Atomic Heroes and Atomic Monsters: American and Japanese Cartoonists Confront the Onset of the Nuclear Age, 1945-80

By Szasz, Ferenc M.; Takechi, Issei | The Historian, Winter 2007 | Go to article overview

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.

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