Strange Games: Comic Books Confront the Apocalypse

Recently, DC Comics published a trade paperback collection under the unwieldy title Showcase Presents: The Great Disaster Featuring the Atomic Knights. I don’t intend this essay to be a review, but I will say up front that if mid-century visions of nuclear war are your bag, there’s no reason not to pick this up.  If you’ve read any volumes of Showcase (or Marvel’s similar Essential series) before, you know what to expect: more than 500 pages of black-and-white reprints (of stories from the 1960s through the 1980s in this case) on cheap paper at a low price.  They don’t call ‘em “phone books” for nothing.

GreatDisaster.cover

I was eager to get this volume (it had been previously announced several years ago and then delayed) for a few reasons.  First, I was a big fan of post-apocalyptic fiction when I was younger, and comic books were no different from other media in exploring that theme.  Second, although I had read some of the stories included, many were unfamiliar to me, and this would be a good way to fill in some gaps.  Finally, the focus on a central event (and one which had been interpreted many different ways by writers over the course of decades) makes this volume a little different from the typical Showcase that either follows a single character or collects completely unconnected stories (like the anthology title House of Mystery).  Some effort was made to arrange contradictory material into a single chronology, and that kind of editorial undertaking is always of interest to me.

Does it succeed?  Eh, sort of.  On one hand, the title tells you a lot about what’s in the volume: several cycles of stories centered on the destruction of civilization as we know it.  The Atomic Knights, in a series of stories by writer John Broome and artist Murphy Anderson that began in 1960, travel the wastes of post-World War III America, surviving with the help of their suits of medieval armor (discovered in a museum and possessed of miraculous radiation-shielding properties).  The only other continuous series represented in this volume is Hercules Unbound, but there are a number of stand-alone stories (many under the umbrella title “The Day After Doomsday”) as well.

On the other hand, the Great Disaster doesn’t have the instant name recognition of a superhero, nor was it the title of an ongoing book (the Atomic Knights, for example, were found in the pages of Strange Adventures; I wouldn’t be surprised if they were added to the title of this book so that at least some character would be named on the front cover).  In fact, the Great Disaster isn’t even synonymous with World War III in DC continuity, but you have to dig pretty deeply into the book to figure that out.  The Great Disaster is (or was, pre-Crisis) a conveniently vague apocalypse in the background of Jack Kirby’s Kamandi, involving weapons of mass destruction as well as natural disasters, taking place at some point after WWIII.

(Not included in this volume)

(Not included in this volume)

The most distinctive legacy of the Great Disaster in the world “A.D.: After Disaster” was the release of a mind-altering chemical (“cortexin”) that caused ordinary animals to become intelligent, as well as gaining upright posture and opposable thumbs.  In the wake of the Great Disaster, most humans had become mute and animalistic.  Essentially, Kamandi’s world is one of reversed roles like Planet of the Apes, but with anthropomorphic dogs, tigers, and rats in addition to gorillas and other species (not to mention numerous mutant monsters and space aliens that defy categorization), all mixed up together in the ruins of a futuristic civilization.  The last point varied pretty widely: sometimes it seemed like the Great Disaster hit America in the 1970s, but it never stopped Kirby and his successors from throwing in robots, spaceships, and other high-tech devices left behind by the “ancients” if a story called for it.  (Eventually, Kamandi’s world was linked to “The World That’s Coming,” the setting of OMAC, a short-lived—and even weirder, but definitely futuristic—science fiction series Kirby had also created.)

Aside from Planet of the Apes, the world of Kamandi bears a close resemblance to the campaign setting of Gamma World, a role-playing game from TSR, the makers of Dungeons & Dragons.  In transposing the adventuring-party model to a post-apocalyptic science fantasy setting, the game designers gave players the option of playing as a “pure strain” human, (humanoid) mutant, or mutated animal.  From one angle, the title character of Kamandi (“the last boy on Earth”) and his companions, the superhuman Ben Boxer and dog-man Dr. Canus, could be player characters in a Gamma World game, and their travels from one wonder to another, piecing together the fragmented history of their world and facing down monsters and villains, are not unlike an ongoing RPG campaign.

