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Strange Suspense Stories 75
"Introducing Captain Atom"

(originally published in Space Adventures #33, 34, 36: 1960)
Script: Joe Gill?
Art: Steve Ditko

We meet Captain Adam, USAF, while he's putting the last-minute adjustments on an Atlas missile that's loaded with an atomic warhead. The introductory paragraph tells us he knows more about rocketry and the universe than any man alive. This career man was a physics prodigy at age 8 and grew to be a chemist and ballistics genius. Naturally, this is the guy you'd have making final preparations inside the rocket in the final three minutes before blastoff...and this is the guy who'd drop a screwdriver and waste so much time groping for it that he didn't have the minute heed need to squirm out of the tight crawlspace. Meanwhile, back at the launch pad, Adam's pal Sgt. Gunner Goslin bursts into the control room and warns General Eining to stop the launch, but it's too late! Captain Adam is going for a long, fast ride!

Since this took place when space flight was brand new, the captions build tension by going on about acceleration forces and the tremendous heat generated in the nose cone. It must have been pretty bad at that, since this flight wasn't intended for humans, so Adam's enclosure is unshielded and uninsulated...and he passes out over the course of a page. If that wasn't enough, the atomic warhead is pre-set, for reasons unspecified, to explode in space! It can't be stopped!

The General and Gunner get emotional in a stoical way while, above, the heat has dried the perspiration on Adam's face while the moisture in his body slowly vanishes. Then, 300 miles above Earth, the warhead triggers an awesome explosion, right on schedule! "In an instant of fission, Captain Adam was not flesh, bone and blood at all...the desiccated molecular skeleton was intact but a change, never known to man, had taken place!" Then, nothing remains of the rocket, no trace of the man! On the ground, the General is sorry but firm: "He's gone, Sergeant! Accept that fact...Captain Adam is no more!"

But, as Gunner leans against a wall and hangs his head in grief, he hears Adam's voice telling him to come to the launch pad...and the General hears it too! Three minutes later, the area evacuated, Gunner and General Eining are astonished to see the figure of Captain Adam standing before them, surrounded by the usual atomic ring pattern while covered with discretely arranged uniform remnants. Not only is Adam's hair now white, but, as he informs them, he's now as radioactive as pure U-235! Fortunately, there's a special lightweight metal, Diulustel, developed to shield radiation, and Adam will need them to make a flexible shield he can wear. A costume, as it were.

As it happened, a newspaper reporter was onsite and learned of Adam's presence in the rocket, and of his death in the explosion, so it's soon in all the papers. The General takes this well, as Captain Adam's continued existence will now be the nation's most closely guarded secret! It's only after this turn of events that Adam puts on a demonstration of powers over which he somehow has full knowledge and control, and which make his continued existence worth hiding. Covered now from neck to feet in the golden chain mail fabric, though with face and hands fully exposed, Adam demonstrates his new abilities to a tiny group of National Security elite. Burning away his Air Force uniform, he converts an "infinitesimal amount of body matter" to supply the oomph for a rocket-powered take off as he flies away, at speeds that can reach 20,000 MPH. The next day, Captain Adam is called to the White House, where he demonstrates much the same to an anonymous President, who presents him with his official costume and the code name of Captain Atom.

At that moment at Cape Canaveral, an ICBM carrying a Hydrogen Bomb was being readied for two Soviet agents stroll the launch pad! They've reprogrammed the steering so that, rather than explode "harmlessly" at sea, it will take out a Russian industrial complex, allowing for a declaration of war against the USA! The pair are captured a couple of panels later, but the deed is done. The President is immediately notified by phone, and Captain Atom is on the job in a flash, catching the bomb on its way down and detonating it out in space. Upon his return, the President gives him a firm handshake and fatherly hand on the shoulder, declaring, "The entire world is grateful, Captain Atom! With your help, perhaps all of us can live in a world at peace!" To further drive the point home, a bumper panel then depicts Cap'n Atom posed dramatically in front of an American flag.

Statement of Ownership: Average number of copies sold per issue in the preceding 12 months: 130,520. The very top books today sell in the range of this, a lowest rung title in 1965.

Then, a one-page story about a haunted house that looks like the art of Don Perlin, one of Jim Shooter's favored pencilers at Valiant in the '80s.

The splash panel for "Captain Atom on Planet X" shows the Cap'n standing heroically on the U.S. spy satellite which bears that unusual code-name as it speeds around the globe. Ahead is an oncoming missile which falls to his atomic blast in half as if cut by a bread knife. Behind, another...bearing a Red Star insignia!... is gaining on him!

Not long before, a civilian scientist conferred with Captain Adam. While the satellite is everything they'd hoped, it will not be in orbit long because, while its "missile-destroyer energizer" is working, other governments have a rocket equipped to nullify it. "It is unfortunate! Our diplomats would have a better chance to negotiate lasting peace if Planet X were to remain in orbit!" Captain Adam takes his leave, hurries to a quiet place, changes to Captain Atom, then roars through the sky at better than Mach 4! Even so, it takes him two hours to catch up with Planet X, which is still intact. Standing atop it, he can spot rocket launchings...and there's one now, in the general direction of the USSR!

