Exhibit / January 11, 2018
The first issue of Atomic War! tells the story of a future America—the year is 1960—in which the embarrassingly gullible U.S. government and the bumbling United Nations are bamboozled by the “smiling conciliation” of the Russians and their seemingly “enthusiastic efforts for peace.” America has stopped making A-bombs! Arms and airplane factories are shutting down! Our G.I.s are being pulled out of Berlin! (Nearly every sentence includes an exclamation point.) “The Western fools,” a Russian agent in a trenchcoat says on page one, “do not suspect a thing.”
The Reds’ master plan is, of course, a surprise nuclear attack, arranged with the help of some highly-placed saboteurs. We are treated to the nuclear annihilation of New York, Chicago, and Detroit (“our defense hub”) in graphic detail: Tidal waves! Gas Main Explosions! Collapsing bridges! The Statue of Liberty plunging into the Queen Mary! (The sequence is very reminiscent of George Pal’s special effects blockbuster When World’s Collide, released the previous year). Everywhere we find “death waiting amid the flames and lethal radiation.” Washington D.C. is spared only by the quick action of crackerjack pilot Lieutenant Russ Dennis, the “first great hero of World War III,” who flies his wounded fighter into the descending warhead, detonating it thousands of feet above the capital. In chapter two, a group of G.I.s stationed in West Berlin stop the “Russkies” from capturing the city; and, in chapter three, the American counterattack is launched from a secret airbase in Greenland, after yet another saboteur is defeated.
Atomic War! #2 is not as fun, but it does offer a certain smug satisfaction, as the bloodthirsty American bombers drop nukes on Russian targets, concluding with a suicide bombing of, yes—Moscow! (“BAROOOM!”) Both issues are heavy on Cold War plot points and motifs that would be used in later media: the set up is exactly the same as 1978’s Battlestar Galactica, where human leaders prepare to sign a peace treaty with the suddenly magnanimous Cylons, who soon after launch a surprise attack destroying the human homeworlds; in Atomic War! #2, General Ranshaw threatens to “sit on that bomb and fly it down myself” in the Moscow attack, an absurd image used to great comic effect in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (1964); and a panel showing “The sky filled with a horde of Russian paratroopers and equipment” as they invade the U.S. is the basis of 1984’s Red Dawn.
Atomic War! was published at the height of the Korean War, the second Red Scare, and the Hollywood blacklist. Both the film and publishing industries were churning out anti-communist propaganda in part to appease the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), and comic books were thought to be the perfect tool to instruct the young. In fact, comics had started to come under fire in the late ’40s because of the violence and “tastelessness” depicted in popular horror titles like EC’s Tales from the Crypt and Vault of Horror. In 1954, Fredric Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent argued that such comic books led to juvenile delinquency, rebellious behavior, and homosexuality (“Batman stories are psychologically homosexual,” claimed Wertham). The U.S. Senate conducted hearings into the allegations, and the end result was the institution of the censoring Comics Code Authority. Ace Magazines, the publisher of Atomic War! and the same year’s World War III (which follows essentially the same plot, but is less graphic and bonkers) was called out in the hearings for publishing a number of objectionable titles. Atomic War! wasn’t among them, although Atomic War! #4 (to be covered in a later exhibit with #3) was identified as too violent in the British version of Seduction of the Innocent, Geoffrey Wagner’s Parade of Pleasure (1954).