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“The Dark Side of the Force”

  • Writers:  Cary Bates & Greg Weisman
  • Pencils:  Pat Broderick
  • Inks:  Bob Smith
  • Colors:  Carl Gafford
  • Letters:  Duncan Andrews

Although this annual is cover-dated “1988,” it probably should have been the 1987 annual.  It picks up where Captain Atom #12 left off, and was on sale November 24, 1987.  But because comic books are dated 2-3 months after they are published (as are magazines, and I never knew why), this was the 1988 annual.  When annual #2 was published nine months later, it also bore the date “1988.”  So Captain Atom looks like it had two annuals in 1988 when really it was one in 1987 and one in 1988.

Confused?  Me too.

The annual opens to a radio broadcast in a small unnamed community.  Several listeners have reported a UFO in the skies that seems to have gone down in a nearby abandoned limestone quarry.  The DJ suggests that it all just some sort of government plot.  How right he is.

Meanwhile, in his apartment (I think maybe he lives in Washington, DC, but it hasn’t really been established with any certainty yet), Nathaniel Adam is awakened by a phone call.  General Eiling is ordering Captain Atom to investigate the crashed UFO.  Nate seems none too interested until Eiling tells him that Randy will be there.

Indeed, Majestic Squadron is on its way to the quarry via helicopter.  Randy is cracking jokes just like his dad used to do before a dangerous op.  Doctor Megala and General Eiling are watching Randy and Captain Atom’s individual progresses as they head for the crashed ship.

Captain Atom is first to arrive on the scene (aside from some locals).  He touches down in front of the large silver craft as it begins to open.  Cap tries to welcome the aliens to Earth, but the response he gets is an angry rock-man flying out of the open hatch (this is the fellow we met in Captain Atom #12, Clifford Zmeck – aka Major Force).  He lands and then stands before Cap, towering over him.  Nate tells the “alien” that he is his friend, impressing the locals who are watching (Nate is not in the loop – unaware that this alien is actually an Air Force Sergeant).  The alien smacks Cap, sending him flying.

So Cap gets pissed.  He tried the “diplomatic” approach.  Next he tries the “blasting quantum death into the face of the enemy” approach.  The locals cheer for Captain Atom as Megala and Eiling monitor the Major’s vitals.  When Cap goes to investigate the rock face he embedded the Major into, he is blasted by black matter.  Major Force leaps at Captain Atom, calling him “dork face.”

It is the use of the phrase “dork face” that tips Nate off that maybe this dude isn’t an alien after all.  Eiling is proud of “Mr. Zmeck.”  He poses a threat to Captain Atom that Nate hasn’t had to face yet.  Zmeck manipulates matter the way Nate manipulates energy.  It is a welcome surprise to Eiling.  Megala says the use of matter instead of energy could be from the amount of alien metal used on Zmeck, or the lower mega-tonnage of the nuclear device used; or even a variable they don’t even know.

Local news has picked up the battle, which appears to be at a stalemate.  Megala warns Eiling that Zmeck is about to enter his final molting stage.  Eiling orders his man at the scene to step in.

At the scene of the “crash,” a man dressed as an Air Force Major (but wearing green goggle-like glasses that Pat Broderick seems to love drawing) bursts into the crowd of onlookers, saying “My pal, the Captain, needs help.”  He repels into the quarry before the camera crew can get a good look at him.

Zmeck encases Captain Atom in a ball of matter.  Cap tries to break free, but can only manage to get his head and hand out before passing out (from exhaustion I guess).  The mysterious Major has Zmeck in his sights and fires his rifle at the beast just as the final molting process begins.  He then charges at Zmeck, who picks him up to break his back.  Zmeck passes out and the quarry fills with a thick black smoke that obscures the view from above.

Captain Atom revives and sees the alien ship open once more.  General Eiling and Dr. Megala emerge.  A medical team dressed in haz-mat suits check on Zmeck and the mysterious Major (who is actually Lieutenant Martin Allard).  Cap bursts out of his prison, angry that he was used by his superiors.  He says he’d heard rumors of a second experiment with the alien metal.  Eiling explains Major Force Project to Cap (which we learned about in Captain Atom #12).  He tells Cap that the “alien ship” is going to explode and he expects Nate to absorb the flames.  Megala makes a lame apology to Nate for using him like this.  He says Eiling threatened to simply kill Zmeck upon his arrival if Megala didn’t play along.

