Has Dr. Manhattan Been Disguised As A DC Superhero All Along?

WARNING: This article contains major spoilers for Doomsday Clock #2, now on sale.


The second installment of Geoff Johns and Gary Frank’s Doomsday Clock epic released this week, closing out 2017 by revealing more clues and opening additional mysteries surrounding Watchmen protagonist Dr. Manhattan’s manipulation of the DC Universe during the New 52 and Rebirth eras.

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After traversing the dimensional barrier between their world and ours, Ozymandias and the new Rorschach visit the Gotham Library in an effort to learn more about this alternate universe. In addition to musing whether Manhattan may have actually created the DC heroes in the image of fictional adventurers from their own world, Veidt speculates that the former Jon Osterman may have actually become one himself.

A hero who starts over, with a second chance to save the world? That sounds remarkably like the plot of DC’s recent The Fall and Rise of Captain Atom miniseries.

A Brief History of Captain Atom

Captain Atom was originally created in 1960 for Charlton Comics by Joe Gill and Steve Ditko. After Charlton was acquired by DC Comics and following the events of Crisis on Infinite Earths, a new version of the character debuted in an ongoing series written by Cary Bates and illustrated by Pat Broderick. The new Captain Atom was a military man like his predecessor, flung forward in time (from 1968 to 1986) by an atomic experiment after being convicted of a crime he did not commit. A government-sponsored superhero who was also under the thumb of unscrupulous General Eiling, Captain Atom often found his loyalties tested and frequently sparred with the heroes as the Justice League, even as he eventually came to lead one of the teams himself.

The tragic, atomic-powered hero has proved enticing to many creators throughout the years, especially during the 1990s. Captain Atom was, famously, the intended villain of the Armageddon 2001 crossover, but rampant spoilers about the world-conquering former hero Monarch’s true identity led DC to swerve at the last minute and reveal him to be Hawk, of Hawk & Dove, instead. Captain Atom was also pivotal in Mark Waid and Alex Ross’s Kingdom Come, as his detonation at the hands of the Parasite contributed to Magog’s reckoning.

But even more famously, perhaps, Captain Atom was the Charlton hero who served as Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ template for Doctor Manhattan in Watchmen.

Moore had initially pitched Watchmen using DC’s then-recently-acquired stable of Charlton characters, including the Question, Blue Beetle, and so on. When editor Dick Giordano told Moore he’d have to use new characters instead, the Question became Rorschach, Blue Beetle became Nite Owl, and Captain Atom, Dr. Manhattan.

Time Jump: New 52

When the New 52 rewrote the rules of the DC universe in 2011, a new Captain Atom premiered — one who bore striking similarities to Doctor Manhattan. Now, Nathaniel Adam is no longer a victim but a willing volunteer in the nuclear experiments that gave him his powers. Like Jon Osterman, Adam is accidentally vaporized during the course of his work, and returns shortly after as an energy-based being — a blue energy-based being. And instead of being a trusted hero, the public views Captain Atom with suspicion and fear, deeply worried about the harmful effects of radiation on everyone around him.

In Watchmen, Veidt orchestrated a public fear that Dr. Manhattan had given former partners cancer, driving him into exile.

All of the clues since DC Universe: Rebirth point to Dr. Manhattan as the force that first created the New 52 universe. If a god were going to insert himself into his creation, this seems a pretty straightforward way to do it.

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Time Jump: Rebirth

At the beginning of 2017, DC launched The Fall and Rise of Captain Atom miniseries, which largely re-established the character’s post-Crisis, pre-Flashpoint origin, with some modern twists. But viewed through the lens of a universe transformed by the will of an all-powerful being, the story takes on added significance.

Written by Cary Bates and Greg Weisman and illustrated by Will Conrad, Fall and Rise sees the New 52 version of the character lose control of his powers in 2012 and time jump back to 1997, where he is able to establish a normal life and start a family. However, fate catches up with him and Nathaniel Adam is propelled forward to 2017, where he discovers that his wife has died and his son despises the father he never knew. His powers now manifest in a purplish hue, allowing Nathaniel to pass himself off as an all-new Captain Atom — a good thing, since the blue-skinned nuclear man who seemingly perished in 2012 is still seen by the world at large as a cautionary tale.

In other words, he has started over with a new identity, a second chance to save the world.

The Superman Theory and Other Hypotheses

Dr. Manhattan living in the DCU as Captain Atom would not only directly unite an analogue with the original — and make concrete the transformation of that original into the more complex hero he inspired — but would also serve at least a few of the themes and metanarratives surrounding Rebirth and Doomsday Clock.

First, there’s the “Superman Theory” outlined in Doomsday Clock #2’s text-based backmatter. It seems there is a conspiracy theory surrounding the fact that the vast majority of the world’s superheroes are concentrated in the United States — many people are saying that the U.S. government is creating these heroes. Many people. In the case of Captain Atom, this theory is literally true. And if Manhattan/Atom orchestrated the creation of the DC Universe as it now exists, from his perspective coming from a world where the only super-powered being was created by the government, there may be even more meat on this theory.

It might also play into the fact that Captain Atom seems destined to break bad. A heel turn isn’t inherent in a nuclear-powered superhero, per say, but it’s the way things have gone since at least Armageddon 2001. He cheated fate there, but an alternate version became Monarch in the Extreme Justice series (the less said, the better) and the original Nathaniel Adam ended up in the Monarch armor around the time of Countdown (doubly so). If we take Manhattan’s intervention a step further and say that he has been Captain Atom since the end of Watchmen, then all of Captain Atom’s DC Universe stories are in fact Manhattan’s. In that case, Manhattan’s guilt over events on his world may have re-enacted, over and over, in this new universe; each time he hits reset, history repeats.

He’s the villain, despite his best intentions.