Imagine you are riding in a bus in the middle of summer. It is hot, stuffy, and you are starting to sweat. Would you not wish for the air-conditioning to be turned on? I will be looking at how air-conditioning is represented in the comic “Buz and His Bus” by Harry Brunt from Commando Comics: No. 18 pg 1-3, why it is represented that way, and what that representation does to the readers.
“Bus and His Bus”
The comic starts out with a bus driver named Buz. He is excited about the new air-conditioning that was installed in his bus, and tells his passengers to keep the windows closed. The passengers comply and Buz starts to drive the bus, driving by a sign that says “Stop ‘b.o.’ with pew-boy soap.” (2). During the ride, one passenger takes out his lunch, which happens to be a garlic. The smell fills the bus and the passengers and Buz express their displeasure towards the odour. The passengers are having trouble breathing, but still, Buz drives on. Just when things could not get any worse, a skunk happens to cross the road at the wrong time. Buz accidentally runs over the skunk with his bus and everything goes wrong. The smell slowly drafts into the bus and mixes with the garlic odour. The passengers are suffocating and Buz no longer cares if the windows are closed or not. They are desperate for fresh air. They punch and kick the windows until they can breathe again. Buz brings the bus to a stop and he and the passengers catch their breaths. One passenger half-jokingly asks Buz his opinion towards the air-conditioning, to which he replies, with a clothespin on his nose, “It stinks!” (5)
While reading this comic, I found it bizarre that they would introduce air-conditioning as this new and improved way to cool down only to put on such an elaborate show of its flaws. New inventions like this are quite helpful, so why would they go to such lengths to prove otherwise? I decided to do a bit of research to find out.
What I Found
It turns out that the answer is quite simple. It takes a lot of power to run an automobile air-conditioning system. In fact, “the overall diesel consumption of the engine will increase by 7%-38% when the vehicle’s A/C is operated” (Farrington, R.; Rugh, J., Impact of Vehicle Air-Conditioning on Fuel Economy, Tailpipe Emissions and Electric Vehicle Range: Preprint.). During WWll supplies such as food, gas, and rubber were precious. Many items were told to be saved in order to help contribute to the war effort. Fuel was one of them. Fuel was needed to help power military machines such as tanks and planes. To make sure there would be enough fuel for the war, fuel had to be preserved, starting with the home front. How was that fuel saved? By not driving unless needed, carpooling, and by, you guessed it, opening the windows instead of using the A/C.
How it relates
Going back to “Bus and His Bus”, it is clear why air-conditioning was shown in a negative way. Even though it was a groundbreaking invention, in vehicles it does use a large portion of the vehicle’s power and fuel to operate. During this time resources were slim and everything needed to be used in moderation. Fuel was needed for military purposes, so the common person had to compromise. How does this comic make its readers not use air-conditioning in their vehicles? By showing it in a negative light.
The sign on the road, the man with the garlic, the skunk, the excessive use of stink lines (Figure 1); all are tools that are used to create a situation in which the readers can imagine themselves in. Scent is a string sense and many are able to imagine and react to a scent from a description along. By having the garlic and the skunk in the comic, the readers are able to imaging just how terrible that bus smelt. If they were in that situation they would want fresh air too. The comic conditions the readers to associate vehicle air-conditioning with horrible odours, then offers an alternative: open windows. It tells the readers that it is not worth using the air-conditioning in a vehicle if the windows are going to eventually be opened anyways. If they just open the windows they be able to stay cool and breathe at the same time.
In “Bus and His Bus”, there is a strong emphasis on the shortcomings of air-conditioning. While it does cool you off, it does not allow you to open the windows in case the vehicle you are in starts to smell bad, The comic encourages its readers in a subtle and funny way to open the windows and contribute to the war effort by saving fuel.
After World War II, the media, specifically in the form of television and film, newspapers, and comics played a large role in contributing to Canadian society’s perception of minority races. Commando Comics, a war comic series, attempts to provide historically accurate information to readers on World War II from the perspective of Canadian soldiers. The sixteenth issue of Commando Comics (1945) contains negative representations of minority races and depicts the Canadian heroes and soldiers as superior. I will be analyzing the negative portrayal of Japanese individuals and touch on the representation of German individuals in Commando Comics by observing the impact of this representation on minority races and how this affected Canadian society’s treatment of them. Furthermore, I will analyze how the comic and other forms of Canadian media degraded other races to promote Canadians as superior. The sixteenth issue of Commando Comics “promotes nationalism” (Montgomery 19), as the Canadian heroes are not only presented as the “right side”, but minority races are degraded and portrayed as the “enemy”. The constant use of stereotypes in this comic, as well as other forms of media during and after the war, contributed to society’s negative and unjust outlook on individuals of Japanese descent.
Constant Use of Stereotypes
Commando Comics heavily discriminates and stereotypes Japanese and German individuals based on physical attributes and language. The comic’s use of stereotypes contributed to the unjust prejudice that the media already held against minority races. A pilot story in the issue, “Ace Bradley Again!”, contains problematic illustrations of Japanese soldiers. As seen in Fig. 1, the soldiers are drawn with slanted eyes and protruding teeth, which are stereotypes that were and still are made about individuals of Japanese descent. These stereotypes were heavily used in other anti-Japanese stories in the comic, as well as other forms of media at the time.
The sixteenth issue also uses stereotypes in terms of language. In “Wings Over the Atlantic”, the dialogue of the German soldier is written in broken English and the character is given a stereotypical accent; for example, “I vill be safe and den ha-ha-ha, ve vill see if dey vill catch him,” (Andre 27). In this dialogue, the “w” is replaced with a “v” and the “th” is replaced with a “d” to give the character a stereotypical German accent. There is also an issue with the way that the Japanese language is represented. In “Lank The Yank”, a soldier says “Have bombs ready yesss?” (Brunt 24). This was done deliberately, to make it seem like the character is speaking in broken English once again. Furthermore, the dialogue of the Japanese soldiers is written in Japanese characters. In Fig 2, the word “censored” is under the soldier’s dialogue, to show that the soldier is cursing. The Japanese letters and soldier’s broken English are used to create a language barrier between the Canadian and Japanese individuals, in an attempt from the Canadians to try and differentiate themselves from the Japanese soldiers. In addition to this, the comic gives the Japanese language a negative connotation, as each time the Japanese letters are used, the soldiers are supposed to be swearing or insulting the Canadian soldiers.
During my research, I found that many of the characters in the Canadian Whites comics are given stereotypes; not only classics such as JohnnyCanuck and Nelvana of the Northern Lights, but in CommandoComics as well. The Canadian characters are stereotyped, however, the stereotypes seem to be positive and based off of well-known “Canadian stereotypes”, in contrast to the negative stereotypes that the comic uses for characters of minority races. The Canadian soldiers are given traits such as striving for peace and avoiding violence; for example, in “The Young Commandos”, a soldier says, “it only goes to show how brave the lads in our armed forces are,” (Lazare 15) to enforce the idea of the brave Canadian hero. However, the Japanese soldiers are given traits, such as being dangerous or violent and are portrayed as the antagonists. The use of stereotypes is a theme throughout Canadian comics and characters, however, there is a clear difference in how the stereotypes are used; this difference is clearly based off of race. The idea that the Canadian soldiers are brave and fighting for justice is constantly reinforced, as is that Japan is “the enemy”.
Discrimination and Use of Derogatory Words
As war topics and violent content “dominated the mass media” (Montgomery 20) during the war, Commando Comics also contains racial slurs and explicit violence against minority races, specifically Japanese individuals.
Throughout the entire issue, the Japanese soldiers are referred to as “nips” or “Japs” by the Canadian soldiers, which are derogatory terms. In “Clift Steele and the Island of Floating Death”, Clift says, “those nips’ll blow us to bits in a minute!” (Dariam 6). In “Lank The Yank”, Lank refers to the soldiers as “these Jap jerks” (Brunt 25). These are just a few of the numerous times that racial slurs are used against Japanese soldiers in the comic. These terms are extremely offensive, as they are derogatory abbreviations being used as an insult and are a sign of disrespect.
In addition to racial slurs, the sixteenth issue of CommandoComics also discriminates against the Japanese soldiers in terms of skin colour. In “Ace Bradley Again!”, a soldier refers to the Japanese soldiers as “little yellow rats” (Thomson 20), which is extremely offensive. Furthermore, in “The Young Commandos”, Chuck, a Canadian soldier, does not want to fight and is called a coward by his fellow soldiers. His superior says, “You can’t turn yellow on me now!” (Lazare 13), which is a clear reference to skin colour once again. Moreover, the Canadian soldiers are using the phrase “turning yellow” (Lazare 13) to call Chuck a coward, which means they are referring to the Japanese soldiers as cowards.
