Atomic Comics: Evolving Depictions of Science in Comic Books and Popular Culture

And this is for you guys.
I know this is going
to seem sort of odd
because I’m talking
to a microphone,
and you’re not necessarily
hearing me amplified.
But this is for our friends
on Global Campus who are also
with us for this talk today.
So I’m really delighted
to have you here today.
I’m Karen Weathermon.
I’m director of
first-year programs.
And on behalf of my colleagues
in the Office of Undergraduate
Education and everyone who works
in common reading in some way,
we want to thank you
for coming today.
This is one of a full-year
series of different kinds
of events that connects
in different kinds of ways
to our common text this
year, which is Soonish–
10 Emerging Technologies
that will Improve
and/or Ruin Everything.
And we are especially
pleased to welcome,
also, our friends
joining us virtually–
live streamingly from
Global Campus too.
So for those of you in
the room and those of you
outside the room, thank you
so much for taking some time
to come in today.
Mark’s talk today– Mark
O’English from Manuscripts,
Archives, and
Special Collections–
this talk is actually one of
a little collection of events
happening this week
and next week that
involve the genre of comics.
And Soonish, of
course, is a book
that combines comics and text.
So in these two weeks, we’re
looking at the form as well as
the contents of the
book to say, OK,
how does that form add
to our understanding
of different kinds of events?
So I just want to let you know
about the rest of the things
in this small series.
Next Thursday, February 14,
visiting comic artist Mita
Mahato will be talking
about the art of comics
at 3 PM in the Jordan
Schnitzer Museum of Art.
And also, next week from
February 12 through 16,
the museum is hosting a one
week special pop-up exhibit
of comics called, Rekindle.
And you can receive
common-reading credit
for both of those events.
Next week on the 12th, there is
also an event at 4:30 in Q203
that will be about study
abroad and study away,
also for common-reading credit.
And they join, also, an ongoing
exhibit by Michael Schultz
at the art museum.
So there are lots
of things happening,
but I especially want to
point out the comics ones.
And information about them and
all the other events coming up
the rest of the
spring are available
both on our common-reading
CougSync page
and on the
common-reading website,
which is
If you are attending for
common-reading credit,
we will have you card swipe
in at the end of the event
this afternoon.
So that will show
up as credit for you
for whatever course
you’re taking
for which attending a
common-reading event
counts for you.
This happens to be an event
in which getting credit for it
is a two-part endeavor.
You’ll card-swipe as
you are leaving today,
and that will send an email
link to a very short survey that
will come to you
at whatever email
you have linked to
your CougSync account.
Completing that
short survey then
will allow this to show up in
your CougSync involvement page.
If you have any questions
about that, you can contact us.

Anyway, and there
are also instructions
about how to find that link
if it doesn’t immediately
show up on your email on our
common-reading website page.
So we appreciate your
taking a few minutes
to give us some
feedback that allows
us to get some feedback
to Mark, but also,
for us to know how to direct the
program as we’re going forward.
So now I want to introduce our
speaker today, Mark O’English.
Mark is the
university’s archivist,
which means he works with
Manuscripts, Archives,
and Special Collections,
otherwise known as MASC, over
in the Holland and
Terrell Library.
If you want to visit MASC,
you go in the front doors
and down either of
the sets of stairs
into that round atrium
area below the kind of you
know glass whatever
you’d call that–
skylight, dome.
And MASC is just
off of that area.
The current exhibit in MASC
is on the 100-year history
of the WSU fight song, which
Mark curated and put together.
And I encourage you to check
out that exhibit this spring
while it’s up.
Mark came to
library and archives
to work from a
science background.
And originally here
at WSU, he served
as the librarian to most of
WSU’s engineering programs
before he began his
work in archives.
When Mark was working
on his library degree,
his childhood love
of comic books
paid off when he spent
several years working
as a writer/researcher on Marvel
Comics reference publications.
I should also
mention that WSU has
several extensive
collections of comics.
So if this afternoon’s talk
sparks some interest for you,
I am certain that Mark would
be happy to have you walk over
to Holland and Terrell and show
you some of those collections.
In fact, those
collections are also
what it’s being used for
the pop-up exhibit that
will be happening next
week over in the museum.
Mark gave a version of this
talk several years ago,
and it was just a fabulous talk.
So I know you’re in
for a treat with lots
of visually interesting images
to sort of hook together
this idea of how science
has been portrayed
in popular culture,
especially through comics.
So please help me welcome
Mark, and enjoy the next hour.

MARK O’ENGLISH: Well, hello.
Firstly, they’ve got me
double miked as well.
You guys can hear this
in the back they’re?
OK, cool.
Thank you very much.
Yeah, my name is Mark O’Englsih.
I’m the university
archivist here.
And I’m going to talk a
little bit about how comic
books have portrayed
science in popular culture.
Karen mentioned I used
to work for Marvel.
I was a freelancer
for about 10 years.
I did not write the comic books.
I did not write Fantastic
Four and such not.
But what I wrote
for were a series
of what they call The Official
Handbook of the Marvel
And the idea was we
would put together
histories of all the characters
of the Marvel universe,
some of those pretty insane
long histories, some of much
more short.
If you’re writing
something like Spider-Man,
you would literally
have to go and read
every single appearance
of Spider-Man ever, which
is 2,000, 3,000 comics
easily at this point.
Most of them, you’re reading
10, 50, 100 comic books.
And in doing this, over
the course of 10 years,
I started to see a lot
of recurring patterns
in the way things were dealt
with, the way comic books
looked at certain
aspects of science.
When I came and
worked at MASC, I
got to see some of the but
older stuff that’s there.
One of our retired English
professors, a gentleman
named Paul Brians collected
what he called “atomic comics,”
which I stole for this.
They were basically comics
dealing with nuclear issues,
dating from ’50s up to
about the point he retired.
There are hundreds
of these over there.
And let me look a little
bit back at the past.
So I love to talk about
how our view of science
evolved over the years.
I’m a comic-book
nerd, so I’m talking
about pop culture
and comic books
because I know comic
books fairly well.
I love comic books.
I know some of you
are probably here
because you like comic books.
That’s great.
I know some of you are
probably here because you
want that extra credit.
Or an instructor
assigned you to come,
and you don’t care
about comic books.
That’s fine.
I’m not insulted.
But what I would
ask in that case–
I’m going to talk about
popular cultures portrayed
in comic books.
