How Many Atoms Are There?

by Christian Hoffer

Ant-Man might have the spotlight with his recent movie, but let’s not forget about the Atom, DC’s shrinking superhero and longtime Justice League member.  The Atom might be a microscopic superhero, but he’s built up a large legacy spanning three generations of superheroes.  Let’s take a look at all the Atom family and their not so tiny history:    

Al Pratt

Like many of DC’s timeless superheroes, the legacy of the Atom begins in the Golden Age of comics.  The first Atom was Al Pratt, an undersized college student and victim of bullying.  Pratt bought a passing vagrant dinner and discovered he was former boxing champion, Joe Morgan.  Morgan offered to train Pratt and transform the pipsqueak into a muscular powerhouse.  After training for a year, Pratt became the Atom to protect the oppressed and bullied. While initially unpowered, Pratt gained superpowers during a fight with the radioactive villain Cyclotron.  Pratt gained superhuman strength, an immunity to radiation and the ability to focus his strength into an “atomic punch”.     

Pratt had a long and illustrious career as a superhero before retiring in the 1950s.  He became a college professor of physics, married his childhood sweetheart and lived happily for a time, before rejoining the JSA when it reformed in the modern day.  Pratt was one of several JSA members killed by the villain Extant during the Zero Hour event. 

In the new 52, Pratt was reimagined as a sizechanging superhero working for the World Army on Earth 2.  Pratt fought alongside heroes like Sandman and the Red Arrow before losing his arm during a fight with a Bizarro-like clone of Superman. He sacrificed his life to create an underground cavern used as a refuge by the last survivors of Earth 2 during the waning days of Darkseid’s invasion.

Ray Palmer

The Silver Age Atom (and the hero most fans are likely familiar with) is Ray Palmer, a college professor from Ivy Town.  Palmer discovered a piece of dwarf star material that could shrink any object to microscopic degrees.  While his initial experiments resulted in the shrunken objects exploding, he discovered that he could use the dwarf star material to shrink without harm.  Palmer crafted a superhero costume that would only appear when he shrunk and learned how to manipulate his mass and size at will.  

The Atom never gained the popularity of many other Silver Age superheroes, causing DC to constantly reinvent Palmer over the years. Palmer’s many adventures included fighting colorful superheroes as a member of the Justice League to joining a tribe of miniature aliens in a fantasy themed series.  Palmer also briefly led a version of the Teen Titans after the events of Zero Hour.  

Palmer’s main love interest was Jean Loring, a lawyer residing in Ivy Town. Loring suffered from periodical mental issues due to her torture at the hands of a supervillain and their busy careers pushed Loring to have an affair with another man.  In Identity Crisis, Loring and Palmer reconnected after another hero’s wife is killed. But--surprise! Palmer discovered that Loring orchestrated the attack to bring Palmer back into her life.  Loring suffered a total mental breakdown and became the supervillain Eclipso before dying several years later.

In the New 52, Palmer appeared as a scientist working for the SHADE organization, specializing in shrinking technology.  He has yet to don a costume of call himself the Atom…yet.  

Adam Cray

The CIA became interested in Ray Palmer and his knowledge of other superheroes, and hoped to recruit him as an operative.  Palmer was living in South America at the time with a group of miniature aliens and so the CIA arranged for loggers to wipe out the aliens and force him to return to the United States. Instead of joining the CIA, Palmer recruited Adam Cray, the son of a murdered US senator, to help him take down the CIA operatives and a group of miniaturized villains called the Micro Squad.  Cray adopted the Atom’s identity and joined the government’s Suicide Squad while Palmer disguised himself as a Micro Squad member and infiltrated their ranks.  Cray agreed to assist Palmer in part to confront Deadshot, a member of the Suicide Squad who killed his father.  For a time, the Suicide Squad used the new Atom as a secret weapon, appearing only when the team was in particularly dire straits.  Unfortunately, the Micro Squad caught up with Cray and, thinking he was Ray Palmer, murdered him.  Cray’s death wasn’t entirely in vain, Palmer defeated both the Micro Squad and brought the CIA’s actions to light.

