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American Comic Books: Clash of Race and Culture During World War II  Part 1  Part 2   by Jerod  Discuss on the board

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 and analyzed:
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 titles.

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

Superman 23

Action Comics 59 Superman vs German Tank

Batman 12 Buy War Bonds
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.

click for larger image

click for larger image
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 war.

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 beyond.

Bibliography of Sources Cited

Barbour, Alan. Cliffhanger: A Pictorial History of the Motion Picture Serial. Secaucus, New Jersey: Citadel Press, 1977.

Batman in Detective Comics, vol. 1. Abbeville Press, 1993.

Batman. Dir. Lambert Hillyer. Columbia Pictures. Videocassette. Goodtimes Home Video, 1990.

Benton, Mike. Superhero Comics of the Golden Age: The Illustrated History. Dallas, Texas: Taylor Publishing Company, 1992.

Bridwell, E. Nelson. Superman from the Thirties to the Seventies. New York: Bonanza Books, 1981.

Daniels, Les. DC Comics: Sixty Years of the World’s Favorite Comic Book Heroes. New York: Bulfinch Press, 1995.

Daniels, Les. Marvel: Five Fabulous Decades of the World’s Greatest Comics. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1991.

Feiffer, Jules. The Great Comic Book Superheroes. New York: Dial Press, 1977.

Golden Age Comix. “ Comic Book Covers of the Golden Age.” Online posting. April 2002.

Gordon, Ian. Comic Strips and Consumer Culture 1890-1945. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1998, pp. 128-51.

Goulart, Ron. Over 50 Years of American Comic Books. Lincolnwood, Illinois: Publications International, 1991.

O’Brien, Richard. The Golden Age of Comic Books. New York: Ballantine Books, 1977.

Overstreet, Robert. Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide (21st Edition). New York: House of Collectibles, 1991.

Sanderson, Peter. Marvel Universe. New York: Harry n. Abrams, 1996.

Schoell, William. Comic Book Heroes of the Screen. New York: Citadel Press, 1991.

Superman in Action Comics, vol. 1. Abbeville Press, 1993.

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