In the summer of 2019, I read through almost every major DC Comics crossover event of the 1980s, 1990s, and up to Infinite Crisis/52 in the mid-2000s. A pattern I picked up on was that in almost every occasion, the character Captain Atom was present and often played a critical role. In particular, he was at the center of Invasion! in command of Earth’s forces against the alien alliance and Armageddon 2001, where he was intended to be the face behind the villainous Monarch until editorial changes. But who is Captain Atom? He’s hardly a household name to people outside of comics fandom.
Captain Atom was initially owned by the now-defunct Charlton Comics. He was created by writer Joe Gill and artist Steve Ditko (Spider-Man, Doctor Strange) in the pages of Space Adventures #60 (March 1960). The Charlton Comics version of Allen Adam, a technician on a highly advanced new space rocket. The rocket is accidentally launched with Adam onboard and exploded atomizing him. He was able to reform his body now, having powers that made him godlike and became the nuclear age hero Captain Atom. The character had a long life, especially for a non-DC or Marvel character, with his own solo title lasting for 89 issues until 1967. Atom was often partnered with other Charlton creations like Blue Beetle and even had a romantic interest in Nightshade.
For the next fifteen years, he would pop up sporadically as Charlton dealt with financial troubles. Eventually, the company folded and sold their IPs to DC Comics. In 1985, during the Crisis on Infinite Earths event, we were introduced to Earth-4, where the Charlton events took place. This had the classic DC Heroes teaming up alongside Captain Atom, Blue Beetle, Peacemaker, Nightshade, The Question, and Judomaster. When Crisis concluded, the entire Multiverse was collapsed into a single Earth with a new history that either erased elements of other realities or remixed them. In the case of Allen Adam, he was deleted and replaced with an entirely new version of Captain Atom.
Before DC got around to relaunching Captain Atom, he was almost used in another monumental DC publication. When Alan Moore originally planned out Watchmen, the characters were all from Charlton Comics. If you are familiar with these characters, the parallels are extremely easy to spot. DC saw how mature the story of Watchmen was and asked Moore to create original characters for the comic. He did, but it’s still easy to match them to who they were initially intended to be. Blue Beetle became Night Owl. Nightshade became Silk Spectre. Captain Atom became Doctor Manhattan. In 2006, when writer Grant Morrison recreated the Multiverse he brought back Earth-4 and made sure it was an homage to Moore’s Watchmen with the Charlton characters personas resembling their counterparts in Watchmen.
In March 1987, DC Comics launched Captain Atom with writers Cary Bates & Greg Weisman and artist Pat Broderick. This time, Nathaniel Adam, an Air Force officer & Vietnam vet who was framed for murder and sentenced to death. As an alternative, he was allowed to participate in Project: Captain Atom, which involved testing an alien craft discovered in the desert by placing a human inside and exploding an atomic bomb beneath it. The government wanted to test the durability of the strange extraterrestrial material. Adam was apparently killed, and time marched on.
Eighteen years later, Adam was able to reform his molecules, which had bonded with the liquid metal of the alien craft. He was now connected to the Quantum Field, a well of immense power that made him nearly omnipotent. Because Adam was never formally pardoned after his death. Gen. Wade Eiling, the man who framed him, decided to make Adam a tool of the Air Force. Cary Bates took the classic Charlton Captain Atom stories and turned them into the in-universe backstory Eiling used to explain that Captain Atom has always been among humanity just a secret of the government. This is very similar to how Alan Moore used old Marvelman stories as part of the fake memories implanted in the main character of his Miracleman series. It’s not a stretch to say the post-Crisis Captain Atom is heavily influenced by Moore’s work in the 1980s.
Captain Atom’s series ran for four years, canceled with issue 57 in April 1991. He became a member of the new Justice League International, eventually becoming the leader of the spin-off Justice League Europe. He had a romance with JLE liaison Catherine Cobert but married retired supervillain Plastique. Atom was able to get his treason charges removed and rebelled against Gen. Eiling. Eiling would later become a major villain in Grant Morrison’s JLA run.
His series was canceled so that he could be revealed as the villainous Monarch in 1991’s Armageddon 2001. All that changed when the conclusion of the story leaked to the public, and DC editorial decided to pivot last minute. Instead, they made Hawk of the duo Hawk & Dove the face behind Monarch. The result was that Captain Atom had nowhere to go and no writer wanting to write him. He’d been written into a corner and left there, which resulted in him losing prominence over the 1990s and 2000s. Captain Atom would be used every few years but never with anything that had longterm resonance on the greater DC Universe. The offshoot Extreme Justice, inspired by the garish Image Comics of the time, had Atom leading the group. There Living Assault Weapons, a mini-series intended to test the waters of a Charlton reunion team. Captain Atom teamed back up with Blue Beetle and company, but the interest was low.
When DC Comics started playing with Hypertime, a way to embrace continuity errors and bring back multiple Earths, Captain Atom became a significant player in his mini-series Captain Atom: Armageddon. This time around, the book was published under the Wildstorm imprint, which DC had purchased out from under Image Comics. This brought Jim Lee’s stable of independent character under the DC umbrella as a parallel reality. Captain Atom met some of the major characters, even sparking up a romance with The Engineer of The Authority. It appears his marriage with Plastique was forgotten or dissolved off the page.
They tried to reboot him as yet another new character in Breach. That short-lived series culminated in Breach’s death in the pages of Infinite Crisis, and about a year later, Captain Atom was back again. To make the promise of Armageddon 2001 a reality over a decade later, writer Judd Winick had Captain Atom become Monarch in Countdown, a weekly mini-series that carved out the path to Final Crisis. It was very, very bad, and a series I can’t imagine I would ever re-read other than to ruthlessly tear it apart. This entire incident appears to have been erased almost as soon as the storyline ended, and by 2008, Captain Atom in his original 1987 form was back with no mention of the Monarch story.
There was yet another attempt to refresh the character when DC launched the New 52, a line-wide reboot of all their comics. This Captain Atom was suspiciously similar to Doctor Manhattan, another attempt by DC to lean into the continuing popularity of Watchmen. This version, as with most before him, lasted about a year or two was dropped, and as of this writing has been returned to the look and tone written initially in the 1980s. Captain Atom is one of the most perplexing characters in DC Comics’ lineup. He’s got an iconic costume and origins & powers that make him unique among the DCU. However, it just seems like no writer knows how to handle the character. He is definitely a relic of the Atomic Age and feels like someone who would fit perfectly in Marvel’s stable of science accident heroes. He’s often paralleled with Superman, and I’d love to see someone do something more interesting with that dynamic, possibly turn him into an anti-hero/rival to the Man of Steel.