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


The following is a paper I wrote for college in 2002:

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 effort.
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:
Japanese Cave
of horrors
1000 shocks for only
10 CENTS
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 fortitude.
"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 icon.
Batman himself does not come off as racist, but nearly everything else in the film, dialogue and appearances, oozes it. Dr. Daka is nearly inhuman.

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 Chinese.

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 later.


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 Oriental crime-fighter.

 

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 afterthought.

Visual mediums 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 "Far-East-Asian" individual.

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, 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. 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: 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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