? Hah – trick question. The first Atom didn’t have any powers. Costume: yes. Powers: no. He was a college student and later a scientist named Al Pratt and he was small and tough and… that’s it. Didn’t keep him from joining the Justice Society and share meeting with Superman, Batman, The Flash, Green Lantern – the biggies. Weep not for Al, because he did eventually gain super strength.

I wonder about the no-powers business. I mean, why? Well, the superhero game was brand new in 1940, maybe not well understood. Could the first Atom’s creators thought that the suit was the important thing?

Anyway, that was the first Atom. The second was a big improvement on ol’ Al Pratt. This was Ray Palmer, another, yes, scientist who, after exposure to a fragment of a white dwarf star, devised a gadget that allowed him to shrink way, way down, to sub atomic size if he so chose. That may not have been the most spectacular superpower in the paantheon, but it at least justified the “Atom” sobriquet. (Did anyone call him “the swatable super guy”? Probably not.)

And after Ray Palmer, the deluge. Five more Atoms, not counting the one who currently graces your video screen – another Ray Palmer who is a, you guessed it, scientist. Costume? Powers? That’s where this Atom differs from the rest. His powers are his costume, an exoskeleton that allows him to fly and be strong and maybe other nifty stuff to come. It’s not a new idea – you might know that there’s a Marvel dude with a similar rig – but, as we’ve observed before, nothing is really new. It’s always the recipe, never the ingredients.

But I wonder why they decided to call him The Atom. There was some mention of nanotechnology in the dialogue, but it didn’t, and doesn’t, seem important to the character.

Maybe Al Pratt could tell us.