Breathe deeply. Refuse to be weak. Refuse to be sick. Refuse to die. Think strong and you will be.
I’m sitting at my booth at Emerald City Comic Con this weekend (without wi-fi access, which is why this was posted on a Monday instead of over the weekend), and this year, instead of talking about another of my favorite fictional superheroes as I’ve done in years past, I’ve decided to write the insanely-over-the-top story of a real-life man of steel so ball-shatteringly ridiculous you’d think the entire story was the product of a methed-out comic book creator’s delirious sunstroke fever dream after he watched too much Samson and Delilah and decided he needed to write about a five-foot-tall Jewish strongman with superhuman strength who punches out gangs of Nazis singlehandedly, throws hardcore dock workers through plate glass windows, and can drive a carpenter’s nail through six inches of plywood with his fucking forehead while pulling a jet engine down a city street with his hair.
The Mighty Atom, is that man. A ridiculous, sack-to-the-wall maniac from the glory days of badass old-time strongmen, this guy was world-famous for his insane feats of strength, most of which involved pulling things that were strapped to his hair with chains. And when this ultra-compact mass of bodybuilding superhumanness wasn’t changing flat tires with his teeth or biting quarters in half, he was out there in the real world deflecting bullets with his face and walking through unlit alleys in New York City hospitalizing any criminals that were unlucky enough to accidentally try and mug him.
But the Mighty Atom wasn’t always a Fascist-pummeling hammer of Judaic justice. Born in Poland in 1893 to a dirt-poor family that barely had two Nutrigrain bars to rub together, Yoselle Greenstein came out six week premature and was so sickly and weak that doctors didn’t expect him to survive his infancy. “Joe” did, but throughout his youth he suffered from chronic asthma and lung problems, and at the age of 14 he came down with tuberculosis and was given six weeks to live. Figuring, fuck it, I’m dead anyways, Greenstein left home one night and tried to sneak into a traveling circus that was in town, but when the terrifying carnies who worked there saw this scrawny punk trying to rip them out of a full-price admission they dragged him out of the circus, beat him within an inch of his life, and left him for dead in a muddy alley.
It’s not exactly “Alien baby Prince of Krypton discovered in Kansas in wreckage of badass spaceship”, but it was in this sad condition that Joe met the circus strongman, a guy named Champion Volanko. Volanko, a hardcore master of Feats of Strength who could military press a basket full of hot chicks in each hand while busting out a winning smile under his incredible handlebar mustache, saw this poor bastard trying to crawl home from a righteous asskicking, picked Greenstein up, and took him back to his trailer to let him chill out with a cup of coffee and a Hot Pocket or something. As the two talked, Volanko was impressed by Greenstein’s determination, and offered to train him in the fine art of old-time strongman-dom. Joe Greenstein didn’t return home, ran away with the circus, and spent the next 18 months traveling Russia, Central Asia, and India learning strongman techniques from Volanko and hardcore Yoga breathing techniques from an Indian strongman named The Great Gama. By the time he returned home, he was a different man.
The still-teenage Greenstein returned home, got married to a hot babe, and then left Poland in 1910 because being a Jew in Poland in the years leading up to World War I was really not anybody’s definition of a fun time. He went to Galveston, Texas, where he found work as a dock hand, an oil field worker, and one of those guys who lays railroad tracks by smashing giant steel spikes with a ten-pound two-handed sledgehammer. When this guy wasn’t unloading cargo containers or fucking up railway spikes with a mallet, he performed shows as a professional wrestler, bodyslamming his opponents back in the day when sideshow wrestling more closely resembled MMA cage fighting than WWE stone-cold stunners. He soon became so well known that he met up with Jack Johnson and learned a couple fighting techniques from the future heavyweight champ.
Oh yeah, well remember how I said Joe married a hot chick? While he was in Galveston some asshole co-worker became super fucking obsessed with her, and decided that the only reason she wasn’t responding to this idiot’s unwanted advances was because she was married. So this guy came to work one day with a .38 revolver and shot Joe Greenstein at point-blank range.
Greenstein walked out of the hospital under his own power that same afternoon. Some sources say his skull was so fucking hard the bullet ricocheted off it, causing minimal damage. Others say the bullet literally flattened on impact with Greenstein’s skull, but this seems much harder to believe.
