Atomic Heroes and Atomic Monsters: American and Japanese Cartoonists Confront the Onset of the Nuclear Age, 1945-80
Szasz, Ferenc M., Takechi, Issei, The Historian
IN THE IMMEDIATE YEARS after the close of the Second World War, American and Japanese comic book/manga artists both reflected and helped shape their respective worlds of popular culture. Perhaps the picture-and-text combination of comic books/manga might best be understood as a medium of popular storytelling. Rivaled only by radio, film, and (eventually) television, for a quarter century after the war, the lowly comic book reached a vast, if ultimately unchartable, audience. Read by millions, these easy-to-comprehend stories helped forge the atomic outlook of each generation.
For years, American and Japanese cartoonists produced a wide variety of atomic-related tales, many of which featured super heroes battling an assortment of outrageous villains. Although some of the American stories--especially those involving Captain Marvel in the late 1940s--conveyed a profundity not often associated with the medium, the majority of U.S. atomic-related stories remained somewhat superficial, even simplistic. In Japan, however, the manga artists created stories with far more biting edges; their heroes confronted not just villains but also suffering, tragedy, and--eventually--a call for responsibility.
Consequently, the U.S. comic book characters of Atom the Cat, Atomic Mouse, and Atomic Rabbit operated on a far different plane from that of Astro Boy (tetsuwan atomu), Godzilla (Gofira), and Keiji Nakazawa's Barefoot Gen. Although the comic book/manga industries played very different roles in their respective societies, postwar cartoonists on both sides of the Pacific spilled a great deal of ink in trying to come to grips with the promises and perils created by the onset of the atomic age. (1)
Of course, monumental historical reasons existed for this disparity of views. Numerous historians, including Laura Hein, Mark Selden, John W. Dower, and Timothy Moy, have observed that the American and Japanese versions of the saga of the Manhattan Project come in two incompatible forms. For the United States, the story reflected the Allied triumph over nearly insurmountable odds and essentially ended with the opening of the bomb bay doors of the two B-29s, Enola Gay and Bock's Car, over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. For the Japanese, however, that was when the story actually began. (2) As an observer recently noted, the horrors of Hiroshima have formed the dominant image of the "Japanese collective memory of the war...." (3) For years, many Japanese viewed themselves primarily as "victims" of unwarranted aggression.
Yet numerous American and Japanese observers also found themselves in search of common ground. After 6 August 1945, virtually every thinking person realized that the world had turned a page of cosmic history; the power unleashed by the fissioned atom needed to be both understood and controlled. From the first week of August forward, the U.S. media--ranging from the New York Times to Time to the humblest farm weekly--desperately tried to comprehend the meaning of these events. "Gentlemen, is the atomic bomb good or bad for the world?" Chancellor Robert Hutchins asked his panel of experts on the 12 August 1945 popular NBC radio show, "The University of Chicago Round Table." (4) Within weeks, a bevy of publications continued the analysis, beginning with physicist Henry DeWolf Smyth's official government report, Atomic Energy for Military Purposes. The so-called "Smyth Report" was officially released in August 1945; by 1947 it had gone through seven printings and had sold 120,000 copies. Additionally, a Russian translation was produced. (5) Japanese scientists, of course, read the Smyth Report with special interest. Three significant, albeit less technical, books followed on its heels: Pocket Books' The Atomic Age Opens (August 1945), the Federation of Atomic Scientists' One World or None (1946), and the U.S. State Department's official report on The International Control of Atomic Energy (1946). The essays in these volumes essentially shared the same perspective: the splitting of the atom had produced both a powerful force for destruction and an alluring prospect of cheap, limitless energy. Moreover, this discovery was inevitable; no group could possibly have prevented it. (6) Atomic bombs would completely alter the nature of warfare, for no nation could defend against them. Had the Germans attached atomic bombs to the V-2 rockets that hammered London, they would easily have won the war. (7) The world had no choice, as the Time reporter phrased it, "but to grope ahead into the Atomic Age." (8)
The American occupation of Japan (1945-51) censored all references to atomic themes from Japanese writers for over six years. But from the mid-1950s forward, the voices of Japanese politicians, intellectuals, novelists, cartoonists, and the hibakusha (people affected by atomic or hydrogen bombs) gradually began to emerge. In 1955, Hiroshima hosted the world's first Conference Against Atomic and Hydrogen bombs, and a decade later, novelist Kenzaburo Oe wrote his classic Hiroshima Notes, gracefully portraying the dignity of the hibakusha and the dedication of the many physicians who helped care for them. (9)
The postwar popular cultures of each nation reflected this polarized perspective--triumph or tragedy--as well as a search for shared understanding. This can clearly be seen in the shared cartoon realms of "Funny Animals" and Superheroes. When one examines the world of Funny (that is, anthropomorphic) Animals, Hein, Selden, Dower, and Moy are right on target. In the equally popular genre of Superheroes, however, widespread anxiety over the atom proved so pervasive that major cartoonists on both sides of the Pacific often wrestled with identical dilemmas.
