INTERVIEW: Series Writer J.T. Krul on the End of DC’s Captain Atom

DC Comics’ Captain Atom reaches its conclusion this week with the release of #0, as part of the company’s line wide Zero Month initiative. Although the run has not been a sales heavy hitter, it has handled some intriguing themes that set it apart from the majority of DC’s New 52 relaunch titles over the past year. As the story comes to an abrupt close, Dean Simons speaks to series’ writer J.T. Krul about the cancellation, his work on the series, and his plans moving forward.

GS: How do you feel now that Captain Atom has reached its end with this week’s zero issue?

J.T. KRUL: Bummed obviously.  I truly believe Captain Atom represents some of my strongest work.  Working with Freddie Williams was simply amazing.  We were billed “storytellers” in the credits and for good reason.  We built the world together from the ground up, and DC was happy to let us run with it – tell exactly the kinds of stories we wanted to tell.  I’ll always be proud of the book and appreciate the support and positive feedback we received. I only wish there was enough of that to let the book stick around.

GS: Did the news come quite suddenly?

J.T. KRUL: Actually, no.  I’ve known since about Issue #10 that it was going to end.  Initially, 12 was supposed to be the end, but then they gave us the #0 issue – which was great.

GS: How much of the series was planned out, prior to the news?

J.T. KRUL: In many ways, #12 is supposed to be the end of the run – the end of our big Captain Atom story.  The #0 issue was a single issue story that could come at the beginning of the run.  It’s very much a stand alone story. In terms of the series’ plans, the story up through #10 was as set.  In fact, we had initially thought to let that story go to #12, just finish out the run that way.  I had this really cool idea that was to take place within the timestream story, but couldn’t get it into the system.  So, we ended at 10, then had the two-parter.

GS: So would the conclusion – where he’s in space, looking down on the Earth – have acted as the next stage in the story if the series continued – or was that something that emerged as a fitting end to the story you were telling?

J.T. KRUL: That emerged as a fitting end to the story. We wanted to have some kind of closure with the book.  Where he goes from there, who knows?

GS: I have to say that ending made me yearn for the series to continue to see where he would go.

J.T. KRUL: You and me both.

GS: Out of curiosity – in issue 12, where Dr Megala has Captain Atom’s powers and he sees the universe expanding and overwriting the old – was that a reference to pre-New 52 continuity?

J.T. KRUL: Ha.  Actually no.  Some people read it that way as well.  In reality, it was a matter of giving Megala exactly what he wanted, but have the feeling completely deflating in the process.  His whole life has been about discovering the unknown – exploring the very essence and beginnings of our universe.  For him to discover another universe – one that he will never be able to know or experience, it kills him – metaphorically speaking.  A real spirit crusher.  Not to mention the fact that he realizes that his amazing grasp of the known universe is barely even a drop in the bucket.  Once again, he is shown just how small and insignificant we really are.

GS: The series handles some pretty heavy themes (like existentialism, identity, and responsibility). Were those themes in your original pitch for the series?”

J.T. KRUL: Absolutely.  From the very beginning, I knew this wouldn’t work as a superhero book in the traditional sense. He couldn’t be faced with a rogue’s gallery of villains and what not.  I was even adamant that Major Force not appear. We already have one god-like being floating around.  The last thing we needed was another one. I did use that notion, though heavily, in terms of the rat creature he confronts.  But having it be an animal and not another person, it changed the story considerably and added all these extra layers in terms of how Captain Atom sees himself.  The book was always going to be about humanity – Captain Atom’s struggle to maintain it.  He is the hero and the enemy at the same time.  He uses his incredible powers to help people, but whevener he does it further distances himself from them.  He wants desperately to be a man again, but he can’t be.  That’s the sad truth.  He stopped being a man the day of the accident, and it takes him all this time to realize it.  Those first two arcs were designed in the very early stages of talking with Freddie and we didn’t deviate much at all – Mikey’s cancer, The Flash, Eiling, the rat creature, the Timestream, Chrono Atoma and multiple Captain Atoms.  It was all there from day one.

