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Book Review: Atomic Comics: Cartoonists Confront the Nuclear World by Ferenc Morton Szasz

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The year’s biggest summer blockbuster, The Dark Night Rises, may be forever marred by a tragic footnote, but the fear that the movie itself plays on is time-honored and even old-fashioned: nuclear anxiety.

Pop culture has a long history of dealing with nuclear promise and danger, and the late historian Ferenc Morton Szasz argues in Atomic Comics: Cartoonists Confront the Nuclear World that the pluses and minuses of splitting the atom were most efficiently conveyed to the general populace in comic books.

In it, the  author of The Day the Sun Rose Twice: The Story of the Trinity Nuclear Site Explosion, July 16, 1945, has written an immensely readable survey of how comic books have sowed fear and excitement.

Szasz amassed a personal collection of atomic-themed comic books, and although Atomic Comics only reproduces a handful of covers, and those in black and white, his book is clearly written and free of the jargon one might expect from an academic press.  

The author’s enthusiasm for the comic book medium is in perfect alignment with a gimlet eye towards how comic book artists put their positive or negative spin on scientific achievement.

Szasz argues that it was through comics that the general readership first learned about atomic power, conveying information (albeit not always accurately) that the scientific community wanted to suppress. Who knew that Mickey Mouse was an agent of American samizdat?

The book is divided into sections that lay out the history of atomic comics along side the history of atomic power: thus, before the bomb, responses to the bomb, and modern responses.

Pop culture obsessives as well as those curious about mass-market responses to the nuclear age will want to put this alongside the Bear Family set of nuclear-themed pop songs, Atomic Platters One hopes Szasz’s collection may one day serve as the meat of a explosive comic book anthology.

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About Pat Padua

Pat Padua is a writer, photographer, native Washingtonian, and Oxford comma defender. The Washington Post called him "a talented, if quirky, photographer." Pat has also contributed to the All Music Guide, Cinescene, and DCist, where he is currently senior film critic.
  • P W Lee

    A good study and intro, but I found some of the analysis lacking. Szasz notes that many of the nuclear-powered superheroes and titles were short-lived, but doesn’t really explain why, other than the “obvious” reason that atomic power became ubiqituous and, thus, old hat. Yet the genre keeps coming back year after year. Audience reaction is hard to pin point, but a stronger explanation/specultion is warranted.
    There is also little discussion about the creators themselves and their POVs, other than their stories, which may be problematic, espeically after the Comics Code (given short shift here). Is nuclear power/radioactivity simply a storytelling device for the shunned (Spider-Man, Hulk) as well as the celebrities (the FF, carefree Daredevil), all written by the same writer in a short period of time? A larger political and social context may fill in the gaps. Still, this was a brisk and easy read and while Szasz doesn’t tie the many perspectives into a larger historical narrative, he offers many insights into a neglected area of consumer/popular culture.