Agent of S.T.Y.L.E. – Captain Atom’s Atomic Ensemble! Part 2
Agent of S.T.Y.L.E.
Welcome back, loyal readers. Last time, in Part 1, we discussed the different incarnations of Captain Atom that existed up until 1986 (along with Grant Morrison‘s version, who’ll show up again soon in Multiversity). We saw how the Charlton hero Captain Allen Adam was caught in a nuclear blast and then impossibly rematerialized as an atomic-powered man. Now let’s check out how DC Comics has portrayed the hero called Captain Atom and what other characters were spawned from his creation.
POST-CRISIS: NATHANIEL ADAM
The first true DC Comics version of Captain Atom was introduced in 1987 by writer Cary Bates, with Greg Weisman consulting and helping to plot the stories and Pat Broderick handling the art. Weisman quickly became co-writer with Bates and together they crafted a very interesting new take on a superhero series.
In the new Post-Crisis universe, our hero USAF Captain Nathaniel Christopher Adam is accused and convicted of treason during the Vietnam War. This means execution, but Col. Wade Eiling (whose name, you may note, is similar to General Eining who appeared in the Charlton Captain Atom origin) offers a pardon if Nate agrees to be a live test subject for “Project Captain Atom” and survives. An alien spacecraft was discovered, composed of an alien metal called dilustel, nicknamed “silver shield.” Dr. Heinrich Megala discovers it can only be cut by objects treated by his X-ionizer device. Project Captain Atom will see if dilustel can protect a living human from ground zero of a nuclear explosion. Nathaniel has a wife and kids, but he sees no other choice. He sits inside the metal pod, and the atom bomb goes off. Both vanish without a trace. There isn’t even residual radiation.
Twenty years later, Nate Adam materializes in the same spot where he was seemingly blown up, the dilustel now bonded to his body. The alien metal can absorb great amounts of energy, but only up to a point. After that, the excess energy forces it to make a quantum leap forward in time. Nathaniel also discovers that his near-indestructible dilustel shell (which he can turn off and summon at will) accesses the quantum field. He’s now a superhuman with incredible firepower and resiliency. Sadly, it’s not all good news. After his assumed death his kids grew up and his wife Angela got remarried to (now General) Wade Eiling, then died years later. The new administration also doesn’t recognize the deal he made to get a pardon for his crimes, despite his continued insistence that he’s innocent.
Eiling coerces Adam into serving as a government-employed superhuman. Special tech is used to add color to the dilustel armor, giving him a superhero appearance to appeal to the public. This is a pretty sleek design and has truly cemented itself as Captain Atom’s appearance in the minds of many over the years. Nathaniel Adam’s powers truly make him several levels above a human being and this look immediately tells you that he’s now beyond the limits of humanity. He resembles a living statue or a god visiting from a future where people worship the atom.
To engender himself to others, Cap’s also given a fake past of having been a covert government superhero for years. Fake photos are even created of previous costumes he wore. His fake origin story and previous costumes are based on the Charlton Comics version of Captain Atom. Cute!
Captain Atom was a good man, but he was constantly lying to others about his past. Since Nathaniel Adam was supposed to be dead, our hero had to sometimes operate as “Cameron Scott.” This cover identity was named after Weisman’s good friend Cameron Scott Douglas. Captain Atom joined the Justice League and certainly was an asset to the team, but part of his mission was to gather intel on the other superhumans he worked alongside.
In Charlton Comics, Captain Atom had been the most powerful hero and the most obviously patriotic one. In contrast, he was now a spy and living in a universe that also housed patriotic powerhouses such as Superman. I asked Greg Weisman about this new take on Captain Atom. He said, “We saw it as a spy book first and a superhero book second. Cary and I wanted to be different… As for the patriotism angle, we riffed on that very consciously by making him an actual agent of the military, as opposed to simply a patriotic hero. He was supposed to come off as something very patriotic to the public (of the DC Universe), but to the readers, he was designed to also represent a more nuanced and conflicted view of the actual U.S. Government and U.S. Military. Not negative, per se, (at least not always), but with an eye toward the double-edged sword of the concept of patriotism… There’s no way I buy [Superman] as a government agent ”
Naturally, things weren’t easy for Nate. He hated having to lie, and eventually the superheroes realized the stories of his past were fake. When he temporarily lost his powers he continued as a superhero in his original Charlton suit and got some vigilante tips from Batman. In contrast, other stories pushed the level of science fiction up, making Captain Atom a cosmic champion who traversed space and time and fought against death gods such as Nekron (who would become more notorious decades later in the Blackest Night crossover). Captain Atom broke free of his government chains, proving his innocence and becoming a more honest superhero with no ties to the military. Later on, he returned to military service but made it clear that he was doing so on his own terms.
