Saturday, February 25, 2017

The Fall and Rise of Captain Atom #2

"I've got it!" screams the mistaken artist believing he's come up with a dramatic comic book cover.

Imagine, if you will (because it's not hard. Just fucking go along with this. Stop being so stubborn), driving through the American Southwest in the 1950s. You've got the top down in your huge steel car that steers like a child's spring-loaded rocking horse and is painted the colors of a football team that hasn't won a homecoming in twenty years and whose mascot is a fish nobody has ever heard of. Don't try too hard to figure out what that reference might be because it isn't a reference. It's just a colorful turn of phrase to get your imagination going but in a way that isn't directing it too narrowly. You're free to imagine your own world, baby!

Dammit. Stop interrupting. Now I need to start again.

Imagine, if you will, driving through the American Southwest in the 1950s with that car and stuff. The stifling wind blows back your hair and tastes slightly of electricity and cancer. You've passed through half a dozen small two gas pump towns where old fellas greet you at the pump and their wives greet you inside at the register. Too many stray dogs to count have sniffed at the cuffs of your pants or the hem of your long skirt, depending on what you've decided to be wearing in the fantasy. Maybe you're naked. What do I care?

Are you still imagining? Okay good! You're getting a bit weary from the road (unless you're just dizzy from the radiation in the atmosphere) and you see a town up ahead in the distance. It'll probably have a small motel where you can unwind by masturbating frantically in the shower as you wash the dirt of the road and the gamma rays of the air from your tangled hair. But what you don't know is that this town hides a secret. You might be too self-involved when you arrive to notice how it's different from other communities. Like antelope at a watering hole, the residents glance furtively about them without even realizing they're doing it. They're kinder than the people you've met previously who have been far kinder than the people you left behind in the big city you're imagining you came from. If you imagined you're from a smaller place, fix that! That's a part of the fantasy that you don't get to control, jerko!

You pull into the motel parking lot (The Setting Sun Inn) and laugh audibly. Not the kind of laugh you'd emit upon hearing a neighbor's anecdote about somebody at work making a huge fool of themselves but a kind of relieved chuckle. So many motels along this stretch have entered the atomic age by cutely referencing the testing of nuclear weapons that it's a slight comfort to be staying in one that decided to keep the old fashioned charm of a name that represents the end of a long, weary day and the promise of a restful night's sleep. Of course you only feel that way because you don't yet know this town's secret.

Perhaps you get lucky and your rest is fulfilling and peaceful. You wake, masturbate again, grab a quick breakfast at the diner across the parking lot (Also The Setting Sun but a Diner instead of an Inn. You might remember later how you thought it should be The Rising Sun Diner as you strode across the already too hot asphalt on your way to grab some hash browns and gravy), and drive out of town without ever learning why the town was different from any other town you've driven through on your journey. You eventually make it to wherever you were headed for whatever reasons spurred you on to that destiny. Hope for a better life on the West Coast? A chance at romance? Running from the bodies you buried in the crawl space under your neighbor's house. Who knows! None of that is pertinent to this fantasy.

But in the end, you aren't lucky. Because if you were lucky, I would end this fantasy and you would be sitting there thinking, "What the fuck was the secret?! The secret, goddammit! What was it?! You can't end your story like that!" So even though the secret might not be pleasant and most likely will end in the death of the main character (which is you, remember), you can't bear to not know it. You would sacrifice the safety and happiness of your alternate timeline self simply to satiate your curiosity. What a fucking bastard.

So instead of having a restful sleep, the clerk at the front desk grabs your wrist as she hands you the key to your room. She still smiles at you but there's an urgency in her grasp and you feel her desperate need to articulate something to this stranger who thinks they're just passing through. And, again, you might be one of those. But the clerk feels she can't take that chance. She's been complicit in the death of too many strangers who weren't let in on the town's secret. Her fingernails begin to dig into your wrist and you pull back, maybe a bit too frantically. She's caught you by surprise and your heart rate skyrockets. For the first time since you've entered this town, somebody's smile falters. Her lips tremble and her eyes go glassy and distant. "Don't stay," she croaks in a voice straining to not break into a sob. You almost bolt out of the front office but that curiosity that resides in your actual chest also lives in the chest of your alternate persona in this story. You have to know. What's going on. Why should you leave? So you ask.


But before the clerk (Ms. Waverly. Her name was Ms. Waverly. The black and gold nameplate near the little bell read Ms. Waverly) can answer, the air around her shimmers. You hear a muffled roar that seems to echo down from above as if you were at the bottom of a deep canyon and somebody was yelling from the top of the cliff's edge. The air around Ms. Waverly streaks red and black and shimmers like the air over a desert road. A blast of warm air punches your hair back and stings your face. It only takes a second or two but in the end, Ms. Waverly is gone. The shock of the incident keeps you from noticing, at least for a few seconds, an intense pain in your right foot. You were standing back on your left heel and your right foot was still stretched out ahead of you, where you were standing when Ms. Waverly grabbed your wrist. You look down and notice blood gushing out of the front of your shoe. Not the front, exactly, but what is now the front after having lost about an inch of the toe. Your big toe has been sheered in half, and maybe the tips of several others. If you hadn't fallen back violently when Ms. Waverly grabbed you, what happened to your right foot might have happened to the rest of your body.

You stumble out the door away from the incomprehensibility of whatever the hell that was. You run, limping heavily, toward the diner across the parking lot where two old men sit smoking on a bench outside. Their eyes open wide with fear as you stumble toward them and they do that thing you noticed earlier...that bit where they glance back and forth quickly and tense up, like rabbits having seen the shadow of a hawk. They know you've seen it. Their secret. You don't yet understand it and maybe that's a good thing. But, once again, you have to know. What just happened in front of your eyes? What took your big toe?

