By Kathryn Hoogendoorn, Archivist, National Security Research Center
Spiderman, Captain Atom, X-Men, Hulk, Firestorm, Fantastic Four. What do they all have in common? Atomic energy origins.
The Los Alamos advent of the atomic bomb that helped end World War II in 1945 fueled the imagination of comic book writers. The public’s focus on emerging nuclear science made the idea of people-turned-super through radiation wildly popular in many aspects of pop culture.
“Comic books provided an outlet for imagination — a way of coping with a force that was, for most, incomprehensible,” said Lab Historian Roger Meade. “Unlike music and movies, which dealt largely with angst, comic books celebrated atomic energy by creating superheroes. In this sense, the imagination and creativity of science and the Manhattan Project fostered the imagination and creativity of the human spirit.”
Think about your favorite superheroes. Most of them have origins related to nuclear energy: Spiderman was bitten by a radioactive spider, the X-Men were a result of radiation exposure, the Hulk was created by a fictitious nuclear weapon, the Fantastic Four were created by flying through a radioactive space cloud, among other examples.
From fashion to movies to music, various aspects of pop culture were inspired by the dawn of the Atomic Age. However, pop culture also was used as an educational tool. Following World War II, both the government and private sector worked to educate the public about atomic energy and its valuable contributions. Learn How Dagwood Splits the Atom! (1949) is an example of how pop culture was used to explain scientific advancements. General Leslie Groves, who led the U.S. effort to create the atomic bombs, known as the Manhattan Project, was behind Dagwood and even wrote the foreword.
There seem to be four broad eras of nuclear science in comic books: American pride, duck and cover, American pride reborn, and deterrence. Each relates to public opinion and ongoing scientific developments.
In 1945, the release of the atomic bombs above Japan helped end the world’s deadliest war almost overnight. The highly secret creation of the weapons became one of the biggest headlines of the day and Americans were beginning to understand what had been going on in their own backyards.
The same year in the world of comic books, the fictitious Dr. Adam Mann accidentally drank a glass of water laced with uranium-235 and then stumbled into a high-voltage machine. His resulting powers included super strength, flight, and energy blasts from his right hand, where most of the nuclear power was concentrated. He wore a lead glove when he needed to conceal his powers, but otherwise fought communism and crime as Atomic Man. For six issues, Atomic Man encouraged the safe use of science and berated villains’ use of scientific knowledge for evil.
A number of other heroes, including Atomic Thunderbolt, Atoman, and Atomic Bunny, used their atomic powers to fight villains and reinforce atomic science as a positive innovation. Even Superman had a run-in with an atomic explosion. In an October 1949 Action 101 issue, Superman is forced to take a pill that makes him insane, which is reversed when he accidentally flies into an atomic mushroom cloud.
Duck and Cover and American Pride Reborn
As the Cold War (1947-1989) endured, atomic energy in culture had taken on a new light. With the Soviets’ first atomic bomb test in 1949, nuclear deterrence was emerging as a security strategy and comic books continued to use characters and plots as a means to educate the public about atomic science. The change in tone was marked, though. Atomic superheroes became grittier and more problem-plagued. This was, in part, due to a shift in atomic culture, which had been viewed in a positive manner, but now was being influenced by Cold War fears.
In 1961, the Fantastic Four were just a regular team of scientists exploring space until they were exposed to cosmic radiation that gave them super powers. 1962 saw the advent of Spiderman, The Incredible Hulk, and Doctor Solar: Man of Atom. The Hulk and Spiderman live on today in popular culture as two of the greatest comic book heroes, and both have maintained their nuclear origins through the years: Spiderman was bitten by a radioactive spider and given his spider-like powers. The Hulk’s creation was the result of radiation exposure from a fictitious weapons test site in New Mexico. Meanwhile, Solar survived a nuclear plant mishap that turned him into The Man of Atom.
Atomic science in pop culture continued to evolve as science and perceptions changed. The next large shift in the atomic comics genre occurred as nuclear deterrence principles began to emerge as a more prevalent security strategy. Again, comic book culture became enthralled with atomic energy and reignited the theme in story lines and origins. The 1980s included a mix of fun stories like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1984), who became today’s loveable reptiles through radiation exposure. The era also included cautionary tales like in Watchmen (1986), where superheroes live in a pre-World War II alternate history. As the Cold War came to a close, comic book writers incorporated related themes. Most famously, the character Dr. Manhattan (a member of the Watchmen), came into being while working on a post-World War II project exploring the peacetime uses of atomic energy. The fictitious work was a direct reflection of efforts in nuclear science worldwide. Atomic themes are seen again at the end of the Watchmen graphic novel when one of the team members averts a bloody end to the Cold War.