If you’re a movie
fan, think about some
of what I’m saying
in terms of movies,
books, children’s books,
animation, whatever.
Can you see it?
You need lights down up here?
Seems like we’re good as is.
So this is some of the
things I just put together–
some of the ways that science
has been portrayed in various
genres over the years–
in video games, certainly,
old science fiction;
50s movies; comic books that
I love; fiction; animation.
Board games are up
there, children’s books,
all sorts of stuff.
When I was a kid growing up–
I’m a little older than
most of the students here.
I was born in 1964.
So I was growing up
in the ’70s as a kid–
the 80s; ’80s as a young adult.
And probably the imagery–
I grew up– the visions of
nuclear science came from
things like comic books very
specifically– that’s in 1976–
comic-book heroes
powered by radiation.
I grew up with the monster
movies that became popular
in the ’50s and ’60s.
Them as an army of giant ants–
irradiated giant ants marching
through New Mexico after
some nuclear testing–
think Godzilla, things
along those lines.
A little bit darker–
1984, The Day After.
For those of you
who don’t know that,
The Day After is
an ABC TV movie.
And basically, it was
a look at Kansas City
after the US and Russia
had launched a nuclear war
on each other.
Nuclear bombs had
fallen, and it’s
intended to be a very realistic
look at what life would
be like for somebody dealing
with radiation dealing
with the destruction, dealing
with the types of things going
That colors my views on
science growing up with those
very light, very dark,
very goofy things.
You guys today–
I occasionally wonder what
you’re growing up with his kids
and as young as adults as
views of nuclear science
and nuclear issues.
One of the ones that
I always come back to
is the ubiquitous,
The Simpsons, which
is the goofy view
of nuclear science.
Everybody pictures Homer Simpson
at the nuclear facility having
accidents right
and left, leaving,
in the credits with
radioactive material
bouncing down his back,
not taking radiation
all that seriously.
Maybe more seriously, I
was thinking about this one
2010, which you
guys would probably
be at a point of remembering
in your formative years.
We had a tsunami in northern
Japan which did major damage–
killed many, many people–
but damaged one of the
nuclear reactors there.
One of the things
that we saw here
in the Northwest
thereafter, quite
a bit for the following
days, were these lovely types
of charts where you
would see slip streams
across the air telling
us how much radiation
was heading for the Northwest.
These scary-looking
charts all in deep red–
that’s where it’s going
to be in three days,
that’s where it is in six days.
Even back then, we
knew the science
meant that this wouldn’t really
have any serious effect on us,
per se.
But nonetheless, on
the news, in the papers
we would see these lovely charts
because they want your website
clicks, they want
you to tune back in.
And I kind of wonder
what growing up
as a kid with that one
of your first exposures
to nuclear science
[INAUDIBLE] what that might
do to you guys a little bit.
So like I say, I’m
a comic-book nerd,
but some of these other genres–
think a little bit
about what’s there–
comic books– we really
date to about 1938, at least
for the superhero stuff.
There were some
strips before that.
There are some other
things, but in 1938, we
get Superman in Action Comics.
1939– Marvel
Comics comes along.
The Human Torch,
Sub-Mariner, Captain America
follow shortly thereafter.
That said, nuclear
science, nuclear issues
predate that certainly.
I am not.
She said I have a
science background,
but my science background was
in mathematics and psychology.
I’m not a nuclear scientist.
You’re not going to get
hard physics here, so
be gentle on me if
I mess something
up– but a brief background
before our comic-book era.
Dates back to 1870s
is when we start
seeing X-rays come around.
In the following
years, we see X-rays
being used to treat cancer.
We discover more of
the science behind it,
we discover burns and hair loss.
By the time we get down here,
this is the stuff I love,
where you start seeing
radiation causing mutations
within fruit flies.
And then we see that
that can be passed down
to successive generations.
Although realistically,
it usually kills them,
and if it actually does pass
down, it makes them sterile.
So what did pop culture do with
nuclear issues in these areas?
Nuclear radiation is fun in an
era before ubiquitous energy
everywhere, and before everybody
having electric lights,
electric power–
something that you could–
something that
you could look at,
and it would give off warmth
in your hands, a little
glow if you did it right.
This is cool stuff.
So people were kind of enamored
of the idea of radiation.
This is an article from a
Popular Science Magazine.
You would see something– you go
to the bookie today, probably,
and Popular Science magazine
just as seriously talking
about science issues.
And they’re talking about,
will radium destroy youth?
It’ll give you a
longer life, it’ll
give you a new hair
on bald heads–
kind of ironic,
given what we now
know about the
effects of radiation–
a renewed vigor of youth.
If you look closely at
this, it will tell you
that this woman is
using a device which
is supposed to irradiate
your water in your home
to make a little bit more warm
and a little more comfortable
for you to drink–
real products, real things.
All three of these
products around the side
were real products
you could purchase.
I do not know how
ubiquitous they are.
Radithor, certified
radioactive water
contains radium
and mesotherium–
something you could
drink at home.
I love the schokolade, German
chocolate with radium in it.
You could go out and
find that out there.
Or my favorite–
the 15-day course
of vita-radium suppositories.
That’ll make your insides
nice and warm for you.
Radiation is cool.
Radiation– the
science of the future.
We were just talking
about picturing
the Soonish book 100
years ago– might have,
radiation is one
of the technologies
that’s going to change
the future of our world.
This, of course, changed 1945–
August, 1945.
The US had been involved
in World War II since 1941.
The war had been
going on before that.
August, 1945, we drop a couple
of nuclear bombs on Japan– one
on Hiroshima, one on Nagasaki.
I suspect you guys–
my voice has even got a little
deeper talking about this.
I suspect you guys, from
the point of view of 2019,
growing up when you are–
when I say the point of view–
our impressions
of nuclear issues
changed as a result of this–
you think we start going,
oh, look at all the people who
died, look at how dangerous
this was, and we started
seeing it more seriously,
it was very much the other way.
We had been involved in
World War II for four years.
Everybody knew somebody who
was off fighting in the war–
had brothers, cousins,
husbands, uncles, whatever.
This classroom– if
we were here in 1943,
it would be 90% women, 10% men
because all the men were off
fighting in the war.
What the nuclear
bombs did was they
brought home our brothers,
our sons, our fathers,
our family members.
This was a triumph
of American science.
Once the nuclear bombs went
off, we loved radiation,
we love nuclear bombs.
