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Review of The 10 Cent War: Comic Books, Propaganda, and World War II

By Megan Fowler

Goodnow, Trischa and James J. Kimble, eds. The 10 Cent War: Comic Books, Propaganda, and World War II. The University Press of Mississippi, 2017.

The central purpose of Trischa Goodnow and James J. Kimble’s edited collection The 10 Cent War: Comic Books, Propaganda, and World War II as presented in the introduction is, “to examine the role of comic books as World War II propaganda, ultimately revealing the numerous ways in which these often-overlooked cultural artifacts helped forge a united home front by cultivating a patriotic sensibility that celebrated both American triumphalism and virtue” (4). In the introduction, Goodnow and Kimble illustrate the uniqueness of comic books as a vehicle of WWII propaganda, as “Unlike the magazine, advertising, and radio industries, the comic book trade had little or no connection to the Roosevelt administration” and “there were few outright attempts to organize the comic industry in service of the war” (5).  Although WWII comics’ role as “overlooked” propaganda is somewhat overstated within this introduction (as comics have long been recognized both publicly and academically as participating heavily in the wartime agenda), the preceding collection of essays provides valuable insight and analysis into the propagandist tactics employed in comics during this period, such as encouraging readers into home-front action, emphasizing patriotic values to young readers, and demonizing “the enemy” through racist caricature. The 10 Cent War offers readers an amazing about of breadth, with authors employing a variety of theoretical methodologies including social semiotics, allegory, and social cognitive theory, examining both larger presses and lesser-known publishers, and analyzing the depictions of figures ranging from Superman to Hitler to Uncle Sam.

Several of the entries throughout The 10 Cent War take up the issue of representation, particularly gender, due to the role women played in the war, and race, given the propagandistic methods utilized to represent the America’s various allies and antagonists. In the first essay of the collection, “‘Hey Soldier!–Your Slip Is Showing!’: Militarism vs. Femininity in World War II Comic Pages and Books,” Christina M. Knopf analyzes representations of a variety of military women in comics including Speed Comics’ “Pat Parker, War Nurse” and “Girl Commandos,” Winnie the WAC, and Meet Molly Marine, among others. Throughout the piece, Knopf explores the ways in which WWII comics undermined women’s place in the military as subordinate to men via their femininity while simultaneously integrating femininity (via domestic work, etc.) as an essential part of military operation. Meanwhile, Elliott Sawyer and Derek T. Buescher’s article “Tell the Whole Truth: Feminist Exception in World War II Wonder Woman,” utilize Marita Struken’s post-9/11 piece on distance and disavowal to argue the feminism present in the Wonder Woman comics of the time provides a distance which has shielded these comics from critique, obscuring their pro-military torture stance. Through this example, Sawyer and Buescher advocate for the utilization of contemporary feminist theory to critique and expose the more unsettling components of past feminist works.

Moving to race and ethnicity, in “Flying Tigers and Chinese Sidekicks in World War II American Comic Books,” Zou Yizheng analyzes Chinese-themed narratives in WWII, particularly in association with the historical American combatants the Flying Tigers. Although a rather small section of the essay actually focuses on Chinese characters, Yizheng offers a valuable framework by mapping the central figures of the Flying Tigers story lines onto subscribed roles of contemporary superhero comics as swaggering American heroes, treacherous Japanese villains, and unreliable Chinese sidekicks. Through this model, Yizheng exposes that in spite of their heroic positioning in these comics, the Chinese sidekicks are not exempt from the same underlying racism present in the horrifying racist caricatures of the Japanese villains. In addition, this framework serves as a model that mirrors many of the subsequent discussions of race throughout the rest of The 10 Cent War. For example, the penultimate chapter, James J. Kimble’s “War Victory Adventures: Figurative Cognition and Domestic Propaganda in World War II Comic Books,” (while at times somewhat repetitive) reinforces many of Yizheng’s claims in a sweeping analysis of Family Comics representation of American heroes, German and Japanese enemies, and Soviet and British victims and allies. Though not focused on representations of race, Trischa Goodnow considers the role of ethnic identity in WWII comics in “Superman as Allegory: Examining the Isolationist/Interventionist Dilemma in U.S. Foreign Policy Prior to Pearl Harbor.” Here, Goodnow presents a unique but not entirely convincing reading of early Superman comics as an allegory for the isolationist-interventionist American debate of the time, with Jewish creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster coming down on the side of intervention. Although the allegorical reading at times seems a bit reaching, the piece presents a fresh look at one of the most over-discussed superhero figures. In addition, Goodnow is one of the few authors throughout the book to attend to the role comics creators played in the propagandist content of WWII comics.

