Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story, "New Mexico goes head-to-head with a nuclear juggernaut."
Visitors to the "history" section of the Bradbury Science Museum in Los Alamos will find more than photos of early lab workers and atomic test explosions. They’ll also find comic books, including Learn How Dagwood Splits the Atom! Apparently, Dagwood, of the comic strip, Blondie, did more than snooze on the couch and run headlong into the mailman; he also shrank to subatomic size and taught children the intricacies of physics.
Head over to the Los Alamos Historical Society museum, and you’ll find more cartoons. A back-room display features comics such as Atoman, Atom Ant, Atomic Mouse, even Atomic Bunny.
Titled "Zap, Zing, Zowee: Six Decades of Atomic Comics," the exhibit features comics from the collection of Dr. Ferenc Szasz, a history professor at the University of New Mexico. Szasz, who has also written extensively on the serious side of atomic weapons, says he "came of reading age during the great years of comic books" and is a "lifelong devotee" of the medium.
Szasz, who has more than 800 comics in his collection, says the "golden age" of atomic comics was in the 1940s and 1950s. Characters like Atom Ant and Atomic Bunny helped sell the public on the benefits of atomic energy, he explains. "They were taking the fear level down, showing that (nuclear weapons or energy) was not really something to be afraid of."
Even Donald Duck got caught up in the nuclear frenzy: In 1947, Disney released Donald Duck’s Atomic Bomb. Donald didn’t actually kill anyone with his bomb — it only caused peoples’ hair to fall out — but Disney pulled the comic from circulation anyway, Szasz says.
Cold War-era comics often emphasized tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union or depicted the apocalyptic powers of the bomb. And, in the 1960s through the 1980s, heroes and villains frequently developed their special powers as a result of their exposure to radioactive materials (think Spider-Man or the Hulk). Today, despite recent headlines about nukes in North Korea and Iran, radioactive themes just aren’t as popular as they used to be.
What’s next for comics? Dr. Szasz doesn’t know: "Terrorism is hard to depict. It doesn’t have the storytelling powers nuclear conflagration had in the 1950s and 1960s."