It was a wonderful thing.
I have to say, I’m
talking about this
from a historical
point of view, trying
to look at different
generations looked at it.
So please don’t ascribe anything
I’m saying necessarily to me
as my point of view.
But this is what we saw
in our popular culture.
This is Atoman,
a comic book that
was published in February 1946.
The bomb dropped
in August, 1945–
so seven, or eight,
nine months before that.
Today, if you tried to get a
comic book from script, drawn,
off to the publisher,
or off to the press,
back to the publisher,
out on the stands,
you’re probably talking a
bare minimum of six months.
Back then, it probably
took just as long.
So this really had to have
been started almost immediately
after the bombs dropped.
And it really is–
there’s no doubt about it.
I’m radioactive.
Evidently my body is so
geared as a result of working
with radium and uranium.
They can explode atoms and
give me atomic strength.
This is how we viewed nuclear
issues after a nuclear bomb.
So it’s going to make a
better world for all of us.

I completely lost where I was
about to go there for a second.
One of the things I love
very much here on campus–

If you were to go
to a dance in 1946,
it’s not like today,
where you just
show up and dance with whoever.
They’re very rigorous,
very scheduled.
You would have a
little dance card
you would get with slots
of all the dancers,
and you would fill out who
you would make an appointment
with– the women
or the men you’re
going to dance
with, fill it out,
and that’s how you would
spend your evening.
There is this junior
prom of 1946 here–
has an atomic fantasy theme.
There’s a little
orange mushroom cloud
in the back of the spot where
you sign all your names on it.
And today, that sounds ironic
at best, bad taste it worse.
But then, I’m pretty
sure it was very earnest
and very straightforward.
Nuclear bombs, nuclear
issues were important things,
good things for the
country, good things for us.
As I talk about
these things, I’m
going to start talking
about, well in 1946,
they started thinking this.
And in the 1970s, they
seemed to think this.
All of those things
are generalities.
Things come in, things go out.
Things pop up earlier,
things pop up later.
One that actually really kind
of shocked me in this– this
is a February 3r3
1946 comic book.
It’s The Spirit done by a
gentleman named Will Eisner.
He’s considered to be the
father of graphic novels–
one of the real founding
fathers in comic books.
The Spirit is a
hardboiled-detective type.
He writes a story where the
spirit is investigating.
I don’t actually know the
whole story behind it,
but he’s dealing with
nuclear scientists who,
toward the end of the
story, pull a switch,
actually trigger a nuclear bomb.
We cut to the far-off
distant space,
where a little planet
of humanoid aliens
sees a star flash up in the
distance as Earth explodes,
destroyed, and cut to the
Spirit’s supporting cast
waking up there on a
park bench, where he’d
been dreaming the whole thing.
I would not be surprised to
see this comic in the ’70s,
’80s, ’90s, 2000s.
I’m shocked to see this
comic in February of 1946
because we have, like I say,
almost universally wonderfully
positive points of
view, here in the US,
at least, on the
nuclear bombs and what
we’re going to see from that.
Kind of interesting to me.
After World War II,
it’s hard to talk
about how superhero comics
dealt with nuclear issues
because we kind of stopped
having superhero comics.
Superhero comics were, more
or less, during World War II,
arranged around the war, people
went out and fought Nazis,
people were stopping Hitler.
We were sick of that after
four years of the war.
We didn’t want to see
people fighting anymore.
Superhero comics kind of
died away a little bit.
We started getting
romance copies–
true crime– copies?
Comics– true-crime
comics, western comics,
things along those lines, where
you did see nuclear issues.
They were still fun–
played for humor,
play for positive things.
There’s a Charlton atomic
bunny, who’s radiation-based.
I love Donald Duck’s atom
bomb, a little Disney thing.
Donald Duck decides to
invent his own atom bomb,
but it’s not going to go boom.
It’s going to go [PFFT] instead.
I’m not quite sure why
that’s significant.
All his atom bomb–
all his [PFFT] bomb–
ultimately does is
makes everybody’s hair
fall out, which
again, kind of ironic
when you think about that almost
a almost common theme there.
And at the end of it,
he’s kind of chased out
of town by the upset
townsfolk, as tends
to happen with Donald Duck–
so played for humor.
But by the mid
1950s, late 1950s,
we start seeing a
negative perception
of nuclear issues–
atomic bombs,
atomic issues in
the comic books.
Almost just from the other–
even without looking at this,
you can see it’s gotten
darker just from the colors.
All of a sudden, there’s
reds, blacks, yellows.
These, by the way, these panels
come from these three comics–
Atomic Spy, Atomic
War, Atom-Age Combat.
These are some of the
Paul Brians comics
I mentioned that MASC
holds over there.
And you can, if you
read the captions here,
they say things like, “To
permit our atomic muscles
to grow flabby while
striving for peace
would rarely invite atomic
attack by an enemy stronger
and less responsible
than ourselves.”
Above it, it says, “We
must not be ostriches
and bury our head in the
sands in the face of danger.”
Why are nuclear bombs all of a
sudden darker, less positive?
Because in the
1950s, the Russians
developed their
own nuclear bombs.
The science of none of
these issues has changed.
The exact same science is there.
What’s changed is that now,
instead of an example of US
success, they’re a danger.
They’re an example of
something bad that can
happen to us here in the US.
So the public zeitgeist start
changing on these things,
and we see it in our
pop culture as we
start seeing darker images
of nuclear materials.
I’m going to jump to
science just for a second.
With the Russians also
involved in nuclear issues,
the US takes it a little
bit more seriously.
We start doing a
lot more testing.
This is where you see
the pictures of the bombs
in the South Pacific
being detonated
on those lovely films.
Again, this is where we get
a little bit more attention
to those mutations.
We start seeing it with
all those animals involved,
and fish in the Pacific,
insects in the desert.
Again, realistically,
scientifically, they die.
If they don’t die, they pass
on something so their kids die.
We do see, sure, things
come out a little bit
bigger, different things
happening with them, but fatal.
But it doesn’t stop us
from taking that science
and running with it.
So here, Marvel we’ve got
Grottu, King of the insects–
a giant ant, giant radioactive
spider, giant radioactive
scorpions, giant octopus
attacking the city.
There’s a scarlet
beetle taking on the Ant
Man, one of my favorites.
“Save me from the weed,” as
our plant life comes to life,
grows to giant size, and
begins attacking us here.
