By C.J. Bunce
With the Before Watchmen series announced last month “coming soon to a comic book store near you,” now there is more reason than ever to catch up on the current exploits of one of the characters that inspired Doctor Manhattan himself, Captain Atom. Of all the 52 of DC Comics New 52 series, Captain Atom is one of the titles I am still reading after 6 months, up there with All Star Western, Batgirl, Batwoman, Justice League Dark, and Wonder Woman. Yes, I like it better than all the Batman titles I tried on for size and the much praised Animal Man. Captain Atom has probably gotten lost a bit in the shuffle between umpteen Bat-titles and all the Justice League headliner superheroes. So if you are someone whose pull list hasn’t dabbled yet into the rest of the DC universe, this is the first book you should grab to get caught up.
The trade paperback to be published later this year will compile the first six issues, written by J.T. Krul with art by Freddie Williams II, plus it will include additional materials. Spoilers ahead!
In Issue #1 we meet the New 52 Captain Atom in a story along the lines of those found in some other New 52 titles–we fear that which we do not understand–as Captain Atom is attacked by those he wishes to protect. Captain Atom can absorb energy in great amounts but to protect the eastern seaboard he must harness the energy of both a volcano and a nuclear reaction. Uncertain of his abilities, neither he nor his supporters know what can happen. As to comic book intrigue factor, Captain Atom’s abilities offer a “Wonder Twins” meets MacGyver brand of problem solving–and decisions that could result in his own destruction.
Of course with unprecedented devastation, including natural and man-made disasters, society does what it does best, cast blame, and Captain Atom becomes a target in Issue #2. We learn his back story–that of a Captain, Nathaniel Adam, a volunteer in an experiment gone wrong–and that his new “condition” was inadvertently created by a Stephen Hawking-level genius named Dr. Megala. Where some New 52 titles offer no origin story or bombard you with back story, Captain Atom gives readers just what they need to push the story forward. If you liked the superhero-themed TV series Alphas, you will see Captain Atom exhibiting a “seeing” ability much like Gary, the autistic character on the show (for me the best character on Alphas). One of Freddie Williams’ best images to-date is in this issue, an incredible multi-layered splash page of Captain Atom reaching between two worlds, into this new realm of being, laid out over the shadow of the mere mortals mocking him.
Captain Atom struggles with similar, but different, conflicts as Superman in Issue #3–you have all the power but not all the time to fix everything and a superhero must make choices. Honing in on a boy with cancer, Captain Atom moves from volcano blast to Fantastic Voyage–battling an equally large war but on a microscopic scale and moves on to try to literally take on everyone’s problems. In his first team-up, with Barry Allen’s Flash, possibilities of JLA partnerships are opened up for future issues. Behind the scenes there lurks a grotesque abomination in the streets that surfaces in the background of each issue. Unlike the grotesque art in the pages of Animal Man (where I just couldn’t continue moving forward with the series because it looks so…ugly… and I can hardly wait to read how Jeff Lemire takes on Justice League Dark), here the grotesque is more stylized and nuanced–less off-putting for the average reader.
In Issue #4 the inevitable surfaces as the “Captain” in Captain Atom takes front stage and we see that Atom must face similar pressures as Steve Austin in Phil Hester and Kevin Smith’s Bionic Man series–the influence of the military industrial complex surfaces with questions harkening back to 1930s science and the ethics of mass destruction. Captain Atom is a classic superhero in every sense, only he has more than the one-note power you find with other superheroes, such as the Flash with merely fantastic speed. Atom here could take on the Earth’s mightiest mortal, Captain Marvel, because of the enormity of his power, and yet he suffers a social fate similar to Rogue from the X-Men, he can change matter, he can absorb energy, he can be everywhere. But can he fix everything?
With the end of Issue #4 and the beginning of Issue #5, Atom becomes scarier and the reader joins the naysayers on the question of whether Atom should continue on unimpeded when he’s unable to control his power. In Issue #6 Atom faces himself and his biggest threat, and a double-page spread shows the mirror reflection of Atom and his enemy. Both villains who were initially typical baddies: a pain in the ass general and would-be Jack McGee/Ross archetype (from Marvel’s Hulk) and a monster of sorts, are written to be somewhat sympathetic in the end.
J.T. Krul writes a complete story in the pages of Issues #1-6 with the creativity seen in his Fathom and earlier Green Arrow work that eclipses his work on the current Green Arrow series that he also has been writing (I chalk that up to a Green Arrow character at a stage in its history where there is not much exciting that can be done by anyone). There is plenty of character development in these first six issues. The climax of this first Captain Atom story involves another team-up, a surprising one at that–that forecasts and unleashes endless possibilities for future issues. And we are left with a great cliffhanger to boot.
Williams’ illustrations are refreshingly unique in the New 52. He varies his styles and drawing and painting techniques in way I have not seen anywhere else. He doesn’t just draw panels like he is getting directions from a script and plodding ahead. The pages are nicely balanced, employing what reminds me for lack of a better phrase as “special effects”–bubbling imagery of dematerializing hands, edges that are almost undefinable for Captain Atom himself to give the feel of heat and energy, panel borders that converge in a way similar to what J.H. Williams is doing on his Batwoman series. And kudos to Jose Villarrubia for his coloring, which really draws out Williams creative effects and highlights Captain Atom in particular.
One last thing–although it is neither targeted to young readers nor a mature title, Captain Atom could be recommended for every age. Compared to other New 52 titles, you won’t find here pole dancers (Voodoo), human skin removed and used as a mask (Detective Comics), rivers of blood (Animal Man), or T&A overload (Red Hood and the Outlaws).
I am looking forward to the continuation of this series with Freddie Williams as series artist and J.T. Krul as writer. Their contributions combine for a solid series and these first six issues, with one complete story from beginning to end, will make a good read for those who pick up the trade paperback when it becomes available.