Trinity: the birth of nuclear weapons in graphic novel form

Jonathan Fetter-Vorm's Trinity is a nonfiction book-length comic for adults about the birth of nuclear weapons. It covers the wartime events that spawned the idea of a nuclear weapons program, the intense period of wrangling that gave rise to the Manhattan Project, the strange scientific town in the New Mexico desert that created the A-bomb, the tactical and political decision-making process that led to the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the unspeakable horror experienced by the people in those cities and the existential crises the Nuclear Age triggered for scientists, politicians, and the world at large. Though this is primarily a history book, Trinity is also a pretty good nuclear physics primer, making good use of the graphic novel form to literally illustrate the violence of atoms tearing themselves apart, and the weird, ingenious, improvised mechanisms for triggering and controlling that violence.

I think Trinity is a very good book. It manages to be short and straightforward without being crude or lacking nuance. Fetter-Vorm does a great job of bringing the personalities involved in the bomb's creation to life, and to show the way that human relationships -- as much as physics -- resulted in the bomb's invention and use. He walks a fine, non-partisan line on the need to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki, opting instead to lay out the facts in a (to my eye) fair and neutral way that neither argues that the bombing was a necessity, nor that it was a callous whim from a military apparatus that wanted to test out its latest gadget.

More than anything, though, Trinity is unflinching in counting the human cost of the bomb. The pages given over to the aftermath in the bombed cities are, if anything, understated. No gross-outs here. But they manage to convey so much horror that I had to stop reading so I could finish my lunch. Also wrenching, in its own way, is the section on the impact that the news from Japan had on the Trinity scientists and their families. Fetter-Vorm does a credible (and disturbing) job of putting you in the shoes of people who wanted to "end the war," but who found no respite in the war's end, as they struggled with the feeling of blood on their hands.

Trinity illuminates a turning-point in human history, and does so with admirable pace, grace, and skill.


(Excerpted from TRINITY: A Graphic History of the First Atomic Bomb, by Jonathan Fetter-Vorm, to be published by Hill and Wang, a division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC in June 2012. Text copyright © 2012 by Jonathan Fetter-Vorm and Michael Gallagher. Illustrations copyright © 2012 by Jonathan Fetter-Vorm. All rights reserved.)


  1. Did the Bomb save more lives than it cost, or vice versa? 
    A never ending debate.

    1. Lifesaving bombs – an oxymoron if there ever was one. And there is no shortage of morons in the Executive branch of the US government – let alone in the United States Military.

    2. Until the day we consider such weapons obsolete (meaning we have found something even more energetic to wave around like a oversized stick), that tally will not be completed.

    3. I used to believe that the US was looking for any excuse to drop the thing, but the more I read of personal accounts of the time the more it seems that Japan may not have surrendered easily. They were putting out peace feelers but on their terms. I also believe that the Soviet threat, hardening as it did, caused the US to make a point. The problem was of course that Russia had so many spies in England and the US that they already had the plans for their own nuke. Finally, I think that Truman wanted to exact a price from Japan for Pearl and was saying to the world at large: “Don’t mess with us”.

      In this regard it has probably saved more lives, not to mention the lives saved by preventing another world war through the concept of mutual assured destruction. Now we need to worry about terrorists, Iran, North K. etc. When these chapters are written the answer may very well be different, if there is anyone around to notice.

  2. To nitpick: Ernest Rutherford was from New Zealand, NOT Britain!  (Look it up!)

    Kiwis, represent!  We don’t have many super-famous physicists (only Pickering and Rutherford) so we can’t afford to lose one to Britain…

    1. I totally came here to nitpick that myself. 

      It’s not even a typical “oh they lived their entire life somewhere else but were born here first” kiwi claim – he only moved to Britain in 1907, and his only previous time there was doing postgraduate study at Cambridge on scholarship. 

      1. Ditto to above, apparently nothing irks kiwis like stealing their famous scientists

          1. Or stealing their dessert recipes; taking credit for a certain famous racehorse; thinking the Wright’s have a valid claim to ‘first powered flight’ and speculating that an Englishman could have been first on the summit of Everest… ;-)

    2. He was born in NZ but did a lot of work in Canada and his best work in the Victoria University of Manchester. The impressive group of theorists that developed the theory and built the bomb is filled with those to whom country meant little. Many were German Jews hiding from the Nazis. In fact they were all citizens of the world.

  3. This is the most off-beat Prometheus promotion I’ve seen yet.

    But seriously, folks — I love me a good non-fiction graphic novel, and I love me a good how-they-created-scientific-breakthough-x, so I’m really happy to have chocolate in my peanut butter today.

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