"Ms. Waverly!" you stammer. "She just...she...she's gone!" One old man stands up and puts an arm on your shoulder.

"Come on, kid," he says, possibly saying son or daughter, depending on your vision of yourself and how you present yourself to the world. "Take a seat. You're still here, by God. You'll be okay." You slump onto the bench next to the other old timer who nervously chews on the end of an unlit cigar.

"A mighty shame," he states, unemotionally and with a voice like irradiated gravel blown across the potholed asphalt of a long Southwest road. Your breaths come hard and fast and you feel like passing out. The first man, the one who stood at your approach, kneels down in front of you and begins removing your shoe. He pulls a handkerchief out of his back pocket and wraps it around your bleeding foot. The other man pats your knee and gently takes your hand in his surprisingly smooth grip.

You win the fight to stay conscious because you have to ask: "What was it? What did I see?" The old man tending to your foot looks up at you, makes eye contact, then looks over at his friend. You glance over at his friend and see him biting his lower lip, the cigar now in his free hand. He begins to speak in that voice which reminds you of a motorcycle throttling low.

"Imagine, if you will, an ocean. In that ocean float millions and millions of plankton. What they know, who can say? They're just little creatures and their entire world is simply drifting en masse towards whatever destiny has in store for them. For what is an inconceivably small fraction of them, being that whales are so large and eat so many at a time, death awaits. There one moment. Peaceful, tranquil...or whatever the feeling of just being is to a goddamned plankton. And just gone the next. Imperceptible to the others, really. The whale is on a scale so large that the plankton, if they were sentient, couldn't articulate what was happening. They couldn't know the scale of the world they lived in. Imagine only knowing a world of plankton. And imagine you're the plankton at the top of the plankton food chain. What do you have to fear? You eat them little veggie bastards getting their energy from the sun. You have nothing to fear. Except...there's this thing that happens. This thing where your mates just up and disappear for no reason at all. Just huge swaths of them...gone."

Your foot is throbbing but your heart has stopped racing. The old man's story has distracted you from the terrible sight you saw earlier, even as his story offers a vague kind of explanation for what you saw. He's telling you the town's secret the only way he knows how. By parable. Because what you've quickly understood from the story is that the people of the town are not, like they thought, at the top of the food chain yet have no concept of what terrible whale engulfs them one at a time. The only evidence? The occasional organic matter that comes slightly too close to the feeding but not close enough to be consumed.

These men have obviously told this story before. They recognize the moment you understand what they're saying, and they grow quiet. You want to know why they don't leave. You want to know how they have survived to the age they are. You want to know how they live with this terrible knowledge that their lives aren't in any way under their own control. But what you don't want to know is the real secret they have yet to tell you. It's the secret they keep to themselves, and it's the secret they won't pass on to you as you race out of town in the middle of the night. Why burden a stranger passing through with the truth, one of them will say to the other long after you've fled. Why let them know that this creature...these creatures, for surely the laws of nature work the same on whatever plane this predator exists...doesn't merely hunt in this one small irradiated town in the American Southwest. They feed across the world.

The old man with the cigar pulls another from his shirt pocket as he watches the dust roil around your car as you back out of the parking lot across the way. He hands it to his friend and they light their cigars together as they watch your taillights disappear down the perfectly straight highway that connects their little town to the rest of the world. They inhale deeply and, as they do, they shift their glances quickly to the right and to the left, unconsciously, and constantly, keeping an eye out for something they'll almost certainly never see coming.

The Review!
• This issue is called "Past Imperfect" and can I get a fucking memo passed around every comic book office across the world that reads: "NO MORE FUCKING VERB TENSE PUN TITLES!" How many fucking stories are there now called "Past Imperfect" or "Present Perfect" or "Past Perfect Continuous." Okay, that last one doesn't really work. But enough already!

• Captain Atom went back in time to 1994 last issue. This issue begins in 1997 so I guess Zero Year wasn't a big deal. Especially considering there were no superheroes. Yes, Captain Atom points out that in 1997, there are no superheroes. So now that's fucking continuity. Have fun fucking that one up, future writers who wind up mentioning somebody doing superheroics twenty years in the past! I mean, Superboy must have been around doing some shit, right?

• Captain Atom is 27 years old in 1997. So I guess he's going to be doing some more time travel soon since there's no way DC Comics is going to have a forty-seven year old hero in the current DC Universe. Hopefully Captain Atom will still fuck things up so badly that the DC Universe's old continuities will somehow fold over onto the current one and they'll all, somehow, coexist.

• Captain Atom goes about his life, dating and working and pretending to write science fiction so he can learn about time travel from professors of physics who only have speculative and theoretical ideas on how it works and so can't really help him out. Not that he really wants help. He just wants somebody to basically say, "You know what? It's okay to enjoy yourself without fear of fucking up the future. You deserve it, man!"

• In the year 2000, Captain Atom's wife Takara becomes pregnant. Okay. So that would make a seventeen year old new Captain Atom. Got it! I can probably wrap up the review on this entire series now, right?

• On his way home from being tested, Captain Atom is shot by some carjackers. The bullets force his body to go critical (since he still has quantum traces of his powers inside him or some other technobabble bullshit). And since Captain Atom never existed in the year 2000, he's sent back through time! He winds up back in 2017. I think. There are clouds over his head that read, "Give to 2017 super hero fund." So, you know, I guess that's a clue?

The Ranking!
No change! Next issue, Captain Atom probably meets his son! I hope they don't have sex. That would probably cause a time paradox.

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