Impact on Japanese Individuals
As a result of the unjust representation of Japanese individuals in the media and following World War II, Japanese families in British Columbia, many of which were Japanese Canadians, were forced into internment camps by the Canadian government. There was heavy racism expressed against Japanese individuals at the time, between 1942 and 1949, and they were unfairly denied of their rights. A substantial amount of Japanese families lost their homes and finances to the government, and were forced to move to the unpopulated areas of British Columbia. Although racism against Japanese individuals was mostly occurring in the west coast, it was present all throughout Canada. This racism was fuelled by World War II, as well as the news of the Pearl Harbour attack. The Japanese Canadians that tried to protest for their rights were sent to prisons. As a result of Canada’s actions towards the Japanese Canadians, the idea that individuals of Japanese descent were dangerous was promoted, therefore causing many people in society to be fearful and untrusting of them. Approximately forty years later, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau apologized for the unjustified treatment of Japanese individuals that occurred during the wartime period (Marsh 1), however, it truly could not compensate for the suffering that Japanese Canadians endured.
An accurate representation of what Japanese Canadians experienced can be interpreted from Joy Kogawa’s novel Obasan, which tells her story of being forced into an internment camp and being “separated from her family” (Davis 60). The most interesting aspect of this novel is that it depicts a side of Canada that many readers might not be accustomed to, as Canada is often known as a multicultural society that is accepting of everyone. This novel provides insight on what Canada was like during and after World War II and analyzes how the transition to a multicultural society has allowed individuals to be ignorant of the fact that racism still exists in Canada to this day.
Impact on Minority Races
During and after the war, the treatment of minority races was influenced by the way they were portrayed in the media. During this time, different forms of media, including comics, were promoting the idea that individuals of minority races were dangerous. This negatively impacted many aspects of their lives, such as employment opportunities and exclusion from jobs, and immigration restrictions. Many Canadians believed that minority groups were “undeserving” (Partias 10) of certain rights, such as voting. As there was constant “suspicion of foreigners” (Partias 15), many employers and workplaces’ racist views were accepted by those in higher power because society, as a whole, had an inaccurate outlook on minority groups. After the second war, many Canadians displayed uneasiness towards Japanese individuals, which resulted in unfair treatment and scrutiny. Although a vast majority of these individuals were Japanese Canadians, this factor was overlooked as the public was persuaded by the media’s representations, making them untrusting towards other races. The media played a large role in this as television, newspapers and comics constantly labelled Japan as the “enemy”. According to Partias’ observation, individuals of minority groups were only hired for jobs that were short of workers and that most Canadians avoided; in most cases, these jobs were low-paying and required hard labour.
The negative portrayal and representation of minority races in this comic as well as other forms of media were used to uplift Canadian heroes and promote the Canadian race as superior. In “Representations of War and Peace in High School History Textbooks”, Montgomery discusses his analysis on how Canadian textbooks promote nationalism and present the information in textbooks as fact and truth. Similar to Montgomery’s theory, the comic promotes Canadian soldiers as the right side who are “fighting for a better world” (Montgomery 20) and portrays Japanese individuals as the antagonists; the comic presents these ideas as if they are facts and the truth. This strategy that many forms of Canadian texts seem to use can shape the reader’s perspective of minority races and overall, Canada’s outlook on minority races.
Throughout the comic, there is clear prejudice against minority races, and these representations in the comic and other forms of media attempt to portray these races as inferior. Although individuals in society held their own misconceptions about individuals of other races, the media, Commando Comics included, also promoted these negative ideas about minority races. The sixteenth issue of CommandoComics not only heavily stereotypes Japanese individuals, but also degrades them in order to portray Canadians as superior.
Images in this online exhibit are either in the public domain or being used under fair dealing for the purpose of research and are provided solely for the purposes of research, private study, or education.
There is a single story line titled, “Spooky Tales: Mortimer McFright” that is found in the 17th issue of Wow Comics (January 1943) that tells the story of a young boy named Mortimer who gorges himself on cream puffs and gingerale, goes out into a cemetery in the middle of the night and eventually falls asleep on a tombstone—dreaming of being seduced by a voluptuous vampire. The absence of a parental figure is apparent, the only sign of any sort of parenting is the mention of a bedtime curfew set at 10:30, which Mortimer dutifully ignores as he casually strolls into a cemetery at midnight.
The Purpose of Spooky Tales
At this time, in the early 1940’s, the roles of children and indeed the roles of parents were changing due to the strains that the Second World War placed on familial structures. Suddenly, fathers were being deployed to foreign countries to fight for their country and their lives, mothers were being sent into the workforce out of financial necessity, and children were left alone or neglected. The latchkey kid emerged from this era of independence; a child that was doomed to be involuntarily self sufficient. In the comic that is being discussed however, onomatopoeias like “gulp” are repeated by Mortimer throughout the story line, as are emanating motion lines that indicate stress or surprise (Virgan 13). These elements work together to create a distinct comical tone, one that, despite the disturbing imagery of homicidal vampires, is light and juvenile. After examining the conditions that children were dealing with at the time of this story’s publication, it becomes apparent that Spooky Tales utilizes comedy as a way to subliminally educate children on the dangers they may encounter if they should misbehave while home alone, or unsupervised.
Mortimer, the star of this storyline, is a goofy looking kid, and at first glance his hair looks like a mustache, or a toupe. He has a large wrinkled divot on his forehead and his nostrils almost look like pince nez glasses; something that no young boys at the time wore.
Mortimer is sitting on a chair that is much too big for him, one that his father might like to sit on. On the table beside him there are empty bottles of ginger ale which upon first impression resemble beer bottles. The picture forms quite quickly after the first few visuals of Mortimer; he is a child parodying an adult. As the story progresses though, it is obvious that Mortimer does not possess the exceptional decision making skills of an adult, as he eventually creeps into a graveyard at midnight to investigate the potential existence of vampires.
In 1942, a nocturnal curfew was imposed, and as Gleason notes, some children who were used to prowling the streets after dusk resisted the change. There was a heap of controversy surrounding the curfew; some seeing it as a stabilizer for family relationships at the time, and others noting that the bourgeois child saviour approach blinded the more privileged to seeing that some less fortunate children worked at night (Gleason et al. 3). The nocturnal curfew poses as a significant contextual clue as to why in “Spooky Tales” a child was seen sneaking out into a cemetery in the middle of the night, because it was newly illegal, and comics would have certainly wanted to take this opportunity to address a current controversy.
Concerns For The Latchkey Kids
Many were severely concerned for the “eight hour orphan”, otherwise known as the “latchkey child” (Zucker 43). Zucker refers to these children with sympathy, but maintains a critical tone as he addresses the apparent neglect that these children faced. He says that the house key around these children’s necks were symbols of “cold meals” and of a “child neglected”, “shorn of the security of a mother’s love and affection” (43). According to Zucker, this neglect and “maladjustment” to self sufficient life is directly linked to a surge in delinquent behaviours that Zucker observes in children. It should be noted however that Zucker’s journal article was published just two years after my comic’s publication, so the author may have been too temporally close to the subject he discusses. However, other more modern scholars also share Zucker’s remarks, including Venter and Rambau’s study on a latchkey child’s mental health. In a child’s primitive years, important bonds and attachments and lessons are usually made; with the absence of a carer, the child’s mental health and academia suffers. In such primitive years, this article argues that important bonds and attachments and lessons are made, and with the absence of a carer, a child’s mental health and academia suffers (346). As a child grows older, they form relationships with the self, parents, peers, educators, and other people who may play a prominent role in their life. Relationships can be viewed as the very substance of life, but a negative parental relationship can be linked to risky behaviours from children, such as “delinquency, sexual experimentation, and experimentation with harmful substances and various forms of peer pressure.” (Rambau et al. 349).
Other contextual clues support these scholars arguments; just flipping through the Toronto Daily Star proved that there was a surge in reckless child behaviour and child injuries. In one article, horrific stories were told. 4 year old Jeanette ended up in the hospital after setting her clothes on fire from the pilot light of the gas stove. She had been left alone for what was only “a minute”, and soon enough she was engulfed in flames (“Jeanette, 4, Badly Burned” 13). Her mother and sister were only notified of the fire when little Jeanette ran to the bottom of the stairs and calmly asked for help. The mother says the incident occurred because Jeanette had overheard her sister Margaret discussing with her brother John how their father had lit his cigarette from the pilot light of the gas stove (13). On the same page, there is a short article on Stephen Smith, a 6 year old child who was admitted to the Hospital for Sick Children with both legs fractured (“Both Legs Broken Of Chid, Age Six” 13). Police said the child was injured when he ran suddenly from a parked truck and straight into the path of oncoming traffic. He was hit by a car and rushed first to the clinic and then to the hospital. The article does not mention whether the boy was being monitored or by whom he was being monitored. The injuries seem to have occured due to their parents’ lack of supervision and control over their children. The rebellious behaviours that we see in these children (lighting themselves on fire, jumping in front of cars) were seen more frequently as the war progressed and children were continuously left alone. Drawing back to Rambau and Zucker’s articles, the self sufficiency and boredom that the latchkey children experienced resulted in pent up energy that eventually materialized as delinquent acts.
