Space Museum:
Heroism, Conformity, and the Conflicts of an Age 1

Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture (1900-present), Fall 2003, Volume 2, Issue 2

Albert Wendland
Seton Hill University

From 1959 to 1964, DC's science-fiction comic Strange Adventures ran in every third issue an almost ideal anthology-format for science-fiction stories. The premise was simple: each month a father and his fourteen-year-old son visited the Space Museum, “one of the wonders of the 25th century,” which housed “mementos of the daring and heroism of the men who venture into space” (Fox, “Secret of the Space-Jewel” 2). On each visit, the father, Howard Parker, told his son, Tommy, the story behind a particular display that had been chosen by the boy. Since the reader heard the story too, this format was perfect for generating and framing a new plot for each installment, for arguing the heroism and worth of humanity, and for sharing the adolescent listener’s “sense of wonder” with the reader, whose assumed similar background encouraged identification. Tommy was white, male, middle class (he raced futuristic “soap-box” cars and was a member of that century's version of the Boy Scouts), and thus the values and aspirations of his and the audience’s assumed social group, as they existed for the era, could be communicated and reinforced through example--as Tommy is socialized, so is the reader. Furthermore, the editor of the series knew how to appeal to the sensibility of his market. He was Julius Schwartz, famed for being the main force behind the successful “Silver Age” resurgence of DC (or National) superheroes. 2 The writer of the series was his often-used and science-minded Gardner Fox, who also wrote Adam Strange and the popular Justice League of America. And the artist was Carmine Infantino, who drew Adam Strange and The Flash, the last being a seminal Silver Age work.

Space Museum was only a minor comic-book installment (just one story appeared on the magazine's cover, when the series began), and it receives only brief if respectful mention in the studies of SF comics. Mike Benton says that the “concept was simple yet open-ended” (72) while Gerard Jones and Will Jacobs claim it was the “best realized” of the series that Schwartz introduced into the magazine (22); indeed, the art and not the content is usually the focus of commentary, since it represents one of the few times when Infantino was allowed by Schwartz to ink his own work. 3 But the series provides an interesting example of how popular culture can support the values of its era and yet show conflicts at the same time, can even suggest other values that are not those most obviously expected. Given the Cold War background of the period, the sense of democracy/capitalism versus communism, the supposed “missile gap” between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., and a space race that began with the embarrassment of Sputnik in 1957, one would expect the series to be little more than a showcase--a museum--for the cultural imperialism of the era, for the Cold War brought out into space, and for futuristic soldiers of Earth's expansion (whether colonial or economic) who are white, male and middle class--whose values are then passed on, in true patriarchal fashion, by the father to the son. And, to be sure, these assumptions are justified: the series was heavy with evil aliens and militant solutions--the first object Tommy points to in his first visit to the museum is a ray-gun “used to fight off single-handedly a hundred winged creatures of Saturn” (“World” 2).

But, as John Fiske has argued, popular culture can be “progressive” even while its popularity prevents it from being “radical” (133), that it can encourage its consumers to be active social “agents” and not just passive social “subjects” (180), that readers of popular culture are not over-determined by marketing dictates but that they often choose how much to be involved. This essay points out that contradictions can be seen in even this most un-radical and unquestioning of comic-book series. They arise in three areas. First, a museum--just by being a museum--gives a vague official approval to any acts of cultural or militant imperialism that are housed there. But, though the Cold War was obviously influential, much of the activity celebrated in the series is defensive, aggression is often seen as futile, and most of the main characters are not soldiers but explorers, or agents of peace. Second, the heroes are both solitary and yet connected to a larger society, making them both extraordinary and ordinary at the same time; such a contradiction reflects major conflicts of the era, like the uneasy balance between conformity and individualism seen in suburbia and white-collar labor. Finally, the boy listener, Tommy, is more the main subject of the series than the museum itself, for his growing-up and education are emphasized (in some ways, they even become part of the museum), and his development both supports and yet counters late fifties stereotypes, especially the militarism of the times, the ideal of individualism, and the attitudes toward women. Exploring these topics shows that the series, though in no way radical, still offered tentative reconciliations for American middle-class conflicts, for exposing the dreams and frustrations of an age, and for thus “cooking” and not always just “serving” the underlying social conditions.

