In his introduction to Give Our Regards to the Atomsmashers, editor Sean Howe recalls how surprised he was to find himself sharing the theater with so many kindred spirits when the first Spider-Man movie came out. All these people around him, he marvels, laughing at the in-jokes and arcane references—where had these closet cases been hiding all this time?
Comic books, and comic book readers, have experienced a significant improvement in public image in recent years. The books themselves, no longer the stapled 36-page pulpers of yore, have moved out of the smugly paternalistic bookstore “humor” section and into swankier digs. That’s “graphic novel” to you, now, bub, although longtime readers still enjoy an easy familiarity with “comics” the way some hip-hop groups and fans enjoy a special dispensation with the n-word. Woe betide any cultural Cro-Mag still calling them “funny books,” though.
Yet: Most of the graphic novelists responsible for dragging comic books of childhood into this new respectability—your Chris Wares and Adrian Tomines—grew up reading good old-fashioned comic books, as did a surprisingly large body of close readers who now occupy prestigious posts as cultural commentators and tastemakers. Gary Giddins, who contributes a marvelous essay on that most guilty of comic pleasures—the illustrated (literary) classic—wrote the Village Voice jazz column for 30 years. Other contributors to Atomsmashers include Greil Marcus, Chris Offutt, Luc Sante, and a host of award-winning editors and novelists.
If you’ve checked out the Internet lately, you know that there’s at least one website devoted to any obscure cultural artifact of ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s childhood you can think of. You don’t even need a computer to give yourself a good spritzing of this nostalgic bilge: For a few years there in the wake of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, it seemed like you could barely go to the movies without having to sit through at least one gratuitous deconstruction of subversive messages in Saturday morning cartoons or something equally idiotic—mate selection and sexual realpolitik in Smurf Village and so on. Happily, most of the essays in Atomsmashers steer clear of this sort of quasi-intellectual—what’s the right term…oh yeah, there it is in Steve Erickson’s meditation of American Flagg: “the postmodernization of pulp iconography.” But, as with anything so firmly lodged in personal mythology as a “formative influence,” there’s going to be a lot of throat-clearing before anyone arrives at a point. Often the throat-clearing and the this-is-where-I-come-in-ing is the point. Blame the current popularity of the anybody-can-write-a-memoir memoir, but there are more Montana ranching memoirs out there now than there are Montana ranches, and everybody in Atomsmashers has their My First Comic story to tell.
It’s just fortunate that Atomsmashers editor Howe enlisted such stellar talent to tell what amounts to the same story 17 times. Steve Erickson’s American Flagg essay crackles with great sentences like Sergeant Rock comics crackle with onomatopoeic battle-sounds—Bap! Krund! Kapow! Kerrang!—and cod-German oaths sprayed from the lips of murderous Nazis. Contributor John Wray on American Flagg anti-hero Reuben Flagg, a Martian Jew and ex-actor turned cop in the anarchic social landscape of America circa 2031: “But for how he was distracted from his ideals only by his dick, his sanctimoniousness would have been insufferable.” Reuben Flagg, Erickson further ventures, was “the comic’s conscience, a walking affront to whatever ideology insists on measuring morality purely in terms of sexual behavior while tacitly regarding CEOs bilking stockholders out of life-savings as righteous capitalism just getting a little carried away with itself.”
It’s moments like that when Atomsmashers transcends self-indulgence—comics are such a private pleasure anyway, and reading about the illicit tingles of people guiltily aware that they should have been out playing baseball instead can get pretty boring by the fifth time around—and grabs a corner on why comics have social as well as personal relevance. Some contributors trumpet highlights in the comic book’s struggle for vindication and respectability in a smug, see-I-told-you-so kind of way; the perceptive analysis of the Fantastic Four in both the book and film versions of Rick Moody’s The Ice Storm is mentioned several times. Other contributors do a pretty respectable job of conveying the mood of certain comics by rendering selected episodes almost as screenplays, complete with stage blocking: Transposed for the written page by Wray, a Jim Woodring comic retains all its weirdness and gives Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” a run for its money. Wray likens his discovery of Woodring to waking up in an abandoned cult compound and gradually realizing not only that the religion that once flourished there was beautiful, but that you—meaning the reader—were once the leader but failed to protect its safety in some indefinable way. Forget Ghost World, The Hulk and Spider-Man. Someone like David Lynch should make a suite of surreal short films based on episodes from Woodring’s JIM and FRANK creations.
Gary Giddins comes out on top with his sparkling essay on discovering the Western literary canon, in comic form, on Long Island in the ’50s. Instead of mounting an earnest defense of comics, Giddins’ writing pairs intellectual flight of fancy with a dry, self-effacing wit. He sounds like Frasier Crane catching himself mid-reverie, submersing his intellect in the beer-babes-and-baseball concerns of the other Cheers patrons. So maybe comics can be serious literary business. You still have to laugh at yourself.