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By Thomas Wheeler

You know what the cool thing about any action figure of The Atom is? Regardless of what scale it's in -- unless it's twelve feet tall or something -- you can claim it's life-size.

The Atom is proof that heroes do come in small packages, and the particular small package that this Atom came in was part of Mattel's excellent line of DC Universe Infinite Heroes, a 3-3/4" scale line spanning the entire DC Universe. Although my emphasis tends to be on the larger DC Universe Classics line, and I'm still trying to find The Atom from that, since the assortment he was in was part of a rather poorly distributed Wal-Mart exclusive, there wasn't much way I was going to pass up the Infinite Heroes version.

Additionally, this is The Atom, as far as I'm concerned. Ray Palmer. I honestly haven't been terribly impressed with his successor, Ryan Choi. In my opinion, Choi was brought in strictly for the purpose of ethnic diversity. I have no problem with that, unless it's the only reason for doing something. I also wasn't especially impressed with the new take on the classic costume that Choi wore. There's a DCIH figure of Choi out there, but that's not the one I bought.

Technically, the original Atom in the DC Universe was a Golden Age hero whose real name was Al Pratt. Pratt couldn't shrink. His claim to fame, such as it was, was that he was short, but a feisty scrapper who was stronger than he looked.

It wasn't until the Silver Age of comics, when a lot of Golden Age heroes, such as Flash, Green Lantern, and others, were getting overhauls, that Ray Palmer came along. His first appearance was in Showcase #34, in late 1961. And as Wikipedia shows, the character, despite never really being a first-string hero despite a lengthy membership in the Justice League, has managed to have some rather astounding adventures over his career.

Using a mass of white dwarf star matter, Ray Palmer fashions a lens that enables him to shrink any object to any degree he wishes. However, any object so treated soon explodes as a side effect, which obviously precludes any practical use of the lens.

During a spelunking expedition, Palmer and his friends find themselves trapped in a cave when the entrance collapses. In desperation, Palmer secretly uses the lens he has carried with him to shrink himself down in order to be able to climb to a small hole high in the wall that leads to the outside, knowing full well he will likely explode. Using a diamond engagement ring, Palmer enlarges the hole sufficiently and descends to the floor to try to alert the others of the escape route before dying. However, upon entering the lens' beam, he finds himself returned to normal size. As the lens is covered with cave moisture, Palmer thinks this fact has altered the beam to allow this strange effect. When subsequent experiments show no change with the explosions, Palmer concludes that there must be some mysterious force in his own body that allows him to be shrunk safely and later returned to normal. He decides to use this effect to become a superhero.

Ray Palmer creates a belt tool from what was initially depicted as white dwarf star matter, which allows him to shrink down to subatomic size. Furthermore, he develops a special costume that he can wear at most times that 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 on a low setting, 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 is to call some location on the telephone and when the intended phone is answered, Palmer can shrink down enough to literally travel through the phone lines in seconds to emerge out of the answering phone.

Originally, his size and molecular density abilities derive from mechanisms in his belt with a back-up device in his gloves. He carries out the bulk of his early superheroic adventures in his home of Ivy Town where he often helps his girlfriend, lawyer Jean Loring, win her cases. Much later, he gains the innate equivalent powers within his own body.

Palmer has fought against several alien and supernatural threats, as well as having his own rogues gallery: his arch enemy is Chronos the Time Bandit, the menace of the Bug-Eyed Bandit, and the dangerous eco-terrorist Floronic Man. He also had several time travel adventures by means of Professor Alpheus V. Hyatt's Time Pool.

The Atom is a member of several incarnations of the Justice League, and the team is gracious enough to supply a special chair scaled to his default size which can elevate to whatever height needed so he can easily partake in team meetings without having to go out of costume. There, he meets Hawkman, one of his closest friends in the superhero community. Neither character achieved major popularity, and even in their heyday were mostly supporting characters, often with Palmer as a specialist who was needed to access extremely confined areas only he could access, although he has had several short-lived series.

One of them was a four-issue limited series and three subsequent specials all titled Sword of the Atom, in which he abandons civilization and becomes a Conan-like figure, hero of a tribe of six-inch tall yellow-skinned humanoid aliens in the jungles of Central America).

Eventually the colony is destroyed, despite Palmer's attempt to stop it, by a group acting as loggers. Palmer is forced to escape via the telephone to North America. In the attempt, he fails to anticipate that the connection will involve satellite relay and the unexpectedly arduous trip causes him to remain at approximately three feet high and without his costume's size changing equipment.

