Books: Clash of Race and Culture During World War II
Part 1 Part 2
The following is a paper I wrote for college
American Comic Books: Clash of Race and Culture During World War
II: Part 2
The four-color comic book industry was not the only pop culture
medium that battled the Axis. Hollywood joined the war-effort
early on and fought the enemy on the silver screen starting in
the late 1930's. There are even instances where the comic book
and movie industries combined resources. Columbia Pictures
drafted Batman to the celluloid-based war-effort in 1943. The
result was the propagandistic fifteen-part cliffhanger serial,
aptly titled Batman. In this adventure film, Batman is not sent
to the forests of Europe or the islands of the Pacific.
Mimicking the comic books, Batman fights Asian saboteurs on
America's own shores. The following will be a review and
analysis of this cross-media effort. Attention will focus on the
highlighting of cultural and physical differences between
antagonists in an effort to sway American support for the War
||Batman is a 15 chapter
cliffhanger serial from Columbia Pictures starring Lewis
Wilson (Batman), Douglas Croft (Robin), and J. Carrol
Naish (Dr. Daka). It is the story of Batman's battles
with Dr. Daka, a supposed Japanese madman with very
ambitious goals. Batman and his Asian opponent play a
game of cat and mouse throughout the serial. A videotape
version of this movie was reviewed for this paper. This
video was released in 1989 in order to cash in on the
huge box-office hit Batman, starring Micheal Keaton and
Jack Nicholson. This original movie is so ethnically
offensive that the video has much of the dialogue cut,
censored, or voiced over. In one specific instance, the
term "Japs" is replaced with "hoods". Filmed during the
height of World War II, it is an embarrassingly racist
movie by today's standards. As such, this movie had not
seen the light of day in early fifty years.
The movie plot is not very ambitious;
Asian Mastermind Dr. Daka is on a mission to cripple the
"American war machine" on the home front. A clear distinction is
made early between Batman and his Asian opponent.
This long-winded narrative frames the action that will follow
and identities whom the good guys are:
"...They represent American youth who love their country and
will go to fight for it. Wherever crime raises its ugly head to
strike with venom of a maddened rattlesnake. Batman and Robin
strike also and in this very hour when the Axis criminals are
spreading their evil over the world, even within our own land,
Batman and Robin stand ready to fight them to the death."
Daka enlists the criminal aid of ostracized American business
"experts" to help with the Japanese conquest of the United
States. He attempts to get Dr. Warren, recently released from
jail, to join his criminal venture. Daka's henchmen take him on
a car ride to meet their leader. Warren is lead to the now
abandoned Oriental part of town. The former inhabitants have
been relocated. This allusion is to the Japanese-American
internment camps of the day. It is even mentioned by the
narrator as the actions of "wise government". At the end of the
street there is still one open business. It is a sideshow type
exhibit ride. The marquee out front reads:
1000 shocks for only
Warren is seated in a cart and taken on a tour of the exhibit.
Wax figures convey a grim tale to the audience: Japanese
soldiers with bayonets; a United States GI in a cage, a rope
bound Caucasian female beauty at the mercy of Imperial Soldiers,
and other variations of Japanese with bayonets. Part way through
the ride the cart stops. The henchmen and Dr. Warren exit the
cart. They enter a secret passage hidden amongst a rock façade.
Apparently, this Japanese sideshow is the last place law
enforcement would suspect to find an Asian saboteur. The irony
is almost too much to swallow. This ‘wrongly’ imprisoned
scientist;”I am not a criminal. I was convicted, yes, and sent
to prison, but if the truth was known!” wants nothing to do with
the Asian villain.
|Daka needs Warren to gain access
to radium that is stored at a colleague's laboratory.
Radium pellets are the source of power for his secret
weapon of sabotage: The Atom Smasher Ray Gun. With this
technological marvel, Daka will cripple transportation
systems and factories of industry that support the war
effort. Through a neural implant Daka is able to control
those who will not join him willingly. These "zombies"
do much of the dirty work. The rest of the film is a
predictable series of checkmates between Daka's
saboteurs and the Dynamic Duo.
The end of each chapter is a
cliffhanger of some sorts. Daka himself finally falls victim to
one of his own traps: the alligator pit with trapdoor. Good
(America) triumphs over evil (Japan).
Cultural differences are highlighted in Batman. Honor is
important in the Japanese way of life. Preserving ones honor is
essential in their culture. This is a cultural point of truth,
but its representation is a twisted version of their true code,
done solely for exploitation in the film. The strict code of
Japanese honor is represented in the film when Daka initially
tries to gain the aid of Dr. Warren. Its inclusion is meant to
explain why onetime loyal Americans would side with a foreign
agent. Daka uses this Japanese concept of avenging dishonor
inflicted by others when constructing his gang. The following
Daka speech illustrates how lack of honor is manipulated in
order to convince Warren that their cause is "just":
"Each of these men [seated], dishonored by your corrupt form of
government is a specialist in his line and has been especially
selected by me to execute the orders I receive from Tokyo".