The True Villain
Children were being neglected, true, but by whom? Their parents? Or the government? Working mothers were petitioning for the right to proper child care and day care centres, subsidized by governments.
Oddly, the only woman featured in the comic is a vulgar vampire who goes by the name “Veronica Puddle, Queen of all vampires”. She is unapologetically lustful, a Nazi supporter and a potential child molester. This paints quite an evil figure of the types of women that walk the streets past children’s bedtimes. Veronica is essentially drawn as a prostitute, with dramatic makeup, nipples erect and dialogue that is so sexual it borders on perverse (Virgan 13). However it is important to note the misogynistic undertones present in Veronica’s character, and the misconceptions they brew about women who patrol the streets late at night. The Second World War morphed the duties and responsibilities of almost everyone it affected, but the most significant change in role, arguably, was the role of the mother. Before the war, mothers were accustomed to staying at home and concerning themselves with the upkeep of their houses and the welfare of their children and husbands. When fathers enlisted though, mothers headed off into the workforce to be the breadwinners of the home. Many saw mothers leaving to work rather than staying to take care of their children as an act of negligence, but they failed to see that mothers were fighting hard for proper child care. The real obstacle facing neglected children was the government. The establishment of daytime nurseries for children of mothers in the war industry began a controversy over who exactly was exempt from these nurseries and who was entitled to them. An Ontario Education Board trustee member at the time by the name of Loftus Reid objected to the apparent limitations to the nurseries, specifically objecting to how they appeared to only pertain to those wives in the “war industry” (“Says Serviceman’s Wives Can’t Use Daytime Nurseries” 23). He mentioned two wives of sailors who struggled to survive on their allowances and were forced to work (23). Reid pointed out that because they themselves were not in actual war industries, their children were exempt from the daytime nurseries. This of course posed a massive problem for mothers just entering a workforce that wasn’t technically under the war industry. The Canadian government felt that even when a father was deployed and a mother was working tirelessly, only those wives who the government perceived were working in a profession that directly benefited the war effort were considered eligible for subsidized daycare. This controversy is imperative to pay attention to, as it establishes a clear contrast to the type of woman portrayed in the comic and the one that dominated the workforce in reality. The comic falls prey to the misogynistic ideals that still prevailed at the time and showcased a pedophilic fascist succubus instead of showcasing a struggling, but dedicated working mother.
To the children that weren’t exempt from daytime nurseries, they were taught the importance of self sufficiency. They were taught not only how to eat by themselves, but also taught how to put their plates and cutlery away, how to wash their hands by themselves, how to groom and brush their hair, dress themselves (Parker et al. 12:16). These all may seem like menial mundane tasks to the average person, but it is crucial to understand that these are 3 year olds completing tasks that today’s 7 year old wouldn’t be able to complete. It is also important to understand that these nurseries weren’t teaching etiquette, but way of life. If children weren’t taught these tasks in nurseries, they would have to teach themselves alone at home. These children were being prepared for a life of relative solitude at the time, and there is a striking image captured in the beginning of the ‘Before They Are Six’ film where a little boy by the name of Roy, who looks to be barely 3 years old, is tied to the fence by his mother by a rope so he won’t run off. He is secured to this fence in the morning, and is only collected by his neighbour at meal time. The children of World War 2 all faced the same problem; solitude. It is a problem that no child should have had to face, but then, their parents were doing the very best they could under the circumstances of war, so what could be done? The government, while denying most mothers proper access to child care, was also advertising victory bonds that used children to tug at parents’ heart strings.
The axis, that is to say the two sides in the Second World War, had the inevitable outcome of spinning in a certain side’s favor. Someone would eventually come out the victor in the war. This poster warns of the possibility that everyone seemed to dread; the enemy winning. This is a parent’s worst fear, because the enemy is bound to mistreat the losers of a war, even the children that ended up on the losing side. This poster is a scare tactic–urging families to put in every last dollar they have into Victory Bonds–an “essential duty of the freedom loving citizen.”. The hypocrisy of the government is displayed here, as they urge parents to invest in Canada’s children, as they refuse to invest themselves in children and make nurseries more accessible to working mothers.
This comic is a warning to both children and parents, a cautionary tale for children who break nocturnal curfews and a subtle jab at mothers that have “abandoned” their children (Zucker, 43). During the second world war, the government attempted to persuade the female population to engage in their civic duty and help the war effort by volunteering or employing themselves in a war related industry. As a result, the myths surrounding the capabilities that women possessed regarding working the same jobs as men began to fade away. Women began to transgress the gender divide, half way through the war, the government began urging mothers with young children to join the war effort–not just single women. However these barriers were not broken unconditionally, and the government refused to accommodate the very same people they were urging to join the war effort. Daytime nurseries for these working mothers were only made available in 1942, and even then they were not available to mothers who did not work in a war industry, a clear discrimination. Examining this comic allowed for the misogynistic ideals that the government held to come through, revealing the prejudices and hypocrisies of the time.
“Both Legs Broken Of Child Age Six.” Toronto Daily Star, November 27, 1942.
Canada’s Children For Sale. n.d. Library Archive Canada.
Images in this online exhibit are either in the public domain or being used under fair dealing for the purpose of research and are provided solely for the purposes of research, private study, or education.
Comic books are often considered to be monopolized by America. Canada’s relatively unsung comic history creates an interesting space to investigate the cultural and social narratives that were relevant to the era. Bell Features and Publishing Company Limited began printing comic books in 1941 as a result of the War Exchange Conservations Act, which “restrict[ed] the importation of non-essential goods” (such as comic books) (Canadian Golden Age of Comics). This essay will analyze the “Dixon of the Mounted” stories in the sixth and eighth issues of Active Comics (1942). Throughout the comics, there are stark instances of racism, prejudice, and misrepresentation as well as complete lack of representation or acknowledgment of Indigenous culture. To refer to this lack of representation I will use the term “erasure”, or more specifically, Indigenous or cultural erasure. Through the examination of the comic’s appropriation, misrepresentation, and erasure of Indigenous culture, this essay intends to investigate the effects that these portrayals may have on the sociopolitical position of Indigenous people and culture.
Nationalism and “Dixon of the Mounted”
“Dixon of the Mounted” is a white male who is employed by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and is stationed in the Hudson’s Bay area (Steele 5-6). In other words, he is portrayed as what would have been seen as the “ideal Canadian” male in the 1940’s (Beaty 434). In the sixth issue of the comic, he is chasing down three German Nazis. Dixon exhibits expert skills in canoeing, tracking and overall knowledge of wilderness, particularly in contrast to the Germans. It is important to note that Dixon is portrayed as exceedingly proficient in activities which are generally viewed as having a strong association to Canadian identity and moreover, that these activities historically originated from Indigenous culture and were taught to European settlers by Indigenous communities. Furthermore, it is also noted that there is no representation or acknowledgment of Indigenous people throughout the entire sixth issue. Subsequently, the portrayal of Indigenous people in Issue eight is criminalizing and demeaning, dealing with drug use; murder; and the inability of the Chief to maintain a safe and functioning community without the help of Dixon. This representation plays into harmful stereotypes, ultimately perpetuating an already disgraceful treatment of Indigenous people by European colonizers.
It is equally essential to observe the strongly nationalistic tone that is displayed throughout the Dixon comics. Canadian nationalist ideals represented throughout the comic include the glorified ability to navigate the wilderness and the portrayal that colonization is for the betterment of Canada (i.e. portrayal that Indigenous communities cannot function without assistance). As Beaty recognizes, there are often nationalist narratives in comics, and that this effectively “reduces Canada’s multicultural heritage and champions the . . . face of a heterosexual, middle-class, white, male government employee as the ultimate desire of the populace” (Beaty 434). Dixon is represented in the comics as the Canadian ideal, which disregards the history of Indigenous and European interaction and exchange, omitting the cultural and historical significance of these Canadian ideals. As will be considered further throughout this paper, the ideals by which Dixon is represented are rooted in Indigenous culture, which is problematic due to the misrepresentation and erasure throughout the comic.
