At the beginning of the Silver Age, super heroes were making a comeback. This trend would blossom into a full-on fad mid-decade thanks to the release of the BATMAN television show–positively everybody went super hero crazy there for a year or so. But even before that, there was a sense throughout the industry that costumed crime-fighters might be making a comeback. Certainly other players were aware of the expansion of DC’s Superman line of titles and the good sales being racked up by the new Flash, Green Lantern and especially the Justice League of America. So even outfits that typically didn’t bother much with producing super heroes dipped their toe in the water, to see if they might be able to manufacture themselves a hit. One of these players was Charlton.
Charlton was a publisher with a bit of a spotty history. Reportedly, they had mob connections. But what they also had were their own printing presses, which allowed them to print and distribute their own material, thus earning a greater percentage of the cover price than their competitors. To offset this advantage, the presses Charlton used to print their books weren’t really designed to print comic books at all, and so their releases tended to be the shabbiest on the market, with pages badly cut and trimmed and coloring regularly off-register. But to a largely undiscerning audience of young readers, none of this was a deal-breaker.
Charlton’s latest entry into the super hero game (they had published super hero books in the past, but most of them had dried up and faded away by this point) was dropped into the middle of the 33rd issue of their SPACE ADVENTURES series, and would actually go on to have some legs, though it would be a while before the character really took off. This was Captain Atom, an atomic age super hero created by writer Joe Gill and illustrated by a young pre-Spider-Man Steve Ditko. Captain Atom was the first super hero character that Ditko had a hand in.
Gill’s origin for Captain Atom was so iconic that at least two other super-heroic characters borrowed from it (or outright stole it) during the Silver Age, and it would become the backbone of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ classic revisionist WATCHMEN series. Air Force officer Captain Adam (he isn’t given a first name in this or subsequent stories) is unwittingly trapped inside the nose cone of an atomic missile that’s being tested, and when the warhead goes off, he is completely atomized in the explosion. Somehow, this gives him the ability to reconstitute himself with amazing powers–but it also renders him dangerously radioactive while using them. So he adopts a lead-lined uniform to protect bystanders, and Captain Atom, the defender of the United States, is born!
Like many of his stories, Joe Gill’s script for this first Captain Atom adventure is relatively by-the-numbers and clinical. It was produced in late 1959, and at that point there was still little characterization r individuality to be found in most super heroes. Charlton notoriously paid the lowest rates in the industry, typically $2.00 a page for script, but they were virtually hands-off editorially, so as long as Gill could churn out material , he was able to earn himself a living. Volume was more important than quality. The best thing the Captain had going for him were the visualizations by Ditko, an acknowledged master in the field. He’s still pretty restrained here, forced to jam a ton of panels and copy onto these pages, but he’s able to highlight the emotions of the characters in the manner in which he cartoons them.
Captain Atom became the headlining character in SPACE ADVENTURES for a short time, but his series just didn’t catch on, and it was discontinued after issue #42. But this wasn’t the end of the character, not by a long shot. A few years later, as super hero excitement built up in anticipation of the release of BATMAN, Charlton began reprinting the Captain Atom stories again, in a series called STRANGE SUSPENSE STORIES. By this point, comic book fans were more familiar with the work of Steve Ditko, recognizing him from his work on Spider-Man and Doctor Strange, and so these reprint books sold well.
This inspired Charlton to approach Ditko about producing new Captain Atom adventures as their supply of stories to reprint dwindled to nothing. Ditko was by this point growing unhappy with his relationship with Marvel editor Stan Lee–he was not only plotting his two series entirely on his own, but he’d also managed the unheard-of feat of getting story credit for doing so in the books themselves. But having another account to fall back on must have seemed like a wise idea to Ditko, and so he took Charlton up on their offer.
Eventually, of course, Ditko parted company with Marvel and devoted himself full-time to his other endeavors, including Charlton. It was just prior to this that he overhauled the Captain Atom strip, changing the character’s costume to make it conform to his own theories on character design a bit better and also bringing in some of the kinds of personal problems that he’d been developing with Spider-Man. The fact that Captain Atom was hazardously radioactive was revealed to the public, making him a figure of scorn and suspicion amidst even the people he was fighting to protect. It was all very Marvel-like, in a good way. But it wasn’t enough to keep the series going once the super hero fervor that had hit the nation began to cool a year or two later.
Captain Atom had his fans, though, and he would continue to pop up in occasional new stories and in reprints of his original adventures throughout the 1970s and early 1980s. When Charlton went belly up, DC Comics stepped in and purchased the rights to most of their super hero characters, the Captain among them. DC’s Executive Editor Dick Giordano had spent years on staff at Charlton, so they were purchased as a sort of gift for him. The heroes were integrated into the reoriented DC Universe during Crisis on Infinite Earths, and thereafter a redesigned Captain Atom became a fixture in JUSTICE LEAGUE INTERNATIONAL while also starring in his own title. This version owed a bit to Captain America, as the atomic blast that gave him his powers also sent him hurtling forward in time, where he became a man out of his era.
Since that point, while his own series eventually ended its run, Captain Atom had become a regular player throughout the DC line. What’s more, as mentioned earlier, he was also the inspiration for Doctor Manhattan in WATCHMEN, a character whose public profile has also grown in recent years. A pretty good showing for a hero who seemed like he’d be consigned to the dustbin of history on more than one occasion.