During the inter-war years between WWI and WWII, comic books resumed their role as an entertainment medium, offering escapism and adventure stories (Scott, 2011). Among other things, comic books helped in reconciling the WWI experience for children, youth and young adults who either lived through it or were experiencing its inter-generational latter effects via in their upbringing by parents/families who lived through it (Chapman, 2014; Scott, 2011).
For children in particular, “[t]he comic book has served as a way to introduce the young reader to adult topics, and yet allow them to retain some sort of separation from reality” (Scott, 2011).
New themes explored in inter-war comics tended towards social justice, such as bad employers (especially in response to the Great Depression through the 1930’s, and this was Superman’s original mission, in fact); or combating minor dictators, typically set in Europe (Chapman, 2014; Harrington, n.d.; Gravett, 2008; Johnson, n.d.; Kennedy, 2007; Knopf, 2015; Miles, 2012; Scott, 2011; Sheppard, 2014; Turello, 2015; Unites States Propaganda Comics, 2016; Wilcott, 2013).
During WWII, comics transitioned back to their role in disseminating messaging for civilian and military audiences, along with morale-boosting and patriotic content with battle taken over the adventure genre (Chapman, 2014; Harrington, n.d.; Gravett, 2008; Johnson, n.d.; Kennedy, 2007; Knopf, 2015; Miles, 2012; Scott, 2011; Sheppard, 2014; Turello, 2015; Unites States Propaganda Comics, 2016; Wilcott, 2013). Comic books became an important venue for supplemental content to serve as propaganda, including advertising for such things as toy weapons, paramilitary youth clubs, and scrap metal collection campaigns (Kennedy, 2007; Scott, 2011). Importantly, sympathetic portrayals of European countries replaced their oppositional portrayals in the inter-war comics (Harrington, n.d.; Gravett, 2008; Johnson, n.d.; Kennedy, 2007; Scott, 2011; Sheppard, 2014; Turello, 2015). Themes and purposes were consistent with those seen in WWI, but during WWII Superheroes infiltrated as new role models. Additionally, creators and publishers experienced new forms institutional (government, military) control that interfered with intellectual freedom (Harrington, n.d.; Gravett, 2008; Johnson, n.d.; Kennedy, 2007; Scott, 2011; Sheppard, 2014; Turello, 2015).
Superman (Action Comics / DC Comics) and Captain America (Marvel Comics, circa 1941) were the ‘big two’ during WWII, both by Jewish creators (Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster and Joe Simon & Jack Kirby, respectively). These characters were inserted into front line combat, and at the beginning on WWII some of these characters’ stories positioned them in direct opposition with enemy German and Japanese icons, frequently serving in peacemaker or moral authority roles holding enemies accountable (Gravett, 1008; Harrington, n.d.; Sheppard, 2014):
“Superman kidnapped the leaders of both armies, took them to a field and told
them to finish the war between themselves. Only after they realized that they had
forgotten what they were fighting for did the war end.” -(Harrington, n.d.)
“For the February 27 1940 issue of Look weekly, Siegel and Shuster were commissioned
to create a two-page expose showing How Superman Would End The War. After he
pummels Germany’s fortifications on the Siegfried Line, Superman grabs Hitler and Stalin
and flies them to Geneva where they are found guilty of ‘unprovoked aggression against
defenceless countries’ by the League Of Nations, forerunner of the UN. This
condemnation of the Nazis seems to have worked as propaganda. It reportedly infuriated
Joseph Goebbels, himself a master propagandist, so much that he angrily proclaimed
‘Superman is Jewish!’ in a meeting.” -(Gravett, 2008)
Captain America later did punch to Hitler (Gravett, 2008). Gravett (2008) notes that both sets of creators drew criticism and threats from Nazi leadership abroad as well as enemy sympathizers at home.