Imperialism: “The Toy Soldier War”

As in much science fiction of that age, human expansion into space was a given, seldom examined for root causes like economic growth, population pressure, or cultural and political conflict with a rival nation supposedly expanding too. But selected artifacts of such expansion housed in a museum raises questions about the nature of the institution in the first place. Jane Thompkins, writing about the American West, has argued that museums store “safeguards of our own existence,” that the objects preserve “a source of life from which we need to nourish ourselves when the resources that would normally supply us have run dry” (188). For example, she describes the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyoming, (a showplace for the art of taxidermy) as

a kind of charnel house that houses images of living things that have passed away but whose life force still lingers around their remains and so passes itself on to us. We go and look at the objects in the glass cases and at paintings on the wall, as if by standing there we could absorb into ourselves some of the energy that flowed once through the bodies of the life things represented. A museum, rather than being, as we normally think of it, a place most distant from our savage selves, actually caters to the urge to absorb the life of another into one's own life. (188)

Such images of death on display and the vampire-like feeding from it exemplify the notion that even after dying life-forms can't escape exploitation (and, given the history discussed by the passage, the tone is not overly exaggerated). For viewers to enjoy any museum means for them to buy into the values represented, to absorb the inherent “life” of past events no matter how one-sided or exploitive they might have been. In a similar way, Fiske has said that the price of admission to a traditional art gallery is to accept middle-class definitions of aesthetics (79). Both writers thus suggest that visiting a museum is not free of social and ideological concerns; even if alone, a visitor partakes of this social “gathering place,” and just the choice to attend suggests some participation in whatever ideology is on display.

The Space Museum, since touted as a showcase of how the “name and fame of Earth” was spread “throughout the stars” (“World” 2), suggests such a latent cultural imperialism. When the first noted exhibit is a weapon that fought off aliens, a sense of racial survival results, of us against them, of heroes who are soldiers carrying “Earth's banners to the far-flung star-systems” (“Threat” 2). But, as it turns out, the object Tommy picks for the tale is not the weapon but an average pair of contact lenses, which were used as defensive and not offensive devices; the villain is not even an alien race but a supposedly “perfect” robot created by one--it absorbs the “mind-energy” of people and enslaves them. One Earthman ingeniously uses his own personal accidental protection to defeat the threat: he's not affected by the robot because of the contact lenses he wears. The story thus reverses historical expectations. The appeal is not to technological or military strength but to the hero's skillful deduction and Tommy's curiosity over why contact lenses are important enough to be in a museum. What’s central here is the narrative context of the object--“story” itself, the unique and surprising tale behind each artifact. Indeed, the museum was not well-labeled; Tommy's father had to relate almost every tale--no placards gave it away. Such encouragement for cross-generational bonding and oral story-telling--if only for reasons of plot-production--seems quaintly attractive when today’s technology, like the Internet and email, provides “participation” only when people are already divided by distance and machines. A past future holding a major social museum where stories are not so much housed as told, where objects (technology) have significance only in how they are narrated face-to-face, is, in retrospect, a naïve, idyllic, and yet still unachieved dream.

The emphasis on context can be seen in the list of objects chosen by the curious Tommy: a tree branch, a human strand of hair, a goblet of water, a document saying “son of two worlds,” a stuffed magpie, a jewel that is said not to be a jewel, a silver (not gold) medal, a wrist-watch, a sewing needle. One is struck by the lack of imperialistic overtones and an emphasis on the organic or ironic instead. These objects are ordinary but made extraordinary by the story each tells; they seem hardly unique, but they must be special since housed in the museum. Indeed, their unlikelihood for uniqueness always leads Tommy to ask “why?” thus generating the story. Though many of the objects do tell of confrontational events (the stick was used as an energy weapon), even obviously militaristic symbols have a quirk of difference: an alien rifle shoots “crookedly,” the model of a futuristic soldier is a toy soldier. Again, it is the quirk that produces the wonder. The items are not heirlooms or antiques; they are unique only in their context. They represent actions more than “thingness,” agency instead of objecthood. Their “sustenance”--in Jane Thompkins' sense--exists more in the sharing between the teaching father and the receptive son, of the boy's self-application and imitation of the model behavior--and not through the accumulation of relics of conquest or possession (like the coins in a Scroogian money bin, to use another icon from the period). Furthermore, since the museum for the reading audience was science fiction, it contained a posed imaginary future and not a completed real past--in essence, there's nothing to “preserve” yet. Any life-force that might be sustaining is still in the inspiration and goal stage, not products of a past that now seem to exist only to be deconstructed and re-evaluated. The museum supplied models for behavior-to-come and not embarrassments of behavior-that-was, or examples famous now made historically infamous.

