The Nuclear Family and The Outsiders

I was born in the early seventies and grew up in the eighties during the end of the Cold War. During that time the possibility of nuclear holocaust felt like an ever-present danger. I did not practice duck and cover drills in school or anything but we did have fallout shelter signs showing us how to get to the basements of the old buildings we went to school in. It was also a major topic in pop culture. There were plenty of Sunday night movies dealing with the subject, like “The Day After”, “Special Bulletin” and “Testament”. It was the subject of major motion pictures like “Wargames”, “Damnation Alley”, and “The Manhattan Project”. Finally, it was a topic in the comics we read, in this case, The Adventures of the Outsiders issues 39 and 40.

I should say up front that when I was a kid Batman and The Outsiders, The Outsiders (Baxter series) and Adventures of the Outsiders were comics my brother collected. I may have read an issue here and there but really I’ve only got into the series in recent years. I grabbed these two issues at a convention from the cheapo bins because they are the first stories with the Nuclear family, a team of nuclear powered robots. The robots were created by Dr. Shanner to resemble his own family who had died from radiation poisoning from his own research. They are also designed to appear like the idyllic “nuclear” family of the fifties consisting of a father, mother, two boys, a daughter, and a small dog.

“Do you want to play a game?”

I recently came across the characters in a short story in the 2018 DC Nuclear Winter Special. They are the story “Last Christmas” written by Paul Dini with art by Jerry Ordway. The story is a Firestorm story and is actually my favorite in the anthology. As a side note, the whole anthology was one of the better ones that DC has put out in recent years, I would recommend finding it. While researching this piece I found on Comic Vine that the Nuclear family actually have very few appearances, which include Who’s Who and The DC Comics Encyclopedia. This surprises me because in the right hands they could be foils for lots of DC heroes. Anyway, let’s get to the story.

Creators

Writer / Editor / Co-creator – Mike Barr
Artist / Co-creator – Jim Aparo
Colorist – Helen Vesik

The story opens with a young woman speaking to a sick man hidden by shadows sitting in a wheelchair. He is describing what happens in a nuclear explosion, in graphic detail. He describes what would happen if an atomic device blew up in Los Angeles. First, there would be the nuclear radiation, killing everything in a six-mile radius. Then the electromagnetic pulse, then the thermal pulse, the fireball, the mushroom cloud, and the blast wave, all followed by the radioactive fallout. Honestly, it is pretty heavy stuff.

We learn that the man is Dr. Shanner and he is upset that the world doesn’t realize how dangerous nuclear radiation is. He wrote a book that no one read. He and the young woman believe that everyone needs to know how dangerous nuclear power is, and they have a plan to get their point across. That plan involves introducing the world to the Nuclear Family!

We cut to the Outsiders who are in their new base of operations, an off-shore rig a mile off the coast of Santa Monica. The team is sitting around discussing their split with Batman and celebrating their move to the west coast.  We then see the team members adjusting to their new lives in California. Halo and Katana are unpacking a moving truck, Black Lightning and Metamorpho are having breakfast and Looker is getting a modeling job.

After this nice day-in-the-life bit, we move on to the team working on providing security at the opening of a new Nuclear Power plant. There are protesters outside the plant and the Outsiders have been hired to provide some undercover security in case things get out of hand. Next, we see the young woman, who was working with Dr. Shanner earlier, in the back of a delivery van filled with all kinds of technical equipment. She is recording notes for her book called “Fear”. We learn that she is Professor Andrea Wye and she is fascinated by fear and how it influences the human race. She is also directing a team of terrorists who are headed to the nuclear power plant.

The team of terrorists are foiled by the Outsiders before they can complete their mission. They are not the only ones breaking into the power plant though. Dr. Shanner’s Nuclear Family, who appears to look like a typical American family, easily work their way through the crowds to a hidden backdoor entrance. The family makes their way to the core and the alarms sound. The sounds of the sirens sends the Outsiders into the plant and the dignitaries currently on tour run out screaming the place is going to explode. This sends the crowds outside into a panic.

Meanwhile, the Outsiders have found the Nuclear Family. At first, the Outsiders think they are just a family who need to see a doctor when suddenly they are attacked. The Nuclear family starts firing radioactive blasts from their hands at them. The Outsiders try to defend themselves while the family spout quips about drinking coffee and how cute Geoforce is. They are really written to sound like the Cleaver family from “Leave it to Beaver”.

The battle ends when Halo hits the Nuclear family with a stasis aura. When the family is subdued the Outsiders realize that they are not human and once they get them transported back to their headquarters they find out that they are actually robots! In order to figure out what the robot’s purpose is they need to find their creator. Somehow they need to let the Nuclear family go and then follow them when they return to their maker. They deposit the robots in the hills above the Pacific coast highway and just as the Outsiders had hoped when the family wakes up they don’t know what happened and decide the best course of action is to head home. As they do this we cut back to Outsiders headquarters and see that one of the robots, the mom, is still in the stasis chamber.