We learned that Nate wasn’t the only test subject to be surrounded in dilustel and then blown up with a nuke. After his apparent death, the government repeated the experiment with Clifford Zmeck, a former USAF officer who had been dishonorably discharged and then jailed for crimes of murder and rape. As the result of using a greater quantity of dilustel and a different nuclear weapon for his test, Cliff Zmeck’s exoskeleton let him manipulate dark matter rather than quantum energy. As Major Force, he now had similar strength and durability to Captain Atom, but he couldn’t fly or absorb energy. Prepared for his arrival, Eiling was able to place explosives beneath Major Force’s shell before his bonding process completed, ensuring he would loyally serve as a weapon rather than occasionally defy orders as Captain Atom did.. With this character, Bates, Weisman and Broderick finally gave Captain Atom an opposite number, a dark reflection of what his power could do in the wrong hands.
I asked Greg Weisman about the villain’s creation. He said, “It wasn’t just a contrast in color palette. If you see Captain Atom as the classic, slim Superman hero silhouette, then in contrast you have Major Force as this hulking figure, though not as bulky as the Hulk or the Thing. The idea was to have someone who mirrored some of Captain Atom’s circumstances but was a really truly horrible human being. It doesn’t mean he can’t on occasion do something positive, but he’s a horrible human being. Like Captain Atom, he’s also a military officer convicted of crimes, except he did them and he’s not sorry. Along with the colors and body type, another difference was when Major Force lost his hand and then made a new one. It was a pain in the ass to get artists to remember which hand was blown off and to give it a molten rock look as opposed to the smooth metal. But we wanted it there because it was a reminder of how his powers controlled matter rather than energy and also because this damaged body symbolized his damaged, horrible mind.”
As time went on, Bates became more of a consultant while Weisman took over writing duties. The comic went against typical superhero action story expectations of the time and ventured more into hard sci-fi and cosmic atmospheres. Captain Atom traversed space and time and went to purgatory to purify his soul. He left Eiling, and even the military for a time, but then came back to continue serving his country. Eventually, he also discovered that the dilustel “silver shield” spacecraft was a sentient life form native to the quantum field that had accidentally journeyed into our physical dimension and been attacked.
Concerning his run, Greg Weisman said, “Not that I’m as good as Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, or Grant Morrison, but I wanted to delve into symbolic ideas. As for Captain Atom returning to the military instead of just going off on his own, Cary and I thought it was important that the name Captain Atom mean something beyond sounding cool. He actually was a captain in the military… He was a guy who grew up in the 1940s and 1950s and believed in his country and he didn’t have a problem with being in the military at all or even with spying, he’d worked in intelligence. His problem was spying on superheroes and he had a particular problem with working for Eiling.”
He added, “Silver Shield turning out to be a quantum fish was done so that Captain Atom’s origin would be this onion with different layers to peel away. You’re told the basics, then you see what this alien metal can really do and how it gives Major Force different powers, then later you reveal it’s not from a space ship, it’s a living thing. I loved this idea of a quantum fish coming to our world and trying to figure out how to deal with gravity and taking on a more human form because it was now connected to Major Force and Captain Atom. He grew four arms, and one was missing a hand because Major Force was. We treated him as kind of an idiot savant. He was fun, and it was a set-up for when we’d meet these aliens who heard its previous scream for help and thought he was still in danger.”
After a solid run of stories and character growth, Weisman wrapped up his take on Captain Adam with issue #50 and headed out to start work on a project that would eventually become the TV series Gargoyles. A few threads were left, but sadly they were not picked up. DC started a new crossover in 1991 called Armageddon 2001. This crossover revealed a possible future where a superhero would go rogue, kill the others, and then take over the world as Monarch. DC decided that Monarch would be revealed as an older Captain Atom, and so the seeds for his evil future started showing up in his comic. The hero became darker and darker before his series ended with issue #57.
But then DC decided to change Monarch’s identity after realizing it had been leaked to fans. The villain was now revealed to be the former superhero Hank Hall aka Hawk. He and Captain Atom fought across space and time in a mini-series, and then Nate returned to his proper place on Earth while Monarch went on to become the time villain Extant, a major star of the 1994 Zero Hour crossover.
