American comic books: diving into propaganda

Comic books have a rich history in North America. One could say they are a cousin to graphic design, because of their marriage of text and imagery. Despite this, they are not considered in the textbook Graphic Design: A New History, by Eskilson (2019). 

For a kind of graphic design devoured by many a kid, teen, and adult since the 1940’s, comics have had an impressive influence throughout society. In fact, they were used as a vehicle for propaganda during World War II (Scott 57). Captain America comics were introduced in 1941, and in the first issue’s cover the character Captain America is seen punching Adolf Hitler in the face (see figure 1). Issue 58 of Superman toted a cover with a banner stating how war bonds and stamps can help the war effort in America (see figure 2). The patriotic themes and heroism of these comic book characters — those who protect and serve the people of America — were a perfect companion for American propaganda, providing the youth a visceral but appropriate understanding of what a ‘good American’ was, and who their enemies were (Scott 57). 

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Figure 1. Captain America seen here in his first issue, punching Hitler in the face as a good American would.

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Figure 2. Superman shown helping to print out posters about how any American can help the war effort.

The slogans seen in the Superman and Batman comics were a way to encourage average Americans that they too could support the war effort of their people (see figure 2 & 3). These covers denote superheros fighting hard against their enemies or in the war, suggesting that if you were to do as these characters say (buy war bonds and stamps), you would be fighting the war too.

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Figure 3. Batman and Robin on adventures to show Americans how they are helping out their soldiers.

But what if you couldn’t or wouldn’t do these things? Like the posters created to swell patriotic pride for World War I that guilted men into signing up for global fights, these comics provided the dark understanding that if you do not do what these superheroes do, you are unpatriotic and not at all like the beloved superheroes that help out as an American should (see figure 4) (Eskilson 115).

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Figure 4. Savile Lumley’s WWI poster (1915). – Daddy, what did you do in the war?

Comics also disseminated the face of the ugly enemy in a more modern format for youthful readers(Scott 54). Unlike the serious and/or horrifying appearances illustrated for past wartime posters, here were bumbling fools and comically drawn ghouls. Different but similar, the purpose of creating negative (and racist) appearances of enemies was done for the exact same reason it was done in any other way — to sow the concept of good versus evil (ibid.) (see figure 5).

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Figure 5. The Fighting Yank‘s cover depicting racist caricatures of the Japanese army.

In particular, the concept of a patriotically-dressed comic book character was an American invention, providing a way for readers to connect with their country and its ideal beliefs (Scott 56). In line with this, Captain America toted an American flag themed shield and wore an American flag themed body suit (see figure 1). Another hero dressed similarly was Wonder Woman with her red, white, and blue costume with a bald eagle as a chest emblem (see figure 6). To wear the flag would be a clear signal that these characters lived and breathed American values. The bald eagle was yet another signal to viewers of this, and characters would be seen holding one or even, riding one (see figures 6 & 7)!

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Figure 6. Wonder Woman lasso-ing enemies.

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Figure 7. Batman and Robin seen riding a bald eagle – a symbol of American pride and patriotism.

Delving into American comics and their impact on society would be a boon to the textbook. There is a rich history that dips into war-time propaganda specifically aimed at the American youth, as well as a demonstration of patriotic imagery that resounded to the people of the time. Looking into these comics would provide our class another view into the way propaganda was disseminated into different times, that varied from the usual posters and flyers see typically shown in class.

Cord, Scott A.  Comics and ConflictNaval Institute Press, 2014.

Eskilson, Stephen J. Graphic Design: A New History. Yale University Press, 2019.

“Patriotism.” Word War II: Comics and Propaganda,
sites.google.com/site/worldwar2comicbookpropaganda/–patriotism.

 

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