Comic Books and World War II: Buying into the War

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Total war is a concept foreign to most Americans. The idea that war so consumes our every thought, our every action is beyond comprehension. Yet, in World War II, Americans did expend every last bit of energy to do what they could to help win the war.

To ensure the American public never forgot the concept of total war, propaganda was unleashed in many forms. Most adults saw this in the forms of posters in shops or in short films before a movie. But for children, the rise of a new form of literature that became popular in the 1930s became the gateway for propaganda to be conveyed to a younger generation. The comic book embodied the virtues of what it was to fight evil during World War II. In fact, the comic book still embodies those same virtues today.

In 1977, Author Michael Uslan stated the following about the nature of comic books:

From the 1930’s through today comic books have expressed the trends, conventions, and concerns of American life…Comics have been a showcase for national views, slang, morals, customs, traditions, racial attitudes, fads, heroes of the day, and everything else that makes up our lifestyles.

And in World War II, this is what comic books would do but about war.

At the Time
In one form or another, comic books have been around since the 1500s. However, in the United States, the comic book as we know it today arrived in the late 1930s. In June of 1938, ACTION COMICS #1 was released and children would never be the same. Superman, the character who encapsulated all that was good about America and humanity, became a star as a result of the issue. Other characters soon followed including the Human Torch, Batman, the Sub-Mariner, Wonder Woman, Captain Marvel, The Shield, and Captain America. 19500-004-0F2CD3D7

Superman became popular for many reasons. Like many Americans, Superman was an immigrant – albeit an alien world. You could argue Superman was the ultimate immigrant being away from his parents. Secondly, Superman espoused the virtues of hard work, justice, and truth.

Comic books also became popular for other virtues in the Great Depression. Scott A. Cord claims:

Even as a form of escape, the comic book allowed readers to fantasize about punishing real life wrongdoers. Since the Depression was the overriding concern of Americans during the 1930s, readers enjoyed seeing superheroes fight against those who exploited the bad times for their own financial benefit. For example, early characters such as the Green Lantern, Superman, and Batman often took on corrupt businessmen who mistreated poor and desperate workers in the late 1930s.

But the depression would not be the overriding issue of the day for very much longer.

Comic Go to War before the War
In 1940 and 1941, many comic books had storylines about the events of the wars in Europe and Asia. These stances before the US entered the war quite controversial. At a time when most Americans wanted nothing to do with another war in Europe, the characters in the comic books did. Many of the writers of the comic book heroes were actually Jewish and felt it their duty to influence the American public of the dangers of what was taking place overseas.

In fact, a full nine months before the war, Captain America is seen punching Hitler in the face. Writers Joe Simon and Jack Kirby received hate mail about the goals and actions of Captain America. Many were opposed to such storylines. In a time of isolation, Simon and Kirby Captain America stood out in his patriotic red, white, and blue uniform while espousing the ideals of American nationalism. Within a year after Pearl Harbor, Captain America’s views and actions about evil and what to do became the norm.

detailWhen the war began, 15 million comic books were being published a month. Two and a half years later, 25 million copies were sold a month. Superman and Captain each sold over 1 million editions a month. And the largest single customer in the period was the United States Army. Originally, the Army was buying comic books as diversions, but soon many of the soldiers became hooked on the story lines, character development, and the virtuous fight against evil and oppression.

Throughout the war, the comic book super heroes were involved in doing things to help the war effort compared to fighting the war. They did things like deliver supplies, stop spies at home, and do whatever they could do to help the soldier while in the US. The depictions of the character’s action were simplistic and good always triumphed over evil. The characters always illustrated war aims and how children could help win the war.

Superman never fought the war. You would think that he could have ended the war by himself, but the authors of the comic did not want that to happen. Instead, Clark Kent’s anxiousness to pass his physical that he accidentally uses his X-Ray Vision to read the chart in the next room. He is declared 4-F and has to do what he can (along with Superman) in Metropolis.

The Shield was a comic book hero during World War II

The Shield was a comic book hero during World War II. Notice the red, white, and blue themed uniform.

Captain America was the exception. With his sidekick 12 year old Bucky Barnes, Captain America took a first–hand role in fighting the forces of evil. What made Captain America comics different was that they were violent, in fact, shockingly violent for the time period. Characters were shot between the eyes, left beaten and bloodied, and tortured.