In “Racial Stereotypes and War Propaganda in Captain America,” Deborah Clark Vance does a social semiotic analysis of WWII Captain America comics, arguing that the stereotypes employed in Captain America have their origin in earlier American propaganda campaigns, including Americanization and the campaigns of WWI. Vance presents a lengthy and thorough history on the emergence of anti-immigrant stereotypes from these prior propaganda campaign. She then moves to do a social semiotic reading of Captain America #1, analyzing the representation of the comic’s American heroes and German villains along a binary of traits including “Beautiful/Ugly,” “Bravery/Cowardice,” “Fair/Crooked,” etc. She concludes by linking the negative portrayal of the German spies in Captain America #1 with the anti-immigrant rhetoric of previous propaganda campaigns. Although Vance’s essay is the only to focus exclusively on German caricature, thereby filling a gap within the book, her failure to analyze representation of the Japanese in Captain America seems odd in an essay entitled “Racial Stereotypes.” If in fact readers are meant to read the Germans as a “race,” Vance fails to clearly differentiate this distinction, often lapsing in using the terms “ethnic” and “racial” interchangeably. For example, at one point Vance states that “…Captain America uses ethnic stereotypes and concerns about immigrants that were just as prevalent in two earlier propaganda campaigns” (144) then later makes the claim “The binary oppositions in Captain America suggest that Americans and Germans are so different as to be incompatible: they are of different races, and the German race is the inferior one.” (45). However, she provides no evidence to support this claim, and her failure to differentiate the complexities of ethnic and racial identity (both during the period in which these comics were written and/or the contemporary moment) muddles her argument. While the essay offers a compelling historical background which links the WWII propaganda utilized by comics with prior campaigns in a way none of the other essays in the collection tackle, the lack of clear terms ultimately weakens the piece.

In addition to representations of content, many essay in The 10 Cent War center around reader response to WWII comics and the ways in which writers and artists utilized propaganda techniques to persuade and educate their readers, in particular young boys, about the war. In “Boys on the Battlefield: Kid Combatants as Propaganda in World War II-Era Comic Books,” Jon Judy and Brad Palmer consider the importance of the boy sidekick role as a stand-in for young readers. In the first essay, Judy and Palmer utilize social cognitive theory to consider the messages about American patriotism and the war sent to young readers via Captain America’s boy sidekick Bucky, whose exploits sussing out spies and infiltrating the battlefield demonstrated such sentiments such as “war is fun,” “war is masculine,” “war is safe,” and “war is a normal responsibility.” Turning to the home-front, David E. Wilt’s “‘Everyone Can Help, Young or Old, Large or Small’: Novelty Press Mobilizes Its Readers” considers Novelty Press’s portrayal of everyday American youth participating in home-front activities in order to encourage its readers to participate in the war effort. Comics focused on characters such as Dick Cole, Wonder Boy and Edison Bell, Young Inventor showed their young protagonists participating in activities such as Victory Gardens, collecting scrap iron and waste paper, and buying war bonds. These comics demonstrated the kinds of activities would be able to participate in, sometimes even offering how-to pages outside the narrative of the comic in order to encourage readers to join in the war effort alongside the protagonists of Novelty Press. Novelty Press also had a unique amount of reader correspondence for the time period, printing editor’s pages which included submitted reader’s letters. Wilt’s essay then not only unearths the unique propagandist efforts of a less mainstream comic press but traces a notable predecessor to the comic book letter column which will come into prevalence in the late 1950s.

