Hi – apologies for the delay(!) – but I’m back from the Quantum field and onto a regular weekly schedule. As you’ll notice, this is a rather big instalment and covers material from March 1960 up to, well, present day.
In addition to Captain Atom #3, I’m also including Secret Origins (2nd Series) #34 which has the background (and media PR campaign) to the “false” origin presented in Captain Atom #3. There’s also a lot of real world content too.
This entry dedicated to Darwyn Cooke – thanks for putting the fun back in my comics.
Captain Atom (2nd series, 1986) issue #3
Published: February 26th, 1987
Cover date: May 1987
Cover price: 75 cents (US), $1 (Canada), 40 pence (UK)
Montage dominated by the three “evolving” versions of Captain Atom (according to the “Big Lie” origin) with a mushroom cloud constrained as a background inside the largest figure.
Pencilled by: Pat Broderick
Inked by: Bob Smith
Title: “Blast from the Past” [32 pages, 22 story]
Cary Bates (W )
Pat Broderick (P)
Bob Smith (I)
John Costanza (L)
Carl Gafford (C)
Denny O’Neil (E)
1st appearance of Tod Donner, host of TV topical affairs/chat show “Nightzone”. See Comments for his real-world (or Earth Prime, if you prefer) inspiration.
The nationally televised “show and tell” presentation of the “Big Lie” designed to present the American people with a rationale and digestible “heroic” backstory for the new government-sanctioned hero, “Captain Atom”.
Captain Atom’s fabricated origin as part of the “Big Lie”. As noted elsewhere, it’s basically the 1960 Charlton Comics origin as originally written by Joseph Gill and drawn by Steve Ditko back in Space Adventures #33. Although not true, it would be this very origin that the general population and heroes/villains alike would believe for some time. It has some nips and tucks here and there, but it’s essentially the same. It won’t be the US Government’s (or Eiling’s) last attempt at creating a bogus origin either, but that’s for the future…
General Wade R. Eiling (USAF, Head of the Atom Project), Dr. Heinrich Megala (Chief Scientist, the Atom Project), Sergeant Jeffrey “Goz” Goslin (USAF, Nathaniel Adam’s best friend), Margaret “Peggy” Eiling (now 23, last scene as a 1 year old in Captain Atom #1)
Ok, this is where it starts getting complex and, to be fair, slightly genius.
For most Post-Crisis revamps, older Pre-Crisis continuity was mostly junked or at best comprehensively revamped for more modern sensibilities. Generally this meant time-shifting the origin 20 years or so (making the characters essentially younger), trimming perceived golden age (or silver age) whimsy (bye-bye Bat-mite) and paring things back down to their core concepts.
For some characters the effect was subtle (Batman, who it could be argued, has a fairly timeless origin didn’t really change a great deal, rather he was stripped down, mostly through Frank Miller’s “Year One” arc in Batman #404-#407, to the essential essence of the character), sometimes the revamps were considerable (Superman, whose John Byrne Marvel-style “Man of Steel” mini-series initially shed most of the Silver Age paraphernalia which had accumulated over time).
Additional challenges were perhaps present for the “other Earth/other Publisher” characters such as Charlton’s Earth-Four characters (of which The Question is a prime example) and (originally) Fawcett’s Earth-S characters of which Captain Marvel (or Shazam!) is by far the best known. In each case their Earths operated using a different story logic to the then mainstream Earth-1; as a consequence some tonal shifts were additionally made when everything merged to become the post-Crisis DCU.
Occasionally things were changed out of sheer necessity, for example Power Girl and Huntress, who no longer could be Earth Two legacy characters (Superman of Earth-Two’s younger cousin Kara and the daughter of the Earth-Two Darknight Detective and Catwoman respectively). This meant brand new origins had to be sewn from fresh cloth whilst still retaining most of the narrative and visual continuity that had gone before and, essentially, which had made the characters popular in the first place. Power Girl therefore becomes the Atlantean Sorceror Arion’s Grand-daughter (initially…although this is eventually reversed in Infinite Crisis) and a new Huntress alter-ego is created in the form of Helena Bertinelli, a mobster’s daughter/princess.