Another aspect that endeared Captain America to many Americans was that he always fought by the “rules” of war and won. His antagonists always “cheated” and lost.

Soon other comics followed. Individual stories of bravery and courage ended with the American soldier overcoming fear and saving the day. Meant at first to inspire those at home, the characters wound up inspiring those abroad actually doing the fighting.

Many writers of the books actually were part of the Office of War Information and the War Writer’s Board. These organizations supposedly were interested in given accurate information about what was happening overseas. The comic book became a vessel to do so.

Even the advertisements in the comic books were war related.

“Junior air raid warden kits, aircraft recognition flash cards, paper drives, money for war bonds and scrap metal drives were all supposed to help children feel like they were doing their part for the war effort.”

In addition to the superheroes, ordinary people, women, and children characters had their own comics. Boy Commandos was a group of 12 year olds out to save the world. Wonder Woman, on the other hand, served as a nurse doing her part. In addition, comics portraying real people like Eleanor Roosevelt were made showing her contributions to the war.

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As the war wound down, so did many of the characters. Superman and Lois got hitched and had super babies, Batman went back to fighting the master villains of Gotham and in 1956, Captain America was cancelled.

Many soldiers who had read comics overseas found them to be a comfort item on their return. Maybe it was escapism, maybe it was a habit, but either way they were a solace to many of the soldiers who would later introduce the comics to their children. By 1947, comic books sold 60 million issues a month.

By the early 1950s, the so called “Golden Age of Comics” characters had transitioned to mundane activities. With no evil left to fight, comics like Archie, Veronica, Jughead, and Richie Rich became the mainstream from the middle 1950s through the middle 1960s.

Importance
Comic books in World War II played a significant role in education a young populace before, during and after the war. From Captain America punching Hitler in the face 9 months before Pearl Harbor to encouraging the war effort on the home front through actions and advertisements, these pieces of art helped educate a country in a total war.

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The most surprising influence the comics was on those who actually participated in combat. The books were seen as something to take their mind off what was to come and what had taken place. They were cheap, easy to carry, and the comic itself didn’t require a college education to read. It was part entertainment, part instructional manual, and part psychologist for the solider.

While the comic books did display propaganda, it was also commercialism at its finest. Comic books were big money and portended the youth culture to come in the 1950s. The comic book actually became a part of the war itself. It showed what children and young men could do to help the effort through the character’s actions and through advertisements in the comic itself. Children used the comic to keep up to date on what was happening even though most comics took months to develop and illustrate.

The comic books published during the war laid the foundation for later comic books of the 1960s and film and TV today. Growing up in the late 60s and early 70s, my favorite comics and characters all had their roots in World War II. Captain America, Nick Fury, and the X-Men were the comics that I read as a boy and teenager and are based on, and influenced by, those comics and events from the era. Even looking at what movies to see this summer, or TV shows that I watch, they all come from comic books. For me, there is some morality I can agree with in their actions. There’s a goodness there, a sacrifice, first envisioned some 75 years ago that still resonates today.

Tornado Update

The relief effort for Fairdale has been overwhelming. The problem has become where to put everything. The fire station is full and the spare rooms at the school will be filled quickly.  Gift Cards are welcomed. You can send the cards to:

Kirkland Fire Department

3891 Illinois Route 72

Kirkland, Illinois 60146

Send them here because this is where the the victims have been getting relief.

If you would like to donate, you can at: http://www.gofundme.com/rk72t88r These funds go right to the victims through the local bank.

History will have to wait for a while.

Thank you.

Here is a picture of the tornado that struck the town.

The tornado is crossing Interstate 39 and is about 6-7 miles from Fairdale at this point.

The tornado is crossing Interstate 39 and is about 6-7 miles from Fairdale at this point.

Tornado

The school district I teach in was devastated by a tornado that leveled the town of Fairdale, Illinois, the home of many of my students. 

The people need food, clothes, water, and blankets. Donations can be made or sent to the Kirkland Fire Department, who are coordinating relief efforts.

Thank you for anything you can do.

A Glimpse into the Summer of 2015

010I have been teaching for over 20+ years but this summer I get to do something few historians get to do – I get to catalog a farm museum. Located south of Belvidere, Illinois, the museum actually started out as a hobby of a local farmer. It began with a few pieces 20 years ago and now has morphed into three buildings of agricultural lore. From seed bags to seed corn signs to toys and even wagons, over one hundred and fifty years of American agriculture is told through the machines used to grow and make the food we eat. I estimate there are between 2000-3000 pieces in the museum.

