The character was created by Steve Ditko for Charlton Comics, and he was incorporated into DC Comics with the rest of the Charlton Comics characters. Among these characters were The Question and The Blue Beetle, and it’s arguable that these Charlton Comics superheroes earned their real place in history when they were used as the inspiration for the characters Rorschach and Nite Owl in Watchmen. Alan Moore frequently acknowledges that Captain Atom was the starting point for Dr. Manhattan.
The only idea of Captain Atom as a nuclear super-hero—that had the shadow of the atom bomb hung around him—had been part of the original proposal, but with Dr. Manhattan, by making him kind of a quantum super-hero, it took it into a whole new dimension, it wasn’t just the shadow of the nuclear threat around him.
In the relaunch of Captain Atom, written by J.T. Krul and pencilled by Freddie Williams II with colors by Jose Villarrubia, it’s abundantly clear that this New 52 version of the character is taking many elements from Dr. Manhattan. The redesigned look of Captain Atom is strikingly similar to the appearance of Dr. Manhattan, as can be seen in this image from The Source’s preview of issue #5.
The iridescent blue skin, the bald head (except for the steam-like hair), and the atom symbol as the only mark on an otherwise naked body…it all gives this new Captain Atom a design that is nearly identical to Dr. Manhattan. Not only does Captain Atom now look like Dr. Manhattan, his powers and origin have also been reimagined so that they are analogous to Dr. Manhattan’s quantum abilities.
In the new reality, Adam volunteers to participate in an experiment conducted by a research facility called the Continuum. At this facility, Dr. Megala’s research is focused on the quantum field and on “dimensional transfer through M Theory”. Adam is asked to pilot the dimensional-transfer vessel but is seemingly atomized during the experiment. Soon afterwards, he reappears, now an energy-based life form.
This idea that Nathaniel Adam has been disintegrated and miraculously reappeared in his new energy form is nearly indistinguishable from the way that Dr. Manhattan acquired his abilities in Watchmen. His powers are also radically altered from their pre-52 status (metal Dilustel skin, flight, super strength, durability, energy blasts) to an ability to “tap into the strong nuclear force” and manipulate the molecular structure of matter.
Captain Atom is a being whose atoms are constantly splitting, releasing massive amounts of energy, and then reforming just as quickly. This massive amount of energy can be manipulated in a number of ways such as flight and the ability to transmute physical matter. Captain Atom has been seen to transform lava into snow by willing it and has been able to remove cancer from a human being.
Captain Atom’s ability to transmute matter and restructure molecules at will is extremely comparable to Dr. Manhattan’s quantum powers. Yet even though there is an undeniable similarity, Krul distinguishes Captain Atom’s powers from Dr. Manhattan’s by giving the character an interesting weakness. The atoms that comprise Captain Atom’s body are constantly splitting and reforming, and if he taxes these powers too heavily, he risks the total and complete disintegration of his brain and body. This idea that the fission that powers Captain Atom is also his greatest weakness is one that keeps the character from being practically omnipotent in the way that Dr. Manhattan was in Watchmen. It’s also an attempt at providing a clever scientific explanation for Captain Atom’s powers…granted, it’s a pseudo scientific explanation, but what can I say, it’s obvious that I’m a sucker for fun pseudo science.
This is a good place to try a little pseudo science experiment of my own. Here are a few numbers that are going to be important later in this article: 251:03:22:45. Got it? Okay, let’s move on, shall we?
Here’s another image of Captain Atom from The Source’s preview of issue 5 where we see that Captain Atom is using a famous maneuver from Dr. Manhattan’s play book.
Here, we see Captain Atom has grown to the giant form that Dr. Manhattan was wont to do while singlehandedly winning the Vietnam War.
Beyond the somewhat superficial similarity of powers and appearance, the way that Captain Atom’s personality and role in the New 52 is being handled is parallel to Dr. Manhattan’s outsider perspective in Watchmen. Detailing his take on the new Captain Atom, writer J.T. Krul had this to say:
I’ve said time and again that the genesis for the tone and theme of this book revolves around Captain Atom’s sense of isolation. Given his powers and the very nature of his new form, Captain Atom is virtually an alien on the planet he used to call home. He’s the stranger in the strange land. Ironic, since someone like Superman is an actual alien, yet manages to fit into the world. He’s got family, friends, and even a normal job. All things that continue to elude Captain Atom.
It’s hard for Captain Atom to really connect with anyone else, due to the way he sees the world. It’s all broken down before him – a patchwork of molecules and atoms – It’s like Neo seeing the Matrix. How can you focus on the physical image before you when you see all the layers underneath – all the bits and pieces making up the whole?