Although there were definitely some missteps here and there (maybe one for another day), it was undeniably an exhilarating time to be a DC reader with fresh takes on classic characters being launched thick and fast at the comic reading public with nary a negative murmur: Byrne and Wolfman’s Superman, Miller’s Year One Batman, Perez’ Wonder Woman, Mike Baron’s Flash, Truman’s Hawkworld, Grell’s Green Arrow, Christopher Priest’s Emerald Dawn … the list went on and on.
All of it, from my perspective, sheer class – DC had struck a genuinely creative rich seam and was diligently mining it for all it was worth.
Whilst fellow ex-Earth Four heroes Blue Beetle and The Question had subtly-altered histories to fit the Post-Crisis DCU, Cary Bates and Greg Weisman went one better on this book; they essentially kept all the major beats of the pre-Crisis Earth Four adventures published by Charlton Comics, creatively becoming part of the new Captain Atom’s “bogus” case file, part of the “big lie” that the US Government had crafted to earn public trust by “admitting” that he had been covertly protecting them for some time. Which of course, he hadn’t, but as I said: genius.
Talk about having your continuity cake and eating it!
In this way, old tales were still (kind of) able to be referenced and, bonus, it didn’t matter if they seemed quaint and old-fashioned, as stories of a secret cold-war “past”, this was perfectly natural and simply enriched the narrative.
Of course, there would always be the problem of doing the “research” properly and making sure these past claims were bullet-proof. As we will later see, holes start to form and the results of this prove fatal for some of the people involved.
However, for now, it’s genius and gets the immediate results required: A “new” superhero instantly becomes America’s “he’s-always-been-there-you-just-didn’t-know-it” secret protector, only reluctantly coming out of the shadows, cast as a sympathetic widower honouring the promise to his dying wife that he should openly embrace the world and do “great things” with his fantastic powers. What’s not to love?
Theresa Delgado, a Public Relations consultant hired by the US Government, is the brains behind the “big lie”. Secret Origins (2nd Series) #34 has much more on this (see later in this article). It’s possible, of course, that she, like Old Wizard Shazam and Earth Prime writers before her, had a brain that was simply “tuning into” the pre-Crisis Earth Four reality. Or it’s just plain-old coincidence. Personally, the “Julius Schwartz” in me likes to think it’s the former as that somehow ironically bookends Cary Bates previous Earth One/Earth Prime adventures in Justice League of America! Your mileage may vary, naturally.
For the record, Theresa will continue as a supporting character on-and-off for a while yet, but you need to read the Secret Origins issue for her proper introduction.
What about the actual story. Well, without giving too much away, this is presented as following two separate events – Atom’s interview with Donner where he reveals the false history and Atom’s somewhat confrontational “top-brass” briefing and attempted rescue of the crippled Nuclear Submarine, the Stalwart.
The story ends with Atom’s apparently destruction as he recklessly, perhaps because he feels lost and rejected by his children, absorbs excessive leaking atomic energy much too quickly.
As we’ll discover, there is a limit to the rate at which the Captain can absorb energy and channel it into the Quantum Field via his metal skin, if this is uncontrollably exceeded, the effect is an unpredictable Quantum Leap (like the original which took him instantaneously from 1968 to 1986). The length of time-jump appears to be proportional to the amount of excess energy soaked up; in this case, the energy was relatively small so the leap is actually more of a Quantum “step”, but we’ll look at this next time. At this point in his career, his ability to “hold out” is limited; he’ll get much better at this as time goes by and even learn to use it to his advantage.
Suffice to say this aspect of the Captain’s power set is both interesting as a potential plot device (if used well as it is in Captain Atom #37) and potentially character–weakening (and way too predictable), much as with Superman’s kryptonite, if used repetitively or poorly.
