Atomic Comics: Cartoonists Confront the Nuclear World

Although Atomic Comics was reviewed by Sunny earlier on this site, as an old-time comics fan, mostly from the late 50’s and early 60’s, called the “silver” or “Marvel” age of comics, I have a few additional thoughts about Szasz’ book  

The first comics appeared during the Gread Depression. In those days, comic book readership included as many adults as children. In Atomic Comics, Professor Szasz reminds us that in the 1930s, American advertising agencies maintained quotas on the number of Jewish and Italian artists they would employ. These unemployed illustrators instead showered their talent and imagination toward inventing the comic book. This effort met with instant success. The comic book was a truly compelling product, classless and embraced by all strata of society. How interesting that efforts to limit the influence of a minority group  came to have the opposite effect.

Szasz goes on to relate how this new literary form was nearly destroyed by self-censorship in the 1950s. The result was that adult content was no longer permitted and comics lost their appeal to adult readers. Sure, that content included horror, crime, and sex. Thus in the post-war era, America backed away from the anything-goes culture of the ’20s and ’30s. Social justice retreated to the back burner. Meanwhile, discussion of nuclear weapons and energy shifted radically after World War II. The topic was at first limited to an absolute information blackout and then became ripe for children’s comics, stories of funny animals and our friend the atom.

Some of my favorite comics featured the Walt Disney characters Uncle Scrooge, Donald Duck and his nephews. Unlike the comedy cartoons they were derived from, these comics were wild adventure stories steeped in history, mythology, and literature. They rate a brief mention in Atomic Comics. I was a little disappointed that Szasz doesn’t cite a single instance of problems in nuclear physics solved by merely consulting the Junior Woodchucks Guidebook.

In the final pages of Atomic Comics, Szasz mentions the first atomic opera, John Adams’ Doctor Atomic (2005). This is the story of J. Robert Oppenheimer, one of the developers of the atomic bomb. He was eventually discredited and shut out of the industry because his political views were deemed left of center. The author of Atomic Comics feel this moving opera recreates the long-forgotten awe and respect for the power of the fissioned atom. How ironic that a history of a once-despised literary form (comic books) should conclude with a real-life story elevated to the mythological status of grand opera.   – Dan Erwine

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