Happy New Year and welcome back to The Valiant Tangent, a column whose goal it is to chronicle some of the stories and characters of Valiant Comics and the things that made them not only cool, but some of the greatest of all time. This week we are going to take a look at the first half of a story that continues to build the foundations of the Valiant Universe—Solar: Man of the Atom #1 – #4 (“Second Death”).
Before we get started, there are a few things that you should know about these particular comics. For starters, when these books originally came out they included, in the middle of each of the first 10 issues, small chapters of what would eventually wind up being known as Solar #0. As many of you are no doubt avid readers of this column, you know that we already went into great detail about that tragic story in a previous column (if you’ve never been to this site before, well first, shame on you, and second, look at the left side of the page and you can see our previous columns. Then explore the rest of this site because it’s filled with great stuff). That being said, you have a great advantage over those that originally read these books when they came out all those years ago. You know what went on before this story begins, and knowing that will not ruin anything for you. In fact, it will probably make the story that much easier to understand and appreciate. Here’s the “Reader’s Digest” rundown of what happened: a nuclear physicist named Phil Seleski gains the power of a god and tries to use his newfound abilities to rid the world of nuclear reactors forever. The government takes exception to that and tries to stop Phil with the help of a colleague of his that gained the same superhuman powers. Not knowing exactly how powerful he had become, and being very careless with his abilities, Phil accidentally creates a black hole that destroys not only the woman he loves, but the entire universe. That’s right, the ENTIRE universe…gone, kaput, outta here. That’s how Solar #0 ended, and this story picks up right from there.
The next thing that you should know is that, back in the 1960s, there was a comic company called Gold Key. They published cheesy science fiction titles like Doctor Solar and Magnus Robot Fighter. Years later, in the late 80s and early 90s when Valiant Comics was being formed, its founding fathers bought the rights to these characters to use in their new comic stories. So, just keep that in mind because it will play a part in our story, a part that will become clear very soon.
And now let’s get right to it. The first half of a story that sets the stage for an entire universe—Solar: Man of the Atom #1 – #4.
Solar: Man of the Atom #1
Written by Jim Shooter, Penciled by Don Perlin, Inked by Bob Layton, Colored by Kathryn Bolinger
The story begins with a splash page of the Earth floating in deep space…and the glowing figure of a man floating miles above the Earth. His first caption is, “Let’s see…why am I here?” This glowing figure then flies down to Earth, ultimately landing in Muskogee, Oklahoma. The man appears to be naked. He is Phil Seleski, the tragic figure from Solar #0. It’s night and he heads towards his apartment, finally opening the door with the key hidden under his welcome mat. Once inside, he starts to get dressed. Out of nowhere, someone charges into his bedroom holding a bust of Einstein in his hands, ready to whack Phil in the head. Before he can make a move, the charging man sees Phil and stops dead in his tracks. They look almost exactly alike! Phil turns into energy and flies out of the window leaving this look-alike Phil bewildered. This new Phil (we’ll call him Dr. Seleski to avoid confusion) tries to rationalize what he just saw by saying to himself that he has been working long hours and clearly had a daydream.
The next panel shows our original Phil flying away trying to rationalize what he saw as well, saying to himself that even though he doesn’t need to sleep anymore, his brain still plays tricks on him. As he flies he listens to radio waves in the air to see what is happening in the world. It seems that there is a prison riot in progress, and Phil decides to go help out. Once in the prison, Phil sees a group of inmates holding prison guards hostage. Phil uses his powers to disarm the gang by emitting huge amounts of heat and light to confuse them. He grabs onto some of them and burns the flesh off their bones, as well as melts their guns. One guy gets lucky and shivs Phil in the back, piercing his skin. Guess he wasn’t so lucky after all. Imagine tearing a small hole into the only thing safely separating you from the heart of the sun. The unfortunate prisoner disintegrates as the nuclear energy coming from Phil’s back completely engulfs him. Phil manages to seal the fissure in his back, but not before we learn an interesting little thing about his powers. His jacket is still torn and he can’t fix it. As he says himself, “Jacket’s ruined. Frustrating. I can protect it from fusion fire, but not a shiv. Can mend myself, but reweave fabric–? No way.” His job done, Phil leaves the prison as the guards regain control.
