As six titles from the New 52 failed to make it off the chopping block last month, the most conspicuous of the 46 surviving series was easily J. T. Krul and Freddie Williams' Captain Atom. With sales figures hovering right below those of the now-cancelled Hawk and Dove, it's probably safe to say that this book is living on borrowed time, sitting smack dab in the middle of Dan DiDio and Jim Lee's crosshairs. Personally, I'm hoping the numbers improve quick enough for those two to keep their fingers off the trigger, since Captain Atom is most certainly a comic I'd like to see given a stay of execution for as long as possible.
Now if it sounds like I'm about to write one of those "this book is really great and no one appreciates it" kind of reviews, hang on just a second. Yes, Captain Atom does have a lot going for it and should probably be garnering more notice than it currently is on the backs of those strengths alone. But what really has me wanting to see Krul's gameplan play out to completion is the fact that it's all a big simmering pot of potential. There are a ton of big ideas floating around and knocking about here that, managed rightly, could eventually end up making Captain Atom into one of DC's most daring and innovative books. It's not quite there yet, but it's close.
The quick analysis on Krul's reinvention of Captain Atom is that it's a riff on Dr. Manhattan, although that's really a superficial take. Sure, the new 'do and blue skin tones closely resemble Dave Gibbons' Watchmen designs (which were in turn a variation on the original Charlton Comics Captain Atom), but there's a major difference between what lies at the heart of each character. Whereas Dr. Manhattan was a case study in the loss of one's humanity, Captain Atom is the story of a man's dramatic clash with his.
Following a failed experiment in comic book science involving something called a "quantum field" (Krul might as well have dubbed it "origin radiation"), the body of Air Force pilot Nathaniel Adam undergoes a complete transformation of its molecular structure. Taking the name Captain Atom, Adam is now a being wholly other than human. Initially only cognizant of his ability to fly and absorb and dispel energy, his story in this series opens with the realization that he's actually capable of far more — able to purposefully rearrange the atoms of the objects around him in any manner imaginable. In other words, he's a superhero who can pretty much do anything.
If you think that makes Captain Atom sound godlike, then Krul's right there with you. As soon as the second issue, he and Williams are laying on the theological metaphors quite thick. Attuned to the full scope of human communication travelling through the electromagnetic spectrum, Atom becomes privy to the requests of a cancer-stricken young boy, seeking to answer the boy's YouTube prayers. When Atom arrives at the hospital to help, the way in which he engineers a healing miracle is loaded with Biblical imagery. Williams renders him breathing a strange mist upon the boy's face, immediately evoking the way in which God delivered the breath of life to Adam or how Jesus breathed the Holy Spirit out on the disciples.
It is in this moment that Krul's intentions for subtext and symbolism are at their clearest, though I believe the themes of God and man can still be traced through the remaining flurry of ideas Krul throws out there. With all of his power, Captain Atom quickly becomes a man to be feared — by his colleagues, the public, and the US government. For all of Atom's good intentions, it's a fear that is justified, as his finite human psyche occasionally fails to properly direct the mighty forces within him. While the episode in the hospital is a bona fide success, Captain Atom is not quite as adept when it comes to navigating the political nuances of a Libyan civil war. Even less so when his out-of-control powers almost kill his closest friend.
Krul's choice of adversary for Captain Atom at the end of the arc seems to follow suit. The villain is an inhuman monster whose existence is a grotesque version of Atom's own, an ordinary lab rat who was put through an identical quantum field experiment. Atom initially takes pity on the creature, seeking to save it, but its inability to restrain itself from posing a danger ultimately requires it to be sacrificed. Krul isn't shy about drawing parallels between this monster and Captain Atom himself, suggesting that the beast is a disturbing reflection of what the hero could become if his mental faculties were to fail him completely.
Like Krul's use of high-minded concepts in the story, Freddie Williams II and Jose Villarrubia's artwork is often extraordinary. When Captain Atom uses his powers, the scenes are evocative of what Francis Manapul and Brian Buccellato are churning out on The Flash — stylish cartooning with innovative panel arrangements. Other scenes, however — those featuring the book's real(er) world elements — aren't as easy on the eyes. Here the pair relies more on exaggerated forms and harsh blacks, bringing to mind the generally hard-to-follow Scott McDaniel. Both methods serve to distinguish Captain Atom from much the other titles on the market, but one is certainly more aesthetically pleasing than the other.
A series of unexplained numbers is shown throughout each issue, sometimes counting up and sometimes counting down. It is obvious that we are meant to wonder what they mean, and while the mystery is intriguing, it's really less of a hook than the desire to see where the many underlying themes of Captain Atom are heading. Krul sure is throwing lots of ideas up against the wall here, and the degree to which they stick will determine whether this book becomes a metaphysical masterpiece like The Matrix or simply falls to the floor like, um… one of the Matrix sequels. Either way, you oughta be checking it out.
Raised on a steady diet of Super Powers action figures and Adam West Batman reruns, Chris Kiser now writes for Comics Bulletin. He once reviewed every tie-in to a major DC Comics summer event and survived to tell the tale. Ask him about it on Twitter, where he can be found at @Chris_Kiser!