We’ve spoken before about the launch of Captain Atom in the pages of Charlton’s SPACE ADVENTURES series at the very beginning of the 1960s. The character failed to catch on at that point, and was eventually pulled from the series. That perhaps should have been the end of things. But the super hero fad just kept growing and growing throughout the 1960s, to the point where, in 1965, Charlton began reprinting those original Captain Atom adventures in the pages of STRANGE SUSPENSE STORIES. There was only a limited backlog of material to draw on, and it was already a bit dated. But artist Steve Ditko had achieved some notoriety in the field in the intervening years for his work on Spider-Man and Doctor Strange and the Hulk, so more fans paid attention to STRANGE SUSPENSE STORIES and its Ditko-drawn hero this time around.
By the back portion of 1965, Steve Ditko was having difficulties at Marvel. His relationship with editor/scripter Stan Lee had broken down completely–the two men never spoke, communicating instead through the intermediary of Marvel production man Sol Brodsky. Ditko would plot the Spider-Man stories with no input from Lee, and Lee would dialogue them off of whatever notes Ditko provided. But it was clear that this wasn’t going to be a long-term solution to the divide between the two men, to say nothing of Ditko’s problems with publisher Martin Goodman licensing Spider-Man and the Hulk to animation without any remuneration to the artists.
Consequently, the stars aligned perfectly for Ditko to return to the character he had helped to launch a number of years earlier. It’s unclear who may have reached out to who–I tend to think that Charlton must have contacted Ditko as their supply of reprints was running out, but it could just as easily have been Ditko resuming contact with Charlton and looking for work to get his eggs out from all being in the Marvel basket. However it happened, STRANGE SUSPENSE STORIES was retitled CAPTAIN ATOM with issue #78, and Ditko along with writer Joe Gill produced their first Captain Atom story in years.
Truth be told, it’s a pretty dumb story, very much in keeping with the kinds of adventures the character had been showcased in during his initial run. Writer Joe Gill was able to make a living given Charlton’s notoriously stingy page rates (they were paying just $2.00 a page for script) by writing boatloads of material, often following the Robert Kanigher model of simply making things up as he typed. He wasn’t in touch with what Ditko, Lee, Jack Kirby and others had been doing over at Marvel in terms of characterization. So this first new Captain Atom story feels like a bit of a throwback, for all that the artwork is a bit more dynamic on Ditko’s part.
Somebody, though, possibly editor Pat Masuli, was paying enough attention to Marvel to quasi-ape Stan Lee’s style of credits on the first page, albeit in a wordier and not all that amusing fashion. But even that was a bit of a change for Charlton, who didn’t routinely run credits on their titles. It’s clear that they were looking to tap into the energy that was making the Marvel books sell.
As time went on, and especially after Ditko parted ways with Marvel, he began to contribute more and more to Captain Atom in the way of plots and storylines as well as artwork. He completely revamped the character top-to-bottom in CAPTAIN ATOM #84, reducing his omnipotent powers to more manageable levels and giving him a more modern 1960s-style costume, one that would be aped later for Marvel’s Captain Marvel. He also started to bring in super-villains, as well as a heroine with a mysterious past, Nightshade,
By way of comparison, this issue saw print between AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #31 and #32, so Ditko was working on this story at the same moment that he was crafting his masterpiece Master Planner sequence for Spider-Man.