These differences can be seen in the appropriately entitled, “The Toy Soldier War.” An alien race, the Jorgans, specializes in making toys, and their planet is threatened by alien invaders. The Jorgans have no defense system (they just make toys), and thus they are coerced into doing the invaders' bidding. A buyer from Earth persuades a craftsman to use the toys themselves as weapons. (That the Earthman comes up with the idea demonstrates the self-serving nature of the series—and maybe a contradicting suggestion that only an Earthman could ever think of using toys as weapons.) In lines that would sound terrifying today, the gentle and hardly militant toy-maker considers the idea: “Yes--I can make this space-dragon exhale atomic fire instead of sparks, and arm this battle-cruiser with tiny nuclear warheads!” And the Earthman adds, “These toy soldiers could carry real ray-guns!” (3). But there's a catch. The toys have a weakness, not revealed until the end of the story. They are purely self-defensive; they can't attack, they can only react to hostile acts against them. The invaders, so ruthless they can't help blasting at the toys even when they are not threatened by them, are thus defeated because of their own “brutal, warlike nature” (5).   

The story thus answers the charge of militarism. All the aliens had to do to escape was never shoot at the toys in the first place. The defense is not built on bigger bombs but on the fault--and it's highlighted as a fault--of aggressive ruthlessness in the enemy. Against the Cold War mood of the time, this story argues pacifism--certainly no radical idea but somewhat progressive given the era (with its still latent McCarthy jitters) and the medium of comic books (with its Comics Code and post-Wertham restrictions). After all, Heinlein's Starship Troopers had just come out (1959), Khrushchev was saying, “We will bury you,” and the Cuban Missile Crisis was only a few years away. Instead of this example working as energy-feed for jaded observers, it provides a model of behavior that questions the assumptions of “shooting first,” that does not praise “the everlasting glory of the infantry” (the last statement in the Heinlein book), and that can be modeled by a simple businessman in an interstellar free market whose ingenuity is more important than the ray-gun technology.

Heroism: “Son of Two Worlds”

Since behind every object in the museum was a “story of heroism, daring, self-sacrifice” (“World” 2), the kind of hero exemplified deserves attention. Jones and Jacobs define the “unvarying” Schwartzian hero as a “positivist in a positivistic world, using reason and knowledge to master an ultimately knowable universe and thus restore our unquestioned status quo to proper order” (22). This emphasis on active ingenuity, a scientifically knowable world (material, rational, confidently manipulative), and how that world supports the dominant culture of the time, I have explored elsewhere. 4 In addition, we can see how ordinary objects were used ingeniously in new and extraordinary ways. But also addressed here will be three other related characteristics of these heroes: they were alone, they were ordinary, and they were different--that the last two ideas contradict each other demonstrates the conflicts of the age.

The Solitary Hero

This contradiction, which in many ways is also the contradiction of popular culture (that it can be supportive of the status quo and yet question it at the same time), can be seen in the aloneness of the main characters. Their heroic deeds were often performed in solitude, yet not done for the glorification of an individual ego but as self-sacrifice for the survival of a larger group (usually, in sweeping comic-book terms, a whole planet or the entire human race). The individualism was not “possessive”; social interaction was not made subordinate to a solitary human enterprise motivated by manipulation of others or a brooding self-enclosure. 5

A net of solitude and self-sacrifice can be seen in “Secret of the Space Jewel,” the second story in the series. The main character is a great space hero who once saved an alien world, yet the story is about the inhabitants who, years later, suddenly despise him: “They treat me with scorn and contempt! Why?” (1). This is not contemporary post-colonial reaction lifted to the stars; instead, a villain pretended to be the hero and made a bad impression with exploitation and greed. The man is isolated, made “lonely” by the composition of the panels, often framing the contemplative hero in empty space, but not by the dialogue or plot. He does not retreat into Romantic self-absorption or robber-baron manipulation. His primary concern is just to do his job: he’s an ambassador from the interstellar “United Nations,” and he needs to clear his reputation before he can begin work. To find the villain impersonating him, he simply has to act alone. He does catch the villain, is accepted again by the world that shunned him, and thus he is able to fulfill his still solitary role as a foreign representative supporting a collectivity. Aloneness did not imprison or torment him, or preclude him from working for others.

Similarly in “Revolt of the Spaceships!” the pilot hero has only one “friend,” his spaceship, yet he is able to help in saving humanity. He built the ship himself and named it “Ike” (obviously appropriate for that era). He becomes a planetary surveyor, a job where he is alone, and he relieves tension by treating the spaceship like a pal: “The space-trails are lonely for a man who works by himself and 'Ike' became like a buddy” (4). But later in the story, all spaceships become possessed with an alien intelligence which makes them--sentient now--rebel against Earthmen. The pilot convinces Ike to remain loyal by arguing their friendship: “We're more than pilot and ship! We're buddies!” (5). Ike sacrifices its “life,” its self-awareness, to defeat the aliens and save the humans. The ship thus is awarded a medal of honor and is eventually housed in the Space Museum--giving it a home, a final resting spot for a loved and faithful object (and the motivation here counters the view of the museum as an energy bank for consuming visitors). Even though this “buddy” relationship is between a man and a machine, the personal devotion between them saves other people and thus extends into a loyalty to the race. Even Ike, the machine, says, “It is the humans who count in space” (6). This is not so much a sublimation of affection onto technology as a celebration of connection to a larger group, that even loners--and their machines--are part of a whole, and devotion to that “whole” by individuals is sanctified by the museum.

