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average writing
mediocre art
historical bonus 3
total score 5
Nuclear Dragons Attack!
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All-Atomic Comics
Only Printing / 1978 / 28 pages / Shelby Sopher and John Piper
Despite the presence of fire-breathing dragons on the cover, this is a documentary-style comic designed to educate and rally native citizens (primarily Métis and First Nations Aboriginal people) of Saskatchewan, Canada against big-corporate uranium mining. The dragons are metaphorical representations for uranium, a radioactive element that is mined and processed for use as fuel in nuclear power plants. Saskatchewan has the largest and highest grade uranium deposits in the world, first discovered in the 1930s and extensively mined beginning in the '50s.

In the '70s, corporate mining interests began working with the Canadian government to aggressively pursue uranium mining in Saskatchewan, which led to a grass-roots anti-nuclear movement and the development of Nuclear Dragons Attack! The book presents two types of propaganda on alternating pages. Half of the pages deliver a dramatic story of a local man leading opposition forces against mining interests, while the other half provide a multitude of maps, photos and editorial text describing the activities of the mining companies and voicing concern for the lifestyle and future of native populations.

Nuclear Dragons Attack! was conceived and drawn by art student Shelley Sopher and co-written by commercial fisherman John Piper. Their effort is admirably passionate, though their product is scarcely light entertainment. Sopher had never seen an underground comic book before starting this project, but she was inspired to use the medium as her platform by a collection of communist Chinese comic books republished in New York. Nuclear Dragons Attack! was published by the authors, printed on a borrowed press and locally distributed through environmental, anti-nuclear, labor, and church groups.

While there is no question about the sincerity of their motives or the general legitimacy of their cause, the authors make a pretty weak case against local uranium mining and often contradict themselves. Instead of focusing on the many dangers of nuclear energy development and operations, as Leonard Rifas did in All-Atomic Comics (1976), Sopher and Piper put too much focus on the impact of mining on local citizens and their lifestyles.

Sometimes their rationale is excellent, such as pointing out that mining companies will rape the land and then split the scene, leaving an environmental mess behind. But they also complain that local natives are only given non-skilled positions without admitting that the locals aren't qualified to do anything but non-skilled positions. In fact, they say the locals want more jobs that fit their lifestyle of being "independent and casual." Just what kind of jobs fit the description of being "independent and casual"? Surely not the type that helps manage a uranium mining operation.

They complain about jobs that rotate between one week on and one week off, but admit that those non-skilled jobs pay exceptionally well. One character in the story laments getting laid off after two years because company profits were down and gripes that his "goddamn boss couldn't care less about us!" but never acknowledges the significant benefits he gained from working at a non-skilled, great-paying job for two years.

They complain about the lack of economic development yet repeatedly sneer at the tourists who are their most potent source of non-traditional income. They claim that "profits from tourism go south" to the United States, yet show a local native operating a guide service on a lake. The guide grumbles that "These tourists who come up the road think they can go anywhere with a map and they spend more on booze than on guides!" Yeah, damn those tourists who can read a map and are out to have a good time. How about figuring out how to capture those tourist dollars instead of bitching about how they spend them? And aren't liquor stores also run by locals who need money?

I did not intend this review to turn into a tirade about the content of the book, because it is generally well researched and educated its readers about the mining situation. But it's difficult to demonize the Canadian government for generating millions of dollars by allowing companies to mine the largest and richest resource for uranium on Earth. The harvesting of natural resources with industrial value like oil and uranium is virtually inevitable, especially in areas rich with those resources. Not mining uranium in Saskatchewan is akin to not drilling for oil in Saudi Arabia. The key is to ensure that such harvesting is done in a way that is safe for workers and does as little environmental damage as possible. On that front, the Canadian government was short-sighted, as they failed to set up rules and regulations that would minimize safety hazards and environmental impact.

Nuclear Dragons Attack! does a good job of laying out the issues and providing its point of view, but whether it made any impact on the mining situation is doubtful. Leonard Rifas published an article about anti-nuclear comic books in 2007 that provides an interesting history of such publications. As Rifas wrote, "...comics that criticized nuclear power arose as a way for their creators to express personal concerns and communicate with their readers as peers, rather than as tools to manipulate target audiences.... Anti-nuclear comics probably had no measurable impact distinguishable from the impacts of the 'no nukes' movement that circulated them."

At the conclusion of Nuclear Dragons Attack! the authors boldly declare "From now on, the north won't accept developments imposed by government for the profit of southern corporations." They were wrong. In fact, almost every project feared in the book came to fruition, including the Cluff Lake mine, which began operations within a couple years, ran for over two decades and produced 62 million pounds of yellowcake uranium ore before being decommissioned in 2002. In a petition filed with the Canadian government, it is claimed that the company that managed the mine, Cogema, did "nothing to assess the health effects of alpha radiation on its workers over 22 years." And that "out of the miners studied and followed, some 1,220 have died from lung cancer - practically twice the number of average or expected cases in a normal population."

There are similar stories about uranium mining across Saskatchewan, which continues full bore to this day. So if it didn't change anything, was Nuclear Dragons Attack! worth the effort? I think it was. At the very least, it educated hundreds of people who read it, which in northern Saskatchewan represents a relatively significant percentage of its population. As an artifact of the era, it was included in the article by Rifas about anti-nuclear comic publications. It was also reviewed on this site, leading to thousands of people researching the uranium mining situation in Saskatchewan. Right? Right...?
It is currently unknown how many copies of this comic book were printed, but it is believed to be less than 1,000 copies. It has not been reprinted.
Shelley Sopher - 1-28 (concept, art, script collaboration)
John Piper - 1-28 (script collaboration)
Bembo Davies - 3-26 (collaboration on script for fictional story)