Minor Spoilers

Minor Spoilers

Gardner Fox, the first writer of The Atom comics, didn’t put a ton of thought into naming the shops, the institutions or even the city he was inventing. The latter he dubbed Ivytown, soon changed to Ivy Town, whose downtown college he named Ivy University. I’m guessing he started by naming the university, where his hero worked, then backed into the name of the town.

It wouldn’t have been the first (or last) time someone outside New Haven thought of Yale first and the city second. See, Ivy Town, the leading theory goes, is inspired by our very own Elm City. Its prominent university, of course, would be the comic book equivalent of Yale, where, in a 1961 trial issue published in Showcase #34, we first meet “graduate student and fellowship research physicist” Ray Palmer, soon to become The Atom. He’s working on a kind of shrink ray powered by ultraviolet light passing through a lens he built from a fragment of a white dwarf star. (Science!) He’d first spotted the fragment as a meteor blazing across the sky, from a point that resembles the real-world overlook at West Rock Ridge, and by the time of our introduction, he’s successfully shrunk inanimate objects, with the minor caveat that they soon explode.

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Taking a break after his 145th failed test, Palmer leads a youth nature club on a hike, where they enter a series of caverns much bigger than our own Judges’ Cave. But a cave-in suddenly traps the hikers, so it’s a good thing Palmer has his lens with him. Leaving the group and finding a sunbeam that marks the only way out, he positions the glass between a pair of stalagmites and, using the sun’s ultraviolet light, shrinks himself enough to climb the tiny hand- and footholds pocking the otherwise unscalable cavern walls. Expecting to explode like his test subjects at any minute, Palmer races to reach the high-up hole creating the sunbeam and, using his insect-proportion strength and the unshrunken engagement ring he’s been trying to give to his girlfriend, widens the hole to passable proportions. He jumps down to the cavern floor to alert the others and, as he passes under the beam still streaming through the lens, finds himself blown back up to normal size—and otherwise unexploded.

Thus did all the hikers, including Ray Palmer, escape. And thus was born… The Atom!

This “product of the awesome forces of nature,” this “tiny titan into a world of giants,” this “mighty mite” who’s actually a “giant” himself quickly develops a device he can use to discreetly shrink and enlarge himself. He also creates a superhero suit that can stretch so thin it’s invisible at his full size, allowing him to secretly wear it right over his clothes. (Science!)

When a tiny teleporting alien under the mind-control of a sinister citizen robs the Ivytown Bank—the 1961 analog of the New Haven Savings Bank—The Atom steps up to help his girlfriend, genius “lady lawyer” Jean Loring, exonerate a falsely accused bank teller. In the process he discovers that if he makes himself small enough, he can travel through telephone lines—maybe they were Southern New England Telephone Company wires—at the speed of electricity. (Science! Which, in this case, Fox attempts to explain in a lengthy postscript.) Popping out of the villain’s phone to foil his plot and free the alien, The Atom arranges for the latter to pop into court in the middle of the trial, proving the innocence of the accused. The issue ends as Palmer and Loring descend the steps of a courthouse much like New Haven’s own Superior Court, Loring teasing her beau about when she might finally agree to marry him.

Like The Atom himself, the issue packs a potent punch in a puny package, as does the followup. So be sure to check newsstands for our next Atom installment, where we’ll continue touring comic book New Haven with “the world’s smallest super-hero”—this time as he takes on the “Dooms from Beyond!”

Written and photographed by Dan Mims.

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