I’ve been saying for a while now that Captain Atom is one of the most under appreciated relaunched series of the New 52. It’s a comic that has gone mostly unnoticed, and if it’s sales numbers are any indication, it’s extremely likely that it will be cancelled in the near future. However, in its ninth issue, Captain Atom has reached a new level of awesomeness. Writer J.T. Krul and artist Freddie Williams II have woven plot threads from throughout their run into this issue where Captain Atom explores a future world that both worships him as God and is doomed to complete destruction. Several plot points which appeared to be throw-away moments in the narrative are brought back in this issue and revealed to be part of a larger tapestry, and it becomes apparent that J.T. Krul had a long term and elaborate master plan for this series from the very beginning.
This issue begins in the future with a red robed preacher giving a sermon. He stands in front of a metal sphere with a scarlet Captain Atom symbol emblazoned on it, and he professes to an audience of kneeling acolytes his undying devotion to “Chono Mota”. This preacher is “Mikey” Parker, the cancer stricken child who was cured by Captain Atom earlier in the series. The issue where Captain Atom cures Mikey of cancer was innovative and interesting on its own; in that issue, we literally see Captain Atom shrunken down Innerspace–style and journey through Mikey’s body where he fights cancer. It was a clever and intriguing twist on the superhero idea. Rather than devoting his time to punching out various costumed criminals, Captain Atom punches out cancer.
Mikey Parker seemed like a throwaway character, at the time, whose only purpose in the narrative was to be cured by Captain Atom. However, Krul surprised me by bringing this character back in this issue. In the future, we see that Mikey was spiritually inspired by Captain Atom curing his brain tumor. An adult Mikey Parker considers himself transformed so that he can serve as “an apostle for the almighty Chrono Mota”, and he leads a congregation in worship of Captain Atom. The way that Krul brings back this seemingly throwaway character achieves a few effects. It provides a pleasing feeling for the reader of continuity, that the things that happen in the series have lasting ramifications that will be referred to and not forgotten.
It also suggests that Captain Atom’s actions cause fallout that is not immediately obvious. Curing Mikey Parker seemed like a clear, black and white choice for Nathaniel Adams; however, Krul makes the narrative more interesting by complicating the issue, by suggesting that Captain Atom’s godlike intervention in deciding who lives and who dies has consequences that can persist for years in unexpected ways. By bringing back Mikey Parker as a genocidal zealot, Krul makes Captain Atom’s use of his powers a matter of shades of gray rather than stark black and white.
Captain Atom proceeds to split himself into hundreds of different bodies (in an effect that’s very similar to an ability that Doctor Manhattan displays in Watchmen) and through these multiple copies of himself, he explores this future world that worships him as God in “The New Atomic Age”. Krul and Williams use this splitting to introduce a series of staccato panels that show Captain Atom’s separate bodies all over the world. They have strips of panels across the page that show Captain Atom’s doubles in various international locales, such as England, Sydney, Los Angeles, and Paris, to name just a few. At first, this effect seemed like icing on the cake, like just a narrative tool to explain how Captain Atom could be both in Libya speaking to Ranita and across the world talking to Mikey Parker at the same time. However, Krul and Williams masterfully crescendo these panels into a culminating double page spread that reveals these location panels to be more than superfluous additions to the comic. But I’m getting ahead of myself, and I’ll have more on that climactic double page spread later in the review.
In Libya, we see Captain Atom’s friend Ranita protecting innocent people from gun toting thugs in a hover jeep. This future Ranita is another devotee of Chrono Mota, and she has one blue, super powered hand with a scarlet Captain Atom symbol on the palm. She appears to have similar abilities to Captain Atom, albeit localized to her left hand. Again, Krul is weaving earlier plot threads into this future world. Previously in the series, Ranita’s hand was badly burned by simply touching Captain Atom, but she was also completely healed by Captain Atom under the guidance of Dr. Megala.
Krul reveals here that in the future, Ranita’s healed hand manifested abilities similar in nature to Captain Atom’s super powers. Like with Mikey Parker, Krul complicates what at first glance was a simple, black and white matter, by showing that Captain Atom’s curing of Ranita led to long lasting consequences in the form of her newly acquired super powers and religious devotion to Captain Atom. Krul even has Captain Atom make the matter explicit by thinking in captions, “I only wanted to fix it. Make things right. Not derail her entire life.” It’s also interesting that Ranita, now using the superhero name “The Hand”, displays the ability to heal a wounded civilian with her superpowered hand in a way comparable to how Captain Atom healed her. Will this woman Ranita healed develop super powers of her own? Is there an endless domino effect of this one restorative action that Captain Atom took decades ago?