GammaWorld

Alas, Kamandi does not appear in Showcase Presents: The Great Disaster. The material reprinted from Kamandi #43-46 is a backup story focused on Urgall, a gorilla whose liberal ideas (extending respect not only to non-gorillas but to humans, and even female gorillas!) put him at odds with his tribe. (Another “tale of the Great Disaster” that appeared in Weird War Tales #51-52, featuring warring English and Scottish dog-men, is not included, which is too bad, as it is superior to the story of Urgall.)  I’ve gone into detail about Kamandi because I’m a fan, and having collected (I believe) all the pre-Crisis appearances of Kamandi and OMAC, it’s hard for me to not bring that context to the present book.  As of this writing, the only collected reprints of Kamandi are more lavish and expensive than the Showcase series, but the title is worth seeking out and is really more essential than anything in this book (but if you’re reading this, you already knew that, right?).

When I first read the Atomic Knights stories (about fifteen years ago), they struck me as more than a little silly: in addition to the conceit of medieval armor protecting against radiation, the stories were burdened with outdated gender roles (the “littlest knight,” Marene Herald, mostly stays out of the way, awaiting the day that team leader Gardner Grayle will propose to her) and too many convenient “scientific” solutions to problems.  Although the war is said to have occurred in October, 1986, the Atomic Knights’ roots in the early 1960s remain obvious.

Reading them again, however, I’m more sympathetic to the earnest tone: the Knights are at the vanguard of rebuilding democracy, and the stories often end on a didactic note, preaching the need for cooperation, compassion, and emphasizing reason and the rule of law.  Many of the menaces they face will be familiar to readers of post-apocalyptic fiction: problems of supplying food and energy when nothing will grow; human populations regressed to caveman-like savagery; would-be dictators such as the fascist “organizer” Kadey and the self-proclaimed King of New Orleans; and non-human threats either produced by radiation (a Triffid-like strain of mobile, intelligent plants) or opportunistically filling the void left by the collapse of humanity (a race of underground mole people who plan to permanently darken the sky so that they can take over the surface world; scavenging space aliens searching for precious metals).  That the Atomic Knights continue striving and are able to keep their humanity as they do so is, in its own way, optimistic.

strange_adventures#144

In fact, the suits of armor the Atomic Knights wear aren’t an anomalous detail: sometimes the comparison to knights of old is made explicit.  In the first story in Showcase Presents: The Great Disaster, “The Year 700 After the Bomb,” the post-war society resembles feudal Europe, right down to the Robin Hood-style costumes, royal titles, and pseudo-Old English dialect.  One could attribute these details to lazy writing, but it also reflects a view of history with definite evolutionary stages: just as civilization climbs upward over generations, it can also slide downward, and in such stories the image of a new “Dark Ages” is made literal.  (This can probably be laid at the doorstep of H. G. Wells, whose view was long enough to envision a day when humanity, too, is extinct, and whose film Things to Come, directed by William Cameron Menzies, portrayed a post-war English village ruled by a petty medieval warlord.)

It was when the Atomic Knights encountered warriors from the legendary island of Atlantis, time-warped into the future by their own scientific catastrophe, that I was able to put my finger on the story-telling mode. Replace “radiation” with “magic,” and a story in which armored knights battle Romanesque soldiers from an ancient island could be part of any fantasy novel from the last hundred years.  Specifically, the discovery of “Atlantides” (as the islanders are called in this story) fits neatly into the “lost world” genre: as practiced by H. Rider Haggard, A. Merritt, and Edgar Rice Burroughs, among others, there was always the possibility of a remote valley, cave, or island that history and evolution had passed by, leaving a population of dinosaurs, ancient Romans, or other living relics to be discovered.  The lost world genre was mostly finished off by World War II, as the empty, unknown spaces on the map were filled in; wiping the slate clean with a global catastrophe allowed writers to open those spaces up again, and fill them with mystery and adventure.  In these stories, the lost world was our own.

Perhaps that is one reason they continue to be popular: although seemingly pessimistic, this strain of post-apocalyptic fantasy, showing places and objects of the present through the eyes of later generations, provides for a kind of reenchantment of the everyday.  We gain perspective when we imagine a bustling city full of skyscrapers as empty and crumbling; more importantly, we can appreciate how marvelous our technology is when we picture later generations trying to make sense of it.  In the Gamma World game, there was a mechanism for player characters to puzzle out the use and meaning of “artifacts,” meant to prevent players from using out-of-game knowledge to identify, say, a rifle as a weapon rather than an emblem of office.  Similar misinterpretations are a staple of the genre: picture the subterranean mutants of Beneath the Planet of the Apes worshipping a nuclear missile as a god, or a young shaman trying to divine omens with a vinyl record in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. Likely inspired by real-life cargo cults, the projection of superstitious beliefs onto modern goods allows writers to remix old and new cultural symbols, comment on our relationship to technology, and—that standby of science fiction—map contemporary political concerns onto fantastical stories.

