Monday, April 23, 2018
Captain Atom is one of those interesting characters who has been around for decades, had multiple successful solo series, featured in some major teams, etc., but who has never joined the ranks of "A-list" super heroes or gotten any name recognition outside of comics fandom. Originally a Charlton "action hero" in the 1960s, Captain Atom made his way over to the DC Universe in the mid-1980s when DC purchased the long-defunct Charlton crop of characters. In a solo series that lasted from 1987 to 1991, Captain Atom occupied a really interesting corner of the DCU (along with titles like Checkmate and Suicide Squad) that involved military secrets and political intrigue alongside more traditional super hero action. Writer Cary Bates' run on the series was (in my opinion) the best writing of his career, and it stands up today as something worth reading (or re-reading). After Bates' departure, the comic sadly went downhill quickly. But in this post, we'll talk about the first ten issues of the series, as Captain Atom is reintroduced to a whole new audience.
"After they below him to bits . . . the adventure begins!" proclaims the cover to Issue # 1, and you can't really argue with that as a way to get readers' attention. Captain Atom's new DCU origin is recapped quickly. Wrongfully convicted of treason, Air Force officer Nathaniel Adams is presented with only one way to avoid a long stint in a military prison: take part as the test subject in an experiment to determine the properties of strange metal recovered from a crashed U.F.O. The experiment creates a huge explosion that somehow binds the metal to Adams' skin and gives him super powers (like flight and energy blasts), but, even more strangely, it catapults him eighteen years into the future! A man out of time, Adams realizes that his wife is dead and his kids are being raised by the officer involved in his treason trial: Wade Eiling. Adams is told that his conviction will be pardoned if he agrees to become a secret government operative with a "super hero" cover story. It's a great, meaty first issue full of interesting characterization and potential.
Nathaniel Adams new, fake civilian identity as "Cameron Scott" gets tested in his first mission for the government: to infiltrate a clique of Quebecois separatists planning to blow up Canada's Parliament. As Captain Atom, Adams stops the attempt and one of its ringleaders, a super-villain named Plastique. You don't realize it here in Issue # 2, but Plastique will become a major part of Captain Atom's life later in the series.
After saving the Prime Minster of Canada (and the U.S. President) at the end of the last issue, in Issue # 3 Captain Atom goes on live television to tell his "origin"--a completely fake one that deceives the public into thinking he's been a secret super hero for years! In a masterstroke of writing, Bates incorporates all of the 1960s Charlton issues as part of Captain Atom's fake history. It's really clever and a nice homage to the past without binding the present to the silliness of some of those comics. Later, as he's getting a briefing about a downed submarine leaking radiation, Adams is more concerned with trying to force Eiling to live up to his part of the deal to allow him to reunite with his kids. But when Adams decides to surprise his daughter Peg at the airport, the now 23-year-old woman (who has thought her father dead for the past 18 years) assumes it's just a creepy pick-up line from a stranger. Adams realizes she's more Eiling's daughter than she is his. It's some great plotting that goes far beyond traditional super hero fisticuffs.
Issue # 4 starts up five days after Captain Atom disappeared suddenly while absorbing all of the radiation from the doomed submarine. He suddenly reappears, having jumped (from his perspective) into the future again. When Captain Atom learns that one of Eiling's employees charged with keeping surveillance on his kids has kidnapped Peg, Atom rescues her and reveals his true identity.
Our first "guest star" arrives in Issue # 5 in the form of Firestorm. The story is set some weeks later, as Nathaniel, his old military buddy Jeff, and Peg go to an amusement park, where Peg finds it hilarious that her dad still sometimes treats her like she was 5. Eiling finds out and intentionally interrupts their time together by sending Captain Atom out on a "mission" to attend the revealing of a new military plane. The Firestorm guest appearance features him and Captain Atom fighting when they think the new aircraft has gone berserk, not realizing it's all a demonstration. In a fun use of the Charlton "fake backstory", the media have been trying to verify the identity of a non-existent super-villain named "Dr. Spectro." An old lab assistant of a "real" DC villain (the Rainbow Raider) decides to capitalize on the hunt by selling his "story" as Dr. Spectro.
"Dr. Spectro" makes his first public appearance in Issue # 6, terrifying people with illusory monsters. Although it happens to support the cover story, Eiling is concerned because he has no idea who this guy is or what he really knows. In a clever twist, the man behind the Dr. Spectro mask blackmails Eiling for cash and then retires. He ends up getting arrested by Captain Atom anyway, but at least C.A. keeps the guy from getting murdered in prison as Eiling had arranged. Again, the story isn't about super hero vs. super villain action, it's about the drama and intrigue behind what the public thinks is happening.
That being said, Issue # 7 reverts to a more run-of-the-mill story with Adams sent to Cambodia (in his civilian identity as "Cameron Scott") to recover some new invention called the X-Ionizer. Plastique, however, is after it too, as is a huge armored samurai-like Warlord whose blade is able to cut through Captain Atom's body! The character motivations and back-story here were frankly confusing, and the issues ends with an explosion to be resolved in the next issue.
One of the more famous covers of the run can be found on Issue # 8. In another demonstration of the series' ability to surprise, the entire issue is told from Plastique's point of view. Realizing that Captain Atom is comatose, she nonetheless realizes that he's her best chance of somehow surviving the necessary trek through the Cambodian jungle. She cauterizes his wounds and they work together through days of travel, and she even saves his life again when Warlord reappears. They eventually reach safety, and Adams decides not to turn Plastique in. It's a real turning point in the series. In an important subplot, we learn that Adams' son (now a Air Force officer himself) completely buys into everything Eiling has been telling him for years about how his father is a traitor.
That subplot is the theme in Issue # 9, as Adams tries to gather proof that he was framed at his court martial--but the witnesses keep turning up dead thanks to a super-assassin (Bolt). Atom stops Bolt and even saves Eiling (who was on the court-martial panel), but isn't able to gather proof of his innocence to show his kids.
And last (for this post), we have another interesting issue in Issue # 10: one in which Captain Atom doesn't appear in at all. In the first real mention of his simultaneous role as a member of the Justice League International, Atom is apparently involved in some sort of quarantine storyline in that book. I'll talk more about his role in the JLI in future posts. This issue, however, features two characters that have been in the background of several past issues: a wheelchair-bound scientist named Dr. Megala and his bodyguard, Babylon. Megala was heavily involved in designing the experiment that created Captain Atom, and at first seems like he may be a villain but then is given enough depth and compassion to potentially become something more. And, intriguingly, we get the first hint of the "Major Force" project.
Given how many comics have been collected in trade paperback format over the decades, it's surprising that (as far as I can tell) not even a single issue of this series has been reprinted. It's certainly worth tracking down. Most to come in a couple of weeks.