In his debut book Trinity: A Graphic History of the First Atomic Bomb, author and illustrator Jonathan Fetter-Vorm tackles the immense history of the Manhattan Project, the top-secret government effort to build an atomic bomb. Using the directness and simplicity of the graphic medium, Trinity presents a clear introduction to both the scientific and the philosophical legacy of the bombs that burst over Japan 67 years ago this week.
Fetter-Vorm studied history at Stanford University. After graduating, he apprenticed as a letterpress printer and hand-bookbinder. Jonathan is currently writing and drawing a graphic history of the Civil War, to be published by Hill & Wang in 2013. He was born and raised in Montana and lives in Brooklyn.
Why present this material as a graphic novel?
For a story like Trinity -- which is equal parts history, science, politics and philosophy -- the graphic medium is really the most effective way to present the material in a way that's clear, coherent and accessible. The comics format -- words and pictures combined in sequence -- lets me make connections that would be much harder to follow in a prose book. So I can draw a picture of the Greek myth of Prometheus alongside Marie Curie in her laboratory, followed by a schematic diagram of sub-atomic particles and already in the first few pages I've constructed a narrative about science, myth and history. And, ultimately, I believe that this accumulation of images and text is more in line with how people take in knowledge nowadays.
What sort of research did you conduct for this book?
Much of my research involved poring over the thousands of photographs of the Manhattan Project that are held in various archives across the country. For a government project that was so successful in remaining a secret, it's surprising that so many photographs were produced. That certainly makes my job as an artist easier. But I also found that it's very hard to get a sense of the monumental scale of the Manhattan Project from pictures or documents. So I decided to take a road trip. I drove around the West, visiting the Hanford Reactor (the site of the first industrial-scale nuclear reactor), Los Alamos, and the site of the Trinity test itself. I don't think any of what I had read about the atomic bomb made as much sense as it did the moment I stood at ground zero and heard the clicks of a Geiger counter tally the radiation still emanating from the desert sand.
Did you have a hard time negotiating the balance between the scientific and the historical content of the book?
Actually, that balance was already worked out pretty well by the characters. The Manhattan Project scientists were very aware that they were making history. The debates around the water cooler at Los Alamos were energetic and expansive and seldom only about science. J. Robert Oppenheimer -- the lead scientist and so-called "father of the atomic bomb" -- was the best example of this spirit. He was brilliant and enigmatic and provocative. He was always the one quoting Shakespeare or Hindu scripture. Oppenheimer took every opportunity to place the atomic bomb within the larger context of civilization, and he more than anyone else was willing to ask questions that had no answers.
What were some of the hardest aspects of this story to depict?
One of the things I was most intimidated by was the prospect of drawing what the explosion looked like in the first fractions of a second after detonation. Engineers invented high-speed cameras to document the blast, and the images that they recorded are uncanny and haunting. I couldn't imagine a way to improve upon the photographs that the government took. That said, the images that proved the most difficult were the depictions of the effect of the atomic blast on the people of Japan. I wanted to represent the Japanese perspective, to be faithful to the horrifying testimony of the survivors of the bombings, but I was also wary of how easy it would be for my drawings to come across like just another zombie comic. I struggled with this for most of the time that I worked on the book, and I didn't settle on a solution until maybe a day before the final draft was due.
Was there anything that you discovered in your research that you were surprised to learn?
Certainly. The most surprising aspects of the history of the atomic bomb are also some of the most controversial and have to do with the justifications for dropping the bomb on Japan. The standard and simplest narrative tells us that the U.S. dropped the bombs on Japan to force a surrender, that the number of casualties from the atomic bomb were not nearly so high as they would have been if the U.S. had attempted to invade Tokyo. And yet there was so much more going on behind the scenes: Truman was trying to intimidate Stalin; the war planners were eager to demonstrate the effectiveness of this new weapon. And ultimately, the most disturbing realization for me was the suspicion that the whole thing was an expression of inertia: after all the energy and expense invested to build a bomb, was there really ever any chance that it wasn't going to be used?
Why do you think it is important to retell the history of the Manhattan Project?
My first memory of the Cold War was seeing the Berlin Wall come down. Before researching the history of the invention of the bomb, I had no real awareness of what it meant to feel the dread of nuclear war. And yet the world is still filled with enough nuclear weapons to destroy civilization many times over. Our land and water is still tainted with traces of nuclear testing and with the fallout from failed nuclear reactors. With Trinity, I wanted to introduce this topic to a generation of younger readers, readers who are actually the true heirs to the legacy of the Manhattan Project. There's a good chance that Iran will someday soon conduct a test of a nuclear weapon, and when that happens, all of the fears and challenges that were first faced in the heyday of the Manhattan Project will once again demand our full attention. The atomic bomb is unique in that, by the standards of modern technology, it's a dinosaur, and yet we as a civilization still have not figured out how to reconcile its dangers. As troubling as it is to acknowledge, the full history of the atomic bomb is still very much being written.