Again, I’m not sure how
scary these really were.
It’s actually about as scary as
comics could get in this era.
But again, we’re
taking our science
off a little bit
of an edge to it.
Some of it you take
to complete extremes.
I’m still not sure
how radiation makes
this big blue robot come alive
and start attacking people.
Even more
ridiculously– oh, he’s
taking his time coming up there.
There we go.
Farmer’s scarecrow that
grows to giant size
and begins lumbering
through the countryside–
someone explain the science
between the mutations
that cause that to me.
I would be fascinated.
But the stuff you guys
probably know better–
we see Godzilla comes
to life in movies.
And we get a lot of these
radioactive monsters entering
our popular culture.
That’s one of my
favorite Godzilla issues.
This is more from the ’70s,
when he came to Marvel
as being written there.
But there’s the Space
Needle being eaten
by our favorite giant dinosaur.

Like I say, not just
in the comic books
do we see this stuff.
This is another one of those
Popular Science magazines–
fairly serious about its
science, seriously discussing,
how can nuclear radiation
change the human race?
I love this.
It talks somewhere
in this area here,
“the atomic war producing an
entire new species of men,”
the quote below, “Now
hear this, Earth!
I am mutant man, homo superior.
I’ve been created by radiation
forces our of the loins of you,
the human” Royce
after your– “race”–
good Lord, excuse me–
“by the human race after your
great and terrible Atom War.”
Down below that, it says,
“Will this voice someday
thunder over the world from a
mutant man, not a human being”?
We start getting this idea
in our science a little bit
that, yes, it can
affect humanity.
We don’t know if the future
mutants are going to be
friends, big-headed friends–
oops, sorry– big-headed
friends down there,
big headed foes up there.
Apparently, we just
know they’re going
to get big heads out of it.
I’m a little bit fascinated
by this comic for side reasons
because this is 1954.
For those of you who are
comic-book nerds and are
familiar with the X-Men, which
came about eight years later–
’62 or ’63–
they steal this language
almost verbatim.
They use the term “mutants.”
The X-Men are humans who
have inherited genetics
from their parents
which caused them
to develop superhuman powers.
They are commonly talked
about in the comic books
as the “next generation
of the human race– what
human race is going to become.”
And you see the bad guys,
like, Magneto talking
about how he is– literally,
they use the phrase,
“Homo superior” is how
Magneto describes mutants,
with the intent of going through
and replacing the human race.
So the X-Men develops
these us-versus-them themes
of the next generation taking
over, which just fascinated me.
I still wonder if Stan
Lee, at some point,
read this because the theft
is so direct out of here
seven or eight years later.
So Stan Lee, who
I just mentioned,
I’d like to hope the
whole world knows
who Stan Lee is at this point.
But Stan Lee is a writer
for Marvel Comics,
who, in 1960s, basically
revolutionizes superheroes.
He is pretty much given
credit for at all.
He worked with a
lot of authors–
a lot of artists who deserve
a good chunk of that credit.
But Stan Lee is the
guy who was the writer
and took most of this.
This is one of his first
new wave of comic books.
This is the Fantastic Four,
a group of four astronauts–
launched themself
into space trying
to beat the Russians into
orbit, or to the Moon,
or whichever it was.
And while they’re
up there in space,
their ship is penetrated
by these “cosmic rays”
they call them.
Ship crashes back down, and
they gain superhuman powers.
One can turn invisible,
one can burst into flame,
one can stretch, one becomes
an overgrown monster of sorts.
So we’re seeing, all of a
sudden, radiation in a way,
be very positive again
, which is kind of odd,
because we saw it get a little
bit darker as the Russians
gained the ability to
do the stuff as well.
Why is it all of a
sudden positive here?
And I kind of wonder if I can
attribute that a little bit
to win Stan Lee grew up.
Stan Lee, in his 20s–
he was in his 20s in the 1940s
and was sucked into the war
effort, as were pretty much all
of the artists who were there
at the same time.
So Stan Lee is of the generation
that radiation issues,
atomic bombs– that
type of thing–
are US science proud
that saved the world
and made things safe for
humanity in the sense
that the United States is
all of humanity that matters.
Again, sorry.
Trying to look at it back there.
Please don’t take that as my
own particular point of view.
It’s a very US-centric
point of view
we have, certainly in these
areas before communication
was easy an instant
around the world.
So in any case, so we see very
much positive points of view
of radiation to those issues
coming out of Stan Lee sorry–
yeah, Fantastic Four, a
couple movies in recent years
that sucked, unfortunately.
I love the Fantastic Four, but–
virtually everything Stan Lee
does in the early days draws
on radiation, draws on science.
We have, up here, nuclear
scientist, Bruce Banner,
working on a gamma bomb.
We can’t just have
a nuclear bomb.
We have to– gamma
bombs, cosmic rays
have to be bigger,
cooler, stronger.
In any case, as he’s working
on his bomb, teenager races,
drives into the nuclear
test site on a dare.
Bruce Banner races
into the test site,
throws the kid into a trench
just as the bomb goes off.
He is exposed to gamma rays,
becomes the Incredible Hulk,
big green monster.
Well, initially, a big gray
monster, but eventually,
a big green monster.
Down here, young boy sees
an older man, a blind man
about to be hit by a truck,
dives in front of the truck,
pushes the man out of the way.
The truck driving through
the middle of New York City
is carrying radioactive
materials, as probably
happens all the time.
And it’s so well packed that
the radioactive materials come
bouncing out of the back of the
truck, hit the kid in the face,
blind again.
But at the same time, the
radiation affects his body.
He gains advanced
hearing, advanced taste,
advanced senses of touch, which
lets him become the superhero
Everybody knows
this guy up here–
science nerd Peter Parker.
Goes to visit a science
experiment where
they’re showing radiation.
Spiders there get exposed to
radiation, bites Peter Parker,
and we get the
amazing Spider-Man.
Really, a big thing.
I mean, everything is
derived around radiation–
not all uniformly positive.
All of our villains are
derived from radiation as well.
Up here, quick a few
of them– a very few.
Dr. Octopus is working with
these artificial tentacles,
radioactive accident
fuses them to his body–
literally, the radioactive man.
The abomination, the leader,
both get gamma powers,
just like the Hulk does.
The Hulk’s cousin,
Jen Walters, has
to get a lifesaving blood
transfusion from the Hulk,
becomes the She-Hulk.
