Monday, May 21, 2007

Captain Atom #85

Captain Atom #85, 1978, Modern Comics (originally published in 1966 by Charlton Comics)
by Dave Kaler, Steve Ditko, Rocke Mastroserio, Gary Friedrich

Recent events like the Alternative Press Expo and Free Comic Book Day have mired A Comic A Day in relatively recent comic book material, so, to fulfill this project's objective to experience a diverse selection of graphic art, I intentionally selected Captain Atom #85 for today's post, an issue I eagerly purchased at a hobby shop in Glendale, Arizona last month. Featuring Captain Atom and the Blue Beetle before they were purchased by, and subsequently tethered to the continuity of, DC Comics, this issue, albeit reprinted by the shameless Unisystems, Inc. under the moniker of Modern Comics, excited me with the chance to read these beloved characters under their native Charlton banner. The good Captain and Blue Beetle were only resurrected after Alan Moore sought to revitalize them as his Watchmen, and although DC opted to integrate them into their mainstream universe, such clout implies that these characters have something to contribute to the grand scheme of superhero comics. So, since I've often read about where they've come from but never experienced it firsthand, I snatched Captain Atom #85 for a meager dollar, anticipating a priceless example of Silver Age groundwork.

I wasn't disappointed. First of all, both Captain Atom's feature story and Blue Beetle's back-up tale are illustrated by Steve Ditko, who, in 1966, was fresh from his run on The Amazing Spider-man and, with the help of inker Rocke Mastroserio, was producing his most solid, crisp lines ever. His diminutive, poignant character work (which placed him in favor over Kirby for the inaugural artistic reigns on Spidey) drives Dale Kaler's script, a surprisingly villain-centric story about the origins of the vile Punch and Jewelee, two puppeteers that become evil when they discover mysterious artifacts that bestow them with mind-controlling abilities. In this issue, Punch and Jewelee are kidnapping the world's greatest minds and culminating their knowledge for the highest bidder, and when Captain Atom, drained of his powers after a seemingly superfluous and extremely poorly timed powers test, is added to their list, our hero must depend on his new, mysterious sidekick Nightshade for help. Together, they "biff" and "pow" the "puppeterrorists" (I'm trademarking that), not without a few loose ends that promise excitement for the next issue, like, what are Nightshade's secret origins? What will happen when they learn their friend is actually their greatest nemesis the Ghost, and vice versa? Will Punch and Jewelee ever team up with Burt and Ernie? I'm genuinely interested!

Kidding aside, such dangling threads (which became the basis for those famous cliffhanger inquiries in the Batman television series) are indicative of the charm of these Silver Age stories. While Kaler is careful to lace this adventure with a few ongoing subplots, these secondary elements are by no means so important that they deter from the main adventure, nor are they persistent enough to coax casual readers toward back issue archaeology expeditions. While today's superhero comics are so multi-layered with subplots that the once anticipated slugfests are now dire distractions to so-and-so's love affair or Captain What's-His-Name's commitment to the government, or some such emotional rollercoaster. Some titles will take years to wrap up these subplots, presumably to maintain a consistent readership, and while Silver Age titles like Captain Atom did the same, retrospectively these interludes are more historical frivolity than narrative necessity. Can a casual reader fresh from renting X-Men 3 pick up any given X-title from the '80s or '90s and expect such a baggage-free experience? While those editorial footnotes referencing past issues or story arcs are often daunted, Captain Atom #85 actually writes itself out of a corner by projecting a story; when Nightshade regretfully uses a super power, a footnote humorously boasts, "To be explained in a later issue." You have to admire that transparent marketing ploy and/or wanton writing scapegoat. If only today's comics were as honest with its audience; sometimes I wonder if such threads will ever get tied up.

The Blue Beetle story in this issue referenced original Blue Beetle Dan Garret, which was an interesting point of hindsight continuity between fan favorite Ted Kord and whoever DC has in the Blue Beetle costume after its latest crisis. Indeed, as Kord thwarts a gunman hijacking an airplane (also indicative of that different era) and tries to take down his waiting submarine, the Blue Beetle consumes much of the screen time, asserting a never-say-die heroism fueled by his nobility and convenient technology. Although I'm a fan of the Giffen/DeMatteis Justice League International (I have the Maguire "Class of '87" poster hanging in my office!), I wonder if their "bwa-ha-ha" take on some of these Charlton characters (a departure from Moore's original intentions, to be sure) set them up as B-list fodder for fatal crossovers like "Our Worlds at War" or Infinite Crisis. If Blue Beetle had become a Watchman, would his role have been too important in the comics medium to warrant collateral damage status? In his original incarnation, Blue Beetle was a self-styled James Bond, with cool gadgets and adventurous know-how, and I wonder if anyone likened his insect namesake with a cockroach-like sticktoittiveness in those tough terrorist situations. Ultimately, the reference to Dan Garret implies that Golden Age readers in the Silver Age era might have felt the same way about their favorite heroes' identity changes as contemporary readers do when Wally West bows the mantle to Bart Allen, and so on. As much as these things change, they obviously and apparently stay the same.

I'm grateful for this blast from the past, because, in the context of the latest onslaught of recent, diverse comic book material, Captain Atom #85 put the A Comic A Day experience in perspective. Many of the Free Comic Book Day issues I read earlier this month were extremely dense because of their boundless marketing potential, a phenomenon made even more apparent by how quickly I read through my monthly mainstream titles this week. (If not for that sequence with the Justice League, Miller/Lee's All-Star Batman and Robin would have been a visual flash in the pan, for example.) This issue is a twenty-four page romp rife with dialogue and multi-panel pages, a far cry from the splash ridden issues available today. This isn't criticism, just contrast, though I appreciate getting as much bang out of my buck as possible. I presume that's a pastime for comic book fans of all ages . . . in all ages.

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