As the public interprets advancements in atomic science, pop culture both enables and reflects this. The wonderful world of science will always draw readers and viewers with undivided attention as one adventure after another unfolds in comic books. 🔎
More fantastic tales:
- Superman and the Atomic Bomb
- Before the Watchmen
- Radioactive Man Dagwood Learns to Split the Atom
- Atomic Man
- The Fantastic Four
- Red Star
- The Hulk
- Planet of the Apes
By Patty Templeton, Archivist, National Security Research Center
The American public realized the magnitude at which the atom’s power could be harnessed following the detonation of Little Boy and Fat Man in August 1945. World War II ended weeks later, but the Atomic Age had just begun.
Society contextualized nuclear science through pop culture, including music, as a way of processing the era’s immense technological progress.
From 1945 to the mid-1960s, a niche of songs, commonly referred to as “atomic tunes” or “atomic platters” (platter being another word for record), was a way to understand groundbreaking scientific advancements.
“Music gave expression to society’s collective anxiety, fear, and hope in a very uncertain age,” said Lab Historian Roger Meade. “Pop culture provided us with a better understanding of how we evolved as a society after World War II.”
Here’s a collection of ways in which science that originated at Los Alamos National Laboratory impacted Atomic Age music.
The Atomic Bomb
The world’s first atomic bombs were secretly created by Lab scientists in just 27 months in a perceived race with Nazi Germany. The American public “reacted to the atomic bomb with a strange mixture of fear, fantasy, and frivolity. This reflected the uneven knowledge of what nuclear warfare actually entailed,” according to Tim and Joanna Smolko in “Atomic Tunes.”
Music genres viewed the atomic bomb through different lenses. Generally speaking, country music brought a patriotic viewpoint to atomic science and used atomic power as a metaphor for a higher power; folk music objected to nuclear weaponry and cautioned against atomic power; the blues emoted the Cold War frustrations of everyday folks; jazz used “atomic” as a synonym for “mind blowing” and steadily took a wary stance on nuclear technologies; and rock and roll emphasized irreverence and a dark humor.
- “Atomic Cocktail,” Slim Gaillard (1945)
- “Atomic Power,” Buchanan Brothers/Fred Kirby (1946)
- “When They Found the Atomic Power,” Hawkshaw Hawkins (1947)
- “You Hit Me like an Atomic Bomb,” Fay Simmons (1954)
Asked about atomic platters, retired Los Alamos weapons scientist Glen McDuff said, “I think people were seriously concerned about nuclear war and music was one thing that made them less fearful.”
After World War II ended, Lab scientists continued to create and act as stewards of the nuclear stockpile. Procurement of uranium was necessary and the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) promoted mining uranium ore to build the nation’s reserve. In 1949, the AEC published Prospecting for Uranium and songs shifted from Cold War concerns to commerce, such as:
- “Uranium,” Commodores (1952)
- “Uranium Fever,” Elton Britt (1955)
- “Uranium Rock,” Warren Smith (1958)
The Hydrogen Bomb
Early Los Alamos scientists Edward Teller and Stanislaw Ulam designed the first hydrogen bomb, representing the second generation of nuclear weapons design following World War II. The hydrogen bomb was tested in 1952 and the weapon’s yield was over 500 times that of Fat Man, the atomic bomb released above Nagasaki.
Songs about the H-bomb include:
- “The Hydrogen Bomb,” Al Rogers and His Rocky Mountain Boys (1954)
- “Thirteen Women (And Only One Man in Town),” Bill Haley and His Comets (1954)
- “B-Bomb Baby,” The Jewels (1956)
- “Fifty Megatons,” Sonny Russell (1963)
Americans began their musicological engagement with nuclear weapons with trepidation and admiration, but according to Charles K. Wolfe in Country Music Goes to War, “As new and more powerful weapons systems were developed in the 1950s — weapons like the hydrogen bomb — the word ‘atomic’ began to lose its connotation of ultimacy. It began to appear less in country or pop songs.”
The Space Race
Though Americans became accustomed to the idea of nuclear weapons by the mid-1950s, it didn’t make the burgeoning Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union any less disquieting.
One arm of the Cold War, the Space Race, focused on achieving superior spaceflight capabilities to buffer national security. In 1955, Los Alamos scientists began Project Rover, a nuclear rocket delivery system for a hydrogen bomb. Two years later, the Soviets announced the first successful satellite launch, Sputnik 1. Then, in 1961, President John F. Kennedy addressed a joint session of Congress with his “Moon Shot” speech, declaring that the United States would send an American to the moon. Two years later, Lab scientists launched Vela, a suite of satellites able to detect nuclear detonations.
When the American public and Lab scientists had their eyes on the sky, musicians wrote songs like:
- “Satellite Baby,” Skip Stanley (1957)
- “Sputnik Baby,” Roosevelt Sykes (1957)
- “Sputniks and Mutniks,” Ray Anderson and the Homefolks (1958)
- “Rocket to the Moon,” Sheldon Allman (1960)
A Societal Shift
As the 1960s advanced, the U.S. media focused on tensions related to civil rights, women’s rights, what is today known as LGBTQ+ rights, and conflict in Southeast Asia that became the Vietnam War.