The next scene has Dr. Seleski (the “new” Phil introduced earlier) at the nuclear plant where we are once again introduced to Dr. Dobson and Gayle (two characters from Solar #0). Dr. Seleski is visibly on edge, both from his impending work in the plant and from his encounter with his “other self.” Once again, keep in mind that if you were reading this issue back when it was originally published, you would have no idea who these characters were. But because you’re cool and read our column about the “zero” issue, you know exactly that Dobson is Phil’s boss and that Gayle is his girlfriend.
But wait a minute…aren’t all these characters dead? In fact, isn’t the entire universe destroyed? How can these people and places even exist?! Is Phil so powerful that he can survive being sucked into a black hole (the one he created at the end of Solar #0 that destroyed everything in existence)? And if he survived the black hole, how is the world still here? Relax, all will be explained in this article…well, at least some of it. The rest will be in the next article, but that shouldn’t be a problem because I’m sure you have this site bookmarked and check for updates constantly. If not, well then what are you waiting for? Anyway, for the time being, just go with the fact that there is a world still there in the story, and that the characters we met in the last book are still alive.
Phil (“our” Phil from Solar #0), after leaving the prison riot, decides to continue what he was doing from the last book, which was ridding the world of nuclear catastrophes. He starts to seek out submarines carrying nuclear missiles that have sunk to the bottom of the ocean. He finds the Russian Navy attempting to retrieve one of these subs and lends a hand. Phil uses his powers to raise the sub to the surface, then begins to remove the missiles. The Russian sailors take exception to this and start firing their weapons at Phil. But he is too powerful to be hurt by bullets (although interestingly enough, his jacket gets bullet holes in it). Phil easily disarms the sailors before flying himself and the missiles into deep space where he can set them off without harming anyone on Earth. One nuclear explosion later, Phil makes his way back to Earth. He decides to see what is happening in Manhattan, and flies around the city looking for anything of interest. He finds himself floating outside of an apartment building, eavesdropping on the nightly news broadcast. The reporter is talking about the nuclear explosion in space, saying that the Kremlin denies any involvement, while at the same time President Bush puts the armed forces on high alert in case of a nuclear attack. Funny how things come full circle in life, because back when these books were first published there was a Bush in office too. One that really dug military actions as well. Oh well, we’ll save the political aspect of this column for another time.
A small, but very interesting, thing happens in this scene. The woman whose apartment Phil was floating outside of catches Phil in the act of eavesdropping and threatens to call 911Â…and openly wonders, “How is he doing that?” This is important because it gives us a great insight into the world of the Valiant Universe. Flying men are not the norm, and people that witness beings with strange powers pretty much react, as you’d expect a normal person to, that is, with wonder and some doubt and maybe even a little fear. (Well, this isn’t always the case as we’ll see in a minute, but it’s usually what happens). This is a comic universe that isn’t used to a man who can fly or run fast, or a man who dresses up as a bat, or an armored warrior, or aliens, or any of that stuff. For all intents and purposes, the Valiant universe is supposed to be “our” reality, and this will be demonstrated very soon by something that will have a profound effect on Solar, as well as the rest of the universe. Keep reading…
We cut back to Dr. Seleski in the nuclear facility. He is talking with Erica Pierce, a major character from #0. Again, he seems very stressed and shaken about his work and his personal life, but Pierce really doesn’t do much to help him out. More on Pierce soon…
Back in New York Phil finds himself wandering the streets, and runs into a group of homeless people on the sidewalk. He starts to interact with them, talking and walking with them. He feels lonely, and scared. They ask when he became homeless and he tells them that he has a home, but he is afraid to go back there because of a hallucination he saw the last time he was there. He finds a newspaper in the trash and checks the date. It is September 27, 1990! This is it…this is the key! Somehow the black hole at the end of #0 sent him back in time! That’s why the world exists, and that’s why he saw someone that looked like him…because it was him, just slightly younger. Phil traveled back in time to a point many weeks before the nuclear explosion that turned him into the powerful being he is now. He floats away, telling the homeless people that he is going to Muskogee, Oklahoma.
