In contrast to cultural history that draws on high art that is largely inaccessible to the masses and provides only encapsulated excerpts, Scott (2011) describes that “… popular cultural history draws on a broader base of materials and a more complete record, especially for the past two centuries (a period roughly coterminous with the existence of the United States of America). Thus, as historical subjects get closer to the present and the depth and breadth of evidence expands, it is increasingly possible to write history that reconstructs the mental universe in which ordinary people lived.”
“A major part of this record consists of popular narrative forms, which reflect—
in a less self-conscious way than elite writing and art—the beliefs, hopes, aspirations,
and fears that shaped humanity‘s past. In short, the materials of cultural history are
exactly those that had previously been unavailable or underappreciated by conventional
methods of historiography.” (Scott, 2011)
Within wartime contexts when comics accessible to the general population served in institutional messaging, themes encouraging patriotism, etc. were prioritized. Materials presenting alternative or contrasting/oppositional themes, such as mental illness, victimization, cowardice and daily drudgery were suppressed (Scott, 2011). Retrospective examination of these wartime materials, along with contemporary materials infusing these themes into new historical interpretations (both fictional and non-fictional) through such works as Spiegelman’s Maus, have shed light on this disconnect and are helping to complete the historical record to include these stories to connect with a broader public audience (Scott, 2011; Shinn, 2015; MacCallum-Stewart, 2003).
In addition to increasing the heterogeneity of materials informing the historical record on conflicts (the World Wars and others), many contemporary works have served as vehicles for reconciling the experiences of direct victimization or inter-generational trauma, as well as cultural annihilation, for both their creators and readers. For some creators, this outlet has help heal from mental illness (e.g. post-traumatic stress disorder) stemming from their conflict experience (In the Shadow of No Towers, 2016). See: Spiegelman’s Maus about his father’s experience as a Jewish prisoner and Holocaust survivor (and, more recently, In the Shadow of No Towers, about the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York City); Satrapi’s Persepolis regarding the 1979 Iranian Revolution and the resettlement experience; Nakazawa’s Barefoot Gen recounting experiences of Japanese survivors of the WWII Hiroshima bombing; Yang’s Boxers & Saints, presenting fictional civilian experiences of life in China during the Boxer Rebellion and its aftermath. Many of these were originally published as weekly strips in newspaper or magazines, but more recently have been republished as compilations in book form (as graphic novels).
Reconciliation of themes embodied in materials produced during wartime vs contemporary interpretations/expressions can be problematic, accompanied by retroscpective explorations of ‘alternative’ wartime materials such as trench comics created by soldiers (MacCallum-Stewart, 2003; Scott, 2011; Shinn, 2015). McCallum-Stewart (2003) notes a disconnect between the ‘anti-hero’ messaging and subject matter of contemporary works vs works produced during wartime specifically aimed at promoting the image of the wartime ‘hero’. MacCallum-Stewart (2003) points specifically to Pat Mills and Joe Colquhoun’s comic strip Charley’s War about WWI soldiers that appeared in the British magazine Battle Picture Weekly from 1979-1986 — These depictions are much more consistent with trench comics produced during WWII, which reflect the drudgery of the daily life of soldiers at the front and embody ‘perseverance’ as the alternative ‘hero’ image/motto (MacCallum-Stewart, 2003; Shinn, 2015).
Comics have been also utilized in popular media immediately after the end of conflicts to help citizens/survivors process their experiences (as I describe here), rebuild society and resume normal everyday lives (Aoki, 2016). With respect to post-WWII Japan, for instance, Aoki (2016) describes that:
“Humorous four-panel [manga] comic strips about family life such as Sazae-san
were a welcome reprieve from the harshness of post-war life. Created by Machiko
Hasegawa, Sazae-san was a light-hearted look at daily life through the eyes of a
young housewife and her extended family. A pioneering female mangaka in a
male-dominated field, Hasegawa enjoyed many years of success drawing Sazae-san,
which ran for almost 30 years in the Asahi Shinbun (Asahi Newspaper). Sazae-san was
also made into an animated TV series and radio serial.”
Scott (2011) describes how comic book creators and the industry have also undergone a process of reconciliation and transformation as part of pop culture history:
“At first, they are quasi-propagandists. Early comic books were written to create
a broader, stronger spectrum of patriotism among readers. Images and dialogue, plot
and character (as well as extra-textual elements like advertisements) all worked to inform
or influence the susceptible reader. In recent years, however, they have often been critical of
United States policy abroad, and some questioned the patriotic cause and conventional wisdom
as early as the Korean War. During the 1950s, smaller comic book publishers were the most
willing to challenge the official line, but they were not commercially successfully and
eventually went out of business. Starting in the 1960s, however, some of the larger producers started to publish more daring story lines that ran counter to American policy, a trend that
became predominant by the 1990s.”
I intend to explore these topic further in a future post, but for now please read Esther McCallum-Stewart’s 2003 paper The First World War and British Comics looking at Charley’s War. Also read Dr. Julian Chambliss’ 2012 paper Superhero Comics: Artifacts of the U.S. Experience that includes a discussion the Cold War era context of Iron Man and how transitions in its story arc and cultural expressions have responded to shifting public opinion in America.
In the Shadow of No Towers. (2016, January 8). In Wikipedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/In_the_Shadow_of_No_Towers
MacCallum-Stewart, E. (2003). The First World War and British comics. University of Sussex Journal of Contemporary History, 6: 1-18. Retrieved from https://www.sussex.ac.uk/webteam/gateway/file.php?name=ems&site=15
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 http://ecommons.luc.edu/luc_diss/74
Shinn, M. (2015, February 9). The front-line funnies: cartoons and comic strips in the First World War. Beyond the Trenches. Retrieved from http://beyondthetrenches.co.uk/tag/comics/