Comics and Nationalism: Super-Heroes Go To War

This article is the second in a series I will be publishing over the next several weeks on Comic Books and Nationalism. Each week I will be exploring a different era in American comic books, from the Golden, Silver, and Bronze Ages into modern day. 
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There are few things which test the power and durability of pop culture than its performance during times of open military conflict. With the outbreak of war in Europe and the Pacific, American comics (though widely viewed as children’s entertainment at the time) showed themselves to be just as critical a component of the national media strategy as Gary Cooper’s Sergeant York or the highly publicized decisions of professional ballplayers like Joe DiMaggio. As discussed in the previous installment of this series, the earliest iterations of the super-heroes who formed the core of the American comics industry represented idealized versions of both the populist and industrialist attitudes of the day. Most of these themes were cast aside after Pearl Harbor, with potentially controversial themes being downplayed in favor of either outright patriotic content or escapist stories which avoided the war entirely.
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The Man Who Knocked Out Adolf Hitler

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kirby-captain-america-comics-1Though by no means the only star-spangled hero to emerge from this era, no piece of Americana has proved more enduring as an avatar of the national identity than Captain America. First published in May of 1941, Jack Kirby and Joe Simon’s creation was a direct response on the part of the two Jewish-American creators to what they saw happening in Germany. Cap and his sidekick Bucky found themselves squaring off against spies and Axis agents, a prophetic warning to the youth of America that war with Germany was coming and in many ways had already reached America’s shores. In one of the most canny acts of counter-propaganda of the era, Kirby’s Steve Rogers was the epitome of Adolf Hitler’s Aryan ideal, twisted in a way which spoke to America’s belief in the ability of a people to achieve the best version of themselves rather than being slaves to genetic predetermination. The transformation of the ninety-pound weakling Rogers into the a hulking champion of freedom represented a refutation of the eugenically-driven idea that humanity was defined solely by genetics, instead promoting the idea that scientific achievement, personal effort, and a just cause could elevate anyone to the zenith of human possibility.
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For publisher Timely Comics, it was immediately obvious that selling patriotism was good business. The first issue of Captain America sold nearly one million copies, placing it on par with some the highest selling titles of all time for a single printing. Once the war was officially underway, the Captain did his patriotic duty, serving on nearly every front, leading a multinational coalition of heroes in The Invaders and, in the process, becoming the super-hero most identified with the war itself in the minds of every generation since.
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World’s Finest on the Sidelines

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worlds finest war bondsIn contrast to the direct action which featured in Captain America, his heroic predecessors from Timely’s competing publisher DC Comics (the successor to National Comics) weren’t so keen to take on the Axis. While the covers of both Batman and Superman comics heavily featured war bond advertising and patriotic themes, the stories contained within kept to the sidelines of the war itself. Superman’s subversive populist themes were sublimated in favor of less politically charged heroics, and Batman squared off against the likes of the Joker and the Penguin rather than Hitler or Tojo. In “Superman and the War Years,” author Wallace Harrington argues that this may have been an intentional move on the part of DC to provide escapist entertainment to a war-weary America: “while the covers were strong messages in support of the American troops, it may be that the stories inside intentionally avoided the subject of war as a means of escape for a weary nation. The country was constantly bombarded with news of the war, and the entire economic machinery of the US was focussed on building the war machine. So, stories of Superman battling Luthor were ways for soldiers and those at home to escape reality for a few minutes.”
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There were DC characters who approached the war directly, namely the members of the All-Star Squadron (also known as the Justice Society and the Justice Battalion), but even they were rendered largely ineffective with respect to direct action in the war with a rather elegant plot device.  Hitler came into possession of an artifact known as the Spear of Destiny, which gave him control over any super-powered beings within the Nazis’ sphere of influence.
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The War at Home

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Star Spangled Comics #7One of the most interesting things to emerge from this period was a collection of characters who began the tradition of what most of the modern-day comics readership would call street-level heroes. When Simon and Kirby left Timely for DC in 1942, they created one of the most enduring examples of this in The Guardian and the Newsboy Legion.
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With most of America’s men of a certain age headed overseas to battle the forces of fascism, there was an attendant rise in street crime as police departments and district attorneys offices found themselves with drastically depleted manpower. In response, characters like Jim “The Guardian” Harper emerged, taking the law into their own hands in the absence of a truly functional civil law enforcement apparatus. In addition, Harper’s efforts were supplemented by the assistance of a group of street-wise paperboys who aided him in bringing down everything from spies to crooked landlords.
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This was a terrific representation of the concerted effort by wartime America to take many of the responsibilities which had previously been the province of government into their own hands. It was an America of victory gardens, war factories, and paper and scrap metal drives. In many ways, it was a throwback to the self-reliant, frontier spirit which defined the early years of the country.
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In large part, the comics of the wartime era were tremendously supportive of America’s efforts abroad. They served as diversion for troops at the front as well as those who had been left behind. They captured the can-do spirit of a nation which had finally decided to export its particular brand of democracy at the point of a mechanized spear the likes of which had never been deployed in the history of warfare. It contributed some of the most enduring characters in the lexicon and firmly embedded others as a part of the national culture.
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NEXT WEEK: Eyes to the Stars and Denial at Home

Josh Epstein

Josh Epstein is the Publisher for the Capeless Crusader website. He’s a lifelong comic nerd, and “Superman” is the first word he ever read aloud. He is also an actor, singer, and resident of a real-world Smallville.

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