Reviewed by E. Kirshe
Nuking Alaska is a slim graphic novel that sums up Cold War-era feeling with blunt comedy and chaotic energy. The author, Peter Dunlap-Shohl, spent over two decades as a cartoonist for the Anchorage Daily News. Dunlap-Shohl’s editorial cartooning style combined with his wit make Nuking Alaska an unusual historical snapshot.
Nuking Alaska is part memoir and part history lesson. Dunlap-Shohl recounts his childhood memories alongside illustrative blurbs surrounding significant events many of which play out in or around his home state of Alaska. If you’re looking for a quick summary of the Cold War in America, a simplified overview of what the Cold War was, and the key players, you’ll get that here. You’ll also find a personalized intimate view of the time period told through the voice of a political cartoonist.
The book opens with his memory of a catastrophic earthquake. He recalls him and his siblings gleefully playing in their shaking near-collapsing house, before being pulled out by a neighbor. Of course, to a child this was pretty exciting; it’s only later that they realize how bad the damage was. And it’s only way later that people hear about how damaged the nearby nuclear housing sites were and that they had been close to radioactive contamination.
One thing that Dunlap-Shohl is great at is just focusing on how utterly ridiculous people are. He continuously points out the obvious flaws and even stupidity of the plans of the people in power. Even “brilliant” scientists, like Edward Teller, or Robert Oppenheimer, are shown to be fixated on their nuclear goals with little regard for the world around them. He presents an early US government plan, project “Chariot” (an idea to excavate a new harbor in Alaska by blowing away land with atomic bombs) with a tone that suggests a constant “eye roll”.
However, as much as he makes fun of political powers’ hard-on for nuclear weapons he never denies the seriousness of the situation. He carefully considers both the environmental effects of nuclear tests and of course, the people who were impacted. He commends people who averted near-catastrophes. He details how many people are believed to have died as a result of cancer from working on former testing grounds and what little concern if any was shown to them by the government that created the problem. He doesn’t let you forget the stakes.
The constant reminder throughout the book is how close we came to nuclear destruction, and like his childhood self playing in the ruins of an earthquake, many were or are blissfully unaware. And it’s that combo that makes Nuking Alaska a fast-paced intriguing read but also a creepy one.
As Dunlap-Shohl says in the closing pages, multiple disasters were only avoided by the courage of those involved and a good dose of luck, and reminds us that “luck eventually runs out.”
Nuking Alaska is available now from Graphic Mundi.
The Furious Gazelle received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.