Drew: Early in the second issue of Captain Atom, our hero, Nathaniel Adam, is immobilized by an overwhelming barrage of data. Replace “data” with “references,” and you more or less have a description of my experience with this title. This may very well be the most post-modern title of the New 52, which should say a lot to anyone who has read any of Grant Morrison’s run on Action Comics. To be fair, writers J.T. Krul and Freddie Williams II make those allusions largely explicit, so when I describe the book as “Dr. Manhattan by way of Top Gun with a little of John Carpenter’s The Thing and just a hint of Beauty and the Beast,” it’s not meant as a glib dismissal, but a frank (and efficient) summary of the tone it’s going for.
It makes sense that Krul and Williams would opt for this kind of cultural shorthand; the Cap’n isn’t exactly a household name, and is arguably less famous than the character he inspired for Watchmen (as evidenced by my maybe-a-little-glib-after-all summary). Of course, writing him as a brooding, super-intelligent god would feel a little derivative, and was probably never a part of his character anyway, so Krul and Williams instead hew closer to his piloting roots, keeping him much more relatable than Jon Osterman. That relatability also keeps him right on the edge of controlling his own powers, making him often as dangerous as he is helpful.
Issue 1 establishes that thread right up front, as the Cap’n starts to loose control while fighting an armored baddie in Chicago. His own molecules start to separate, so he decides to hightail it to the Continuum, a high-tech lab run by a dude who, for all intents and purposes, is Stephen Hawking and Yoda combined. Hawking-Yoda (or Dr. Megala, as he’s actually called), tells CA that he’s in danger of melting his own brain, so be careful, just in time for CA to fly off to prevent both a nuclear meltdown and a lava flow from eating Manhattan. Sure enough, his brain melts.
Or does it? Issue 2 pulls a Green Lantern 4, reneging on the admittedly absurd suggestion that the hero had been disintegrated at the end of the previous issue. CA isn’t able to enjoy his recovery for long, though, as he’s quickly barraged with data in the form of goofy texts and tweets (and having perused Williams’ twitter feed, I can see another hint of postmodernism), sending him back to the Continuum. There he finds help from both Dr. Megala and foxy doctoral candidate Ranita Carter, much to the chagrin of Dr. Scott Alexander, who seems to despise the Cap’n both out of fear of fallout and at least a little glowing-blue-penis envy. As CA begins to test his abilities, he pulls a digital message out of the air from a kid with a brain tumor asking for help. CA obliges, dropping into the kid’s brain to CURE CANCER.
Issue 3 picks up on this theme of Captain Atom playing god, as he speeds around the globe preventing all kinds of small-scale tragedies. When he decides to involve himself in a battle in Libya, he encounters the Flash, and the two have a detailed discussion about specifically why the Justice League hasn’t invited CA to join, all at incredible speeds, as indicated by the ever-present time-stamps in this scene.
Issue 4 finds CA hanging out with General Eiling, who offers the Cap’n a chance to act as America’s newest nuclear weapon. CA turns it down, but the General doesn’t really take “no” for an answer, and instead attempts to imprison the Captain with the help of Dr. Alexander. Of course, their plan doesn’t work, and CA escapes unscathed, though kind of pissed. When he returns to the Continuum, he has a moment with Ranita that might just be her trying to put the moves on him, but any potential romance is cut short when simply touching him causes her entire hand to suffer horrible burns.
Issue 5 opens with CA in full-on contemplative mode, asking the questions all superheroes ask about hurting the ones they care most about. Krul and Williams take this a step further, giving CA a dream sequence that’s part King Kong, part Of Mice and Men that makes his fears quite literal. CA decides to visit Ranita (in shock because of her burns), but ends up defending his actions to Dr. Alexander. Dr. Megala interrupts to ask if Captain Atom is there, then what is General Eiling chasing in Washington. Of course, it turns out to be a giant rat-monster that we’ve seen glimpses of in the previous issues, absorbing innocent hobos, families, and sundry passersby. Of course.
Issue 6 gives us the story of the rat-monster. It turns out it was one of the lab rats Dr. Megala used in his experiments before moving on to human subjects with the experiment that created Captain Atom. Of course, this made the rat a kind of rat version of Captain Atom, a super powerful, nearly indestructible being solely intent on eating anything it can get its hands on. CA is able to ascertain all of this by reading the creature’s brainwaves, but he isn’t able to try to communicate with it further before General Eiling starts shelling it mercilessly. Of course, being like Captain Atom, it just absorbs the energy and grows more powerful — and dangerous. In order to stop the creature from taking over, CA descends into its belly, where he vaporizes it. It’s kind of a poignant moment (even though the thing has eaten an entire town and then some), as Krul and Williams emphasize how similar CA and the monster are as misunderstood beings of incredible power.
The arc has a nice coda as CA returns to the Continuum and heals Ranita’s hand with the help of Dr. Megala. This good deed may even be enough to win over Dr. Alexander, as he seems more happy with Rinata’s recovery than the Captain’s presence. In a weird sub-coda, we learn that the Earth blows up in 20 years.