Residential schools and “the 60’s scoop” are two examples of Canada’s extremely blatant attempts to completely eradicate Indigenous culture. The complete lack of Indigenous representation within the “Dixon of the Mounted” story in issue six is a much smaller, nonetheless still harmful, example of erasure. Cultural erasure is damaging because it discredits and disregards communities which are already marginalized, and works in favour of the dominant group. Such a dynamic distorts the history and representation of said marginalized culture, resulting in mistreatment of minority groups. It can be difficult to identify something that is not present in a piece of visual culture such as a comic book, but it is essential to consider the aspects of a narrative which are omitted and the effects this may have. Throughout the sixth issue, there is a noticeable lack of representation of Indigenous characters, this is representative of the attitude held towards Indigenous people at the time these comics were published.
In order to obtain a more broad understanding, it is beneficial to focus on other instances of cultural erasure in popular Canadian art. Considerable Indigenous erasure is shown (or not shown) throughout many landscape paintings done by the famous Group of Seven (Jessup 146). Paintings done by the Group of Seven most often depict untouched Canadian wilderness and landscapes, giving the impression that there was no culture or community there, to begin with. This creates the perception that the Canadian wilderness is pristine and untouched, which in turn allows for European settlers to claim ownership of land which is, in actuality, stolen. Canada’s reputation as a white settler nation allows for the continuation of inequitable representation within institutions as well as the ongoing mistreatment of Indigenous communities by said institutions (Waldron). Jessup argues that the omission of Indigenous communities within these popular paintings proliferated the romanticization of pristine wilderness in Canada and eventually led to the relocation of Indigenous communities in order to portray untouched environments throughout Canadian National Parks for the enjoyment of tourists (Jessup 146-147). As discussed previously and will be discussed further, displacement is only one example of the consequences which have been the historical norm for Canada’s Indigenous people. Cultural erasure holds effects far beyond that of underrepresentation, it creates space for social and political mistreatment, as well as opportunity to misrepresent marginalized communities.
The negative representation of Indigenous characters in the Dixon story that is featured in the eighth issueis perpetuating the perception that Indigenous people are unable to sustain a functioning community without the assistance of white men (Steele 4). In a paper discussing comic book portrayals of Indigenous communities (specifically “Nelvana of the North”), Arnold argues that negatively representing and “dehumanizing” Indigenous people allows for them to be mistreated, and furthermore for their voices to be ignored and/or appropriated in regards to the formation of policies affecting the Canadian North (104-105). When a culture is portrayed as subordinate and problematic, it is more likely that their mistreatment will go unquestioned. Furthermore, this gives the impression that their voices and knowledge are less valuable than that of the oppressor, causing their input to be overlooked, undermined, or even stolen by others claiming it as their own. Canadian history illustrates this unfortunate reality through injustices such as the “60’s scoop” and over one hundred years of residential schools. There has been ongoing unjust treatment of Indigenous communities in the seventy-six years since the “Dixon of the Mounted” comics were published. These injustices exemplify the importance of education and representation regarding cultural diversity and acceptance, which were clearly lacking in the 1940s. Furthermore, it demonstrates the importance of working towards equal representation within Canadian institutions in order to create equal opportunity.
Dixon is portrayed as having exceptional canoeing skills throughout the story featured in issue six. As he chases down the three Germans in a canoe, Dixon says that the Germans “may know how to handle a gun, but when it comes to getting speed out of a canoe…”, at this moment the Germans begin shooting at Dixon and their canoe tips over, leaving them to swim to the riverbank (Steele 5-6). At first glance, this seems harmless enough as canoeing is a very well known Canadian activity, it makes sense that Dixon would be proficient. However, there is absolutely no mention of Indigenous culture throughout the comic or recognition that the canoe holds roots in Indigenous history (Benidickson). This lack of acknowledgment ignores the history of the canoe and is a subtle but relevant form of cultural appropriation exhibited throughout the comic. Liz Newberry notes that “the canoe often calls up a version of Canada that predominantly reflects the desires of a dominant, settler/invader society and thus calls up a Canada that may exclude Indigenous and broader immigrant communities and histories” (134). Here, it is recognized that there is a strong correlation to colonialism, appropriation, exclusion, and erasure when it comes to the relationship between Canada’s Indigenous people and European settler/invaders. It is problematic that Canadian nationalism has adopted so many Indigenous values and activities as main stakeholders of an identity that is seen as Eurocentric because the appropriation and subsequent erasure of Indigenous roots play a lead role in the subordination of Indigenous communities within Canada.
This essay has focused on the erasure, appropriation, and misrepresentation of Indigenous culture in Canada and their role in the development of Canadian nationalist ideals. In order to grasp the seriousness of these actions, it is helpful to recognize the historical consequences. In a 1997 documentary entitled Forgotten Warriors, Indigenous veterans of WWII speak out about the treatment they faced after returning home from the war. Thousands of Indigenous people who served had voluntarily enlisted. One veteran named Al Thomas states: “When I came back from the war, they wouldn’t let us go curling, they wouldn’t let us go golfing . . . and when you went to the show, the Indians used to have to sit on one side of the picture show” (Forgotten Warriors 00:31:58). These veterans voluntarily went overseas to serve their duty to a country that undervalued and disrespected them, returning home to face racism, prejudice and segregation. Based on the previous analysis of the Canadian portrayal of Indigenous people, it is clear that these depictions were not harmless.
Consequences were not only social but political, Indigenous communities were taken advantage of by the Canadian government. For example, in 1945, “the entire Montney reserve was taken through the soldier settlement act and sold to non-native war veterans”, the land that was taken was over eighteen thousand acres says Chief Gerry Attachie (Forgotten Warriors 00:27:11). Attachie states that they had been living there for five-to-six-hundred years previously. This corruption intensified when oil pools were found on the land, yielding five-hundred-million in royalties (Forgotten Warriors 00:27:43). After twenty years, a settlement was finally reached, the Blueberry river and Doig bands were compensated one-hundred-and-forty-seven-million dollars (Brunet). The settlement was a substantial amount, but nowhere near the actual value of the lost land. Instances such as Montney demonstrate the lack of regard for Indigenous communities that was held by Canadian government institutions. Bernelda Wheeler points out “the irony of Aboriginal soldiers fighting a war against the oppression of fascism, giving their lives for that, and coming home to face oppressive fascism” (Forgotten Warriors 00:31:38). This documentary illustrates the extent of the mistreatment and injustice that Indigenous people have faced throughout Canadian history, these injustices are only perpetuated by harmful misrepresentations, appropriation, and cultural erasure.
In conclusion, the sixth and eighth issues of Active Comics and specifically, the story of “Dixon of the Mounted” exhibit largely problematic narratives of the relationship and perception of Indigenous communities and European settlers in the 1940s. Through the examination of Canadian popular culture, the exclusion, erasure, appropriation, and misrepresentation of Indigenous culture stands out. It becomes clear that there are ongoing issues of unequal power dynamics and underrepresentation of Indigenous communities within Canadian institutions. Realizing the ongoing injustices towards Indigenous communities within Canada, this essay recognizes the role that representation in popular culture plays in the treatment and acceptance of Indigenous people. An equitable relationship between Canada and it’s Indigenous communities will be achieved through greater representation of Indigenous people in media as well as within decision making roles, and creating equal opportunities for all Canadians, thereby creating a level power dynamic.
Arnold, Samantha. “Nelvana of the North, Traditional Knowledge, and the Northern Dimension of Canadian Foreign Policy.” Canadian Foreign Policy Journal, vol. 14, no. 2, Taylor & Francis Group, Jan. 2008, pp. 95–107. doi:10.1080/11926422.2008.9673465.
Beaty, Bart. “The Fighting Civil Servant: Making Sense of the Canadian Superhero.” American Review of Canadian Studies, vol. 36, no. 3, Taylor & Francis Group, Oct. 2006, pp. 427–39. doi:10.1080/02722010609481401.
Brunet, Robin. “Be Careful What You Wish for: Two Northern Indian Bands Are Awarded $147m in Mineral Claims [Doig River & Blueberry River Indian Bands].” British Columbia Report; Vancouver, vol. 9, no. 30, Mar. 1998, p. 28.
Jessup, Lynda. “The Group of Seven and the Tourist Landscape in Western Canada, or the More Things Change…” Journal of Canadian Studies; Toronto, vol. 37, no. 1, Trent University, Spring 2002, pp. 144–79. doi: 10.3138/jcs.37.1.144
Newbery, Liz. “Paddling the Nation: Canadian Becoming and Becoming Canadian in and through the Canoe.” TOPIA: Canadian Journal of Cultural Studies, vol. 29, no. 29, Topia, 2013, pp. 133–62. doi:10.3138/topia.29.133.
