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DESTROYER OF WORLDS: Graphic novel "Trinity" highlights history of first atomic bomb

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BOOK REVIEW: Trinity: A Graphic History of the First Atomic Bomb by Jonathan Fetter-Vorm (Hill and Wang) 2012

On July 16, 1945, at 5:29 a.m., an event took place that both literally and figuratively “shook the world.” I’m speaking, of course, of the atomic bomb that was detonated at the Trinity site, approximately 60 miles north of what is White Sands National Monument near Alamogordo, New Mexico, and not far from the aptly-named trail the Jornado del Muerto – the Dead Man’s Journey.

The project, codenamed “Trinity” by Robert Oppenheimer, the lead physicist for the ultra-secretive “Manhattan Project,” reportedly came from a poem by 17th century English poet John Donne, and titled “Holy Sonnet XIV: Batter My Heart, Three-Personed God,” which goes:
Batter my heart, three-personed God; for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurped town, to another due,
Labor to admit you, but O, to no end;
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
but is captived, and proves weak or untrue.
yet dearly I love you, and would be loved fain,
But am betrothed unto your enemy.
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again;
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor even chaste, except you ravish me.

Oppenheimer was a deeply conflicted man. Also one of great depth and understanding in matters at their most basic level.

That is what graphic novelist Jonathan Fetter-Vorm, a Montana native now living in Brooklyn, N.Y., captures in Trinity, important in that it almost matter-of-factly illustrates how the brilliant physicist, who had spent time in the Los Alamos, N.M. area at a ranch for boys in his earlier years, came to love this starkly beautiful landscape, including the area southeast of Los Alamos where the Manhattan Project was completed – in the form of destruction.

So, as the illustrator shows us Oppenheimer at the Trinity site (the religious overtones nearly knocking us over the head), he speaks to a young military man about the Ancient Greeks and how Zeus punished Prometheus for eternity for showing man how to make fire.

Bubble of atomic fire: Image of Trinity atomic bomb test. (Jonathan Fetter-Vorm)

When Fetter-Vorm, at the end of Trinity, illustrates Oppenheimer’s October 1945 meeting in the Oval Office with President Harry S. Truman, it is a bit tense. While Truman has overseen the conclusion of World War II and the Allies victory over the Axis powers – and the use of two atomic bombs dropped on Japanese cities – Oppenheimer is clearly conflicted.

But he did go into the Manhattan Project with the thought that 

And we see that from Marie Curie's experiments with radioactivity to Albert Einstein's findings, these scientific advancements in physics and better understanding of how things work on an atomic level. All the while, world events are happening ever faster, with the rise of Fascism, Communism and Nazism, those in Washington who saw the militaristic opportunities that a potentially-powerful atomic bomb could unleash, well, it proved too tempting. Like when Prometheus stole fire from the gods and gave it to humans. 

And Oppenheimer led the charge, all the while not feeling particularly happy with the result, even though it was the one his team sought. 

And so amidst the New Mexico sand and sagebrush, the bomb tower is detonated at 5:29 a.m., as Fetter-Vorm writes: "As the fissioning atoms released their boundless energy, the surrounding material heated up and expanded outward, until the remaining plutonium atomos were too far apart for the reaction to continue. But just as the quantum reaction came to an end, the visible explosion roared to life. Energized material, hotter now than the surface of the sun, blossomed outward in a churning sphere of superheated gas."

And after that moment, the secret "Gadget" of the Manhattan Project "had transitioned over from the realm of science into that of politics, diplomacy and war."

And three weeks later? Fat Man and Little Boy, two atomic bombs that helped bring about the end of World War II, were dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, Japan. That is also featured in this graphic novel, with the emphasis on graphic, as Japanese citizens are shown dying and dead in the aftermath of the atomic fire that consumed those cities in August 1945.

Mr. President, I feel that I have blood on my hands,” Oppenheimer tells Truman.

Truman, clearly not impressed with Oppenheimer and his reaction to what his creation hath wrought, thinks for a moment and then says, “Well, here, would you like to wipe your hands?” as he pulls a handkerchief out of his coat pocket.

Illustrated with a ever-so-subtle sneer, the Missouri-born president tells Oppenheimer that he will continue to help the U.S. in keeping ahead of the Russians, and making sure they never get an atomic bomb, something that do achieve four years later.

As Oppenheimer is shown leaving the Oval Office, Truman tells his assistant: I don’t want to see that son of a bitch in this office ever again.

President and physicist – one pleased with the creation of the destructive bomb, the other apprehensive about what has been unleashed (“Now I am become death. The destroyer of worlds,” as Oppenheimer quoted from the ancient Hindu text of the Bhagavad-Gita) – see the device’s potential for good and evil. But it’s clearly an evil creation, as Trinity seems to indicate, something Truman seems to put out of his mind, making him hate Oppenheimer all the more. These are complex issues, to be sure, and Fetter-Vorm does a fantastic job showing them to us.

Writing, alongside his informative illustrations, Fetter-Vorm notes: The world we inherited from the Manhattan Project contains risks that were never present before 1945. It is a world in which science gives us the power to annihilate ourselves. It’s a world that has grown increasingly poisoned with the residue of nuclear weapons, to the point that each of our bodies contains some amount of radioactive material, some lingering trace of atomic testing.

As readers of this review may know, I’m a big fan of Twin Peaks, and the recently-run Return has been a mindbending and utterly wild ride.

And, as I suspected, the successful splitting of the atom at Trinity was key to the mysteries that lay within the Twin Peaks universe. I began to see the clues early on, and was utterly shocked when it was revealed that the test on that July morning 72 years ago would change everything.

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Andrew W. Griffin

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Andrew W. Griffin received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism from...

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