The German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz was once tasked to pen a history of the House of Brunswick. Though his patron was simply looking for some fulsome genealogy for use as political leverage and personal validation, Leibniz embarked on compiling an exhaustively comprehensive work covering all aspects of the bloodline, its holdings, and its people. The project took decades and was never formally completed. What did eventually get published filled three entire volumes.
This is one of the few items I can recall from my Philosophy 101 class — which was mostly spent keeping my head down in the back corner of the lecture hall and plotting out dungeons for my Warhammer campaign — because it resonated with my own experiences with the will toward “completeness” and the perils of “mission creep.” One of the first things even an armchair historial learns is that nothing in human history is ever self-contained. There are always dangling threads, overlap, explicatory context, and post-event aftershocks involved. Each tentative conclusion gives rise to another half dozen questions.
That messiness even extends to such relatively simple projects as “a history of Charlton’s ‘Action Hero’ line of the mid-1960s.” What appeared on the surface as a relatively brief and minor blip in comics publishing history was actually a the culmination of a spasmodic process where every “THIS is where it began” gets immediately followed up by a little internal voice saying ” yes, but what about…?”
In attempting to fix a definitive starting date, my inner Leibniz dueled with the part of me that wanted to get this shit over with so I could get back to playing videogames. Fortunately, I was able to reconcile the two in time for the first “real” post in this series — Strange Suspense Stories #75 (June 1965).
The issue marked the return of Captain Atom, the flagship character of the Action Hero line who debuted in Space Adventures #33 five years prior and was shelved after a handful of stories. Originally created to capitalize on the popularity of DC’s Space Age superhero resurgence, the Captain was pressed back into duty to cash in on the paradigm-shifting popularity of Marvel’s upstart spin on the formula.
The trio of Captain Atom tales in the issue were reprints pulled from his previous run in Space Adventures — written by Joe Gill and illustrated by Steve Ditko — and led off with the hero’s origin-spinning introductory tale. (That may seem like the obvious approach, but nothing should ever be taken for granted when it comes to Charlton Comics.)
If the wall of crudely lettered text didn’t clue you in, Captain Allen Adam was just the ginchiest guy in the military-industrial complex. Why there was simply nothing that hunk of Cold War beefcake couldn’t do…except hold onto a screwdriver or check his watch during a pre-launch internal check of America’s latest and greatest nuclear missile.
Nowadays, those wimps at NASA will scrub a launch if the wind is blowing in the wrong direction. Back in those more ballsy times, though, the brass would think nothing of just firing away while the program’s golden boy is trying to extricate himself from the warhead capsule.
The sequence covering Adam’s one way trip to thermonuclear oblivion is some harrowingly effective comicking, cutting back and forth between the grisly effects of the launch upon his mortal frame and the impotent horror of his commanding officer and best buddy on the ground. (It’s also fascinating to note how much of that grim inevitability Moore and Gibbons channeled into Dr. Manhattan’s origin in Watchmen.)
The missile reaches its destination and its payload detonates in an massive burst of atomic fire. It would seem poor Captain Adam has met a tragic (and very avoidable) end…
…or had he?
The ground team’s moment of mourning is interrupted by the arrival of the being formerly known as Captain Allen Atom, now sporting a stylish silver mane and a lethal aura of radioactivity. The accident has also brought out the Captain’s bossy side, manifested by his demand for a chainmail onesie crafted from the rad-dampening super-metal “dilustel.”
With his deadly emissions held in check by the suit, Adam gives the nation’s top brass a display of his stock set of superpowers — super-fast flight, the ability to burn away his civilian clothes, and…uh…other stuff the creators will get around to eventually, I guess.
The show was enough to impress Ike himself (re-touched to look like the love child of Kissinger and Castro in the reprint), gives Adam a set of superheroic accessories for his containment suit and the laziest code name ever.
“Your name will be Captain Atom!”
“But that’s my name now!”
“‘No’ what, sir?”
Reluctant to leave things at just a simple origin story, Gill and Ditko shoehorned in another page and a third about a pair of Commie spies sabotaging a American missile to start World War III. Atom intercepts it with nuclear haymaker, it detonates harmlessly, and the creators could rest safely thinking they gave readers (all ten of them) their money’s worth.
“Captain Atom on Planet X” is the second tale featuring the atomic action hero in the issue and was reprinted from Space Adventures #36 (October 1960).
The titular planet is not a planet at all but rather an orbiting panopticon sent up by the utterly blameless United States to “monitor” other nations and, if need be, direct ICBMs at them.
For some unfathomable reason, this situation is not cool with those irrational dopes in the Communist Bloc and they attempt to knock the satellite from the sky with their missiles. Captain Atom foils their efforts and a grudgingly resentful peace is preserved. (Again, it’s fascinating to see how much of this stuff worked its way into Watchmen.)
“The Second Man in Space,” the third and final Captain Atom story in the issue, is another reheated slice of Cold War agitprop passing for a superhero story. It originally ran in Space Adventures #34 (June 1960) and was given the additional subtitle “THIS IS HOW IT HAPPENED BACK IN 1961″ for the reprint.
After completing the first successful launch of a man into space, the Soviets lose contact with the hapless cosmonaut’s capsule. They attempt to cover up the mishap by staging phony conversations for global consumption, but the Pentagon brain trust smells a big commie rat. Captain Atom volunteers to zip up through the stratosphere to investigate, where he discovers that the Russian spaceman has been gravely injured by the capsule’s acceleration during the launch.
A closer investigation gives the Captain a chance to show off a brand new power — dematerialization — before jetting back to some random Manhattan hospital for some (don’t laugh) “space vaccine. (I said “don’t laugh,” dammit.)
There’s also a panel given over to a silent flyby past an unimpressed Statue of Liberty for some reason.
Atom fixes up the ailing cosmonaut — who decides on the spot that Americans are just swell and his leaders are a bunch of no-good dirty liars — before stealthily using his superpowers to return the capsule back to its owners. The apparatchiks’ glee at successfully putting the first human in space and getting him back again is undermined by the cosmonaut’s assertion that he was actually the second person in space and the American helped him was the first and is so much cooler than him and “Gulag Archipelago, one way ticket? What’s that?”
It’s a truly stupid story on multiple levels, but worth it only to witness how the seething resentment about the USSR reaching that milestone first got extruded into an absurd lump of revisionist fanfic. If only that type of thinking had stayed limited to the realm of off-brand superhero comics.
So there you have it, a modest synopsis of the first (by my reckoning) offering of the Action Hero Era. It’s a comic where reheated mediocrity is offset by flashes of brilliance and some depressingly retrograde politics — quite emblematic of the entire imprint, actually.