There was a documentary titled The Atomic Café (1982) that still stands as one of my all time favorites. Actually, I am not sure if the designation “documentary” is right, as it is a collection of newsreels, commercials, government PSAs, and other video from the ‘50s and early ‘60s, which could only be called nuclear propaganda. The point of The Atomic Cafe could be boiled down to a famous cartoon called Duck and Cover (1951). In it, we are told to “duck” under a table, and “cover” ourselves with a jacket or something, to avoid being harmed if a nuclear bomb should happen to explode nearby. The idea is absolutely ludicrous, yet the government was presenting this nonsense as fact. With Atomic Comics: Cartoonists Confront the Nuclear World, author Ferenc Morton Szasz takes a look at how this matter has been treated in the world of comics, comic strips, and comic books over the years. I found Atomic Comics to be every bit as fascinating as The Atomic Café was.
The subject of the “nuclear world” is so scientifically advanced that the average American has no idea what is involved. All most of us know that it has something to do with splitting the atom, if we even know that much. Nuclear fission would not seem like a topic well-suited to the world of Jughead or Dagwood Bumstead. Yet from the moment of discovery, this breakthrough created a huge level of public interest. And in those pre-television days, comics of all types were enormously popular. The two were bound to meet, in one form or another.
In contrast to the deliberate disinformation presented in The Atomic Café though, what Atomic Comics shows are publishers who were using this “nuclear stuff” as a plot device to sell product. As is the case in every other medium, the public’s feelings about the subject are reflected, depending on the era in which they are produced. In this case, we see how the average person’s views towards “nukes” have evolved over the years.
The book is divided into three parts, with each part consisting of two chapters. The author’s titles are so artfully self-descriptive that they very much speak for themselves. Part One is “Before Hiroshima,” comprised of “Comic Strips Confront the Nuclear World: The Turn of the Century to the Early 1930’s” and “The Comics of the Fissioned Atom: The Mid-1930’s to August 6, 1945.”
Part Two is “The Initial Reaction: 1945 – Early 1960’s.” Once again, the individual chapters offer an excellent overview of what is contained within. Chapter Three is “Coming to Grips with the Atom: Early Atomic Superheroes,” and Chapter Four is “Atomic Comic Utopias, Espionage, and the Cold War.”
Part Three brings us into the 21st Century, “Atomic Comics Change Direction: The Mid 1960’s to the Present Day.” I found these two chapters to be the most intriguing of the book, probably because they reflect the era I am actually familiar with. Chapter Five is titled “American Underground Comix, Political and International Cartoonists, and the Rise of Japanese Manga.” The sixth and final chapter is “The Never Ending Appeal of Atomic Adventure Tales.”
There are actually a few stories being told in Atomic Comics. One is something of a history of the form itself. Szasz explains the differences between a comic, a comic strip, and comic books, which was something I had not really considered before. He also traces how they have evolved, and how long it took for them to be recognized as a type of art, indigenous to the United States. Although this history of the comics is clearly not the focus of the book, it is illuminating to see how they have gone from yesterday’s “funny-papers” to today’s highly respected “graphic novels.”
Then there is the splitting of the atom, nuclear fission, and the unanswerable questions those achievements spawned. They will never go away, but our reactions, thoughts, and perceptions are constantly changing. The world breathed a sigh of relief in 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall, as the era of Mutually Assured Destruction came to an end. Yet now we are faced with the frightening prospect of a nation like North Korea having nuclear capability. Clearly, the story is still being written.
Viewing the history of the atomic-era through the lens of comic books may not be the most accurate method, but it sure is interesting. It is also clear that the author is highly knowledgeable about comics themselves, as he mentions a number of early efforts that I had never heard of before, yet sound great. All in all, I found Atomic Comics to be an excellent resource, as informative and entertaining as one could ask for.