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REVIEW: DC UNIVERSE CLASSICS THE ATOM
By Thomas Wheeler

DC Universe Classics Wave 5! Mention this to any fan and collector of Mattel's superb line of DC Universe action figures, and they'll likely wince. The assortment was the first of the Wal-Mart exclusive assortments, and for whatever reason was so poorly distributed that it barely saw the light of day. I only ever managed to acquire a Black Lightning and Riddler figure from this assortment (see my much earlier reviews on these two) . I categorically never saw this series anywhere at any Walmart in Tucson, and it wasn't for a lack of looking.

Recently, Mattel's online collector site-store, MattyCollector.Com, offered Wave 5 of the DC Universe Classics figures as a set. Each figure was individually carded, but they were only sold as a set. This was a huge and welcome service to established DCUC fans, even if there was some justified speculation as to where this supply of figures had come from. Walmart continues to carry DC Universe Classics, as well as quite a supply of far better distributed exclusive items. The Wave 5 set arrived in a shipping box fully marked and largely identical to the type of shipping boxes that one might expect to see hauled out of the back room of almost any retailer. Use your imagination as to how this came about. For myself, that sort of speculation enters into the world of business dealings, and I try to avoid that sort of thing in my reviews unless it's absolutely necessary. In this case, it's not.

Frankly, I was truly delighted that, regardless of where this supply of figures had come from, that it was being made available, even if I am sometimes reluctant to mail-order toys unless there's some alternative. But there wasn't. And I didn't really mind snagging a second Black Lightning, since the one I'd gotten had an assembly problem. A spare Riddler wasn't unwelcome. And it finally allowed me to get the three that I'd never seen -- Amazo, Eradicator, and especially -- THE ATOM!

Of the entire assortment, I'd have to say that he was the most prominent character. The Riddler is certainly well-known, but The Atom has been a longtime member of the Justice League, has easily been around long enough to be regarded as a classic character, has appeared in both Justice League Unlimited as well as Super Friends (!), and has had other action figures of him made here and there over the years. I certainly wanted to add him to my overall DC Universe Classics Collection. I've always liked the character, thought he had a cool look to him, and an interesting power.

So who, precisely, is The Atom? A little online research was called for here. The original Atom was a Golden Age character by the name of Al Pratt. He gained his name simply by virtue of being short, but a feisty fighter. That's not the Atom we're talking about here.

The Atom I wish to discuss is named Ray Palmer, who was first introduced during the Silver Age of DC Comics. He debuted in Showcase #34, the September-October 1961 issue. He was named after Raymond A. Palmer, a science fiction magazine editor of the time.

Palmer was a scientist, and using a small mass of white dwarf star matter that he was discovered, Palmer was able to fashion a lens that allowed him to shrink any inanimate object to any degree that he wishes. However, any object so treated soon exploded as a side effect, precluding any practical use of the lens.

During a spelunking expedition, Palmer and some friends find themselves trapped in a cave when the entrance collapses. In desperation, Palmer secretly uses the lens, which he has carried with him, to shrink himself down in order to be able to climb to, and through, a small hole high in the wall that leads to the outside, expecting full well that he will likely explode. Palmer is able to enlarge the hole sufficiently for his friends, and then descends to the floor to try to alert the others of the escape route before exploding. However, upon entering the lens' beam, he finds himself returned to normal size.

At first, discovering that the lens is covered with some sort of moisture from the cave, Palmer thinks that this has altered the beam to allow his return to his original height. However, when subsequent experiments show no change with the explosions on other reduced items, Palmer concludes that there must be some mysterious force within his own body that allows him to be shrunk and safely return later to normal size. He decides to use this effect to become a super-hero.

Palmer creates a belt device from the white dwarf star matter, which allows him to shrink down as far as subatomic size. He also develops a special costume that, initially at least, only becomes visible when he shrinks significantly. In addition, he develops new equipment that allows him to instantly alter his molecular density to whatever degree he desires. This allows him to glide on air currents at low settings, while a high setting allows him to handle or strike objects with the equivalent strength of his normal size and build.