Morally, the Japanese of the time are fanatically devoted to a
mortal God. Emperor Hirihito is held as a God-incarnate on
Earth. This belief separates Japanese from the vast majority of
Americans. Foreign concepts like the belief that Hirihito was a
true God on Earth flies in the face of Caucasian Christian
beliefs. This acts as a wedge between two different cultures.
Dr. Daka states his duties and devotions when initially
introducing himself to Dr. Warren:
"I am Dr. Daka, humble servant of His Majesty Hirihito, heavenly
ruler and Prince of the Rising Sun. By divine destiny my country
shall destroy the democratic forces of the United States to make
way for the New Order, an order that will bring about the
liberation of the enslaved people of America."
The references to the divine leader undoubtedly infuriated many
in the audience. This could make average Americans question the
loyalty of the Japanese-Americans around. Were they truly loyal
to Hirihito? Suspicion leads to distrust. American individualism
is contrasted to this Asian devotion. This East versus West
philosophy is highlighted in Dr. Warren's refute of Daka's offer
to join the New Order:
"Listen Daka, or whatever your name is, I owe my allegiance to
no country or order but my own. I'm an American first and always
and no amount of torture conceived by your twisted Oriental
brain will make me change my mind."
Though “wrongly imprisoned” by the American government, Dr.
Warren is still fiercely loyal to the United States. This
incident draws certain parallels to the Japanese internees of
the time. This could be an allegory to their predicament. They
certainly are wrongly imprisoned like Warren was; should they
remain just as loyal? The concept put forward is “yes”. If Dr.
Warren can over-look false imprisonment during time of War, the
Japanese-Americans should do likewise.
The following conversation with Dr. Daka occurs, as Warren is
strapped into the machine. He is still heroically defiant when
faced with the prospect of being turned into a mindless zombie
slave with no free will. His words highlight the America's
"Resistance is useless Warren- I suggest you adopt an attitude
of fatalistic resignation."
"You underestimate the American will to fight Daka. We fight
best in the face of your so-called inevitable."
"Oh you do well we'll see about that."
Dr. Warren certainly provides a positive “average” American
figure to counter the wretchedness of the Oriental thug. His
admirable perseverance highlights the importance of the “average
Joe”. One does not need to be a superhero to help America. The
common man is just as important as any superhero
The depiction of the Japanese in this film is an important part
of this paper. It is an interesting companion to what was going
on with race in comic books of the day. Physical appearance is
generalized in the worst way. Aside from the brief appearance by
a messenger "from Tokyo", Daka is the only Japanese character
represented in the film. This single figure embodies all the
negative Oriental stereotypes one can think of. It is even more
ludicrous when this supposed Asian character is portrayed by a
very white New York born actor. J. Carrol Naish's performance as
Dr. Daka is almost painful to watch.
||The make-up used to give this
Caucasian the "slant-eyed look" is not convincing and
looks rather uncomfortable to wear. The slicked back
black hair and small thin mustache are more general
stereotypes for the character. The prop that completes
the "Asian" look is the ever-present long stem filter
cigarette that Daka puffs sinisterly while plotting his
next scheme against America. This combination provides
for a portrait of a very vile Japanese villain and
becomes a template for all Asians and Asian-Americans.
Batman paints a misleading portrait of the
Japanese culture and its people. Films such as this are done for
a specific reason. The portrayal of the Japanese in Batman is an
obvious propaganda campaign that exploits a popular American
||Batman himself does not come off
as racist, but nearly everything else in the film,
dialogue and appearances, oozes it. Dr. Daka is nearly
Sadly, it is an image not based in
accuracy, rather stereotypes. The character of Dr. Daka
is a continuation of another earlier Asian screen
villain: Fu Manchu of the 1930's.
The character of Fu Manchu
also appeared in radio programs and pulp magazines for
years. Interestingly, they both have the exact same
Oriental traits, mannerisms, dialect and propensity for
violence. Adding to the confusion and lack of cultural
sensitivity, is that while presented as remarkably
similar characters, Daka is Japanese and Fu Manchu is
||These are two distinct cultures,
not to mention races. This illustrates how Hollywood of
the past tended to lump all East-Asian races as one,
along with identical cultural identities. This action is
not accurate and only perpetuates general Far- East
stereotypes. The depiction of the Japanese is certainly
loose. Physical and dialectal mannerisms are exaggerated
and rather over the top. There are undoubtedly persons
like this, but this representation cannot be taken as
the gospel for all Asian people. Far too many liberties
are taken with little regard for accuracy. This is an
example of stereotyping at its best (or worst?).
I spent two years stationed in Japan
while in the Navy. My own experience with the friendly Japanese
people were from a different time period than Batman, but I
still find the movie characterization hard to believe
completely. The Japanese are clearly victims of temporality in
this film. The United States was at war with Imperial Japan at
the time. As the enemy, they are portrayed as evil and devious
as possible. Such a practice is not unheard of in time of War.
As translated to the silver screen though, it certainly becomes
an obvious genre of films when viewed years and generations
The Japanese could have been portrayed in a more favorable and
realistic light. Despite the fact that they were the villains,
real Asian/Asian-Americans could have been used in the
corresponding roles. This would have at least added some
accuracy to their physical appearance. The appalling generalized
stereotypical make-up Naish wears could have then been avoided.