Steele, T.A. “Dixon of the Mounted”. Active Comics, no.6, Bell Features and Publishing Company Limited, July 1942, pp. 1-10. Canadian Whites Comic Book Collection, 1941-1946. RULA Archives and Special Collections, Ryerson University, Toronto, Canada.
Steele, T.A. “Dixon of the Mounted”. Active Comics, no.8, Bell Features and Publishing Company Limited, September 1942, pp. 1-9. Canadian Whites Comic Book Collection, 1941-1946. RULA Archives and Special Collections, Ryerson University, Toronto, Canada.
Todd, Loretta, director. Forgotten Warriors. Www.nfb.ca, National Film Board of Canada, 1997, www.nfb.ca/film/forgotten_warriors/.
Waldron, Ingrid. There is Something in the Water, Fernwood Publishing, 2018. pp. 37-52.
Images in this online exhibit are either in the public domain or being used under fair dealing for the purpose of research and are provided solely for the purposes of research, private study, or educatio
20th century wartime propaganda conveyed a broad set of ideological arguments in radically different forms depending on its medium and, by extension, its intended audience. While the specific ways in which such propaganda is manifested in comics of the period –entertaining and fantastical – are particular to their readership of children and adolescents, the underlying themes and arguments are born out of the same pro-war, nationalist ideology that motivated propaganda directed at a more general audience. Despite the fictionalized, cartoonish elements of these comics, it is evident upon a closer reading that the propagandistic motivations that drove their production were intended to effect real-world consequences, and saw their target audience of children and adolescents as playing an active role in the war effort.
This is evident in issue no. 7 of the Canadian comics series Active Comics (1942), in which two war-stories (“Dixon of the Mounted” and “Thunderfist”) set particular geopolitical conflicts of the Second World War in North-American contexts (Canadian and American, respectively). Both strips present scenarios in which the conflicts of the war are thrust into the North-American sphere as a result of covert invasion, following Canadian and American civilians directly contributing to their respective country’s war effort by exposing and taking up arms against foreign spies.
By situating their stories in a North American context, these strips frame a foreign conflict that could seem detached from Canadian life as more familiar and immediate, and thus more relatable to the average Canadian youth. While Canadian youth were unlikely to be in the scenarios presented in these strips, they nevertheless intended to introduce them to the idea that they, as citizens, were not completely removed from the war. Ultimately, these comics were meant to encourage young Canadians to forge a personal relation between themselves and the war effort, and sought more broadly to instill the concepts of patriotism and civic responsibility into their culture.
Context: History of Isolationist Thought in North America
To understand what exactly the propaganda peddled by Active Comics no. 7 is in response to, it is crucial to examine the politics surrounding war at the time – specifically, the emergence of isolationist thought in North American foreign policy during the interwar period. Contrary to the view that isolationism was a distinctly American phenomenon during this period, recent scholarship has provided a more nuanced history of the ideology’s influence on Canadian politics and culture, and has particularly shed light on the distinct qualities Canadian isolationism took on in relation to that of its southern neighbour.
In English-speaking Canada, traces of isolationist thought only began to seriously pop up in mainstream discourse during the interwar period, particularly the 1930’s. This was born less out of a reaction of disillusionment against the foreign policy that led to the First World War (as was largely the case with the United Sates’ adoption of isolationism) and more out of an emerging ideology of left-wing, anti-empire nationalism (Spruce 3, 14). While the vast majority of Anglo-Canadians maintained loyalty to the increasingly distant British empire through the interwar period (Spruce 14), a growing vocal minority led by the likes of historian Arthur R.M Lower began to challenge Canada’s ties to its motherland and sought to turn away from colony-status toward an independent country. In the wake of 1931’s Statute of Westminster, Canadians were forced to re-evaluate what role their country was able to (and ought to) play in regard to foreign warfare (Spruce 5). With most political ties to the United Kingdom now cut, why should that autonomy not extend to Canada’s military?, asked the emerging isolationists.
This was a question not just of cultural identity, as Robert Bothwell notes, but of economic capacity. Canada, still a developing country in the minds of many of its citizens at the time, was clearly economically distinct from the wealthy British Empire its military was subordinate to; in light of this and of the domestic wealth inequality that plagued post-war Canadian society, Canadians were reconsidering the obligation they had in assisting their wealthier, more powerful allies in war efforts that did not directly concern them (Bothwell 79). Such populist sentiments were eventually quelled following the Second World War with the introduction of the modern social safety net (Bothwell 80), but in the meantime, they were an effective rhetorical tool that spoke to the immediate concerns of impoverished Canadians left behind after the Great War.
In all their different forms, these assertive articulations of Canada as an autonomous nation that came out of this interwar period continued to inform the country’s foreign policy well into the Second World War, with the Canadian delegate to the League of Nations, Raoul Dandurand, declaring in 1942: “We live in a fire-proof house, far from inflammable materials” (Stacey 61). While isolationism as such never exceeded beyond being anything more than marginal ideology in the Canadian political milieu, isolationist ideas had a profound influence on the changing notions of Canadian identity as it continued to transition from a colony to a sovereign state; and by the Second World War, pro-war propagandists were tasked with beating back against such ideas to prevent them from becoming fully lodged in Canadian culture – particularly among Canadian youth, who were growing up in a country with radically changing conceptions of patriotism.
Propaganda as Fear-Mongering: Invasion and Foreign Spies
The isolationist-adjacent views regarding Canada’s relationship with the British Empire logically resulted in a broader feeling of detachment from European affairs as the country forged a distinct North-American identity. This was problematic for Canadian pro-war institutions, which now faced the problem of selling the country’s populace on conflicts that almost exclusively concerned foreign states, to which Canada had an increasingly limited connection to, both politically and culturally. Consequently, propaganda during the Second World War concertedly served a fear-mongering function, stoking anxieties surrounding invasion and foreign spies among Canadians. By promoting the possibility of an invasion of the homefront (whether covert or overt), a war that might have been thought of as a purely Eurasian conflict suddenly posed a direct threat to the lives of Canadians.
Invasion propaganda was typically conveyed through mediums of entertainment – films, novels, and comic books, namely. Adopting such mediums served two main purposes: firstly, it ensured a broad and engaged audience; and secondly, it exploited fiction’s emotionally manipulative functions, maximizing the amount of fear elicited. Since the production of entertainment was predominately privately controlled, the Canadian government’s role in disseminating fear-based propaganda was largely carried out through propaganda’s counterpart: censorship. More specifically, which pieces of entertainment the government chose to censor, and which they chose to permit. Such decisions were carefully calculated; the exact boundaries of the Overton window the government demarcated reveal the sorts of ideas it wanted shaping Canadian culture. For example, at the beginning of the war, two films – All Quiet on the Western Front and Lest We Forget – were deemed “anti-war” by government officials and subsequently banned, while the invasion-oriented Confessions of a Nazi Spy was granted a “government blessing,” and immediately given an “extended run” in Manitoban theatres (“Canada Nixes”). Clearly, the appropriateness of war-related media was determined primarily by their propagandistic functions, which logically resulted in the government-accepted themes of invasion, xenophobia, etc. being echoed in privately-produced entertainment thenceforth, including the stories published in the Canadian Whites (Judy and Palmer 66).
The “Dixon of the Mounted” strip found in Active Comics no. 7 is an example of the increasingly ubiquitous ‘invasion stories’ that populated this period; it follows a Canadian Mountie in his pursuit of a gang of German spies who have breached the country. The comic draws on a wartime tradition of dehumanizing Germans, portraying the German spies as beastly, inhuman characters, seemingly devoid of morality and reason. Set in contrast to Dixon – a symbol of Canadiana who upholds his country’s virtues by giving his enemies a chance to surrender, and shooting to wound (at first) – the German spies are characterized by their lack of conscience: they view killing as a game, “celebrating” their supposed shooting of Dixon, and have no qualms about murdering a Canadian civilian (Steele 3, 6). The spies’ inhuman character traits are reinforced by their visual depictions; they resemble Frankenstein’s-monster-esque creatures, drawn with heavily shaded, sunken-in eyes under thick, low-set brows that connote cold insensitivity (fig. 1). This characterization is in line with other representations of Germans of the period; from the early 20th century, Germans were stereotyped as “dangerous warmongers, savage and aggressive … with no sense of the value of human life … and without mercy towards their defeated enemies (Storer 40). Such fictional depictions were especially useful, then, as Germany once again became a wartime enemy of Canada’s. Painting Germans as monstrous villains with an insatiable thirst for power rendered Canadians’ rationality (e.g., in considering Canada’s geographic relation to Germany) subordinate to their emotions, with respect to invasion. Situating these villains in Canada presented explicitly how the ruthless nature of Germans could propel them to conquer nations far beyond the European sphere – a terrifying prospect to these comics’ Canadian readership. Indeed, caricatures like these played a role in the justification for German internment camps that were introduced following the invocation of the War Measures Act in 1939 (Auger 101).
