There are a number of military-based superheroes with a lot of staying power. Captain America, for instance, made his first appearance in 1941 and has become a genre icon. More recently, Green Lanterns John Stewart and Hal Jordan have become immortalized in dozens of different comics, cartoons, and games. Other military superheroes, though, tend to fall by the wayside. Even when the overarching concepts of their existence are too cool to pass up, writers can simply pass over them. Granted, his has happened to many characters, even those without a military background. However, none faced more egregious sales odds than the mighty CAPTAIN ATOM.

Captain Atom
CAPTAIN ATOM #40 Cover. Image courtesy of DC Entertainment.

If, like me, you grew up with or enjoyed the JUSTICE LEAGUE UNLIMITED animated show, you should recognize Captain Atom. The shiny metal skin and the proton-electron symbol plastered in red on his chest were a regular feature on that cartoon. However, his popularity in the animated series hides a less marketable history. After all, there’s a reason why the good Captain rarely makes any appearances in the DC Universe proper.

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I personally think his current lack of popularity is a crime. As an awarded military veteran, Captain Atom’s role as a superhero is largely secondary to his nature. In fact, if DC decided to reboot his character, he could potentially give readers a candid view of the modern military. No matter what the company decides to do with this character, though, he deserves another chance. With that in mind, here’s a brief spotlight on the origins and history of the nuclear age superhero, Captain Atom!

Publication: From Charlton to DC

Captain Atom
CAPTAIN ATOM #78 Cover. Image courtesy of DC Entertainment.

Captain Atom is recognizable as a DC superhero, but he didn’t start out that way. During the 1940s and 1950s, burgeoning comic book companies became the new fad. Everyone wanted to get in on the rising industry, and Charlton Comics was one such company. They produced a number of superhero comic books that played into the fads of the era. In order to corner BATMAN’s popularity, Charlton created the Question and Blue Beetle. In response to Wonder Woman, they developed Nightshade.

However, one of Charlton’s most popular characters, Captain Atom, played into a wholly unique trend during that era: the nuclear-powered superhero. Created by writer Joe Gill in 1966, Atom was one of many characters (like Gold Key’s Doctor Solar) to utilize fears of the nuclear bomb in his origins. Allen Adam was a rocket technician who became trapped in a space-faring craft during a test. When the rocket exploded in the upper atmosphere, Allen was seemingly obliterated by the blast. Minutes later, though, he reformed, unharmed on the Earth’s surface with a brand new suite of nuclear-energy powers.

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Like many early comic companies, though, Charlton couldn’t cut it. Their competition (DC and Marvel) had essentially cornered the comic book market. Charlton’s sales were slipping. In response, they sold the rights to their characters and storylines to DC. Suddenly, Captain Atom and others had a new home and a new origin story.

Captain Atom, Post-Crisis

The Captain Atom that we know today made his first appearance in 1987’s CAPTAIN ATOM #1. It may interest you to know that Atom arrived during the “awkward teenage years” of DC. The Silver Age was coming to a swift end, and the Bronze Age had just started introducing darker storylines to the fold. It incorporated the whacky science-fiction of the Silver Age into the more intense, drama-driven stories of the Bronze. As such, the first Captain Atom origin story takes elements from both ages, acting as a time capsule for comic book history.

Nathaniel Adam: Traitor or Betrayed?

Captain Atom
CAPTAIN ATOM #1 Cover. Courtesy of DC Entertainment

Nathaniel Adam was a decorated Air Force pilot who served during the Vietnam War. Upon returning home, Adam was framed for heinous war crimes and sentenced to death by the US military. Officer Wade Eiling would oversee his execution. However, just before his death, Adam was offered a deal. The government had begun work on a secret project, and it needed test subjects. The chances of survival were, of course, slim but, should Adam somehow survive, he would receive a full presedential pardon.

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Adam accepted the offer. The project, titled “Project: Captain Atom,” took place in 1966 and tested the integrity of a crashed alien capsule. Scientists strapped Adam to a chair within the “egg” and, as one does, detonated a nuclear bomb beneath it. When the smoke cleared, Adam and the egg were gone. Outside of the superhero genre, his story would have ended here. However, Nathaniel Adam would make his return, even if it took two narrative decades to do so.

The Birth of Captain Atom

Captain Atom
CAPTAIN ATOM #55 Cover. Image courtesy of DC Entertainment.