So these heroes are not rogues, rebels, or Byronic outsiders. They support the middle-class ideals of the time (devotion, hard work, materialism, loyalty), but they still walk a balance between independence and self-sacrifice. They thus appeal to both fifties habits of wanting to be different and yet wanting to be the same, of, for example, loving suburbia and yet fearing its conformity, of wanting advancement in corporate business but wary of losing oneself in the “team.” Two great fears of the time were suburban and corporate sameness. The harrowing film Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), in which humans turn into pods and think utterly the same, was as much inspired by suburbia as fear of communistic uniformity; the maker of the film has said that the original idea was of aliens taking over suburbia--and no one would notice (Halberstam 140). Influential books like The Lonely Crowd (1950), White Collar (1951), The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1955), and The Organization Man (1956) expressed the fears that corporate sameness would dry up individual initiative. But, at the same time, we forget that the early criticism of suburbia often had an elitist slant to it, and that many middle-class families were quite happy with their new homes, feeling empowered at the sense of independence (many having moved from urban apartments) and freedom to enjoy the open space of new backyards or the highways of the growing interstate system. 6 For all the corporate sameness of the era, this was also the time of such financial independents as Ray Kroc (McDonalds), Kemmons Wilson (Holiday Inn), and Ed Cole (the ’55 Chevy, or “the poor man’s Caddy”) and such charismatic leaders as Martin Luther King and, in the early sixties, John F. Kennedy. So the interaction of solitude and suddenly-being-the-savior-of-civilization seen in these minor comic-book stories can yet suggest a response to underlying historical tensions, the argument--or at least the dream--that one could be independent and depended on at the same time, can follow one’s call and yet help others--that one could be a “hero.”

The Ordinary Hero

Many stories stressed that the heroes were ordinary. Even though the pilot mentioned above is portrayed as exceptional--he's smart enough to build his own spaceship--he's not a genius, and he’s certainly not self-important. His defining characteristic is more his affection for his spaceship. The heroes are special because they solve extraordinary problems--like invasions from space and whole Earth dangers--but they are ordinary in that they have qualities that anyone can obtain, like insight, inventiveness, and bravery. They are average people rising to the occasion, fulfilling a responsibility placed on them and willing to act for others. Here too they are separate--acting alone--and yet part of a group, for their “ordinariness” makes them like everyone else, and thus not lonely.

A story in which the “ordinary” is openly stressed is “Threat of the Planet Wreckers!” where three unarmed asteroid miners, “ordinary men--neither soldiers nor heroes” (5), find themselves, by chance, to be the only people who can stop ruthless aliens who want to rule the Solar System. 7 Though feeling inadequate, they know they've “got to try” (5). Their plan is simple (each man one-at-a-time attacks the aliens so that the next man can learn more about their weapons). Tommy, the boy listener, comments, “Golly! Those men were ordinary people, but they saved us all! They never sought to be heroes, but they sure turned out to be!” (8). It's a lesson for humility--they simply accepted the responsibility of the moment. Since they were not mutations, “more than human,” X-Men, Supermen, or the next evolutionary step, they prove that greatness is contained in the ordinary, that being average does not prevent one from achieving. This notion relates to the historical era. In David Halberstam's words, the family sitcoms of the fifties seemed to argue that “to be ordinary is to be better” (510). This idea only intensifies the tension between conformity and individualism, arguing that “being the same” is more a strength than a weakness. Indeed, given the Cold War attitudes, such an idea is not surprising: going along with traditional middle class norms provides a unified bloc against the threat of communist takeover. In some ways, the Space Museum stories argue this idea more pointedly than the sitcoms, since Ozzie Nelson was never threatened by galactic invaders or the end of the world. These stories don’t act to “reduce” oneself to the ordinary (and thus produce an ambiguity that the ordinary is supposed to be “better”), but to use the strength in the ordinary to perform heroic world-saving tasks--to be lifted up instead of pulled down, to placate the ambiguity and tension by demonstrating the optimism that anyone with insight can be a hero.