Cobalt man, cobalt radiation.
One of my personal
favorites– the Texas Twister.
The idea is he’s a
rodeo cowboy out riding
the range in the west.
There’s a tornado that sweeps
through a nuclear facility,
becomes radioactive, sweeps
through, picks him up.
He gains tornado powers and
can fly around in a tornado,
blast little tornado
blasts out of his hands.
Yeah, a little bit
ridiculous, but all based
around this, science
does cool things– makes
us bigger, better, faster.
And of course, the Hulk–
or the Hulk– how
did I say that?
The X-Men, who are, as I
talked about earlier, mutants.
Their parents were exposed
to radiation, passed down
genetic changes.
Not strictly mutants
as we would have
seen the definition earlier
because their bodies
do different things
than their parents did.
But nonetheless, the next
generation of humanity
gained weird powers through
radiation through science.
I’m a Marvel nerd.
I’m talking almost
exclusively about Marvel here
because I did all that research.
I know Marvel stuff.
It was far from
being just Marvel.
Captain Atom from
Charlton Comics;
Firestorm, DC; Doctor Solar–
Man of the Atom from
Gold Key Nukla from Dell.
Everybody did this.
It does not all
follow Stan Lee two.
Of those at least– maybe
three– pre-date Stan Lee.
So it was the generation.
I say Stan Lee had this
opinion of science quite
possibly from his
generation, but you
have to think about the
entire generation of people
creating comics grew
out of that environment.
So we see this wave affecting
our pop culture based
on what people grew up with.
Action comics– I’ve got
Superman in the middle.
You’re probably going,
why is Superman there?
He’s 1938.
And we always know he’s
not a super-science hero.
We know he’s Kal-L from
the planet Krypton.
But for those of
you know Superman,
you know how his
powers work, right?
He’s irradiated
by the yellow sun.
His powers come from the
radiation of the yellow sun.
Take Superman off
Earth, drop him
on a planet with a red
sun, all of a sudden,
he no longer has powers.
So there he is.
Even the ones who are like
aliens from another planet
work a lot around science and
the importance of radiation–
nuclear-type issues.
As always, we take you to
extreme levels of goofiness.
I always have to
include this in here.
This is one of my
favorite comic books.
This is Fantastic Four,
issue number four,
which is 1961 or 1962.
And what that comic does is
reintroduces a 1940s character
called the Sub-Mariner.
The Sub-Mariner was an
aquatic hero in the 1940s,
like our current Aquaman
out in the movies.
He has amnesia for many
years is what the comic says.
That’s why we haven’t seen him.
So he wakes up from
his amnesia, goes back
to his home in
the South Pacific,
finds out Atlantis
has been destroyed
in the nuclear testing
that we’re aware of.
So he declares war
on the surface world
and attacks New York City.
Sends a big, giant whale
monster to demolish the city.
Fantastic Four can’t
do much about it
because they’re pretty
small compared to it,
so they come up with a plan.
They strap a nuclear bomb
to the back of the thing,
have them Jonah into the whale–
walk into the whale’s mouth
into his stomach,
where he unstraps
the atomic bomb, leaves
it behind, walks out.
And they set off the nuclear
bomb inside the creature
on the wharfs of New York City.
And all’s fine.
Sub-Mariner gives up, goes away.
I like to think, even
then, they realize
that setting off a nuclear bomb
on the wharfs of New York City
might potentially be
a bad idea, but it’s
hard to say exactly how they
were looking at these issues
back then with
the 50-some years.
What is that?
55 years that have come
and gone since then?
It does get darker again
after Stanley’s boom.
comics are probably
one of the next
nuclear-related trends we see.
This would be the 1970s–
most of these.
Planet of the Apes is the
one that everybody knows.
It’s the best example of
the post-Holocaust genre.
It was originally a book,
then it was originally
a movie, and then a series, a
movie, comic books in there.
But the basic idea–
we have moved from–
we were looking at the US having
a bomb, Russia having a bomb,
Fantastic Four having a bomb.
We’re looking at a
bomb or a few bombs.
A bomb is wrong there– but
one bomb or a few bombs.
By the time we’re looking at
this post-Holocaust stuff,
nuclear bombs are common enough
that we’re starting to look
at the effects of what happens
with a lot of nuclear bombs–
the idea that when the US
and Russia are going to war–
there was a term
for it back then–
“mutually assured destruction”
is why they wouldn’t launch
it each other because they
knew if they launched,
the other side would
retaliate, and the world
would be destroyed.
If you went to school
here in the ’50s and ’60s,
there would be signs on
some of the buildings.
I’ve seen pictures of Holland
Library– the old entrance
to it– with a big bomb-shelter
sign over the entrance
so you’d know
where you could go.
We have some lovely
maps in MASC you
can come in and see
from 1960s which
are civil-defense
maps that shows,
based on where you live near the
campus in the city of Pullman,
which campus
buildings you’re going
to go to when the
nuclear bombs hit
so that you can
survive the nuclear war
and come out of it afterwards.
It’s almost a little
ridiculous today.
I hope it’s a little
ridiculous today.
But it is a genuine fear
that we lived with back then.
And you start seeing it making
its way into pop culture.
Planet of the Apes, Kamandi–
The Last Boy on Earth
is a DC comic book.
Obviously, you can
see post-Holocaust.
In fact, you can’t get more
self-referential post-Holocaust
than the Statue
of Liberty there.
They’re obviously going for the
end of The Planet of the Apes
with that one.
Deathlok– The,
Demolisher, a cyborg
in a post-apocalypse
world in the far future,
by the way, of 2019, which
is always kind of fun for me.
That’s when most of
Deathlok took place.
Let’s see, other issues
we looked at at the time
now that we realized
nuclear bombs were really
a threat to humanity
as a whole, not
just a threat to individuals–
atomic terror– a pretty
a pretty common idea,
the idea that someone’s going
to destroy the whole world
to their own benefit.
Up at the top, we
have a guy named Arkon
who came from another world.
His planet’s sun was dying,
so he came up with this plan
to destroy–
a nuclear fire–
three other worlds
and drain all of their
power into this big vortex
that would repower his sun.
So he was going to destroy the
Earth and a few other worlds
to benefit himself.
Lucifer’s an X-Men
villain who, I think,
was just trying to exterminate
humanity out of vengeance.
But again, nuclear destruction.
