Charlton Comics has been called “the low-rent district of the comics industry”, having some of the cheapest rates in comics. But they granted their underpaid creators more creative freedom than their bigger competitors, and the company served as a proving grounds for new talent. During the 1960s they produced an innovative line of “Action Heroes” that were fondly remembered by fans of that generation: characters like the Blue Beetle, the Question, Peter Cannon – Thunderbolt, and Captain Atom.
The company dwindled in the '70s, and finally shut down its comic book division in the early '80s, selling most of its characters to DC Comics. Writer Alan Moore originally pitched his WATCHMEN series with the idea of using the Charlton heroes as characters, and the trivia-minded comics fan can easily see the inspiration Moore's characters took from the Action Hero originals. DC did not use the Charleton heroes much until CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS, which re-booted the DC Universe and combined the myriad worlds of the Multiverse into a single, theoretically simpler, continuity. This gave DC the opportunity to fold the Charlton heroes into the Post-Crisis Universe.
Some of the characters, like Blue Beetle, were fairly easy to port over; but Captain Atom posed some special problems. His origin story was tied pretty closely to the Space Race era and difficult to update. He was a scientist named Allen Adam making last-minute adjustments to a rocket when he had to climb down into the rocket to retrieve a dropped wrench and found himself trapped inside when the rocket blasted off. The rocket exploded in the upper atmosphere, atomizing him. But he got better. He somehow re-assembled his atomic structure, gaining atomic powers in the process. (“Adam”, “Atom”. Geddit? Yeah, you got it.)
By the late '80s, rocket scientists were no longer as cutting-edge cool as they were in 1960 when Captain Atom premiered; and the US no longer performed atmospheric atomic tests. And I suspect that, a year after the Challenger Space Shuttle Disaster, DC might have thought that giving a hero super-powers in a rocket explosion might have been a little tacky.
Whatever the reason, writer Cary Bates came up with a new origin for the re-tooled Captain Atom that was grounded in the present-day but also had ties to the 1960s era, and managed to incorporate the character's adventures as a Charlton Hero in a clever and unusual way.
In the new version, he was Captain Nathaniel Adam, a US Air Force pilot serving during the Vietnam War. Court-martialed for a crime he did not commit, Adam is sentenced to death, but is promised an unconditional presidential pardon if he volunteers for a dangerous experiment. The Military has recovered a crashed alien spaceship composed of a strange metal with weird properties; and they want to test the metal's durability by putting a human test subject in a shell made of the metal and detonating an atomic bomb on top of it. Makes sense to me. Unexpectedly, both the metal and the subject disappear.
Nearly twenty years later, Adam re-appears, the metal now fused with his body. The metal has the property of absorbing energy, but it has a limit as to how much it can absorb all at once. When that limit is exceeded, as it was in the bomb test, it becomes displaced in time and kicked forward. In addition to invulnerability, he has gained the power of flight and the ability to tap into the “Quantum Field” to shoot blasts of energy.
Dr. Megala, the scientist working on the “Captain Atom Project” has been studying the data from the initial test and figured all this out; so he and the Project's head, General Eiling, have been waiting for Nathaniel to pop up. They see this as an opportunity to create their own super-hero, working for the Pentagon and American Interests rather than abstract concepts like Truth and Justice and All That Jazz.
So Eiling and his people design a media roll-out to introduce their “Captain Atom” to the world, complete with a fake background claiming that he had been active as a super-hero in secret for many years. The character's adventures as a Charlton Action Hero were retconned to be this fictional backstory. Of course, the fact that Captain Atom would be working for the Government was not part of the press package. This bogus background was referred to in the comic as “The Big Lie”.
As far as the world is concerned, Nathaniel Adam died two decades ago, a dishonored traitor. Because he was presumed dead, his presidential pardon was never signed, and the current Administration does not acknowledge that the promise had ever been made. Adam's only hope to exonerate his name is to go along with Eiling's plan and become, essentially, a covert government agent whose cover is being a super-hero.
Eiling is a real piece of work. He had been Nathaniel Adam's commander during the War and presided over the court-marital. We also come to learn that Eiling was the true culprit in the crime for which Adam was convicted. What's more, after Adam's “death”, Eiling married his widow and raised his two children, now adult, to believe that he was a traitor. It's like Eiling went out of his way to make Adam's return to life a living hell.
It takes a while for Captain Atom to get the hang of being a hero, especially as he has all this other angst to juggle. About this time the Justice League was granted sanction by the United Nations, and the title of that series changed to JUSTICE LEAGUE INTERNATIONAL. As part of that deal, the Security Council, (well, okay; the United States and the Soviet Union), required that the US and the USSR be allowed to each appoint a hero to the team. The US-backed hero, (as if Batman and the others weren't America enough) was Captain Atom. So now Captain Atom is not only pretending to be a seasoned hero, he also has the job of spying on the Justice League.
(I suspect that part of the reason why he was placed on the Justice League was that the first issue established that he had a fondness for bad jokes, and that it perhaps was thought he might make a good fit in the lighter Giffen/DeMatties incarnation of the League. But apart from that first issue, where the jokes serve a plot function establishing his tension waiting for the bomb to go off, we never see him cracking any more. In fact, in the Justice League he acts more as a straight man; especially after he is appointed leader of the European branch of the JLI).
Captain Atom gains a rival in the form of Major Force, a second test subject for Megala's experiments: this one a brutish thug who instead of shooting energy blasts can create masses of “dark matter” out of the Quantum Field.”
