Some people believe that Superman is the most powerful superhero out there. Well, that's debatable. There are cosmic powered folks like the Silver Surfer. Near-immortal warriors such as Thor. The entire Green Lantern Corps wield some of the most powerful weapons in the universe. And there's also a guy who's been around DC Comics for quite some time and whose powers make some of Superman's abilities pale in comparison.We're talking about Captain Atom. He's been interpreted a few different ways over the years and he is perhaps better known through the character Dr. Manhattan from Watchmen, whose existence he inspired. So join us as we check out this strange hero who walks the line between a human and a god.
THE CHARLTON VERSION
The original version of Captain Atom was introduced in Space Adventures #33, published by Charlton Comics in 1960. This was a character born very much out of the Cold War that existed between the USA and the USSR. Allen Adam was a technician who accidentally got locked inside an experimental missile that shot into space and then blew up. Though he was atomized, Allen somehow reformed his body. Now alive and tangible again, the experience had left him with atomic abilities. Whenever he "powered up" those abilities, he gave off radiation so he needed something to protect others from being poisoned by his presence.President Truman had a special outfit made for Allen and dubbed him Captain Atom, America's protector. Captain Atom defended his country from various foreign threats. That didn't only include Russian spies and saboteurs but also pesky alien conquerors and terrorists. So what we have here is a pretty simplistic hero, one who stands for patriotism and optimism. So it makes sense to have him in bright, primary colors. Initially, he has a cool temperature appearance with a blue costume that has purple thrown in. Later on, it develops into red and yellow. This last color combination makes some sense since Captain Atom's nature implies danger and explosions, two things that are often associated in comics and cartoons with the colors red and yellow. It's a simplistic costume. A definite product of its time, when radiation was a big concern due to the rising Cold War and then the Cuban Missile Crisis. This is also the era of the space race, so it makes sense that Captain Atom is a child prodigy who becomes both a pilot and a "rocket and missile expert" and that he's dressed like a new version of Flash Gordon.
Later on, things changed. Captain Atom's design became less of a disguise. We got a blue costume with exposed silver arms. The atomic symbol is still there and prominent, but now Captain Atom seems more a classic superhero in the vein of Superman. The sense of patriotism has also been enhanced since the silver arms and hair bring in a sense of white, making our hero red, white and blue.
I don't think the shorts outside the trousers really works and I think the chest symbol could do with a little more design work. An old style atom symbol with a nimbus of yellow is a little on the nose.
The Charlton characters were later reintroduced into the mainstream DC Universe after DC Comics bought the rights. Before the new version of Captain Atom was introduced, the character was retooled to become "Dr. Manhattan" in the limited series Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. There, the scientist who is atomized and then rebuilds himself is left as a blue-skinned humanoid who then marks his head with the symbol of a hydrogen atom.
DC Comics Version 1In the DC Comics Universe, Allen Adam, child prodigy who acted as a scientist in many fields, became USAF pilot Capt. Nathaniel Adam. In the new story, Nathaniel was the test subject of Project: Captain Atom. The military had found a strange sample of alien metal that seemed to absorb energy. They placed Nathaniel into a capsule formed of the stuff and then blew up an atomic bomb to see if it would protect him (which totally makes sense and doesn't sound unsafe, right?). Nathaniel and the metal were apparently atomized but, in fact, they were merged and the energy absorption had sent them forward into the future. 20 years after he was assumed dead, Nathaniel Adam emerged from the quantum field, now covered with the metal from head to toe and empowered by its strange qualities. He was Captain Atom (although his powers were said to be truly based on quantum physics and energy manipulation). Special dyes were used to give him a more superhero style appearance, giving him a chest symbol and the appearance of gloves and boots.
This was an interesting look, giving a nod to Dr. Manhattan but also remaining faithful to the basic design elements of the Charlton Captain Atom wth the exposed hair and classic atom symbol on the chest. It definitely made him stand out in a crowd even when he was amongst other superheroes.In the 1990s story Kingdom Come, which took place outside of continuity, artist Alex Ross gave Captain Atom's metal exterior a new appearance that recalled the color scheme of his early Charlton incarnation. This wasn't adopted into the comics until a few years later in a mini-series called L.A.W.: Living Assault Weapons. This team reunited the characters that had once belonged to Charlton Comics.
At the beginning of the story, Captain Atom was rocking a new blue and silver look, which was pretty sleek and definitely nice, although it also runs the risk of seeming pretty generic. At the end of the mini-series, Captain Atom had to reform his body after a serious trauma and, as a strange side-effect, he now had the Alex Ross design.The mini-series didn't do very well, so DC was quick to ignore it and return Captain Atom to his initial 1980s metallic appearance. But several years later, Captain Atom was accidentally transported into the universe of Wildstorm Comics and the journey altered his shell, making him once again rock out the Alex Ross look. The colors aren't bad, but the giant atom symbol seems a little too busy at times, depending on the artist and the angle how you're viewing the hero.
DC RELAUNCH: THE NEW CAPTAIN ATOMRecently, DC relaunched it's entire superhero universe with "the New 52," referring to the 52 new titles that emerged, all of which started at issue #1. Although some characters such as Green Lantern and Batman maintained most of their history and some suffered a few alterations but were still recognizable, others were completely rebooted from scratch. Captain Atom fit into this latter category.
In the new monthly Captain Atom series, the hero is one again USAF pilot Nathaniel Adam. This time, the experiment he participates in is an attempt to journey through other dimensions. In attempting his journey, Nathaniel Adam was turned into an atomic being, with the atoms of his body constantly splitting and reforming, giving him incredible amounts of energy that fuel his many abilities. Along with this, he has enhanced senses and can manipulate matter. Rather than being a straight superhero story, this series is more of a science fiction drama focusing on how an ordinary man deals with suddenly being blessed with god-like power that he can't turn off.His new appearance definitely reflects this new nature. The previous DC Comics version of Captain Atom could turn off his metal shell, taking on the appearance of a normal human being whenever he wished. But this version is stuck like this and can never escape the fact that he's no longer human. He definitely seems almost god-like, which is important because this isn't just a guy who can shoot lasers and toss cars. This is someone who can see cell phone transmissions in the air and actually remove cancer from a human being. It evokes the original DC Comics Captain Atom so he's not unrecognizable, but it's still clear that this is a whole new ball game.
Be sure to check out Captain Atom every month. It's only a few issues in, so it isn't a big deal to catch up. Until next time, this is Alan Kistler, Agent of S.T.Y.L.E., signing off!
Alan Sizzler Kistler is an actor and freelance writer living in New York City. His work can be found on various websites and he has been recognized by publishers and news media outlets as a comic book historian and Doctor Who historian. He is the author of the Unofficial Game of Thrones Cook Book (coming out in May) and a contributor to the book Star Trek and History, coming soon. He knows entirely too much about superheroes, time travel stories, Muppets, and vampires that don't sparkle. His website is AlanKistler.com and his twitter feed is @SizzlerKistler.