There are very few DC Universe-wide crossovers where Captain Atom has been allowed to play a fairly central role, “Invasion!” notwithstanding (as we will see around Captain Atom #24). To my chagrin, this weakness has often been used to take Captain Atom off the board, especially during such larger conflicts or miss them altogether because he’s “in quantum transit” as they occurred.
I can think of a few of these just off the top of my head without any real difficulty: Armageddon 2001 #2, JLA/JSA Virtue and Vice, Superman/Batman: Public Enemies. That said, perhaps the most inventive use of it was the deliberate one at the end of Justice League: Generation Lost #24 where basically Cap saves the day by threatening to purposefully do this. But I won’t spoil that here…I do recommend the entire series though. It has one of the best nods to another character’s mid-series continuity change I have ever encountered.
But I won’t spoilt that here… 🙂
The Post-Crisis DCU’s ABC News has a presenter called Tod Donner. He’s clearly based on real-life American news anchor and journalist Edward James Martin “Ted” Koppel who presented a show called “Nightline” on ABC from 1980 to 2005. Although the epitome of an American news anchor, he was born in Nelson, Lancashire and immigrated to America in his teens. British readers may also be interested to know that he was succeeded by our very own Martin Bashir (yes, he of Princess Diana interview fame). That presenter time-span puts Koppel (and his programme) clearly in the frame as “Tod” and “Nightzone”’s respective inspirations. Let’s not even mention the surname pattern of vowels and consonants 🙂
Donner will reappear in later Captain Atom issues, which I kind of like from a “light touch” continuity point of view, the conceit being that Donner’s programme’s is “an old friend” of the Captain’s since transmitting his “official” public reveal.
I find it somewhat heartening to think that, like his real-world counterpart, Donner’s Nightzone career may also have lasted until 2005, perhaps when he was succeeded by the DCU’s equivalent of Bashir who went on to report the Infinite Crisis a year later.
Ok, here’s some comparison imagery.
Firstly, the problem in the rocket when the screwdriver is dropped…
|Space Adventures #33 original (Steve Ditko)|
|DC Comics Presents #90 Earth-? (Denys Cowan).|
|Secret Origins (2nd) #34 “Big Lie” retelling (Alan Weiss)|
|Captain Atom #3 “Big Lie” re-telling (Pat Broderick). Note, he’s USAAF now, rather than USA.|
|Space Adventures #33 original (Steve Ditko)|
|DC Comics Presents #90 Earth-? (Denys Cowan).|
|Captain Atom #3 “Big Lie” re-telling (Pat Broderick)|
|DC New Frontier #6 (Darwyn Cooke)|
His reintegration back on the ground following the rocket’s explosion in orbit…
|Space Adventures #33 original (Steve Ditko)|
|DC Comics Presents #90 Earth-? version (Denys Cowan)|
|Secret Origins (2nd) #34 “Big Lie” retelling (Alan Weiss)|
|Captain Atom #3 “Big Lie” retelling (Pat Broderick)|
For quick comparison, here’s an abbreviated version of the origin as seen in Charlton Bullseye (2nd) #7.
The bogus origin makes use of the original Captain Atom costume (originally blue, but then re-coloured to its much more recognised gold in successive adventures and reprints). This debuted in the real world in Charlton’s Space Adventures #33:
And it also features the second, silver, blue and red suit that debuted in Captain Atom #87 which was used during the second part of silver age, through his sporadic bronze age appearances and then in DC’s Crisis on Infinite Earths and his team-up appearance in DC Comics Presents #90. His rationale for making his costume alters in the big lie retelling: in the original Charlton tales it was a special liquid metal that once sprayed on his skin was absorbed and enabled him to not only protect others from his radiation but also help hide his secret identity. When he charged his power, the coloured liquid metal came to the surface of his skin to form the patriotically coloured uniformed. In the big lie retelling the silver effect was simply caused by the progressive nature of his powers over time.
Interestingly a later DC Captain Atom story arc would see his power’s fluctuate necessitating the “real” use of these costumes. But, again, a story for another day.
Rating: Story : 5/5 (Excellent)
Art : 5/5 (Excellent!)
