by Alex Belsey
Published by University of Nevada Press, 2012 | 180 pages
History professor Ferenc Morton Szasz died in 2010, two years before the publication of Atomic Comics: Cartoonists Confront the Nuclear World, the capstone for what he called his “personal atomic trilogy.” Szasz, who first read comics as a child in the late 1940s, had amassed an extensive collection of “nuclear-themed comics,” and in his short survey of the subgenre from its start in the late 1920s, he takes readers into a world populated by the likes of Superman, Spiderman, and the Hulk. But Atomic Comics is ultimately about the collective role played by a far broader range of American comics and how they shaped public opinion on the complex scientific subject of nuclear physics. As the period’s histories of science, publishing, and military culture unfold in Szasz’s telling, a narrative emerges in which the once highly popular subgenre of atomic comics itself becomes a character — able to predict the future, to gather force in the face of hostile opponents, to at times even go invisible.
The scientific starting point, in Atomic Comics, is German scientist Wilhelm Röntgen’s 1895 discovery of X-rays, a crucial experimental breakthrough in electromagnetics that Szasz uses to illustrate the public’s fascination with the subatomic world on the eve of Albert Einstein’s theories of relativity. Röntgen’s work was part of a fundamental reshaping of physics, until then dominated by the Newtonian worldview — along with Heinrich Hertz’s earlier discovery of radio waves, it offered further physical confirmation of James Clerk Maxwell’s groundbreaking mathematical descriptions of subatomic phenomena. The public, as Szasz describes it, loved the “Röntgen rays,” which had almost immediate socially beneficial medical applications and offered no small share of entertainment value (including, before the dangers of radiation became clear, a publicly accessible “X-Ray Studio” in New York City for skeletal selfies).
As additional subatomic discoveries followed rapidly, and theories underlying quantum physics emerged, the American comics industry and popular science press developed in tandem. Richard F. Outcault had created the “Yellow Kid,” the first U.S. cartoon character, in 1895 — the same year as Röntgen’s discovery — and Philip Nowlan’s late-1920s creation of Buck Rogers soon brought prescience and fancy to the public with its world of radioactive gas, rocket guns, and an enemy-held “disintegrator beam.” Subatomic adventures also helped launch a new chapter in the comics industry, as reprints of Buck Rogers appeared in Famous Funnies, widely considered the first comic book, and — just in time for the race to develop nuclear weapons — Superman’s front-cover appearance in 1938 on Action Comics turned the comic book industry into a powerhouse. Voluntary and official censorship policies soon developed in an effort to keep nuclear subjects from science journals and the news, and Superman twice bowed to censorship demands during World War II. But the comics industry continued to explore atomic themes as characters such as Spacehawk, Rocket Kelly, and Airboy harnessed atomic power to good ends, while others battled atomic weapon-wielding villains or even manifestations of nuclear power. Szasz sees such efforts as contributing to what historians have noted was a remarkably quick public comprehension of the potential of atomic physics, and of associated arcane subject matter. By the end of the war, Szasz convincingly argues, “Buck Rogers had emerged as almost a category of thought.”
That kind of reach made comics a natural fit for post-war attempts to further educate the public. Dagwood Splits the Atom, which included a foreword from the former chief of the Manhattan Project, used Dagwood and Blondie to deliver an exposition of atomic energy and advocate science careers for young readers. Later, public education comics such as the 1951 If an A-bomb Falls and the 1954 The H-bomb and You offered advice for surviving the aftermath of atomic and hydrogen bombs. Post-war adventure stories — including Szasz’s favorite of the period, Captain Marvel — became an even more potent source of nuclear themes.
But the history of comics so often is the story of tempered power, of the broader fears that surround mass media. Numerous forces — including public burnings in America and a 1951 British parliament ban on American comic books — helped push forward the development of the 1954 Comics Code Authority, a self-regulatory body that effectively censored against vampires, sympathetic criminals, the glamorous portrayal of crime, etc. It’s perhaps surprising to learn that there was no express vigilance over the depiction of atomic weapons and Cold War-style conflicts in this setting. Still, up through the 50s and early 60s, exaggerated patriotism was the norm, and it was the underground comics movement of the late 1960s, with its cheaply-produced comics first sold on streetcorners and in drug paraphernalia shops, that gave anti-nuclear messages a major platform. Szasz also looks at tensions between silence and speech as the context for the development of the Japanese manga industry after the bombing of Hiroshima. For Szasz, the most effective mainstream responses to nuclear subjects in the period following the Hiroshima bombing were manga — the best example being Keiji Nakazawa’s widely lauded Barefoot Gen. Unlike comics in America, manga remains a vital genre for reaching the broad public in Japan.
By the time Szasz finished his manuscript, nuclear comics seemed to have run their course. Narrative tensions that drove nuclear-themed comics through the end of the Cold War era had dissipated, and in a world with “Atomic Diners” and even an “Atomic Enema,” Szasz writes, “the term ‘atomic’ has come to mean everything, anything, and thus, ultimately nothing.” Comics had lost their broader audience from competition with television, video games, and — one could add — the internet. Near the end of the book, Szasz turns briefly to Doctor Atomic, the 2005 opera by John Adams and Peter Sellars, and while he lauds the power of the work, he registers another kind of loss: “How ironic that the most elite form of entertainment, the opera, has revived the themes that the most democratic form, the comic book, had first introduced to the American public.”
But then after Szasz’s death, the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant disaster reawakened fears about the atomic age. Public schools in the cities of Matsue and Izumisano enacted at least temporary bans of Nakazawa’s classic text, Barefoot Gen, and in May 2014, according to articles in The Japan Times, the Fukushima prefectural government publicly denounced Oishinbo, a popular manga by Tetsu Kariya about gourmet food, for depicting concerns about aftereffects of the Fukushima Daiichi disaster. In Oishinbo, one character gets a nosebleed after visiting the Fukushima Daiichi site; a later issue suggests that the Fukushima Prefecture no longer is habitable. And so, in the chapters that lie beyond Szasz’s book, the story continues.
Ingrid Satelmajer has written for The Believer, n+1, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and many others, and she was one of the 639 participants in Women in Clothes (by Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits, and Leanne Shapton). Her last review for MAKE was published in Issue 14: Visual Culture.