Still in use today in United States Army recruiting materials, the iconic ‘Uncle Sam’ image by James Montgomery Flagg image was first published in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper (1852-1922) a year before America entered WWI. It is consistent with a shift that can be observed cross-culturally at that time towards greater personalization in wartime propaganda. Patriotism, self-sacrifice and “making due”, doing your part at home or at the front, the purchase of war bonds… These were among the themes that were commonly articulated through mass media in both Allied and Axis nations.

(Although presenting a strong image of nationalism and patriotism, Lord Kichener
somehow just doesn’t have quite the same effect!)

This shift towards greater personalization capitalized on both the artistic form (visual narrative) and the popularity of the cartoon / comics medium.

During WWI, an estimated 83% of Americans (children and adults) read at least one comic book or comic strip each day, with comic strips circulating via ~1000 newspapers to reach a potential audience of 60,000,000 weekly throughout the country (Chapman, 2014). Here was a ready-made ‘market’ for institutional messaging such as the US Office of War Information (OWI) propaganda (Chapman, 2014).

Professor Jane Chapman from the University of Lincoln (UK) has undertaken extensive research on this topic, and was a lead contributor to the British Library’s WWI centenary celebration exhibit that opened in 2014, covering Britain, America, Germany, among other countries. A great blog post by Professor Chapman is available here, and a video is available here.

In my previous posts, I made a case for wartime cartoons being a precursor to the development of contemporary comics, and in particular how high art forms such as painting, woodcut and engraving were translated into new forms in cartons and comics through mass media during wartime coverage. Professor Chapman makes a similar assertion linking WWI publications as a critical next step in the development of the later comics format (Chapman, 2014). McCloud (1994) also talks about the developmental link between historical high art and the contemporary comics medium. Some American Civil War cartoons/comics explored iconography, symbolism and new design elements to depict movement and sound, and to evoke feelings of confusion, isolation fear, etc., providing for much richer visual narrative to connect with audiences, and all of which are now recognizable as contemporary comics design archetypes. Many can be observed in WWI and WWII propaganda, through which  they were further developed and established.


– Artist unknown. Published by G.W. Bacon 1914… (somewhat ‘Seussian’!)

Representing and advancement from their earlier use in the American Civil War for instance, comics and cartoons, in the form we know them today, were taken to a new level as mass media phenomena through WWI and WWII and serving similar purposes in both. Chapman (2014) describes:

“Comics occupy an odd position between fiction and reality. And it is this peculiar blurring between the fantasy narrative and that of the real war that increases the susceptibility of readers to the propaganda messages represented. So in wartime, comics helped vilify the enemy and promoted identification with the heroes and all they represented. This dichotomy of the hero and the villain, so intrinsic to comics, means that the medium lends itself naturally to a total war context.”

Here is a fantastic collection of WWI cartoons from Punch Magazine.

For both adult and child audiences, comics in WWI and WWII served as much more than entertainment (Chapman, 2014; Kennedy, 2007; Knopf, 2015; Scott, 2011; Shinn, 2015; Welch, 2013; Wilcott, 2013). Chapman (2014), Scott (2011), Shinn (2015) and Welch (2013) highlight how content and messaging aimed to:

  • encourage men to enlist;
  • encourage women to enter the workforce, to take on supportive roles and/or to replace the men who had gone to the front;
  • serve as instructional manuals for troops and for the general public at home (often for largely illiterate audiences) (Scott, 2011);
  • encourage those at home to purchase war bonds;
  • encouraging political change (e.g. labour union support);
  • encourage both adults and children at home towards rationing and contributing raw material supplies to the military (such as collecting scrap metal);
  • encourage patriotism and solidarity, including at-home political support for government and military leadership; and,
  • dehumanize or caricature the enemy, to either create or undermine fear as well as to justify/reconcile the continuing war effort.

Chapman (2014) notes that comics superheroes:

“directly contributed to the promotion of army recruitment by enlisting
themselves in the armed forces, and this promoted normative ideals of
masculinity. Such characters were drawn up as role models… They encouraged
particular behaviour such as patriotism or correct social mores, while
story lines manipulated stereotypes to further national war aims.”

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– Excerpts from Addie & Hermy, Beano, and Lord Snooty & His Pals

Construction of the ‘Yellow Peril” Through Racist Propaganda

Anti-Japanese and anti-Chinese sentiment were popular themes in comics and other propaganda beginning shortly after the American Civil War in response to the influx of immigrants from these countries during the 1800’s, and continued through WWI and WII, becoming more widespread after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbour in 1941  (Bivins, n.d.; Miles, 2012). The ‘Yellow Peril’ archetype was forged, creating and drawing on cultural and racial stereotypes to evoke the spectre of an insidious threat (Bivins, n.d.). This topic could be (and probably should be) a blog post of its own — I will put it on my list for the future, but for now I have unfortunately run out of time for my LIS 518 course assignment. For an excellent resource on this topic, including image galleries, please visit the University of Oregon’s J387: Media History website here.









 Shoring up morale, creating a shared sense of (transnational) purpose, and helping their peers to deal with first hand experiences of war and life at the front were the explicit purpose of the ‘trench comics’ created by soldier themselves (Chapman, 2014; Kennedy, 2007; Knopf, 2015; Shinn, 2015). Amongst Allied and Axis forces, Chapman (2014) describes ~800 of these newspaper-style field publications in were existence, many featuring these observational trench comics. These comics redefined military heroism to mean ‘persistence’ and ‘perseverance’ vs. desertion (Chapman, 2014; Kennedy, 2007; Knopf, 2015; Shinn, 2015). Bruce Bairnsfather‘s 1915 ‘better ‘ole is considered the most famous of these trench comics/cartoons (Shinn, 2015).