Captain Atom has two simultaneous conversations with Ranita and Mikey Parker that have interesting religious overtones. When Captain Atom asks Ranita how she knew he was there, Ranita answers, “You’re always here. Always everywhere”. Captain Atom is omnipresent in this future, this New Atomic Age where he is worshiped as a deity. Ranita also comments on Captain Atom’s appearance in a “retro look”, and Mikey Parker asks him, “Why take this form?” The idea that Captain Atom takes on various forms is a religious motif that repeats throughout this issue and the series. The idea of gods taking on different forms is seen in multiple religions; Zeus frequently took on different forms ranging from a white bull to a swan, and the hindu god Vishnu has ten different avatars or forms.
In fact, there is a compelling comparison to be made between Captain Atom’s depictions in this series and the god Vishnu. Vishnu, in his form as Krishna, is usually shown with blue skin, like Captain Atom. A future version of Captain Atom, who is featured prominently on the cover of this issue, has several attributes which Krishna shares. This future version of Captain Atom has four arms, like Krishna, and three heads merged into one, and multiple heads is a common trait of Krishna as well. In the final pages of this issue, Captain Atom thinks in captions that he is destined to become, “A god. A destroyer of worlds”, and Krishna said in the Bhagavad-Gita (and was famously quoted by Robert Oppenheimer at the first nuclear bomb detonation) “Now, I am become Death, destroyer of worlds.”
There’s also a comparison to be made between this future, three faced Captain Atom and Janus, the two faced Roman god of beginnings and transitions. Janus has two faces merged into one head, with one facing forward and one backward to symbolize looking into the future and the past. The three headed Captain Atom is seen in this story arc in the Time Stream, where he communes with both the past version of himself and future versions as well. The way that Krul incorporates religious iconography into Captain Atom’s various forms, the premise of this issue that sees a future where Captain Atom is worshiped as a god, and the title of this issue, “A God Among Men” all lend credence to the idea that the writer is attempting to imbue this series with an interesting theological theme, a philosophical exploration of the concept of superheroes as deities.
Captain Atom’s conversation with an adult and zealous Mikey Parker reveals that the cult of Chrono Mota is planning to “wipe the slate clean” with the aforementioned metallic orb that will “unleash a new genesis”. In essence, the future destruction of Earth that we’ve seen in previous issues was caused by the people who worship future Captain Atom, by the devotees of Chrono Mota. Throughout this conversation, in which Mikey believes that Captain Atom is testing him by insisting that the world doesn’t need to be destroyed, like God tested Abraham by insisting that he sacrifice his son Isaac, Krul and Williams pepper those staccato locale panels. These panels show duplicates of Captain Atom in Cambodia, in Tuscany, in Gaza, and all over the world. Finally, on the following pages, Krul and Williams pay off these location panels in one beautiful double page spread.
This double page spread blew me away. It shows a Captain Atom assaulted by some unknown purple energy, and in the background, we see a vast grid composed of all of the location panels that were peppered throughout this issue. As the double page spread of Captain Atom is assailed by this purple energy, which may or may not be the ultimate, disembodied, future form of Captain Atom, we see in this grid of location panels that each of Captain Atom’s duplicates is also afflicted by the same violent energy. This double page spread takes the location panels that were seeded through the course of the issue, and it uses them to amazing effect in the climactic moment of the issue. It’s a masterful narrative technique to put these location panels throughout the issue and use them to build to a huge, culminating double page spread. It’s an experimentation with the form of comics that is simultaneously clever in its service to building tension in the narrative, and beautiful in its pay off in the form of a double page spread that unites all of the location images into one vast mosaic of world wide Captain Atoms.
In my opinion, Captain Atom is one of the most under appreciated and unfairly overlooked series of the New 52. J.T. Krul is doing amazing work in his relaunch of Captain Atom not as a chrome plated, watered down version of Superman, but rather as a quantum superhero that takes the best elements of Alan Moore’s Dr. Manhattan and integrates them with the best elements of the mainstream DCU Captain Atom. Krul is using this relaunched Captain Atom series to talk about big ideas, about the concept of the superhero as the omnipotent deity, and the ramifications of superpowered interference with humanity. On top of his excellent writing, which unites many plot threads in this issue in entirely unexpected ways (including one plot thread that I refuse to spoil but which genuinely shocked and amused me), Freddie Williams II is putting out beautiful art on this series that is only complimented by Jose Villarubia’s iridescent colors. Although this review concentrated more on the writing in this issue, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Williams and Villarubia’s excellent work in this issue. Simply put, Captain Atom is an amazing comic, and you should be reading it. It’s likely that it will be cancelled if you don’t give it a chance, and it would be a shame to see such a great comic disappear from the stands.