Culturally dosed: How the Atomic Era shaped our stories

How the nuclear bombing of Japan’s Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the United States at the end of World War II dictated each nation’s relationship with radiation in their stories for years to come.

Courtesy of: Marvel
Courtesy of: Marvel

"Caught in the blast of gamma radiation, brilliant scientist Bruce Banner is cursed to transform in times of stress into the living engine of destruction known as THE INCREDIBLE HULK. "

Updated Jul 27, 2016

Hiroshima and Nagasaki can attest. How has the personal history of radiation affected how cultures incorporated the effects of exposure in their stories? Have those who dropped the bomb differed in their perception from those who survived the firestorm?

Simply answered: YES… in a monstrous way.

A brief history of radiation

In the late 19th century, the atomic pioneers credited with the discovery of ionizing radiation, - Henri Becquerel, Wilhelm Rontgen, and Marie Curie - could have never understood the far reaching consequences of their findings. Soon after their breakthrough, radiation was suddenly a part of everyone's life. Radioactivity was the newest fad, with bottles of Radium infused water touted as a cure-all for all that ails you. In the 1920’s shoe stores began installing ‘Pedoscopes’, shoe fitting fluoroscope machines that essentially doused children with harmful ionizing radiation in order to literally see how the bones of their feet fit into the shoes they sold. Regulations were nonexistent as people naively showered themselves in various forms of radiation.

Marie and Pierre Curie with their boss Henri Becquerel.

This hazardous honeymoon was thankfully short lived. Around 1917, a large group of female factory workers in New Jersey, subsequently known as the “Radium Girls”, contracted radiation poisoning. While painting watch dials with Radium, a glow-in-the-dark radioactive substance they were assured was harmless, the women would lick the tips of the brushes in order to get a more defined edge. Many lost their jaws to cancer. Some lost their lives. Then, in 1934, Marie Curie died from a disease related to her long term radiation exposure. People started seeing radiation as other than a magic bullet. Maybe it wasn’t a cure-all. Maybe we should be cautious.

Superheroes and super monsters

The Atomic Age, Manhattan project, nuclear families; these terms saturated American culture in the 1940s and 50s. With the unconditional surrender of the Japanese Empire, following the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the US was an uncontested world superpower. As the planet raced towards atomic supersession in the wake of World War II, both the film and the newly formulated comic book industries took note, and began stitching together tales. Americans, seeing atomic power as heroism and influence incarnate, created the radioactive superhero genre, with irradiated mutants incorporating incredible capabilities. Spiderman, The Fantastic Four and most interestingly, The Incredible Hulk, paved the trail for the western view of the atomic age.

Effects of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. View from the top of the Red Cross Hospital looking northwest. Frame buildings recently erected. 1945

Japan, who was on the receiving end of America’s atomic memo, had a far different view of the effects of radiation, envisioning a horrifying agent of mutation and destruction.

Godzilla, released in 1954 (a mere nine years after losing the war), and its consequent franchise, is an eery view into a culture's forced acceptance and movement from a once strong and proud empire, to a modern democratic civilisation. In the film, we are introduced to an ancient creature, empowered and driven to rage by nuclear radiation. As the monster tears through Tokyo releasing its “Atomic breath”, we are admitted a glimpse into the overwhelmingly present public outrage directed at the fallen empire, as a result of the war. Unable to contain the beast from the deep, the fictionalised Japanese government is a state of disarray and loss, on it’s knees before the will of Godzilla. It was a direct commentary of the fall of the once proud island nation, to the will of unforeseen nuclear powers.

Godzilla, King of the Monsters, 1954

Throughout its epic, genre and medium spanning career, our giant radiation eating lizard from the deep isn’t always portrayed as Japan’s enemy. Of course, a force representing the uncertain and often destructive power of atomic energy would have no real concern for human life, Godzilla had fought alongside humans when common enemies arose. Foes representing real world problems, in Godzilla vs Hedorah, brought the issue of pollution to the franchise. When a microscopic alien life form grew to tremendous size due to the exceedingly dangerous pollution levels in our atmosphere, Godzilla teamed up with humans to extinguish the threat.

While the original Godzilla monster clearly represents nuclear war, the decades long story that follows is an incredible metaphor for Japan’s evolving relationship with both atomic energy and the US. Godzilla starts out as an agent of death and destruction, but as America’s relationship with Japan strengthened, we see the narrative change; the one-time senseless destroyer becomes Japan’s guardian and protector.

Another often overlooked aspect of post-WWII Japanese storytelling is worth mentioning here. Anyone familiar with their movies, anime, TV shows and comics, may notice an underlying theme. It’s not just post-apocalyptic raging tentacle monsters, but a plethora of tales in which children grow up without one or both parents. The situations are not readily explained through their stories, and one may dismiss it as a cultural oddity, but after realising how fractured the collective psyche of the Japanese people had become after their losses encountered in WWII, it’s easy to draw a parallel from an orphan to a nation, now on it’s own, without the support or guidance of an experienced adult ferrying it though this great big world.

Still from the anime, Gundam - Iron Blooded Orphans

American comics, while mostly reveling in the light of the atom, have also dealt with the guilt of their past. The Hulk, one of the most iconic and troubled superhero characters of the atomic age, was introduced to American comic book audiences in 1962. The brainchild of comic book legends Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, their big green monster is the result of a gamma radiation accident, which transformed the brilliant scientist, Bruce Banner into what his writers describe as, “The living engine of destruction”.

Let that sink in for a second.

“The living engine of destruction”.

It gets better; his transformations are brought on by external stress. Stress! How poignant, that the Hulk, an embodiment of the fears associated with the consequences of radiation and atomic weapons, is only triggered when provoked. It’s as if the comic book writers wanted to ease the conscience of a nation by giving them a character they can specifically relate to. One who’s normally mild-mannered, intellectual, and even kind, but when pushed by exterior forces into a corner, is no longer in control or accountable for his actions. Often trying to do good and maintain control, it is regularly suggested that the Hulk’s destructive persona wouldn’t need to surface, if people would just leave him alone. How could the rationale for vaporising two cities full of both soldiers and civilians be better presented. A superhero who is constantly battling his rage and nursing the aftermath of his “Hulkouts” and the FALLOUT of his power tantrums. A fragmented persona which is both seeking peace and serenity, while unable to respond proportionately to external stimuli. A truly American superhero.

These two monsters, side by side, may seem not to have a lot in common, but if we take into account their cultural baggage and therapeutic effects, it’s easy to see that their green skin isn’t all they share. They have helped two nations grieve. They have embodied cooperation and regret. They are the voices (or roars) of wounds healing, and nations revealing their feelings.

So who would win in a battle between the Hulk and Godzilla? The questions seems irrelevant when you stop to think about the casualties of such an atomic encounter. There are no winners in thermonuclear war.

Author: Omar Elwafaii