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Come worship Atomic Energy at the Church of 1950s Science – Classics Illustrated Special Issue: Adventures in Science

February 26, 2012

With that great cover, and all the erection symbolism that a ready-to-fire missile entails, how can we possibly go wrong?

It’s always nice to go back in time and read some slavering, outdated propaganda about the wonders of science and the unbounded potentiality of progress. Remember flying cars? Commuting to work on your personal hovercraft? Moving sidewalks along every street? Robot butlers? Yeah. That sort of thing, the kind of stuff that made up so many Mystery Science Theater 3000 opening shorts. (I’m looking at you, “Design for Dreaming.”)

This 1957 comic, one of a series of specials put out by the fine Classics Illustrated people, contained original, science-centric material that wouldn’t fit into their normal adaptations of Dickens, Sherlock Holmes and the like. Among the features in this large, square-bound tome are a history of flight (presented as a rather straight-forward Icarus –> Da Vinci –> Wright Brothers –> Charles Lindbergh –> Chuck Yeager continuum), an incredibly dull Louis Pasteur life-story that will batter into unconsciousness any brave soul who dares to read it, and some brief one-page vignettes. But the real gem is a long, naive infomercial for the wonders of atomic energy, some aspects of which will cause the arching of many a modern eyebrow. (Apologies for the blurriness in some of the scans. Blame the square binding.)

Let us open our hymnals and begin.

Our vehicle through this wide-eyed trip through an irradiated world is Andy, a young cap-wearing lad who lives with his Mom and Dad perilously close to a nuclear testing ground. How close? Close enough to stumble into a heap of trouble when his dog, Spot, runs off after a rabbit:

We have a puppy about to be nuked. AND WE’RE OFF AND RUNNING.

Spot doesn’t turn into a Hulk-dog, nor does a bespectacled Bruce Banner arrive just in the nick of time to toss him into a ditch. But Spot is missing, and when the bomb goes off the next morning (thank God that soldier was there to chase Andy out dogless a full day in advance) Andy assumes the worst, blaming the damn dog-killing bomb for all the world’s ills. That’s when Dad steps in to set him straight:

“I won’t have the Almighty Atom disrespected in this household, son.” (This 1950s had to be one of the most robed decades in all of history. Babies must have worn robes. Andy looks like he should be smoking a pipe and reading the newspaper.)

Andy and his father go to the local hospital, where the missus is undergoing radiation treatments for an undisclosed ailment. A fetching blonde lab technician appears on cue to explain the healing powers of the atom, and milks a peach metaphor for all it’s worth, first by telling Andy that “if an atom were as big as a peach, then a peach would be as big as the whole, wide world.” AND WHAT A WONDERFUL AND JUICY WORLD THAT WOULD BE, I might add. Then she takes it a step further:

Sound it out, everyone: noo-clee-us.

Mom is miraculously healed by the wonders of radiation, and when Andy and his parents arrive home, he gets a note in the mail from the Army base, telling him that Spot has been found alive and well. They hop back in the car and make a mad dash out to see him, but when they arrive there’s a catch:

Yes, according to the Geiger counter Spot should be glowing like Clark Griswold’s house at Christmas. Fallout’s a bitch, and she’s back in heat. But:

Apparently fallout, enough to cling to a dog’s fur and make him dangerous to be around, can be shrugged off in a week’s time. GOOD TO KNOW.

Since Andy’s there in the lab, he might as well get himself a lesson on how an atom bomb works (from a Norman Osbourne-looking scientist, no less):

“Now throw the sticks into the blaze, Andy. They represent your entire family and all that you hold dear, vaporizing in one terrifying instant.” I now take back the snark about the peach stuff. Can we go back to that? Please?

“I have become death, destroyer of matchbooks.”

Andy leaves with a big smile on his face, not crying in mortal fear like you might expect, but his day of atomic education isn’t over yet. The family then makes a trip to the local power company, where a friend of Dad’s is the head engineer. He makes an “It takes X bowls of this cereal to equal one bowl of Total” sales pitch:

I’m getting a real Colon Blow vibe. (And way to aim high, Andy.)

After this whirlwind tour through the pomp and majesty of the atom, the nuclear (HA) family retires for a quiet meal at home, where they can fantasize about the boundless irradiated future spreading out before them:

“And perhaps radiation will somehow replace the missionary position as our preferred love-making position, dear.” (I’d like to point out that none of the improvements Dad envisions will let Mom out of the house.)

A week passes, and then the big day comes:

A dog can shuck off radiation like a bit of rain. Again: GOOD TO KNOW.

Finally, Dad, his hat, Andy and Spot all ponder the bomb on the ride home:

“Let’s just hope a pack of Orientals never again refuses to surrender. And while we’re at it, let’s also hope that the term ‘Orientals’ never falls out of favor.”

And they ride off into a golden atomic sunset.

What to make of this? To be fair, this “story” was written long before Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima became buzzwords, and no one disputes the benefits of atomic energy. And this is obviously directed at younger readers, with all the simplification that comes with that. But this thing is writing checks it can’t cash. Its sunny optimism is too much, and it has all the multi-faceted impartiality of a cult brochure. I found myself waiting for the bomb-worshipping mutants from Beneath the Planet of the Apes to spring out of the woodwork at any moment.

Oh, and SPOT SHOULD BE DEAD. DEAD. DEADDEADDEAD. Either that, or the classic British anti-nuke scare-fest Threads was waaaaaaay off base about the dangers of fallout.

I’m sure a scientist will come along and tell me that an irradiated small dog — who makes a Geiger counter click like one of those fake lawnmowers with the popping balls that kids push around — can make a full recovery. Maybe so. But I will still find that very hard to believe.

In a bit of kismet, someone in the last couple days posted a series of brief shorts from the 1950s extolling –you guessed it — the wonders of atomic energy. The first one you can find here, though it’s the third part that you’ll find the most similar to the above material. It takes much the same tone as this comic, but without the wide-eyed “aw shucks” curiosity of the aggressively freckled Andy. Check them out. Misery loves company, and so does infoganda.

Amen.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. February 27, 2012 12:22 pm

    Check out that grin on Andy’s face as he says, “Look at them burn.” I’m betting he later killed Mom and Dad, acting on orders from Atomic Spot.

  2. Thelonious_Nick permalink
    February 29, 2012 10:46 am

    I wonder how many of Spot’s teeth fell out when he was sticking his head out the window on the ride home.

    • March 1, 2012 11:12 pm

      Like that scene in Armed and Dangerous where John Candy and Eugene Levy replace the security guards at the toxic waste dump. “I lost two more teeth today…”

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