Friday, May 17, 2019

Number 2339: Harvey Kurtzman and the atom bomb thief

“Atom Bomb Thief!” was written and drawn by Harvey Kurtzman for Weird Fantasy #14 (actual issue #2, 1950).*

At the time there was a lot of talk about atomic secrets being stolen, and the Russians building their own bomb (the Soviet Union detonated their first nuclear bomb on August 29, 1949, so it was in the news.) Besides the pay-off of the story being obvious, EC Comics used those snappy surprise endings so often the ending was not a real surprising surprise, but at least appropriate to the build up.

SPOILER ALERT: Kurtzman used a real life nuclear test as his ending, the Baker bomb test at Bikini Atoll in July, 1946. Camera footage from that test was used at the end of Stanley Kubrick’s dark 1964 fantasy, Dr Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.END SPOILER

Kurtzman’s story was also a way for him to use some cinematic effects in his drawings, enhancing the storytelling. I especially like the the layouts of the first and last pages.

*Weird Fantasy had been “formerly A Moon...A Girl...Romance” in order to save on having to buy a new second class postal permit. In this case they got caught after five issues, so they had to start re-numbering with issue number 6. The result was issue numbers repeated later on, affecting issue numbers 13 through 17.


Daniel [] said...

Of course, before being titled “A Moon … a Girl … Romance” for four issues, the series was titled “Moon Girl Fights Crime!” for two issues. And, before that, it was “Moon Girl” for five issues. And, before that, it was “Moon Girl and Prince” for one issue. It seems to me that all the bother with the US Postal Service could have been avoided if publishers had adopted fairly generic series titles, with distinctive subtitles printed in larger letters that series titles. For example one series title could have been such as “EC Presents!”; another “From EC”; and so forth. We already saw something like that with “Four Color Comics”, “Showcase”, “Fantasy Masterpieces”, and “Strange Tales”.

Yes, there's not much surprise to the ending of this story. And I think that it would have been better had it stopped with what is here the penultimate panel. (The explosions shown in Dr Strangelove are effective — especially in a darkened theater — because they just keep coming, one after another.) But, for the most part, the pacing is quite good.

However, I don't think that the story actually withstands scrutiny. Surveillance of the atoll would have been rather tight, and a yellow raft would surely have been spotted.

The people of the Bikini Atoll, the islands of which have an area of about 2.3 square miles, were led to believe that they would be allowed to return to their islands shortly after the test, and therefore agreed to be relocated to Rongerik Atoll; it has many islands, but all of them are tiny, with a combined area of about two-thirds of a square mile. After a while, they began to starve. They were then briefly relocated to the Kwajalein Atoll. As a child, I lived for a few years on Kwajalein Island in that Atoll, but many years after the people of the Bikini Atoll had departed. They were moved to Kili Island, which is still less that a square mile. At about the time that my family left Kwajalein Island, some people were allowed to return to the Bikini Atoll, but the d_mn'd place is still toxic, and everyone who'd returned was evacuated after several years. Some of the people still live on Kili; most of them have dispersed to elsewhere in the Marshall Islands.

Brian Barnes said...

Got to give Kurtzman a lot of credit for the layouts. That last page is incredible, especially the bright yellow panel.

Mike Britt said...

His pre MAD stuff for EC are absolute treasures! Donald Yubyutch in THE TIME MACHINE AND THE SHMOE is a character I will never forget.

Pappy said...

Mike, and I'll never forget you introducing me to "other" (non-MAD) EC Comics with your fanzine, SQUATRONT #2. I've told this story more than once about the inspiration for Pappy's, but it bears repeating. It was seeing Mike's 'zine when I was in junior high that showed me that people could write about comic books. I can draw a line from Pappy's Golden Age to Mike's fanzine of nearly 60 years ago. Thanks again, Mike!

Pappy said...

Brian, I think Kurtzman could have been a movie director. He found his niche (humor and satire) and stuck with it over his career, but I believe he could have gone into motion pictures and brought his brilliance to that form, also.

Pappy said...

Daniel, you make the answer to the Post Office Second Class Mailing Permit so simple: just use a generic title. As rapidly as Atlas and later Marvel shed titles and brought in new ones perhaps they got smart, as you say, and came up with titles like Marvel Super Heroes or Fantasy Masterpieces. In that way they could publish anything and not be violating their permit status.

I don't remember how much a mailing permit cost in those days, but to a comic book publisher with very slim profit margins every extra expense counted, and it's no wonder they tried to slip titles by the Post Office.