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The original Charlton Captain Atom was Allen Adam, created by writer Joe Gill and artist Steve Ditko. He first appeared in Space Adventures #33 (March, 1960). Allen was a scientist in the United States Air Force who was working on an experimental rocket when it was accidentally launched. The rocket exploded in midair, taking Allen with it - but he reformed again on the ground, having somehow acquired superpowers in the explosion. Naturally, he put those powers to use as a superhero. The character regularly appeared in Space Adventures until its issue #42 (October, 1961). Then held his own magazine from December, 1965 to December, 1967. A small number of new Captain Atom stories appeared in anthology titles of 1970s and the early 1980s.
When DC Comics bought the Charlton characters, and brought them into the DCU, they gave Captain Atom his own ongoing, written by pre-Gargoyles Cary Bates and Greg Weisman. Starting on March, 1987. This series rebooted Captain Atom from the ground up - a new character with a new origin and new powers. The Post-Crisis Captain Atom was Nathaniel Adam, a captain in the USAF, court-martialled for a crime he didn't commit. He was given a choice: a death sentence, or participation in a potentially fatal experiment—sitting at ground zero of a nuclear explosion encased in an alien metal, in the hope of testing the metal's properties. Survival would mean freedom. Nathaniel chose the experiment. The explosion didn't kill him; what it did do was bond the alien metal to his flesh, giving him superpowers, and throw him twenty-odd years forward into the present day. He found himself able to access the "quantum field" that underpins reality to produce a variety of effects.
So far, so expected. Where Captain Atom diverged was that Nathaniel had been a member of military intelligence, and was pressed once more into service for them as a deep-cover agent, as the new government refused to fulfill the promise of the previous government. His cover identity was that of a superhero, the Charlton adventures presented as his fake backstory, but in reality, he was working for the government. The course of the ongoing saw Nathaniel try to discover the truth behind his original frame-up, attempt to establish his freedom from his superiors, and slowly become the hero he pretended to be. He also joined up with Justice League International, initially as an agent, but going on to serve as a hero.
Then Executive Meddling intervened. Captain Atom was intended to become Monarch, villain of Crisis Crossover Armageddon 2001; as a result the ongoing was cancelled in September, 1991, after a five-year run. News of Monarch's secret identity leaked out, and in order to ensure that it remained a secret, C-list hero Hawk was chosen to become the villain instead.
It was some while before Captain Atom returned to the spotlight in Captain Atom: Armageddon (2005-2006), a 9-issue miniseries that saw Nathaniel trapped in the Wildstorm universe, trying to find his way back to the DCU. He finally made it... but unfortunately, he was just in time for a Face Heel Turn, becoming Monarch for real in the run-up to Countdown to Final Crisis. Monarch was eventually defeated in the course of Countdown, disappearing from sight.
Captain Atom resurfaced in a backup feature in Action Comics, making a Heel Face Turn back to heroism, and slowly regaining his true identity and memories. He then went on to appear alongside his former JLI colleagues in Justice League: Generation Lost, as they attempted to track down a resurrected Max Lord.
Allen Adam tropes:
- Chest Insignia: Typically some variant of an atomic diagram.
- Flying Brick:
- Two First Names
Nathaniel Adam tropes:
- Absurdly Sharp Blade: The X-Ionizer device featured in a number of comics can turn anything into one of these blades. The Cambodian uses one to great effect in v1 issue #7.
- Always Someone Better: Depending on the Writer. Captain Atom sometimes plays this role (most recently in Captain Atom: Armageddon to The Authority, and, indeed, the entire Wildstorm Universe), but at other times he falls prey to The Worf Effect, as pointed out below.
- Arch Enemy: Wade Eiling and, in Justice League Europe, the Queen Bee.
- Badass Normal: Cap was this before he got superpowers, since he was, after all, a special operations officer who had served multiple tours of duty in Vietnam. When he temporarily lost his powers, he was still a match for Batman in hand-to-hand combat.
- Battle in the Center of the Mind: The "Quantum Quest" arc.
- Becoming the Mask: Pretty much the point of his first DC ongoing. He was a government agent pretending to be a superhero, but became a hero for real.
- This happens to Doctor Spectro too. At first he was just an ordinary scientist who posed as a villain from Captain Atom's fictional backstory in order to get an interview with the press. Soon, however, he becomes a real supervillain.
- Burning Building Rescue: The critical moment when Cap decided truly to be a Superhero for real.
- Captain Superhero
- Chest Insignia: Again, variants on an atomic diagram.
- Chrome Champion: Of both the 'flying brick' and 'cosmic' varieties.
- Marrying Catwoman: Unusually, he actually married (reformed) terrorist Bette Sans Souci, a.k.a. Plastique.
- Deconstructor Fleet: The Bates/Weisman ongoing deconstructed or subverted a host of classic superhero tropes, including secret identities, origin stories, and retconning.
