Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Comic Book Review: Captain Atom #85

TITLE: Captain Atom #85

PUBLISHER: Modern Comics



24 Pages


This book, I'm going in stone cold on. I've never read it before, nor have I ever read any of the original incarnation of the Charlton characters from the 60's. My only experience with them has been from DC Comics, when they were incorporated into the DCU after Crisis on Infinite Earths.

This particular issue is a reprint from the original run of Captain Atom from 1966. It features two stories, one with Captain Atom and the other with The Blue Beetle. This is another serendipitous pick, as DC is premiering their new co-features this month. And two of the characters appearing in the new format are none other than Blue Beetle and Captain Atom!

So let's take a trip back to the hey-day of the Silver Age to see just what is it about these characters that they just keep on coming back.

Strings of Punch & Jewelee

  • Script: Dave Kaler
  • Pencils: Steve Ditko
  • Inks: Rocke, Mastroserio

Right off the bat, I know we're in for a book with a high level of quality when Jewelee's name is spelled wrong in the actual title of the story.

We open this story up with two scientists who are taking a break from their studies on a golf course. They are delayed by an attractive golfer who has misplaced her ball. It's a trap, naturally, as the beautiful golfer is Jewelee, who with her partner in crime Punch, are kidnapping noted scientists.

It's funny that how whenever I see a nine panel grid these days, I instantly think of Watchmen. Is this another one of the influences that Alan Moore took from Charlton and it's characters when creating Watchmen? I'm sure it's just coincidence. We'll have to see how many more nine panel grids we get this issue.

As the story continues, Captain Atom and Nightshade are reclining by the pool with a scientist friend of theirs, Alec Rois. Captain Atom is intrigued about a series of kidnappings that he has read about in the paper. Nightshade tries to distract the Captain, but he's all business as he tries to get Nightshade to tell him more about herself. Maybe she would have better luck distracting him if she lost that swim cap.

That's interesting, as Nightshade was until very recently played as more of a villain in the DCU. I wonder if her reluctance to share her past here has any relevance to her current status, or if I'm just misreading something and projecting it into current continuity.

Lucky for her, a giant gem appears out of nowhere and envelops Alec Rois and disappears with him inside it. Captain Atom's inquiries will have to wait, as it's time to suit up into their action togs. Speaking of suiting up...those have to be two of the worst costume designs I've ever seen.

A dark blue unitard, with powder blue full sleeves, accompanied by reddish/orange tights and blue boots. Tie it all together with a yellow belt, and it's all just too much. I can see why they went in completely the opposite direction with this character in the DCU by giving him a very basic and understated costume. After wearing this getup for 20 years, he deserves it. And the less said about Nightshade's bug mask, the better.

They get their orders from the Pentagon, and are told to split up. Obviously, the best thing to do with the only two witnesses of their friend's disappearance is to send them in opposite directions on separate cases. I'm not sure that's the call the I would have made, but I don't run the pentagon so what do I know!

We cut to Punch and Jewelee, who revel in the success of their recent kidnapping by recapping exactly how they got their new found powers. It seems that they found a chest floating on the Jersey shore recently, and discovered it contained some flying shoes, hypno gems, and sting strings.
The shoes and gems I can understand, but what exactly are sting strings. Yeah, it rhymes and sounds cool, but what the hell do they do?

I should not have been so hasty, as three panels later it's revealed that Punch and Jewelee had been puppeteers in the past. Of course, what would a puppeteer turned super villain use to commit crimes if not sting strings! No coincidence is too far fetched for a good silver age story.

And speaking of just so happens that the next scientist on their list to kidnap is the very one that Captain Atom was ordered to report to to undergo some testing. The silver age was such a smaller world back then.

After a full day of testing, Captain Atom is too weak to put up a good fight and ends up under the control of Punch's sting strings. I don't know what is more painful, the sting strings or Punch's horrible puns. Before he is rendered unconscious, he does have the state of mind to activate the homing signal in his belt.

Nightshade picks up on it and heads to the source of the signal, Coney Island. She senses that Captain Atom is in danger and uses her Shadow power to gain entrance unnoticed. She calls her shadow form "that dreadful power" and uses it reluctantly.

Meanwhile, with Captain Atom their prisoner, Punch and Jewelee boast about their diabolical plan of recording all of the information from the brains of the world's leading scientists and selling it to the highest bidder. The brain of Captain Atom, and the secret of his power, is just icing on the cake.

Nightshade attacks Jewelee as Captain Atom regains enough of his power to break free. The rematch between Captain Atom and Punch is back on, with puns and horrible one liners flying free. It doesn't take long, however, for Captain Atom and Nightshade to capture them and free the scientists. As they tend to the scientists, Jewelee manages to get her hands on one of her jewels and escapes using its illusion powers.

