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Atomic Heroes


Action Girl Cover Image


It is no exaggeration to say that the advent of the nuclear age changed the world as we knew it, and the world of comics echoed that sense of wonder and uncertainty. Initially, the atomic bomb was seen as a positive development, at least as far as the war effort was concerned, and comics were quick to exploit this (in fact, some even speculate that Burtis Publishing's Atomic Bomb #1 pre-dates the Hiroshima bomb). The first significant atomic superhero was Atomic Man, who debuted in a 1943 issue of Prize Publishing's Headline Comics. Atomic Man dispatched underworld hoods with a quick zap of his fingers, but it could be argued that his most notable features were his peculiarly Aztec-style helmet and the fact that he wore a skirt. Atomic Man was not, however, unique: Other titles such as Atoman, Atomic Thunderbolt, and two separate Atomic Comics appeared in 1946.

Even at this early date there was ambivalence and uncertainty about the bomb. On one side there were broadly positive atomic stories in strips as diverse as those of Superman, the Shadow, Midnight, Robin, Superduck (in which the cantankerous mallard makes his own A-bomb) and Pyroman, who was shown on the cover of Startling Comics #41 jubilantly hugging his own atom bomb. On the other hand, the horror and anxiety resulting from the devastation caused in Hiroshima and Nagasaki were reflected in a 1946 Captain Marvel story in which all manner of countries nuke each other into oblivion, leaving the Captain the last man alive on the planet. But this was only an imaginary story, so that's all right, then.


After this initial flurry of atomic activity, publishers turned their attention elsewhere until cold war proliferation and the Korean War in particular put the red menace firmly on the map. Apocalyptic tomes, such as Ace's World War III and Atomic War, and ACG's Commander Battle and His Atomic Sub, reflected the hysteria and paranoia of the early 1950s, and inevitably the superhero books got mixed up in that turmoil, too. Unlike the 1940s, however, this time around it was atomic villains who started popping up, such as Doll Man's foe the Radioactive Man, Plastic Man's Mr. Fission, and Airboy's Living Fuse. By and large, mainstream superheroes (those few that were left in the 1950s) stayed untouched by the genre, with the exception of a unique bunch of costumed heroes from the reliably eccentric Charlton Comics. For reasons known only to itself, the company decided that the world was crying out for cute costumed critters with an atomic bent, and so Atomic Mouse, Atomic Rabbit (later changed to Atomic Bunny), and Atom the Cat hit the stands. Each minuscule marvel had his own unique way of charging up: Atomic Mouse guzzled uranium pills before flying into action, and Atomic Rabbit ate irradiated Carrot Cubes, while Atom the Cat merely needed to eat a fish! As bizarre as it might seem, Charlton appeared to have hit upon something, with Atomic Mouse thrilling fans for an astonishing ten years before hanging up his cape in 1963. By that time, the rest of the industry had learned to love the bomb—well, almost.

Once again, Charlton led the way when in 1960 their top artist, Steve Ditko, introduced Captain Atom in the pages of Space Adventures. Air Force scientist Captain Adam is blown to smithereens in a rocket accident, but mysteriously reconstitutes himself as the atomic powered (and very shiny) Captain Atom. A few years later, Dell's Nukla had an almost identical origin, except that he is shot down by the reds, while over at Gold Key Dr. Solar, Man of the Atom, was an irradiated scientist who ends up with great powers, green skin, and a lousy costume.

Clearly, atomic power possessed an awe-inspiring force but carried with it a terrible price. Nowhere was this better reflected than at the newly resurgent Marvel Comics of the 1960s. Whereas writers had traditionally fallen back on magic, mad scientists, or courage, determination, and a snazzy costume for their heroes' origins, Marvel's Stan Lee seized on the infinite mutations of radiation. The Fantastic Four, for example, were created when their rocket flew through a storm of cosmic rays; the Incredible Hulk was transformed by gamma rays from a G-bomb during a test explosion; young Peter Parker became Spider-Man after a bite from a radioactive spider; and Daredevil's extraordinary senses developed after he was hit and blinded by a radioactive canister. The X-Men were a group of teenage mutants gathered together by Professor X and, while the cause of their mutation is never specified, the side effects of radiation were becoming better known at that time and so it is no great stretch of the imagination to see these characters too (who would later be called children of the atom) as nuclear heroes. Another Marvel character that makes it into the nuclear club through unusual qualifications is Hyperion, a Superman pastiche the first of whose several origins over the years involved him escaping a doomed planet (just like Superman's Krypton) that turns out to be the first atom ever split by Earth scientists!

The growing ambivalence and fear about nuclear power were reflected in Lee's heroes with problems. Because of their powers and appearance, the X-Men, Spider-Man, and the Fantastic Four's Thing became outcasts from society. The Hulk's alter ego, Bruce Banner, not only became an emerald monster but also lost control of his mind, while Daredevil's powers must have been scant consolation for the loss of his sight. After the nuclear 1960s, Marvel's later heroes were again frequently mutants of various types, and the publisher's atomic heroes came to dominate the industry. Over at rival DC Comics, on the other hand, radiation and mutation rarely raised their ugly heads—with one notable exception. The Atomic Knights, who debuted in Strange Adventures in 1960, were six indomitable heroes in a post-nuclear-war 1986 (!) who walked around in medieval suits of armor, which supposedly protected them against radiation. Some fifteen years later, that same postwar future was revisited in a short-lived Hercules title that starred the Greek god of legend, mutants, armies, talking apes, and the self-same Atomic Knights.

However, as the threat of global nuclear war has receded and distrust of peaceful nuclear power has increased, the subject has largely disappeared from comics. One exception was 1978's Firestorm, the Nuclear Man, who was created by a bomb in a nuclear reactor. He rejoiced in the ability to throw atomic fireballs and had hair of fire. Tellingly, before the explosion young Ronnie Raymond had been protesting against nuclear power, an indication that comics and society had moved a long way from the brave new world of 1945 and the Atomic Man. (The distance is also measured by Bongo Comics' buffoonish Radioactive Man and Fallout Boy, a retro parody of optimistic atomic heroes appearing in what's billed as Bart Simpson's Favorite Comic.) Post-Three Mile Island atomic characters have tended to be villains such as Ghost Rider's Nuclear Man and Superman's the Atomic Skull (the man with the self-destruct mind!), though Marvel's mutants still dominate both the company and the marketplace. Since contemporary superheroes are increasingly realistic, the days of ludicrous mutations and nuclear-powered rabbits may be long gone, but atomic energy has a lengthy half-life and the atomic heroes will probably be around for a long time to come, too. —DAR

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