Atom Smasher

The godson of Al Pratt, Al Rothstein was the grandson of Cyclotron, the villain who accidentally gave the Golden Age Atom his atomic powers.  Rothstein inherited Cyclotron’s radioactive abilities and gave him the ability to grow in size and strength.  Rothstein initially took the name Nuklon and joined Infinity Inc., a group of second and third generation superheroes related to the Justice Society of America.  Rothstein later joined the reformed JSA as Atom Smasher with a costume that closely resembled that of his godson.  As Atom Smasher, Rothstein fell in love with the significantly younger Stargirl (the creepiest part of an otherwise classic Geoff Johns’ Justice Society run) and a deep friendship with the then reformed Black Adam.  Black Adam convinced Atom Smasher to defect from the JSA and join the villain in retaking his home country of Khandaq.  Rothstein eventually relented and turned himself over to US authorities.  He joined the Suicide Squad and inadvertently helped the US government bring down Black Adam, setting off World War III.  Rothstein eventually rejoined the Justice Society, but disappeared after DC rebooted its continuity in 2011. 

Damage

The immortal villain Vandal Savage targeted the Golden Age Atom Al Pratt after discovering that Pratt’s wife was about to give birth.  Savage killed the Atom’s wife during childbirth and stole their son, leaving Pratt to think that both were dead.  Savage then injected the child with DNA samples taken from most of the Justice Society members and arranged for him to be adopted by two scientists unwittingly working for his Shadowspire organization.  The couple named him Grant Emerson and moved to Atlanta, where Savage waited for Grant’s powers to develop. 

Grant developed the power to shoot explosive blasts from his hands as a teenager and became a superhero named Damage.  Reckless but powerful, Grant caused extensive damage to the city of Atlanta during a battle with the Shadowspire villain Baron Blitzkrieg, which led to his arrest.  In exchange for never setting foot in Georgia again, Damage joined a government sanction version of the Teen Titans and would later join a new version of the Freedom Fighters.  During a fight with the Secret Society of Supervillains, the Flash villain Zoom hideously disfigured Grant’s face while the Secret Society kills most of his teammates.  Now dealing with even more rage issues, Damage (sporting a full face mask similar to his birth dather) joined the Justice Society and helped the team fight the godlike Gog.  Damage died during Blackest Night at the hands of a resurrected Jean Loring, who used Damage’s feelings of rage to resurrect Nekron, the DC universe’s embodiment of death.   

Ryan Choi

After the events of Infinite Crisis, Ray Palmer bequeathed his Atom suit and tools to Ryan Choi, his protégé and friend.  Choi moved to Ivy Town to fill Palmer’s vacant teaching position at Ivy University and takes up the Atom mantle. Choi’s adventures mirrored Palmer’s earliest Silver Age comics.  Fighting a mixture of weird alien and magical threats, Choi also helped retrieve Palmer from an alternate dimension and convinced Palmer to return to superheroics.  Unfortunately, Choi’s rivalry with the miniature serial killer Dwarfstar led to his death.  Dwarfstar hired a team of supervillains led by Deathstroke to assassinate Choi.  Hopelessly outnumbered, Choi fought valiantly against the Titans before Deathstroke impaled him and delivered his miniaturized body to Dwarfstar in a matchbox.  Choi’s death was controversial and poorly received by fans, as Choi was one of DC’s few Asian-American heroes at the time.  DC reversed Choi’s death during their Convergence event earlier this year, bringing the character back to help Ray Palmer defeat Deathstroke.  

Molecule

We don’t really know much about Molecule, a teenage hero who joined the Teen Titans in the aftermath of Infinite Crisis.  Molecule wore a green variation of the Atom’s costume and briefly dated the superheroine Argent.  His career as a superhero was painfully short, the Terror Titans kidnapped him while recruiting teen heroes for the Dark Side Club.  The Persuader decided that they didn’t need a shrinking superhero and cut him in half.  While you can’t split an atom in two without explosive consequences, the Terror Titans proved you can split a Molecule no problem.   

Rhonda Pineda

The latest Atom is Rhonda Pineda, a college student at Ivy University.  The Justice League recruited Pineda as one of their newest members after she helped defuse a bomb during Atlantis’ invasion of the surface world.  Pineda also worked for the government sponsored Justice League of America as a double agent, gathering intel on the superheroes and cataloguing their weaknesses.  Unknown to both teams, Pineda was actually a member of the Crime Syndicate of America, an evil version of the Justice League from Earth 3.  Sabotaging both teams during the Trinity War event, Pineda opened Pandora’s Box and used it to bring the Crime Syndicate into the Justice League’s world.  While the Crime Syndicate briefly defeated the combined Justice Leagues and took over their world, a team of villains led by Lex Luthor stopped them and Luthor personally killed Pineda by stepping on her as she shrunk.

Who's your favorite version of the Atom? Let us know in the comments! 

By Christian Hoffer

Christian Hoffer is ComicBook.com's resident Pokemon expert. He also covers wrestling, television, and comics.