I love this issue. It works on so many different levels. We have the Donner interview and bogus bio which encapsulates the Charlton origin and stories in a creative and compelling manner, intertwined with the rescue of the Stalwart nuclear submarine and then the meeting of Nathaniel and his grown-up daughter who doesn’t know him from, um, Adam…and then the self-sacrificing Quantum step from a man who’s feeling he may as just disappear off the face of the planet. And who promptly then does!
Writing and art work are on fine form here with the reader hopefully feeling increasingly sympathetic to the heroic and morally dubious somersaults Adam is being forced to perform in order to retain his freedom. But then, after all, he is an airman and he is used to following orders. He just really doesn’t like them at the moment, but that’s not going to stop him from following them and, above all, saving lives if he possibly can.
Even at the risk of his life.
Best quote: “Good night, Captain Atom…and may God be with you.”
My favourite issue so far, and given what we’ve seen so far, that’s amazing. It’s usually a revealing sign when you can remember exactly where you were when you first read a particular issue; this one was read on a hot afternoon whilst sat on my Grandmother’s front door step waiting for her to return home. Happy days.
Elsewhere in the DC Universe
Ok, this is a bit of a cheat. We’re going to have a look at Secret Origins (2nd Series) 34 which is “elsewhere” in terms of continuity rather than concurrent publishing.
This issue was published as part of a three part series-within-a-series focusing on various B and C-level (I hate those terms, but there you go…) heroes of the then Justice League International (the JLI). Issue #33 had already focussed on Jack Kirby’s New God Mister Miracle, Green Flame (“Fire”) and Icemaiden (“Ice”). Issue #35 would tackle Maxwell Lord IV, Martian Manhunter and Dan Jurgens’ favourite time-travelling self-promoter Booster Gold. Taken together these issues form a lovely triptych by DC fan-favourite Jerry “the extraordinary” Ordway:
What’s probably true here is that the covers work better together than as individual images, but then, that is the entire point of a triptych 😉
Issue 34, published September 20th 1988 and cover dated 1988 detailed the secret origins of Rocket Red 4, Captain Atom and popular Green Lantern G’Nort. The cover shows them flying out of the JLI’s New York embassy which they moved into during JLI #7’s classic “Moving day” story (with events occurring simultaneously with Captain Atom #10, as we will see).
DC had previously covered the post-Crisis origins of the Justice Society of America (itself an update of DC’s somewhat belated bronze-age telling of the team’s 1940 origin in 1977’s DC Special #29) in Secret Origins #31 and the Justice League of America in Secret Origins #32. The latter has plot by Keith Giffen, script by Peter David and lovely art by Eric (“Oz series”) Shanower.
As a side note, the JSA origin isn’t bad but the art by Michael Bair, an artist I like a great deal, is a little variable in places. Incidentally, there’s a lovely debate over the importance or probably more accurately, the historical significance and story beats of having/not having Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman as part of the inaugural JSA adventure over in episode 31 of Ryan Daly’s Secret Origins podcast. This beautifully crafted podcast series is now a member of Rob Kelly and Shag Matthews’ Fire and Water podcast network. If you haven’t already done so, please do check the Secret Origins podcast and, indeed, any of those featured on the network; they are all uniformly entertaining, educational, inspirational and just plain FUN. Listening to these reminds me why I love comics so much. My personal favourite is probably the “Who’s who” podcast.
Although the whole of the Secret Origins series has the highest possible recommendation, these 5 issues are brilliant examples of post-crisis cohesiveness. None of these are my favourite single issue, however; that accolade goes to the fantastic Black Canary origin in the last issue (#50) by writer-supreme Alan Brennert, but any issue in this series is worth your time. Actually, pretty much any comic written by Alan Brennert is worth your time! He hasn’t written many, and they are scattered across the two big publishers’ timeline, but arguably there’s not really a duff one in the entire set.
