Some folks become costumed vigilantes in order to avenge fallen loved ones. Others do it because they feel a moral obligation to use their gifts for society’s benefit. And then there’s the Golden Age incarnation of The Atom…
…who donned a mask and cape in order to get laid.
Albert “Atom Al” Pratt was a college student whose 5’1″ stature and undeveloped physique put the kibosh on his efforts to score a date with his statuesque classmate Mary James. While stalking the streets in a fit of cockblocked self-pity, Al had a chance encounter with a drunken transient who just happened to be former boxing champion Joe Morgan.
(Morgan was later revealed to be the fellow who trained Wildcat and the Guardian before transforming into a rampaging energy monster because, well, Roy Thomas.)
Morgan took pity on Pratt and trained the diminutive doofus in the same pugilistic arts which led the skid row stumblebum to a life of sipping Listerine beneath a crumbling overpass. Pratt turned out to be an exceptional student, achieving a level of skill far beyond the expectations of his mentor.
After using his new abilities to surreptiously thwart a gang of thieves who planned to fleece his would-be-sweetheart’s family, the alpha-empowered Pratt was poised to win Mary’s love and admiration. This being the realm of Golden Age funnybooks, however, Pratt instead chose to continue playing a hopeless weakling while his clueless cutie carried on a crush for Pratt’s costumed alter ego.
Even in an era where the secret identity conceit ran thinner than institutional toilet paper, the Al Pratt/Atom ruse stretched plausibility to the breaking point. “Oh, if only Al could be like the Atom, who is the same height, bears the same nickname, and always seems to show up right after Al disappears!” (To be fair, this was a time when lead paint was extensively used in classrooms and nurseries.)
The Atom was able to parlay his solid b-lister status into becoming a founding member of the Justice Society, where he employed his pluck and profound case of Short Man’s Disease to battle threats which could not be handled by an immortal Lord of Order or the omnipotent Angel of Vengeance alone.
Still, poor Al was never able to make much of a mark despite a long run of stories in All-American and Flash Comics. His big chance to leverage the public’s post-Hiroshima mania for all things atomic came too late to bear any fruit apart from some vague superpowers, a more “modern” costume redesign…
…and a short reprieve from the inevitable consquences of reduced page counts and shifting trends.
Though The Atom’s mantle was granted to a Silver Age superhero who better embodied the nominal concept, Pratt eventually resurfaced — along with the rest of the Justice Society — as part of the expanded DC multiverse. Later creative teams tried to mitigate the character’s, ahem, shortcomings by developing new spins on his personality, turning him into a cranky old man in the early 1990s “Over The Hill Gang” incarnation of the JSA…
…or retconning him into a slightly unstable dupe in the revisionist Golden Age miniseries. Neither really caught on, and so it was that poor Al had the honor of being the first JSA member to meet his final fate during the Zero Hour crossover event.
Aside from his modern day namesake(s), Pratt’s legacy was also carried forward by his godson Atom-Smasher (nee Nuklon) and his long lost biological son Damage. While neither possessed their dead old dad’s lack of vertical endowment, they did carry on the proud family ambition of being surly dopes with way too much to prove.
The Golden Age Atom is a relic of an era when “a violently insecure short fella” was enough of a concept to float a decade’s worth of monthly 8-page stories. I bear no ill will the pint-sized pugilist, but he certainly measures up as Nobody’s Favorite.