Books: Clash of Race and Culture During World War II Part
1 Part 2
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The following is a paper I wrote for
college in 2002:
American Comic Books: Clash of Race and Culture During World War
II: Part 1
As 1940 dawned, America watched far-off conflicts brewing on the
far side of both its ocean borders. Though officially neutral,
American's suspiciously eyed the aggressive actions of the
Germans across the eastern Atlantic and the Japanese across the
western Pacific. Neutrality was set aside on December 7th, 1941.
Germany and Japan were now officially the enemy. These foreign
groups were now the focus of intense scrutiny. As a result
racial and cultural differences were highlighted. Comic books
became a tool to exploit these differences and spread
misinformation. This paper will explore several facets of race
representations in the comic book super hero genre of the World
War II decade (1940-1949). Race-based topic will be addressed
Graphic misrepresentations of race during the War. This will
include the aspect of race visuals used as a selling "gimmick".
This paper will explore racism in the comic book industry. The
main crux will be loose racist representations of ethnic people
with focus on the World War II period.
While basing the analysis on race, other associated terms will
be used. Culture and ethnicity are related terms that have
different meanings to different people. The following
definitions will set the scope and meaning of certain terms used
in this paper. As these are my personal definitions, agreement
is not required, but hopefully understanding my view will
preclude later misinterpretations. Race is based on a group
linked together by sharing biological based traits. Visual
distinction between groups, such as skin color and facial
features, can be discerned. Culture is the beliefs, morals,
laws, and customs acquired by members of a shared society.
Ethnicity is based on identifying with a particular group based
on shared beliefs, values, customs, and history. To summarize,
race has its' roots in biology and genetics while ethnicity and
culture; while similar in definition, are a learned process.
With those parameters set, we will now start the look at race,
comic books, and the 1940’s.
|The beginning of superhero comic
books and the racist visuals that will be explored have
the same approximate point of genesis: World War II. The
War pulled the industry along and shaped it's content
into propagandistic material. The superhero genre that
popularized and solidified the comic book art form was
barely two years old when the shadow of War reached
American shores. Even before America entered the fray,
some superheroes such as Captain America were already
facing Nazi adversaries. The cover of Captain America
number one showed the hero punching Adolf Hitler. This
comic book graced the periodical stands in March of
1941, at least eight months before the United States
official entry into the war. After the attack on Pearl
Harbor, the collective gloves of the comic book industry
came off. The Axis powers now threatened America. To
varying degrees, every character and title joined the
war. The superhero genre became a tool of propaganda.
While propaganda is not exclusive to the United States,
America certainly made an art of it in the 1940's using
comic books as the vehicle.
click for larger image of Cap 1
There were dozens of comic book companies by 1941. This
accounted for a selection of over fifty different titles on the
newsstands on any given month. DC Comics and Timely Comics
(later Marvel Comics) were significant early players in the
comic book industry, but they were not the only game in town.
Now forgotten publishers like Centaur, Funnies, Hillman, Comic
House, Red Circle, Real Adventures, and Fox churned out comic
books at an amazing rate. Regardless of market share, each
company attacked the foreign enemy in different ways. DC Comics,
for example, took a rather balanced and less heavy-handed
approach to the representation of foreign enemies compared to
many of its peers. The Japanese saboteurs, as represented in a
1942 Superman adventure, appear villainous but are not the
grotesquely deformed characters that populated the pages of
competing titles. The Japanese are different from the Caucasian
Superman but not to an exaggerated extent. The same cannot be
said for others in the comic book industry. As such, stereotyped
race visuals began to be used as a sales gimmick. In this case,
“gimmick” refers to an unusual means of generating interest and
subsequent sales. As we will see, Japanese racial caricatures
such as tiny stature, yellow skin, and Coke-bottle thick round
glasses, were used to generate interest for some comic book
DC Comics had a solid and established line of first team
superheroes. The comic buying public held Superman and Batman
titles in high esteem. The popularity of DC's "Big Two" outshone
both the rival competition and DC's own stable of other
characters. They had a proven track record of financial success
dating back to the pre-war years of 1938/1939. Their sales were
steady and rock-solid. Their financial importance though,
brought with it guidelines that few other titles dealt with.
