No popular entertainment medium exists in a perfect vacuum; like water dripping from a stalactite in a cavern, outside influences often leach in to color and inform it. A medium can be influenced by the sudden popularity of another medium or genre (nothing speaks as loudly as money, and success breeds countless imitators). Current socio-political events also hold great sway over pop culture, be it overtly (such as the popularity of military-themed movies in wartime), or subtly (exemplified by “one man against a system” movies and TV shows in the post-Vietnam 1970’s).

Many early Golden Age comic books were certainly molded by the events of the time (a phenomenon we’ve explored frequently in this blog), with the Great Depression and the rise of fascist militarism being highly influential in the shaping not just of superhero comics but also of lighter, more comedic, fare. But after World War II ended, comics underwent a major slump in sales. After the defeat of what was arguably the greatest evil the world had ever known, stories about men and women in colorful costumes fighting racketeers and grifters seemed to lack zip and panache. While the world wasn’t perfect in 1946 (many homecoming GIs had difficulty finding work and adjusting to civilian living in a home that wasn’t quite the “home” they’d left behind – the theme of the outstanding post-war movie, The Best Years of Our Lives), being a U.S. citizen wasn’t bad. The economy was improving (albeit slowly), the world seemed a safe place (after all, the U.S. had “The Bomb” now to deter potential foes), and many Americans were content to just marry their hometown sweetheart, buy a tract house in one of the many planned “Levittown” suburban communities (which were springing up like mushrooms from coast to coast), plant some roses and rhododendrons, and get busy starting the Baby Boom.

But a “boom” of another variety shook things up, literally and figuratively, in August 1949, just four years to the month after Hiroshima and Nagasaki: the Soviets tested their first successful atom bomb. In that flash of that man-made sun, the perception of safety changed. While the Soviets had been our allies during the war, they’d never fully been trusted; their post-war expansion into Eastern Europe seemed to confirm our lack of faith in their intentions. The enemy of one’s enemy is one’s friend – right up to the point at which one’s enemy is defeated; even though the sabers are sheathed again, they continue to rattle ominously.

Ill will toward the Soviets and their economic and political system was already well in the wind by the time they’d lit the candle on their first big bomb: the U.S. House of Representatives had already been on a witchhunt for subversive elements in Hollywood the year before, and the Alger Hiss thing (which made the career of a certain young Richard M. Nixon) was just kicking into high gear. Although the Kefauver Committee was still a year off, and Joe McCarthy’s shenanigans were a half-decade down the road (but he was about to start using the Red Scare to his political advantage in 1950), the “Could a Red be in your bed?” campaign was already starting to gin up some serious fright and suspicion in the Land of the Free.

Although certainly informed by news events, comic books tended (then and now) to run a fair bit behind the curve in their presentation. Though Hitler and Nazism had been deemed menaces for years in the Thirties, it took until 1940 for comics to seriously present them as villainous threats; meanwhile, the militarism of Hirohito and Imperial Japan in Asia was for most intents and purposes absent from comic books until after Pearl Harbor. So while anti-Communist rhetoric was already becoming a national pastime as the turn of the decade approached, comic book characters (aside from Blackhawk and a few spies/government investigators) pretty much left the Soviets alone until the 1950’s.

But when comics turned their attention to the Russians, they did so in a huge way; our four-color friends never do anything by halves. Puzzled by the slow decline in sales of superhero comics and casting about for a replacement genre, something which could prove as popular as the “mystery man” craze once had been, a few intrepid publishers hit upon the idea of the “red menace” genre: espionage and war comics with a distinct alarmist stance. After all, why not? Nixon and Kefauver had earnestly appealed to the American public to keep a close eye on your friends, neighbors, and co-workers, and to report anything suspicious to the authorities. (Years later we would learn how that same behavior had been a cornerstone of life behind the Iron Curtain. Although “the Party finds you” is now just an occasionally quoted punchline from a comedian whose career took a nosedive when the Berlin Wall fell, it truly was how “the System” operated in Soviet Bloc countries.)

So these publishers turned a very lurid spotlight on the dangers of lax vigilance against the Red Menace, in a manner similar to their anti-Nazi predecessors over a decade previously. Just as those older comics had published stories about how German agents and American fifth columnists could potentially weaken the U.S. armed forces, the early 1950’s publishers reused the same tropes but on a much larger scale:

Atomic War #1, November 1952

Even the inside front cover harkened back to the glory days of the war (when comic sales were better):

Atomic War #1, November 1952

“Buy bonds and help build a strong America” was a common advertising theme for Defense Bonds (called, by this time, Savings Bonds) during the war years. It wasn’t a bad idea during the war, nor during the 1950’s; as late as the 1960’s my father was still investing in U.S. Savings Bonds.

