Little Man With A Big Punch: Celebrating Al Pratt, The Original Atom
But there was an Atom who came before all of them. His name was Al Pratt, and while he's not the most well-remembered Golden Age hero, he was an early version of a far-reaching archetype: the unstoppably tough undersized scrapper.
The Atom first appeared in All-American Comics #19 on August 19, 1940, the creation of Bill O'Conner and Ben Flinton. Al Pratt was a college student who stood 5'1" and was bullied for his size and physical weakness. Knowing he couldn't do anything about his height, he decided to build his strength and train to fight. He turned out to be a natural, building muscle and become an expert at hand-to-hand combat. Later stories established that his trainer, ex-boxer Joe Morgan, also trained the Wildcat, another Golden Age superhero who was a champion boxer in his secret identity as Ted Grant.
The Atom's solo stories were pretty basic second-tier Golden Age stuff, but they frequently revolved around him being underestimated for his size but indomitable in a fight.
His greatest success however, came as a founding member of the Justice Society of America, comics' first superhero team. He was at their very first meeting in 1940's All-Star Comics #3, and he was still on the team as of their last Golden Age appearance 11 years later in All-Star Comics #57. He was never the chairman, and he was certainly never the most popular member, but he was a solid and reliable JSA midcarder for the entire Golden Age.
Along the way he also went from just being a scrappy and well-trained fighter to having actual superpowers. At the time, no origin was given for his new abilities, it was just sort of a soft reboot in 1948, in which he a got a costume that was more superheroic than his original --- a cowl with a head-fin instead of the Spider-Man style full-face number, and a red "atom" symbol on his chest. He was also given "atomic strength." What was atomic about it was never explained, but this was the dawn of the Atomic Age, and it was perhaps inevitable that a guy who'd already been called the Atom (originally just for being small) would suddenly be much more powerful.
The story of this change was later told by Roy Thomas and Rick Hoberg in All-Star Squadron, in which Al Pratt was irradiated by sympathetic supervillain named Cyclotron in 1942, which led to his eventual manifestation of super-strength.
In addition to being a regular in that comic, Al was often seen alongside the JSA in their post-Golden Age appearances. He was an especially memorable character in Len Strazewski and Mike Parobeck's short lived 1992 Justice Society of America series, in which he was an aging mustachioed hardass. After that series was canceled, he was killed off in DC's Zero Hour event, but his legacy has been carried on by other characters.
A new Al Pratt was introduced in the post-New 52 version of the Justice Society, and he also made a memorable appearance in the Society of Super-Heroes issue of The Multiversity. He even appeared on TV as part of the Justice Society arc on Smallville.
The original Atom has never a headliner, but for anyone who's ever felt small and had to fight to prove themselves, he's an easy hero to get behind. And as a long-running member of comics' first superteam, he's a part of something that will never be forgotten.