Two decades passed after Nathaniel Adam’s supposed death. Wade Eiling, his military parole officer and now a general, had fallen in love with and married Adam’s widowed wife, Angela. He also became a foster parent to their two children, as well as their sole guardian after Angela died. Despite the tragedy surrounding Adam’s death, Eiling gained a rather happy life.

That all was threatened when, in 1986, a mysterious energy figure appeared in the Project: Captain Atom Air Force Base. The entity, in a confused rage, killed several soldiers before fleeing. This being turned out to be Nathaniel Adam, returned from the dead. In reality, the nuclear blast had fused the alien metal to his skin and sent him hurtling through time to this point.

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Eiling, terrified that Adam would seek to ruin his new-found family, sought to destroy “Captain Atom.” Trapping the soldier in a rocket, Eiling thought he had successfully killed Nathaniel Adam once and for all. However, if a nuclear blast couldn’t kill him, neither would a trip to the moon. Nathaniel returned again. Eiling, though, wasn’t put off. Taking advantage of the fact that Adam never received his presidential pardon, Eiling blackmailed Adam to work for the US Government as their personal superhero. Eventually, Adam would clear his name and, since then, has gone on to work with several iterations of the Justice League as well as a solo superhero in his own right.

The New 52

Captain Atom
CAPTAIN ATOM #1 Cover. Image courtesy of DC Entertainment.

Captain Atom’s adventures ran from this first story in 1987 to the death of the DC Universe in 2011’s FLASHPOINT event. Like other DC heroes at the time, the character received a newly revamped origin story and his own solo series. However, unlike some of the other egregious changes to character continuity, Captain Atom’s story only got a fresh coat of paint. The basics were still there: military officer signs up for a secret military science project and ends up flung through time. However, there was one key difference between his past and his present selves: his powers make him a major threat to those around him.

Unlike the previous version of Captain Atom, this Nathaniel Adam runs the risk of detonating if he absorbs too much energy. While his powers make him a powerful metahuman, they also put everyone else at risk. This danger is so great that the Justice League seemingly denied him recruitment for the threat he poses. Instead, they chose Firestorm, two teenage brains in one body with essentially the same powerset. Before this danger could be explored to its full potential, though, DC canned future issues of this series. The sales were so poor that they wouldn’t bring the character back in any other story until THE RISE AND FALL OF CAPTAIN ATOM in 2017. Since then, he has made no appearances in DC’s Rebirth event, except for a brief cameo at the New 52 Superman’s funeral.

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Alternate Captain Atoms

Captain Atom
KINGDOM COME #2. Image courtesy of DC Entertainment.

It would be impossible to cover every single iteration of Captain Atom to have appeared in comics. After all, DC’s multiverse storytelling is trumped only by Marvel in the vastness of alternate worlds. I do have two, though, of special interest in this spotlight. The first comes from my favorite comic book story of all time, KINGDOM COME. In this tale, Captain Atom has joined Mangog’s group of young, violent superheroes to stop a “rampaging” Parasite in Kansas. During the fight, Atom takes a massive blow from the villain, which cracks his outer shell. This results in a massive nuclear explosion that destroys Kansas. This event is important because it is pivotal in pushing Superman to rejoin the fight against the overzealous new generation of superheroes.

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In another feat of pure power, Captain Atom actually held his own against the Man of Steel in the INJUSTICE universe. In INJUSTICE: YEAR ONE, Captain Atom has joined Batman’s Insurgency as a pinch hitter. He’s the only team member powerful enough to defeat Superman and, during a battle in the North Pole, Atom nearly wins. However, Wonder Woman arrives and cuts through Atom’s metallic shell. In a last-ditch effort, he grabs Superman and Wonder Woman and takes them into space for the final detonation. While this attempt fails (because he’s fighting Superman), this bout really showcases the utter power that Atom carries within his metallic body.

Powers and Abilities

As a product of Silver Age science, a list of Captain Atom’s powers could stretch for miles and miles without end. With that said, I want to explore the most important and iconic abilities at this hero’s disposal. First and foremost, all of his powers stem exclusively from his metallic skin. This alloy, called Dilustel, is tied into the quantum field. This means, in layman’s terms, that Captain Atom can absorb and manipulate infinite amounts of energy. Said manipulation can take multiple forms, and Atom has shown the typical swath of superpowers. Super-strength, flight, and durability are all on the table. He’s also capable of firing energy blasts of nearly any elemental base, meaning that he can even shoot Superman with Red Sun energy.

