To be accurate, DR. ATOMIC is not a comic book, but a modern opera. However, the title fits in perfectly here, and there are no interesting comics this week anyway. It should be of interest to readers of this site, since the opera is about Robert Oppenheimer and the development of the atomic bomb in 1945. And for writers DR. ATOMIC is a great petri dish of plot and character.
Relentlessly highbrow, opera is arguably the reverse of comic books, and modern opera is tough sledding for nearly everbody with its atonality and lack of ‘a hummable tune’. DR. ATOMIC is exactly what you would expect an new opera to be — lots of singing. There are fascinating characters — physicists Oppenheimer and Teller, the General in charge of the bomb project, and many minor characters at Los Alamos. There is a story in there, about the development of the bomb — will it be a successful test? Will the explosion set off a chain reaction that destroys Earth’s atmosphere and all life? Will it ever quit raining so that we can launch, or will the wind sweep all the fallout the wrong way and depopulate New Mexico? Will the Japanese hear of the project, and by the way is it OK to drop the bomb on them?
But all the characters do is sing about it. They don’t do anything; there is no action at all. There is conflict but it drives nobody to deal with it. It is as if all the elements of a story are rolling around loose, beads on a tray. Interesting and important beads, but nobody has strung them together into a necklace.
It is only fair to say that modern opera demands no necklace; what I have described makes opera fans perfectly happy. It bugs the heck out of novelists, however. We are making unreasonable demands that the form is not going to meet. But since we have all the beads here, suppose I string them into a couple strands?
For instance: There is a bit in which a young military officer, the weatherman, is pressured by the General to make a good forecast; either it quits raining or he’ll be court-martialed. This is apparently historical, but it’s so deliciously unreasonable that it is obvious to me that the young weatherman should crack under the pressure. Egged on by the Native Americans who are singing about the morality of the bomb, and given the idea by all the security guys fretting about the Japanese, the young weatherman phones the Japanese Embassy. (You can imagine it on the stage, the sound of the old-fashioned phone ringing at the other end, and finally a female voice, “Konichi-wa?” Aaaand curtain.)
Or, in line with more traditional opera plots, he falls in love with either Mrs. Oppenheimer (soprano, in some delightfully sexy period costumes) or Paquita the Native American maid (contralto). They elope to Tokyo with the plans.
Or how about (because the young weatherman is actually not that interesting) Dr. Oppenheimer himself, already referred to in the libretto as unstable? The Mrs. and the maid pour out the concerns of the common people to him; worried that the entire population of New Mexico if not the world is in danger he absconds with the plans, or even the bomb itself, to Tokyo. A great analogy here, between Oppenheimer and the workings of the bomb itself, unstable elements which can either explode productively or disastrously.
You can see that in the pursuit of a good plot one of the things immediately thrown over the side is the historical events themselves. Obviously the test went off fine; they bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and nobody called the Embassy or absconded to Tokyo. There’s a great story in there but it didn’t appear on the stage at DR. ATOMIC.
The other thing you can see is that the beads are strung together with causality. Words like “and therfore” or “because of this” are the connectors. You put them together into logical patterns pointing in one direction or another.
The fiction writer has to do two things: make the beads (interesting, important!) and then string them together. Not necessarily in that order either. Writers often invent charaters or events because the plot calls for them; the job then is to be sure they stand on their own, interesting and important, and are not just spear carriers. In a historical fiction the beads exist already and the trick is to string them together nicely. Read a couple of historical novels on the same subject — Alexander, say, or Abraham Lincoln — and you can see that the same beads can be organized into quite different and unique configurations.
In the case of DR. ATOMIC, opera length is just not very effective.