Our Regards To the Atomsmashers: Writers
Pantheon Books, New York, NY, 2004
228 pp., 17 illus. Trade, $24.95
Review by John F. Barber
School of Arts and Humanities, The University
of Texas at Dallas
A great deal of current discourse concerning
"new media" revolves around its simultaneous
engagement and submissive escape. This
mysterious combination fuels questions
concerning the nature and type of expression(s)
we see, or foresee, in new and emerging
electronic environments. At the risk of
attracting your immediate ire with an
unusual connection, let me suggest that
a model against which to investigate such
questions has long been available in the
form of comic books.
According to Sean Howe, editor of Give
Our Regards To the Atomsmashers: Writers
on Comics, nothing beats comic books
with regard to the combination of engagement
and escape. In fact, says Howe, "that's
the common thread of this art form" (x,
his emphasis). Howe argues in his introduction
that as a medium that is read, comic books
provide a degree of control to the audience
not afforded by movies, television, theater,
or audio recordings. The pace and tone
of the reading, of the interaction with
the medium, are pliant and controlled
by the reader, or interactor.
The words in comics are, like printed
words elsewhere, hard-earned information.
The images, on the other hand, invite
readers to dwell, to reflect, to meditate,
in a way that pure text cannot and will
not. This intrinsically greater sensory
relation to the narrative components provides
an almost guaranteed involvement where
one is forced into a more intimate relationship
with the medium resulting in the aforementioned
simultaneous engagement and submissive
Of course, comics have long been considered
trash culture and, so, their utilization,
and worse, enjoyment, confers outsider
status on their user. Ironically, however,
comics also offer supplication to the
outsider through the example they provide
of "otherness" or "unlikeness," the very
confinements that overhangs current acceptance
of much of the potential demonstrated
by emerging utilizations of new media.
A problem with comics, noted by Howe,
is the dearth of "personal writing about
this most personal of art forms" (xii).
What sort of dialogue, he muses, would
bubble to the surface if comics creators,
critics, and fans were encouraged to share
their thoughts and ideas?
The result is this collection of 17 essays
by comics creators, scholars, and, fans.
Three examples provide apt illustration
of the contents' applicability to thinking
about new media. First, Aimee Bender argues
that the visual experience is crucial
to reading. With comics, she says, the
symbolic language and imagery underlying
comics, the "immediacy to iconic words
and pictures," promote a more direct jump
from image to unconscious (46-47).
Christopher Sorrentino concludes with
an interesting paradox, applicable, arguably,
to new media when he says those who champion
comics are looking for themselves, and
in seeing things through a glass darkly,
see only themselves (69).
Finally, Geoffrey O'Brien, cites Ezra
Pound's conception of a book: that it
should be a "ball of light in one's hand"
(119). As a ball of light, says O'Brien,
comics seem always on the verge of exploding.
Reading comics, we are not so much concerned
to learn what happens, but rather to enjoy
"lucid detachment," the freedom, the ability
to move in and out of what we can see
and experience as an illusion. But, this
illusion is a real as we choose to believe.
We can solidify or dissolve it at will
(123). The same, perhaps, might be said
of new media creations.
Of course, Give Our Regards To the
Atomsmashers is not about new media,
nor is there any overt connection made
or implied either by the editor, Howe,
or the writers whose work is collected
in this volume. The connection, any connection,
between comics and new media may ultimately
be only an illusion. But it is one that
seems to work, especially since what we
know about creating and using comics may
well inform our creating and utilization
of new media.
If you really likeand betterread,
comics (even secretly), this book offers
the added benefit of talking about a topic
to which you are attracted.