The indicia at the bottom of the page identifies the publisher as Junior Books, Inc. A quick check reveals that “Junior Books” was an imprint of Ace Comics, the same folks who brought us the ultra-conservative (to the point of jingoism) Our Flag Comics on the eve of America’s entry into World War II. We’ve examined Our Flag Comics and the adventures of its star, The Flag, previously in this blog; I invite you to use the search box near the bottom of the right-hand sidebar to search “Our Flag” and review the posts. The “Cliff Notes” version of our findings was that The Flag’s anti-fascist adventures were so extremely right-wing as to be fascistic themselves, as though the point they were trying to make was that in order to beat the fascists, you needed to become a bigger one.

So it should come as no surprise that Ace Comics would jump back on the scaremonger bandwagon and crank out a comic that was so utterly alarmist as to appear like a Fox News commentator’s wet dream. Atomic War was pretty much a retread of their old uber-right-wing pre-war comics, just with a fresh coat of (red) paint slapped onto the villains.

In our post-Dr. Strangelove world, it’s really difficult to read Atomic War with any degree of seriousness. It’s a cypher, a mystery, almost a parody of itself. Had the publishers of Ace Comics genuinely been concerned about Nazi fifth-columnists at the time of Our Flag Comics’ publication? Were they similarly genuinely concerned about a nuclear war with the Soviet Union? Or were the publishers just riding the Red Scare bandwagon to exploit the right-wing party line and turn a quick buck? Just as many modern historians doubt Nixon’s sincerity in going after Alger Hiss and the Communists (his actions are generally viewed today as self-serving publicity, a motivation which is not difficult to believe in light of his later actions), it’s difficult to read Atomic War as anything but an exploitative, lurid attempt to bail out the sinking ship of decreasing comics sales. From its alarmist cover (albeit one which is almost irresistible to an average ten year old newsstand visitor with a dime burning a hole in his pocket) to its purple prose, Atomic War today almost reads as a play for laughs. It’s a subject of bemusement. Were these guys serious? Were they actually believing their own bullshit when they ran this contest promotion at the end of the issue:

Atomic War #1, November 1952

What’s more scary: the idea that these guys were actually serious or the idea that they were just jaded and playing on fear to make a buck?

And turning our attention away from the political, it’s awfully sad regardless that at a time of drastic societal change which was killing the superhero comic market, the writers at Ace Comics were so creatively bankrupt that the best they could do was trot out a tired wheeze, more than a decade old, tart it up a bit, and present it as something original, rather than search for new ideas and new genres to explore (as did their more successful competitors). The biggest fault of Atomic War isn’t its nature as exploitative lurid anti-Soviet propaganda (after all, the Russians did have the atomic bomb and Josef Stalin was the Saddam Hussein of his day: paranoid to an extreme and crazy as a shithouse rat); its biggest failing is its complete lack of creative and artistic merit. Like its predecessor Our Flag Comics, the biggest problem with Atomic War, plainly and simply, is that it’s flat-out awful.

Let’s have a look. The page scans are courtesy of The Digital Comic Museum. Right-click on a page and open it in a new window for a larger view. I’ll have comments interspersed throughout the rest of the post.

Atomic War #1, November 1952

I’ll give the writer credit for one thing here: his use of historical precedent (a idea which links back to the first paragraph of this post). To the minds of many in the U.S., America had been dragged kicking and screaming into World War II by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and it was widely believed that the most likely scenario for the start of a new World War was a similar sneak attack by the Soviets. The “documents must be burned by midnight” line should instantly remind you of every book, documentary, and movie you’ve ever seen about the (literal) eve of the Pearl Harbor attack. This is a great example of how historical events (past and current) leach into a comic book story.

By the way, if there are any CIA operatives reading this blog, you can learn a practical employment tip from this page: don’t wear trenchcoats. And if you do, never turn up the collar; it’s a dead giveaway to everybody that you’re up to no good.

It’s arguably no coincidence that this comic book was published right before the 1952 Presidential election. Democratic candidate Adlai Stevenson excoriated the Republican party for hunting communists at home while “hesitating to aid the gallant men and women who are resisting the real thing in the front lines of Europe and Asia…” (the Korean War was more than two years old at this time). Although Republican Dwight Eisenhower was calling for an end to the war, and secretly abhorred the wave of domestic witchhunting and red-baiting, he’d also picked Nixon as his running mate and was photographed shaking hands with Joe McCarthy (who’d called for a shakeup in the State Department two years before; at the time McCarthy shared accusations that it was full of communists). The hawks of the party were supporting Ike as a result, and this comic story is nothing if not hawkish in the extreme.