- Distaff Counterpart: Bombshell of the Teen Titans.
- Don't Split Us Up: The reason Nate's sister didn't want anyone finding out that their mother was an abusive, neglectful drunk.
- Evil Counterpart:
Major ForceThe Ghost, a.k.a. The Faceless One.
- Executive Meddling: Monarch. Period.
- Fan of the Past: Nathaniel explains his occasional lapses into the slang of The Sixties by claiming he loves that decade. Sally is a legitimate one of these.
- Fish Out of Temporal Water: Nathaniel handled the initial culture shock of finding himself in the present day reasonably well; it was finding out what had happened to his wife and kids that really got to him.
- Fish Out of Water: This seems to be Cap's thing, whether getting thrown through time or into alternate realities.
- Flying Brick:
- Flight: Via redirection of gravitational force.
- Nigh Invulnerability: The metal of his exo-shell is impervious to almost anything. On top of that, he can manipulate energy to create forcefields.
- Super Strength: Boosted by the quantum field.
- Energy Absorption: Able to absorb most any form of energy, redirecting it into the quantum field. Absorbing too much at once throws him through time.
- Intangible Man: He is only shown using this power once or twice, however.
- Flying Firepower: Ki Attacks/Energy Blasts: Pure Energy variant, drawn from the quantum field.
- The Good Captain: Played with, since, although he kept the moniker "Captain Atom," he was actually promoted to major in the USAF after the Invasion storyline. Also unusual in that he is one of the few superhero captains to actually have received that rank in the military. Finally, he's sometimes a little more morally ambiguous than most "Captain" characters.
- Herr Doktor: Heinrich Megala
- Knight in Shining Armor: Played with. In-universe, his daughter dreams about him as this, and genuinely sees him this way. The Captain Atom Project, meanwhile, plays him to the public as this, planting stories in the press describing him as the "Silver Savior." Of course, he eventually becomes the mask.
- Life Energy: This is, to all intents and purposes, the source of Nathaniel's power; he's plugged into the quantum field, the life energy of the universe, allowing him to manipulate all forms of energy. (This is why Nathaniel ended up fighting Nekron - because he's integrated with the quantum field, Nekron could use him to drag the quantum field into his realm, and every living creature in the universe with it. Nathaniel's shown no actual ability with life energy, however.)
- My Country, Right or Wrong: During the first arc in Superman/Batman Nathaniel is willing to work for Lex Luthor because Luthor is President of the United States.
- Person of Mass Destruction: When under Mind Control, Nathaniel's able to destroy entire armies singlehandedly. He can also destroy whole universes.
- Then there's Kingdom Come, where a breach in his containment suit renders the Midwestern US into a radioactive wasteland which eventually triggers a civil war.
- In Captain Atom: Armageddon, he's a ticking time bomb set to destroy the entire universe.
- Physical God: It is not clear that there are any real limits to Cap's powers. He can create and manipulate matter and energy. In one story arc, he created and then destroyed his own universe in the quantum field.
- Pietà Plagiarism: Twice: first on the cover of issue #8, with Plastique cradling a wounded Cap, who, for bonus points had a wound on his side, and then, on the cover of issue #44, with Cap cradling an unconscious Plastique.
- The Professor: Dr. Megala
- Promotion to Parent: It was revealed late in the series that Nate's father walked out when he was very young, and that his mother was a neglectful drunk, so Nate's nine-year-old sister got the promotion. It Got Worse....
- Ronald Reagan: Involved in the events of Nate's first ongoing.
- Secret Keeper: After Blue Beetle, Booster Gold, and Mister Miracle discover that Captain Atom's origin is faked they decide not to reveal that to the public.
- Steven Ulysses Perhero: Played with, since after he becomes Captain Atom, the government gives Capt. Nathaniel Adam the new secret identity of Capt. Cameron Scott.
- Superpower Lottery: Cap is at least on the same level as Superman and Martian Manhunter. In addition to Flight, Super Strength, and Nigh Invulnerability, he can project any kind of energy (including light on the same wavelength as that of a red sun... or radiation identical to that of kryptonite), he's close to immune to energy-based attacks, and he can become intangible at will.
- Thou Shalt Not Kill: In the Intercontinuity Crossover Captain Atom: Armageddon, he refuses to kill Hitler.
- Two First Names: In Nathaniel's case, it's actually Three First Names, as his full name is Nathaniel Christopher Adam; also his alias, Cameron Scott.
- The Vietnam War: Cap was the leader of a special ops unit in the Vietnam War before the experiment that gave him his powers.
- Vitriolic Best Buds: Cap and Power Girl in Justice League Europe.
- The Worf Effect: Utterly averted in Captain Atom: Armageddon, where he basically beats the crap out of everybody in the Wildstorm Universe. His casual dismissal of Midnighter's abilities ("Care to try that with me?") and his curb-stomping of Apollo were particularly entertaining.