This is such a weird title. It seems ready at any moment to boil over into a number of interesting philosophical debates, but keeps finding reasons to interrupt those lines of thought for some crazy action sequences. As he’s presented here, capable of moving rapidly through time and space (possibly with the ability to both teleport and travel back in time), there becomes a question of why do bad things happen in a world with Captain Atom. Petty distractions don’t really account for much of his time, as he can turn missiles into marshmallows, and can also just avoid those distractions in the first place. I get that a comic about a superhero who spends all his time curing cancer might not be super exciting, but he might need a better excuse for allowing people to die than “my friend burned her hand.”
Anyway, I have more to say, and I never even mentioned the fantastic art (pencilled and inked by Williams and colored beautifully by Jose Villarrubia), but I’ll have to save it for the comments. How about you, Patrick? Did you smile when Dr. Alexander suggests CA go to Mars? Or when the texts in CA’s brain paraphrased Comic Book Guy? As a fellow nerd, do you see all of these references as speaking your language, or are they distracting?
Patrick: Oh, I like all the references. Particularly, I like the digital/social media stuff. We talked about this in the comments section of… some article… but it’s weird how much of comics history is populated by newspaper reporters. Public perception of superheroes is important and it’s interesting and it’s totally something that would play into the life of the hero. But public opinion is no longer dictated by reporters and pundits, but by bloggers and tumblr memes and viral youtube videos and hooky twitter accounts. That this series acknowledges this non-stop data-flow is awesome, that it effects the Cap’n in a literal physical way makes it more than just cool, it makes it relevant.
Reading Captain Atom is simultaneously exactly like reading every comic book I’ve ever read and nothing like any comic I’ve ever read. Which is to say, yes, you’re right, Drew: this is a weird title. The explicit references to other comic book heroes abound – you mention the obvious Dr. Manhattan, but there seem to be equal parts Superman, Flash, Firestorm, Martian Manhunter. Unlike all of these heroes, CA doesn’t have a tether to the human world. Supes has Lois, Flash has Iris (and nerd-foxy Patty) and so on. The other people in Captain Atom’s life largely regard him as a set of super-interesting phenomenon that need to be studied, measured and control, but seldom loved.
That lack of human-connection is something I miss sorely in this title. Without having friends around, it’s hard to get a sense of who he really is. At first, I was frustrated by this. Come on man, flesh out that supporting cast so I can get to know my protagonist. But then I noticed that Captain Atom had the same complaint. I love it when this sort of thing happens: the experience of reading this book is designed to put you in the headspace of the protagonist. I feel the same way about the sometimes-disjointed storytelling.
Well, I feel sort of the same way about the disjointed storytelling. Occasionally, it just feels disjointed. As the man’s experience of time and space is wholly unique, it stands to reason that he’s going to have adventures that defy conventions of narrative. You mention that the series kinda nudges the line of telling really interesting stories but then backs down and goes for the baller action scene. I can’t fault it for that. If this arc was meant to introduce me to the world this character lives in and the fundamental problems in his life AND tease CA’s possible future adventures, then it’s successful.
I do have gripes that I won’t backpedal on (okay, maybe I’ll backpedal a little). There are date stamps at the top of every scene change, but they’re all presented solely with numbers. So “February 4th at 4:30PM” reads “035:16:30:00.” That shit’s hard to decode. It can be handy for comparative purposes, such as in the scene with the Flash you mentioned above, but otherwise it’s tricky to divine actual information from them. “September” – I know what that means. “275?” I have to work that one out. Also, it seems like there’s a year stamp on there that suggests Young Earth Creationist view on the age of the earth, putting modern-day in the early 6000s. I know that biblical concepts and characters show up in the DC Universe from time to time (Phantom Stranger betrayed Christ, the Orange Entity of Avarice tempted Eve, Adam and Eve are early versions of Hawkman and Hawkgirl (also, they are the origin of the violent energy of love)) but Captain Atom’s year-dometer zeroing out of the time of origin for a literal reading of the bible is annoying. Maybe it’s just the nature of the character – he’s all science – but the subtle religious bent bothers me.
The art is bold and distinctive. Williams’ layouts are at their strongest when they depict insane action. Luckily, that’s the only kind of action Captain Atom’s rep. Here’s my favorite sequence from the series:
Click on that image and view it full size. I know, dear reader, that you don’t like me bossing you around, but do it – it’s fucking awesome. In particular, the panel/set of panels illustrating the progression from jets to feathers is incredible – the faintest of lines separates them mini-panels and the whole thing is very vivid and kinetic. As an added little bit of fun, look how the pilots that are left stranded in the air appear like dandelion spores in the sky.
Sometimes I wish the penciling was a little cleaner. The sketchy nature of the drawings serves the action well, but some of the quieter moments come off as a somewhat inarticulate. What’s especially frustrating about this is that the covers (by Stanley “Artgerm” Lau) are considerably neater depictions of the Captain Atom character. It’s a petty complaint, and if I had to choose all messy or all neat, I’d choose all messy.
Incidentally, these six issues are my first taste of reading physical copies of issues from the New 52. And JESUS CHRIST are there a lot of ads in the print releases of these things. I get that physical media is expensive to produce, but damn it, the joy of leafing through a physical book was quickly overshadowed by advertisements for Big Bang Theory (which I’m not going to fucking watch!). By comparison, Saga #1, the only other physical issue I’ve picked up since this whole thing began, had no ads in it.
For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page. Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore. If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to DC’s website and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?