Monday, January 2, 2017

Doctor Solar: Gold Key's God in a Lab Coat

In 1962, when I was 8 and all grown up, either the absurdity of superhero costumes was starting to bother me, or I was just looking for a fresh approach to the kinds of characters I loved.
In any case, I embraced Gold Key’s Doctor Solar, Man of the Atom when I ran across his second issue (Dec. 1962).
A scientist altered by radiation even more bizarrely than Bruce Banner had been, essentially into a being of pure energy, Raymond Solar was as breathtakingly powerful as Superman.
Solar could fly at the speed of light. He had radar vision. He could walk beneath the ocean by surrounding himself with an oxygen bubble. He could superheat himself, freeze things, control magnetic forces like Cosmic Boy and fire lightning bolts from his eyes like Lightning Lad.
The scientist discovered through experimentation that he could split himself into multiple, smaller duplicates or grow to gigantic size. We readers got the sense that Solar could pretty much do anything if he put his logical mind to work on it long enough.
Even though Alan Moore based Watchmen on Charlton Comics’ superheroes, the omnipotent Dr. Manhattan was probably closer to Solar than he was to his direct inspiration, Captain Atom.
Solar’s vast power appealed to me. So did Bob Fujitani’s art, which had the restrained, refined clarity of a realistic newspaper comic strip — a style well suited to this character, who wore no costume.
Again like the Hulk, Solar was easily identifiable when charged with radioactivity because he turned green. He also wore a white lab coat, seemingly a required uniform for fictional scientists in the 1950s and 1960s.
Solar had only a single archenemy, one who anticipated the James Bond films. Nuro was a shadowy, Blofeld-like mastermind intelligent enough to suspect the existence of a mystery “Man of the Atom” because his schemes were constantly being thwarted by unexplainable phenomena. Hero and villain were both hidden forces playing cat-and-mouse.
As written by Paul S. Newman, Solar’s adventures had that thin veneer of verisimilitude which helped me appreciate them at the time, and I was eager to find out what new “scientific” powers he’d dream up to counter whatever national or global threat would appear in each new issue.
Until the fifth one. 
I can remember my sense of disappointment when I saw the cover and realized that Solar had, in fact, finally adopted a superhero costume after all, and would now be known to the public as the masked Man of the Atom.
What had made him unique was gone.
I bought that issue, then moved on to the many other superhero titles that were beginning to appear.
I don’t envy the comic book editors of the 1960s trying to understand the vagaries of children’s shifting tastes. Here I was, blaming Solar for having a costume when I had rejected the Fantastic Four for not having them less than a year before.
I didn’t buy the second issue of the FF because I couldn’t tell, from the cover, whether or not they were superheroes. I wasn’t alone and, ever-sensitive to the readers’ desires, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby not only put them in costumes on the cover of the third issue, but dropped them into their own flying “Batmobile” (Why hadn’t Batman thought of that?).
I couldn’t part with my 12 cents fast enough.

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