1987 And All That: Captain Atom #1-10

A column in which Matt Derman (Comics Matter) reads & reviews comics from 1987, because that’s the year he was born. Click here for an archive of all the previous posts in the series.

Captain Atom #1-10 (DC) by Cary Bates, Greg Weisman (#10), Pat Broderick, Bob Smith, Carl Gafford (#1-4, 6-10), Bob LeRose (#5), John Costanza (#1-3), Agustin Mas (#4-5), Duncan Andrews (#6-10), Denny O'Neil

It's not always an easy distinction to make, but there's a difference between doing good and being good, and Captain Atom is all about skirting that line. The title character is a good man who does bad things for good reasons, and then uses those bad things to allow himself to do good things, too. After gaining his powers, he is coerced by the U.S. military into being a superhero, but I believe that he probably would've chosen that life (or something close to it) for himself anyway because of his core decency and sense of responsibility. He's a good person doing good deeds, but doing them in an arguably bad way, lying to the world about his past and present in the name of protecting the less-good men who control his life. And there are consequences for his deceptions, sometimes serious ones, meaning that for all the positive work he does, there's always a certain taint around him, a hidden shame he can never entirely shake. It makes him an extremely interesting character to follow, because even when he's saving the day as a superhero, the reader understands that he's still trapped as a soldier, following orders and keeping secrets he doesn't always like. Captain Atom is a sad but also hopeful figure, improving his life and earning his freedom inch by difficult inch.

The sadness/hopefulness blend is established right in Atom's origin story. Air Force captain Nathaniel Adam is convicted of treason, but rather than being executed outright, he volunteers to be the subject of some kind of top-secret government nuclear experiment involving a bizarre metal alloy discovered on the hull of a crashed alien spaceship. The deal is supposed to be that if Adam survives, he'll be set free, but that's not quite how it works out. He does survive, but he is pushed 18 years into the future, leaping across space-time while being somehow protected by the alloy, which becomes a part of his skin and makes him all but invulnerable by the time he comes out the other side, where he also has a number of other powers thanks to being tapped directly into the quantum field. This backstory is mostly of the hand-waving sci-fi variety, but it's internally logical and consistent, so it works. Plus the real point is that, while Adam survived and got a bunch of awesome powers, he also lost 18 years of his life, which, in addition to a lot of other problems, meant his original deal for freedom was no longer in place. Instead, the Air Force offers him a new deal, wherein he has to work for them secretly in exchange for a pardon on the treason conviction. Adam agrees, and officially becomes Captain Atom, claiming to the public that he's just a new, independently operating superhero, when in reality he's a government operative, taking his orders from above and fulfilling someone else's wishes.

This enormous lie that Atom is forced to tell as part of his agreement with the government causes plenty of problems for him, big and small. To be fair, it's a pretty well-crafted story the Air Force cooks up for him, with the help of a few expensive P.R. experts. I mean, it's a ridiculous tale, involving Atom getting trapped in a missile as it launches and then getting vaporized by it, but it's no more or less outlandish than Atom's actual origin, and a few nice, compelling details are thrown in to make it easier to swallow. Atom claims to have worked in secret for years, honing his powers and fighting supervillains who also stayed underground, bad guys the world has never seen or heard of but who Atom supposedly fought many times. Claiming to have defeated great, hidden evils fits nicely into the classic idea of what a superhero is, and it gives Atom a manufactured credibility for his future exploits. He also says that he saved a woman named Eve from a skydiving accident and the two of them fell in love. He supposedly retired for a while and settled down with Eve, but then she died of cancer and made Atom promise to reveal himself to the world and return to the life of a hero. Again, it's a perfectly classic tragic romance, humanizing Atom and proving he has a heart underneath his shiny silver exterior.

But it's all completely fabricated, which proves troublesome, as does every aspect of Atom's relationship with the military. Having to maintain his cover means that Atom's mind is always partially occupied with the details of it; even in combat situations, he often finds himself having to be careful about what he says or pull explanations for his presence out of thin air. He also has an incredibly hard time in trying to reconnect to his kids, because their stepfather, the man who raised them for most of their lives while Atom was jumping across space-time, is also Atom's handler in the Air Force, General Eiling. This means that not only does Atom have to figure out how to explain to his children why he's still alive (and only a few years older than they are), he first has to find them in spite of his boss doing everything possible to prevent that from happening. Ultimately, Atom does manage to reach out to his kids, and even forms a real connection to his daughter Margaret, though his son Randy continues to see him as a traitor and abandoner, at least within these first 10 issues. And even the progress Atom makes with Margaret is slow but steady; it takes him a couple tries to even tell her who he is, and once he does, he can only fill her in partway, leaving out the Captain Atom stuff and pretending to just be a normal human being who happened to skip over 18 years in the blink of an eye.

