Drew: Comics are an interesting medium for exploring time. We experience them from beginning to end, but we’re also able to flip back and forth between pages and issues to refresh and contextualize our reading. Combine that potential with the ability writers have to splice up their own narratives, and you have unlimited possibilities for explaining the impact a single moment can have. In Captain Atom 9, J.T. Krul and Freddie Williams II continue to explore these ideas both narratively and thematically, and continue to yield mixed results.
As the issue opens, Captain Atom is still 20 years in the future, trying to figure out what it is that will destroy the planet in the next 24 hours. He has split into multiple forms to cover more ground, sending them across the globe (conveniently to recognizable landmarks) in search of what might cause the Earth to explode. He confronts Ranita, whose rebuilt hand has given her Captain Atom-like powers. He’s horrified at what he’s done to her, but she thanks him. Meanwhile, Atom also confronts Mikey Parker, the kid whose brain cancer he cured all those years ago. Mikey is now the leader of a crazy cult that intends to blow up the Earth at the behest of Chrono Mota, a sentient energy Atom apparently becomes in the future. That energy prevents the Cap’n from stopping Mikey’s bomb, pulling him out of time altogether, causing the volcanic eruption we saw in issue 1. Atom returns to the timestream, just as Chrono Mota appears.
The issue closes with the promise that “Next: Everything Changes!” but I’m not sure I have a firm enough grasp on what’s going on to be ready for change to really mean anything to me. Some of the mindfuckery here works — for example, that Mikey would grow up to become a disciple of Captain Atom. Check out just how efficiently Krul and Williams convey his story in just a few inset panels:
Those insets show us only two moments we’ve already seen — sick Mikey and healthy Mikey both visited by the Cap’n as we know him — and two we haven’t — scruffy Mikey being visited by Chrono Mota — but it tells us pretty much everything we need to know about this character. He’s been visited by his God as often as Moses was, so he has taken a very Moses-like place in the religion of Chrono Mota. It’s the kind of plausibility-bending coincidence that comics run-on, and it makes enough sense to work. What I don’t understand is how Chrono Mota could have visited Mikey without any of the other Captain Atoms in the time stream being aware of it.
Presumably, Chrono Mota is the Captain Atom from the very distant future — that is, he came about after all of the other Captain Atoms we’ve met. Those Atoms have explained that they can’t interfere with the destruction of the world because they’re not allowed to influence the past, but that would mean Chrono Mota wouldn’t be able to, either, right? Maybe the rules don’t apply to Chrono Mota, but I still don’t understand how this huge cult could go unnoticed by anyone, enough that Captain Atom would have to check the St. Louis Arch to make sure that it wasn’t going to cause the planet to explode. If this being is so powerful, why has it not entered the timestream before? Also, where is the Captain Atom of 20 years in the future? Both Ranita and Mikey comment on how this isn’t the way Captain Atom looks nowadays, so where’s that guy? Wouldn’t enlisting his help have been easier than yanking this one 20 years into the future to do it?
And if you can’t change past events, how come the Cap’n was able to go back to his past and cause that volcanic eruption? I guess it’s not that they aren’t allowed to change the past, they just don’t want to for fear of changing their future, but I don’t see how telling someone else to change it is really any better — if Atom’s actions change the future such that they never exist, then they’ll never be able to tell him to change the future, right? I’m not totally clear on the rules here, but we seem to be operating under “whatever happened, happened,” but that would make any attempt to change anything utterly futile, right? The Earth HAS TO explode in order for anyone to realize that they should stop it.
Time travel is complicated, and difficult to pull off well. Part of what has me so underwhelmed here might be that the whole “Captain Atom caused the volcano” thing has already been done with much more aplomb in the Flash. There are actually quite a few similarities of those titles, which makes for further unflattering comparisons (it really isn’t that this title is that bad, the Flash is just that good).
The biggest issue, though, aren’t the time travel mechanics, but the lack of emotional connections. That emotional distance could make a lot of sense for this character, but not if he’s then going to make an appeal to save the planet. I know the comparisons to Dr. Manhattan are always unfair, but it made sense for that character to need to be convinced that the Earth deserved saving. Chrono Mota seems to be doing just that, and frankly, without any strong emotional connections of his own, I’m not sure how the Cap’n is going to be able to convince him otherwise.
Patrick: Time travel, man – I tell ya. When it’s grounded, it can be a narrative tool that allows for surreal, poignant revelations about character and causality. But grounding a time-traveler is hard work. The only reason Back to the Future II‘s time-wankery works at all is because the audience already has a whole-movie’s worth of time invested in Marty McFly. Similarly, the only reason the fifth season of LOST works as well as it does is because there are like 80 hours of structure in place to support it. But seeing as Captain Atom has neither a personality nor a set of physical limitations that I can relate to, I’m just not sure what I’m supposed to latch on to.
This is especially true when you tease out what’s going on in this issue, as you have above. Our Captain Atom is lead into the future by multiple future-versions of himself to protect the world from yet another future-version of himself. The issue strays dangerously close to disappearing up its own ass. I like it when time-travelers end up being the architect of their own demise, and I think too-dangerous-to-function is a fine role for Captain Atom to play. But, when the Cap’n can get popped back in time (or out of time altogether) on a whim, I don’t have any handle on what the consequences of all this could be.
Take, for example, your assumption that we’re working in the ‘whatever happened, happened’ model – a theory which is supported by Cap’n causing the volcano disaster that engulfed him in issue 1. The problem here is that he was sent back as part of an attack from this energy force – the attack is then (somehow “after” this) understood by future versions of Captain Atom. It’s frustrating to write about it because there are characters existing outside of time discussing cause and effect – look how even the seasoned time-traveler refers to the experience being part of their shared history “now” – whatever that means.
Hyper-nerd that I am, I could complain about time travel narratives all day. But that’s a smidge unfair to this title, which does pull off some neat ideas. I’ve always been fascinated by the idea that normal people would have to view superheroes as religious figures. Somewhere in the back of my imagination, there’s a novel about opposing clans of post-apocalyptic warriors who read comic books as their sacred texts – some worshiping Batman, others Superman, and so on. So, naturally, I really enjoy getting a glimpse of a world that treats Captain Atom’s time on Earth as miraculous.
It’s unfortunate that we only get to see this through the lives of two people Captain Atom effected mostly personally. It’s fun to keep bringing that cancer-kid back, but I can’t help but feel that his presence could be made more significant by illustrating how Captain Atom is part of the zeitgeist. Like, it shouldn’t be a surprise to any of the characters in this world that Ranita is capable of incinerating a jeep with her bare hands. It’s a cool development for her, but it feels like the pay-off isn’t as meaningful as it could or should be.
Let’s end on an unambiguously positive note: Chrono Mota. Obviously, the first part of that name is a reference to time, but what about that second part? The M-O-T-A? After a little digging, I discovered that Mota is a prefix often used when naming a genus of butterflies. And butterflies are evocative of many themes, but change and adaptability are chief among them. The implication that Chrono Mota is the most evolved possible form of Captain Atom is intriguing, and suggests that blowing up the world is a worth-while end goal. I doubt such a thing is possible, but if this series could make me believe that Cap’n has to destroy the Earth, I’d be might impressed with this storytelling after all. Just don’t ask me how to brew that specific justification.
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