THE COMIC BOOK INDUSTRY AND THE RISE OF AMERICAN ATOMIC HEROES
Born in the United States during the Great Depression from a fusion of newspaper comic "strips" (which dated from the 1890s) and the dramatic world of pulp fiction (whose heyday lay in the late 1920s and 1930s), the comic book industry received new life in 1938 when two Cleveland teenagers, Jerry Siegal and Joe Schuster, created Superman. By the time of Pearl Harbor, the American comic genre was dominated by such larger-than-life heroic figures as the Man of Steel, Barman, Submariner, Torch, Plastic Man, Wonder Woman, and a host of others. In issue after issue they bested assorted villains with predictable regularity. (10) During the war era, writers and artists also created over sixty "Patriotic Heroes," bearing such names as The Flag, the Shield, Captain Freedom, Miss Victory, and Liberty Belle. The most prominent of these--Captain America--played an iconic role for an entire generation. (11)
Although many writers and artists were drafted, from 1940--45 the industry tripled its production. Thousands of enlisted men and women, scattered on scores of military bases around the globe, bought comic books by the bushel basket. As many enlistees were hampered by Depression-era education, the picture-and-text-combination became an ideal way to convey both information and entertainment. Army officers recalled that comics reigned as the soldiers' reading material of choice. (12) Superman sales alone approached 10 million dollars a year during the war, and by 1943, the publisher, DC, was mailing 35,000 copies of Superman monthly to American troops all over the world. The Nazi propaganda organ, Das Swartz, took notice of this and in one issue branded Superman as "a Jew." (13) A mid-war survey by Newsweek--the first of its kind--revealed the extent of the readership: 95 percent of Americans in the 8-11 age group read comics, 84 percent in the 12-17 age range, and 35 percent of those between 18-30. (14) With the possible exception of film, never had a mass medium achieved such power in so short a time.
Consequently, when President Harry S. Truman announced the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to the world, the industry was well situated to explain the onset of the atomic age to American readers. Some of the first attempts came via the numerous factual or "true" comics--a watered-down equivalent of Time or Life intended for young readers. Picture News, for example, featured atomic bomb stories in six of its first ten postwar issues. In 1949, King Features Syndicate loaned its characters for Dagwood Splits the Atom, which explained atomic power in simplified form. Former Manhattan Project head General Leslie R. Groves actually wrote the introduction for this widely praised comic book. (15)
These nonfiction books invariably displayed a rosy view of the future of atomic power. During the early 1950s, General Electric Corporation produced at least eight different "giveaways," bearing titles such as Adventures in Electronics and Science in Your Future, all of which urged young people to make nuclear engineering their career. Perhaps the most optimistic statement in this regard came with M. Phillip Copp's The Atomic Revolution Comic Book (1957), which saw no downside to the nuclear future. Japanese popular culture, incidentally, produced no counterpart to this factual subgenre of the American comic book industry.
Over time, the educational comics slowly faded from the scene, as young readers clearly preferred tales of adventure to pictorial instruction. But when American comic book writers and artists matched their traditional heroes with various atomic villains, they faced an awkward dilemma in storytelling. It was not long before the plot line became eminently predictable. At the last moment, the hero sidetracked the detonation of a nuclear weapon. Story lines such as those found in "The Stolen Atomic Bomb" (Star Spangled Comics, June 1947)--where Batman's sidekick Robin forced the villain to drop a bomb into the ocean-quickly became routine. In 1952, at the last moment, Captain America and Bucky his sidekick saved the nation's atomic secrets from "The Executioner." Two years later, T-Man defused a …
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Publication information: Article title: Atomic Heroes and Atomic Monsters: American and Japanese Cartoonists Confront the Onset of the Nuclear Age, 1945-80. Contributors: Szasz, Ferenc M. - Author, Takechi, Issei - Author. Journal title: The Historian. Volume: 69. Issue: 4 Publication date: Winter 2007. Page number: 728+. © 2009 Phi Alpha Theta, History Honor Society, Inc. COPYRIGHT 2007 Gale Group.
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