In his excellent new history/study/biography of comic book superheroes, I think Grant Morrison quite convincingly and significantly frames the horizon for understanding superheroes with the bomb. A lengthy excerpt.
Four miles across a placid stretch of water from where I live in Scotland is RNAD Coulport, home of UK’s Trident-missile-armed nuclear submarine force. Here, I’ve been told, enough firepower is stored in underground bunkers to annihilate the human population of our planet fifty times over. One day, when Earth is ambushed in Hyperspace by fifty Evil Duplicate Earths, this megadestructive capability may, ironically, save us all–but until then, it seems extravagant, somehow emblematic of the accelerated, digital hypersimulation we’ve all come to inhabit.
[. . . ]
And the Bomb, always the Bomb, a grim and looming, raincoated lodger, liable to go off at any minute, killing everybody and everything. His bastard minstrels were gloomy existentialist folkies whining hornrimmed dirges about the “Hard Rain” and the “All on That Day” while I trembled in the corner, awaiting bony-fingered judgment and the extinction of all terrestrial life. Accompanying imagery was provided by the radical antiwar samizdat zines my dad brought home from political bookstores on High Street. Typically, the passionate pacifist manifestos within were illustrated with gruesome hand-drawn images of how the world might look after a spirited thermonuclear missile exchange. The creators of these enthusiastically rendered carrion landscapes never overlooked any opportunity to depict shattered, obliterated skeletons contorted against blazing horizons of nuked and blackened urban devastation. If the artist could find space in his composition for a macabre, eight-hundred-foot-tall Grim Reaper astride a flayed horror horse, sowing missiles like grain across the snaggle-toothed, half-melted skyline, all the better.
Like visions of Heaven and Hell on a medieval triptych, the postatomic wastelands of my dad’s mags sat side by side with the exotic, tripple-sunned vistas that graced the covers of my mum’s beloved science fiction paperbacks. . . .
On television, images of pioneering astronauts vied with bleak scenes from Hiroshima and Vietnam: It was an all-or-nothing choice between the A-Bomb and the Spaceship. I had already picked sides, but the Cold War tension between Apocalypse and Utopia was becoming almost unbearable. And then the superheroes rained down across the Atlantic, in a dazzling prism-light of heraldic jumpsuits, bringing new ways to see and hear and think about everything. . . .
The superheroes laughed at the Atom Bomb. . . .
Before it was a Bomb, the Bomb was an Idea.
Superman, however, was a Faster, Stronger, Better Idea (Grant Morrison, Super Gods [New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2011], xiii-xv).