Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Steve Ditko's Captain Atom - Space Adventures #33.

Space Adventures #33, Captain Atom, Charlton ComicsFor some reason, they don't let me have atom bombs.

I don't know why.

After all, what harm could a man of my quality possibly do with a bunch of weapons of mass thermo-nuclear annihilation?

Probably a lot less than the characters in Charlton Comics' Space Adventures #33, who tend to treat such weapons as though they have no more destructive power than a boxful of indoor fireworks.

Still, you have to hand it to them, if not for their recklessness, we would never have had the hero the world knows as Captain Atom.

Captain Atom is no stranger to me. I first encountered him reprinted in the black and white pages of various Alan Class comics.

But, long before those heady days of the mid 1970s, he had his origins in 1960, in the far more colourful pages of Charlton Comics.

What happens is this. The American military are about to fire a nuclear missile into space and explode it there for no good reason, when, no sooner have they launched it than they realise that, oops, their finest pilot Captain Adam is still on board. Clearly, whoever was in charge of this launch was the same character who was in charge of the gamma bomb test that Bruce Banner was working on.

Sadly, this unforeseen but avoidable development means Captain Adam is blown to pieces.

Charlton Comics, Space Adventures #33, Captain AtomBut all is not lost. For, with the nation still adjusting to life without a man who'd been a national hero, he reappears on Earth, having reintegrated himself and been transformed into a nuclear-powered super-being.

It's at this point that you realise exactly where Alan Moore got the idea for Doctor Manhattan from.

Needless to say, the military quickly see the value of this turn of events, put him in a costume designed to stop him leaking radioactivity all over everyone and rename him Captain Atom.

And it's just in the nick of time. For, no sooner has he shown off his powers to a startled top brass, than a pair of double agents (no doubt recruited from the same place Bruce Banner found Igor) decide to launch one of America's nuclear missiles at one of their own cities, in order to give their beloved leader a reason to start World War Three. The comic doesn't name this country but, with a plan like that, I think we can assume it's not one of the better run ones.

Charlton Comics, Space Adventures #33, Captain AtomWasting no time at all, Captain Atom flies into action and blows the missile up in mid-flight, by punching it in the face, and the world is saved.

The thing that strikes you about the tale is that, with only nine pages to tell the tale in, there's no character development or backstory at all. We first meet Captain Adam as he's being launched into space. Even after his return, we learn nothing of him. Does he have a family? Is he a little peeved that he's been blown up? Does the fact he's now giving off deadly radiation bother him in the slightest? We're never told and the man seems totally unphased by it all to a degree that suggests he may have accidentally forgotten to bring his soul along with him when he recreated his body.

Not for Captain Atom the eternal agonising and self-doubt that Marvel heroes would later encounter.

Apart from Steve Ditko's art, I suppose the main virtue of the strip is it gives us a peek back into the depths of the Cold War mentality, with its tale of people firing off nuclear missiles at every opportunity; while starting a World War for no reason seems perfectly sensible to all involved.

And, of course, without Captain Atom, Jim Starlin would never have been inspired to copy him by showing Captain Marvel leaving a sparkly trail behind him wherever he flew. And where would we all have been without that effect?

Charlton Comics, Space Adventures #33, Captain Atom


Aggy said...

Of course the reason Dr Manhattans origin is so close to Captain Atoms is that in the original script it was Captain Atom. Unfortunately Moore broken so many of the characters that DC asked him to rework the characters to original people as they did not want their newly acquired Charlton Characters destroyed (they wanted to do that themselves later...)

Anonymous said...

One book I recently reacquired was Volume 1 of the Science Fiction Writers Hall of Fame covering the period 1934-1963. That was that really special time in fiction when Mars was the goal, there was such a thing as Limited Nuclear wars and scientists had horribly mutated kids.

What's cool about Adam and Atom are, from where I come from, the same word. You could have a whole 9 or 10 pages of him saying: Today I Am Captain ATOM!!! And the guy in the lab going: "Right you are Adam". "No no, I'm CAPTAIN ATOM!" "Uh yeah, right, Captain Adam?" "ATOM" "Okay, Adam, we hear you" "I said, ATOM" "And we said we hear you Adam". I see Don Heck or Al Milgrom as artist.

The Prowler (stepped on a Lego and lisped for eight days straight).

Anonymous said...

Captain Atom's origin had some similarity to the Fantastic Four, which, in turn, resembled both the Quatermass Experiment and First Man Into Space. Just as the Hulk's origin resembled the Amazing Colossal Man and Beast of Yucca Flats.

There was also Doctor Solar, as well as Marvel's Daredevil and Spider-Man. In sci-fi horror movies, radiation exposure turned people into monsters. In comics,though, it could be a great career move.

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