Atom Style was named after the fact. It is perceived to have emerged in the 1950s, and can broadly be defined as a post-War style. It’s a modernist style, which is to very broadly say it’s self-conscious about being done with the past and looking ahead to the future. A ruthlessly joyful optimism. It was later challenged and ultimately usurped in the cultural milieu by post-modernism, which is, again broadly speaking, a process of dragging the past into the present and examining it in new light to see what it really is.
It’s a style about futurity, and design. Frank Lloyd Wright and Alvar Aalto. It’s about cool jazz and Hard Bop, the 1950s of Raymond Loewy and his beautiful rocket-tipped Studebakers. Modernism was meant to be lived in, lived with, danced to, driven. A beautiful world to be used with pleasure, the absolute antidote to post-war austerity. These were dreams of sudden possibility.
You’ll know it as Fifties Retro — the sharp suits and finned cars. But Atom Style — named for the Atomium building and exhibition of 1958, the Brussels World’s Fair — is, in Swarte’s words, “a style… which from time to time is reanimated for a moment, when fashion needs it.”
In the late Seventies and early Eighties, then, creators like Swarte were drawn to the Fifties style in much the same way as postpunk musicians looked back for missed opportunities to dance with, for much the same reasons. Punk was fun, but No Future isn’t interesting. You can’t deny the future. My favourite line from the fine piece of postmodernism that is DEADWOOD is “You do not fuck the future, sir. The future fucks you.” No Future is fear of the future, inability to cope with the future, the inability to desire — desire was a key postpunk word, as in the politics of desire, the philosophy of desire — and is ultimately fuckless. And no-one wants a fuckless future. Swarte and his friends and fellow travellers were happy to define and then return to the Atom Style, a style of love and action and a time when it still seemed possible to do anything.
Paul Gravett, who has written brilliantly of the Atom Style (as he has of so many things, remaining, to my mind, the pre-eminent Anglophone commentator on the medium), provides the following definition of its energy: “Suddenly, we are in the 21st century and we are living in the future. Now more than ever, we need the playful vision and liberating spirit of the ‘Atom Style’ to help us look back to the futures that might have been, and look ahead to the futures still to come.”
Joost Swarte’s is a robot head I could use, but the original is inconveniently still alive and harvesting seagulls off the prow of his spaceship over the top of my house, the bastard. I’ve got some metal-and-particleboard shelving in the back garden that I keep meaning to assemble for plant staging (I grow things, but not as well as, say, Sir Peter Cook, who has conceived of vegetal, edible cities). I’d really like to use the shelving units to arrange the robot heads of Joost Swarte, Paul Gravett and Scott McCloud. That’s a conversation I’d like to hear. Perhaps fuse them into a single Lugus-like tripartite head with Druilletesque moss growing over them and a Kirby Krackle halo.
I’m just back from Los Angeles and San Diego, so don’t even think about it.
I can be sent things via Avatar Press at Avatar Press, 515 N. Century Blvd., Rantoul, IL 61866, USA, but I cannot promise a response or a review. Although, let’s be honest, it’s fairly likely, as eventually the ANYTHING section will need to be about comics. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, but I warn you, it’s a dump address, not my regular email address, so it can take me a few days to check it.
DO ANYTHING is © Warren Ellis 2009, all rights reserved.