Either way, the legend was growing. Before long, this guy was going to make a living off it.
BALLS OF STEEL
Not really wanting to be shot in the face any more, Joe Greenstein eventually moved to New York, where the 5’ 4”, 140-pound little man quickly made a name for himself as one of the strongest men on earth. Performing strongman feats for cash on Coney Island, the Mighty Atom drew massive crowds as hundreds and even thousands of people packed in to witness his FEATS OF STRENGTH. He could drive nails through sheet metal with his bare hands. He could change a car tire without tools. He could bend bars with his teeth, bite through steel chains and quarters, and un-bend horseshoes by pushing them against his forehead. In the 30s he laid on a bed of nails, put a plank across his body, and then sat there while a full-size Dixieland band performed show tunes on his chest. In 1928 a Buffalo newspaper mentioned that he secured a Fairchild FC-2 fucking AIRPLANE to his hair with a chain, then held the aircraft in place while the pilot revved the engine up to 30 miles an hour. Another strongman tried this same feat of strength a few years later and died when he scalped himself.
And ok, yeah, I know that there are tricks and techniques and old-timey movie magic stuff to help out strongmen when they performed their feats of strength.
But, for what it’s worth, nobody who saw him in person ever came to any other conclusion than that this guy was the real deal.
What makes the Mighty Atom so awesome, however, isn’t just his ability to disassemble early-model Fords with his chompers or serve as a human stage for barber’s shop quartets. It was his the way he dealt with assholes who had a problem with him for some reason or other. Like the early 1930s, a guy pulled a .32 on him and tried to rob him of his strongman money. The Mighty Atom took the gun away from the thug, kicked his ass, and kept the piece in a box in his house with other treasures he’d looted off vanquished adversaries during his career. In 1936 a half-dozen drunk longshoremen didn’t see what the big deal with Atom was, so they jumped him after a show in a dark alley. The Mighty Atom was stabbed once and hit a couple times, but took control of the situation like the fucking behemoth that he was, throwing a couple of the guys through plate-glass windows and knocking five of the six men unconscious with his fists of stone. The New York World Telegram ran the article on the front page, quoting a responding police officer as saying, “we had to save the mob from him!”
My favorite example of this kind of thing came in 1939, when The Mighty Atom was walking past the headquarters of the American Nazi Party and took offense at the “No Jews Allowed” sign they’d hung out front. Atom, with his trademarked balls of iron, walked right up to the front door, pulled down the sign, and ripped it in half with his bare hands. An angry mob of roughly twenty hardcore skinhead Nazi sympathizers charged out to beat this guy’s ass into a bloody pulp.
The Mighty Atom was not impressed.
When Joe Greenstein was brought to court to defend himself against charges of Aggravated Assault, Grievous Bodily Harm, and Mass Mayhem (awesome) a few weeks later, the Judge was surprised to see one small man sitting in the defendant’s chair, and 18 bandaged, bloodied, and beat-up skinheads on the plaintiff’s side. When the Judge asked why there were more plaintiffs listed on the complaint than there were in court, the skinheads said that a few of their people were still in the hospital.
The Judge looked at Greenstein, and asked him about the fight.
Greenstein said, “It wasn’t a fight, your honor. It was a pleasure!”
The Judge blinked twice, said, “fuck this shit,” and dismissed the case.
As The Mighty Atom, Joe Greenstein spent World War II performing strongman feats to help raise money for War Bonds to fight Hitler and the Nazis. When he wasn’t on tour, Greenstein helped out the NYPD, working on drives to recruit men to help staff the under-strength police department, and taught ju-jitsu to the officers in what was one of the first martial arts training programs in American law enforcement history. He didn’t ask for or receive payment for any of these things.
The Might Atom continued performing strongman feats well into his 80s, and was featured in things like the Guinness Book and Ripley’s Believe It or Not. He sold out Madison Square Garden, taught fighting techniques to the IDF, inspired DC Comics’ character “The Atom”, sold his own line of health care products out of the back of his van, wrote some poetry, and had 10 kids with his still-smoking-hot wife. He passed away in 1977 at the age of 84.
Just before his death, he could still be found wandering the streets of New York City alone at night, just hoping some punk would have the guts to try and mug him.