The Fall and Rise of Captain Atom is not the average DC comic. It has little in common with its immediate predecessor and what is shared between the two is largely alien to any other Big Two offering. This tale of a man lost, or perhaps finally found, in time recalls simple memories of old short stories. Its self-awareness keeps it moving, the paranoia of a return to the status quo flavoring a classic time travel yarn.
The other thing that this issue has going for it is the duality of talking both about our own future and the unique world of DC Comics. Cary Bates does not bury his lede when he reminds us that the prevalence of the smart phone or the global recession or even 9/11 are hardly the greatest difference between the 90s and the time that Captain Atom comes from. No, the biggest difference is that, in a post-“Flashpoint” world, in 1997 there were no superheroes. That’s a hook. Maybe not a fantastic one, but a striking one from what is ostensibly a main-line DC comic.
Unfortunately, when I said that this issue recalls classic time travel stories I meant it. Things are, by design, a little rote. Much of the issue focuses on Natha- make that Vince Mallory’s romance with Takara, but she’s as shallow a character as you’ll find, happily playing through the responsibilities of her role without objection. Likewise, the theory of time travel proposed here is neither so familiar as to be cliche but it hardly brings anything new to the table and our understanding follows the same map as every other tale in the genre.
And while Bates makes it surprisingly engaging, there’s no denying that this book is heavily overwrought. Fans of co-plotter and frequent Captain Atom collaborator, Greg Weisman may know that he’s no stranger to clever timelines of alternate history 1990s – an odd skill, but one he’s made good use of. The pair make similarly good use of the time period as in Weisman’s Gargoyles work, but the issue can come off as an illustrated list of events rather than an actual melding of words and pictures. Presenting the events as a science fiction novel doesn’t help the reliance on tropes, either.
Will Conrad’s delicate shading and realistic style are a smart fit for this world without heroes. The level of detail on display is characteristically impressive and, especially when the sci-fi elements of Captain Atom peak from behind the veil of normalcy that “Vince” has crafted, there’s a wonderful eeriness about it all. Despite this, there are still notable problems. Though outlines serve to limit the problem, some scenes’ detail and composition don’t draw the eye quite right, encouraging readers to glaze over the whole rather than take in the details. And there are still moments where, even though Conrad does a remarkable job of capturing particulars of a scene, the characters kind of float unnaturally in their motion.
The severity of these issues will largely depend on your personal preference and your feeling towards realistic comic art, but there’s no denying that this is as natural a place for Conrad’s style as any. Additionally, the layouts are varied and effective. There’s nowhere in this issue where the panel arrangements become hard to read or disconnected from the narrative.
The Fall and Rise of Captain Atom #2 delivers a heady, interesting little story, but it’s one you hear rather than experience. Bates and Conrad provide some thoughtful ideas, but, in a single issue, there’s not enough time to dig beneath the surface. Will Conrad and Ivan Nunes’ art is impressive in its specificity, but, at different times, it both smooths over and highlights the story’s awkwardness.
Especially with four more issues to go, The Fall and Rise of Captain Atom looks to be an odd and refreshing change of pace from the normal superhero yarns, with plenty of room to grow. As an issue, however, this second chapter tells instead of shows and feels just a bit too familiar. It’s definitely not for everyone and its problems are real, but it’s smart and different. Consider giving it a look, at the least in trade, where the considered plotting will shine brighter and the uncertain execution will be a nonissue.