Captain Atom #13 (March, 1988)
“We Three Kings…”
Writer – Cary Bates
Co-Plotter – Greg Weisman
Pencils – Pat Broderick
Inks – Bob Smith
Letters – Duncan Andrews
Colors – Nansi Houlihan
Editor – Denny O’Neil
Cover Price: $0.75
Today we’re going to visit Nathaniel Atom as he faces a truly dangerous concept… spending Christmas all by his lonesome!
Let’s keep the poor guy company, shall we?
It’s Christmas Eve, and we open with Nate tossing his United States Air Force identification card (with his Cameron Scott alias) into the drink, symbolizing how he’d just quit working for the organization. He reflects on the position he’d recently been put in where he was coerced to endorse Major Force. Force was a fella who underwent the same sorta splody-origin as Captain Atom, and was eventually expected to be his successor. Turns out he wasn’t nearly as stable as our man Atom, however. This is a good and bad thing… good, as in, Nate can use this information to slip out of his subservience to General Eiling. Bad, as in, hey we’ve got a new atomic villain.
While Nate burns his clothes, we shift scenes over to General Wade Eiling, who is up in the mountains getting ready to celebrate Christmas with his father, and step-children. His step-children, if you’ll recall, are Nathaniel Adam’s biological children. Wade married Nate’s wife following the Captain Atom Project. He stands by the fireplace, lost with his thoughts, when his father offers him a penny for ’em.
Back to Nate… he’s sitting along in his apartment, running recent events through his mind. He has no family, no friends, no job… and worst yet, it’s Christmas! Who wantsta be alone during the Holidays? Well, at least he doesn’t have to deal with Eiling anymore… well, not counting the whole “he raised my kids” thing.
We jump over to a nearby phone booth, where we meet a man named Chester King. He’s calling his wife to let her know he’ll be running late… again. He has something he has to do for his boss, Mr. Wiley. You might think that with a name like “wiley”, nothing good will come of this… and you’d be right! Chester has been tasked with burning down a condemned hotel!
It’s cool though, with the Christmas bonus Wiley is willing to cut, the King family will be able to take a trip to the Bahamas! So giddy at the prospect, Chester hands over a wad of cash to a beggar.
Back up the mountain, the Eiling men chat, while Nate’s kids have a snowball fight. Papa Eiling notes that his son has changed… he’s always been a “business first” type’a guy, but now it’s even worse. As he expresses his concern, Wade cuts him off to take a phone call.
Back in D.C., Nate aimlessly wanders the streets. He thinks to himself how he’s not sure he belongs in this world. Having lost two-decades, he’s a man out of time and place… and without being bossed around by Eiling, he’s really quite lost. On his way into a bar, he hands that same beggar a quarter.
We rejoin Chester as he rigs a ramshackle building to go boom. Little does he know, however, a dozen of the neighborhood homeless has been squatting there to escape the frigid cold.
With his job completed, Chester heads into the same bar Nate’s cooling his jets at, and offers to buy a round for the house. We get a whole bunch more exposition from Nate’s thought-bubbles… man outta time, yadda yadda yadda.
Back with the Eilings, Papa is regaling the children with his story of the time he had a run-in with Hans von Hammer, Enemy Ace! Ya see, Papa’s plane was leaking fuel… and yet, he still attempted to take Enemy Ace on. He lost the dogfight, however, Ace let him live. Rather than shoot him down, he offers a salute before parting.
Papa Eiling responded to that gesture with… a torrent of gunfire! Enemy Ace vanished in the distance, so this was a futile gesture at best. The elder Eiling tells the kids that it’s taken him his entire life to understand Enemy Ace’s “code of honor” in letting him live. Basically, when lives are on the line… it really doesn’t matter who wins or loses. Life’s not a game at that point… there’s no “scorecard” when you’re faced with your own mortality. Wade calls this “life lesson” a bunch of crap, and suggests Papa’s gone soft… or senile.
Back in Washington, D.C., the bar patrons hear an explosion! A frantic passerby rushes in to tell them that the old hotel is all lit up. The bar empties into the street, when someone mentions all of the squatters. This is brand-new information for budding arsonist, Chester King!
Suddenly, a man… engulfed in flames, rushes from the Dixie Hotel… it’s the same beggar that Chester gave money but a few hours earlier. Chester smothers the flames with his coat… but, it’s clearly too late.
An onlooker suggests there’s nothing anyone can do… it’s best to just wait for the fire department and emergency services. Little do they know, they’ve got a bonafide superhero in their midst! Captain Atom takes to the crisis, all the while thinking to himself that this feels like the first time he’s acted truly heroically since coming back.
Back up the mountain, the Eiling men talk s’more… and it’s just as contentious as ever. It’s plainly clear that Wade has little affection for his father… or at least that’s the impression he’s trying to give. Nate’s son, Randy overhears the discussion.
Back in D.C., emergency services have arrived, and the burned beggar is pronounced dead. Chester stands there with a blank look on his face for a bit before dropping $5,000 into a Salvation Army bucket. Yeah, that about evens things up, doesn’t it?
We close out with Captain Atom’s heroism being celebrated at the bar… they’ve got him hoisted on their shoulders and everything… just like on the cover! He is approached by a woman named Eve Eden (Nightshade), who tells him they have a “mutual uncle”. They decide to head out and spend the evening together. Let’s hope she didn’t mean “uncle” literally, eh?
This was an interesting issue. It’s not often in comics that we take a look at the loneliness the Holiday Season can bring. I guess maybe that’s not something we necessarily want to think about.
We look at Nate, and… well, dude is very much alone. Being time-displaced, he no longer has a family… he doesn’t have any friends, and since quitting his gig in the Air Force, he no longer has any direction.
That’s one of those things you don’t really think about when quitting or leaving a job. Even if it’s not a dream gig, it’s not the absolute worst thing in the world to have a “direction”. Having worked a bunch of contract positions in my time, there have been a handful that I’ve hated… but, those first few days after they wrap up… eesh, talk about becoming a wandering soul. It was actually during one of those “nebulous interims” that I read through this volume of Captain Atom for the first time!
Not sure I’d suggest hitting up a bar when in that sort of state, but I ain’t here to judge. Something I will say though, Nate refers to the bar as a “pub”. Was that ever American slang for a bar? Seems like people use that word to sound worldlier than they are. Ehh, maybe I’m projecting.
Let’s look at the Eilings for a bit. Another big part of the Holidays for many folks is facing their family dysfunction. Usually in entertainment, that’s ramped up to comical levels… but here, it’s pretty… I dunno, dark. We don’t get a happy ending, or even a mutual understanding. Only disdain… and, while it’s not terribly pleasant to read, it’s refreshing that we didn’t get the cliche hug and clink of eggnog mugs.
Also, I don’t have much of a frame of reference for DC’s War characters, but it was neat seeing Enemy Ace here. Love the effort DC made to tie their characters together. Seems the opposite is true nowadays!
Finally, there’s Chester King. Dude burns down the Dixie Hotel… and in so doing, kills a bunch of homeless. Seems he learned his lesson, right? Only… there’s no real comeuppance. Can’t remember if King and Wiley show up again down the line… I suppose it wouldn’t surprise me either way… and at the end of the day, I guess it doesn’t really matter. Dude did something bad, and it facilitated Captain Atom’s first (non-government mandated) outing as a superhero.
Overall, this isn’t a comfortable issue… and probably not one I’d add to my normal Christmas rotation, but I did enjoy it for what it was. I’d recommend checking it out, though it will help if you have the proper context for Nate’s lot in life. This issue is available digitally.