The deployment of this fear-mongering propaganda served a broader purpose than just drumming up public support for the war effort – it intended to reorient Canadians’ entire perception of their country in relation to the rest of the world. Coinciding with increasing globalization and technological advancement (martial or otherwise), this propaganda sought to dispel any notion that Canada was detached from European affairs, as the isolationists argued. Not only did the war pose a threat to Canada’s freedom and security, but Canadians themselves thus had an obligation to assist their allies in fighting it, as if directly it concerned the homefront.
Reclaiming Canadian Patriotism: Jingoism and Civic Responsibility
One of the more difficult parts of beating back against Canadian isolationism was attempting to construct a distinct conception of patriotism, a concept appropriated by isolationists of the inter-war period to the extent that the two ideas were inextricably linked. Pro-war propagandists now had to ‘reclaim’ patriotism – to make the case that a new Canadian identity does not have to necessarily entail total detachment from the British Empire, and that true patriotism should be exhibited by performing one’s civic duties to his/her country, especially during times of war. These wartime civic duties, while more obvious and direct for Canadian adults (e.g., enlistment; increased motherly duties during husband’s absence; etc.), were expected just as much from Canadian youth, in less direct and largely symbolic forms. However, youth-targeted propaganda as peddled in comic books like the Canadian Whites didn’t encourage civic responsibility by depicting such symbolic forms of participation, but rather promoted the concept of civic responsibility broadly through fantastical stories that would be much more engaging and persuasive for the reader.
Active Comics no. 7’s “Thunderfist” strip, another North-American-invasion story (this time American-oriented, however), utilizes its North-American setting not just to stoke fear, as the “Dixon of the Mounted” strip does, but to present civic participation in a familiar context more relatable to the Canadian reader – not in terms of content (in fact, it portrays a particularly outlandish example of civic participation) but geographically and culturally. The story follows an American reporter, Beverley Holmes, as she exposes a pair of Japanese spies in her city, and subsequently plays an active role in defending her country against a larger Japanese invasion. Importantly, this is not an affair that she stumbles upon, but rather, from the outset, it is a result of a deliberate initiative on her part to be mindful of foreign spies in her own country – “They look like Japs,” she notes upon seeing two Asian men sitting at a nearby table, and promptly confiscates one of their maps (Karn 52; Fig. 2). She is not simply a bystander assisting her country’s military indirectly; she actively initiates conflict with the foreign spies, and takes it upon herself to do anything in her means to thwart their plans. This reaches an extreme extent as Beverley’s decides to travel to the coast indicated as the point of invasion on the spies’ map to warn the Commanding Officer stationed there, which ultimately leads to her capture. Regardless of her personal safety, Beverley’s patriotic compulsion to defend her country remains unwavering. “I just had to go and see what was going on,” she explains after being saved, revealing that her actions were done out of obligation rather than preference (Karn 64). Here, Beverley, despite being American, is presented to the comics’ readership as the ideal Canadian patriot – selfless, brave, and actively engaged in her country’s war effort.
Fantastical stories like this were obviously not intended to convince Canadian children and adolescents to necessarily confront foreign spies or involve themselves in actual conflicts, but portraying civilians as doing so inseminated the broader concept of civic participation into youth culture; it normalized the idea that civilians have “duties to fulfil” in regard to the war effort, and that “everyone should be preparing for the war,” no matter one’s age or relation to the battlefield (Judy and Palmer, 75). How this was actually manifested by Canadian children in reality was much less direct and exciting, consisting of mostly symbolic and comparatively inconsequential methods – but, as a propaganda poster from the prior World War reads, “Every Little Helps” (Fig. 3). Many of these methods were related to self-rationing and fundraising, such as assisting with the cultivation of “victory gardens,” a practice that stretched back to the First World War and was intended to both free up railway space that could be used to ship goods en route to Europe, and amass proceeds through the sale of food that would be donated toward the war effort (Mosby 104; Martin and Petrowski 6). Similarly, children were encouraged to save up their allowance money and donate it to organizations involved in assisting with the war (Glassford 223). This message implicitly pervades civic participation-related propaganda of the period like “Thunderfist.” Whatever from this civic participation took, the material impact it had was of less importance than what it stood for: a commitment among Canada’s next generation to maintaining traditional notions of patriotism that entailed pro-war, internationalist attitudes.
Considering the largely symbolic nature of the civic duties Canadian children undertook, there is reason to believe that those behind the propaganda found in Active Comics no. 7 (and other youth-targeted media of the time) were less interested in their readership’s immediate manifestations of patriotism than they were in the long-term implications of pro-war messages shaping them from a young age. In other words, what this propaganda effected was less important to its producers than what it prevented: isolationist thought corrupting impressionable young Canadians. Youth-targeted propaganda acted more or less as insurance, ensuring that the next generation of Canadians were not only willing but felt compelled to go to war once they came of age. In fact, one of the ways by which Canadian youth were told they could help their country’s military was by “keep[ing] themselves healthy, in order to be of use to their country now and in the future” – explicitly revealing that the government valued their potential as future servicemen and servicewomen above whatever contributions they were currently capable of providing to the war effort (Glassford 223).
The technique of recontextualizing the Second World War in North-American contexts, then, was well suited for the fantastical, unrealistic elements that the comic medium entails. The comics examined in this essay could stretch the reality of how its readership would be engaging with the war because its producers were not at all concerned with such reality, but rather with the implications of it. These propagandists effectively utilized the generic conventions of the comic to convey broad ideas that concurrently were being inseminated in the culture of Canadian adults (e.g., xenophobia, anxiety, civic participation) in a highly mediated form that played well with the country’s children, sowing a culture of pro-war patriotism that would go on to unconsciously shape how they approached the war as adults.
Auger, Martin F. Prisoners of the Home Front: German POWs and “Enemy Aliens” in Southern Quebec, 1940-46. UBC Press, 2005.
Bothwell, Robert. “The Canadian Isolationist Tradition.” International Journal, vol. 54, no. 1, 1998, pp. 76–87. JSTOR, doi:10.2307/40203356.
Chilvers, Sia R. Salvage! Every Little Helps Poster. 1918-1914. Library and Archives Canada, 1983-28-190.
Glassford, Sarah. “Practical Patriotism: How the Canadian Junior Red Cross and Its Child Members Met the Challenge of the Second World War.” The Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth, vol. 7, no. 2, May 2014, pp. 219–42. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/hcy.2014.0024.
Goodnow, Trischa, and James J. Kimble, editors. The 10 Cent War: Comic Books, Propaganda, and World War II. University Press of Mississippi, 2016.
“International: Canada Nixes ‘All Quiet’ But Okays ‘Nazi Spy.’” Variety (Archive: 1905-2000). Los Angeles, vol. 136, no. 1, Sept. 1939, p. 6.
Karn, Murray (a). “Thunderfist.” Active Comics, no. 7, August, 1942, pp. 52-64. Bell Features Collection, Library and Archives Canada. http://data2.collectionscanada.gc.ca/e/e447/e011166794.pdf
Martin, Andrea, and Tyyne Petrowski. “‘Are You “Doing Your Bit”?’: Edith Robertson, Letter-Writing, and Women’s Contributions in First-World-War Winnipeg.” Manitoba History; Winnipeg, no. 82, Fall 2016, pp. 4–11.
Mosby, Ian. Food Will Win the War: The Politics, Culture, and Science of Food on Canada’s Home Front. UBC Press, 2014.
Spruce, James. “Two Solitudes Lost: Comparing and Contrasting Interwar American and Canadian Isolationisms.” American Review of Canadian Studies, vol. 48, no. 1, 2018, pp. 1–19. Scholars Portal Journals, doi:10.1080/02722011.2018.1428206.
Stacey, C. P. Canada and the Age of Conflict: A History of Canadian External Policies. Macmillan of Canada, 1977.
Steele, T.A. “Dixon of the Mounted.” Active Comics, no. 7, August, 1941, pp. 1-10. Bell Features Collection, Library and Archives Canada. http://data2.collectionscanada.gc.ca/e/e447/e011166794.pdf
Storer, Colin. “’The German of Caricature, the Real German, the Fellow We Were up against’: German Stereotypes in John Buchan’s Greenmantle.” Journal of European Studies, vol. 39, no. 1, Mar. 2009, pp. 36–57. Crossref, doi:10.1177/0047244108100806.
Images in this online exhibit are either in the public domain or being used under fair dealing for the purpose of research and are provided solely for the purposes of research, private study, or education.
