Tuesday, July 26, 2011

1988 Justice League International Postcards: Captain Atom

Art by Kevin Maguire and Joe Rubinstein

When a 1968 experiment to create protection against a nuclear blast went awry, Captain Nathaniel Adam was catapulted nearly 20 years into the future, where he arrived as an energy being! Now, though secretly working for the government, he is known to the world as the super-hero Captain Atom!

I'm not sure if my first exposure to Captain Atom was my brother's brother's copy of Americomics Special or Crisis On Infinite Earths, but either way, there was something distinctly "off-brand" about him. Down to the very name, Captain Atom seemed funky and generic, while not really being memorable enough to be outright bad. Blue Beetle and the Question each had solid Steve Ditko designs that translated well into their 1980s revivals, but Atom had an ugly, busy costume that was also strangely quaint and retro. Thanks to early exposure to Pete Morisi's stuff, I could forgive Peter Cannon his bare legs and booties, but Captain Atom's randomly colored limbs and tunic were all over the place.

A vastly different and much improved Captain Atom came out of DC's new continuity, and we were reintroduced in the seventh issue of either Justice League International or Atom's solo series. Crossing Captain America and the A-Team with the Silver Surfer seemed pretty novel at the time, even if Cary Bates was something of a Johnny Come Lately on the jock of the western zeitgeist. Nathaniel Adam was a soldier in Vietnam accused of a murder he did not commit. In order to avoid prison and a lengthy separation from his young family, Adam submitted to becoming a guinea pig in a secret government experiment to test an alien metal. One explosion later, Nathaniel Adam quantum leapt twenty years in time, gaining incredible powers in the bargain. For the record, this actually predated the "Quantum Leap" TV show by years, and it was interesting to see the hero-out-of-time premise applied to someone for whom the chronal shift had meaning. Nathanial Adam lost his wife forever, and had a struggle getting back into the lives of his children (who were nearly the same age as himself) because of their having been raised by his nemesis, General Wade Eiling.

I picked up a batch of the solo series cheap at my first ever local comic shop in Texas before moving to Nevada. The plus side was that Vegas newsstands were a lot more welcoming to DC comics than Houston's, but the down side was that the lack of direct market access meant I stopped collecting Captain Atom with #12. I found that one on a spinner rack at a school fundraiser. Still, the character benefited by "staying golden" in my mind, leaving my acquaintance with the introduction of Major Force. As it turned out, Captain Atom never had much of a rogues gallery, with some serious losers upcoming. By the second year, the series lost its main draw in the spectacularly detailed art of Pat Broderick, and Cary Bates began transitioning out of comics not long after.

Art by George Pérez & Dick Giordano

I managed to keep up with Captain Atom somewhat through Justice League Europe and guest appearances, but he really faded off my radar without the solo series. I still thought he was cool, but messes like Armageddon 2001 and his being recast as a militaristic reactionary in the '90s really soured the brand. Need I mention Extreme Justice, or the chromium mullet? Unlike most characters, Captain Atom never really escaped the excesses of that era, and seems to bounce from heel turn (Monarch) to wimpy redemption (The Alien Agenda/Armageddon/etc.) without anything resembling a purpose beyond trying to please. stop. sucking.

I've continued to enjoy Captain Atom in the new millennium by ignoring modern comics as much as possible. Captain America is possibly my all time favorite super-hero, but I haven't read his book for more than one year's worth of consecutive issues since the first Waid/Garney run in the mid-90s. I have such a clear ideal conception of who "my" Captain America is that I choose not to bother with runs that stray too far from the essential core of the character. While I hold Captain Atom in considerably less esteem, and he's a far less rigidly defined character, my approach to being a fan of the character is much the same. Even though it was a bit simplistic, I appreciated the integrity and conviction of Captain Atom as a super-soldier who follows orders to the bitter end during his appearances on the Justice League Unlimited cartoon. It echos the politely nationalistic original interpretation of the character I've discovered through archival reprints of the 1950s & 60s stories.

From an artistic standpoint, I understand why creators ran as far away from Alan Moore's take on the Charlton heroes as they could manage. However, since Moore had only really updated and darkened the characters as they were conceived, this also meant distancing the heroes from what they were meant to be. Ditko & Gill's Captain Atom was a brilliant, mild mannered demigod of the nuke, where as much as I liked Bates & Broderick's work, their Atom was mostly a chrome Firestorm with more horse sense. It also doesn't help that at Charlton, Captain Atom was a Superman amongst "Action Heroes" more akin to Iron Fist and Daredevil. DC Comics historically abuses any character they purchase that was the juggernaut of another line, because any threat to the eminence of the Man of Steel must be castrated as publically (and somehow, as often) as possible. I call it getting Shazamed. Meanwhile, Captain Atom finds no respite even in old gang reunions, because he never fit in with the largely non-powered Dick Giordano edited Charlton characters. Maybe he needs to form a new clique with Son of Vulcan? Captain Atom has received another title of indefinite length as part of Septembers DC: The New 52, but the creators seem more fit for Johnny Mann than Allen Adam, and will probably try to tap the Dr. Manhattan vein with the precision and finesse of a turkey baster.

To my mind, Captain Atom as envisioned by his creators was a magnificent representation of the Mad Men era. Satellites and martinis and the apex of the American century. I wish he could have been kept in that period, since I think it would give him a killer hook, like it did the Martian Manhunter in the '90s. I really do think Captain Atom should be the confident conservative hero of the DC Universe. Pro-military, believes in a free market, perhaps somewhat moralistic, but without losing his pragmatism and compassion. Let him butt heads with guys like Superman without diminishing him through a shameful defeat. Like Lex Luthor, there could be less losses and more stalemates, substituting conniving with the recognition that these are two good men with conflicting ideologies. Such potential can be mined from Captain Atom, but not before he quits being a wimpier, dumber, U.S.-bound Silver Surfer with bad hair.

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