With the signing of the Partial Test Ban Treaty in 1963, nuclear weapons testing went underground. Atmospheric, underwater, and outer-space detonations were prohibited. During this societal and nuclear-testing shift, American popular music focused more on the rights of citizens, anti-war protests, and the counterculture and less on atomic power. 🔎
By Theresa Berger, Archivist, National Security Research Center
There is no denying the role of the Atomic Age in Hollywood. Nuclear science — and in some cases historical footage captured by Los Alamos researchers — has impacted science fiction cinema. In a 1991 study of nuclear-themed movies, cultural historian Mick Broderick identified over 800 feature-length films with atomic ties, and there have undoubtedly been more made since.
The universe of nuclear cinema includes everything from spy thrillers and superhero action to comedy and satire. Not surprisingly, science fiction has often been used to explore atomic subjects on the silver screen.
J. Robert Oppenheimer, the Lab’s first director and “father of the atomic bomb,” himself called our nuclear future “undiscovered country” — perhaps, in part, alluding to a new worldwide fascination with a novel and mysterious source of power.
“I believe to a greater or lesser sense, postwar motion picture films provided a means for society to explore that country that Oppenheimer spoke of,” said Lab Historian Roger Meade. “Movies gave expression to society’s collective anxiety, fear, and hope in a very uncertain age.”
Los Alamos Metaphors
There are hundreds of paranormal films, creature features, science-fiction films, or thrillers often defined as low-budget or “B” movies that can trace at least some of their plot or production to atomic power. Examples include desert settings (including filming in New Mexico), government scientists as prominent characters, plots centered on radiation or nuclear testing, and references to the Manhattan Project, which was the top-secret creation of the first atomic devices that helped end World War II.
Some notable examples:
- George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead franchise (1968 - present), in which reanimation of the dead is explained, in part, through radiation.
- Ishirō Honda’s GOJIRA (1954), its U.S. release Godzilla, King of Monsters (1956), and the subsequent franchise, which has amassed more than 30 films. The longest running franchise in movie history, Godzilla has become the embodiment of atomic monster movies. Whether a peaceful underwater creature awakened by atomic testing in the Pacific, or a mutated dinosaur created from radiation in the Marshall Islands, this king of monsters would not exist without his atomic origins.
Real Services The Reel
Both big- and small-budget movies utilized stock footage of nuclear tests from U.S. government news reels and the Lab, which filmed the tests. This footage is part of the collections of the Lab’s National Security Research Center.
For example, Killers from Space (1954), Bride of the Monster (1955), and even the 1998 Godzilla remake all use footage from either the 1946 Baker test or the 1952 Ivy Mike test. Author and professor Timothy Noël Peacock wryly suggests that Operation Crossroads, which was made up of two nuclear tests in the Pacific in 1946, is perhaps both the most expensive film shoot and the most expensive special effect in cinematic history.
The significance of these films, however, reaches far beyond plot. They symbolize the convergence of scientific advancement and an everyday medium for everyday people: movies.
As vehicles of popular culture inspired by the broader science and technology of the time, postwar atomic psychotronics have secured their place as both a film genre and as representations of “nuclear” and “atomic” in the public vernacular. Today, nearly 80 years after the dawn of the Atomic Age, they are an important aspect of history — and they are still entertaining.
“Some of these are so bad, they’re good,” said Glen McDuff, a retired Los Alamos weapons scientist, who consults on Legendary Pictures’ MonsterVerse franchise, which includes Godzilla, King Kong, and Mothra. “Who can’t like a giant radioactive-breathing lizard?”
Reflecting on the impact of atomic science in film post-World War II, McDuff explained, “nuclear stuff was a big deal, a big seller” that capitalized on the public’s interest in what was happening in Los Alamos and at other national facilities.
Scientific advancement continues Finally, as Dr. Medford, a character not unlike Oppenheimer, explains at the end of Them!: “When man entered the Atomic Age, he opened the door to a new world. What we may eventually find in that new world, nobody can predict.” Since then, Dr. Medford’s real-life colleagues at Los Alamos have continued to serve at the forefront of scientific advancement. Achievements over the last 80 years include detection of the neutrino (an electrically neutral subatomic particle), development of the world’s first supercomputers, pioneering research in biomedical imaging and space exploration, and more. 🔎
Atomic Movie Genre:
- The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
- Them! (1954)
- Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957)
- The Beast of Yucca Flats (1961)
- Night of the Living Dead (1968)
- The Andromeda Strain (1970)
- The Fiend with the Atomic Brain (1972)
- The Hills Have Eyes (1977, 2006)
- Godzilla (1998, 2014)