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“Introducing Captain Atom”

  • Artist: Steve Ditko
  • Writer: Joe Gill

Space Adventures was an anthology series published by Charlton Comics in the late 1950s – early 1960s.  This issue has four science-fiction tales, but for the purposes of this blog I am only reading the Captain Atom story.

Let’s set our wayback machines to March 1960 and see what the world was like.  On March 4, 1960, French cargo ship La Coubre, carrying 70 tons of munitions from Belgium, exploded in Havana harbor, killing 70 bystanders.  On March 21, 1960, South African police fired on unarmed black protesters in Sharpeville, killing 69.  Staff Sergeant Elvis Presley was honorably discharged from the United States Army on March 6.  Dwight Eisenhower was president of the United States, but later that year John F. Kennedy would be elected as 35th president.  Man had not yet walked on the moon and the Cold War was still simmering.

In this issue we are first introduced to Captain Adam (we don’t get his first name in this issue), “the Air Force career man who knew more about rocketry, missiles, and the universe than any man alive… a specialist of the missile age, a trained, dedicated soldier who was a physics prodigy at eight, a chemist, a ballistics genius! In short, Captain Adam was an invaluable space-age soldier even before that memorable day at Cape Canaveral, Florida, when an Atlas missile was being readied for blast-off… with an atomic warhead inside… and Captain Adam making the final last-second adjustments!”

So it is established in the first panel that this Air Force Captain is the cock of the walk.  However, he appears to lack common sense.  He finds himself doing last-minute repairs to a missile that is set to launch in just three minutes.  He drops his screwdriver and thus his goose is cooked.  He has time to say, “It looks as though I’m going for a fast, long ride!” before the rocket launches.  Oh yeah, he’s a comic book character so he talks to himself a lot.  The general at ground control tries to stop the launch but is too late.

As the rocket launches, an airman on the ground remarks, “The best officer in the Air Force is in there!”  So, in case you missed it in the opening paragraph, Captain Adam is basically The Shit around Cape Canaveral.

The crushing weight of the G force causes the Captain to pass out as the rocket climbs higher into the atmosphere.

Now, for some reason, this rocket has an atomic warhead that was set to explode 300 miles above the Earth.  The automatic countdown can’t be stopped and the warhead detonates.  “At the instant of fission, Captain Adam was not flesh, bone and blood at all… the desiccated molecular skeleton was intact but a change, never  known to man, had taken place!”  I love how in old comics every sentence ends with an exclamation point!  Like the narrator is reading it to you frantically!

Why'd you have to drop the screwdriver, Cap?

So, Captain Adam is dead.  Incinerated.  Kaput.  Just like all those poor Japanese people in Hiroshima, he has been disintegrated.  His buddy Gunner is very sad.

But wait!  A disembodied voice is calling Gunner to the launchpad.  Could it be?  Is it?

Yes!

Could you get me some pants, Gunner?

Captain Adam is alive, but radioactive.  A special suit is quickly fashioned for him to protect those around him (but his face and hands are exposed… well, everyone knows you can’t get radiation sickness from kissing or handshakes).  This is the material his costume is made of.  In this first issue it is blue but later yellow.

Military big-wigs are called in and the Captain demonstrates all the new powers he instinctively knows he has developed.  He can burn away his clothes to expose the special suit underneath, and fly at speeds of over 20,000 miles per hour.  That’s it. That’s it?

Captain Adam visits The President, who gives him a special cowl and logo for his costume.  He tells the Captain he is now “Captain Atom,” and must work in secret  to deter war.  This doesn’t make sense though.  Wouldn’t he be a better war deterrent in the open, like Dr. Manhattan in Watchmen?

But Captain Atom doesn’t have time to argue details with The President (it is purposefully ambiguous about who the president is), because some dirty Commies have sabotaged another rocket launch.  The missile was supposed to have detonated harmlessly over the sea (what’s with all these rockets being detonated?), but the course has been altered to hit a huge industrial complex in Russia, sparking a retaliation and full-blown nuclear war.

Captain Atom intercepts the missile, detonates it in space, saves the day, and gets a handshake from The President.  The end.

Steve Ditko’s art is clean and the Captain looks suitably heroic and muscle-bound.  I really did like the panel with Gunner being all sad.  The story is choppy and (I can’t believe I’m saying this about 1960s sci-fi) there isn’t enough exposition.  What is the purpose of blowing all these rockets up?  Why are they so vague about Cap’s powers?  If atomic blasts make you a super-hero, why isn’t Japan populated with more Power Rangers?

But it is good for what it was.  Obviously, in 1960 I wouldn’t have been Joe Gill’s target demographic.  The origin story is similar to that of Dr. Manhattan’s, but in Watchmen, it made more sense.  I think if I had spent a dime on Space Adventures #33 as a nine-year-old, I would have been antsy for the next issue.  Let’s see what Cap can do!

Art: A, Story: C. I give the issue a solid B.

This “universe” was absorbed into DC Comics’ Multiverse when the Charlton characters were purchased by DC.  This universe became Earth-4.

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