The Real Life Inspiration for the Golden Age Atom?

This is Foggy Ruins of Time, a feature that provides the cultural context behind certain comic book characters/behaviors. You know, the sort of then-topical references that have faded into the “foggy ruins of time.” To wit, twenty years from now, a college senior watching episodes of “Seinfeld” will likely miss a lot of the then-topical pop culture humor (like the very specific references in “The Understudy” to the Nancy Kerrigan/Tonya Harding scandal).

Today, based on a suggestion from reader David B., we look at the likely inspiration for the Golden Age Atom!

Al Pratt, the Golden Age Atom, made his debut in 1940’s All-American Comics #19 by Bill O’Connor, Ben Flinton and Leonard Sansone. All-American Comics was the standout book from the sort of kind of but not necessarily DC Comics company, All-American Publications, which was owned by Max Gaines in conjunction with National Comics’ Jack Liebowitz.

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The Atom had a particularly bizarre debut, as he didn’t even have a costume! Young Al Pratt got picked on by the other teens and ignored by Al’s love interest because he was too small and puny…

After Al did an act of kindness for a washed up old boxer, though….

The boxer began to train Al and over a year’s time, turned him into a pretty much perfect specimen…

Oddly enough, Al even gained super strength!

He then sees that the girl who rebuffed him a year earlier was kidnapped. He used his newfound strength to save her…

He called himself the Atom…

In the next issue, he gained a costume, patterned after a typical circus strongman outfit…

Now, almost certainly, the Atom was based on the exploits of the actual circus strongman known as the Mighty Atom!

Joe Greenstein was only five foot four, but he soon became a famous circus strongman. He had a strange life, including surviving a bullet wound to the forehead!

Greenstein would become a renowned circus strongman who also did a number of notable deeds outside the circus, like training New York City’s police department in the art of jujitsu. Allegedly, in 1939, Greenstein attacked the local New York Nazi Party and beat up a number of members of the group. Whether that’s fact or a piece of promotional fiction, I don’t know.

Greenstein remained a strongman well into his old age…

He last appeared at the circus in the late 1970s when he was in his early 1980s! Still pounding nails into boards with just his hand. Remarkable.

I can’t say to an absolute certainty that Greenstein was the inspiration for the comic book atom, but come on, a short circus strongman working in the 1920s and 1930s who calls himself the Mighty Atom and works in New York City and then a comic book debuts in 1940 about a short guy who becomes a strongman and calls himself the Atom? When comic books were based in New York? Seems so likely that I’m willing to say it is true enough for this article.

Thanks to David for the suggestion!

If anyone else has a suggestion for a future edition of Foggy Ruins of Time, drop me a line at!

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