Nuclear-powered Funnies

A new book explores how the Atomic Age shaped the world of comics

Nuclear energy—whether used as a power source, a weapon or in medicine—has become so ingrained in our existence that few of us give it thought beyond what basics we learned in high school science. But, as author Ferenc Morton Szasz writes in his posthumously published book, Atomic Comics: Cartoonists Confront the Nuclear World (University of Nevada Press, $35), this wasn’t always the case.

It took a legion of journalists, politicians, scientists, artists and filmmakers decades to distill the challenging concepts of the new era—from its beginnings through the years following the bombing of Japanese cities Hiroshima and Nagasaki. However, Szasz writes: “Historians have generally overlooked another important medium that helped translate the atomic world for ‘the people’: cartoons, especially newspaper comic strips and the lowly comic book.”

With Atomic Comics, Szasz attempts to correct that oversight. In just 136 pages, he efficiently provides a history of both the genesis of atomic energy and the evolution of the comic-book industry, and how those two seemingly unrelated things actually have a dovetailing—and colorful—history. Szasz, a professor of history at the University of New Mexico for 43 years until his death in 2010 (following a battle with leukemia), authored a well-known tome on the Manhattan Project in 1984, The Day the Sun Rose Twice: The Story of the Trin­ity Site Nuclear Explo­sion, as well as 1992’s British Scientists and the Manhattan Project: The Los Alamos Years. His “personal atomic trilogy” was completed by Atomic Comics.

While there aren’t any groundbreaking discoveries in Atomic Comics, Szasz does an effective job presenting these niche topics so the unfamiliar won’t find themselves bored or lost, and he impresses with references to esoteric one-off and short-lived comics. It’s easy to imagine that Szasz draws not upon research to pull out such duds/gems as Atomic Bunny and Atomic Age Combat, but from his own personal collection amassed over a lifetime of comic consumption. In the book’s preface, Szasz admits that, from an early age, his interest in comics was a “growing obsession,” and although that waxed and waned over the years, his reawakened interest in the mid-1990s led him to assemble what he called “one of the nation’s larger private collections of nuclear-themed comics.”

As detailed in the book, those comics not only communicated the new world of atomic power—both through explanations of “real” science and via fantastic, speculative tales starring heroes such as Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon—but also reflected the changing attitudes toward the split atom. What started as global optimism became a very different beast after World War II. Awe and reverence for all things nuclear led to a cautiously optimistic America, but a shell-shocked and understandably suspicious Japan. While American comics featured atomic spy thrillers and nuclear-powered superheroes, the Japanese comics of the time dealt with issues of “suffering, tragedy, and … a call for responsibility.” But the West’s embrace of the Atomic Age didn’t last long.

“The ’50s is this optimistic euphoria, we’re gonna conquer the world, we’re No. 1,” says Szasz’s widow and fellow University of New Mexico history professor, Margaret Connell-Szasz. “It’s the beginning of the Cold War, but you still have this unbelievable optimism about all the things ‘atomic’ is going to create. By the 1980s, in the post-Vietnam War era, the disillusion is palpable. Reagan comes in and tries to renew the American spirit, but it’s just not the same.”

Following her husband’s passing, she oversaw completion of the book from his original manuscript, working not only with the publisher but also their children. While the couple had overlapping professional interests in American and Scottish history, Szasz’s passion for comic books—as well as all things nuclear—isn’t something his widow initially shared, but it became a lovingly accepted part of their life together.

“Wherever we’d go, [Ferenc] would always check the comic-books section,” Connell-Szasz says. “We had them all over our house—that was part of our world.”