One of the most compelling essays in the collection, Steven E. Martin’s “Debunking Hitler: True Comics as Counter-Propaganda,” ironically, as can be seen from the title, centers around a comic press debunking and exposing propaganda rhetoric of the Nazis. In this piece, Martin analyzes two comics issues from True Comics, founded by George J. Hecht, who was interested in utilizing the comics medium to educate American youth. Unlike the genre focus of more well-known comics presses mentioned in The 10 Cent WarTrue Comics largely focused on biographical, historical, and other educational comics. Martin does a thorough analysis of two of the more educational entries by the press, “They Got the Blame” and “There Are No Master Races.” Both comics serve as examples of ways True Comics attempted to undermine and expose the propagandist techniques utilized by Hitler and the Nazi regime. “They Got the Blame,” explains the meaning and history of scapegoating, including debunking contemporary examples such as anti-Catholic sentiment and Hitler’s use of anti-semitism. The second issue examined, “There Are No Master Races,” presents a combating of the pseudo-scientific racist rhetoric prevalent at the time with served as a foundation for the Nazi regime. Through a combination of Christian mythology and science, the comic exposes hierarchies of race to be false. Martin explains, “Although the comic does not go so far as to argue that there actually are no separate human races at all, it does teach that race is not a meaningful delineation,” a radical stance to take during the time period (174). In so doing, True Comics “avoided a fundamental contradiction that was found in most U.S. propaganda: that Hitler was wrong, but at the same time enemies of the United States were subhuman or nonhuman” (180). Martin’s essay is an invaluable entry in the collection, not only by recovering and demonstrating the work being done at True Comics at the time, but also by illustrating the ways in which comics as a medium can be used to undermine propaganda. Such an example demonstrates that comics do not function exclusively as vehicles of propaganda and serves to complicate their relationship with propagandist techniques in WWII.

One frustration that arises within The 10 Cent War is the failure of the book to ever fully address the uniqueness of the medium becoming an unofficial propaganda machine. While Goodnow and Kimble impress upon readers in their introduction the importance of studying comics as a vehicle for WWII propaganda because unlike other forms this campaign arose outside government mandate, few other authors take up answering or even alluding to why this might be the case. This absence in part stems from the fact that few of the essays within the collection consider the influence and/or motivation of individual creators working in comics at the time. The comics analyzed instead are largely regarded as though they were products of monolithic presses rather than a collaborative team of individuals. Such a failure to engage with comics creators leads to a rather glaring omission throughout the collection, apart from a few minor references in the book’s introduction and Goodnow’s essay on Superman as allegory–that many comics writers, artists, and editors were Jewish, and thus had a vested personal interest in America’s participation in WWII. Although this is a fairly minor issue when compared to the overall value of the work being done by The 10 Cent War, this failure to at least engage with the motivation behind the WWII comics propaganda campaign partially undermines the urgency the editors give the topic in their initial introduction.

The 10 Cent War offer invaluable insight into the ways in which WWII comics utilized propaganda techniques to encourage readers to support the war effort. The collection offers an expansive scope of essays which utilize critical lenses ranging from feminist criticism, dramatism, critical race theory, reader response theory, etc. to analyze the content and form of  propaganda in WWII comics. By focusing not only on well-known comics and figures such as Superman and Wonder Woman but lesser known issues from independent presses, scholars in The 10 Cent War recuperate and recover important often overlooked work from the period, including True Comics’s counter-propaganda work on race and Novelty Press’s precedent to the comic book letter page. In addition to the extensive critical analyses within, the book offers key historical context and background crucial to any scholar researching comics of the WWII period. As such, the books serves as a key resource for comics scholars and WWII historians alike.

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