Around the world, comic books have always been of interest to children and adults. Over time, the interests of readers change and comics must consequently change to adapt to those shifting ideas. Comics have altered through time not just because of the interests of the readers however, they will change also due to pressures of war. While comic books today are much different than those of the era of the Second World War, Canadian comics do still exist. However, after close examination and analysis of comics from the war period, it is clear that they have progressed since these were created. This essay will create an analysis of a set of comics found in Commando Comics issue fifteen. The comics in this issue of Commando Comics promote the comic ideas of Canadians during the Second World War in a way that allows for the humour to be interpreted in a number of ways. These ideas fall on a spectrum of being racist for the sake of humour, for the purpose of being beneficial to eradicate racism or politically driven. These humour ideals encompass racism through comics titled “Whoop-Um” and “Th’Chief” by Frank Keith. This essay seeks to research the way the comics are racist by critically examining those in question. Furthermore, the way in which the comics are beneficial will be explored as comics have positive outcomes to acknowledge the racism in society. Finally, the comics will be studied to highlight the political reasons for creating racism in comics.
History of Canadian Comics During World War Two
Prior to World War Two, Canadian children were highly invested in the comic books from the United States. These comics ranged in topics and genres that enticed kids and were hugely popular. Once World War Two had started comic books were considered non-essential goods. Non-essential goods were then banned from being imported to Canada. The status of being non-essential meant that comics would no longer enter Canada from the US beginning in 1940 (Beaty 429). With the lack of American comics but a huge demand for them, Canadian companies such as Bell Features and Anglo-American publishing created comics within Canada. These comics have come to be known as Canadian Whites, with the name largely referencing the black and white pages in the comic books, unlike the four coloured American comics. These comics, like their American counterparts, featured multiple genres and characters (Beaty 429). The comics produced during the World War Two period are better known as comics from the Golden Age of Comic Books.
Racism in the Comics
Featured in Commando Comics issue fifteen, there are two humour comics that are racist. The first comic, “Whoop-Um” by Frank Keith, features a story of an Indigenous chief going around a town or city while being followed by other Indigenous men making comments of what they see. The comments the other men make are riddled with improper grammar and spelling. “Whoop-Um” perpetuates the stereotypical ideas of Indigenous peoples through the comments that the Indigenous men make. One instance of the stereotypes is seen when one of the other Indigenous men says, “I see th’Chief’s out of th’dog-house – he smokum pipe of peace with um squaw” (Keith 16). By using improper grammar and spelling mistakes, Keith is giving the idea to the reader that Indigenous people are not as smart as them because they are unable to speak in a proper and coheistant sentence. Portraying the speech of the Indigenous people as incorrect, Keith provides evidence to Canada’s discrimination against Indigenous people. Including the bad grammar in the comic, it shows that Keith, and possibly many others, would have believed this sort of mocking as justified and comedic.
The other racist comic that is being examined is “Th’Chief” by Frank Keith. “Th’Chief” features a story of an Indigenous man going to a shote and buying a baby carriage for his wife to push their baby, instead of carrying it on her back. When he gives the carriage to her, she ties both the carriage and the baby on her back, completely missing the point of the carriage itself. Unlike the last comic, “Th’Chief” features less talking amongst the Indigenous characters as they mainly only say “ugh,” except when “Th’Chief” is in the store (Keith 17). This comic also portrays Indigenous people as incompetent because of the storyline itself. Keith’s storyline of the Indigenous mother not understanding what to do with a baby carriage portrays the mother, and other Indigenous people, as unintelligent. In making “Th’Chief” a humour comic, it gives the reader a chance to laugh at the incompetence of the Indigenous peoples, supporting the idea that Canadians during the World War Two period enjoyed jokes that had racist undertones.
Similarly in “Whoop-Um” as well, Keith portrays the Indigenous characters in an exaggerated way in his drawings. The characters in Keith’s comics are drawn with large noses that take up the majority of their faces. The white characters in both stories are not drawn with any exaggerated features besides roundness and fullness in their faces. The Indigenous characters are also always seen in blankets and headdresses, while the white people are always in regular everyday clothes (Keith 16-17). These stark contrasts in the portrayals of the two different groups of people show that the society felt this way as well, that they are not the same or equal. By creating a large divide between white and Indigenous people, it portrays society’s belief that the separation between these two groups was humorous because of the caricatures.
Racism in Canadian Culture
The racism seen in the two comics reflect the cultural ideas of Canadian society during the Second World War period. One of the biggest and most well known acts of racism against the Indigenous population was residential schools. Residential schools were institutions for Indigenous children who were placed there against their will. Residential schools started in the 1800s and ended in the 1980s. The schools sought to assimilate the Indigenous population with the rest of Canadian society. Residential schools were government run but were poorly funded, proving the lack of compassion of the society. Many children faced hardships and abuse while at the schools (Gulliver 79). These schools were specifically designed to make Indigenous people behave as white Canadians do. In Keith’s comics, the Indigenous characters are seen in the white town, pushing the idea of assimilating them. The character goes to shops and buys different things they may not need, like the baby carriage, in hopes that it promotes assimilation. Gulliver also explains in his article that white families brought Indigenous children into their homes to teach them how to behave like white people during the 1960s (Gulliver 82). While the Second World War was before the 1960s, it is plausible that these ideas were circulating in the minds of Canadians during the war period. As seen in Keith’s comics, he portrays the white and the Indigenous people to be very different in the way they look and act. This portrayal of Indigenous people gives evidence of the racist thinking in Canada.
This idea also connects to the humour aspect of the comics. With this way of thinking about the two different populations, white Canadians could have found the difference between themselves and the Indigenous people to be laughable. The caricature portrayals do not resemble how any person looks, but it is possible to think that that is how people thought Indigenous people looked, thus, making fun of them. In Jean Lee Cole’s article examining early portrayals of blacks in comics, they bring up important questions about black caricatures that can be related to the caricatures of Indigenous people in Keith’s comics. Cole asks, “Is caricature a way of representing the unknown and feared, as was the case for many whites?” (376). These questions can help to unpack the way Indigenous peoples were seen during this period. To answer the first question, white Canadians may have felt as though Indigenous people were one to be feared because of their long lived stereotype of being “savage.” White people in Canada may be fearing that, like the Germans and Italians who are fighting Canada, Indigenous people could do the same. Something that jumps out of “Whoop-Um” is that the Indigenous men do mention a tomahawk and that the Chief forgot it (Keith 16). The way this was implied is that Indigenous men always carry their tomahawk around and ready to fight, inciting fear into the Canadians who are reading this comic. Turing cultural anxieties into comedic relief serve a strong purpose as it means that the white Canadians who read these comics, will realize their fears are irrational.
To answer the second question posed by Cole is: “Or is it an imposition, a representation that dictates how one is seen?” (376). Cole explains that caricatures are “a site for the enactment of double consciousness,” giving someone the feeling that their identity is divided (376). She states that these ideas are “intentionally invoked by comics artists” (Cole 376). Keith could have been trying to demonstrate an idea similar to what Cole found. Keith’s comics do give an imposition of how someone else will see Indigenous people. A child who reads these comics will be influenced to believe the stereotypes that Keith put forward. The racism used to make the comic funny to a child makes it possible that they will connect their feelings towards the comic to how they see Indigenous people. This comic will then negativity impact how children see Indigenous people.
Racism in these comics do not elicit a beneficial outcome; however, the work of Jill E. Twark brings up countering ideas centering on racism in humour. Twark’s article examines how humour in contemporary controversial times can be used to help create a lasting memory of what happened during the period. The creation of racist jokes can be explained because of wanting to make a lasting impression. One of the examples given by Twark is a comic surrounding colonization in Africa. While it is a horribly dark humour comic, Twark believes that it “pack[s] a powerful emotional punch” (178). Keith could have been trying to use the “powerful emotional punch” in his comics as he would have been aware of the discrimination towards Indigenous people. Keith’s comics are memorable and may have made racist jokes to allow people to remember the subject matter and realize the problems within the situation. There is little material on Frank Keith so it is hard to say what race he was and his ideologies surrounding race. It is unfair to say he was making caricatures just to make fun of the Indigenous people, as he may have been trying to shed light unto the unfair inequality between the Indigenous and white people.