Harrington (n.d.) describes that as the war progressed, creators tended to avoid directly representing enemies and naming enemy countries within their stories, transitioning to the use of ‘veiled parodies’, and very little content dealt directly with WWII. However, comic book covers remained the canvas upon which Superheroes could engage with enemies (often as the aggressor) (Gravett, 2008; Harrington, n.d.), and Harrington (n.d.) describes, “These covers were strong images and did serve the war effort as a sign of complete support… it may be that the stories inside intentionally avoided the subject of war as a means of escape for a weary nation.” This is consistent with the role of comics and cartoons during earlier conflicts aiming to help both civilians and soldiers deal with the everyday drudgery and hardships (MacCallum-Stewart, 2003; Shinn, 2015).
During WWII, the American government and military leveraged comics books as a tool for information dissemination to civilians and soldiers, specifically commissioning stories in several issues (Harrington, n.d.; Gravett, 2008; Kennedy, 2007; Scott, 2011; Sheppard, 2014; Turello, 2015; Unites States Propaganda Comics, 2016; Wilcott, 2013). For example, Harrington (n.d. ) describes that Superman #25 was meant to explain to citizens what the US Army does in an effort to encourage civilian support.
On the flip side of this, the US government and security agencies intervened to censor comics creators, preventing publication of stories that contained information that was deemed sensitive security intelligence (Harrington, n.d.; Gravett, 2008; Kennedy, 2007; Scott, 2011; Turello, 2015; Unites States Propaganda Comics, 2016; Wilcott, 2013). Harrington (n.d.) provides several examples in his article Superman and the War Years: The Battle of Europe Within the Pages of Superman Comics, some relating to the Superman newspaper comic strip (which incorporated WWII subject matter more directly than did the comics books, and which also had a much wider audience than the comic books). To me, this indicates the genius of Superman’s creators! The most impressive of the censoring efforts was relating to the comic book Superman #38 (1946), wherein Lex Luthor introduced the ‘atomic bomb’ as a tool in his weapons locker (Harrinton, n.d.). Harrington (n.d.) describes that:
“Since the Manhattan project, which gave rise to the first two American nuclear weapons, was in full swing in 1944, the Defense Department wanted nothing tipping off the Germans that American was even considering work on an atomic bomb, not even from a comic book… Government agents came to DC’s offices and demanded that the story [scheduled to be published in 1944] not be printed until official clearance was given [after the end of WWII]”.
Captain America, ‘retired’ after WWII, whereas Superman went on to even greater things (with company from the likes of Iron Man, Captain Marvel and Ms. Marvel) (Harrington, n.d.; Gravett, 2008; Kennedy, 2007; Scott, 2011; Sheppard, 2014; Turello, 2015; Unites States Propaganda Comics, 2016; Wilcott, 2013). Harrington (n.d.) suggests this was due to Superman & DC Comics stepping back from incorporating direct WWII content; DC Superheroes were not constructed against the specific WWII context, which allowed them flexibility to adapt to new subject matter, such as the Cold War era, as the world’s political stage changed (Harrington, n.d.)
I will end here, with the Cold War era imminent. My intent is to explore the topic of comics and the Cold War in a future blog post. For now, please read Sheppard’s 2014 article Invincible: Legacy and Propaganda in Superhero Comics looking at the Iron Man through the Cold War, compared to Captain America during WWII.
Here is a great video tutorial on Comics in WWII propaganda:
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Chapman, J. (2014, May 7). Comics tap into the real emotions of the world wars, The Conversation. Retrieved from http://theconversation.com/comics-tap-into-the-real-emotions-of-the-world-wars-26018
Gravett, P. (2008, April 18). Time for heros. The Guardian Online. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2008/apr/19/film.features
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Turello, D. (2015, November 3). War and superheroes: How the Writer’s War Board used comics to spread its message in WWII. Insights: Scholarly Work at the John W. Kluge Center, Library of Congress. Retrieved from https://blogs.loc.gov/kluge/2015/11/war-and-superheroes-how-the-writers-war-board-used-comics-to-spread-its-message-in-wwii/
United States Propaganda Comics. (2016, June 19). In Wikipedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_propaganda_comics
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 http://digitalcommons.buffalostate.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1017&context=history_theses