The worst consequence of Atom's government-sanctioned deceit is the inadvertent creation of a new supervillain. In Captain Atom #5-6, a man named Tom Emery is accused by a reporter of being Dr. Spectro, one of the made-up baddies Captain Atom claims to have fought in his early days. Emery takes the accusation as inspiration and actually turns himself into Dr. Spectro, even though such a person never existed before. So Captain Atom's imaginary foe becomes a real one, and things only get worse from there. Though Atom beats Spectro fairly easily, he must then turn around and make sure Emery stays safe in prison to stop him from revealing the lie that is Atom's history. Asuperhero vouches for a supervillain to keep a huge lie intact. It's a low point for Captain Atom, one of many he experiences over the course of these issues. Indeed, there are far more lows than highs for him overall, because he is always held down by the weight of his falsehoods.

There are other characters who find themselves straddling the line between good and evil, most of all General Eiling, Atom's commander. He could accurately be described as the comic's primary antagonist, but he also manages to be the least villainous of all the villains. Though he does seem to get some perverse joy out of exercising his control over Atom, he's mostly just a hardcore military man doing the hell out of his job. When Atom returns after 18 years away, Eiling immediately sees how to take advantage of the situation, and does everything just right to get his way and to make sure Atom becomes an asset for the Air Force. It's hard to imagine anyone in his position not wanting that outcome, and Eiling simply happens to play his hand perfectly. The fact that Eiling married Atom's wife and raised his kids seems awful when you look at from Atom's point of view, but by all accounts Eiling was a good husband and father and continues to be one, including his resistance to letting Atom connect with his children. Eiling makes that call more to protect the kids than to mess with Atom, though it's certainly a bit of both. And the real heart of all this is that Eiling genuinely believes Atom to be a traitor because of his original conviction. In issue #9, some new evidence comes to light that makes it look like Atom might have been framed after all, and despite their differences, Eiling admits to Atom that things have changed and that, while Eiling must stand by the conviction until there is hard proof to overturn it, he's willing to acknowledge there's a possibility Atom is innocent. That's a huge step, and a very decent gesture for Eiling to make, reminding the reader that, as aggravating, self-important, and big-headed as the general can be, he's not a completely bad person, just an arrogant schmuck who takes himself far too seriously.

Then there's Dr. Megala who, like Eiling, was part of the original experiment that created Captain Atom, and feels a healthy amount of guilt about the whole thing, and about Atom being forced to work for the military now. But Megala is a scientist first and foremost, and the chance to study someone as extraordinary as Atom is more important to him than any conflicted feelings he might have. So Megala plays his part dutifully, and even becomes something of a friend for Atom, but all the same it never entirely sits right with him. Like Atom, Megala is a bit torn, able to see the value in the work they do but not thrilled about the steps they had to take in order to be able to do it.

On the other side is Plastique, one of Atom's first official enemies. Initially she is a Canadian terrorist, using murder and destruction to fight for Quebec's right to secede from he rest of the country. While firmly established as a bad guy, she is at least committing her crimes in the name of a cause she sincerely believes in; she has a purpose, a code, a twisted kind of morality and loyalty. Later, she returns, this time as a gun-for-hire, a full-blown mercenary who will take any job if the price is right. This seems like a darker turn for Plastique, but in that storyline she behaves much more heroically than before. She and Atom end up trapped in Cambodia together, and they save one another's lives a couple times each, neither of them entirely understanding why. It's not exactly a friendship they form together, but a strange mutual respect does bubble up between them unexpectedly, and they keep each other alive and help each other escape without devolving into turning on one another once they're out of the woods. They simply part ways peacefully, each allowing the other to go on with their respective lives, at least for the time being.

Captain Atom loves these kinds of stories, where heroes act badly and villains rise above themselves. It is the heart of the book, and it works in every case, because no one arc handles that theme in quite the same way. Also because the creative team is a group of talented storytellers who are able to dig into this kind of material intelligently and thoroughly without getting lost or stealing focus from the more traditional superhero action. Cary Bates writes all 10 of these issues, with Pat Broderick supplying pencils and Bob Smith the inks. And with the exception of issue #5, Carl Gafford is the sole colorist, so it's a consistent team all over. They work well as a unit, able to skip around in time and/or let things happen in between the panels, trimming every bit of fat so that everything on the page counts. Even expositional scenes push the story forward, and even recaps deliver some amount of new info, so neither time nor space get wasted, which fits right in with the whole concept of Captain Atom. Our POV character/narrator changes all the time, and there are a large number of smaller recurring characters who come and go from issue to issue, yet everyone is handled well and given a their own look, attitude, and importance. The best evidence of that is issue #10 which, as its cover promises, does not feature a single panel with Captain Atom in it. His supporting cast is meaty enough by then to carry an issue without him, and his presence is so powerful and significant in the reality of the comic, he's still a big part of the issue's story even without being directly involved.

There's not a lot of ambiguity in terms of the morals of Captain Atom as a book. It comes down unambiguously on the side of good, as seen in the fundamental goodness of Captain Atom's character, and how tormented his life of lies and military work often makes him. But this is a comicbook that's honest about how difficult doing the right thing can be, how often it involves compromise, and how no single act defines a person. Everyone is multi-faceted, everyone has their bright and dark sides, and Captain Atom's situation is uniquely well-built to discuss those ideas. He's exactly the character this team needed to create in order to make the kind of book and tell the kind of stories they wanted to, and they get him so right so quickly, everything else falls snugly into place.

Guardians of the Galaxy Introduces Rocket's Biggest Gun, Ever

More in Comics