Sidebar – Alan Brennert substantive comic checklist:
And if you’re in the UK, you can visit Amazon to order a lovely hardcover collection of Alan’s DC Batman work, “Tales of the Batman Alan Brennert”. (Note. The original, unpublished version of this instalment pleaded with DC to publish a collection like this – now, I can happily just provide the link).
Issue #34’s Captain Atom origin, a tale called “Yesterday once more” which was written by Bates from a plot by Weisman (so it has to be taken as authoritative), is basically the backstory to the creation of the bogus bio related in Captain Atom #3 and mainly focuses on Theresa Delgado’s attempts to construct a tale that meets Eiling’s (and by extension, the US Government’s) requirements. Eiling’s not easy to please, it seems.
Alan Weiss (best known for his Marvel artwork) supplies the line work here; it won’t be the only time he gets to draw the good Captain, see Armageddon : The Alien Agenda #3 for that, but that won’t be until 1992.
Incidents related here as part of the bogus origin include:
Really elsewhere in the DC Universe
Ok, so back in this timeframe…
The reboot Post-Legends Justice League (not yet formerly “International” but it’s heading in that direction) starts in earnest, courtesy of the stellar team of Keith Giffen, Jean-Marc Dematteis, Kevin Maguire and Terry Austin.
It also introduces (to the best of my knowledge at least) the much imitated, parodied and referenced “looking up at the camera” group shot of the last 20 years or so. God, that’s such a great cover; the word “iconic” is overused, I think, but in this case, it’s well deserved. To think that Kevin Maguire was a relative newcomer to comic art at this time!
Why the love?
Simply put: this team is interesting. There’s the new female Doctor Light (introduced in Crisis), the most reader-accessible New God, Mister Miracle (and his wonderfully acerbic-but-loyal assistant Oberon), the 80s revamped (costume-wise from Detective Comics #554) Black Canary, JLA-stalwart Martian Manhunter (seen by many as the heart of the Justice League), the 2nd Blue Beetle (Ted Kord), Captain Marvel (“Shazam!”), Green Lantern Guy Gardner (often seen as the 4th most popular Earth GL after Hal Jordan, John Stewart and Alan Scott, but riding high at that time post-Crisis due to that maxi-series and his redevelopment in the Green Lantern Corp book) and…Batman.
Yes – Batman, the same guy who was just completing part 4 of Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s masterfully reworked origin in the “Year One” arc progressing through the eponymous Batman title. At the time this seemed both logical but also a little odd; Batman wasn’t being promoted as much of a team player anymore (see his appearance in Superman’s Man of Steel 3” for a flavour of how things have changed post “Man of Steel” mini-series) and his inclusion here seems more like a tent-pole exercise rather than fulfilling storytelling logic. As it turns out, he fits in just fine, he’s the gravelly voice of reason and experience in the crazy-ass events that slowly unfold. Some might argue that Batman is the cranky Uncle to the Martian Manhunter’s perpetually put-upon Dad. I think there’s some truth in that. Thankfully, Batman is a character that fits all types of stories – he isn’t just the avenging-son obsessed scourge of the Gotham underworld. Let him have some fun and humanity, this is comics y’know?!
It’s fair to say that Justice League becomes a book as much about friendship than beating up the next power-mad scientist/alien/dicatator determined to hurt innocent people (although that happens too). I think that’s why it is still eminently relevant and reads so well today – its themes are still as important today and, possibly, pre-configure many of the popular comedy-dramas (I refuse to say, “dramedy”) of the 1990s and 2000’s.
According to Andy Helfer’s introduction to the first JLI trade (“JL: A New Beginning”, 1989), Batman was gifted to him by a sympathetic Denny O’Neil (Batman’s then editor) as most of the established DC pantheon was off-limits to the Justice-League due to their ongoing reboots. Helfer could bring in Hal Jordan (he was the editor of Green Lantern) but chose Guy Gardner instead. Relying on lesser known characters required a storytelling shift in approach and ethos and the rest, as the cliche goes, is history. Personally, I think we’re all the better for it.