The point I am trying to make by drawing this comparison between the relaunched Captain Atom and Dr. Manhattan is that Krul and Williams have taken the best elements of Moore’s quantum character and merged them into the mainstream DCU. They’ve taken elements from a character that was inspired by Captain Atom and they’ve reintegrated some of these ideas back into the source character.
It’s a sort of feedback loop effect. Captain Atom inspires Alan Moore to create Dr. Manhattan, and then Dr. Manhattan inspires the modification of Captain Atom. What you end up with is a refined version of Captain Atom that has the best qualities of the original character and the divergent Dr. Manhattan.
It’s a smart move that made Captain Atom more interesting to me than he has ever been. Instead of a somewhat generic super strong, bullet proof, and flying superhero with energy blasts, Captain Atom has been transformed into a quantum superhero with a set of superpowers that differentiates him from the rest of the invulnerable, paragon-type heroes in the DCU. It also allows DC to have what is basically a Dr. Manhattan solo series without running any risk of alienating Watchmen fans.
I’ve found the first six issues of Krul and Williams run on Captain Atom to be extremely enjoyable. Their take on the character was fresh and interesting, and William’s art has been beautiful throughout the series. Villarrubia’s colors enhance William’s art to great effect, and he’s given Captain Atom just the right iridescent blue glow.
Although I’ve enjoyed the first six issues of the series, there are still some issues with it. Quick, without scrolling up, what was that string of numbers I mentioned earlier?
Can’t remember that meaningless string of digits? That’s one of the things that annoyed me a bit about this comic. There are these captions that Krul often inserts into the panels that read off a bunch of numbers…I assume that this is military time or something, but it takes me right out of the comic. The repetition of these numbers throughout the issues means nothing to me; it’s practically impossible to remember a string of what appear to be random numbers after five pages of story and make any sense of their relation to the narrative. I admit that this is something of a nitpick, and it was really just a minor annoyance for me, but the comic would be better served if these timestamps were omitted altogether. The numbers were 251:03:22:45, by the way.
My second criticism of the series is that Captain Atom looks like a Ken doll. Now, obviously I’m not saying that DC Comics should have glowing blue genitals in one of their comics. I’m not saying that Captain Atom should go full frontal blue nudity (or “bluedity”, if you will) like Dr. Manhattan, but if you’re going to depict the character as naked, it’s somewhat disturbing that he appears to have a blank space where his genitals should be. Give the guy some boxer briefs, like the Silver Surfer sometimes wears. For the love of the New Gods, he can manipulate the structure of molecules…can’t he transmute himself some shorts?
These criticisms are relatively minor and nitpicky in nature. The fact is that Captain Atom has been one of my favorite series of the New 52. However, I’m disappointed to say I don’t think that it’s long for this world. The sales weren’t good from the start of the New 52 in September. Here’s estimates of Captain Atom’s sales figures taken from comicchron.com.
Septempter 2011, Captain Atom #1: 39,699
October 2011, Captain Atom #2: 34,478
November 2011, Captain Atom #3: 24,146
December 2011, Captain Atom #4: 17,917
January 2012, Captain Atom #5: 15,693
Just to give us a little perspective, let’s compare Captain Atom’s December numbers with the estimates for sales of the six titles that have been cancelled already.
December 2011 Sales Estimates
Hawk and Dove #4: 18,014
Captain Atom #4: 17,917
OMAC #4: 16,534
Mister Terrific #4: 16,167
Static Shock #4: 15,763
Blackhawks #4: 15,129
Men of War #4: 14,977
As you can see, it’s not looking good for Captain Atom. It’s right in there in the same ball park as the six titles that DC announced in January that they would be ending with their 8th issue. In fact, Captain Atom actually fell below the now cancelled Hawk and Dove series.
I really think this is a shame. The New 52 has proven that the more esoteric characters in DC’s IP library can sustain their own series if they have a good writer/artist team on the title. Animal Man is a perfect example of this. Yet even though Captain Atom (in my humble opinion) is a well written and illustrated comic that has reimagined the character into a form that’s more compelling than he’s ever been, the series seems destined for cancellation. For some reason, it just hasn’t caught on like Animal Man, Resurrection Man, or Firestorm. It’s a comic that seems to have slipped between the cracks despite its quality.
I guess I’m saying that you should go out and buy Captain Atom. It’s a good comic even though it hasn’t caught the attention of the comics community in the same way that a similarly C-List character like Animal Man has in the fantastic series by Jeff Lemire and Travel Foreman. If you don’t give Captain Atom a chance, it’s more than likely that the series will be cancelled and replaced by a different title, and it would be a real shame for such a good comic to disappear from the stands.