Null, the Living Darkness
was in a comic book
called The Defenders, a
very lovecraftian villain.
And his idea was he
was going to control
the minds of the Russian
military and the US military,
get them to launch missiles
against each other,
and then feed off of the pain
and the agony of the human race
as it dies and
suffers thereafter.
Yeah, there’s a really
positive, fun comic.
It’s a little bit better
than that when you read it,
but that’s the basic idea–
a very Lovecraftian thing–
Again the idea that this
destruction can happen
as a result of all these bombs.
That’s mostly ’70s, ’80s
you see a lot of that–
the height of what we
call the “Cold War.”
Starting even before
that in 1960s,
running after into the ’90s–
you can probably still find
examples of this today–
nuclear blackmail.
Is usually more one
bomb thing– the idea
that I have a nuclear weapon.
And I’m going to use it to
destroy your city unless you
pay me $1 billion–
something along those lines–
very common in a
lot of comic books.
And as you get, there
are probably, movies,
even in the more
recent decades here,
although that one’s very ironic.
Dr. Evil is also
the plot I think
with about every third James
Bond movie in the ’60s.

As we move forward a little
bit, nuclear activism
is one that I kind of
like the idea behind.
The writers who came of age
in the ’60s and the ’70s–
there were kids growing up
then who started writing comics
in the ’70s–
we really saw a
push, in the ’70s,
of younger writers
coming in, and the older
writers who been around
since World War II
leaving the industry.
But these new writers
come in– young pups.
And they had seen what was going
on in the country in the ’60s
and ’70s.
There was a lot of
activism on the part
of the youth of the country.
They were out there
protesting US involvement
in Vietnam, Cambodia.
They were out there
protesting the way
the was treating
African-Americans, Chicano
Americans, Native Americans.
And it looked to them like
they were making a difference.
I still like to hope they were–
get my own politics
out of it though.
But these people who
believed in activism
thought it was successful,
started writing comic books,
where you see the
general public–
not just the superheros–
standing up against what they
saw as wrong–
in this case, some
of the nuclear
issues going on at the time.
I talk about the generational
gap as you see these things.
If you go back into those times
in the late ’60s and early ’70s
when the student
activism was new,
you can find comic books written
by the older generation which
view the activists as rabble
rousers, and, more or less,
the villains of a variety
of comic books back then.
So it’s kind of a gradual
sweep as these things happen,
but each generation kind of
has its own view on things.
That kind of carries through
as the comic books go along.
Very much along those times–
I just realized I can’t
see a clock in here.
Ah, there we go.
As we move out of the
Cold War, about 1989,
the Soviet Union falls, and
we stop having this feeling
within our own lives that
we can all die at any moment
because we could
have a nuclear war.
And I’m going to talk
about my own self
being a kid for a minute.
I can remember–
I grew up in Klamath
Falls, Oregon.
I lived about three miles
from an air base there, which
was not a primary target
in case of a nuclear war,
but it was considered
a secondary target.
The bombs would hit.
And I have a very strong
memory of one day being
out on the streets of
the city at about noon,
and the air-raid sirens
started going off.
And I just kind of
stopped and looked around,
and nobody else
was doing anything.
It was just a test.
And I guess the
adults knew that.
But I remember– I mean, this
is strong enough that as a kid,
I thought for a moment
there, is this it?
Is something happening?
So it was.
It’s probably hard.
I hope it’s hard.
I hope you kids today– sorry
about the “kids” phrase,
but the younger people,
young adults today
haven’t grown up with
that and don’t see that.
But so as that went away,
we started seeing things
a little bit more, where
we kept the nuclear stuff,
but it was more terrorism, more
the stuff that was believable
is instead of countries
going to war and nuclear war,
individuals acquiring
nuclear weapons
and using them to advance
their own political ends.
Obviously, that’s
something we can see today.
I don’t know.
It makes a little
more logical sense.
It’s closer to our
impressions today.
Certainly, we have experience
with terrorism of other sorts
I always include I– have
nuclear-waste disposal on here.
I don’t know if it’s just me
growing up in the Northwest,
where we have
Hanford and we know
that there are issues of
nuclear-waste disposal.
And it seems like something
that’s important to me,
but I don’t find it in
comic books, oddly enough.
It seems like something
that should be there.
I think maybe the Teenage Mutant
Ninja Turtles get their powers
out of nuclear waste that’s
dripping into the sewers there.
That’s about all
I can come from.
I can give you a couple reasons
maybe people don’t do it.
Maybe growing up in
the Pacific Northwest,
I’m just too close to
it, people growing up
in New York City– it’s
not an issue to them.
The other end of comic
books are very graphic
very intentionally.
I’m literally drawn– genre–
so we want to do
something big and splashy.
And if you’re doing
a nuclear story,
probably actual nuclear
bombs that splashed here–
the nuclear waste.
I still want to
see something done
with nuclear waste in comics.
As we move even
further out of this,
we start seeing very
personal stories dealing
with nuclear issues, I
call them “atomic traumas,”
where we see the
day-to-day things
that people are involved with–
how it affects our own lives.
This is the comics called
the Squadron Supreme
from the 1980s.
There’s a character
in it called Nuke.
He is very intentionally a
direct rip-off of DC Firestorm,
who you saw on a cover earlier.
Nuke has radiation-based
powers, flies, blast radiation.
And his parents are
both terminally ill.
And in this comic
book, he discovers
that the reason
they’re terminally ill
is radiation poisoning.
His superpowers have been
killing his family for years,
and he hasn’t
realized it because–
cancer is something we can
relate to in a different way
than we can relate to some
of the other nuclear issues
we’ve been seeing going on.
By the end of the issue, in
kind of a combination of a rage
spiral and
self-destructive anger,
he manages to kill himself
in the middle of a big fight.
Another one, more recent,
from the 2000s Firestar,
a Marvel radiation-based
very much a goofy,
fun character.
If you grew up in
the ’80s, ’90s,
there’s a comic, a
Saturday-morning cartoon,
Spider-Man and His
Amazing Friends.
That’s where Firestar debuted.
Firestarter, Iceman, and
Spider-Man were a happy, fun,
fighting team together.
She has radiation-based powers,
and we discover, in the 2000s,
that they’ve given her cancer.
And she has to deal with
the effects of that.
We start seeing a little bit
of the realities of radiation
dealt with in a very human
matter, which we didn’t tend
to see earlier in the ’70s.