This is the part I meant when I said that not everyone treats superpowered beings the same way. These homeless people seem to have no problem with the fact that Phil can fly. Maybe it’s because some of them are drunk, or maybe because they have other problems, but they accept it as naturally as if Phil was walking down the street.
Anyway, back to Dr. Seleski in Muskogee. He is in a diner and we are introduced to a new character, his psychiatrist friend John. He tells John his problems, especially about the person he saw in his own apartment, putting on his clothes. John tells him to relax, that he is working too hard, and that he should try to get out more. So Dr. Seleski goes home, only to find Phil sitting in his apartment! Dr. Seleski threatens to call the police, but Phil tells him that he will be gone before they arrive. Before leaving, he has a warning for Dr. Seleski: “I’m not going to stand by and watch you make the same mistakes. I’ll kill you, if I have to.” Then in a flash of colored light, he is gone. Dr. Seleski calls John to come over and shows him the bullet-hole ridden jacket that Phil left behind.
Phil reappears in New York and flies to his homeless friends. His only friends on this planet tell him that they couldn’t panhandle enough money to get food. Phil tells them that he can’t help with food, but he can keep them warm that night. They all go onto a stoop and relax while Phil uses his powers to warm them on a cold night.
Solar: Man of the Atom #2
Written by Jim Shooter, Penciled by Don Perlin, Inked by Bob Layton with Thomas Ryder, Colored by Kathryn Bolinger with Jorge Gonzalez
Before we get into this second issue, I want to take a minute or two to talk about something that, as a comic book reader and fan, is very important to me. We each have our own reasons for liking a particular book, and one of my reasons is this: I like it when stuff happens. Now what do I mean by that? Well, it’s kind of hard to articulate, but I think you’d know it if you saw it. You know the feeling you get when you’re reading a comic and you’re so wrapped up in it that you lose track of everything around you? And the best part is that so much happens in the book that it is truly a surprise to find out that you’re only halfway done with it! That’s the problem with many of the books today—they are too…fucking…slow. When I buy a comic I don’t want to be able to finish it in less than five minutes…I want to be able to enjoy it and absorb it. These Valiant books that we’re looking at (and the ones that we’ll be getting to shortly) are good solid reads. More things happen in one single issue of any given Valiant title than in 7 issues of some of the comics today (an exception is the stuff that’s happening with DC and Infinite Crisis…all of those are solid, well-paced and packed with goodness). I realize that some stories need to be paced a certain way to achieve a desired effect, but come on…at least make the payoff worth my time. And most of the time, it’s not worth it at all. Stories that lasted 7 or 8 issues could easily have been told (and with much greater effect) in 2 or 3. With Valiant, every issue was filled with amazing moments that probably would have taken at least 5 issues to get to had they been published by some of today’s companies. And the payoffs were always worth it…as I hope you’ll see as we get deeper into these comics. The bottom line is that some books today are just boring. Can somebody tell these guys to make books that are fun again?!
Okay, back to Solar. At this point of the story you might be asking yourself, “What the fuck is going on here?!” Well, this issue clears some things up, but by the time it’s done you’ll probably be confused by some other things that happen in it. It’s okay…I’m here to help. Let’s get to it.
The issue starts with Phil and his homeless friends. They ask him how he does the strange things he does (fly, create sculptures out of light, warm them at night, etc.), and he gives a pretty truncated explanation of his powers and his past. He decides to fly to Muskogee again to visit Dobson at the nuclear facility. After stopping by his (and Dr. Seleski’s) apartment for a change of clothes, he appears in Dobson’s office to wait for the scientist to arrive. Dobson finally enters the office, and Phil introduces himself as someone that has heard Dobson speak at a symposium. Phil tells Dobson that Dr. Seleski’s experiments must stop and that they are extremely dangerous.
It should be noted here that, although Phil has Dr. Seleski’s face, his hair is very different. Phil has silver hair in a ponytail, while Dr. Seleski has brown hair and is balding. So, although Dobson thinks that Phil is familiar, he can’t quite put his finger on why.
