If it is possible for a comic to straddle the ill-defined line between Nobody’s Favorite and Nobody Else’s Favorite…
… Ace’s Atomic War! would be that comic.
The short-lived series hit the stands at a moment when Cold War paranoia and lurid funnybook fare were approaching their hysteria-inducing high-water marks, and it shows. From the cataclysmic cover art to the jittery oversized logo (complete! with! exclamation! point!), you’d be hard pressed to find a more concentrated hunk of early Cold War zeitgeist. It’s so square on the nose that it almost doesn’t feel real, but rather a prop mock-up created for a Frank Tashlin comedy flick — George “Foghorn” Winslow intently reading it while dyspeptic dad Tom Ewell tries to instruct him about the mysteries of girls and football. (If you don’t understand those references, congratulations on not being sad and old.)
The comic did exist, however, managing a run of four issues spanning the end of 1952 through the early months of 1953. The premise was adequately summed up by the title — chilling and thrilling tales of the nuclear Armageddon both dreaded and anticipated by a fearful public and flailing policy-makers — just the sort of “with-it” exploitative sensationalism that can part impressionably curious tykes from their hard-earned dimes.
It may not have been good, but it certainly knew how to deliver the goods. Every tedious sequence of long-winded exposition and rushed art was punctuated by a multi-megaton money shot rendered in exquisitely excessive detail.
Atomic War! may not have been big on the consistency front, but it certainly had a clear grasp of its aesthetic priorities.
The series would be noteworthy enough as an ephemeral slice of intersecting panics, moral and cultural, but there’s another aspect of Atomic War! that makes it a fairly groundbreaking effort. It was not just a random jumble of tales dealing with the prospect of nuclear annihilation, but a chronicle of a hypothetical world war with the events unfolding in a roughly sequential fashion from story to story and issue to issue. The tone and style of the individual installments varies widely, cycling between the war, sci-fi, and espionage genres, but it’s clearly implied that this is a single event being covered from multiple perspectives.
There is no interaction between the characters across the tales, though the characterizations tend to draw from the same shallow pool of archetypes — Private Hillbilly, General Clueless, Comrade Nogoodnik, Captain Hardman, and many other of the lazy war comic caricatures we’ve come to know and dread.
More distressing than that familiar shorthand is the tendency for stories to simply end when the creative teams hit their required page count. No resolution, no tacked-on caption tying up the loose ends, just a full stop at the point the paycheck-generating quota was met. (It’s a practice that would be later honed into a frustrating art by Charlton’s anthology titles a few years later.)
Yet for all these rough patches and cop-outs of economy, Atomic War! can be seen as a primitive and probably unintentional prototype for the shared-world anthologies — a poorly executed and fairly inept one, but still pretty groundbreaking nonetheless. It was an odd thing to encounter, especially in a marginally competent effort to cash in on the nuclear nightmares of traumatized tots, but its presence places Atomic War! in the dubious DMZ between Nobody’s and Nobody Else’s Favorites.
It’s shame the series was shelved before it could come to a decisive resolution, but I’m going to take a wild stab…
…based on social, cultural, and historical context and assume that America won.