With the help of a friend, Ray creates a new costume from the material of the white dwarf star. This time, instead of a belt, Ray uses an encephalotronic grid in the costume's headpiece to control the costume. The grid is keyed to his unique brainwaves. This enables him to transfer his mass into an unknown dimension which allows him to alter his size and weight just by thinking about it. He can even make the new costume appear or disappear with a thought by shifting most of its atoms to or from the other dimension. This allows him to be in costume while at full height or to shrink without having to have his costume appear. He can even increase his weight while remaining six inches tall or reduce his weight while remaining at full size. Ray often does this and is then light enough to ride wind currents, where he actually appears to be flying to a limited degree. Ray also develops a mental link with the white dwarf matter to which he has been regularly exposed. Most of the mass lies within another dimension. Ray can draw upon that mass and hit with a super-concussive force. He has been shown to punch through concrete walls, crush an exam table and break an axle of a car that is moving at high speed.

Later, during the events of Zero Hour, Palmer is rejuvenated to a teenage state, and becomes a mentor of the Teen Titans. He was one of the main characters in this particular version of the Titans, which otherwise featured mostly new heroes who had never been introduced before, as opposed to previous incarnations which generally featured main character sidekicks such as Robin and Kid Flash, sometimes mixed with new characters such as Cyborg and Raven. The series ran for about two dozen issues before its cancellation. He subsequently regains his original age and memories. Palmer returns to his teaching job, but also becomes an associate and alternate member of the current JLA incarnation.

In the 2004-05 limited series Identity Crisis, Atom's ex-wife Jean Loring kills Sue Dibny, the wife of the Elongated Man. After stealing some of the Atom's shrinking technology and his costume, she accidentally kills Sue in a misguided attempt to win Ray back. She also arranges a hit on Tim Drake's father which is carried out by Captain Boomerang. The intent is for Jack Drake to kill some random attacker, but both manage to kill each other. After committing her to Arkham Asylum, Ray shrinks himself to microscopic size and disappears.

Palmer eventually meets up with his old friend Carter Hall after microscopically traveling through phone lines. Palmer explains he needs time away, and shrinks himself again after Hall agrees to keep the meeting secret.

DC Comics would not reveal Ray Palmer's whereabouts since his disappearance at the end of Identity Crisis. However, Palmer returned to play a very important role in the Countdown limited series. In Countdown, a Monitor asks the Source Wall what is the solution to "the great disaster," it answers "Ray Palmer". In Countdown Presents: The Search for Ray Palmer, the Monitor, accompanied by Kyle Rayner, Donna Troy and Jason Todd, scour the Multiverse for the former Atom, who just might hold the key to saving reality from a crisis of unparalleled proportions.

In their travels, the quartet has found people marked with the Atom's familiar symbol. The group tracks Ray to Earth-51, where he assumes the life of its Ray after his life is cut short during his studies of the Multiverse and discovery of the looming Crisis. Meeting the Jean of Earth-51 and the Justice League again for the first time, Ray is found on a world where the heroes have been able to eradicate supercrime and create a utopian Earth. However, once Kyle, Donna, Jason and the Monitor are able to track him down, the Monitor attempts to kill Ray. But with the Challengers' help, Ray escapes. Ray reveals to the Challengers that it was the Ray Palmer of Earth-51 who was meant to stop the Great Disaster, and that he had been trying to carry on his work, to no avail.

When the Challengers return to their own earth, Jimmy Olsen is kidnapped by Mary Marvel, who has been corrupted by Darkseid. Ray hitches a ride from within Jimmy. When Darkseid takes control of Jimmy's powers, Ray locates and shuts down the control sphere inside Jimmy's brain, but is then swarmed by Apokoliptian antibodies. While escaping this onslaught, Ray discovers the "battery" containing the New God energies. Ray removes it from Jimmy's head and shatters it, releasing the energies.

Ray later (after much cajoling) joins Donna, Kyle, and Forager in their new mission as border guards to the Multiverse, realizing that there is nothing left for him on Earth anymore. That is later found quite untrue, as Ray Palmer returns to Earth one more time, upon realizing that his old nemesis Chronos had taken his identity to mislead a young pretender to his identity, Ryan Choi. After helping his successor to save once again Ivy Town, he returns to the Multiverse with a new sense of fulfillment, leaving his town in the hands of a new hero.

A footnote from yours truly - Palmer did turn up, in costume, alongside Choi during the Final Crisis story, but that seven-issue mess was so disjointed that I didn't even try to keep very close track of it. Suffice to say that I rather doubt we've seen the last of Ray Palmer as the Atom. At least I hope not.

So -- how's the figure? Pretty cool. Some critics have griped that the DC Infinite Heroes line doesn't have enough articulation, especially when compared to other action figure lines in the same scale. I say this -- the figures have sufficient articulation. I do not need an action figure to be able to breakdance in order for me to enjoy it. And I have found, especially in this scale, that plastic has its limits of how good it's going to look the more articulation you put in it. I've seen some figures that you can hardly see the character for all the articulation points.

