DC Comics character The Mighty Atom is a rare combination of overlooked and enduring. Simply a physically well-trained man of short stature in the Golden Age, the character received a post-atomic-age reboot for the Silver Age and beyond. It's fairly well known that the Silver Age version of the character was in part inspired by his namesake Raymond Palmer — science fiction pulp and magazine editor/publisher. But it is not unlikely that the Golden Age version of the character was also inspired by real life. The Mighty Atom's first Golden Age appearance is in All-American Comics #19 from 1940. There's an All-American Comics #19 CGC 1.0 in this week's Sunday & Monday Comics, Animation, Video Games & Art Weekly Online Auction 122102 from Heritage Auctions.
Raymond Palmer was the secret identity of the Silver Age version of The Atom, created by Gardner Fox, Gil Kane, and Julius Schwartz. The real-life Raymond Palmer was a longtime friend, science fiction fan, and fanzine collaborator with eventual DC Comics editors and writers such as Schwartz, Mort Weisinger, and Otto Binder. Palmer had been hit by a truck as a child and suffered a spinal injury that inhibited his growth. Palmer himself eventually became the editor of staple science fiction pulp Amazing Stories, where he had a penchant for scientific hoaxes, blending fact and fiction, and promoting the notion that some stories he ran in the pulp might have a firm basis in reality. One well-known instance of this was his promotion of what is known as "The Shaver Mystery" series which dominated Amazing Stories in the late 1940s, and built up a mythology around an ancient and advanced civilization that had developed deep below the surface of the Earth.
Throughout the late 1940s and beyond, Palmer played a central role in the development of Roswell-era UFO conspiracies. What we know of that role comes largely from the files of the FBI. Roswell was actually preceded by two weeks by two other events, on June 22 and June 24, 1947. During the Maury Island Incident, two men claimed to have seen UFOs — among other things– in the sky over Maury Island, Washington. Two days later, aviator Kenneth Arnold claimed to have seen nine UFOs flying in formation near Mount Rainier, Washington. The FBI later found that Raymond Palmer was in contact with all of these men soon after. Maury Island, Mount Rainier, and Roswell in quick succession (among other reports and incidents) primed the public's interest in UFOs, and the fast-thinking Palmer positioned himself to take full advantage of this interest. He first reported on these events in the October, 1947 issue of Astounding Stories, and by early the next year had co-founded a magazine called Fate to report on what we'd consider from the present perspective as X-Files territory.
The Golden Age version of The Mighty Atom character was created by creators Bernard Flinton and William O'Connor, possibly with Leonard Sansone in 1940. But throughout the decades of the 1930s, 1940s and beyond, the name "The Mighty Atom" was in use by an extremely popular strongman performer on the American and European vaudeville circuit named Joseph L. Greenstein. Like his comic book namesake after him, Greenstein was small of stature and weak, until a wrestler (a boxer, in the comic book version) took him under his wing and helped him train to peak physical condition as a strongman and fighter. Greenstein's exploits as The Mighty Atom made frequent newspaper headlines, and his popularity was such that it earned him an endorsement deal. It seems likely that the comic book character's creators were influenced by Greenstein's exploits and fame.
But Joseph L. Greenstein is not the start of The Mighty Atom story. The phrase first entered popular culture in 1896, with the book The Mighty Atom by author Marie Corelli. Corelli was a prolific and extremely popular author in America and Europe in the 1890s. The book in part examines science vs religious creationism vs New Age spiritualism:
You call it a First Cause," he said — "And are you really quite sure the First Cause is an Atom?"
"Oh, then you only 'guess' at the Atom, as other people 'guess' at God!" he said– "No one is sure about anything! Well, I think it is very silly to settle upon an Atom as the cause of anything. It seems to me much more natual and likely that it should be a Person. A Person with brain and thought and feeling and memory. You see, an Atom under the microscope has no head, or any place where it could grow a brain, — it is just a thing like two cords knotted together, and in the works of nature there is nothing of that description which thinks out a universe for itself, — if there were, it would rule us all–"
Grappling with the might of the atom vs religion had increasingly become a subject of debate as scientific advancement accelerated towards the end of the 19th Century, even tiptoeing towards Quantum Realm-like concepts as early as 1885 with philosophical questions like "Is each atom a world?"
Meanwhile, Corelli's publisher was announcing a 14th edition of The Mighty Atom after less than a year in print. With the success of the book, the term had entered the public consciousness. A British comedian named Alec Seal was using The Mighty Atom as a stage name by 1900. And shortly after, other miscellaneous figures ranging from entertainers to random public figures — and even dogs — began to claim the name too.
It is perhaps unsurprising that the name was derived from the power of the atomic particle from the beginning, but it's fascinating that The Mighty Atom phrase was popularized by author Marie Corelli in 1896. And it's equally interesting to see the more direct likely inspiration of Joseph L. Greenstein, as well as Raymond Palmer's mind-boggling fiction/science backstory. For DC Comics, it started with All-American Comics #19, and there's an All-American Comics #19 CGC 1.0 in this week's Sunday & Monday Comics, Animation, Video Games & Art Weekly Online Auction 122102 from Heritage Auctions.