On how Captain Atom turned out after he left, Weisman said, “I really thought that other creators would pick up these story threads that were there when I left. Major Force was going into outer space. Captain Atom had just purified his soul in purgatory and was ready to start a new life on his own terms. Not that he was pure now and couldn’t do mistakes, but he was ready for a new phase of his life. I had long term plans for all those characters, plus we put in hints of a connection between Captain Atom and the Phantom Stranger and I had this idea of relocating the characters to Las Vegas… I also had Captain Atom’s daughter Peggy take a job at the Daily Planet. But the issues that followed either dismissed all that or ignored it. Major Force was back on Earth and Peggy left the Daily Planet because of lay-offs. How is that interesting?… And DC made this decision that he was going to be a villain, so you got these stories where they were justifying turning him into Monarch by doing things that did not agree at all with the character Cary and I worked on for years. We had talked about him having a nice childhood and suddenly these issues said he was abused, as if villains need to have been abused as children to justify having darkness in them. And then it turned out to be for nothing because he didn’t become Monarch…
“I’ve offered to go back to Captain Atom several times since then but DC’s declined for different reasons each time, except for one short story I did with Gerard Jones that included a nod to Gargoyles in a JLA special [JLA 80-Page Giant]… But my situation isn’t unique in comics. I don’t own these characters and it’s an open universe where other people can come in and put their own spin on things. I knew that going in.”
Weisman did get to tackle Captain Atom again in the cartoon Young Justice, a show that shouldn’t have been cancelled and should really continue as an online series or comic. In the continuity of Young Justice, Weisman altered Captain Atom’s real name from Nathaniel Adam to Nathaniel Adams. Weisman explained, “Even back in the day, the last name Adam sounded artificial. Adams sounded like someone’s real last name.”
Captain Atom wasn’t the only one who took a darker turn after Weisman’s departure. Major Force gained a lot of notoriety in the pages of Green Lantern in 1994 when he attacked the hero’s love interest Alex Dewitt, killed her, and then shoved her into a refrigerator for GL to find. Major Force explained that he did this to intimidate Green Lantern into giving him his power ring, which he had been assigned to retrieve. The trope of killing off a female character simply for shock value and to provide pain and/or motivation for a male hero was not new, but this incident struck fans as so over the top and unnecessary to the story that it inspired writer Gail Simone to coin a new phrase: “woman in refrigerators.” The trope is also now referred to as “fridging.”
Concerning this, Weisman said, “Major Force is definitely an awful human being. He’s a murderer and a rapist. But it still sucks that a character I helped create is now associated with this thing that I hate seeing in stories… He’s not an idiot, he wouldn’t kill a hero’s girlfriend just to show he meant business or scare them. He’d know that the hero would just wind up wanting to kill him.”
Following the cancellation of his series, DC didn’t really know what to do with Captain Atom. Enter the newly created Extreme Justice team. What was Extreme Justice? Well see, this was the 1990s and things needed to be gritty and extreme! So this Justice League spin-off was full of heroes who were tired of being nice. They were extreme! They only accept absolute violent bad-asses such as Captain Atom, Blue Beetle, Booster Gold, the Wonder Twins and… wait… wait… none of them are really violent or that extreme. Come to think of it, neither is Nate. He’s a nice guy. Huh.
In any case, the mid-1990s brought us art that sometimes depicted Captain Atom’s gloves and boots as armor pieces separate from his exoskeleton. Which is just odd and takes away from the sleek, god-like look he was given in the mid-1980s. It makes him look as if he’s trying too hard to seem intimidating. You’re Captain Atom! Your firepower alone is intimidating!
Meanwhile, a new design for Captain Atom was presented in the pages of the 1996’s Elseworlds mini-series Kingdom Come. Normally, I don’t go into stories that take place outside of mainstream continuity, but this one wound up influencing the mainstream character later. Designed by Alex Ross, this design merged Captain Atom’s dilustel metal skin with his very first Charlton look. It’s basically a gold shell instead of a silver shell, decorated by a giant orange atomic symbol.
Not a bad idea, but I think the atomic symbol gets a little lost. It’s just not as cool to me as the 1980s silver shield style. In this story, Captain Atom’s nature was also very different from the Post-Crisis comics. Rather than a man sheathed in metal that accessed quantum energy, he was a living being of atomic energy housed in a not-so-indestructible shell, rather like Wildfire from the Legion of Super-Heroes. Since Elseworlds comics were stories meant to take place out of continuity, this isn’t a big deal by itself. Kingdom Come also re-interpreted Superman’s powers and the villain Brainiac in ways that contradicted what applied to mainstream continuity of the time. But since the story was published, a few writers and fans have fallen to the Kingdom Come interpretation of Captain Atom, ignoring that the mainstream Post-Crisis version was supposed to be a human being who could summon a metal shell that gave him great power.