Atomic War #1, November 1952

Come on! Seriously??? No politician has looked like that since William Jennings Freakin’ Bryan, and even he gave up the Mississippi string tie after the war – World War One, to be precise.

That’s the kind of lazy crap which positively begs for a hard lampooning.

Spoiler alert: keep an eye on the bald guy in the last panel who “likes his work”. It’s also arguably no coincidence that (except for the moustache) he resembles Adlai Stevenson.

Atomic War #1, November 1952

See the first two panels? That’s the whole problem: too much lollygagging. Sitting around, smoking, drinking coffee. Makes a real man soft. From now on, no more java, smokes, or chairs will be allowed on U.S. military bases.

Atomic War #1, November 1952

You think you know a man. You work beside him for years, know where he lives, the names of his wife and kids. You forgive his rooting for the Philadelphia Eagles (4-8-0 in ’51 – peee-yew!). And then he turns out to be a stinking Red!

Here’s where it really gets goofy. The guy’s standing at the board and nobody – I mean NOBODY – double-checks what’s he’s been doing and what’s been happening on the Big Board for more than thirty minutes? No one there, nor at any other base? NOBODY notices that the U.S. fighter jets are going the wrong way? ONE MAN, unsupervised, causes World War III?

It’s the reverse scenario from the original 1964 version of Fail Safe (which, by the way, is an outstanding film; it’s a shame that the war room sets and the movie’s plot have too much in common with Dr. Strangelove which was released first, or else Fail Safe would have enjoyed a better critical reception). Colonel Cascio (played by Fritz Weaver) full of self-doubt, self-loathing, and paranoia (in other words, he’s bat-shit crazy) also acts as a saboteur (like the bald agent in our story) but acts on the side of the U.S.; he wants America to strike first and obliterate the untrustworthy godless Commies, so he creates a situation in which a single plane is guaranteed to drop a nuke on Moscow. I won’t spoil the movie if you’ve not seen it, but it’s absolutely worth a look for the great acting and Sidney Lumet’s directing. It’s as chilling today as it was on the day of its release.

Unlike this story, though, Cascio’s action in the film wasn’t planned well in advance; it’s an impulse action (or, rather, series of them) by a disturbed individual who was at the wrong place at the right time. The action in Atomic War, by contrast, is just too pat: one man, planted well in advance, is able to create a nuclear disaster. The moral is clear: anyone can be a Commie agent. Keep an eye on everybody, and if anyone doesn’t conform, rat ’em out.

It’s scary how closely that school of thought matches the Soviet pattern or, during the inter-war period, that of the Japanese (as detailed in Horror in the East: Japan and the Atrocities of World War II, a BBC documentary as well as a book by Laurence Rees, which I’m presently reading). It’s best to conform; acting and thinking differently is bad behavior and should be punished. Americans in the 1950’s were afraid to speak out and buck the system, lest they be branded a “traitor” or “Commie” by a McCarthy or Nixon. And while the consequences for doing so here weren’t as dire as they would be in Soviet Russia, Nazi Germany, or Imperial Japan, the core pattern remained the same. We had in some measure become what we had beheld.

But setting all of that aside, we can leave it at this: any ten year old reader with a half-dozen brain cells to rub together would be able to see that the plan in the story wouldn’t work. Any general worth two spits and half a fart would be watching the Big Board to make sure his orders had been carried out as instructed; even if he wasn’t watching, several tracking stations would have seen that the planes were going the wrong way. And if the harebrained plan in this tale could somehow work, buying all the Savings Bonds in the world (another appeal to buy bonds for a strong America appears on the book’s inside back cover) wouldn’t be able to prevent it.

Atomic War #1, November 1952

Here’s the payoff, the reason why little Jimmy slapped his dime down on the counter. We’re gonna see a city get blown up! And not just any city – New York!

Except that atom bombs don’t blow things up like some kind of big honking TNT charge, and skyscrapers don’t fall apart in large chunks like a child’s wooden block towers.

Atomic War #1, November 1952

And there’d be no time for pointless crapping around with gas mains. The heat of an atomic blast would make a gas main explosion seem like a candle.

Atomic War #1, November 1952

I’m pretty sure the water in Central Park’s reservoir would be evaporated by the blast.

Atomic War #1, November 1952

And you’d not be seeing police and firefighters at ground zero.

But the page’s center panel is eerily prescient of the aftermath of the World Trade Center attack nearly a half-century later — rather uncomfortably so.

The tale moves on to other U.S. cities from here, and we’ll finish the rest of the story next time around. Until then…

Have fun! — Steve

Copyright 2015, Steven A. Lopez. All rights reserved.