The Dilustel also comes with a few caveats that make Captain Atom incredibly interesting. In the original versions of Captain Atom, should he take in too much energy at one time, his body shift through the quantum field without control. This is why, in his first appearance, he time-traveled twenty years into the future. The nuclear blast forced too much energy into the system and POP! went Nathaniel Adam. Of course, this was changed in the New 52 to the dangerous overload mentioned earlier. Instead of shifting through time, he generates an uncontrollable explosion when gathering too much energy. All things considered, I’d prefer the former.

Role in Rebirth

Since his cameo at Superman’s funeral in SUPERMAN: REBIRTH, Captain Atom hasn’t made another appearance in the DCU. This surprises me because now might be the perfect time to reintroduce the character to the fold. Whether it be his connections Alan Moore’s WATCHMEN (which plays a key role in Rebirth) or his chances at discussing real-world fears about the US Military, he could have an interesting and important role in modern events. Here are just a few reasons why I feel that DC should bring Captain Atom back into the fold as soon as possible.

The WATCHMEN Connection

Captain Atom
WATCHMEN #4. Courtesy of DC Entertainment

When Alan Moore began working on the themes for his iconic story WATCHMEN, he knew he couldn’t use DC’s historic characters for the premise. Superman, Wonder Woman, and Batman were simply too popular and beloved to portray a world beleaguered by the superhuman presence. During the time of conception, though, DC had just bought out Charlton comics.

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With this in mind, Moore propositioned using the newly acquired characters Thunderbolt, Nightshade, Question, Blue Beetle, and Captain Atom in his story idea. DC declined, due to their own plans for these superheroes. However, Moore took these original characters and transmuted them into a set of “heroes” that would better fit his darker world. Thunderbolt became Ozymandias, the Question transformed into the greasy Rorschach, And Captain Atom became the aloof and destructive Dr. Manhattan.

Reading up on Captain Atom’s potential impact on Rebirth, it has been theorized time and time again that this connection to Dr. Manhattan will be key. After all, Manhattan has been confirmed as the antagonist of the overarching Rebirth narrative. I’ve seen several different arguments, and each has its compelling and strange components. Some theorize that Captain Atom might be the only one capable of defeating Dr. Manhattan in the final clash. In another theory, others believe that Dr. Manhattan may have simply posed as Captain Atom since the beginning of the New 52. Either of these theories could reintroduce readers to this character and make him an intrinsic piece of the DC Universe. Either way, though, I’d like to believe Captain Atom’s link to WATCHMEN will play heavily in DOOMSDAY CLOCK’s conclusion.

L.A.W. or Villainy?

Captain Atom
COUNTDOWN #44 Cover. Image courtesy of DC Entertainment.

With DC’s initiative to bring back their glory days in Rebirth, I also have two possible paths for them to follow with Captain Atom. Both of them stem from the Justice League’s inherent distrust of the character. While I would love to see Atom rejoin the League at some point, his lack of popularity makes that unlikely. However, that doesn’t negate the possibility of another comic book team. At one point, Captain Atom formed a team from the DC Universe version of his fellow Charlton Comics transfers. Joining forces with the  Blue Beetle, Question, and others, they formed L.A.W. With other teams like the Challengers of the Unknown and the Blackhawks making a return to the DC Universe, L.A.W. could fit right into the company’s new direction.

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The other path might be more controversial, but it could lead the character down an interesting road. After INFINITE CRISIS, Captain Atom subsequently shifted through time and had his metallic skin broken. In order to prevent total nuclear fallout, he donned the armor of the villain Monarch. His travels through time, though, had twisted his mind, sending him down a darker path. I would love to see a Rebirth reference this bleak period in the hero’s life. It could act as a fantastic arc for the JUSTICE LEAGUE comics, and it would also allow for Captain Atom to reclaim his heroic character at some point as well.

Final Thoughts: Captain Atom’s Role in the DC Universe

In short, Captain Atom’s lack of appearances in modern DC Comics is a shame. This is a character with immense powers on the scale of Superman, but even greater consequences for using them. That gives writers so many vastly unique paths to bring the character down. Captain Atom already has a rich history in DC Comics’ lore. More importantly, his role as a military-based superhero gives the character the possibility to explore themes surrounding the modern organization. Captain Atom may seem like nothing more than a walking nuclear bomb but, in truth, he doesn’t need to be. That alone should provide enough potent drama to his storylines. I can only hope that, as Rebirth continues, DC reintroduces this fantastic character to their roster.

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