Dobson pretty much gives Phil the brush off, and doesn’t really listen to what he has to say. Phil leaves unexpectedly, appearing next at a nearby abandoned warehouse, where he takes out his frustrations by breaking stuff. He’s completely frustrated that Dobson ignored him and fears that Seleski’s accident will happen because of that. Phil starts to glow brightly and grabs his head as a sharp pain makes his skull pound. The pain is so great that it brings Phil to his knees, and in a flash of multicolored light, something extraordinary happens. Phil’s head literally splits open and a human figure comes out! The figure is male and is dressed in a skintight red jumpsuit with a nuclear fallout shelter symbol on his chest, a mask that covers his head, and a visor that looks very much like the one Cyclops from the X-Men wears. It’s Doctor Solar! Phil can’t believe what he is seeing. He starts shouting that Doctor Solar is not real and that he would put him back in his head ion by ion if he had to. They start to grapple, but Doctor Solar easily flips Phil off of him. Phil flies away, planning to fight Doctor Solar later on.
Okay, I know this is a little confusing, but it will make sense in just a moment. For now just accept the fact that this character appeared out of nowhere and has the same powers as Phil. So, just to be clear, we will be talking primarily about 3 characters: Phil, the all-powerful being that destroyed his universe and came back in time; Dr. Seleski, the “Phil” of the past who does not know what repercussions his nuclear experiments will have on the world; and Doctor Solar, a costumed superhero. Got that straight? It will get easier, I promise.
So Phil leaves Doctor Solar in the warehouse, while outside two kids witness the fight. The kids get spooked and make a break for it, but one of them, Dwight, trips and hurts his ankle. Doctor Solar goes to him, and, acting as a superhero would, offers to fly Dwight back home to his mother. Next we have a long scene where Dwight’s mom comes home to find a man dressed in a red costume talking with her son. At first she is naturally freaked out, but after a moment she realizes that Doctor Solar means no harm and is anxious to leave. He wants to find Phil but doesn’t know where to start looking. What’s interesting is that his memories are all jumbled up and filled with lots of death and destruction. He feels that these memories are from Phil. Dwight tells Doctor Solar that he saw Phil breaking stuff before Doctor Solar appeared and that he said “Dobson.” That name rings a bell with Doctor Solar, and he flies away, but not before Dwight tells him that he can come back any time.
Doctor Solar then flies around and stops at a gas station for directions (Yes, even superheroes get lost sometimes…). He is looking for Atom Valley, the town where he lives. The problem is that it doesn’t seem to appear on any map he reads. There is a reason for that, and we’ll find out what it is in just a few moments. So after not being able to find Atom Valley, Doctor Solar uses the fragments of Phil’s memories to go to a place that he remembers. So, he flies to New York and sees Phil’s homeless friends. At first they think Doctor Solar is Phil because he flies, but then they realize that he is some other flying man. Intrigued by this “other” person, who is obviously Phil, Doctor Solar questions the homeless people as to Phil’s whereabouts, but they don’t know where he is. One of the homeless asks Doctor Solar if he can spare any change. He tells them that he doesn’t have any money, but maybe he can help them anyway. He bends down and picks up a large screw from the sidewalk. With the screw resting in his open right hand, he opens his left hand above it as green energy beams shoot from his fingertips onto the screw. His face turns a light shade of green as he says, “I’ll make you something as good as money.” The screw becomes a gold lump that Doctor Solar hands to the homeless. He tells them that it is gold and should be worth enough to feed and clothe everyone for a long time. Then he leaves. The homeless are all excited by the gold lump, except for one who realizes that it is not gold, but merely shiny metal. Doctor Solar didn’t change it, he just made it look nice.
Keep this in mind, because this is another important part of what Doctor Solar is all about.
