It’s hard to imagine why getting smaller than your opponent is a useful superpower, but shrinking has been a staple in comics since 1939. With “Ant-Man” the movie premiering July 17, here’s a look at the top 10 tiny heroes in comics:
10. Leonard “Doc” Samson (created 1971): “Incredible Hulk” supporting character Leonard Samson doesn’t shrink physically, but he is a psychiatrist for superheroes. Get it? He’s a “shrink”! OK, that was lame.
9. Micronauts (1979): The toys on which these characters were based only lasted from 1976 to 1980, but the Marvel Comics adventures of this merry band of guerrillas lasted considerably longer. “Micronauts” was set in a subatomic world called the Microverse, which consists of varying habitats connected like a drawing of molecules. It had been conquered by a Darth Vader-like bad guy, and the rebels who rose to oppose him were the Micronauts.
8. Shrinking Violet (1961): Violet — real name Salu Digby of the planet Imsk — was created as a member of the 30th-century Legion of Super-Heroes, and I guess by the time they got around to her they had run out of cool powers. In some incarnations, Vi has been toughened up some, like in one scenario where she was a rough lesbian with an eye-patch. No, I am not making that up.
7. Superman Emergency Squad (1960): Shrinking was all the rage in early 1960s Superman comics, because the villain Brainiac (first appearance 1958) had shrunk the Kryptonian city Kandor small enough to fit in a bottle, which Superman kept in his Fortress of Solitude. While waiting for Superman to figure out how to embiggen (so to speak) the city and everyone in it, Kandorians monitored Earth with their high-tech, sci-fi TV screens. And several times when Superman’s pals got into trouble, a bunch of Kandorians put on Superman suits, climbed up the side of the bottle with suction cups, and emerged into our world, where they were the size of action figures and had Kryptonian superpowers. They couldn’t grow all the way, though. As one Squadder helpfully explained in “Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen” 48: “Spray us now with the enlarging gas, made by one of our scientists! It can’t increase us to normal size, but it will make us bigger than microbes!”
6. Nightwing & Flamebird (1963): That bottle with microbe-size people was too much for DC writers to ignore. Beginning in 1963, Superman and Olsen would shrink down and parachute into the bottle to become the masked heroes Nightwing and Flamebird — supposedly based on Kryptonian fowl, but really just variants of Batman and Robin. When the duo grew tired of the gig, Kandorian scientist Van-Zee and his assistant Ak-Var — who bore an astounding resemblance to Superman and Olsen — took over the roles.
5. Elasti-Girl (1963): Rita Farr was a beautiful actress who was exposed to mysterious volcanic gases while filming a movie. This resulted in a shortened life span, but gave her the power to expand or contract not only her entire body, but discrete parts of it. She has an unfortunate tendency to have terrible things happen to her. She’s been dead at least twice. Last seen, she was a puddle of goo.
4. Doll Man (1939), Doll Girl (1951): Scientist Darrel Dane invented a formula to make himself 6 inches tall, although why he felt the need to do so is unexplained. Naturally, he immediately adopted the less-than-imposing name Doll Man, donned a costume that made him look like a male stripper and set out to fight crime. His girlfriend eventually learned to shrink as well (by thinking about it real hard) and became Doll Girl.
3. The Atom (1961): DC Comics was on a roll in 1961, having rebooted various 1940s characters by dropping everything about them but the names, creating new, sci-fi versions of Flash, Green Lantern and Hawkman. In “Showcase” 34 they did the same with powerless Al “Atom” Pratt by giving the name to a new guy named Ray Palmer, a physicist at Ivy University who had developed a shrinking process. With it, he could reduce to any size (even microscopic), whereupon he donned a costume with the same color scheme as Doll Man and fought crime as the Atom. The Atom deserves a high spot on this list for his longevity — he’s been with the Justice League off and on since the early 1960s.
2. The Wasp (1963): In the early 1960s, Janet van Dyne was a wealthy socialite who dated Henry Pym, the biochemist who shrank and fought crime as Ant-Man. He gave her the power to shrink like himself, but also implanted specialized synthetic cells in her body so that when she shrank she grew wings (to fly) and antennae (to talk to insects). It’s never been explained why Pym didn’t do this for himself but was comfortable disfiguring his girlfriend. He also invented wrist-mounted, compressed air “stinger” guns so Jan could live up to her namesake. The Wasp, who began her career as a sidekick, gets her own entry for being a founding member of the Avengers.
1. Ant-Man (1962): Pym developed a shrinking gas from something he dubbed “Pym particles,” and has been a significant part of the Marvel Universe ever since.