All's well that ends well for our weary heroes, except of course that Jewelee is free to strike again. They are also unaware that their scientist friend is in reality, The Ghost! I have no idea who he is, but they didn't see him teleport some of Punch and Jewelee's devices during the heat of battle. He also made no attempt to stop Jewelee from escaping, so I can only assume we'll see them teaming up in the near future to give Captain Atom and Nightshade some more hassles.

We never did see any more nine-panel grids, so it would appear that the misspelled character name in the title was more of an omen on the quality of the story than the early Watchmen influence.

Between the disjointed and coincidental storytelling, the horrible dialogue, and the one-dimensional characters...there's really not that much here. The biggest disappointment was Captain Atom himself. He is so flatly written and unexciting, that I wonder how this series made it to 85 issues in the first place. Although knowing the silver age, Captain Atom probably took over an existing title and kept the original numbering.

There were two things that I did find interesting, however, and they were the characters of Nightshade and The Ghost. I liked the intrigue with their powers, and the fact that they were plainly hiding things from Captain Atom. They were definitely the most entertaining parts of the story.

Even Steve Ditko's pencils looked a little uninspired. By this time in his career Ditko had already made history with Spider-Man, so it's disappointing to see something so lackluster here. There was some flashes of greatness in some panels, but overall it was rather boring.

We still have another story to go, so let's see if the Blue Beetle can save the day...

The Blue Beetle

  • Concept and Art: Steve Ditko
  • Script: Gary Friedrich

Right off the bat, you can tell a huge difference in the art. Whether this is due to Ditko connecting with the character more or the fact that he inks himself, I couldn't say. What I do know, is that it is definitely a more entertaining story to read as a result.

We pick up the story with Ted Kord being interrogated at a police station to reveal what he knows about the disappearance of Dan Garret, the original Blue Beetle. Ted Kord plays dumb, and is released with the knowledge that the detectives will be keeping a close eye on him.

When Ted gets back to his Beetle Lab, he hears about an airliner being hi-jacked by a spy. You gotta love the 60's, when spies were as plentiful as Nazis were in the 40's. I guess today's anachronism would be the terrorist.
With barely a second to get dressed, the Blue Beetle is off to the rescue.

Flying over the ocean in his Beetleship, he catches up to the airline and stops it from plunging into the ocean. The captain of the airplane has managed to wrestle control back from the spy, only to have him jump overboard to a waiting submarine. You think there would be better ways to get out of the country than by hi-jacking a passenger airline to catch a ride on a submarine waiting off the coast.

The chase is on underwater, as the Beetleship turns Beetlesub and plumbs the ocean depth looking for the enemy sub. Finding the sub, he dons scuba gear and a bazooka and swims out to blow up their propellers. He's met by enemy frogmen and only has a chance to disable one of the propellers before the sub veers into a reef, which damages it's guiding systems, taking it and the Beetlesub on a trip to the bottom of the ocean.

Desperate to disable the antenna lock and radar hold that the Beetlesub has on the submarine, he swims after the plunging crafts. How either an antenna or radar can tether two ships together is beyond me. I guess this uses the same technology that allowed transistors to power Iron Man's armor in the 60's.

Anyway, back to the story as Blue Beetle must now contend with a giant octopus. With both arms ensnared in tentacles, he barely manages to activate his remote control panel under his glove to disable the radar hold that ties his ship to the enemy sub. You think that would've been easier to do before he got mixed up with the octopus.

After he has freed his ship, he uses his ever versatile antenna to shock the octopus with an electrical charge. Stunned, the octopus releases the Blue Beetle. He makes it back to his ship just in time to see bubbles floating up, spelling the end of the enemy sub on the ocean floor below.

The Blue Beetle returns to the surface, knowing the country is safer with one less enemy spy abroad.

The two pages of underwater action is quite well choreographed by Ditko, as the storytelling and action are well paced. They are the highlight of this book by far and allow you to get a glimpse of what makes Ditko a legend. The scripting is not quite as corny as the Captain Atom tale and holds up somewhat better over time. All in all, it's a neat little tale and I can definitely see how Blue Beetle has fared better than the other Charlton characters over time.


I think the main thing that we learned from this book is that Alan Moore really is a genius. How he saw these characters and found in them the potential for Watchmen is beyond me. I guess it's true what they say, that there are no bad characters, only bad writers.

Related links for your surfing pleasure

  • WFMU has a very entertaining history of Charlton Comics
  • Steve Ditko's official website
  • A Steve Ditko comic weblog

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