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.
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. 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.
When 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.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.
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.
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.
The most surprising influence the comics had 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.