Cap asks Megala to “please just get out of my sight.”  The doctor follows Eiling into a tunnel that will protect the team from the blast.  The smoke clears just as Majestic Squadron shows up.  Randall Eiling requests a meeting with Captain Atom.  Nate ignores his son (much to his own disgust), picks up Major Force, and flies away.  He pauses long enough to absorb the explosion of the “space craft,” per General Eiling’s orders, before leaving the scene altogether.

Over the next few days, news programs report what little info they have on the crash.  The Air Force isn’t releasing any details, and the identity of the mysterious Major, Captain Atom’s “friend,” is still unknown.  Back at the base, Major Force has been debriefed and has a symbol etched onto his metal skin.  He doesn’t like the implants that monitor his every move or the Delta-9 gas pellets or the head-blowing-off explosives.  Megala doesn’t trust Zmeck but Eiling feels he has complete control over the Major.

Later, Captain Atom holds a press conference.  He explains that Major Force is his ally, an amalgam of the alien and his mysterious Major friend.

Over the course of the next ten days, it becomes clear what a menace General Eiling has unleashed upon the world.  In trying to stop up a breach in the Carson Dam (in Nevada, maybe?), Major Force inadvertently causes the crash of a rescue helicopter and the deaths of everyone on board.  Afterwards he is indignant with witnesses and brags about the thousands of lives he’d saved.  Later, when Major Force responds to a hostage crisis at a “downtown tenement building” (the city is still not identified), he guts the building, sending hostage-takers and hostages alike flying to the ground.  They end up in a local hospital’s ICU.

In an effort to distance himself from Major Force, Captain Atom appears on a news program called Newsprobe.  He apologizes to the public for unleashing Force upon them.  He pleads with Force to curtail future use of his powers.  Eiling, watching the broadcast while on the phone with Megala, thinks he can still spin the Major Force story positively.

Outside the studio, Major Force confronts Captain Atom.  He tells Cap that he’s right – Zmeck has no business being a super-hero.  Upon Force’s request, Cap gives him a lift to the base to see Eiling and Megala (Major Force does not have the ability to fly).  As they approach the base, Force grabs Cap around the neck.  Cap flips Major Force, pissed off that he has been drawn into Eiling’s insane plans.  He thinks to himself, “Never again!”

It appears that, due to his size and strength, Force begins to get the upper-hand.  However, just as he is about to blast Cap with matter, Allard uses the implanted explosives to blow off Major Force’s left hand.  Cap realizes Force is fitted with microphones, cameras, and explosives.  Eiling chides Allard, saying he was supposed to release gas, not blow off the Major’s hand.

“Sorry,” says Allard, “wrong button. Gas activated now.”  (Martin Allard has reason to hate Clifford Zmeck – the Air Force Sergeant killed Allard’s mother in 1969.)

The gas knocks the Major out.  Nate thinks to himself that Eiling made two mistakes.  The first was to underestimate how mentally unstable Zmeck was.  The second was to get Captain Atom involved in the first mistake.  Nate uses concentrated quantum blasts to etch something on Major Force’s chest before tossing the unconscious “super-hero” into Eiling’s headquarters.

Force crashes into Megala’s lab in front of General Eiling, Lieutenant Allard, and Dr. Megala.  Etched on Zmeck’s chest are the words, “I QUIT!”

I vividly remember the first time I read this issue, back in 1987.  It blew my poor little fifteen-year-old mind (for reasons I will clarify when I review Captain Atom #15… How’s that for foreshadowing?).  It was an exciting story.  I loved the idea of another quantum powered dude out there, a less-intelligent Moriarty to Captain Atom’s Sherlock Holmes.  I don’t know why Greg Weisman started shouldering the writing responsibility with Cary Bates, but they seemed to be a good team.  And Pat Broderick and Bob Smith did a great job.  An A effort all around.

This was another important milestone in Captain Atom’s history, although I did not realize it at the time I first read it.  From 1960 to 1975, Cap only appeared in 24 comics as a major character.  That’s just 24 issues spread out over 15 years (and two of those appearances were just in fanzines).  He was always on the fringe of the DC Universe from the time he was purchased from Charlton Comics.  He was included in the Crisis on Infinite Earths mini-series but not as a major player.  He really came into his own with this particular series, and was popular enough to warrant two annuals.  I remember (not knowing about the character’s history pre-1987) being anxious about how this was all going to play out when I was a kid.  Rereading this annual transported me back to simpler times in my life, when my $8 a week allowance was blown at Komix Kastle the day I got it.  Ah, youth.