Interestingly DC didn’t include that introduction when they reprinted the trade which is a shame as it’s informative reading. Whether it was a question of permissions, rights, sloppy reprint editing, page limits, internal politics or publishing desire…who knows.
Anyhow, here’s the original collection and its later reprint:
The former is paperback only but has that nice introduction by then-editor Andy Helfer so is well worth tracking down on ebay if you’re a fan. The reprint is readily available as a hardcover and trade but lacks that behind-the-scenes introduction, sadly (and inexplicably).
So, yes, it’s played mostly for laughs but generally these humorous moments are emerging naturally out of the deadly scenarios being experienced rather than being played directly for farce; in some cases it’s just how some of the heroes cope with their fears of failure or potential defeat.
So don’t let the detractors stop you digging into this series if you’ve been told to ignore anything before Grant Morrison came onboard and recruited his “magnificent 7” version of the League.
While that’s undoubtedly good, this, for my money, is majestic.
The team that starts this month won’t stay, of course. Black Canary will eventually leave due to events in Mike Grell’s masterful Green Arrow The Longbow Hunters and its ongoing’s emergence as a “recommended for mature readers” title. Doctor Fate will soon undergo his own reinvention in his own series. Captain Marvel will, apart from a four part tale in Action Comics Weekly anthology (issues #623 to #626 ) after Roy Thomas’ projected “Shazam!” ongoing didn’t see publication reportedly due to writer and editor differences, be relegated to guest star status across DC books. There was perhaps the feeling that DC didn’t know what to do with the light-hearted hero in the darkening comic climate. Fortunately, Jerry Ordway’s Power of Shazam graphic novel in 1994 will eventually see that dream of a new ongoing series fully realised. Doctor Light equally does not stick around, mainly due to Max Lord’s early deceit. Batman too will leave but that’s not for a while.
In terms of collecting this series, back issues remain somewhat inexpensive and DC has collected together six volumes of this classic series, along with the Justice League Europe spin-off and the various annuals. Hopefully there’s more to come, who knows, DC’s reprinting master plan is a mystery to most of us. Pester DC politely, perhaps? I’m sure you know their new west-coast address…
Of course, Captain Atom’s not in the Justice League yet, but (spoiler warning), he will be… That membership will play out in both the Justice League book(s) and his own title in the near future, arguably with a lasting impact for both.
Other notable events this month include the Hawkman’s Shadow War which featured a cross-over of sorts with Byrne’s revamped Superman (Action Comics #588 and Hawkman #10).
Of course, if you’re any kind of DC fan you’re probably aware of the continuity knots that DC tied itself into with Hawkman in the 1980s and 1990s. Principally this was because even though Tim Truman’s Hawkworld series was (and still is) an excellent read, the ongoing Hawkworld series had Thanagarian Shayera Thal and Katar Hol coming to Earth in present day.
At a stroke it invalidated a lot of the post-Crisis appearances of both Hawkman and Hawkwoman.
If that was true, just who was the Hawkman in the Justice League? Who’s been fighting the Shadow War? Come to that, why are the Golden Age Hawks similarly styled to these new people coming from another planet? It was, to put it simply, a bit of a mess. There were others, of course, in a confused post-Crisis state – Donna Troy, Power Girl, Superboy’s involvement in the Legion, Shade the changing man etc. But Hawkman was undeniably the poster child for continuity issues back then. At least Grant Morrison made it an active story point in Animal Man (and just how good was that!?)
Geoff Johns eventually fixed most of it (as he clearly relishes the challenge of tidying up after a big unruly continuity party) but I’d give John Ostrander considerable credit for laying some of the solid groundwork in the ongoing Hawkworld title. Since then we’ve had Brightest Day (which confused things again, unbelievably) and DC New 52’s “Savage Hawkman” – something I didn’t personally enjoy a great deal, but it will be “someone’s” Hawkman, somewhere, I guess. Hopefully with DC’s emerging rebirth changes, we’ll see a little more of the older continuity coming back into play as DC moves forward.
Then again, I could be wrong.
This surely wasn’t progress, was it?