Yesterday, the farmer had an open house, which he does once or twice a year in addition to hosting school groups. I strolled around the grounds, took some pictures, and talked to some members of the community where I teach. It was a good day, but I also got an idea of the enormity of the task which awaits me.

My tools for the summer will be a tape measure, a camera, and a laptop. When I am done, there will be over a thousand slides that look something like this:

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It’s a big task. It might even be overwhelming. But it will be a fun task as I get to hear the stories behind each piece. Some people may make fun of the show American Pickers, but the people on the show truly do protect forgotten pieces of American history. And this museum, its owner, and its collection are pretty close to the people and places Mike and Frank see each week.

007To me, it is all about the stories behind the piece. That is what I look forward to most. I don’t know how long it will take me to catalog the three buildings. I really don’t care. It could be weeks, months, or even a couple of summers, but it something I think is important. My father, my maternal grandfather, and my uncle were all involved in agricultural. It is something that I think reminds me of them.

The blog this summer will post weekly updates with some items highlighted for their uniqueness or importance. The summer may go fast, but for this historian, it will be something few historians get to do.

Web Site of the Day

I was doing some research on the sinking of the Rouse Simmons Christmas Tree Ship when I found a cool web site that contains hundreds of articles in PDF from the National Archives’ Prologue Magazine. These are great sources for any student doing a National History Day project and for teachers supplementing their curriculum with great sources!

http://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/

prologue magazine

 

History Project of the Day

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Yesterday, my students participated in the Northern Region History Fair at NIU in DeKalb. This is one of my student’s projects. It is by an eighth grade boy, and I must say, I was impressed by his marriage of history and sport! He advanced, along with 21 more of my students, to the Illinois state history fair on May 7. Click on the picture to enlarge.

Ernie Banks – A True Pioneer

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Ernie in his Kansas City Monarchs uniform

Ernie Banks was a true pioneer. Ernie helped paved the way for many African-American players in the Chicago Cubs organization. He also transformed the game. His quick swing through the batting zone allowed him to generate a lot of power. Before him, shortstop was seen as a defensive position filled with light hitting players. After Ernie’s career ended in the early 1970s, it would another ten years before another “power hitting shortstop” came along in Cal Ripken and more than ten years after that when Alex Rodriguez came along.

Born into poverty in Dallas, Texas in 1931, Ernie Banks was one of 12 children in his family.

“I enjoyed growing up in Dallas. Everything was within walking distance: the school I went to, the YMCA, my friends in the neighborhood, the park I played baseball on. Everybody knew everybody and kept everybody in line.”
Sports soon became his life. He was a three sport athlete at Booker T. Washington High School in Dallas. He played football, basketball, and track at the school. He never played baseball in high school.

However, sports did not make Ernie who he was. He was deeply religious and that side of him came directly from his mother’s influence. For a poor person, Banks said, “Your word is your bond. Things like that kind of stuck in my mind. I mean what I say, and I say what I mean.” And it was playing on his church softball team that his athletic skills were discovered first by Kansas City Monarchs Scout Bill Blair. Banks would begin his baseball career in 1950 with the Amarillo Colts. He did not play for them long as Cool Papa Bell and Buck O’Neil swayed Ernie to the Kansas City Monarchs later that same year. He wound up being drafted and serving in Germany during the Korean War.

Ernie's Scouting Report

Ernie’s Scouting Report

Upon his release in 1953, Ernie returned to the Monarchs. Later that fall, his contract was sold to the Chicago Cubs. He would be the first African-American to play for the team.

The shock of moving to a segregated city like Chicago was not lost on Banks. He said the following of the differences:
“You’ve got a lot of players from the South and very few blacks. It was not as multicultured as I had anticipated. They had a few players from Puerto Rico and from Latin American countries, but most of the players were from the South and West.”

Banks lived on the south side of town throughout most of the 50s before moving to the West Chesterfield neighborhood in the late 50s.

When Ernie stepped onto the field in 1953, there were only 20 other African-Americans on 7 other teams. But more than that, Ernie represented a new kind of player with Henry Aaron and Willie Mays – all three were players who combined speed with power. They revolutionized the game. And for Ernie, he revolutionized the shortstop position.

