Welcome back to another DC History. We’re well into the New 52 at this point, but there’s still much that can be gained by examining how we got here. Only by looking back at what came before can we understand where we’re going.
This week, we’re looking at Captain Atom, who is mostly known for being the silver guy in the Justice League. He’s the heavy hitter who’s not Superman or Captain Marvel. Let’s try to get to know him a little better than that today.
Captain Atom was originally created by Charlton Comics, a publisher that went belly up in 1985. DC arranged to buy the rights to many of the company’s superhero characters in 1983 as Charlton hit its worst financial times. Alongside his fellow Charlton characters like Blue Beetle, DC bought Captain Atom and gave him a debut in Crisis on Infinite Earths. An updated Captain Atom showed up in a solo series a few months later.
Convicted of murder and treason in 1968, an innocent Air Force Captain Nathanial Adam agreed to an experiment which would almost certainly kill him. If it didn’t, General Eiling, his commanding officer, promised him a full presidential pardon. An alien spaceship had recently crashed onto United States soil and the military was interested in uncovering its secrets. The metal of the ship was indestructible to everything the military had tried save its biggest weapon. To test the metal’s strength and protective properties, Adam was strapped to a chair with pieces of the ship surrounding him on all sides like an egg and a nuclear bomb was detonated just below the egg. Adam and the metal disappeared, seemingly destroyed on a molecular level. Eiling wrote the event off as a failure and moved on to other projects.
18 years later, something staggered out of the old bomb site. It was a mass of molten metal in a humanoid shape. It lumbered around disoriented. Military personal tried to restrain it with force, but were unsuccessful. The creature eventually collapsed and, after a few hours, it began to molt. Craggy skin was replaced by smooth, silver metal. After confining the creature to a lab, military personnel came to give it a look. The creature spoke and Eiling, now a much older Air Force General, realized that this was Nathanial Adam.
Adam didn’t realize that any time had passed since 1968. For him, the explosion had been just a moment ago. The metal of the spaceship had become fused to his skin and given him the ability to tap into the “quantum field” to release quantum energy in the form of energy blasts. The pardon that was promised to Adam in 1968 was rescinded and Adam was told that he was still a convicted traitor. However, the newly created identity of Captain Atom had a spot-free record and, if he did was Eiling and President Reagan told him to, he’d get his life back. Captain Atom was now a superhero who was secretly working for the United States government.
Captain Atom’s solo series was a mix of military espionage, super hero tale, and family drama. Adam attempting to reconnect with suddenly full grown children was a big plot in the series. Eiling had married Adam’s wife after Adam was declared dead, which caused a even more tension between them. The fact that Captain Atom was officially a traitor was hidden from the public and a cover story was presented to the American people. This made for great reading as Adam struggled to keep Eiling happy while not trying to not lie to everyone he met. More often than not, he failed.
For a character who had the ability to tap into something as nebulous as the “quantum field,” Captain Atom’s power set was pretty limited. As mentioned, he could throw energy bolts from his hand. He could also fly and had super strength. His metal skin made him nearly invulnerable.
Most interestingly, Atom had the ability to absorb radiation. Absorbing too much at once had the side effect of “leaping” Atom into the future, which is what happened during the military’s 1968 experiment. It would happen a few times during Atom’s solo series to great affect.
Around the time of Captain Atom’s reveal to the world, the Justice League went international. The League was given a charter by the United Nations and told to police the world. Both the US and the USSR stick an inside man on the team. Captain Atom joined so that the United States can keep tabs on Earth’s mightiest heroes. This version of the League is a bit more light hearted than previous incarnations and Captain Atom’s relative immaturity at being a superhero was played for all it was worth.
Shortly after Atom joined the JLI, an alien invasion threatened Earth. A coalition of heroes, bigger than even the Justice League, was commissioned by the UN. Captain Atom was made the leader of all the superheroes fighting back against the aliens and with his military background, he aced the job. It was a big moment for the character as he cemented his place in the DC Universe and gained respect from the characters who populate it.
It was with the Justice League that Captain Atom would be most remembered for the next two decades. His adventures with them would range from the silly to the apocalyptic with a dash of 90s “x-treme” thrown in for good measure. He’s a bit all over the place in these stories, but seeing as how he was being written by dozens of different writers and editors during these years, you cut him some slack. During this time, he would be a part of the Justice League International, Justice League Europe and Extreme Justice. He’d go wherever a League needed a leader.
In 1991, Captain Atom’s solo series was canceled. It had a run of 57 issues, most of which were very good. That summer, Armageddon 2001, a giant company-wide event, began. The entire event hinged on the fact that a hero would turn evil and needed to be put down before he or she could take on the name Monarch. According to urban legend, Captain Atom was slated to be that villain by the editorial staff at DC. His series had just ended and he had almost unlimited power. It made sense. But word had leaked out into the fan community. Everyone knew that Atom was going to be the big reveal in the final issue. So, to keep things interesting, DC editors threw logic and plot progression out the window and chose a different hero to become Monarch.
The choice to save Captain Atom and the fact that his saving was an open secret to the fan base would screw up his character several times in the coming years. Future writers would play with this idea by having a Nathanial Adam from a parallel dimension arrive in our universe wearing the Monarch armor. Eventually, Adam himself even became Monarch for a while as it seemed like no writer knew anything else to do with him. Eventually, all that Monarch stuff would be forgotten but not before making the character fairly off-putting to readers.
There are very few “classic” Captain Atom stories. His appearance in the great alternate universe-based Kingdom Come would be small though pivotal. Captain Atom’s death at the hands of Parasite unleashed enough nuclear radiation into Kansas to lay half the state barren and gave the plot a big shove forward.
Try not to ask what’s up with his yellow and red appearance. It was a bad redesign that was made fun of and mostly ignored in the regular DCU.
The costume would come back one final time in Captain Atom: Armageddon. After helping Superman and Batman foil a plot by then-president Lex Luthor, Captain Atom found himself in an explosion in space. As he’d done before, he absorbed the energy into his skin. However, instead of jumping forward in time as he normally did, he jumped sideways into a parallel earth. He found himself in the Wildstorm universe, which was populated by another group of superheroes that DC had bought the rights to a few years earlier. Atom was able to get back to the regular DCU but not before triggering a massive reboot titled WorldStorm that ultimately went nowhere.
Captain Atom would eventually show up in Justice League: Generation Lost, a miniseries that reunited many of the 1980s JLI characters to fight their old handler. It shoved Captain Atom back into the public consciousness and caused more than one person to realize that he wasn’t a goof. To those people who want more heroic Captain Atom stories, all I can do is point to the original Captain Atom back issues and wish the reader luck in tracking them down. They hold up today and are a solid read.
Where is Captain Atom in the New 52? Well, he’s in his own series once again. His past seems to have been rewritten as he doesn’t appear to have ever been a member of the Justice League. It also sounds like his origin has been changed. He’s now a character of even greater power than before but his humanity appears to be slipping away. Here’s hoping he learns to balance it all soon.
Jeff Reid thinks that it was awfully nice of that alien spaceship to fuse with Adam in such a pretty design. It could have been plaid skin with a fuchsia blob on his chest that Captain Atom received. He should count his blessings. Get more insights like this on Jeff’s Twitter.