Granted, I do wish that Mattel had articulated the elbows of the female figures in this line, and done a better job with the leg articulation, but that's not an issue with The Atom. He's not female.

The Atom, like any of the other male characters in the DC Universe Infinite Heroes line, is poseable at the head, arms, elbows, waist, legs, and knees. And that's plenty. I might have liked to have seen a little more poseability in the leg joint at the hip, but I've also seen that sort of thing be a real problem area in figures in this side range.

I've always liked The Atom's costume, and I wonder how difficult the design was. I mean, how do you convey what the character is capable of in the costume? Someone like this, it's not easy. Some are easier than others. Batman -- make him look somewhat bat-like. The Flash? The lightning bolts work for that. Green Lantern? Dress him in green and you're good. The Atom? How do you convey shrinking? I mean, short of creating a costume that shrinks every time you do the laundry, and sooner or later that's going to be problematic.

For the most part, DC didn't try to convey the power in the costume -- they just came up with a good costume. It looks like a good, basic, straightforward super-hero costume -- period. A lot of longtime DC fans think that The Flash has one of the best costumes ever. I've heard that commented on more than once. And The Flash has a good costume. But let's not overlook The Atom.

As the Atom, Ray Palmer wears a basic super-hero costume with a covering headpiece that leaves his eyes, ears, and lower face exposed. This is in blue, and has a small black "atom" symbol on the forehead. The upper chest and sleeves of his costume are also blue. Starting at about the mid-torso, there's an upward "arrow" of red, on both the front and back, which then becomes the dominant color of the costume all the way to the boots. Atom's boots are blue, and his gloves, at the end of the blue sleeves, are red. Atom is also wearing a blue belt, which breaks up the large red area rather effectively.

The detail work on the figure is excellent. I continue to be impressed at how Mattel can provide such small figures with such intricate details as can be found in their eyes and such. Atom has this, and he also has a very nicely imprinted "Atom" symbol on his forehead.

The paint work is -- unfortunately -- another matter. Now, Mattel is getting better in the quality control department. Some of the early disasters I encountered in DC Universe Classics seem to be diminishing, and the same is true of Masters of the Universe Classics. In both cases I sincerely hope these are growing trends, and news that I'm hearing here and there tells me there's a very good chance that it is. Nevertheless, improvement in these areas is no excuse for neglecting the little guys.

Atom looks like he's got a bit of a skin condition on his face. This is a result of a couple of little globs of paint on his chin and to the side of his face. I have got to try to find some flesh-tone paint that matches this. Granted, while I can likely fix this, the point, as always, is -- I shouldn't have to. I don't expect the exacting precision of, say, a fine jeweler here, with these figures, but I would like to see some better aim with the paint.

Then there's the matter of the legs. Apparently Atom's legs were molded in blue, despite the fact that they're mostly red. This, in my opinion, was a huge mistake. Here's a rule of thumb that I think most toymakers would do well to adhere to -- whenever possible, avoid having painted areas around the articulation points. A fair amount of the red has scraped off the back of Atom's knees, especially the right one, and the blue is clearly visible.

A secondary rule would be -- try not to design the figure so that a lighter color has to be painted over a darker color of plastic. While this might be a difficult point to ascertain when discussing the particulars of two primary colors like red and blue, I do think that the red is a bit lighter than the blue, and as such, required a thicker coat to turn the leg red, and this is what resulted in the paint being scraped off around the articulation point.

I honestly don't know how the parameters for the manufacture of this figure were designed. I can see that some parts were molded in blue, and some in red. It wasn't all stamped out of the same mold, so I don't think that's a factor here. But really, this figure should have had red legs, and blue painted boots, not the other way around.

Again, this is something I can fix, but I shouldn't have to, and I do caution those seeking out this figure to give it as much of a looking over before buying as possible, if this is a concern for you.

In fairness, if this Atom figure was sort of an afterthought after doing the Ryan Choi version, whose costume uses the same colors but in a more complex pattern, then that might have been an issue as to which parts were molded in which colors, but I still think it could and should have been addressed a little more extensively.

So, what's my final word? Some of the paintwork notwithstanding, this really is a cool figure. Mattel is doing a generally excellent job with this line, and the number of figures already produced for it is somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 or so, and I don't think that counts the multi-packs. Hopefully it will continue to have a long and prosperous existence.

And I, for one, was sincerely delighted to see a figure of the classic, Silver Age version of The Atom. For me, as I said, this is The Atom. Al Pratt had his day, and you can keep Ryan Choi. I'll take Ray Palmer, and that's who this is.

The DC UNIVERSE INFINITE HEROES figure of THE ATOM most definitely has my enthusiastic recommendation!