Back in the mainstream comics, Captain Atom bounced around the DC Universe for a while, making a cameo here and there. Then DC reunited him with other Charlton characters as a new team in the mini-series L.A.W. Early promotional material said that the team’s acronym stood for “Last American Warriors,” but by the time the story was published the letters now stood for “Living Assault Weapons” (which is just a tad better than Extreme Justice as far as team names go). In this series, Captain Atom had altered the design of his armor based on suggestions from his longtime enemy-turned-love interest Bette Sans Souci aka Plastique.
This new look wasn’t bad. It reminds me a little of his second Charlton look. But honestly, it just doesn’t seem as cool and direct to me as the Pat Broderick design. You’re making things a little more complicated and losing the great minimalist style.
By the end of the story, Captain Atom experienced a change in his armor and now had his Kingdom Come appearance. He only wore this look briefly in other comics, though it emerged again in the 2005 story Captain Atom: Armageddon.
In 2003, Captain Atom had the Pat Broderick design again in the pages of Superman/Batman, under the creative team of writer Jeph Loeb and artist Ed McGuinness. In this series, Captain Atom worked alongside Major Force and went against Superman, acting at the behest of President Lex Luthor because orders were orders (though he later realized this was a mistake).
Loeb also played fast and loose with the powers and nature of both Major Force and Captain Atom. Major Force was now an atomic being inside a containment suit rather than a man whose exoskeleton let him manipulate matter. No explanation was given as to how his abilities changed so drastically. Later, Loeb used kryptonite radiation to temporarily transform Captain Atom into a new version of the villainous Kryptonite Man. This transformation didn’t last long and was never mentioned again.
MORE ALTERNATE CAPTAIN ATOMS!
In 2005, Bob Harras wanted to reimagine Captain Atom. But DC already planned to send Captain Atom into the Wildstorm comics universe in Captain Atom: Armageddon, meaning he was off-limits. So Harras just inserted a new character into the same story, now titled Breach. Timothy Zanetti worked at Project Otherside and was caught up in a dimensional rift. This put him in a coma for twenty years, during which his wife got remarried to a colleague, and turned him into a conductor for otherworldly energies. When he woke up, a containment suit kept his abilities from hurting those around him and he became a government superhero called Breach.
The character was designed by Marcos Martin, who created a pretty slick look. Like the 1980s Captain Atom, it’s a minimalist design that pops to me. But man, I really wish Breach’s origin story didn’t resemble Captain Atom’s so closely. I can just imagine Batman saying “You realize I’ve heard this before, right?”
In the 2005-2006 crossover Infinite Crisis, it was said that Breach was actually originally native to Earth-8 and was its version of Captain Atom. Comic science, people. At the conclusion of this crossover, Breach’s suit was breached and he exploded, only for Captain Atom to return to the DC Universe a moment later, hovering in exactly the same spot. I guess, like with immortals in Highlander, there can be only one.
Breach later appeared in the series Countdown, alive but brain dead and floating in the quantum field. He was revived and made into a weapon of evil, then regained his mind and helped the cause of good right before getting killed and absorbed by Monarch. His corpse made a brief appearance in the zombie crossover Blackest Night.
In 2006 Teen Titans #38 saw the debut of Amy Sue Allen aka Bombshell. Created by Geoff Johns and Tony Daniel, the character was a young woman who had been convicted of assault and took a deal to be the test subject of Project Quantum in exchange for no prison time. This involved grafting dilustel to her body but without exposing her to a nuclear explosion too. Somehow, she still became superhuman, even though previous comics by Weisman and Bates had indicated that the nuclear blast was pretty essential. In any case, Amy’s metal shell now gave her abilities comparable to Captain Atom. But perhaps because she didn’t bond to it via radiation, her shell could be cracked a lot more easily than Nate’s exoskeleton. Breaking it past a certain point would rob her of her powers.
Bombshell flopped back and forth between acting as a friend to the Teen Titans or an enemy. Her look is a nice nod to Captain Atom but also seems a bit lacking. By this point, the Teen Titans had multiple members who had been rocking the t-shirt plus jeans superhero look (Superboy and Wonder Girl), and having yet a third member take such a path feels a bit “been there, done that.” Also, putting casual clothes on her makes her seem less powerful to me and takes away the visual idea of a human being reborn as a near-god that Major Force and Captain Atom pull off so nicely.