A favorite travel method of his is to call some location on the telephone and when the intended phone is answered, Palmer can shrink down enough to literally travel along the signal through the phone lines in seconds to emerge from the answering phone. (If it's ever been address whether this stunt works with cel phones, I don't know about it.)

Originally, his size and molecular density abilities derived from the mechanisms in his belt, with a backup device in his gloves. Much later, he gains the innate equivalent of his powers within his own body.

The Atom has had an interesting career within the DC Universe. He has served on the Justice League, and been good friends with Hawkman. The two shared a title named for both characters for some time. The Atom also had a mini-series and several specials, in which he took on the role of a Conan-the-Barbarian-like heroic leader of a tribe of six-inch-tall natives in the jungles of South America. Mind where you step!

Subsequently, during the events of Zero Hour, Palmer is reduced in age to his late teens, and becomes a member of one of the shorter-lived incarnations of the Teen Titans. He subsequently regains his original age and memories, and returned to his teaching job in his hometown of Ivy Town, and also becomes an associate member of the latest JLA incarnation.

In the 2004-05 limited series Identity Crisis, Palmer's ex-wife, Jean Loring, who has gone insane, kills Sue Dibny, wife of the super-hero Elongated Man, in a misguided attempt to win Ray back. After all is said and done, Loring is committed to Arkham Asylum, and Ray Palmer shrinks himself to microscopic size and disappears, later telling longtime friend Hawkman, who promises to keep the meeting a secret, that he needs some time away.

During the Countdown mini-series, one of the Monitors asks the Source Wall what is the solution to "the great disaster", and the answer is, "Ray Palmer". The Monitor sends Donna Troy, Jason Todd, and Kyle Rayner into the Multiverse to track down Palmer, who turns up on one of the alternate Earths, designated Earth-51, where Palmer has assumed the life of his alternate Earth counterpart, who was killed during his studies of the Multiverse, and has been trying to find a solution to the looming Crisis.

Ray later, and after much cajoling, joins Donna and Kyle in their new mission as "border guards" to the Multiverse, believing that there is nothing left for him on his original Earth. He returns briefly to defeat his longtime nemesis Chronos with the help of his successor, a young man named Ryan Choi, who briefly assumed the role of the Atom, but returned to the Multiverse, leaving his town in the care of Choi.

Palmer returns to Earth during the Final Crisis, and works with Choi again to assist during the events of that crisis. Choi has since been killed, and Palmer has resumed his role as the Atom.

Palmer turned up during Blackest Night, and was designated an avatar of the Indigo Lantern Tribe during the course of the storyline, ending up with a costume that bore a strong resemblance to his "barbarian" outfit from "Sword of the Atom".

You never quite know where The Atom will turn up. In the DC/Marvel crossover, JLA/Avengers, Atom was the first of any of they heroes to realize that what they were being told by the Grandmaster and Metron was not all it seemed to be. Atom hitched a subatomic ride on Metron's chair, which took him to the Grandmaster's massive cosmic base, and when Batman and Captain America finally turn up, the Atom has had enough time to research the place to let them in on what's really going on, as much as possible.

I've always appreciated the character, especially since, along with his interesting powers, he has always been presented as a highly intelligent scientist with a steady mind. If the JLA needs a scientific outlook on something, they call Ray Palmer.

So, how's the figure? Absolutely outstanding. One thing I've said about every Atom action figure I've ever reviewed -- the cool thing about them is, given his power, any Atom action figure can arguably be claimed to be life-size. In this case, since the Atom tends to maintain a default shrunken height of about 6 inches, and the figure is about 6-1/2" in height, I'd say that's just about right.

The figure uses the basic "male hero" body molds used for a large percentage of figures within the DC Universe Classics line. Sculpted in superb detail and articulation by the Four Horsemen design studios, the basic design is well proportioned, heroically muscular, and superbly designed, also lending itself very well to a great range of articulation.

