When I was a kid, I remember asking my dad which superhero was his favorite. Of course, he said the Green Hornet, but I didn’t know who that was, so I asked him who his favorite DC hero was. Instead of Superman or Batman, my dad rattled off a list of heroes that I didn’t know as well including the Atom, Hawkman, the Flash, Green Arrow, and others and I remember him saying, “I don’t really care for Superman or Batman. I like the heroes that people don’t really talk about.”
While I still collect Superman and Batman, I’ve always been interested in collecting comics that feature less than well-known heroes. So, for Christmas, I received a copy of the DC Archive edition of Action Heroes volumes 1 and 2. These archives follow the adventures of Captain Atom, Blue Beetle, and the Question, but more importantly, they are the inspiration for the main characters of Watchmen.
Created by Spider-man co-creator Steve Ditko, the first volume focuses solely on Captain Atom. While most of the storylines involve Captain Atom averting nuclear disaster from Soviet terrorists, Space Adventures #35 is a strange one indeed that deserves further speculation.
The issue begins with Captain Atom in his civilian identity of Captain Adams (no first name, but I must assume that it is “Adam”) as he visits the home of Sgt. Gunner Goslin. Goslin says, “Billy’s been dreamin’ lately, Captain! And my wife is worried! Says my son tells weird stories when he wakes up! Stories about the stars . . .”
At this point, one wants Captain Atom . . . er . . . Adams to reply, “I don’t care about your kid and his stupid dreams,” but ever the hero, he replies, “Interesting! The boy’ll probably be a space pilot when he grows up, Sergeant!”
Suddenly, the Sgt. Goslin’s wife rushes up and shouts, “Jeff, we’ve got to do something! He’s been asleep for TWO DAYS NOW!”
I’ll spare you all of the dialogue, but suffice it to say, every other exchange of dialog is punctuated with an exclamation point. Every. Single. Sentence. It’s fascinating to think about what living in that world would be like with everyone shouting all the time.
So, Billy has been dreaming of a giant bird that swoops in through his window and takes him into outer space. Sgt. Goslin says that Billy was able to describe the dark side of the moon in detail, and apparently Goslin had relayed this description to Adams at a different time because he replies, “The description was accurate, Gunner! At the time, I wondered if it was a coincidence!”
In other issues, Captain Atom’s identity is described as being only known to the President and a few of his top men, so apparently, Sgt. Goslin is one of the president’s top men because Adams transforms right in the kid’s bedroom and leaps out of the window to fly into space looking for a kid riding a space bird.
I hope that last sentence was as fun to read as it was to write.
In four panels, Captain Atom reaches the last charted galaxy and just looks around. Suddenly, he is attacked by a giant green bird, so he starts blasting away. This isn’t the same bird that the boy is riding on, but that’s okay because the narrative says, “Not far away, in the same galaxy . . . the home of the space-birds . . . a boy from Earth and his companion witnessed the odd duel . . .”
The red pajama boy says, “Go to them, Loga! Your friend needs help! The man is from my planet! He may not be evil! We shall find that out!”
Page 5 is the last one of the story, and I have provided it here. As you can see, Captain Atom says, “Billy, you’ve been gone in this dream too long! Your parents are worried about you!” to which Billy replies, “I tried to tell mom, but she didn’t believe in this! It is real, isn’t it sir?”
And in the end, it apparently is. Billy is a boy that travels in space on the back of a bird named “Loga” when he dreams. This is his superpower and as you can see, that is where the story ends. There aren’t any attempts to explain why the boy can do what he does, nor does the comic try to find some sort of practical use of this power. Captain Atom doesn’t sever the connection the boy has to Loga, and the bird doesn’t turn out to be some sort of evil conqueror bent on stealing a child’s soul.
Is this story a bit simplistic? Yes.
Does this sense of simplicity qualify this as a “bad story”? Not necessarily.
It’s wild, imaginative, and ultimately teaches a lesson to both children and adults alike. For children, it teaches responsibility; Billy’s parents were worried because he was gone for too long. For adults, it teaches a sense of letting go of authority; Sgt. Goslin and his wife need to listen to their child more and understand that he can be responsible.
These lessons weren’t spelled out explicitly in the text, but the reader can infer them. Ditko was a master of moralistic storytelling wrapped up in fun superhero hjinks, and to say that he didn’t have a moral or something to teach when he created this story is doing him a major disservice.
Obviously, this story would never see the light of day in the modern market. Readers want too many answers to questions that don’t need answering. Silver age comics may have been simplistic, but they allowed for a reader’s imagination to fill in the gaps because in the end, a reader’s imagination is more powerful, wonderful, and satisfying than anything a writer can write because the reader’s imagination is limitless.