The Unique Hero

Yet several stories do stress uniqueness, that the hero is different from everyone else. These stories, however, emphasize more the hero wanting to be ordinary so as to fit in with others. At this point, it is important to remember the adolescent or pre-adolescent readers, for underlying the need to “fit in” is the adolescent sense of awkwardness, of being different and unaccepted, which is part of the stories’ appeal for the young reader. The important thrust is identity, the need to find one's own self--very pertinent to the adolescent--and an identity within the greater collectivity: not just a growing “up” but a growing “into” the dominant culture. While the ordinary hero feels part of the group already, the character who seems different searches for acceptance, for reasons behind the personal uniqueness, for the secret of self and one's true name. The rest of society does not need to conform to him (the use of the male pronoun is intentional) as its people would if he were the next evolutionary step; instead he conforms to them. He's an outsider wanting in and not an overlord trying to lead the pack; the emphasis is not on Nietzschean or comic-book supermen.

An excellent example of such desire to know where one fits occurs in “Son of Two Worlds!” in which the main character since childhood has wondered why he is different--he sees strong emotions in people as emitted colored rays, stress in materials as peculiar glows. His father tells him only: “I'll explain . . . when you're old enough to understand” (2). (And what youth would not identify with that?) But when he's six years old, his parents die before they can tell him the secret of his capabilities. As he grows, he keeps them to himself since, “Other boys merely laughed at him and he didn't want to be ‘different’” (3) (more appeal to adolescents, especially “nerd” SF comic-book readers). His only clue is that he remembers his parents mentioning a planet whose name he cannot find in any registry. So he devotes his life to finding that world: he attends Space Academy and studies hard--alone, of course--to become a space pilot. And eventually, in a kind of male Cinderella story, he finds he’s the “lost prince” or rightful ruler of another world and that the tyrant reigning there had tried to kill his father (the tyrant’s brother) who had escaped to Earth. Only members of the royal family can see the colors of emotion or stress. So he finds his lineage--and fulfills the adolescent dream of secretly being more than someone just laughed at by others. However, his growth in power is hardly emphasized. We never see him don the trappings of rule, and his one “political” event in the story is to lead the escape of prisoners he’s been jailed with (and this event is described as more intellectual than political--he deduces how to counter the power of the electric force field imprisoning them by not grounding himself). More important to him is finding who he is, his family and his name. Furthermore, at the end of the story, his identity is defined as “son of two worlds . . . citizen of one, ruler of the other” (8). So an ordinary Earth citizen can also be a ruler of an entire planet--ordinary and extraordinary at the same time. Indeed, one can argue that in these stories finding identity alone makes one heroic. Since other installments argue that heroism is latent in ordinary people, then finding one's identity is also to find one’s own true heroic self.

In short, this blending of ordinary and extraordinary, of solitude and connection to society, offers a tentative reconciliation for the problem of individuality in a conformist culture--the stories say you can have both. You can be “better” by being not just ordinary but extraordinary too. Saving civilization--and thus being connected to it--is also to find your unique self. You can be the next-door suburban neighbor and the prince of another planet at the same time.

Identity: “Earth Victory--By a Hair”

As seen above, into this brew of social contradictions comes the adolescent, the child growing up and about to enter the adult world--knowing he’s close to doing so, pondering the ramifications of the act. The adult American world of the late fifties-early sixties is a conformist block, a monolithic culture defined by class, race, lifestyle, television, and the culture of suburbia. It is not the pluralistic, fragmented, and de-centered culture(s) of today's postmodern world. Though juvenile delinquency, the Beats, and rock-and-roll complicated the stage of adolescence in the fifties, making it a lifestyle unto itself (a Rebel without a Cause interlude), growing up was still assumed to be manageable--as the problems of outer space technology and meetings with interstellar aliens could still be controlled if one was just careful and rational enough. 8 Physics, and becoming an adult, were knowable--if being questioned. All that an adolescent had to do was, so to speak, pass the entrance exam--recognize the requirements and necessary skills. Though the culture joined would still be contradictory (in matters of race, sex, work, and consumerism), the process of joining it was still the easiest way of finding a place and a self--even if that self was already defined and provided little choice for variety. (To the adolescent, the problem of no adult variety was still down the road, yet to be encountered, and although “dropping out” soon would become more attractive to youth, this was an alternative of denial and not a solution for someone wanting to join). Simply to arrive was to be defined.

So the emphasis on ordinary heroism, and on a museum full of role-model stories more than objects, come together in the character of the adolescent listener, Tommy--in his development, his growing up, and especially in his finding who he was. Indeed, the real subject of the series was not so much the museum but Tommy himself--to the point at which a trophy to him is eventually placed in the museum where he joins an even more hallowed group than just the society of adulthood.