So Doctor Solar flies to the next place that he has a memory of—Muskogee, Oklahoma. He goes to Phil’s (and Dr. Seleski’s) apartment to look around. Okay, here we go. THIS is where it gets real interesting. Doctor Solar finds a long rectangular box in the closet. He starts to open it and search inside as Phil appears in the apartment with him. The box is filled with comics, and Doctor Solar pulls out an issue of Doctor Solar: Man of the Atom from Gold Key!!! Huh?! But how can a comic character look at a comic about himself? Hang on…we’re almost at the explanation…
Before we go any further, I want to talk about the importance of seeing the Gold Key Solar comic in the Valiant story. This achieves a few things. First, it confuses the hell out of people, but it makes them want to read more to find out what is happening. Second, it makes the comic universe we are reading about seem even more real to us. What do I mean by that? Well, it reminds me of when I first read Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles. When I finished Interview With a Vampire, I thought it was a good vampire novel, pretty creepy, well-written, and just an all around good read. Nothing extraordinarily special, but fun nonetheless. Then I read The Vampire Lestat and everything changed. No longer were her books just normal novels. With Lestat she created something entirely different…something that made you go “Holy shit!” And the thing that did it was when the character Lestat started talking about a novel he read called Interview With the Vampire. But Lestat was in Interview…and now he is a character in a new book referring to a book where he was a fictional character? At the time I never read anything like it, and what it did was make Lestat and the subsequent novels seem much more real to me. After all, Interview was a real book in my world, and if it’s also a “real” book in the world of Lestat, then our worlds must be similar. And the same goes for Valiant. I’ve said numerous times that the Valiant universe is supposed to be very much like the “real” world. And by having a Gold Key Solar issue appear in the Valiant universe, it absolutely makes that universe seem much more like our own than, let’s say, the Marvel or DC universes. After all, you can easily go online and purchase that same exact copy of the Gold Key Solar.
Okay, back to the apartment. So, while Doctor Solar is looking at the comic, and Phil is looking at Doctor Solar, Dr. Seleski comes home. So now all three characters are in the same place at the same time. It makes for a very funny moment actually, as Dr. Seleski truly thinks he is going crazy. Doctor Solar leaves in a burst of light, and Phil soon follows, but not before grabbing some comics. Apparently Phil has a plan to bait and trap Doctor Solar. Dr. Seleski is left alone, now completely unnerved.
Doctor Solar starts to track Phil’s energy signature. He wants to stop Phil at all costs. He follows Phil’s trail to Antarctica, where he makes a startling discovery…there is a woman trapped in glass box in the middle of the ice! Doctor Solar recognizes her as his girlfriend Gail (the different spelling is intentional. It is spelled this way in the Gold Key issues) and goes over to rescue her. While his back is turned, Phil appears and engages Doctor Solar in combat. “Gail” was just a sculpture made of light that Phil used to bait Doctor Solar. Phil injures Doctor Solar, then explains to him what is going on. Apparently, Doctor Solar is just a manifestation of Phil’s subconscious that took physical form after the stress in Phil’s life threatened to tear him apart. In a way, it did tear him apart, and Doctor Solar is the manifestation of the hero that Phil wants to be. But Phil wants to reabsorb him. Doctor Solar wants to stop Phil from murdering any more people.
The two beings grapple once more, and in a last ditch effort, Phil converts all his mass to energy and creates an explosion that can be seen from space. When the smoke clears, Phil is left alone in a crater, and Doctor Solar is gone.
But not dead…
Doctor Solar appears at Dwight’s house, and asks to come in. Dwight’s mom notices that Doctor Solar seems a little shaky, and when she asks what’s wrong, he responds with, “I finally found out who I am…and I need someone to talk to.”
And there you have it, the first half of what was technically the first Solar storyline, “Second Death”. So what have we learned? Well, for starters, Phil from #0 went back in time to a point before the accident that originally gave him his powers. He wants to stop the Phil of this new time (Dr. Seleski) from making the same mistake that will eventually cost billions of lives. Phil’s mind breaks apart and forms another being with his unique abilities (Doctor Solar) that wants to stop Phil from doing anymore damage. Pretty weird triangle, no? Well if you are completely confused at this point, don’t worry. I promise that by the end of the next column everything will be sorted out one way or another. The second half of this storyline introduces some characters that are incredibly important to future comics, especially Harbinger, a title that we will be looking at in the next few weeks.