A Japanese-American confidant or ally to the Dynamic Duo would
have added a little balance to the equation. Instead, all Asians
in the movie have no redeeming value at all. As this was a
definite propaganda film, there is doubt none of these options
were even considered.
The entire representation of the Japanese in this film was meant
to be racist fodder and provide encouragement for the American
people as to the horrors of the Orient. Using purely negative
stereotypes to convey the message of hate, Hollywood smeared an
entire race/class/group of people and their culture. Asians of
all types were easy targets in time of war. The Asian as an
enemy message comes through loud and clear via Hollywood.
Unfortunately, this is a message drenched in falsehoods.
||Like Batman, the Green Hornet was
another multimedia star. He appeared early in radio,
movies, and comic books. The Green Hornet fought crime
with his faithful partner Kato. Kato was a Japanese-born
martial-arts master whom both chauffeured the Green
Hornet around and provided the duo some offensive
firepower. Though not necessarily the Green Hornets
equal, he was an important character. Kato was a
positively portrayed ethnic hero, which was a rarity at
the time. The winds of war forced changes to the
click for larger image
|Tensions with Japan had existed
for years due in part to their aggressive incursion into
mainland China. For decades America had laid claim to
China as part of its financial sphere of influence.
This, coupled with Japan’s increasing naval power,
turned the relationship into one of animosity even
before the events of December 7th, 1941. Perhaps sensing
the probable adversarial relationship over the horizon,
Kato’s heritage was preemptively revamped in a rather
peculiar two-pronged way. Radio programs were simply an
audio medium. If not mentioned, Kato’s race was an
were another story. The release of The Green Hornet
serial and the publication of Green Hornet Comics, both
in 1940, forced race to the forefront.
||An interesting metamorphosis
occurred with the Japanese character. Inexplicably,
Kato's race morphed to that of a Filipino in the comics
and a Korean in the movies. No real explanation could be
found for this odd split in representation between media
forms. Kato's new dual racial identity clearly distanced
him from the unpopular Japanese heritage that was part
of the original concept. Despite the changes, he
remained a positively portrayed ethnic character. One
may wonder why a Caucasian persona (alá Robin) was not
inserted as the character’s origin at the time. The
reason this did not occur was that for this character to
function properly, a foreign culture was crucial. As the
character possessed the exotic skills of karate (this
was well before the major influx of kung-fu movies in
the 1960's) he needed to remain an ethnically
The Caucasian Green Hornet did not need an
equal, he needed a partner. Those of minority groups, especially
Asians, fit the bill. In the Green Hornet movie serials of the
early 1940’s, an actual Filipino named Keye Luke portrayed Kato.
This is a step-up from the earlier Batman with its use of
Caucasians in minority-themed roles. In time, as aggression
dissipated, Kato regained his Japanese heritage. His most
memorable incarnation came in the 1960's with the portrayal by
Bruce Lee, who happened to be of Chinese (via Hong Kong) decent.
Once again, Hollywood makes no clear distinction between certain
groups of people by going with the generalized and ambiguous
"Asian" character. While commendable for maintaining his
minority status, Hollywood has been slow to achieve true
authenticity with the role.
The previous examples of racist imagery in both film and paper
are part of a sad history. Looking back, it is hard to believe
such misrepresentations occurred, but they did. The United
States was a country that imprisoned ethnic Japanese citizens
with little public outcry. Racist, almost certainly, but those
of the time truly saw logic in the action. A world at war can
skew views and suspend beliefs, not to mention common sense. At
present, no single culture or nationality can be linked to world
woes to the extent Germany and Japan were previously. Many
believe themselves to be above blatant racial hate mongering,
but until faced with such powerful threats can one know for
sure. As such, none today can truly speak as to what their true
reaction would be to such transgressors. Hopefully the period
that spawned world war, and accompanying hatred of Germany and
Japan, will never happen again. That we of the present day look
at these ethnic caricatures as racist prove how far we have come
as a society in the past fifty years. The norm has changed for
the better and benefit of all. Do not judge too harshly these
offending images; try instead to look through the eyes of the
time. Certainly there are acts and actions accepted at present
that would be looked down upon and ridiculed in another fifty
years. This is all part of human evolution and advancement.
Paper based graphics, coupled with celluloid images from the
World War II period, are a sorrowful blight on American popular
culture. Had the War not occurred, it is doubtful such racist
activity would have occurred. That ultimately is not the case.
These gross misrepresentations were extremely potent devices in
their day. Impressions were set that perhaps exist to this day.
There is no denying this shameful period of media abuse.
Fortunately, good can come of this bad situation if we of today
can recognize that such activity has no place in modern society.
If so, creations of the 1940’s comic book culture can be viewed
as a positive learning tool.
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,
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
Golden Age Comix. “ Comic Book Covers of the Golden Age.” Online
posting. April 2002. http://www.goldenagecomix.com/
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:
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Overstreet, Robert. Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide (21st
Edition). New York: House of Collectibles, 1991.
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