Journey Into Comics: WAR COMICS, THEN AND…?
Saturday, April 12, 2003
From Newsarama, reprinted with permission
by Mike San Giacomo
It was “The Good War.”
The Nazis, the Japanese and to a less extent, Mussolini’s fascists, presented a threat to the world that was so obvious, so frightening, that there seemed no other choice than resistance.
Comic books, being a mirror for society of the times, reflected that belief.
Adolph Hitler was as much a comic book villain as any mad scientist. Nazis and Japanese soldiers were the featured villains on the cover after cover of Superman, Captain America and a host of lesser lights like Thrilling Comics, Blue Bolt, and Zip Comics.
Comics sold by the millions each month as people were drawn to the colorful, caustic covers that promised them a few pages of victory. In 1941, more than 10 million copies of Superman Comics were sold.
Comic publishers would never again latch onto a war like they did in World War II. Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War and its sequel, “Gulf War II: The Search for Saddam,” go largely unrecorded in the comics.
Today, comic publishers are far more circumspect than they were 60 years ago. They see the news. They see the thousands of protesters in the streets that oppose the war. They fear that there is no way to represent the war without angering some group somewhere, so they just don’t do it.
That means we’re not likely to see the Fantastic Four or Spider-Man battling Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guard. Marvel President Bill Jemas said there is no absolute rule against it,
but it would be a tough sell.
“If a writer wants to send The Avengers to Iraq, and he has a great story to tell, we would allow it,” said Jemas. “If I thought we were able to go out and do a story objectively, with humanity, and one that touches on all sides, we would do it.”
But it’s unlikely. After the tragedy of Sept. 11, a few superheroes hunted down generic terrorists, but no links were made to actual people or countries. For better or worse, no one wanted to take the risk of pointing a finger at a specific person, country, religion, or other motivating factors for the terrorist action.
“The truth is, we are fantasy writers, not journalists,” Jemas said. “We write stories, we are not qualified to write about the war, even if they are only in comic books.”
“We struggle with the issue,” Jemas said. “There are some of our creators who support what the Bush Administration is doing and others who oppose it.”
In 411, Marvel’s series of stories about peaceful alternatives to war which goes on sale this week there were some writers who wanted to make direct attacks on George Bush, Jemas said. “Even though I may personally agree with those sentiments, I chose not to publish those stories for the same reason I would not publish pro-war books,” Jemas continued. “It’s not a comic book’s place to run propaganda anymore.”
It was a different world back in the 1940s.
Those were the days when newsstands carried hundreds of comics each week that showed German and Japanese soldiers as monsters. Hitler, Hirohito, and Mussolini got their tails kicked in everything from Action to Zip comics and all titles in between. Along with the main bad guys themselves, heroes in the early ‘40s were always busting Nazi or Japanese spy rings that were sending sensitive information to America’s enemies.
Heck, even Look Magazine got in on the game, commissioning a two-page spread entitled, “How Would Superman End World War II?” wherein Superman bashed tanks, swatted Nazi planes out of the sky, plucked Hitler out of his retreat, grabbed Stalin off of a Moscow balcony, and took them to Geneva, where the League of Nations found them guilty for unprovoked aggression against defenseless countries.
“We did our share of war stories in the 1940s when my father ran the company,” he said, though with superheroes, not with the Riverdale crew. “And back in the 1991 Gulf War, we distributed thousands of free Archie Comics to remind the soldiers of America, home, and apple pie. We’re getting ready to ship out thousands more to do it again.
“But that’s about the extent of it,” he said. “Comics are escapist literature.”
MLJ Comics gave the world its first star-spangled superhero, The Shield, in Pep Comics #1 in the spring of 1940, more than a year before Captain America hit the stands and a year and a half before the U.S. entered the war on that day of infamy, Dec. 7, 1941. Cap worked for Timely Comics, which later became Atlas Comics and finally, Marvel Comics.
“We called the Nazis, ‘The Nordics’ for a while until America got used to the war,” Silberkleit said.
MLJ’s Shield spawned a veritable platoon of patriotic heroes from dozens of comic book companies, with costumes that looked like Betsy Ross designed them.
The patriotic power parade continued unabated through the 1940s with heroes like Minute Man; the Star-Spangled Kid and Stripesy; the Fighting Yank; Captain Flag; Mr. America; Miss America; Spysmasher; Yank and Doodle; Yankee Doodle Jones; Uncle Sam; Wonder Woman; Major Victory; Citizen V; Captain Courageous; Captain Freedom; The Patriot; Yankee Boy; Flag Man and The Flag, to name but a few.
Even got the relatively gentle Captain Marvel once fought a villain called “Nippo the Nipponese.”
Okay, release your cringe – subtlety was not a big commodity in those days.
But after the war, audiences were tired of Germans and Japanese comics took a lighter turn with teen titles, romance stories, and crime comics. Most of those patriotic heroes, like old soldiers, just faded away.
In the 1950’s Timely Comics (then called Atlas) had a mini-revival of its superhero trinity; Captain America, Human Torch, and Sub-Mariner. Instead of Nazis, they fought Communists. But comics had fallen on tough times in the 1950s and the revival lasted about a year.