First of all, the stories provided Tommy with an education, a kind of core curriculum in basic skills. In “Second-Best Spaceman!” 9 he’s encouraged to keep trying no matter how often one is defeated. Tommy is disappointed over placing second in a “jetbox derby” and receiving only a silver medal. So his father tells him the story behind a silver medal in the museum: a most decorated officer of the Star Patrol is also disappointed because all his medals were silver. Then a situation arises in which the officer prevents an invasion by using the silver in his medals, the exact substance needed (if they had been gold, the Earth would have been conquered). The lesson is spelled out by Tommy's father: “No matter how often you fail--victory can eventually be yours if you try hard enough to win!” (8). And from there on, Tommy says he will wear his second-best medal proudly. In “Secret of the Energy Weapon!” he learns the need to trust one's self, one's own innate capabilities (the story is about activating our full brain power). In “The Tree of 1000 Colors!” he comes to appreciate and mimic the rational skills of analytic reasoning the story's hero demonstrates. His father says to him, “Observation and deduction are important traits out among the stars, Tommy! I'm glad to see you've learned them at an early age!” (8).

But more emphasized than this general education--which makes him “ordinary,” or, rather, socialized into a basic competency (rational, male, scientific) that contains, according to the stories’ ideology, the capacity for heroism--is the achievement of his own identity. “The Gem Invasion of Earth!” explains how Tommy got his name. His father brings him to the museum on his fourteenth birthday to show him a special exhibit, a stuffed magpie that, when alive and a boy's pet, saved the Earth from destruction. This event occurred fourteen years ago, on the day Tommy was born. Because of it, his parents chose the name of the magpie--Tommy--for their son. In “The Mass-Energy Robbers of Space!” Tommy becomes the protagonist and the episode's hero. Only three “interplanetary boy scouts” from Mars, Venus, and Earth are free to repel an alien invasion, which they succeed in doing through an ingenuity that, as demonstrated, is not an exclusive prerequisite of adulthood. The story also emphasizes interplanetary--and thus international and interracial—cooperation. It was predictable that such a story starring Tommy would be included in the series. But it did not come without the preparation, the progression of lessons taught to him, and a successive unveiling of his own identity.

Then, in probably the best story of the series, “Earth Victory--By a Hair,” we learn how Tommy's parents met, though not until the end of the story is that fact revealed. The social actions of establishing identity--the naming and heroism described above--are supported in this story by the biological act too. Though this act is not free of social influence and the gender-role stereotypes of the time, the story questions those very stereotypes and thus provides both an ordinary and extraordinary background for Tommy. The trophy is a blonde human hair, and when Tommy wants to know why it's in the museum, the father says, “I've waited a long time for you to ask about that” (2). The main character in the tale is called the Wrecker, a tough major-general of the space-marines. He’s assigned to meet an Admiral “Blondy”--who has a “good rep,” according to the all-male and no-nonsense Wrecker, who has always wanted to meet “him.” But finding that Blondy is a woman, he at first is not happy: “an admiral in skirts?! . . . This is ridiculous! . . . I don't approve” (3). But she's not fazed by his criticism, and she quickly proves her piloting skills. When the General tries to tell her how to destroy two attacking enemy craft, she says bluntly, “I'll fight my ship . . . without your advice!” (4). After handling those enemy ships easily, she says: “Any complaints, General?” He doffs his hat to her and replies, “None at all, Admiral!” (5). They then work together to defeat the aliens. One of her blonde hairs has to be used as a sight in an Earth weapon; the General and an “editor's note” explain that female blonde hairs were used in bombsights in WWII because they performed “better than any other material”--to which the Admiral comments, “We women do come in handy now and then, don't we, General?” (7).

Of course, after such romantic play (like the humorous formality of the repeated address to “General” and “Admiral”), they fall in love and are married. Tommy, at the end of the story, learns they're his parents and delivers a line that has to be the dream of all boys for that militant Cold War age: “I wonder if any other kid ever had a general for a father--and an admiral for a mother?” (8). Identity is established: Tommy learns his heritage--and gains an immense respect for his parents. The most militant story in the series is also the most domestic--a blend of Starship Troopers and Ozzie and Harriet--and thus obviously hints at the contradictions of the time. When bomb shelters were built in backyards, “enemy” satellites could be seen passing overhead, and the suburban home was like a miniature fortress of American values--self-contained, stuffed with consumer goods, ready for the Bomb, attended by made-attractive-in-media stay-at-home housewives--the story playfully desensitizes Cold War fears and sexual inequality by making the military domestic and by giving a woman a position equal to that of the man, and a skill--piloting--that is even better than his. It’s no drastic reversal of cultural expectations; the story is just lightly progressive, certainly not radical. And one might argue that it uses a standard fifties device--domesticity turned into a weapon against the Cold War enemy (as the romance comics used it in the early part of the decade 10). But this is less “family as fortress” than “fortress as family.” The surprise is not that the family can be a first line of defense, but that the first line of defense was a family, and a somewhat liberated one at that. For the age, Tommy's shock at his mother's role must have been equaled by the reader’s. 11

