Review: Captain Atom Vol. 1: Evolution trade paperback (DC Comics)

Monday, January 21, 2013

Depictions of Captain Atom, if few and far between, have tended to follow the repetitive pattern of a super-powered being staunchly on the side of the military, allied against the DC Comics heroes, who only very slowly comes to realize the error of his ways (see Superman/Batman: Public Enemies and also Justice League Unlimited).

To writer J. T. Krul's credit, his New 52 series Captain Atom: Evolution sets aside these tropes for a good science-fiction-y take on the character, less "Captain" and more "Atom." Unfortunately, Krul doesn't have much for the good Captain to do here; Atom flits from story to story, mostly cut-and-dried and mostly predictable. This is a good take on Captain Atom but there's little to raise this book above the level of average.

One unexpected bright spot in the book is Freddie Williams's art. Though a pioneer in the field of digital artistry, Williams's work has had a tendency toward distortion and repetition that gave books like Final Crisis: Run! and JSA All-Stars a dull sameness. But in Captain Atom, pleasantly, Williams's pages are much more controlled, and indeed he brings a unique ink-wash to the art, plus some selective coloring, that gives Captain Atom its own unique look. More's the pity that the book is not more dynamic, because the art alone deserves a wider audience (Captain Atom was cancelled in DC's Zero Month, after the next collection).

[Review contains spoilers]

In the first issue, Atom helps diffuse a volcano and nuclear reaction that threaten New York (each threat is somewhat improbable, but the audience won't argue with comic book physics). These are atomic-type conflicts, which demonstrate Atom's matter-changing powers (more like the classic Firestorm than Captain Atom), and also serve to introduce his lab tech supporting cast. There's no overt foe for Captain Atom in the first issue or in most of the book, which is a nice change -- rather the story is more about Atom's self-discovery.

It is perhaps as early as Captain Atom's second issue, however, that the series begins losing its way. Atom discovers he can see text messages and emails in the air around him (an unique power never touched on again), and hones in on a young cancer patient asking Atom for help; Captain Atom is indeed able to enter the boy's brain and cure his cancer. This is interesting, but the main conflict -- Atom fighting the boy's rogue cancer drugs -- has no bearing on Atom going forward; it's solely a (very fanciful) action scene because the issue needs one.

Krul's Captain Atom issues are like that. In the third issue, Atom intercedes in a conflict in Libya, not out of any specifically stated moral purpose nor a connection to the country, but simply because Atom wants to "do good." The climax of the book follows a similar pattern -- Atom fights a giant, mutated lab rat (silly in and of itself) that was experimented on and shares Atom's powers; that Atom is also a "lab rat" is painfully obvious, and there's not much more that comes out of the story -- no revelation about Atom's origins or the nature of his powers, no actual communion with the rat, just a standard fight-and-resolution.

Again, there's nothing necessarily wrong with the pieces Krul has in place here. General Eiling has been a military figure long-associated with Captain Atom stories, and Krul brings him in as Atom's foe-turned-begrudging helpmate (like an early Commissioner Gordon to Batman). This is again a nice difference from Captain Atom as Eiling's mindless soldier, and Krul does well preserving Atom's military heritage without letting it overwhelm the story. Krul also make a good comparison between Captain Atom and the Flash in the third issue as two DC heroes who move so fast, or whose powers are so all-encompassing, that they experience reality differently than others do.

Krul's Captain Atom, too, is simply likable. Without his trademark military arrogance, Krul's Atom is just a guy with a heroic nature, and his tenuous understanding of his powers leads to some charming moments, as when Atom turns a squadron of fighter jets into feathers. Krul's Atom is quite obviously a kind of young Dr. Manhattan, potentially dangerous and impossibly powerful, but unlike Manhattan, without the understanding of those powers.

All of this, again, is a credit to the Captain Atom mythos, such that it is. This is a Captain Atom that readers would want to follow, and if other writers could be trusted to preserve this Atom's youth and inexperience, he would be a fine addition to a team like Justice League (though one might question the need for both this Captain Atom and also Firestorm).

In Captain Atom: Evolution, however, Krul simply moves Atom between adventures and fights with nothing much really sticking, and this makes it hard for the reader to feel anything for the title. It's good that Captain Atom is around in the New 52, but there's little for which to recommend his solo series when it stands beside hits like Flash, Batwoman, Animal Man, and (the sadly cancelled) I, Vampire.

