Space Adventures #42 © 1961 Charlton Comics. COVER ART BY STEVE DITKO.
Captain Atom holds a special place in comics history—not so much as a creation himself as for one of his creators. The Captain was the main hero from Charlton Comics, the independent-minded, eccentric, and largely unloved publishing house from Derby, Connecticut. Captain Atom made his first appearance in 1960 in the pages of one of the company's science fiction and mystery comics, Space Adventures (issue #33). He preceded Marvel's more famous Fantastic Four by some twenty months and, more to the point, Steve Ditko's Spider-Man by two-and-a-half years. Ditko had been Charlton's star artist for many years and was establishing himself at Marvel at the same time, but Captain Atom marked his first significant work on a superhero and laid the foundations for his later success as one of the decade's most important artists.
Captain Atom's opening story in Space Adventures, by editor/writer Pat Masuli and Steve Ditko, reveals how rocket specialist and air force captain Allen Adam loses a screwdriver during some last-minute adjustments to a missile's nuclear warhead, and unwisely delays his exit by looking for the tool. Unable to leave the rocket in time, he is accidentally launched into space and blown to atoms when the missile explodes. Incredibly, he somehow manages to reconstruct himself and reappear in his military base back on Earth, shooting off radiation from every pore in his body. Military scientists quickly devise a sparkly yellow-and-red costume (with a red starburst and an atomic symbol on its chest) to contain all the radiation, and thus a new superhero—Captain Atom—is born. Captain Atom soon discovers that he can fly as fast as a rocket (100,000 miles per hour), adjust his molecular structure to walk through walls, endure temperatures as high as 10,000 degrees Centigrade, and pack enough of a punch to destroy an errant missile.
Captain Atom's origin story and powers resemble those of Doctor Solar (Gold Key Comics) and Nukla (Dell Comics), other atomic physicist types turned superheroes of the Silver Age (1956–1969). The early Captain Atom stories ranged between five and nine pages, and there were up to three adventures per issue, of three general types. In the first category, the hero was busy either helping small children or rescuing satellites, planes, or people in distress. The second story type involved some sort of alien menace, often an extraterrestrial invasion force or glamorous space sirens, usually from Venus. The last and most common type of tale featured the hero foiling some sort of nuclear attack or sabotage attempt by an unnamed, Eastern Bloc dictatorship, and indulging in the sort of violent red-baiting not seen since the days of Captain America, Commie Smasher. There was no room for characterization or supporting cast, and were it not for Ditko's art the strip would probably have remained a minor footnote in the history books.
After ten issues, Captain Atom bowed out of Space Adventures with issue #42, but Ditko and superheroes went on to great things and, by the mid-1960s, Charlton decided to cash in on the popularity of both by reprinting old Captain Atom strips in three issues of Strange Suspense Stories (#75–#77, 1965). This venture proved successful enough to prompt a new series of Captain Atom comics (carrying on the numbering from Strange Suspense Stories at #78) from writer Joe Gill and, once again, Steve Ditko—moonlighting from his Spider-Man and Dr. Strange commitments. In fact, Ditko gave up his duties on the Hulk series to return to Captain Atom.
Initially, the new Captain Atom stories were much the same as the old, with the predictable alien invasions, but Atom did get his own supervillain at last—the brightly costumed Dr. Spectro. With issue #82, incoming Charlton editor Dick Giordano shook things up a bit by introducing a new, young writer (David Kaler) and a female companion (Nightshade), while in issue #84 Atom was given a new silver-and-blue costume and a regular backup feature (the new Blue Beetle). Nightshade was, like Captain Atom, a government agent—in her case, as an expert at the martial arts—and the pair soon found themselves tackling industrial spies and supervillains such as the Ghost, Punch and Jewelee, and a returning Dr. Spectro. In civilian life, Nightshade was wealthy heiress Eve Eden, who chose to fight crime secretly after her mother's assassination. In an unusual twist, it was later revealed that her mother was a princess from a magical dimension, who was killed by aliens. By and large, the new direction was a definite improvement. Giordano had created a whole superhero line for Charlton, spanning comics as diverse as Thunderbolt, Judo-Master, The Fightin' Five, Hercules, and Sarge Steel, but sales were disappointing, and none of these comics lasted more than two years.
Captain Atom's final issue was #89 in late 1967, though the unpublished #90 was later serialized in the fanzine Charlton Bullseye. After a couple of reprint series from Charlton in the late 1970s, enterprising publisher Bill Black created a supergroup out of the (by then defunct) Charlton heroes for a one-off adventure, in 1983. The Sentinels of Justice featured Captain Atom, Blue Beetle, Nightshade, and the Question. However, when The Sentinels reappeared two years later, it was with an entirely new line-up. By that time, Giordano had become a senior executive at DC Comics and, remembering his fondness for the old Charlton heroes, persuaded the company to buy their rights.
Consequently, in 1987 a new Captain Atom arrived on the shelves. This was Nathanial Adam, a condemned traitor who had volunteered for a military experiment involving his being placed near a detonating nuclear bomb. The explosion sent Adam into a quantum field, from which he returned twenty years later with powers and (silver) costume similar to those of the original Atom. This new Captain Atom worked covertly for Air Force intelligence under General Wade Eiling, who (strangely enough) had adopted Adam's now grown-up son at the time of the experiment. The strip was developed by writer Cary Bates and artist Pat Broderick, and it soon proved popular enough for its star to join the Justice League of America. Over the course of fifty-seven issues, the Captain battled with such villains as Plastique, Major Force, and a new Dr. Spectro, and he rubbed shoulders with Blue Beetle and Nightshade once again.
In 1991, with the series in decline, Captain Atom was penciled in as the hero-turned-bad for DC's Armageddon 2001 series, but a leak to the fan press saved him and he became one of the comic's stars instead. However, as a government agent with a criminal background, the new Captain had none of the wholesome appeal of his predecessor, and it is no surprise that he became a founding member of the brutal Extreme Justice Group in 1995. Extreme Justice, which also included Maxima, Booster Gold, and Blue Beetle, was conceived as a home for heroes who felt that the Justice League was too soft on criminals, and it was a largely unloved example of the 1990s craze for darker, more violent heroes. It lasted for nineteen issues, and Captain Atom has mostly faded from view ever since. Even so, the earlier artwork of Steve Ditko will no doubt continue to create interest in the hero for years to come.