ATOMIC EMPIRE by Thierry Smolderen with artwork by Alexandre Clérisse
ATOMIC EMPIRE gives readers a lush adventure through time and space. Alexandre Clérisse's retro art captures the aesthetics of the Atomic Age and illuminates Thierry Smolderen's cosmic journey into the history of the future.
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Between 1940 and 1960, American design was influenced by Cold War politics and a zealous drive for cultural progress. The appropriately named “Atomic Age” aesthetic captured the era’s interest in nuclear science and resulted in the space-age zeitgeist. Strongly influenced by science-fiction, the vital forms – abstractions of shapes found in nature – and fiercely mod architecture defined the look of 1950s America, as well as it’s anxiety for the future. Today, we look back on the aesthetic, charmed by the expectations and disconcerted by the realities. Retrofuturism, which looks at the past’s narratives about the future, is an interesting exercise in memory and nostalgia. Thierry Smolderen and Alexandre Clérisse‘s latest graphic novel ATOMIC EMPIRE from IDW explores the tricky balance between space, time, memory, and pop culture. The cosmic tale launches readers into America’s past, and the future of the universe.

Image courtesy of IDW Publishing.

ATOMIC EMPIRE: Back to the Future

Although ATOMIC EMPIRE starts with a quiet, contemplative energy, Smolderen (expertly translated by Edward Gauvin) quickly picks up the pace. Indeed, Smolderen opens the comic with a study in memory. ATOMIC EMPIRE’s protagonist, Paul, walks through an archaeological site with his young daughter. As he progresses, he explains the many geological processes at work in the mountain’s formation. He marvels at the ways history and information become layered. Later, he and his daughter play a game of memory. This game sends Paul and readers on a twisting journey through Paul’s past, and the future of humanity.

How does Smolderen accomplish a backwards look at the future? (Or is it the future’s look at the past?) Well, the unassuming and bespectacled hero is not alone. Paul communicates with Lord Zarth Arn, an incredible superhero from the distant future. Although Paul’s transcendent abilities are met with skepticism from his colleagues and friends, his ability to map the history of the future becomes a dangerous tool. ATOMIC EMPIRE explores the intertwining fates of Paul and Zarth Arn, orbiting the rise and fall of America’s obsession with the aesthetics of nuclear science.

Image courtesy of IDW Publishing.

Retrospection and Trauma

Interestingly, ATOMIC EMPIRE borrows ideas from an actual psychological case. Smolderen carefully acknowledges that Paul’s narrative about his past and our future is possibly complicated by his own traumas. Paul’s colleagues and friends believe he suffers from a psychosis resulting from painful childhood trauma. However, ATOMIC EMPIRE leaves it to readers to choose how to interpret Paul’s experiences. Are they sci-fi stories for his young daughter? Phantoms of a troubled childhood? Or does Zarth Arn exist? He certainly does for Paul. Questions like these fully engage readers throughout ATOMIC EMPIRE. Ultimately, Smolderen emphasizes that Paul’s sci-fi experiences draw from an intense sensitivity to the forces binding us all together.

Although the comic’s twists and turns through space and time occasionally confuse readers, ATOMIC EMPIRE’s philosophical and metaphysical pursuits entrance them. Indeed, the comic forces readers to marvel at the cosmic structures at work. Smolderen challenges readers to follow patterns, look for meaning, and get lost in the history of the future. In fact, confusion may in part be the desired affect.

Image courtesy of IDW Publishing.

Vital Forms: Atomic Art

Smolderen’s fantastic writing pays homage to 1950s comic book culture, but Alexandre Clérisse’s art gives ATOMIC EMPIRE its iconic atomic age look. Readers practically feel as though the comic itself is an artifact of the era rather than a retrofuturist project. The bold colors and modernist shapes abstract from nature and scientific illustration. Both whimsical and at times eerie, Clérisse’s art emphasizes Smolderen’s sensitivity for human emotion as well as aesthetic taste.

Clérisse’s artwork reinforces Smolderen’s nostalgia for the atomic age. For example, some illustrations give readers a glimpse of the era’s modern architecture. Other’s are darker, hinting at the violent nuclear origins of the fashion. Additionally, Clérisse fills the comic’s backgrounds with detailed wallpaper-like patterns. Silhouettes of Paul are lovingly rendered with galactic maps. Adding to the retro affect, Clérisse includes photos of 1950s magazines and advertisements. As a result, ATOMIC EMPIRE’s artwork brilliantly evokes the style of the times.

Image courtesy of IDW Publishing.

A Sci-Fi Epic

With bold artwork, ATOMIC EMPIRE pays homage to 1950s art and the sci-fi aesthetics of the Atomic Age. As a result of Smolderen’s inventive writing and Clérisse’s evocative artwork, ATOMIC EMPIRE skyrockets through readers’ imaginations. The retrofuturist narrative bewilders and enchants. The comic soars into the mysteries of time, memory, and the cosmos. Above all, it emphasizes the deep power of human connections.

One Comment

  1. Edward Gauvin

    December 20, 2018 at 11:54 am

    It’s a rare review (comics or otherwise) that mentions the translator, much less praises their work (we duke it out with letterers over who gets noticed less). Many thanks! Very glad to see such a quality book getting such detailed love. Just wrapping another by the same team now. Stay tuned!


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