Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Steve Ditko's Captain Atom: The Planet Series Edition

In 1978-79 Charlton published 5 issues of Space Adventures, #’s 9-13. Each of these issues reprinted Charlton material from the 1960’s, mainly Steve Ditko material. Indeed the first four of these issues reprinted Ditko material exclusively, in particular his 1960-61 run on Captain Atom. And I believe these Captain Atom reprints form the basis of K.G. Murray’s only Captain Atom title.

These are the Captain Atom stories contained in this issue:

Introducing Captain Atom
The Second Man in Space
The Little Wanderer
The Wreck of X-44
Captain Atom on Planet X
The Space Prowlers
A Victory For Venus
Test-Pilot's Nightmare
An Ageless Weapon
The Boy and the Stars
The Silver Lady From Venus

The above list is not the order in which they appear in this volume, but rather the order in which they were originally published in Space Adventures #33-42 in 1960-61.

Note that it is not a complete reprinting of Ditko’s Captain Atom. Ditko had two stints on Captain Atom, in 1960-61 and 1965-67. This issue reprints the material from the first stint only, and omits the following from this period:

The Crisis
One Second of War
The Force Beyond

It is possible these have been reprinted in another K.G. Murray title as “Crisis” was reprinted in Space Adventures #9, and the other three were reprinted in Space Adventures #10.

Also note that there were Captain Atom stories not illustrated by Ditko, but illustrated by his occasional inker Rocke Mastroserio. Three of these - "Peace Envoy", "The Saucer Scare", and "The Man in Saturn’s Moon" – were published during Ditko’s first tenure, so presumably they form part of the continuity of these stories. I haven’t read them, but chronologically they are the 12th , 16th and 17th stories respectively. (I believe the DC Action Heroes Archives volume includes these stories.)

I daresay the Captain Atom of the 1960’s is of interest mainly as a Ditko strip. It’s very interesting to compare his early adventure/superhero style to the material in the second stint after his celebrated run on Spider-Man as it reveals just how much his work had changed. The early Captain Atom material tends to be compressed and constricted compared to the latter material. This can be partly attributed to the shorter page count of the early material. The latter material is more fluid and open and bolder. It's sleeker and smoother too, possibly due to Mastroserio's inking.

To my mind the early Captain Atom belongs to the 1950’s, and the latter to the mid-1960’s. The earlier rendition is set in space, but the latter is more cosmically inclined. The imaginative fantastical elements associated with Ditko are much more in evidence in the 2nd volume. In a sense, it’s less a case of pre- and post-Spider-Man than it is pre- and post-Beatles! Well, maybe not quite, but you see my point. The second stint is a more representative introduction to the classic Ditko style and motifs, and it's certainly post-Marvel Age in its tone.

The first series is of genuine interest to the Ditko aficionado, and I don’t mean that as a backhanded compliment – it’s certainly fine, interesting work in its own right, even if the scripts are a tad, well, dull. I guess I’m just more fond of his mystery/suspense/monster work in this pre-Spider-Man period, so to me his initial Captain Atom phase effectively takes a back seat to most of his 1950’s-1960’s work.

There are a few non-Captain Atom stories in this issue, including Ditko’s “His Own Little World” from Space Adventures #13. It’s a shame that 25 pages were given over to non-Captain Atom stories given the four missing Ditko Captain Atom’s from this period mentioned above would have fit into a mere 22 pages.

(As the 1968 story “His Own Little World” appears two thirds of the way through the 1960/61 Captain Atom stories in this volume it provides a convenient point of comparison between Ditko’s pre- and post-Spider-Man styles - “His Own Little World” is very much like the second-stint Captain Atom material).

The issue number for this Captain Atom volume is Series 1 No. 7, yet it is a one-off issue. There were many such one-offs published by K.G. Murray in the late 1970’s/early 1980’s, and I remember the Eureka! moment when James Zanotto pieced together the strange elusive numbering of these issues a couple of years ago. As James explains it on his site:

"This series is composed of a number of mostly unrelated titles of various genres, but numbered as part of a series. The series title is taken from a number of later issues in Series 3, after the reprints become Murray Comics, that are titled "Planet Series 3""

I’ll be looking at a few more of these issues in the next few days, but I recommend checking out James’ gallery and index of these issues.

One thing that has me a bit confused is the publication date of this issue. It appears to be from mid-1978 based on the cover price, logo and page count. Yet I have assumed the contents have been sourced from 1978-79 issues of Space Adventures, and of course some of the contents reprinted are from issues coverdated January and March 1979. Even allowing for the customary advanced cover dating, these two issues would have been on the stands no earlier than October and December 1978 respectively. To confuse things further, the cover is a reprint of the reprint version in Strange Suspense Stories #75, June 1965. With some modifications, the main figure image of Captain Atom used on this cover was used on the early 1960’s and 1960 and 1978 prints (as well as the DC Archive edition), and it is possible this 1965 version was chosen as Australia is featured prominently on the planet behind the main figure. I hope to have more clarity on the dates of the various Planet Series issues and their US counterparts after I go over more of them.

PS I don’t mind admitting that tracking the individual Captain Atom stories and reprints via various online sources has been time-consuming and confusing, even bewildering – not an uncommon experience with Charltons! - so if I’ve  as made any errors, please let me know.

PPS I wouldn't rate this issue as particularly scarce, I've seen quite a few over the years, but I'll note that all have been about as ratty as my copy in the scan above. I choose to believe it's because they have all been well-read and beloved in their day.

Update: A published source dated March 1978 advises this issue was published "recently", which dates it early-1978.

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