And even in the 1960s, communism was viewed as a threat to democracy as Iron Man, Giant-Man, and the Avengers fought Russian spies and Soviet superheroes.
Then there were those wonderful early 1970s issues where Captain America, so disheartened by American political corruption, gave up his identity to become “Nomad, the man without a country.” Then, of course, there was also a The ‘Nam a pretty bold series for Marvel which told true-to-life stories about soldiers adventures in that unpopular war.
While Marvel and MLJ did their part, DC that got the most mileage of the World War II with a half-dozen comics set in that war which were published continuously from the early 1950s until the early 1980s. Heck, even the Justice Society, which still has monthly adventures in JSA can (depending upon which continuity you choose) trace its roots back to World War II, as the team was tracking down foreign saboteurs and spies on behalf of the FBI by their second issue as an official team (All-Star Comics #4). In later stories, it was revealed that many of the team’s members met regularly with FDR for marching orders.
When the big guns of the heroes scene in the ‘40s joined the service in their civilian identities (following the models set for them by movie stars of the time), FDR charged those who remained on the home front to form the All-Star Squadron, which, as a series, lasted from 1981-1987, and was set during World War II. Technically, the Squadron pre-dated the Justice Society, but again, that’s up to your own interpretation of continuity.
In perhaps one of the bolder retroactive continuity stories dealing with DC heroes and politics, it was revealed that the JSA disbanded in 1951 after refusing to unmask during an investigation of the House Un-American Affairs Committee.
But – the days of DC characters taking any role in wars and politics may be limited. When contacted recently, officials at DC Comics, flatly declined to discuss their role in wars; past, present or future.
While some of their heroes can trace their origins and glory days back to WWII, it should be noted that by and large, even back in the 1940s, DC was far less adventurous in dealing the with the Axis than Timely and MLJ.
With the exception of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby’s Boy Commandos, DC was content to show their heroes fighting the war on the cover, which was plastered with patriotic slogans, making the images pop-culture propaganda of a sort, but – the bravado stopped there.
The stories inside usually dealt with the typical mobsters and evil scientists.
The covers urged readers to “Buy war bonds and stamps” to support the battle against the “Japanazis,” a word that conveniently gave the enemies a single face.
The dramatic covers would show a patriotic Superman ripping the periscopes off German submarines, or sitting astride the cannons of an American battleship with Batman and Robin on the cover of World’s Finest Comics #7 in 1941, but the stories would have nothing to do with the covers.
Still, the covers always were the best thing about Golden Age comics.
Alvin Schwartz, who wrote the Superman daily newspaper strip and numerous comics for DC, was asked to write a Superman comic putting the Man of Steel against the Nazis and the Japanese.
“I said no,” said Schwartz, now 86, from his home in Chesterville, Ontario. “I was Jewish and obviously opposed to Hitler. But what could Superman do? He could just fly in there and clean the whole war up. It didn’t seem right to involve him when so many real men were fighting and dying.”
In later years, DC writers would explain the lack of superhero intervention by revealing that Hitler possessed “the Spear of Destiny” a magical instrument, which would have put superheroes under his control if they got too close. Convenient.
Schwartz said he had a problem with the typical depiction of the Japanese in comics, which was meant to be comical, but in today’s view was beyond offensive. Yet, the depictions served a propaganda purpose – dehumanize the enemy. It’s a standard psychological trick in any war. These aren’t people we’re fighting after all – they’re caricatures of humans. “I could not stand seeing Japanese people shown as yellow-skinned, with huge buck teeth and thick glasses,” he said.
But over at Timely (Marvel), they couldn’t get enough.
Hitler was the prime villain in the first 10 issues of Captain America Comics at Timely Comics. Nazis, along with Asian (called Orientals back then) were depicted as almost sub-humans at best, and of course, out and out monsters at worst. Before the Red Skull became a James Bondian style villain in more recent decades, he was the ‘40s equivalent of a movie monster.
Of course, there was a story where Cap dressed as a woman to sneak into Berlin and Buck dressed as “her” grandson, and no one questioned that the symbol of America could pass as a woman…but…let’s not talking about that here.
Back to wartime action, the Human Torch, The Sub-Mariner and an assortment of “B” class superheroes spent issue after issue thwarting one Nazi or Japanese scheme after another. In fact, the Human Torch is credited with killing Hitler by burning him to death. If you didn’t know that it’s because with his dying words Hitler told an aide to tell the world he killed himself to avoid the posthumous humiliation. Now you know.
But comics today are different, no longer throwaway fodder for 10-year-olds; adults buy most comics these days.
And even legendary artist Joe Simon, now approaching 90, said he would be reluctant to draw the kinds of covers he did in the 1940s.
“After Sept. 11 I redrew the cover of Captain America #1 but put Osama Bin Laden in place of Hitler,” he said. “But I just did it for myself, not for anyone else to see. War is too sensitive a topic for comics to deal with today, things are far more complex than the war in the days when Captain America could punch Hitler in the jaw.”
Joe Simon has a lot to say about the war, comics and the people who made them in The Comic Book Makers, a comics history he co-wrote with his son, Jim, that is scheduled for release next month from Vanguard Press.
But for now, in this different world with this different war, the past is the only place superheroes will deal with world politics and conflicts.
Go right ahead.