As a Cub, slugger Ralph Kiner took a liking to Ernie from the start. The two would often talk hitting and Ernie credits Kiner with helping Ernie to refine his own swing with quick wrists in order to see the ball deep in to the zone and to just react. Ernie Banks hit 40 home runs in a season in four consecutive years from 1957-1960. The 6’1” 185 lb. shortstop won two NL MVP awards in 1958 and 1959. One person quipped that without Ernie, the last placed Cubs “would have finished in Albuquerque.”

Everywhere Ernie went as a ballplayer, his race followed him. Ernie spoke eloquently of the dichotomy of his being an African-American pioneer in baseball:

“Some people feel that because you are black you will never be treated fairly and that you should voice your opinions, be militant about them. I don’t feel this way. You can’t convince a fool against his will. If a man doesn’t like me because I am black, that’s fine. I’ll just go elsewhere, but I’m not going to let him change my life […] As black athletes, if we speak on various issues, or wear our hair in certain ways, we are considered militant, in opposition to The Establishment, which put us in a position of being opposed to what gives us our livelihood. If we don’t speak up about racial issues, political matters, or the organization itself, we are called Uncle Toms.”
He knew he could not please everybody. So, Ernie was just himself.

In 1962, injuries began to take their toll on Ernie. He moved from shortstop to third base to left field before finally settling on a new position. For the last 9 years of his career he played first base.

Ernie never played in the post season. For 19 years he tried, for 19 years he never made it, but it was not for a lack of trying. The closest “Mr. Cub” came to the post season was in the legendary 1969 season where the Cubs blew a 10 game lead to the Mets in August and September. Along with the Ron Santo and Billy Williams, the trio endeared themselves to Cub fans everywhere.

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As a pioneer of the position, Ernie was also a pioneer because of his attitude. His most well known saying is, “Let’s Play Two!” meaning to play a double-header. Throughout Chicago, Ernie’s positive mental attitude never wavered throughout his life. As great of baseball player as he was, he was even more of a gentleman. Everyone he met, he felt it was his duty to say something nice to them, to encourage them.

Playing baseball during a time of segregation did not leave Ernie bitter. He stayed at different hotels, rode different buses, lived in a different part of town, but it not did deter him from having positive attitude toward other human beings. Ernie said,

“There are certain things that you have to fight for, not by looting or burning, but by letting society know that you will demand your rights and will use every legal means to get them. I don’t agree with the guys that say in order to find pride in your blackness you have to hate everything that is white. That’s just plain wrong. We shouldn’t hate anybody. If you want to get a good job, or get into business, you’ve got to live with other people including the white ones.”

Ernie was an 11 time All-Star who played in 13 All Star games (some years they played two All-Star games a year) who finished with 512 Home Runs. His 500th home run turned into the one of the great calls in baseball television history.

In 1977, Ernie made into the Baseball Hall of Fame on the first ballot.

After his playing career ended, Ernie continued to be the face of the Cubs. He gave often to charities in the Chicago area and was a face in the community. He appeared at many baseball card conventions, Cub games, and Cubs Conventions. He became a mentor to many Cub players over the years including the current team.

The last time I saw him in person was at the Chicago Cubs Convention in 2014. When I heard he was not going to be attending the Convention of a week ago, I wondered about his health. I hoped that everything was alright. He passed away yesterday at age 83.

Most people will remember him for his infectious attitude and how he had a kind word for everyone. That he did do. However, the mark he left on the game is just as important as the mark he left off the field in transforming the game in the 1950s and 1960s. For every person that he ever touched with his smile and attitude, he touched just as many with his play. He made it possible for a power hitter to play shortstop. Ernie made it possible for Robin Yount, Cal Ripken, and Derek Jeter to transform shortstop from a defensive position into an offensive one. And he made it possible for an African-American player to be the face of a franchise in Chicago.

Ernie and Derek Jeter at Wrigley Field

Ernie and Derek Jeter at Wrigley Field

In 2013, Ernie was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama. It is the highest award a citizen can earn in this country.

Ernie Block Quotes
Timothy J. Gilfoyle. “From Wrigley Field to Outer Space: Interviews with Ernie Banks and Mae Jemison.” Chicago History Magazine. Winter, 1988-89.

Lew Freedman (2007). African-American Pioneers. Greenwood Press: Westport Connecticut.