Ultimately, and predictably, Tommy himself becomes a part of the Space Museum, and at that point his entrance into the culture is complete. In “Prisoner of the Space Flowers!” a picture of Tommy at age three is unveiled as a trophy (after a required twelve-year consideration-for-acceptance period). On that day, his fifteenth birthday, his mother comes for the ceremony, and a story is told which Tommy never knew. Through an elaborate and outlandish ploy (the plots became more contrived as the series went on), Tommy, the child, helped save his parents which, in turn, saved the Earth. Indeed, it is a downright family story, with the mother demonstrating her incredible piloting skills, the father being ingenious, and Tommy, having watched his father so much, apparently working the spaceship himself--just the exploits of a “standard” American family out driving for the weekend (in a spaceship), who happen to prevent the destruction of their homeworld. As Tommy says at the end: “Boy oh boy! Did any fella ever have a birthday present as wonderful as this?” (8). His ordinary and extraordinary qualities, which socialize and distinguish him at the same time, are thus proven, and he is granted a home in the Space Museum itself. He is grounded in domesticity, the shared realm of ordinary competence, and in a distinctive social place, an institution that will last through history--like being rooted on Earth (or in a specific Earth culture) and yet climbing into space. Such “doubleness” or equal footing demonstrates the historical turning-point of the era itself, with its science-fictional (and scientific) emphasis on the present vision and coming reality of the space program, on the dream and assumed realization that humans were about to leave the “cradle” of Earth. Perhaps only during that era was the dream of spaceflight so “potential,” so possible and so not yet buried under economic constraints and the disappointing lifeless environments soon-to-be-found on other planets. The age was in its own adolescent moment of expectation for the future as much as was Tommy.


For all of these ways in which the series demonstrated a reconciliation of the major fifties contradiction between conformity and personal identity, such compromises were still only temporary, a buying of time before the identity crises of the late sixties, the “consciousness-raising” and political ferment with its you-can't-straddle-the-fence attitudes. It was strictly a mild resolution fit for the surface placidity of the era, well within its social assumptions and class structures, and hardly disturbing to them. (The only real “surprise” of the series is the mother being an Admiral and having a skill that is stronger than the father’s.) Furthermore, as argued, the real unifying subject of the series was not the Space Museum, nor the heroism and bravery on display. It was Tommy. Not just how he learned life skills but how he learned to be himself, and how, through identification, the young boy reader was encouraged to do the same. With his unique parents and yet his conformist upbringing, by entering the social institution of a museum that houses individual achievements (a compromise of the contradiction itself), Tommy answers even more directly the “charnel house” label sometimes given to any museum. For he is very much alive when he joins it; he is still growing, still has a future, and is still poised on the adventure of adulthood. He is no dead relic of the past whose only value is a weak nutrition. He is a living agent, ready for action, and though he might never change his world (never be encouraged to do so, never question his class, race, or privilege, never find in himself the need for such), his learning--from the Museum, his father, and his mother--readies him for saving it from fictional threats (if the bigger--more outlandish and more external--the better). Who knows? If the readers fully identified with Tommy’s “lessons,” then such an upbringing might have contributed to the actual self-examination that would occur historically as they grew older: 1968 wasn’t that far away.


1. An earlier version of this article was presented at the International Conference for the Fantastic in the Arts, Fort Lauderdale, Florida, May 2001.

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2. See Schwartz and Thomsen for a biography of this famous editor.

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3. Jones and Jacobs also describe an average story, define the typical Schwartzian hero, and then discuss the uniqueness of the artwork in relation to the rest of Infantino’s career. They describe how Infantino’s own personal inking created a “loose and exuberant line that suggested rather than delineated, a line sometimes rough and scratchy, sometimes delicate and wistful, but never merely illustrative”--which Schwartz found too “impressionistic” for the major comics (22-23). Also, see Infantino and Spurlock (60-61, 92-93), for more on this artist's own inking style.

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4. In “Touching the Night Sky: ‘Progressing’ the 50s in Strange Adventures and Mystery In Space,” Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, 13: 4 (2003), 389-402.

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5. I paraphrase here language used by Eagleton (171).