“The concerns of Australians, Canadians, New Zealanders, and British that emerge
from their drawings were similar – food, drink, inadequate medical facilities,
hierarchical military discipline and daily, seemingly pointless, routines. The intended
readership was their peers, in the same battalion, unit or regiment, so these amateur
cartoons capture the inside story, and in particular the stoic spirit of the army… Depictions
of the enemy [would] acknowledge the humanity that was shared by both sides. The
soldiers themselves often portrayed the Germans with a degree of empathy,
them as just doing their job, as the allies were.” -(Chapman, 2014)

A good collection of soldier-made cartoons and comics is available here. And you canvView/download the WWI Made in the Trenches magazine here.

Today, retrospective exploration of WWI and WWII era comics offers contemporary audiences an accessible way to connect with history through visual narratives that draw them in to directly experience aspects of life at the time that have since become abstractions within our collective cultural memory (MacCallum-Stewart, 2003; Shinn, 2015). Of particular interest is how a holistic look back at these popular culture materials leads to a blurring of the boundaries between allies and enemies, as the themes and experiences depicted in the subject matter are common across cultures and contexts, giving rise to homogeneity that helps with reconciliation in peacetime.

Shinn (2015) notes how trench comics in particular challenge the icon of soldiers as heroes, and shine light on the misconceptions that existed regarding life at the front. MacCallum-Stewart (2003) describes:

“… this anti-heroism in the armed forces’ own publications was in sharp contrast
to the way they were portrayed back home – at the Home Front. Here, the media’s
elevation of heroism understandably commemorated those who made the ultimate
sacrifice, but was also aimed at encouraging further recruitment. It had the effect
of raising expectations that were quickly dashed on arrival at the Front.”

These reflections are especially critical for today’s consumers of mass media, i.e. youth, which military (as well as terrorist organization) recruiting is continuing to target through the use of similar themes and messaging, and similarly capitalizing on forms of pop culture. Understanding the misconceptions that existed between real life at the front vs its glorified representations within civilian media at home, may help the youth of today evaluate and critically analyse the contemporary recruiting efforts they are subject to today.

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Daddy,_what_did_You_do_in_the_Great_War?Comics style design elements and archetypes, especially iconography and symbolism, also appeared in other mass media wartime propaganda during WWI and WWII, such as posters, product packaging, and advertising, and aimed at similar objectives (Shinn, 2015; Scott, 2011; Welch, 2013). Animal were especially popular sumbols for nationalism (Scott, 2011; Welch, 2013; Wicott, 2013).

This illustration (to the right) by Savile Lumley, for instance, embodies the ‘doing your part’ theme, aiming to encourage civilians at home to purchase war bonds (Chapman, 2017; Scott, 2011; Welch, 2013).

For a comprehensive image gallery of propaganda from several Allied nations and stakeholder organizations (such as the Red Cross), please visit the World War I Propaganda Posters website, and galleries of British WWI propaganda are available on the British Library website here.

Examples of American WWII propaganda posters are available here.

Comprehensive collections of German pre-WWII and WWII propaganda and caricatures posters are available here, here  and here.

The gallery below contains some of my favourites, from both sides (I’ve deliberately includes examples from both perspectives together, in order to demonstrate the commonalities in themes, subject matter, design elements and archetypes, iconography and symbolism, and overall messaging):

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Bivins, T. (n.d.). J387: Media history [Course website]. University of Oregon. Retreived from

Chapman, J. (2014, May 7). Comics tap into the real emotions of the world wars, The Conversation. Retrieved from

Kennedy, D. M. (Ed.). (2007). The Library of Congress World War II companion. Simon and Schuster. Retrieved from

Knopf, C. M. (2015). The comic art of war: A critical study of military cartoons, 1805-2014, with a guide to artists. McFarland. Retrieved from,&ots=bndmEFH3dR&sig=fCYCS-6pXWrYG_v36qwAmWk8wRs#v=onepage&q=The%20Comic%20Art%20of%20War%3A%20A%20Critical%20Study%20of%20Military%20Cartoons%2C&f=false

MacCallum-Stewart, E. (2003). The First World War and British comics. University of Sussex Journal of Contemporary History, 6: 1-18. Retrieved from

McCloud, S. (1994). Understanding comics: The invisible art. New York: HarperPerennial.

Miles, H. (2012). WWII propaganda: The influence of racism. Artifacts: A Journal of Undergraduate Writing, 6 (March): 1-9. Retrieved from

Scott, C. A. (2011). Comics and conflict: War and patriotically themed comics in American cultural history from World War II through the Iraq War. Dissertations. Paper 74. Retireved from

Shinn, M. (2015, February 9). The front-line funnies: cartoons and comic strips in the First World War. Beyond the Trenches. Retrieved from

Welch, D. (2013). World War One: Propaganda for patriotism and nationalism. The British Library. Retrieved from

Wilcott, J. M. (2013). Wartime art: A study of political propaganda and individual expression in American commercial and combat art during World War II. History Theses.Paper 17. Retrieved from