Thursday, February 12, 2009

One Year in Four Colors - Captain Atom: Armageddon

So I've decided to write a review or analysis of every Graphic Novel I read in 2009. I'd try for every comic, but none of us have that kind of time.
*Spoiler Warning* should be considered general practice.

Captain Atom: Armageddon

Writer: Will Pfeifer
Artists: Giuseppe Camuncoli & Sandra Hope
Publisher: DC/Wildstorm

Captain Atom: Armageddon is one of those weird beasts you only find in the world of comic books and collected editions, given how many masters this book is attempting to serve. This book acts in many ways as connective tissue - a transitionary story to move people and places into the appropriate spots for their next appearance and major events that are lined up. What makes this particular book stand out is that it is attempting to do that with two entirely separate super-hero universes and publishing plans. In order to function properly, this book has to tell it's own fulfilling story from beginning to end - but also take Captain Atom of the DC Universe from where we last saw him and lead him to where he's going, but also leave the Wildstorm universe in an entirely new place.

The plot of the story is about Captain Atom mysteriously arriving in the Wildstorm Universe with no way to get home. He soon discovers that the nature of his trip has led to something gone wrong inside him and unless he returns home immediately, his very presence on this alternate Earth will lead the the absolute destruction of this Universe.

Captain Atom is a DC hero, who originally started as a Charlton hero. In the '60s, Charlton was it's own comic book company - publishing characters like The Question and Blue beetle. Eventually they went out of business, and during the 1980s DC bought the rights to their characters and during the landmark Crisis on Infinite Earths integrated those heroes into their line - the conceit being that they had been a part of their history the whole time. The Charlton characters were actually the inspiration for the groundbreaking book Watchmen, and Captain Atom was the direct inspiration for Dr. Manhattan. Since Crisis, Atom has been a part of the DC Universe - acting as both a government operative and member of the Justice League. His backstory is that of Nathaniel Adam - a government agent falsely accused of treason. Rather than rotting away in prison, he chose to undergo an experimental quantum procedure in exchange for his freedom should he survive. Instead, the accident sent him twenty years into the future and imbued him with atomic energy and a quantum shell. Since then, despite being one of the most powerful beings on Earth, he's always felt overshadowed as both a hero and a man by people like Superman - never attaining A-list status.

The Wildstorm Universe began as one of the founding studios of Image Comics. In the '90s, a group of extremely dissatisfied and extraordinarally popular Marvel artists banded togather to form their own company based around creator rights. It was a shot heard round the industry - and one of those artists was Jim Lee, famous for his work on the X-men. A loose collection of individual studios, his was called Wildstorm and became it's own self contained super hero universe including title like WildC.A.T.S., Deathblow, and Gen13. Eventually Lee sold Wildstorm to DC comics, remaining it's Executive Editor, and Wildstorm became a separate publishing arm of DC (like Vertigo, CMX, or the now defunct Minx line). Along the way Wildsorm became known for darker, more morally ambiguous heroes with a sci-fi edge - leading to books like The Authority, Sleeper, and Planetary.

After a huge boom in the early 2000s, the Wildstorm Universe had sort of cooled off, and a revamp was planned. Across the continuity stream, DC was gearing up for it's Crisis sequel, Infinite Crisis. And so Captain Atom: Armageddon was born - to help draw attention to the Wildstorm reboot by including a DC character in the lead up, as well as to set up Atom for his next story beat in Infinite Crisis. The story started with Atom's last appearance in Superman/Batman: Public Enemies when he appeared to sacrifice his life to save the Earth piloting a giant rocketship into a Kryptonite meteor, and attempts to address some lingering continuity errors from that title.

But aside from all the publishing concerns, this is a story unto itself. And what really drives this story is the difference between the DC and Wildstorm Universes using Atom as a viewpoint, and a man just trying to get home. And in that, the story does a wonderful job. Captain Atom is portrayed as an honorable hero - always looking to avoid confrontation in the name of sanity and discussion, his attempts constantly being thwarted by an entire world of metahumans who hit first and MAYBE ask questions after the funeral. His horror at seeing an entire people subjugated by fear is palpable, his anger at seeing the human race cowering under the bootheel of morally ambiguous super-powered 'heroes' is justified. This book shows Captain Atom as the best kind of hero, and a good man - who despite constantly feeling lessened in his shadow still says "Thank God - Superman" when he sees a flying man in a cape coming towards him. This book really invigorates Atom as a character - and does a good job of showing why the Wildstorm Universe deserved a Noah like flood at the end to wipe away their sins.

So what makes this book harder to enjoy in hindsight is the knowledge of what came after, and how much potential was squandered. Instead of capitalising on this book with a Captain Atom arc that finally saw him become the hero in the DCU that he always had the potential to be, editorial decided to pursue a failed idea from decades back and turn Atom into Monarch, an insane power hungry villain with absolutely no explanation. And the big Wildstorm reboot? Dead in the water after two flagship titles never made it past two issues, and has already gone through another reboot since - DC usually waits twenty years between Crises and Marvel has never had one, so that's bad.

This was a fun story that made me love Nathaniel Adam a little bit more, and it's reccomended if you want to see what makes this character so cool - this is Captain Atom at his absolute best. But for the novice comic book reader, not the best starting point.


David Pratt said...

The only thing worse than when a company creates a great story for a character and doesn't follow up on it is when they make the follow up incredibly crappy.

Ozkirbas said...

The more of these I read, the more I want to buy some to read

Jason Heat said...

I have a whole library here at home if you'd rather not spend the $$$.