One concern that I had with this figure was the fact that, coming from Wave 5 (and I believe produced at that time), this was a time when Mattel was still having some significant quality control issues with their figures, especially with regard to articulation and assembly. Some parts were occasionally stuck. In a few instances, attempts to free them would result in breakage. The other problem was assembly. Sometimes, parts of a left arm or leg would be swapped for the right. Although perhaps similar in appearance, they are not at all interchangeable. Very fortunately, The Atom is entirely properly assembled, and all of his articulation points move as they should.

I've always liked The Atom's costume. I'm not sure who designed it, but it works. It can't have been easy to come up with a costume design for a character who shrinks. Some other characters have costumes that are reflective of their names and abilities. Green Lantern's costume has -- a lot of green on it. Hawkman has wings and a hawk-like helmet/mask. Batman -- well, you get the idea. What do you do for The Atom? Granted, for a long time, he had the gimmick that his costume only appeared when he shrank, but there was still the look of the thing to be considered.

I think "good basic Silver Age" would be the most appropriate description for The Atom's costume. It uses primary colors -- red and blue -- and isn't detailed to excess or particularly garish. It's tights -- no jackets, trenchcoats, chains, padding, or any of the rest of that stuff that seemed to crop up in the 90's. I'd say the costume is fairly evenly divided between red and blue, but in some respects, doesn't follow the traditional "lines" of a super-hero costume.

Palmer is wearing a mask that covers most of his head, but leaves the area around the eyes, ears, and lower face exposed. There's a little diagonal jag in the area around the top of the lower face. The only real symbol of his name and power is a stylized "atom" design on the forehead of the mask, which is blue. Most of The Atom's shirt is also blue, including the sleeves. The shirt is about half blue and half red. The red commences at a point at the top of the chest, and moves outward in a diagonal on the front and back, meeting on the sides above the belt. On either the front or the back, it looks like an upward-pointing arrowhead. The Atom's gloves are red, as are the leggings of his costume. His belt and boots are blue. The gloves are straight, while the boots have upward points.

Detail on the face is excellent. The flesh tone and eyes are very neatly painted. The Atom's facial expression is relatively neutral, perhaps somewhat determined-looking, with just the hint of a smile. For all the trouble he's endured, I've always been of the opinion that Ray Palmer enjoys being a part of the super-heroic community of the DC Universe.

The figure has amazing articulation, and is fully poseable at the head, arms, upper arm swivel, elbows, wrists, mid-torso, waist, legs, upper leg swivel, knees, and ankles. I know I have commented on the articulation before, how well the mid-toroso point looks, that sort of thing, but one thing I don't think I have addressed in other DC Universe Classics reviews is how good the leg articulation looks. Mattel does not use the "ball and socket" design of some other lines. Rather, it's a two-part design that still allows the legs to move forward, backward, and outward, but visually, is a lot smoother-looking. This design has had some minor problems from time to time, generally with stuck parts or mild misassembly that somehow leaves one leg slightly shorter than the other, but for the most part, it works very well, and looks better and smoother than other design concepts.

The Atom does not come with any accessories of his own, although he does have one of the parts of Metallo, the Collect-and-Connect figure for this wave (see separate review). It may be of some disappointment that he does not come with a smaller version of himself, to appear shrunken among his peers. Well, that was offered as part of the Collect-and-Connect pieces with Wave 8, specifically Gentleman Ghost. The C&C figure there was Giganta, with whom The Atom (both Palmer and Choi) has had some interaction over the years. That little figure is very well made, clearly derived from the basic structure of a standard DCUC figure, and is about 1-1/2" high. Amazingly, it stands up on its own. Its colors match this figure, and it even has a tiny Atom emblem on its forehead. Definitely worth obtaining, even though you have to do so separately from this figure.

So, what's my final word here? I'm not going to say that this figure will be easy to obtain. MattyCollector sold out of their supply in about a week's time. However, I suspect that it might be slightly easier to locate it on the -- secondary market -- than before, since Mattel has offered this supply. In other words -- it's out there now.

And certainly, The Atom is worth it. For me, he's the prize of the entire wave, and unquestionably represents a popular character with a long and impressive history in the DC Universe, working with the Justice League, and on his own. And it's a truly excellent figure of the character.

The DC UNIVERSE CLASSICS figure of THE ATOM definitely has my highest recommendation!