AtomicKnights

It should go without saying that the stories of Kamandi and the Atomic Knights don’t have anything to do with the likely horrors of a real nuclear war (or whatever the Great Disaster was supposed to be), and the longer their stories continued, the more fantastical and obviously escapist they became.  In the final story included in Showcase Presents: The Great Disaster, no less a DC eminence than Superman himself encounters the Atomic Knights, only to discover that their entire history is the dream of Gardner Grayle, placed in a sensory deprivation tank as part of a military experiment.  Grayle’s unconscious mind has taken over the computers running the simulation and threatens to launch an actual nuclear strike in order to make real the fantasies in which Grayle has played the hero for years.

The premise, and the lesson that Grayle imparts after awakening at the last minute (“The task before mankind isn’t to survive an atomic war! It’s to work in this world we’re living in to make certain such a war can never begin!”), owe much to WarGames and the similar lesson the supercomputer WOPR (“Joshua”) learns in that film (“A strange game: the only winning move is not to play”). “It was all a dream!” is obviously the king of lame cop-outs and, in cases like this, the last refuge of a writer whose story has gotten away from him.  I think it actually works, though: in 1983 the “survivable” nuclear war was an increasingly untenable premise, and the quaint early stories of the Atomic Knights had become hopelessly snarled with the continuity of Hercules and the world of the Great Disaster in the pages of Hercules Unbound.  (I haven’t commented on that series, but suffice to say that even the titular demigod couldn’t bear the burden of reconciling the combined histories of the Atomic Knights, Kamandi, and OMAC and telling his own story in an intelligible manner.)

I think it’s a little much to criticize escapism, however, when the target audience has so little power to change the situation from which they are escaping.  It’s one thing to indict military planners running simulations with potential real world consequences, another to criticize something as obviously fanciful as the Atomic Knights or Gamma World.  Speaking as a cold war baby who was ten years old in 1983 and absolutely terrified of nuclear war, the only other alternative was denial: I could hardly watch the news without having a panic attack, and I had no desire to subject myself to The Day After when it aired (I’m glad I didn’t know anything about the even grimmer Testament and Threads at the time).

Nuclear war was also frequently on Superman’s mind in the 1980s: most fans today remember Superman IV and the Man of Steel’s quest to rid Earth of nuclear weapons, but in the comics Superman often stood aside as an observer, willing to admonish mankind but not make the hard decisions for us.  Visions of humanity’s capacity for self-destruction haunt him: a Superman who does nothing to prevent a holocaust is not super in any way, but were he to take the choice out of our hands he would become a god rather than a man.  This version of Superman as advocate and guardian challenges the view of comic book readers as naïve simpletons waiting to be rescued.

(Also not included in this book)

(Also not included in this volume)

As I said initially, I eventually became an avid consumer of comics, games, books and movies that explored life after the bomb.  If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em, right? I don’t recall thinking it was realistic to expect survival in the event of a war, much less high adventure, but it was a comforting daydream. Certainly there was plenty to choose from, and I know there were a lot of guys in my generation who shared the same fantasy.  (One of the most believable details of last year’s The World’s End was that arrested adolescent Gary King would end up as a wandering gunslinger in the wasteland, loving every minute of it: for me it was a striking moment of recognition.)  Just about everything you need to know about this phase of 1980s masculinity can be found in the video for Tom Petty’s song “You Got Lucky.” It’s all there: guns, guitars, cowboy-chic dusters, and a sweet arcade in the middle of the desert.  (Petty obviously liked the milieu enough to make an appearance as himself in the 1997 film adaptation of David Brin’s post-apocalyptic novel The Postman.)

TomPetty

The focus in popular culture changed after the passing of the Cold War; although the apocalypse has never been far from our entertainment, the end of the world can come from almost any direction nowadays: terrorism, climate change, pandemic, just to name the more realistic possibilities.  Free-floating dread has replaced the pointed terror of “Mutually Assured Destruction;” chaos is more feared than ideology, and it’s reflected in the zombie hordes and rampaging kaiju of current film.  Still, the stories I grew up with haven’t been forgotten: perhaps it’s driven by ‘80s nostalgia, but remakes or reboots of Planet of the Apes, Mad Max, and even WarGames have either been made or are in production.  Gamma World has been through seven editions, the last in 2010, although I haven’t played in years.  The intoxicating cocktail of sword-and-sorcery among the ruins of modern civilization is still with us in such programs as Adventure Time.  Earth A. D. is still a place that many of us like to visit, even if we wouldn’t want to live there.

AdventureTime

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