Speaking of dealing with
things in a very real manner,
I’m talking about
American comics
which have American point
of views very distinctly.
If you go to France, you’ll
see different point of views.
If you go to China, you see
different point of views.
This is the point of view
of a young gentleman who
was about seven or eight
years old in Hiroshima when
the bombs fell.
And he drew a comic.
But this is going to be
a little graphic in here,
and I apologize for this.
But he’s seven, eight, nine–
somewhere in there–
off to elementary school
when the bombs fall– when
the nuclear bomb falls
in Hiroshima.
He happens to be standing,
when they fall off
in that direction, with his
back to a very thick stone wall.
So he experiences
a blinding flash.
He experiences incredible
heat, a strong shockwave.
He loses consciousness,
wakes up, actually,
with a nail stuck
through his cheek
that he has no idea
where it comes from.
And then the rest of this of
autobiographical comic books
tells us what his life was like
there immediately thereafter
and moving forward in his life.
The destruction that
he saw in Hiroshima–
dead people.
It’s the lady.
Her skin’s all black
and falling off.

There are some observations
that you would never
in a million years think about.
People wearing white clothes
weren’t burned so badly,
but their skin melted
where it was exposed.
However, if you were
wearing black clothes,
the black absorbed the
heat, and your skin
melted inside the
clothing as well.
He helps with the cremation,
learns that human bodies bake
the same way fish bake–
talks about finding
bodies where they jumped
into water tanks in
a desperate attempt
to cool down because of the
burns that had affected them.
This is a very, very
different point of view–
the room gets very quiet–
a very, very different point
of view from what
we just saw– the US
point of view of the
nuclear bombs after the war.
So I have not read much in the
way of Japanese comic books.
I’m going to bet,
though, you’re not
going to see the same
popular evolution
of the view of nuclear issues
in Japanese comic books
as you move forward
in time over there.
I want to close with one
particular comic book,
two short stories from
it– two stories from it–
For those of you who
don’t know Watchmen,
Watchmen is a
12-issue comic book
from 1986, 1987 written
by a gentleman named
Alan Moore, drawn by a
gentleman named Dave Gibbons.
It’s considered one of
the really classic comic
books ever made.
It was made into
a movie in 2009.
And the basic idea behind
Watchmen– this is ’86, ’87.
The Cold War is
going to end in ’89,
so we are still at the
height of the Cold War–
the idea that Russia and the US
could go to war at any moment.
His Watchmen has a history
that dates back into the 1940s,
very much along
the line of comics,
where people dressed up in gaudy
costumes and fought bad guys.
But they didn’t
have superpowers.
It was just kind of a thing
society was doing back then.
When the atomic bomb was
dropped on Hiroshima,
this young gentleman
is impressed by it.
He goes off to work in
Los Alamos, New Mexico,
on the atomic projects there.
Something goes wrong
while he’s there.
There’s about to
be a nuclear test.
He is locked into a room
with a nuclear test,
and there’s no way to
either open the door–
that’s a safety precaution–
or stop the test.
So as he’s in there,
under the horrified eyes
of his girlfriend
outside the room,
the explosive device goes,
off, and he’s literally
disintegrated there.
Over the next few
months, there’s
this odd effect going on.
They see this hazy
cloud floating around.
It’s like the place is haunted.
Within a few months,
they start seeing
what appears to be like a human
nervous system just floating
in the air, later on, what
appears to be muscles,
but no skin floating in there.
Basically what is happening,
is over the succeeding years,
he is reconstituting
himself, becoming
the world’s first superhero–
very much nuclear-powered
This being Alan
Moore, it’s very dark.
Is not going to be
one of those light,
fluffy superheroes we see,
like the Fantastic Four.
But before I go any
further on that,
I want to go back and
tell you a real story.
This is Dr. Louis Slotin,
who was a scientist, Los
Alamos, Mexico, May 21, 1946.
And I have to do a
little science here,
which I’m mean to be
bad at because I’m not
a nuclear physicist.
I apologize.
But if you want to get the
effect of a nuclear explosion,
you have to have
sufficient amounts
of a visionable
material to do it.
If you’re trying to
make plutonium explode,
if you have a small
amount and effectively
trigger it by applying energy
to it, it won’t trigger.
But if you put two small
amounts together and achieve
what you call “critical
mass,” apply that energy,
you can set it off and
cause an explosion, a chain
reaction that keeps growing.
As they’re doing science
to try to figure out
exactly how this
worked, they have
to test some of that stuff.
So what they do–
if you see this little
hemisphere on the bottom
that’s effectively a cup with
some radioactive material,
fissionable material– something
along those lines– in it.
The top one is the same thing.
It’s a smaller cup with
fissionable material in it.
Nothing will happen
with them unless they’re
close enough together that
they achieve critical mass.
To test this, what
they’re doing is
they’re keeping them
apart with a screwdriver,
holding one off of the other,
and raising and lowering
them to see what happens.
Yes, 1940s science.
What happens on
this particular day
as Dr. Slotin is doing this
is the screwdriver slips.
The two fall together,
a reaction starts,
mass energy is being output.
Somehow– we don’t know
if it’s an accident,
we don’t know if it was he
realized what was happening–
almost instantaneously, he
knocks this off onto the floor,
ending the reaction
and saving the lives
of all of these other
men who are in the room.
However, he was standing
right next to it,
and he spends the
next seven or 10
days dying a very
miserable death in a bed
there, as his organs literally
liquefy, his bones fail him.
And he dies.
He’s reported to be the second
person dying doing science
testing these type of things.
Obviously, a lot of people
died in Hiroshima and Nagasaki
from these things before that.
Does that sounds
familiar, though?
I have no doubt that Alan
Moore knew this story,
and this is something
that affected him as a kid
and affected, then, how he
told stories in the future.
He saw the horror of
that, and when he comes up
with this character
based on that,
it is not a light
and fluffy character.
It’s so much darker–
he’s not a villain or anything,
but it’s still a much darker
storyline that comes along.
Again, as a result
of the science
or stories of science we’re
exposed to as children,
it affects our
future generations.
And this becomes
enormously popular.
I’m sure it’s affecting
future generations today
and how they tell stories.
I am going to try,
try, try, try not
to spoil the end of
Watchmen for those
of you who haven’t
watched it, who
haven’t read the comic books.
But I have to tell you the main
plot of it to make this point.