These two ionic characters came with certain limitations. The
caped crusader stayed within America's shores and had very few
direct war-themed adventures. Superman sunk an occasional
battleship and thrashed a Panzer Tank or two, but these were the
exception. The impetus was placed on Batman and Superman to
protect the home front while normal GI's, whom happened to be
the very fathers of the readers, engaged the Axis powers. Author
Ian Gordon sums it up well by stating, "DC’s characters embodied
American values by staying at home and expressing confidence in
the fighting ability of the American people. Whereas Timely’s
characters marched off to war and slew America’s opponents, DC’s
two major superheroes, Superman and Batman, stayed in the United
States and fought domestic opponents of democracy". This indeed
was the plan of attack for DC. Aside from the occasional war
bond drive cover Superman and Batman, stayed above the fray. DC
used other means to battle the Axis on foreign soil.
click for larger image
|While leaving Batman and Superman on their own plateau, DC did
in fact sink to artistic lows in the pages of their second- tier
titles. The monthly fight against the Axis powers routinely fell
to the Justice Society of America. This ensemble book grouped
together everyone but the "Big Two" in a marketing ploy to
attract readers. Essentially this is the "more bang for your
buck" concept. As such, this was the main title for DC Comics to
rely on the race gimmick for sales. The Justice Society of
America was DC Comics main foray into World War II. Aside from
Wonder Woman and the Flash, the Justice Society of America was
comprised mostly of second-tier DC heroes. This included such
heroes as Hourman, Dr. Fate, Hawkman, the Atom, Sandman, and the
Spectre. Germans and yellow-skinned Japanese soldiers were
prominently featured monthly on these covers. In companion
titles of the same time, Batman concentrated on his war with
gangsters, thugs, and normal rouges gallery while Superman dealt
with mad scientists, and crooked businessmen. DC attempted to
cover all their bases and every marketing angle/demographic.
|One may wonder why DC Comics left
the main Axis assault, and accompanying loose racial
liberties, to the Justice Society of America. The root
answer is money. Action Comics, Batman, Detective
Comics, and Superman were so well established that
visual gimmickry was not needed to attract new readers.
As mentioned earlier, the core buyers were a solid base.
It was those other titles with fluctuating readerships
that needed the tainted visuals to get someone to give
their issue a try. To illustrate the point that
different tier titles were handled differently, the
following covers are all September 1942.
These visuals are a
mixed bag. Detective Comics, with an ostrich (!!?) on
the cover, has no connection with the ongoing War.
Several covers have a definite patriotic theme. The two
Timely covers, Captain America and Marvel Comics, have
racially charged images. Worse examples of similar
imagery from the period exist, but research was focused
on a single month to demonstrate the previous point.
Research also showed that nearly any of the first forty
issues of Captain America could be used to illustrate
sorrowful ethnic characterizations.
||Upstart Timely Comics needed all the
help it could get to keep some of the consumer's dimes out of DC
Comic's coffers. Timely Comics entered the big leagues in 1941
with Captain America. Prior to this, Timely had limited success
with the Sub-Mariner and Human Torch titles. The desired
financial result was just not there with these earlier titles.
Starting with the flag draped heroes’ initial issue; race
bashing became an easy way to generate sales. Captain America
ran with this concept from the very beginning. Captain America's
appearance in spring of 1941 was a clear effort to capitalize on
America's impending entry into the war. Heroes would be needed.
Utilizing a hero wrapped in a flag would be a "can't miss"
concept. The pro-United States fervor definitely lived up to the
billing and supported this patriotic entry into the comic book
mythos. Captain America, the "living symbol of America's
freedom" was a direct response to the patriotic energy.
|Japan and Germany were clearly America's foes. Capitalizing on
the uneasiness of the day, Timely Comics twisted these foreign
ethnic groups into creepy visions to use in capitalistic gains.
They needed the prerequisite eye-catching foes to battle and
support sales. Twisted yellow goblin-like men on the cover
generated genuine interest and hopefully brought them back for
next months issue. Timely's survival during the war years
depended heavily on this misuse of Ethic tampering. This
dependence on the practice of using racist imagery directly
corresponds to the huge sales hits the industry took after the
No longer fashionable to
feature Japanese and German villains, interest waned.
The heroes suffered due to the villains declining level
of stature. How could anonymous thug #1 compare to
Hitler? Obviously they could not. Consumers were simply
not as enthralled with seeing Captain America and the
Human Torch collaring “average” robbers in comparison to
their monthly exploits during World War II.
With the end of World War
II went the careers of countless heroes. The most patriotic
character of all, Captain America, limped along and disappeared
entirely before the start of the new decade. The boom-days were
over, due in large part to the industry's dependency on misuse
of racial representations. The once deep ethnically tainted pool
dried up and took the superheroes with them. This goes to prove
how important and dependent lesser titles were with racist
imagery. Their symbiotic relationship with racial caricatures
was their downfall. In fact of the hundreds of superhero comic
book titles active during the War, only Detective, Superman,
Batman, and Action Comics continued unabated into the 1950's and
Bibliography of Sources Cited
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