Atom Heart Brother

DC Archives: Action Heroes Volume 1, written by Joe Gill, Steve Ditko and others, illustrated by Steve Ditko and others (1961-1966; reprinted 2004): Charlton Comics was pretty much the lowest of the low when it came to American comic-book publishers of the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s. But the company did have one major asset: artist Steve Ditko (co-creator of Spider-man and Dr. Strange for Marvel) liked working for them because while they paid badly, they left him pretty much alone to do as he pleased.

DC bought the Charlton Comics stable of super-heroes in the early 1980’s, a purchase that nearly led to Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen series being about those same heroes — Moore initially pitched his dystopian, revisionist superhero series as being about the newly purchased Charlton heroes. DC decided to instead integrate the heroes into the DC Universe, and Moore revised Watchmen so as to be about new but similar heroes.

Captain Atom (who would become Dr. Manhattan in Watchmen) stars in this first collection of notable Charlton superhero comics of the 1960’s and 1970’s. With Charlton, ‘notable’ almost universally means ‘Steve Ditko.’ Ditko does full art on some of the earlier Captain Atom adventures before being inked indifferently by others on the latter adventures. It’s Ditko at the height of his career as an artist, and the early 60’s stories look especially good, with fine linework and some lovely, weird cosmic vistas.

Captain Atom gains his powers of flight, super-strength, and nebulous, atomicky other things after getting blown up by a nuclear bomb and then somehow reassembling himself. Now highly radioactive, he wears a containment suit so as not to irradiate everyone around him, and battles a hodgepode of Communist spies and alien menaces. Well, and a space dragon in one off-beat story that seems like it was cribbed from some of the odder adventures of Captain Marvel or Marvelman.

Joe Gill’s writing is, for the most part, a combination of lead-footed dialogue, ridiculous scientific explanations, and Silver-Age bombast. Apparently Gill wrote 150 script pages a week for Charlton at his height of production, so one can’t expect much. Ditko makes the whole thing sing, however, his normal characters looking extraordinarily ordinary, his action sequences fluid, his weirdness, well, weird. Doctor Spectro is an especially odd villain from the later issues in this volume, a light-wielding mad scientist who gets split into five light-wielding midgets. Riveting and totally ridiculous at times, this is nonetheless a lot of fun. Recommended.

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