Slightly Misplaced Comic Book Heroes Case File #195: Ray Palmer

Last week’s column covered the character of Grace Choi, and over on Facebook, my longtime friend Minde commented that she always found it a little odd that Grace wasn’t related to Ryan Choi, the third DC character to go by the name of “the Atom”.  And as such, I thought that Ryan would be a really good selection for this week’s column.

Then I realized two things:  1)  Ryan is or was a member of a recent Justice League team, and 2)  Ray Palmer, the second Atom, has a habit of disappearing for long periods of time these days.  So, let’s look at Ray.

I’m actually not sure if this Atom is Ray or Ryan.

When DC Comics started to revive the various Golden Age heroes who would go on to become the various Silver Age heroes who founded the Justice League, most of the characters didn’t change much.  Barry Allen and Jay Garrick wear different suits and gained their powers from different sources, but both were basically just superfast guys.  Alan Scott became the Green Lantern with a weakness to wood while Hal Jordan did the same thing with a sci-fi angle and a weakness for the color yellow.  Hawkman even sort of got to sort of keep his basic look and secret identity name.  Again, sort of.

But then there was the Atom.  The original Atom was Al Pratt, a superhero whose gimmick was he was a short guy with a good right hook.  No, seriously.  That was it.  He did eventually gain an atomic punch, but originally he was just a short guy who was good in a fight.  So, when DC revived the Atom name, we got Ray Palmer, a nuclear physicist who found a chunk of white dwarf star matter, a superheavy sort of thing found only in space, and somehow Ray was able to make a piece of it into a belt that allowed him to shrink down to subatomic sizes with complete control over his height, mass, and weight.  As such, with the right manipulation, Ray could actually leap relatively long distances and punch with the force of a full-sized man despite being, well, maybe six inches high at any given moment.

And this being the Silver Age, before DC started experimenting with the idea Ray could shrink down to various microscopic universes between atomic particles, that meant there was also a lot of stuff that strained the credibility of real science, like how Ray could travel long distances through phone lines by hitching a ride on a phone call or travel through time by getting lowered down with a fishing line by a scientist who had invented the ability to generate a time portal, but it was a small one and it popped up in the floor.  Personally, I’m rather tickled by the idea Ray made a costume with a thin molecular structure that would stretch out and disappear when he was at his full size.  That meant he was always in costume, and his first appearance showed him putting on what sure looked like an invisible costume over his regular clothes.

I did not make any of that up.

And yes, Ray was one of the first DC heroes to join the Justice League after the team started expanding away from the founding seven members.

So, really, why did Ray just, well, stop appearing so regularly?  Maybe he wasn’t popular enough to hold down his own series, but he still was the League’s science adviser for so many years that he should have hung in there.

My own theory is that many of DC’s second string heroes were hurt a bit by the Crisis on Infinite Earths.  The old standby for DC was powers over personality (Marvel does the opposite), and most DC heroes were basically generic good guys.  As such, while Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman could and did get revamped approaches that modernized them in interesting ways, other heroes weren’t so lucky.  As such, we see Barry and Hal getting replaced for a period by newer characters, Hawkman’s story becoming a real mess, and finally Ray, well, Ray just disappears for long stretches.  And that’s not even getting into other attempts to keep the character around, like a sword-bearing version of the hero, or a time when he was reduced in age a few years and joined a Teen Titans team.

It got to the point where Ray would disappear after one big mega-storyline only to reappear a couple years later before a new one started up.  Was Ray the harbinger of bad things or the only hope to stop them before the inevitable horrible things psychologically broke him and he had to maybe disappear for a while again?  I suppose that depends on your interpretation.

Anyway, Ray was in one of his “missing” periods in 2006 when Ryan Choi was introduced as a replacement Atom.

And no, he does not appear to be related to Grace.  Heck, “Choi” could be a common last name in some parts of the world.

What happened to Ray since then?  He’s come back a few times.  He’s actually played by actor Brandon Routh on the various Arrowverse shows as a somewhat goofy scientist type who initially invented a suit of power armor before a weird accident granted him the ability to use it to shrink.

More recently, the New 52 showed Ray working originally as a scientist for one of the various DC secret operative organizations and later in Rebirth…he disappeared and left his young protege Ryan Choi behind as the Atom for Batman to recruit for a Justice League team when the Dark Knight needed a Mighty Mite.

Anyway, the long and the short of it is, I think we’ve seen more of Ryan Choi lately than we have Ray Palmer.

And he looks to be enjoying himself.

I’m sure Ray is being saved for something big, but all I know for certain is, he will be back for something big.  And then maybe disappearing again.

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