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6. Halberstam covers both sides of this contradiction (131-143, 521-536). The conformity of the era and its resulting tensions are discussed also in Carter (90-113) and Patterson (337-342).

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7. But the situation is made a bit more poignant, the aliens given sympathetic motivation for what they are doing. They originally came from a planet that used to orbit the area where the asteroid belt exists now and that was destroyed after they left. They are homesick, they long for their planet back, and they gather up the asteroids to reform it and then insist that the rest of the solar system provide them with laborers who will rebuild their civilization, to make their homeworld “fair and fertile” (3). Their approach, of course, is megalomaniac, but their sorrow and bitterness is made to be understandable. “Bad” aliens were sometimes handled with such sympathy in the series.

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8. For more on prose science fiction’s faith in rationality see Huntington (passim).

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9. This same story is mentioned in Jones and Jacobs (22).

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10. See White (131-133) for how romance comics supported Cold War attitudes.

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11. Jones and Jacobs also have pointed out Schwartz's insistence on strong women characters in other comics he edited (37). But a later story in Space Museum, “The Evolutionary Ensign of Space!” is more ambiguous. In this one, Tommy's mother takes him to the Museum instead of his father, and she shows how she once defeated aliens with a sewing needle. That she's the best space-pilot is stressed--she can “turn a ship inside a bucket of paint” (4). But Tommy's reactions at the end of the story demonstrate stereotypes of the time. First, he's disappointed that she, unlike “Dad,” did not stop short toward the end of the story to give him the chance to deduce the solution. He frowns while saying, “[Dad] stops at a critical point and challenges me to figure out how the memento in the Space Museum was used! You didn't give me the chance” (8). The series never questioned the patriarchal educational bond. But then he's happy, smiling in the next moment, because he has “the prettiest mother in the universe!” (8)--and thus great piloting is hidden behind “looks.”

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Works Cited

Benton, Mike. Science Fiction Comics: The Illustrated History. Dallas: Taylor Publishing, 1992.

Carter, Paul A. Another Part of the Fifties. New York: Columbia UP, 1983.

Eagleton, Thomas. Literary Theory: An Introduction. 2nd ed. Minneapolis, MN: U of Minnesota P, 1996.

Fiske, John. Understanding Popular Culture. 1989 rpt. London and New York: Routledge, 1996.

Fox, Gardner. “Earth Victory--By a Hair!” Strange Adventures 124 (Jan 1961): 1-8.

---. “The Evolutionary Ensign of Space!” Strange Adventures 148 (Jan 1963): 1-8.

---. “The Gem-Invasion of Earth!” Strange Adventures 115 (Apr 1960): 1-8.

---. “The Mass-Energy Robbers of Space!” Strange Adventures 145 (Oct 1962): 1-8.

---. “Prisoner of the Space-Flowers!” Strange Adventures 142 (July 1962): 1-8.

---. “Revolt of the Spaceships!” Strange Adventures 112 (Jan 1960): 1-8.

---. “Second-Best Spaceman!” Strange Adventures 136 (Jan 1962): 1-8.

---. “Secret of the Energy Weapon!” Strange Adventures 139 (Apr 1962): 1-8.

---. “Secret of the Space-Jewel!” Strange Adventures 106 (July 1959): 1-8.

---. “Son of Two Worlds!” Strange Adventures 127 (Apr 1961): 1-8.

---. “Threat of the Planet Wreckers!” Strange Adventures 118 (July 1960): 1-8.

---. “The Toy Soldier War!” Strange Adventures 130 (July 1961): 1-8.

---. “The Tree of 1000 Colors!” Strange Adventures 151 (Apr 1963): 1-8.

---. “World of Doomed Spacemen!” Strange Adventures 104 (May 1959): 1-8.

Halberstam, David. The Fifties. New York: Ballantine, 1993.

Huntington, John. Rationalizing Genius: Ideological Struggles in the Classic American Science Fiction Short Story. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1989.

Infantino, Carmine and J. David Spurlock. The Amazing World of Carmine Infantino. Lebanon, N.J.: Vanguard Productions, 2000.

Jones, Gerard and Will Jacobs. The Comic Book Heroes. Rocklin, CA: Prima Publishing, 1997.

Patterson, James T. Grand Expectations: The United States, 1945-1971. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1996.

Schwartz, Julius and Brian M. Thomsen. Man of Two Worlds: My Life in Science Fiction and Comics. New York: HarperCollins, 2000.

Thompkins, Jane. West of Everything. New York: Oxford UP, 1993.

White, Bradford W. Comic Book Nation: The Transformation of Youth Culture in America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 2001.

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© 2003 Americana: The Institute for the Study of American Popular Culture