Sunday, September 7, 2014

Remember back in the old days, during the Cold War, when there weren't so many nuclear-armed superpowers?  Things have gotten way out of hand with the proliferation of mass destruction.  I'm pretty sure there's plenty of weapons-grade uranium and plutonium circulating around out there thanks to the Soviet Union's collapse.  But back when they were the other potential driver of human extinction, we Americans had our atomic secrets and people like Colonel Steve Canyon of the USAF to keep them safe.

This was back when we atom-bombed the shit out of the Nevada desert and all those Pacific atolls we had lying around after beating Japan, when all those old school European imperialists were licking their wounds and going soft on the commie menace.  Or else turning Red themselves.  Nothing like a balmy tropical paradise for testing hydrogen bombs.  Or T-bombs, whatever those are.  Canyon could tell you, but he's not talking because you might be a mole or a fellow traveler and a guy can't be too careful.

Looking back, I have no idea what we were thinking.  Sure, you'd find magazine articles on how the domino theory would lead to Southeast Asia becoming a Marxist staging point for invading Japan, then Hawaii and then Boise, Idaho.  But there had to be a better way to protect and preserve our way of life than blasting our obsolete battle fleets with nuclear bombs and polluting the atmosphere with fallout.  I wonder why these damned things had to be tested so often anyway.  Once you have a trigger mechanism that works, why do you need another?  And if it's the fissile material that's in doubt, you can't un-blow a proven sample and use it again.  I think all these Pentagon brass hats and physicist types were more or less like kids with really big firecrackers-- the largest-- and some really super keen model ships they couldn't help blowing up for kicks.

These happy images with their subtext of promised global apocalypse are from Dell Four Color Comics #641 (October 1955), reprinted in Hermes Press' new-to-digital offering Milton Caniff's Steve Canyon: The Complete Series Volume 1.  This one stands out for me because I find myself reading accounts of weapons testing in my downtime.

And who would dare argue with that swanky painted cover, which has a "Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew meets James Bond" charm about it?  I'm not a big proponent of painted interior art because it tends to look more like a collage of pretty still images rather than a sequence of events, but give me painted covers anytime.  One of this book's strengths is its full-page reproduction of these beautiful paintings.  The front cover itself features a dramatic image of Canyon and his enlisted driver gritting out a rocket launchpad fire that's too close for comfort.  You can almost feel the heat and the frenzied background action gives the scene a sense of urgency that's only helped by Canyon's raised arm and grimace-creased face.  The interior art may have a few Caniff touches, but it's largely by Ray Bailey and William Overgard, two names with which I'm not familiar.  I will be getting acquainted as I dig into this book.

The point is, here's some sweet 1950s espionage action that falls right in my wheelhouse.  My dad and I used to follow the daily Steve Canyon strip in its latter years, but I've neglected Caniff and people like Noel Sickles for far too long.  I'm not just a student of comic book art filling in the gaps in my education, I'm a student of this historical era, and comics like these give us a feel for time, when we Americans felt ourselves surrounded by danger and locked in a death struggle with a diametrically opposed ideology.  Our good guys sometimes wore white cowboy hats and sometimes they wore blue service caps with eagles pinned to them.


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