Back at Doc Shanner’s house he and Professor Wye are arguing. The professor has realized that Shanner had bigger plans for the nuclear plant than just scaring the public with a fake attack. The family returns and Shanner is very pleased that they were not captured and did not reveal his plans to the authorities. As the family settles in Professor Wye realizes the Nuclear family looks just like the Doctor’s deceased family! She confronts him saying that he told her his family all died of radiation poisoning and that was why he was helping her. He then reveals his true plan that he intends to blow up Los Angeles.

At the end of the last issue Looker accidentally revealed herself by gasping when Dr. Shanner said he was going to use the Nuclear family to destroy Los Angeles and prove how horrible nuclear power can be. Professor Wye uses some kind of tranquilizer on Looker and then heads out to her van telling Shanner she has to add his story to her book. In reality, she realizes she needs to get away from the Doctor, the Nuclear family, and the city as quickly as possible.

Meanwhile, the Outsiders are getting worried that Looker is in trouble. They decide to move things along by taking the mom robot and go to a local golf course. They then hide hoping the radiation emitted from the robot will attract the rest of the family. The plan works but the robots are too much for the Outsiders who are defeated and the family gets away. Time for a new plan.

Using the walkie talkies they took from the fake terrorists the Outsiders are able to track down the communications van Professor Wye is driving. Sure, it’s a bit of a stretch, but they’re out of captured robots and the story isn’t really going to end with Los Angeles getting blown up. Once the team gets ahold of the professor she says she’ll tell them everything if they let her go. Eventually, Wye gives up all the details of Shanner’s plans. The Outsiders decide that they cannot go to the authorities because it will cause panic in the city and that will make it even harder to stop the Nuclear family.

The team heads off to Shanner’s home while Wye gets back in her van trying to get as far away as possible. They confront the doctor demanding to know where the nuclear robots are. Shanner goes off on a tirade about how his family died and how the world needs to learn a lesson the hard way. Halo finds Looker who is just coming too. Since the doctor won’t tell them what they want to know the team decides to head off to the new nuclear power plant hoping that the Nuclear family is there.

Their hunch was right. The Nuclear family is about to destroy the reactor just as the sun is coming up when the Outsiders attack. Since they know the family are just robots they are really able to cut loose now. Katana dismembers the little boy robot. Metamorpho turns into lead and deflects a blast from the mother robot into the dad robot which knocks him out of commission temporarily. The family recovers enough to get everyone back to the reactor so they can complete their mission.

The Outsiders get it together enough to do something to stop them. Honestly, I didn’t understand what happened in this scene. Geoforce and Metamorpho fly up to the family…do something… and there is an explosion. The result is the reactor is intact and there are robot parts littering the ground. The story concludes with Doctor Shanner hearing that his plan was foiled while listening to the news on the radio. We also learn that Metamorpho turned himself into Trinitrotoluene, or TNT, and exploded the Nuclear family robots before they could reach critical mass and blow up the reactor tower. The final image is of a book store featuring the national bestseller book, “How to Survive the Coming Nuclear War”

Wrap up

This story brought back all those memories from growing up when the idea of nuclear bombs destroying all of creation felt like something that really could happen. It reminded me of watching “The Day After” with my mom and understanding that this was something that was possible. I would like to mention that I’ve revisited some of these movies in the past couple of years and they are still quite terrifying. That being said though Wargames is a movie I really do love. As an adult, I have my own thoughts about nuclear power and arms proliferation, but I don’t worry so much about a possible holocaust. There are other horrors in this world and more immediate things to worry about.

I also want to mention that I don’t fully understand how Batman and the Outsiders, The Outsiders (Baxter series), and Adventures of the Outsiders publishing actually worked. The Outsiders #1 and Batman and the Outsiders #27 were both cover-dated Nov 1985. In The Outsiders, the team has split with Batman and moved to the West Coast. The split doesn’t occur in Batman and the Outsiders #32 covered dated April 1986. The following month Adventures of the Outsiders starts with issue #33. Adventures of the Outsiders continues until issue #39 when it starts reprinting The Outsiders #1. I just don’t get how the new series started before the team had broken up in the main book, or how the main book continued for several months afterwards. If you get it, let me know in the comments.

Let’s talk about something more positive now. These stories come from an era when I think comics were at their best. Mike Barr writes a big story across two issues but also manages to do a lot of character building and works in details that make the Outsiders compelling. In the scenes where Halo and Katana are moving into their new home, we get some real insight into the “mother” “daughter” aspects of their relationship that runs throughout the series. When Black Lightning and Metamorpho are having lunch they are not in costume and it is just Jeff and Rex enjoying the start of their day. It is details like this that add life to the story.

My favorite thing about these comics though is the Jim Aparo art. His linework is so tight and clean. The characters are so well defined, they are strong, and their emotions portrayed beautifully. The action sequences are brief but everything is done quickly and clearly in order to keep the story moving. The scenes where Doctor Shanner is describing what would happen if there was a nuclear explosion in the city are appropriately horrifying and intense. It is really enjoyable looking over his work. For that reason, I am going to close with the cover of Outsiders #2, the Baxter comic that the stories were originally published in. While I really like the Adventures #40 cover you simply cannot beat the intensity of the original cover.

Image courtesy of Chris Sheehan because I could not find my copy
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