This is part for in the series of blog entries I am doing of an edited down version of my senior paper on 20th Century American Comics and Politics. I have stated before it may be boring for some people, but the purpose is to inform and educate. Today we focus on World War II and the role comics played durring that era.
To recap the rest of the series:
Politics of World War II and comics.
While there were other creators writing about masked heroes from different walks of life stepping up to fight crime, two young writers in Cleveland Ohio were going to change the Industry forever. Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegal sold their creation, the most identifiable super hero in the world, Superman, to Detective Comics (later DC comics). In Action Comics #1, crime fighting and science fiction merged together as humanoid alien powered by the Sun fought crime with his “super” powers. These books created a new ideal in the depression era. Many of Superman’s books were morality tales attacking the evil of greed, quickly becoming a champion of the oppressed. Superman functioned both as peace keeper and role model. The “Man of Steel” was invincible but tried to maintain a normal existence under his alter-ego, and “secret identity,” the bumbling and nerdy Clark Kent. Their new comic book stories affirmed the young, alienated, and dispossessed “Clark Kents” of society in their desire to commit to an inclusive national culture. (Wright, Comic Book Nation 11).
Superman stories would evolve to tackle issues many Americans of the era and the creators were familiar with, the conflict between corporate greed and public welfare. Many stories were about breaking up bank conspiracies, dirty business mergers, and petitioning for social reform. Superman’s America was something of a paradox—a land where the virtue of the poor and the weak towered over that of the wealthy and powerful. However, only the righteous violence of Superman led to a hypocritical view of “might makes right,” when tackling the unjust system. (Wright, 13). As early as 1938 and 1939 the voice of his creators echoed through Superman’s voice, the population’s demands for social reform, automobile safety standards, investigation into a corrupt and prejudice police system, and outcry against Wall Street price fixers. Many of these issues are still tackled by comics and the media today, but Shuster and Sigel’s representation of everyman quickly became the most successful comic to date. While most comics sold 200,000 to 400,000 copies, each bimonthly issue of the Superman title sold 1.3 million copies.
The mass marketing of American comics solidly began with Superman as well. By the end of 1939, Superman became not only a comic, but a syndicated newspaper strip and radio serial. Eventually Superman would see the lights of Hollywood and become a TV series and find himself in movies. The formula for success of the superhero was evident. While other companies began to create their own superheroes, Detective Comics had a young cartoonist named Bob Kane to create a second costumed hero to be a competing brand. Kane took inspiration from pulp fiction heroes like the Shadow and Doc Savage, to create the world’s greatest detective, the costumed vigilante Batman.
The rise in popularity of the superhero before the onset of World War II, led to the creation of even more characters from many different companies. Most notably would be Marvel Comics Namor the Sub Mariner and the Human Torch; Fawcett Publications’ Captain Marvel (a.k.a. SHAZAM!); Quality Comics’ Plastic Man and the Eisner creation The Spirit. Many of these heroes have survived the test in time and are still published today. The mount up to U.S. involvement in the war also birthed Timely Comics (now Marvel) star-spangled symbol of freedom, the super-soldier, Captain America.
With the growing popularity of the American comic, the American superhero quickly emerged as a marketing and propaganda juggernaut. Comics were being used for enlistment encouragement, to sell war bonds, and to invoke the patriotism which was common among Americans during the World War II era. The superheroes of comics quickly joined the fight against the new evils represented by Hitler, his Nazi troops, and the other Axis powers. The economic boom crated in the war economy had proved to be effective in creating strong comic sales among children, and became popular with soldiers as well. Entering the war much before the U.S. joined the Allied powers, comics creators had already began to battle. A classic example is Captain America Comic’s #1 and its prolific cover featured the red, white, and blue hero punching Hitler in the face.
American elitism had found its stage in comics. A nation of immigrants developed its own mixed culture. The pursuit of equality and happiness, the chances for success lampooned American idealism and was plain to see when the most powerful beings ever created in fiction sided with the righteous cause of the Allied forces. Comic series were sent to military camps, as troops could seek inspiration from the heroics of these superheroes. Creators were careful to take time and have all of the heroes at one point or another be rescued by a regiment of soldiers, give a thank you, or even acknowledge the troops were the “real” heroes. This morale boosting campaign is a trend which has continued in most mainstream comics until today. Writers are very careful to never belittle the actions of true to life heroes of our world.
Taking advantage of the emerging market DC comics looked to experiment with the market by bringing a new type of hero to the front. Wonder Woman, who was first conceived as a super-heroine who could appeal to boys while also being a role model for women, had an opportunity to declare her battle against the Axis powers while rallying America and her allies for battle. Created by William Moulton Marston, a Harvard educated PhD, took the perceived virtues and strengths of women and imbued them upon a character which would be a controversial topic, on her role in the feminist movement for years to come. Unlike the scantily clad jungle girls, and the masked crime fighting heroines of the past; Wonder Woman was stronger than some of her male counterparts. Women had been allowed to vote for 20 years, and now had a representative among the comic elite. Wonder Woman’s choice to uphold truth justice and the American way was encouraging to many as women fueled war-time manufacturing and industry.
Victory in Europe had brought celebration to the United States and its allies. However, there was still a war to be one in the Pacific theater. Comic stories hadn’t forgotten about the two-front conflict either. It wasn’t uncommon to see Captain America and the Invaders battling the German SS one month, then moving on to Japan the next. There may have been a more racist attitude toward the Japanese during the World War II comic’s era. Unlike the Germans and Italians in comics, most Japanese characters and soldiers were more caricatures than the superheroes themselves. Seemingly built upon stereo types, it wasn’t uncommon to see cultural misrepresentations. This may not have helped the situations of the U.S. citizens who were of Japanese descent, quietly being held in U.S. internment camps.
With victory in Japan the science of comics changed just as the world did with the unveiling of the atomic bomb.