Wednesday, July 20, 2016

The Grin on the Mushroom Cloud

For 13 days in 1962, when I was 8, my grandparents and the other adults around me were tight-lipped and white-faced. They tried to reassure children like me as best they could, but found it rough going. That’s because they knew we might be mere minutes from the end of human civilization.
The Cuban Missile Crisis, a confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union concerning Soviet ballistic missile deployment in Cuba, was the closest humanity came to all-out nuclear war.
That’s why it’s ironic to see a smiling mushroom cloud on the cover of DC Comics’ Strange Adventures 143 (Aug. 1962).
In this Gardner Fox-Murphy Anderson adventure, alien conquerors called the Andrann are coolly outsmarted by American professionals who display the typical Julius Schwartz-edited traits of optimism, ethics, bravery and scientific rationalism (in this case a rudimentary working knowledge of geology). When iron pyrite is switched for power-giving gold, both the U.S. and an alien planet are saved — a routine outcome in the sunny universe of DC science fiction.
Born in the early part of the 20th century, having survived two world wars and the Great Depression, Julius Schwartz and his writers and artists had an implicit faith in scientific and material progress that was brightly reflected in their stories. They had grown up reading can-do space opera science fiction like E.E. “Doc” Smith’s Lensman stories (a precursor to the Green Lantern Corps).
Superheroes aside, in the Schwartz stable’s stories competent American middle-class professionals were perfectly capable of saving the day. And even in the superhero stories created by this team, the superhumans and their friends shared those values and those occupations. They were the young urban professionals who embodied the zeitgeist of President Kennedy’s forward-looking New Frontier — police scientists, lawyers, test pilots, journalists, university professors and museum curators.
Tales in which even mushroom clouds are rendered harmless and benign seem silly now, I know. But this kind of cheerful, effective resourcefulness was quite reassuring to young readers like me in the early 1960s, an era when American adults took their responsibilities to children seriously — at least in the comic books.

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