Then there’s the fact that Amy Sue Allen has just copied Captain Atom’s symbol instead of getting her own. Major Force had the same basic origin as Captain Atom but still stood on his own. Why can’t Bombshell?
NEW 52 CAPTAIN ATOM – QUANTUM GOD
In 2011, DC comics did another reboot. All of its superhero titles ended and were replaced by 52 new titles. Several characters got brand new origins, and that included our boy Captain Adam. The new Captain Atom series was presented by writer J.T. Krul and artist Freddie Williams III. The hero was still Nathaniel Adam and he was still a captain in the USAF. But now Dr. Megala’s experiment didn’t have anything to do with dilustel. Instead, Megala had created a craft that to take a pilot into other realities, proving that M-theory is correct.
Captain Adam went into this craft and vanished. Weeks later, he reappeared as a being who came to be called Captain Atom. No secret identity. No ability to turn off his power and become human. This wasn’t a man in a super-powered shell, this was an energy being with altered perceptions and possibly unlimited power, since his atoms were constantly splitting and then reforming, releasing massive amounts of energy. Along with being able to absorb and release massive energy, he could transmute matter. He accessed the quantum field but his powers were now based on the strong nuclear force, the energy that binds protons and neutrons in the nucleus. Excessive or intense use of his abilities could cause him to temporarily lose molecular stability.
When I asked J.T. Krul about this interpretation, he said, “It was a matter of seeing all the incarnations that it was and kind of trying to strip everything down to its core and see what worked best … Going back to the original and then going back to the latest [Nathaniel Adam] incarnation which is probably the one that’s been around the longest… And then obviously kind of the Dr. Manhattan incarnation from Alan Moore’s Watchmen… This notion of someone who’s got unlimited powers and unlimited abilities. And like, what’s that book about?
He added, “A lot of it’s just kind of him realizing the extent of his abilities and also how much they kind of work against him at times… ‘No matter what happens, everything I do just makes me realize how I’m not the same anymore’… He wants to remember who he was and still be that person but he’s not anymore. Is he even a man anymore?… I don’t really consider it a superhero book.”
To make Captain Atom stand out from the world he inhabited, the character was ink-washed only while the rest of the comic was done with traditional methods. It’s a lovely effect and definitely makes Nate seem more alien and an outsider. I like that we still have the minimalist design of a sleek figure with a simple atomic symbol on the chest. But I think there might bee too much blue here. It’s good to take some influence from Dr. Manhattan, the most famous of Captain Atom’s incarnation, but this may be too close to the mark.
This version of Captain Atom struggled more with losing his humanity than he did against super-villains. One story had him go back in time and sabotage his own attempt to cure cancer in order to prevent a future where he got a god complex and threatened all reality. Following this, Captain Atom realized he could create a duplicate of his human body and mentally inhabit it, while his super-powered energy form became independent, though now lacking basic human morals and boundaries.
When this naturally caused problems, Nate merged once more with his energy form and decided he no longer had a place among humanity. Everything he did just caused trouble or freaked out those around him. He left Earth and the New 52 Captain Atom series ended right there with issue #12, followed up by issue #0, which revealed the origin of this incarnation in full detail for the first time. When asked about Major Force, Krul said that he didn’t plan on using the character because “one god-like being is enough.”
But Major Force did show up a year after Captain Atom‘s cancellation in the pages of Fury of Firestorm. The villain still had his metal exoskeleton, meaning he was now no longer the result of an attempt to repeat the experiment that created Captain Atom. On top of that, it was heavily implied that he had appeared in Firestorm’s series earlier as the character Major Bolton aka Black Jack. If this is true, then Major Force now has a totally different nature and no connection whatsoever to Captain Atom. Which is a shame.
I also find this design pretty generic. Monochromatic metal skin that doesn’t look very much like metal and just has a star on it? Major Force now looks almost like a photo negative of Booster Gold. The beauty of the old MF seal on his chest was that it was so hilariously a marketing decision. This is just generic to me.
That wraps it up for us, folks! Send in your suggestions for who should be covered in upcoming entries of Agent of S.T.Y.L.E.!
Alan Sizzler Kistler (@SizzlerKistler) is an actor and writer who moonlights as a comic book historian and geek consultant. He wrote a Captain Atom screenplay back in college based on the Cary Bates and Greg Weisman comics. He is the author of Doctor Who: A History.