Cut to a launch pad where a Soviet-looking general gives a command in a Cyrillic-looking language to a tech who looks downtrodden. A bulbous variant of the standard '60s space missile...and another, and another...hurtle toward the satellite. It senses their approach and turns in their direction, but has been successfully nullified and so does nothing! Captain Atom blasts them, but they compensate for the impact, turn, and renew the attack! He has no choice but to hit the nearest one at full power, which destroys not only it but the other two as well. (Just as well, as this is page 5 of 5.) The Cap'n then flies back to the surface, content that the attacking nation will never know what happened, only that their missiles failed, and that they'll be agreeable at summit conferences as long as Planet X is floating up there!

Story three, "The Second Man in Space," opens with a blurb reminding the readers that "this is how it happened back in 1961," when manned space flight was new. U.S. missile teams had lagged behind their Iron Curtain counterparts, who already had someone in orbit at 23,000 mph. Unfortunately, while the Soviet mission crew can detect the Cosmonaut's heartbeat, he has not answered their radio calls! An order is made to simulate radio messages for broadcast so that the world will believe the mission to be an unqualified success.

At Cape Canaveral, top people discuss whether the satellite is manned, which cannot be determined without a closer look. Captain Adam wonders aloud if it would help to have a detailed picture, and yes, it would. So, with a quick change Captain Atom zooms into space, past the satellites already in orbit, and toward the nose cone belonging to what is referred to as "the other nation." Cap, being super-sensitive to heat, detects the presence inside, but one whose life is fading fast. While the Commissar's voice on the radio orders the Comrade to reply, Cap'n Atom sees that he's unconscious, and intuits that the blast-off injured him internally. What to do? The Cosmonaut needs help, but interference could start a war! So, the Captain diffuses his atoms and walks through the ship and confirms his prognosis. Fortunately, he knows that American scientists created a drug to remedy the damage caused by take-off acceleration, so he zooms down, and past the Statue of Liberty, to a medical office. There, a medic says, "Who are you?" Atom replies, "No time for that, doctor! Give me 1000 units of the space vaccine at once"! And so it is.

As the Cap'n nears the capsule again, the Commissar is at the point of calling poor Igor a traitor. Cap walks through the capsule again...taking the serum through as well, a tricky maneuver, I'd say...and gives the injection. Igor recovers quickly, surprised that Cap speaks American English, which he recognizes by way of Americans he's known! This conveniently, if unbelievably, explains how he's able to respond in kind. Igor expresses sudden doubt that he was the first man in space, or that his leaders told the truth when they said that Americans were a backward people. It also seems that ground control was going to tell him how to get back only once he was in orbit. Yikes! Cap exits the capsule ("How did you get out there?") and brings it home...into the city square! The Commissar gloats over this propaganda victory and calls for a cameraman. Invisible now, Cap wonders if he didn't help a little too much, as this will look bad for the U.S. But no, Igor reports to a live broadcast that an American was in space before him, saved his life, and brought him back to Earth! "The American's accomplishment was far greater than my own!"

Later, at the Cape, Captain Adam and Gunner overhear a couple of techs speculating that there must be some rockets at another pad even better than these, and that the U. S. must have secretly had a man in space all the time! Adam winks at us and it's The End.

A handsome three page story that John Severin drew in no time fills out the issue. (A space rocket is observed by civilians and military; the military speeds up its rocket program and almost immediately prepares a rocket loaded with a camera; the developed film shows the markings on the mystery missile and the next day, a newspaper titled Jupiter News announces that "Earth People Launch Powerful Missiles." The end.)

At around the time these stories were produced, Steve Ditko was also drawing comics based on the movie monster Gorgo as well as a lot of suspense stories for Charlton, and, a lot of suspense stories for Atlas-not-yet-Marvel. The debut of Amazing Adult Fantasy was about a year away; we all know its 15th issue introduced Spider-Man. The tone of the writing here is even more anti-Commie than the Atlas comics of the time.

The President, suit and face but not the hands, appears to have been redrawn into some generic guy. Had Ditko drawn Kennedy for the first printing?

For a guy widely reported to have been vaporized in an outer space accident, Captain Adam sure is out there conferring with civilians a lot.

The "civilian scientist" in story two has a deeply receding hairline with plenty of white at the temples, sports a droopy white mustache, and smokes a pipe. Wears a tweed jacket. I'd believe anything he said.

The "top physicist" in story three is round faced, has a spit curl on his forehead, and wears a bow tie. No worry of mistaking him for one of the military.

The establishing scene at the Soviet military HQ is a standout. The place looks like a mid-18th century cathedral. Some soldiers in dress uniforms mill about; a civilian in a patched coat and headscarf walks nearby, a sack slung over one shoulder, so this is not a military compound but may be an appropriated midtown cathedral with a red star imposed atop one of the spires. A bare tree completes the picture.

No mention is made of elapsed time to that manned capsule, but we'll assume it's two hours up, two hours back, and so forth. Cap spent a lot of time flying this time out.

Tom Orzechowski
San Francisco CA