So the basic idea
behind Watchmen–
I’ve already told you the US
and Russia hate each other,
we’re on the verge
of nuclear war.
It’s a slightly more dour
reflection of reality
as it stood at the time.
So what happens in the Watchmen
is someone who has the bright
idea that the only way
we’re going to get the US
and the Russia to stop
going after each other–
the US and the Russia–
the US and Russia to stop
going after each other is
to provide them with a
more powerful third enemy
that they can ally against.
So what he does is genetically
creates a giant monster,
a giant space alien.
And his plan is to drop in
the middle of New York City
and set off a psychic
blast that is going
to kill pretty much the entire
population of New York City
With the big alien there– this
is very obviously going to be
a big alien thing–
the US and Russia
will come together,
and that will resolve
the US-Russian conflict.
That’s the plan.
That’s the main plot
behind Watchmen.
I’m not going to go into what
works and what doesn’t there.
Cut to 2009, 22 years later,
they make a movie of Watchmen.
We come to the end
of Watchmen, and we
don’t have the idea of an alien
popping down in New York City.
The plot, in this
one instead, is
they’re going to set off a
nuclear device in New York
They’re actually going to
flavor the nuclear energy
with Dr. Manhattan’s
energy, so it’ll
look like Dr. Manhattan did it.
He will be the
overarching giant threat
that the US and Russia
have to ally against.
And it’s basically the
same plot and stuff.
We’re using nuclear materials–
nuclear bomb, more or less–
instead of that.
The interesting
question to me is, why?
Why is an alien here?
Why is it a nuclear bomb there?
You can come up with
comic-book reasons for this.
Solid reasons for
this– comic books
are a very graphic phenomena, an
alien is a very graphic image.
So maybe that’s why they
wanted to do that then.
Maybe they thought that trying
to do this with 2009 animation
is going to look too goofy and
take people out of the movie.
But one of the things
that strikes me
is that Alan Moore
had to do this.
He couldn’t do this in 1987.
The problem with nuking
New York City in 1987
is that if you nuked
New York City in 1987,
the US has to assume
Russia did it,
and they have to
immediately respond
by launching their own missiles.
This plot in 1987
destroys the world.
This plot in 1987, with a
simple change of your beast,
saves the world, which is
kind of fascinating to me
that just the zeitgeist
of our popular culture
can change what we
can view as possible.
I know HBO is doing
their own Watchmen
series in 2019, which should be
coming out some time this year.
I find myself very
curious how they’re
going to end the Watchmen–
if we’re going to see that,
if we’re going to see that.
I suspect, with 10 years,
not enough time has passed
that our popular
culture is going
to force us to do
one thing or another,
but just in the past week,
I’m starting to wonder,
as the US has dissolved with
Russia, its nuclear limitation
treaty, and now, both
countries can build whatever
they want in nuclear weapons–
are we going to see, moving
back toward this, where
we start seeing the
fear of mutually
assured nuclear destruction
coming in the world?
And how is that going
to affect, once again,
the next generations
going forward?

So that’s more or
less what I just
want to talk about with you–
the way some of these
things change over time.
We see amazing
Spider-Man back in 1961,
get powers from the bite
of a radioactive spider.
If you’ve seen the movies
that came out 2000, 2010,
Spider-Man now gets his powers
from genetic engineering
on the spider.
The spider is no
longer radioactive.
For whatever reason in our
culture, we don’t believe–
or we don’t feel it’s believable
that radiation will do it,
but we feel genetic
engineering is believable.
I’m not sure.
But there’s something
about that that
has changed the way we look
at this over the years.
The Hulk, on the other hand–
gamma bomb back in the early
still gamma bombs today.
We’re OK with big,
giant nuclear bombs
creating marauding monsters.
That doesn’t give us
pause for thought even.
Black Panther– not so
directly radioactive.
The basic theme behind
it hasn’t changed.
Wakanda, in the comic books, had
a giant mound of weird mineral
that called vibranium that
let them do different things.
It’s not hard to see in
the 1970s, 1960s by–
is an analogy of radioactive
nuclear science–
plutonium, that type of thing–
still stuck around today,
it’s a giant mound of uranium.
But we don’t see most of the
same qualities of vibranium
that we see back here.
This is almost just like
a pseudoscience basis
for everything.
We never are given, well,
why does vibranium do this?
What are the properties
of vibranium?
I’m almost fascinated by
that because it’s almost
like science has been turned
into mysticism in a way.
Maybe we don’t have the
same faith in science
that we did back then.
But I don’t know.
I’m kind of curious to see–
I’ll have to wait
and see what I feel
that really means as we
go forward here in time
and how that affects
future generations who
have grown up with this vision
of comics in their pop culture.
Make sense?
So that’s kind of what I
wanted to come here and talk
about– that evolution.
I’d like to thank you all for
coming and listening to me
I’ll be happy to take any
questions if there are any.
Otherwise, thank
you all for coming.


you to use the microphone
if you don’t mind.
Filming in the back.

MARK O’ENGLISH: Is that on?
AUDIENCE: Half question
and half comment.
MARK O’ENGLISH: It’s not on yet.
Could you turn– turn it–
yeah, I didn’t turn it on.
I just handed it to
Karen thinking she would.
AUDIENCE: It’s sort of half
question, half comment that–
because you talked
about pop size,
like popular-science
magazines, which are definitely
out of the realm of comic
books, and their portrayal
of nuclear science.
I’m kind of curious,
taking it one step further,
how nuclear science was treated
in textbooks correspondingly
how the drama of this
affected what was actually
portrayed in textbooks,
which may not be a question
you can answer, but
I’m kind of pondering
as I think about this.
Yeah, unfortunately–
did you get that by
the way back there?
Could you hear that?
Yeah, unfortunately, I’m
not enough of an expert
on the evolution of science to
speak to how textbooks did deal
with it.
I bet you there’s
very much the same.
And you saw in the
’50s, plans for us
to do really innovative and
cool things with nuclear bombs.
One of my favorites is dropping
them on the Alaskan coast
to create artificial
harbors so that we
could build towns
on the Alaskan coast
by creating nuclear craters.
And I suspect there are some
of the same type of thing
in the textbook because
that was serious science.
It was things they we’re
really considering doing.
But I haven’t looked at them.
I would be fascinated to
see that evolution myself.

Let’s thank Mark once again.
MARK O’ENGLISH: Thank you.


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