Throughout the series, the Big Lie keeps resurfacing to complicate Captain Atom's life. Early on, an investigative reporter digging at Captain Atom's revealed history deduces the identity of one of his arch-enemies, Dr. Spectro. Actually, Dr. Spectro doesn't exist; but the reporter finds a scientist with expertise in the same fields as the fictitious Spectro and who has a shady criminal background. The guy she's found really is a crook, and faced with the prospect of being exposed for his true crimes by her mistaken allegations, he decides he might as well embrace the role that has been created for him. It ends up with Eiling having to put both the reporter and the imitation Spectro on the Project Captain Atom payroll in order to keep the secret.
Later on, Captain Atom tries to use the Big Lie for his own purposes. He tries to persuade JLI team-mate (and one-time fellow Charlton hero) Blue Beetle to help him with his investigations to clear Nathaniel Adam's name by claiming that he had previously worked with Beetle's predecessor, Dan Garret, (the Golden Age Blue Beetle). But this comes to bite him in his shiny silver butt. Beetle may be a goof in the JLI, but he's not stupid. He spots the holes in Atom's story and figures out he is lying. He then becomes obsessed with exposing his teammate, whom he now privately calls “Captain Traitor.”
Over the course of the series, Captain Atom is able to resolve many of his problems. He is able to re-connect with his children and earn their trust; he finds the evidence to exonerate him and expose Eiling's crimes; he confesses the truth about the Big Lie and he manages to grow into becoming the hero and the leader he was pretending to be. But although as a reader I appreciated this resolution, I have to admit that tying off these plot threads also lessened my interest in the series a bit. Partly, this was due to the loss of Pat Broderick, the artist for the early part of the run. I did not care much for his replacement.
Over the course of the series, it seemed to me that Captain Atom managed to pick up more girlfriends than most super-heroes. In an early issue he fought, and developed a romantic tension with, Plastique, a super-powered Quebec separatist terrorist, originally appearing in FIRESTORM. He encountered her a number of times and eventually married her, although the marriage did not work out.
He also met the fellow Charlton hero Nightshade, a super-powered government operative who allows the Captain Atom Project to borrow some of her cases to pad his fictional resume; and they develop a friendly, somewhat romantic relationship. She becomes a member of the Suicide Squad as one of the minders keeping the criminals on the team in line; and in one memorable crossover where the Squad battles the JLI, they pretend to fight, in order to preserve each other's cover, but are actually flirting.
Later on in the series, he briefly has a relationship with a woman who used to be a hippie war protestor during Vietnam and now runs a nostalgia shop. Although the pairing might seem odd, she actually has more in common with him than one might think, having lived through the same era. And in the pages of JUSTICE LEAGUE INTERNATIONAL and JUSTICE LEAGUE EUROPE, Captain Atom frequently found himself the object of romantic teasing from Catherine Colbert, the sexy UN liaison with the JLI's Paris embassy, and from the Crimson Fox, a flirtatious French crimefighter.
Near the end of the series, Captain Atom began exploring the nature of his powers, discovering that the alien ship whose metal now forms a part of his body is actually a sentient creature. One issue strongly suggested that through his “death” and “rebirth”, he might have become an Elemental Force, the way Alan Moore had re-defined Swamp Thing as a Plant Elemental and how Firestorm had been re-defined as a Fire Elemental and Red Tornado as an Air Elemental.
But as Captain Atom's series wound down, another crisis loomed. DC announced a cross-over series called ARMAGEDDON 2001 which would take place over that year's summer annuals. The premise was that a Time Traveler from the Future named Waverider reveals that in ten year's time (the year 2001), a villain calling himself Monarch would kill all the heroes and rule the world. Waverider does not know Monarch's identity, other than that he was once a hero himself; but he does have the power to see an individual's future timeline by touching him. So the idea was in each title's Annual, Waverider would meet a different hero and see what that hero would be doing ten years into the future. And that the readers would be kept in suspense as to who would ultimately turn evil and become the Monarch.
Problem was, there was no suspense. It was said at the time that the news was “leaked”, but anyone with access to DC's publishing schedule, available at any comic book shop, would see that only two titles were being canceled that summer: HAWK AND DOVE and CAPTAIN ATOM; and that the JUSTICE LEAGUE EUROPE ANNUAL, which had Captain Atom as a member, would be the last one published. It was pretty obvious that they were setting Captain Atom up to be this Monarch villain.
DC had to do some frantic re-writing to change the ending. They made Hawk, from HAWK AND DOVE be the villain instead. A lot of fans were upset by the slapdash inconsistency of this ending, especially fans of H&D, since this face-heel turn ripped up everything that had been established between the characters of Hawk and Dove in the preceding series.
Captain Atom kind of fell out of the DC Universe for a while after that. Oh, he headlined in a spin-off miniseries titled ARMAGEDDON: THE ALIEN AGENDA in which he battled Monarch through time, and he made other appearances; but I lost interest in them. And often when he did appear, his writers seemed to make him a two-dimensional “Gung-Ho Army Guy” and ignored Cary Bates's characterization.
He has gone through further re-boots; which I suppose is appropriate, since today is as distant from the Reagan Era as DC's CAPTAIN ATOM #1 was from the Vietnam Era. Still, CAPTAIN ATOM was an interesting series and I enjoyed it.