In many ways, I always imagined it like Captain Atom as a Vertigo book. Very introspective and character-driven.

GS: There’s been some recent hubbub about editorial meddling over at DC – did any of that affect the book or were you guys given a free rein with the title?

J.T. KRUL: Whenever working with someone else’s characters, there is going to be a certain amount  of collaboration involved.  But with Captain Atom, Freddie and I really were given a lot of room to play with.  We knew they wanted to invoke that Dr. Manhattan vibe in terms of his powers and abilities, but that was it.  There were minor tweaks here and there, but overall no major changes.  The book we set out to do is the one that ended up on the shelves.

GS: Did you know Freddie prior to working together on Captain Atom?

J.T. KRUL: We had met once previously at a DC dinner, but didn’t get to talk that much.  We were on opposite ends of the table.  So, it wasn’t until we were paired up for Captain Atom that we actually got to know each other.

GS: Did each of you pick the book without knowing who you were being paired with?

J.T. KRUL: DC mentioned Freddie early on in the conversation when they started talking about Captain Atom.  So, the team was pretty much set from the get-go.

GS: How long did it take to put the book together when you started conversing with Freddie about it? Was it an equal relationship or one of you had a lot more ideas to bring to the table than the other?

J.T. KRUL: I had a fair share of ideas, but when we first spoke we talked for hours about the book, sharing our ideas, brainstorming about the stories and what the book could be.  We were both on the same page, which was a huge help.  I remember the Flash idea was mine – having a story that takes place in a fraction of a second.  The timestream [arc] was all Freddie in terms of the look and feel of it.  I knew I wanted to dabble in the time travel stuff, but wanted to steer clear from the “how do other heroes and villains end up” angle.  And, Freddie started talking about the timestream as being an ocean – where the waves represented different events. I think that first call was over 4 hours and the raw bones of the book were created right then and there.

GS: Did you guys do much research for the title? What stuff influenced the way you wrote the comic – films, tv, books, current affairs etc?

J.T. KRUL: For sure.  I’m no scientist, go figure – so the first thing I did was dive into the Physics and Chemistry of our universe.  Reading things like Stephen Hawking’s ‘The Universe in a Nutshell’ and a book and DVD series called ‘The Elegant Universe’.  I boned up on String theory, M theory, and super colliders.  I revisited stuff like ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ and I remember tracking down this great opening scene from the movie ‘Contact’, where we pull out from Earth and head out towards the farthest reaches of the universe.  The current affairs aspect was interesting because the volcano in New York and the breach at the reactor was inspired by the disaster in Japan.  And the Libya stuff was written and locked right before Gaddafi was killed.

GS: That’s some pretty heavy research.

J.T. KRUL: It was fun.  I love research.  I love finding little kernels of things and using them as the foundation for something in the story.  I’m knee-deep in research for a creator project and it’s so interesting.  Like digging for gold.  You never know what kind of nuggets you’ll uncover and what ideas they will spark.

GS: What research guided your approach to the narrative of the character?

J.T. KRUL: That was actually an easy part because Nathaniel, while being an accomplished Air Force pilot, is just a guy like the rest of us who works at now.  He’s experiencing all these incredible things, but he doesn’t have a scientific background to make sense of it all.  That’s why the dynamic between him and Megala works so well.  Megala uses big words and concepts to tell Nate was is going on, but he’s still got to distill it in order to understand it.  We get the high-brow explanation from Megala, then Nate figures out what he’s really trying to say.  As for Nate as a person, I keyed in on his soldier mentality – trained for extraordinary circumstances and how to cope with them.  He just keeps moving forward, doing what he can to help, and facing the challenges and drawbacks as they come.  That’s what makes him a hero.  The drive to do good.  No matter what.

