Diminutive do-gooder Ant-Man hits the silver screen this weekend, making him the smallest superhero yet to carry a feature film (and that includes Dustin Hoffman's performance as Rain Man). But if Ant-Man’s suddenly too busy to pick up the superhero hotline, don't worry. He's far from the only economy-sized powerhouse to take up the tiny cause of justice. In fact, he’s not even the first! Comics have a long history of super-small heroes. Some, like DC’s Atom and various friends and alternate identities of Marvel’s Ant-Man (The Wasp, Yellowjacket, various other Ant-Men), are fairly well-known by today’s comics fans. But many others never grew an audience that outsized their stature. So let’s meet a few forgotten mini-marvels, some of the tiniest titans to have ever battled evil.
Crime gains a sizable adversary the day that Chemist Darrel Dane invents a concoction which allows him—by mere force of will—to reduce himself to half-a-foot of hard-hitting justice. Perhaps to compensate for his six-inch height, Dane decks himself in a hard-to-miss bright red-and-blue costume, which comes complete with collared cape but leaves his arms and legs bare. Suitably if not subtly attired, he fights for justice as the diminutive Doll Man! These days he’d probably call himself Action Figure Man, but this was 1939...different times.
Dubbed “The Mighty Mite,” Doll Man is the original shrinking superhero. And despite his tiny stature, he’s able to hold his own against full-grown gangsters, Nazi saboteurs, and a colorful rogues gallery which includes skull-faced super-geniuses, poisonous femmes fatale and even a disembodied dress suit with a mind for murder! (Did I mention these were different times?)
Doll Man was small, but he had a few pals to even the odds. It wasn’t long after his debut that DM was joined by his girlfriend Martha, who tapped into her own inner shrink and became the equally dinky Doll Girl. The pocket-sized pair were aided by their (regular-sized) dog Elmo, “The Wonder Dog” (is there any other kind in comics?), whose primarily role was to play chauffeur for the cup-sized couple. It’s worth noting that the wee warrior was a big hit for his creators at Quality Comics; Doll Man graduated from the lead character in an anthology book to an ongoing title of his own. (Read more about him in The League of Regrettable Superheroes.)
Unlike the self-made Doll Man, the tiny titan known only as Minimidget started his career ignobly, as the shrunken slave of the evil Dr. Anton Barmell! Having reduced Minimidget (real name unknown, though later revival of the character dubbed him Jack Rhodes) and a woman named Ritty to doll-size, Barmel sends the duo out on murderous missions, the last of which seemingly ends with Minimidget’s death (by mousetrap, a leading killer of mouse-sized heroes).
He’s a tough little guy, though, and Minimidget is not only back to full health in the next issue, he (and Ritty) are also free of Barmell’s evil control! Now liberated, Minimidget and Ritty dedicate themselves to the cause of good, often using a toy plane to fly to places where trouble brews so as to set things right.
Neither Minimidget nor Ritty possessed any other powers besides their reduced stature—not even, unfortunately, the ability to grow back to their normal height. Trapped at Ken and Barbie size for eternity—or at least until the FDA approves an anti-shrink pill—this limitation also cheats Minimidget out of an accolade. Although he debuted in Centaur Comics several months before Doll Man, Minimidget technically can’t claim to be the first shrinking superhero…because he can’t shrink! Let's call him the first pre-shrunk superhero.
Reformed criminal Jack Baker is set on the right track after his ability to shrink to the size of a small child’s shoe fails to save him from a beating from the android alien superhero Captain Marvel in the 1961 comic of that name.* Proving he's a big man by serving his sentence and going straight, Tinyman spends a little time performing in the circus before he finds his true calling—the law!
You might think his history as a former super-criminal—not to mention his weird reverse-skunk hair coloration—would be a problem for Baker. Think again! His career grows even faster than he does, because Baker ends up as District Attorney! Being a big shot in the criminal justice system doesn’t excuse Baker from his extra-small extracurricular activities, though. Whenever evil descends upon the city, a hero will arise to defend its citizens. And that hero is...Captain Marvel—it IS his name on the cover, after all. But Tinyman is there to lend an eentsy-teensy hand.
*Published by M.F. Enterprises and probably not one of the Captain Marvels you’ve ever heard of. —Jocular Jon.
All the good insect-themed superhero names were probably taken when teenaged super-scientist Karen Beecher designed a yellow-and-black striped super-costume for herself and launched her career as Bumblebee. This flying, laser-blasting superheroine made a name for herself with DC's Teen Titans way back in 1976, where she created her apiologic identity to motivate fellow superhero and boyfriend Mal Duncan.
Wait, did I mention yet that she wasn’t tiny when she did all of this? Nope, that came later. Participating in a botched space mission which left several superheroes with bizarre injuries, Beecher found herself shrunk down to a height of six inches (apparently a default size for super-small crimefighters). With no way to reverse the change, Bumblebee is seemingly trapped at her tiny new size for good. She really towers over your average bee, though, so there’s that. A solid addition to the woefully short list of female African American superheroes, Bumblebee has shown impressive longevity in the decade since her debut, popping up in two animated series as well as various DC books.