New 52 Review: Captain Atom #1

The Charlton Comics hero who was the basis for Dr. Manhattan of Watchmen gets a lot closer to the character he inspired.

Andy Hunsakerby Andy Hunsaker

Captain Atom #1

Back in 1960, there was a company called Charlton Comics, who employed writer Joe Gill and artist Steve Ditko to create the superhero known as Captain Atom, a military man caught in a science experiment gone awry that atomized him, but granted him the ability to reconstitute himself with superhuman powers.  Back in 1985, he and several other Charlton characters were acquired by DC Comics, and Alan Moore wanted to use them to craft a brand new story deconstructing the myths of superheroes, but since his ideas would have shattered these characters and make them mostly unusable, it was suggested that Moore create original characters instead.  The ones he developed were echoes of the Charlton characters he initially wanted to use, and their story was told in Watchmen, one of the defining books of the entire sequential art medium. 

The only actual super-powered character in that story was Jon Osterman, aka Dr. Manhattan, who was based on Captain Atom.  Dr. Manhattan has received an incredible amount of attention, praise and reverence for his part in such a classic story, but Captain Atom… really hasn't.  No one really even knows who he is or what he's about.  So it makes a certain amount of sense that, in a New 52 reboot designed to reintroduce the character to the world at large, Captain Atom is being given the Dr. Manhattan treatment from writer J.T. Krul and artist Freddie Williams II.

In Captain Atom #1, we don't learn the man's real name or how he came to be what he is – a blue, essentially bald and essentially naked glowing man with the power to absorb energy and rearrange matter on an atomic level, who seems to view humanity with disdain.  Sure, he has a bit more personality than the aloof and distant Osterman, but the connection is undeniable.  He just is.  We know he was once a pilot, and he seems to work out of a Kansas facility called The Continuum, complete with a brusque scientific handler named Dr. Megala, who helps the former pilot understand what it is his powers are doing.  This is a guy designed to handle creepy disasters that involve radiation – and the volcano that springs up in New York and threatens the Indian Point nuclear facility certainly echoes the real life devastation after the tsunami in Japan.

Krul's opening seems to imply that his take on Atom will be the slow-burn version of Osterman's encroaching disenchantment with the species he was once a part of once he became omniscient, but there will be much in the way of superheroics along that path.  There is a disturbingly horrific giant mutant rat running around San Francisco, by the by, depicted with balls out art by Williams, and he'll have to deal with that eventually.  Williams work is intermittently great, but he has that style that sometimes looks like the wrinkle-vision of Dr. Katz, and other times looks like he just didn't bother to actually finish drawing.  There shot of The Continuum base seems to imply a background of mountains in Kansas, but maybe it's supposed to be a forest?  Williams seems to have drawn enough to imply the rest, but it doesn't always work that way.  Also, it bears mentioning that Jose Villarubia handling the coloring does a great job in creating that Captain Manhattan glow.

Then there's that countdown clock.  Or is that a power level monitor?  What is that about?  Krul's got some hooks here, but it may take another issue or two to really feel intrigued.  So far, it's neat, but it feels a little flat. 

Overall, there's a decent set-up for an ongoing series.  There's no hint of an origin story, but the scientific action surrounding him would seem to imply all we really need to know.  The specifics of who Catpain Atom was may not really matter as he becomes more aloof from humanity.  The potential trouble with Captain Atom, though, if Krul is really going there, is that there's no way he's going to do a better Dr. Manhattan story than Moore already did.  The hope is that he'll find a way to do it differently enough so that it will still work.

The fact that Captain Atom seems a hell of a lot more emotional than Jon Osterman ever did would lend credence to the notion that, yeah, this won't be the same thing we've seen already.