Funnily enough, I found myself thinking a lot about Superman when figuring out Captain Atom.  They provide a perfect alternate comparison.  Superman is literally an alien, an outsider, but he’s someone we all strive to emulate.  He has wondrous powers and exists as a symbol for the very best in all of us.  As for Captain Atom, he is literally one of us, a soldier who dedicated his life to protect his fellow citizens.  But his powers are viewed as monstrous, scary, and dangerous.  He is ostracized from the rest of humanity and treated like a threat – the ultimate outsider.  Captain Atom is the alien.

GS: Has working on Captain Atom influenced your own writing compared to over a year ago, before you started working on the series? Have you gained from the experience?

J.T. KRUL: Absolutely. I learn something from every project.  Part of me is drawn to the more introspective stories, dealing with characters and their faults, real or imagined.  I think that’s one of the reasons I enjoyed writing Green Arrow so much.  And, my first creator-book at Aspen, MINDFIELD, centred on telepathic CIA agents, who are all very damaged individuals.  But most of those characters are dealing with very tangible dilemmas – the skeletons in their closets are very real and immediate.  For Captain Atom, I was tackling much bigger issues and concepts – grappling with the very nature of existence, the role of the hero, and the danger in doing too much.  The book ventured more philosophical than any other book I’ve written – and that was something I enjoyed immensely.  On a personal level, it was fascinating to write a book where my mindset shifted readily between two ends of the spectrum – sometimes I was marveling at the uniqueness of human life and how special it is; and other times I was dumbfounded by just how small and insignificant we are as a planet, never mind as a species.  It was very humbling at times.

GS: Moving forward, what projects have you got lined up? Do you have any more New 52 work to come? What’s the status on Fathom?

J.T. KRUL: Right now, it’s just Superman Beyond.  I’m talking to them about other stuff, but nothing in stone yet.  Fathom is currently on volume 4 with Dave Wohl writing it.  Alex Konat, my artist on MINDFIELD, is doing a stellar job on it. I am writing Soulfire at Aspen, which just launched Volume 4, with Mike DeBalfo and Nei Ruffino on art. I also have a new creator project premiering with Aspen next year as part of their 10th anniversary year-long event. The new creator project is a rousing sci-fi fantasy.

Probably, my coolest news is that I’m getting ready to publish my first novel.  It’s called ‘The Lost Spark’ – a young-adult fantasy about a teenage girl who must reconnect with a lost magical toy from her childhood in order to save her aging grandfather from losing his mind.  It’s coming out at the beginning of 2013 through Aspen. It’s a story I’ve been working on for a LONG time – damn near a decade.  It’s very close to my heart and i hope people really dig it.  I liken it to Harry Potter with a touch of Stephen King.

GS: If you and Freddie suddenly had one more year with Captain Atom – what story would you tell, where would you take the character?

J.T. KRUL: Hmm. Good question.  One story I wanted to tell was to give him an entire arc as a human being, which would have been very Vertigo.  It was going to be about the struggles of others around him.  But we find out that the entire world he was venturing through was created by himself on the moon.  He created a fake Earth to inhabit, trying to use his powers to give himself that. I also wanted to actually allow Megala to break that barrier between dimensions and do something very Lovecraftian.  Go nuts and put Captain Atom is some extremely foreign territory.  Nightmarish and epic and huge – where even with his powers, he wouldn’t be the biggest kid on the block.

GS: Do you feel the comic came to a natural conclusion with #12?

J.T. KRUL: I think once we knew the end was coming, we were able to steer the ship toward that final port in a way that it felt very organic.  So, in that regard – it was natural.

GS: Finishing off – for those who didn’t get a chance to pick up Captain Atom during its initial run and who may be thinking about reading the trade – how would you pitch it in one sentence?

J.T. KRUL: As comics go, Captain Atom is a science fiction story in the traditional sense – the tale of a man given god-like powers that must fight with every last fiber of his being to maintain his humanity.  He can save the world, but can he save himself? – Okay, technically 2 sentences.

GS: I think we can live with that.

Captain Atom #0 is available in comic stores now. The first trade paperback collection of the series will be available in December.

Reporter: Dean Simons

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