The Atomic age began on July 16, 1945. On that date, as a result of the wartime Manhattan Project, the first nuclear bomb was detonated at the Trinity nuclear test site in Alamogordo, New Mexico. Nothing would be the same after that…not even comics.
1945 is, of course, squarely within the Golden Age era of comics, and it’s no surprise that, just after World War II, Golden Age comics began to portray the most symbolic aspects of the Atomic era on their covers. This was motivated in large part by the attention of the world captured by the dropping of two Atomic bombs on Japan.
Comics with these covers, featuring nuclear blasts, are highly collectible today.
In terms of classification; at first glance, what we can call ‘Atomic comics’ (my term for them) would appear to be a sub-genre of the ‘War comic,’ itself highly popular at the time. To put this period in context, after WW II, and just before the turn of the decade, Comicdom saw a steep decline in superhero stories. This was just before the beginning of the Silver Age, during which heroes and science based stories would again dominate sales. However, the Atomic era actually led to the resurgence of superheroes since mutation and atomic energy were a staple of the science based fictional stories of the Silver Age.
Basically, the Atomic era overlaps with the war time superhero craze and sits in the background as, by the late 1940s, the focus of interest shifts to romance, horror, sci-fi and war comics.
Some of these Golden Age war comics were actually realistic in their portrayal of combat: EC’s titles Frontline Command and Two-Fisted Tales are good examples. Others, like DC’s Our Army at War and All American Men of War often romanticized the war time experience. Yet, it was hard to romanticize a nuclear winter.
Perhaps that’s the reason atomic explosion covers are so rare. Correlatively, this scarcity has made them highly collectible; that, joined to the fact that they simply look awesome.
What was the first Atomic Comic?
In terms of accurate portrayal of atom bombs, the award has to go to the Golden Age title True Comics #47 (March 1946), however there’s no Atomic explosion featured on its cover.
If we turn to mainstream comics, surprisingly it was America’s premiere superhero, Superman, who got in early on the Atomic explosion cover craze. Although it’s not a mushroom cloud, the effects of a nuclear type explosion are clearly portrayed on the cover of Action Comics #61. A classic story that actually led the government to inspect the Superman comics, fearful that they were giving away military secrets! The event portrayed on Action #61, subsequently, is rightly noted by CGC labels of this issue as the first nuclear event in comics. There are a total of 42 copies of Action #61 on the CGC census. The last recorded sale was of a 5.5 grade in November 2018 on Heritage auction. It sold for $ 1, 260.00.
To actually see the first atomic explosion on an Action Comics cover, we have to turn to Action Comics #101 (October 1946) , the atomic bomb explosion is as clear a portrayal of a nuclear explosion as one could hope for just after the end of WW II. More widely available than issue #61, with 64 copies on the census- a 5.5 grade of this also sold in November of 2018, but for $818.00 on ComicLink.
Another early A-bomb cover was the one commissioned by Ace Comics for their Atoman book. Not to be confused with Dr. Adam Mann aka ‘Atomic Man’ who appeared earlier in Headline Comics #16 (December 1945) and also acquired his powers from nuclear radiation. However Headline never featured atomic blasts on their covers. Ace magazines, did. In the Atoman comic our hero’s body is said to ‘generate atomic power’. Given that a continual release of atomic power would inevitably contaminate everything around him, killing all humans with deadly radiation, this guy is, on paper, the least helpful hero ever. ‘Yes, I’ve saved your property but you’ll be dead in a week from my standing so close to you!’ Atoman was riding the coattails of the superhero genre. It’s actually not a bad story, you can read it here, but its saving grace is the Jerry Robinson nuclear explosion featuring cover. Only 18 of these on the census. Recently sales include: a 6.0 on eBay from 05/26/2019 that snatched $360.00 and a November 18, 2018 heritage auction sale of a 9.0 that ended at $1, 320.00.
In my subsequent post, I’ll take a look at Golden Age atomic explosion covers from the early 1950s, when post-WWII culture shifted during the Cold war.