When DC Comics rebooted its superhero universe in 2011, one of the launch titles was “Captain Atom.” Running twelve issues (plus a zero issue finale), JT Krul and Freddie Williams II recreated a character as one of the most powerful forces in the universe. Now, after being largely absent since the series’ conclusion in 2012, Captain Atom is back in “The Rise and Fall of Captain Atom” #1. With the character linked to one of the central figures from “DC Universe: Rebirth” #1, this miniseries may be a central piece of the DC Universe’s greatest mystery.
The Golden Age of Captain Atom
Captain Atom, a character originally published by Charlton Comics, was acquired by DC in the mid-’80s alongside other familiar faces like Blue Beetle and the Question. The decision was ultimately made to integrate them into the DC Universe as part of “Crisis on Infinite Earths” (more on that later), and in 1987, Cary Bates, Greg Weisman, and Pat Broderick introduced a new readership to Nathaniel Adam. Forced into a military experiment using an alien spaceship, Nathaniel Adam was transformed into Captain Atom, a being sheathed in a silver metal form and able to absorb and emit massive amounts of energy.
Over the years, Captain Atom grew in importance, heading up the initial war against the Dominators in the “Invasion!” event, and even serving as the leader of Justice League Europe for several years as readers learned about his additional abilities, like jumping through time whenever absorbing too much energy. All this came to a head, though, in the 1991 miniseries “Armageddon 2001.” The crossover centered around the idea of a mysterious hero-turned-villain named Monarch who, in the year 2001, would kill all of the world’s heroes. The original end to the series was slated to reveal that Captain Atom would become Monarch, but due to the conclusion leaking in advance of publication, a last-second rewrite made former Teen Titan Hawk the face behind the mask, and dropped Captain Atom into limbo, trapped fighting Monarch through time.
The Dark Age of Captain Atom
From that point forward, the character went through a number of shifts that cast him in a bad light. His death in the “Kingdom Come” potential future resulted in the eradication of the state of Kansas. Captain Atom had ceased to become a hero worth rallying behind, but instead a hot-head whose impetuous charge into battle killed millions.
Similarly, the “Captain Atom: Armageddon” miniseries turned him into a ticking time-bomb threatening to blow up the entire WildStorm Universe. Throughout its nine issues, Captain Atom was in continuous conflict with the WildStorm superheroes, before finally being freed of the energy and shunted unceremoniously back into the DC Universe. (That said, a shard of the energy used to make Captian Atom lethal was ultimately used to blow up and reboot the WildStorm Universe after all.)
Captain Atom’s return to the DC Universe in “The Battle for Bludhaven” caused even more disaster, as the character finally fulfilled his 1991 destiny and transformed into the villain Monarch. Monarch served as one of the major villains in “Countdown to Final Crisis,” murdering his alternate-universe counterparts to absorb their energy and going to war against the Monitors. He ultimately died in that year-long miniseries, although he’d briefly come back to life in “Action Comics” as a hero and then vanish once more in the “Justice League: Generation Lost” miniseries. The bottom line is, no matter where you found Captain Atom post-1991, doom and gloom ultimately followed.
Something Borrowed, Something Blue
In 2011, the newest version of Captain Atom may have seemed somewhat familiar to comic book fans. Here, Captain Atom wasn’t so much sheathed in metal as he was a shimmering, fluid energy form with enough power to reshape reality. Over the course of his year-long series, Captain Atom’s power was so great that one of the final scenes we saw in his series was the character moving himself to the surface of the Moon. A character so powerful he leaves the planet, able to survive without food, water, or air may sound like a certain blue-bodied figure: Dr. Manhattan from “Watchmen.”
What some newer fans of “Watchmen” may not realize, though, is that Alan Moore’s original proposal used the Charlton Comics heroes instead of original creations. Dr. Manhattan was Captain Atom, Nite Owl was Blue Beetle, Rorschach was the Question, and so on. In many ways, the modern Captain Atom was bringing Dr. Manhattan full circle, appropriating character concepts that were originally used to differentiate the two.
It’s almost certainly eyebrow-raising, then, to read “The Rise and Fall of Captain Atom” #1, where ’80s series writers Bates and Weisman depict the character having become dangerously unstable before finally detonating in Kansas. Not only is the location of Kansas intriguing (the location of his death in “Kingdom Come”), but at the end of the miniseries, we see for the first time since his origin story in 2011 a version of Captain Atom that appears to be human.
With Dr. Manhattan now operating within the DC Universe, could Captain Atom’s instability and detonation be part of Dr. Manhattan’s attempts to remove those who would have had the power to challenge him? And if he’s reverted to his human form, could this be a chance for DC Comics to return Captain Atom to his more familiar metallic incarnation? Captain Atom and Dr. Manhattan’s connection cannot be ignored for those interested in unravelling the mysteries of, “DC Universe: Rebirth.” This miniseries could potential both please them, and fans of the previous Captain Atom. After a quarter-century of doom and gloom for the character, this could be the moment where Captain Atom might finally be someone worth rallying behind, again.