[Includes original covers. Sketchbook and various process pages by Freddie Williams]

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8 comments:

  1. I bought about 1/4 of the New 52 #1's on paper (and the rest digitally), and I included Captain Atom among the few paper issues because I fondly remembered him from Justice League Europe, as well as his appearances later in the DCU that you mentioned. I too picked up on the similarities in this new Cap to Firestorm. Overall, though, I was pretty disappointed, and I didn't continue buying the series. If anything, it made me want to go back and read the 80's series written by Cary Bates (unfortunately, not - yet? - available digitally, nor as a TPB!). Maybe if this series had been more successful, they would have released the 80's one as one of those B&W Showcase books, ala Booster Gold's original series.

    When I was reading this, I wasn't thinking about Dr. Manhattan, but since you mention it, I think if they had gone more in that direction it could have made it much more interesting.

    I guess the next time we'll be seeing Captain Atom is as part of the Charlton Comics characters in Grant Morrison's Multiversity project...whenever that comes out. Looking forward to it though!

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  2. This was a New 52 series that I surprised myself by not reading. I guess I still think of the character from the Armageddon mini-series and Extreme Justice.

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  3. The Countdown to Final Crisis stuff (with him as Monarch) didn't make a lot of sense either. There was some potential, I think, because there was this hint that he was trying to "save everything", but they didn't do a good job of handling that. Of course, that whole series was a mess, so it shouldn't be a surprise.

    Again, just want to give a shout out to the old Justice League Europe series. It was generally less silly and more action-oriented than the parallel Justice League America series, with Captain Atom as the JLE leader and featuring Power Girl, Elongated Man, and Flash (Wally West). Cap definitely felt like a strong leader in that group, and I would have picked up his individual series at the time if my local "news stand" (i.e. drug store) had carried it. By the time a comic book store opened up in my town, his series was over.

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  4. put me down for trades of the old series, too! wish they'd continue the JLI collections. - steve

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  5. Some of your concerns will be more or less gone after the next issues. Many of the events will get an additional meaning. For example the boy cured from cancer will play an important role in the future and even the somewhat impropable volcano erruption from the first issue is actually caused by... you will see.

    I rather liked the series. At the end it was an almost philosophical book about an almost omnipotent being. It was not really great, but interesting enough.

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  6. I guess I'm the odd person out, because I enjoyed it. I saw it as a philosophical reading, in that having the powers to do just about anything on a sub-atomic level is scary.

    In many ways, New 52 Captain Atom is Doctor Manhattan in looks and power set. I guess that is why I liked it.

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  7. @Anonymous: Setting up long-term future plot points is a risk that I don't think a lot of writers are able to take anymore. A lot of the great runs--Starman, Simonson's Thor, Michelenie and Layton's Iron Man--were written with enough security in the job that the author knew they could come back to elements introduced a long time before. With DC nowadays (and Marvel to a lesser extent), I don't think writers have that job security.

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  8. Going along with what Doug said, I don't mind a writer setting up long-term plot points -- I guess I'd say that's something I'd encourage -- but possibly Krul was too subtle here. The boy with cancer disappears after the second issue -- if he had remained some force in Cap's life, then the second issue might not seem like such a "one-off," and then it would be more natural for the boy to re-emerge later. This is a problem writers of serial fiction face -- the character might act crazy for four issues and everyone drops the book because the character's being written "wrong," when it's actually all mind control or something. Surely there's an art to balancing surprise and foreshadowing.

    From what I understand, there was a good political bent to the old Captain Atom series. I wouldn't mind a collection, either.

    I am a giant Armageddon 2001 fan, through to the Captain Atom and Justice Society miniseries. I liked that Cap a lot, and in Justice League: Generation Lost, the wise old soldier Cap. Extreme Justice, especially toward the end, didn't serve Cap especially well. Seems to me, talking about it now, Cap is a character who lacks an "iconic" depiction, unless indeed that's the 1980s series.

    @Lionheart, I saw some reviews subsequent to mine that talked about Captain Atom as philosophical reading -- what is man's place in changing the world, etc. That aspect didn't stick out especially strongly to me, but I acknowledge that's a viewpoint I've heard echoed from others.

    +1 on more JLI collections.

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