The Holocaust has its Maus. The Islamic Revolution in Iran has its Persepolis. The Jack the Ripper saga has its From Hell. And now the history of atomic testing in Nevada and beyond has its own comic book. But rather than a sensationally rendered thriller involving flashy spies and explosions, it’s a story that focuses on Americans trying to do their part in a time of global uncertainty.
Consider, for instance, that the first splash page in the new graphic history Doom Towns: The People and Landscapes of Atomic Testing (Oxford University Press, $19.95), written by UNLV history professor Andy Kirk, doesn’t offer a mushroom cloud. Instead, the page depicts anonymous women perched on stools, operating the control panels at the Oak Ridge, Tennessee, uranium-enriching Calutron facility during World War II.
The image stands as part of Kirk’s narrative decision to avoid the atomic sublime (think spectacular detonations) in favor of revealing the subject’s real human history.
“Atomic history is a story of hundreds of thousands of ordinary people behind the scenes, thrust into extraordinary circumstances, many of them women,” Kirk said shortly after his presentation at last month’s Vegas Valley Book Festival. “Mesmerizing images of atomic blasts were only the end of a long process of science and labor that was purposely obscured.”
And that’s hidden no more. The central aim of Doom Towns is to reveal the people and the environments where they lived and worked. This graphic history is the result of Kirk’s 10-plus years as a public historian working with a million-dollar grant from the U.S. departments of energy and education. After completing the online Nevada Test Site Oral History Project, traveling to Kazakhstan (where the former Soviet Union tested its nuke arsenal) and publishing scholarly articles, Kirk struggled to find a visual way to share a massive trove of photos and documents.
That’s when his publisher handed him a copy of Abina and the Important Men, an award-winning graphic micro-history about a West African woman fighting to escape slavery in the late 19th century. Smitten with the approach, Kirk secured an artist—Kristian Purcell, a U.K. painter who specializes in interpreting historical sources. The artwork is superb, especially in moments like when Fremont Street hotel waitresses silently, and rather nonchalantly, posted a warning notice from the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission next to a cash register: NO PUBLIC ANNOUNCEMENT OF THE TIME OF ANY TEST WILL BE MADE. It’s a scene that shows how simply nuclear testing was made known to the people of Las Vegas.
“In the beginning, the people of the testing zone were told nothing more than what was on that little poster tacked to bulletin boards and telephone poles,” Kirk says. “They’d lived through WWII and didn’t ask too many questions. But they weren’t fools, dupes or victims. Anyone who read that poster knew they were part of something huge and that it would include sacrifice.”
Everyone makes a chilling appearance in Doom Towns: J. Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb; Sally McCloskey, a ballet dancer who did an interpretive dance to the DIXIE mushroom cloud as it came up; and even the Operation Doorstep mannequins arranged within houses on the Nevada Test Site as test dummies, dressed in “full sets of clothes donated by the local J.C. Penney Co.” There’s just something about the mix of fake plastic humans in targeted tract homes that casts an eerie spell.
“This book is titled Doom Towns, because these fake dwellings were surrounded by real cities,” Kirk says. “The whole point of these doom towns was to convince the American public for the need to be prepared for nuclear war and to remind them that, if it came to that, ordinary civilians would be the primary target.”