The history of the atomic bomb is one of those subjects that has always interested me, for many reasons. I’ve had an interest in nuclear physics since I read a long-out-of-print book called The Day the Bomb Dropped on America back in the late 80s. I found it on a trip to the library with my mother, when I would usually pick up books that were totally not age-appropriate for a 10 year old. It was about nuclear accidents at power plants as well as military incidents involving broken or accidentally dropped nuclear weapons. Even though the book talked about fires, cooling accidents, deaths, etc. that had actually happened at nuclear facillities, something about the subject and the language caught me.
I discovered that radiation is almost magical. It exists everywhere around us all of the time. Right now, you are being pelted by hundreds of radioactive particles from natural sources and from the cosmos. Without a Geiger counter, you would never know it was happening. It’s outside the capabilities of our senses, so it’s incredibly interesting and frightening at the same time. It captured my imagination at 10 years old, and hasn’t let go yet. I had Fission Fever(which is like Pac-Man Fever, but with less dancing).
From that point, I moved on to The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes. The book won a Pulitzer prize, and it’s easy to see why. It is the definitive guide to the history of the atomic bomb. No other book manages to pack as much detail about the science, the history, the scientists, or the aftermath of the Manhattan Project into a single place. It can be a daunting read, however. Peter Kuran’s Trinity: The Atomic Bomb Movie was an excellent video complement to Rhodes’ book.
For most people, the problem with these books is that they are extremely technical in nature. There is not a good primer on the subject that doesn’t involve delving heavily into the science and politics of the decisions made. Enter Jonathan Fetter-Vorm’s graphic novel Trinity: A Graphic History of the First Atomic Bomb.
What Fetter-Vorm has managed to do is distill and condense the best information from several sources and present it in a beautiful and easy to understand format. When I first decided to review this novel, I knew that it would be difficult to review it fairly, because I’m well versed in the history and physics of the bomb. However, I was not disappointed in the least.
When I opened the box from Amazon today, I was struck by the fact that the book is a hardback book. I had almost expected a paperback, since a lot of graphic novels have adopted that format. The book is beautifully bound, and the cover artwork is gorgeous.
An homage to this, perhaps?
In the first few pages, Fetter-Vorm manages to convey, through beautiful illustrations and well-written text, the science that led up to the realization that an atomic bomb was possible. As the book moves on, we begin to learn more about General Lesley Groves and J.R. Oppenheimer, leaders of the Manhattan Project, as well as their tenuous relationship. And then eventually, we see the Trinity test, as well as the subsequent bombing of Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and the aftermath.
Fetter-Vorm manages to identify all of the major players, from Leo Szilard, who passionately lobbied for research on the bomb, in the hopes of preventing Germany from acquiring the bomb, to scientists such as Lise Meitner, Neils Bohr, and Enrico Fermi who made important discoveries related to the physics of the bomb. To be honest, this is like reading the cliff notes for Richard Rhodes’ book, but not in a bad way. There was never a point in the book where I said “Wait, that’s not right”. I never expected a graphic novel to be factually correct AND entertaining at the same time.
Of course, you can’t review a graphic novel without talking about the illustrations. The illustrations are quite good. Fetter-Vorm managed to nail the important qualities of each character, from Groves’ bushy mustache to Oppenheimer’s piercing eyes and Fermi’s receding hairline. His recreation of several Rapatronic camera images of the Trinity explosion are nearly flawless (see below):
I also appreciate the fact that Fetter-Vorm tried to give both sides of an often controversial story. He showed the reasons why the project was started, and why the military didn’t stop the project after the fall of Nazi Germany. He also illustrated the tragedy of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and described the actions which led to a 40+ year Cold War. I personally find nuclear weapons to be beautiful, immensely powerful, and endlessly fascinating, but only with the subtext that we should never use them against human beings again.
So, is there anything lacking about the book? There are minor things that I would have like to have seen included, such as the criticality experiment at Los Alamos dubbed Tickling the Dragon’s Tail, which resulted in the death of Louis Slotin. (EDIT: I was actually thinking about Harry K Daghlian Jr, but both stories are interesting) He was truly one of the first casualites of the atomic age. His experiments and subsequent death due to his own carelessness are chilling reminders of the dangers of atomic materials. I can understand that this migh interrupt the flow of the story, but it’s a story that should be told.
I think this book delivered everything it promised to deliver, with accurate text and quite good artwork. If you have any interest in the early history of atomic weapons but didn’t know where to start, this is a good start. Even if you’re well versed in the subject, the presentation and care taken in constructing this graphic novel makes it well worth owning.
5 out of 5
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