The final topic of discussion is the idea surrounding racist and immoral jokes can be found funny by various people. Scott Woodcock uses the idea of comic immoralism to understand when a joke that is seen as immoral may or may not be considered funny. Woodcock explains that “there are surely some jokes with offensive enough content that it detracts from their ability to amuse,” but with the right balance of immoralism, the offensive bits may help to give the joke more humour (203). Jokes that do contain immoral and degrading content are often seen as not clever and most of the time not funny. However, even with this idea in mind, immoral jokes can “exhibit sufficient wit to create humour without help from their immoral features” (Woodcock 204). Keith’s comics may have been attractive to people at the time because of their immorality. While every person has a different opinion on what they believe is funny, immorality in humour does not always equate not humorous. Keith may have added the racist speech of the Indigenous people in the comics to add a little more comic immorality to push the reader into thinking the joke pages were funny. Keith’s portrayal of racist jokes could have been what Canadians found to be funny during this war period as something to distract them from the atrocities happening in the world. It is not a definite answer but since Keith was not using the war in either of his comics, he could have known that the Canadians did not want to laugh about the war. Canadians wanted something else to laugh at to distract them from the horrible events of the war.
In conclusion, it is clear that there is racism in the fifteenth issue of Commando Comics regarding Indigenous people. The comics that were analyzed were both humour comics and encompassed racist undertones about Indigenous people. By examining these comics and using the works of other scholars, it is clear that these comics in one way or another were reflective of the Canadian society’s views on humour. As it is unknown of the true meaning behind Keith’s portrayal of racism in his comics, one can speculate multiple reasonings. His reasons could have been from a hatred for Indigenous people, influenced by the racism in Canada leading up to and during the period of World War Two; in order to shed light on the horrible treatment the Indigenous people were receiving at this time; or because the immoral jokes were something the Canadian population thought was funny to help distract from the horrors of war.
Beaty, Bart. “The Fighting Civil Servant: Making Sense of the Canadian Superhero.” American Review of Canadian Studies, vol. 36, no. 3, October 2006, pp. 427-436. ProQuest, doi:10.1080/02722010609481401.
Cole, Jean Lee. “Laughing Sam and Krazy Kats: The Black Comic Sensibility.” Canadian Review of American Studies, vol. 47, no. 3, 2017, pp. 373-402. Project MUSE, https://muse-jhu-edu.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/article/677488.
Gulliver, Trevor. “Canada the Redeemer and Denials of Racism.” Critical Discourse Studies, vol. 15, no. 1, 2018, pp.68-86. Taylor & Francis Online, doi:10.1080/17405904.2017.1360192.
Keith, Frank. “Th’Chief.” Commando Comics, no. 15, January 1945, pp. 17. Canadian Whites Comic Book Collection, 1941-1946. RULA Archives and Special Collections, Ryerson University, Toronto, Canada.
Keith, Frank. “Whoop-Um.” Commando Comics, no. 15, January 1945, pp. 16. Canadian Whites Comic Book Collection, 1941-1946. RULA Archives and Special Collections, Ryerson University, Toronto, Canada.
Twark, Jill E. “Approaching History as Cultural Memory Through Humour, Satire, Comics and Graphic Novels.” Contemporary European History, vol. 26, no. 1, February 2017, pp. 175-187. ProQuest, doi:10.1017/S0960777316000345.
Woodcock, Scott. “Comic Immoralism and Relatively Funny Jokes.” Journal of Applied Philosophy, vol. 32, no. 2, May 2015, pp. 203-216. Wiley Online, doi:10.1111/japp.12084.
Images in this online exhibit are either in the public domain or being used under fair dealing for the purpose of research and are provided solely for the purposes of research, private study, or education.
Characters have always been the heart of a work’s story, representing different pieces to the author’s puzzle. These imaginary people are reflections of their real life counterparts, even if they are sometimes distorted. One of the many examples of distorted portrayals of real life can be rendered down to an issue of gender, where women are represented inconsistently. As their representations vary in comparison to their real life counter parts. Such is the case in comics, where women have been presented as sirens and mindless plot devices. This distortion is blatantly evident in comics from the Second World War. Where in E.T Legault’s Active Comics #2, female characters are presented as both progressive and helpless; independent and dependent. As is illustrated by the characters written by Legault who set boundaries, as well as break them. With Elise who breaks the boundaries set by characters like Ruth and Carole, who embody the trope of the damsel in distress, she is presented as more progressive. Highlighting how these characters are represented as enigmatic figures who remain intangible for their male authors.
Damsels in Distress
Women in need of saving: a synonym to the term and trope of the damsel in distress. Where typically a woman finds herself in trouble and in a situation where she needs to be saved, which is typically done so by the male hero. The trope is realized through the theme of distress, a theme that in Hedy White’s study allow him to examine the reoccurrence of the damsel in distress in children’s fiction. White furthers his point by discussing his evidence as to how such a theme is seen mostly amongst female characters, making it a gendered theme (White 251). Highlighting in his conclusion, after proving that the theme of distress is most relevant amongst female characters that the female characters under study in children’s literature tend to “reflect the cultural stereotype of the helpless female, the perennial damsel in distress in need of male protection” (White 255). Showing how a key element to the trope is the need to be saved, as they are in distress and are typically saved by a male character; a lack of independence and capability to choose. In simpler terms: they lack the agency to prevent distress.
Moreover, this notion of being saved by a male character is evident in the second issue of Active Comics, whether Dixon saves Ruth from a demon, or Capt. Red holds Carole with an earnest demeanor. The images and motifs shown emphasize and emit a feeling of relief and ease, mainly due to the way that tension builds and is relieved in the comics through the characters need to be saved. The relief coming from when the reader understands the purpose of the comic’s protagonist and they have achieved their purpose, thanks to the tension being resolved. Highlighting the start to the notion of how women in comics are used as plot devices.
After all, in the segment of “Dixon of the Mounted”, the main love interest: Ruth, has gotten herself into a situation in which she is helpless and in total distress. Allowing Dixon the chance to save Ruth multiple times from the demonic figure. The imagery being very cinematic, emphasizes Ruth’s helplessness, specifically on one page where there is a panel of her tied down to a rock, followed by her crying in Dixon’s arms (Legault 24). Allowing the audience to start to understand the level of distress emitted by Ruth, and how gendered roles are starting to develop: man as a hero, woman as a helpless dame.
In “Capt. Red Thortan”, Carole is a typical damsel in distress. Specifically when the character is rescued from being tied-up in a Japanese camp, and is then constantly being aided by the titular character. However, after the characters escape, the frame that lends itself to evoking the trope is when both Red and Carole fall into a trap, and Carole flails her arms into the air while Red remains steadfast. It represents the trope in its entirety due to the comparison between the characters. Even if it is a slight, but major, detail of Carole flailing her arms. The point remains that the character is helpless, whereas Red remains prepared and ready for the trap as her braces himself (Cooper 47). Even if this may be a stretch, it adds to the notion established by White, in the way that Carole is helpless and is visibly in distress.
Commonly, both Ruth and Beverly affirm the presence of the damsel in distress trope, as the characters embody a repetitiveness of being saved by their narratives male hero. One could say that the characters create a motif of sorts, in the way that the imagery highlights their helplessness. Whether it is sharply angles that emit tension with Ruth being tied down to a large rock (Legault 24), or the frame in which Capt. Red stares at Carole—who looks relieved (Cooper 46). Themes of the damsel in distress remain relevant in the visual aspects of the comic. Solidifying how, in similar terms to that stated by White, the trope of the damsel in distress is a blatant stereotypical stamp on the representation of the female gender whose sole purpose is to propel plot and story (White 255).
Seeing how the second issue of Active Comics was published in 1942, it is fair to say tensions were not only high on the battlefront, but also on the homefront. In a 1942 Globe and Mail article discussing new volunteer centers on the Canadian homefront, and specifically how the centers will “insure proper co-ordination of effort and give all volunteers an opportunity to help where they are most needed” (“New Volunteer Centre Setup” 1942). Framing the need for help on the Homefront, which is furthered by the director of the volunteer service, W.E. West, who says “there is a war to be won on the home front, and misdirection and overlapping can be just as tragic at home as on the battlefront” (“New Volunteer Centre Setup” 1942). Emphasizing the need, and the responsibility that women occupy on the Homefront.
In addition, in the segment of “The Brain”, female characters start to distance themselves from the tropes set by Ruth and Carole, and start to embody characteristics of their real life counterparts. Such is exemplified by Elsie, as the character takes charge of her situation—not becoming victim to it. Reason being that the character ignores all of the advice given by the protagonist, and goes after the antagonizing mafia—fighting battles and trying to bring them to justice. Elsie is an example of not abiding by the dominant, male character. Due to the way that the character, unlike Ruth and Carole, is not undermined by the Brain: the protagonist of the narrative that she partakes in.
Rather, Elsie starts to break through the barriers of what Ann Larabee, with the help of Scott McCloud, described to be the “phenomenological representations of the body” (Larabee 2016), which so happen to be the confines that Ruth and Carole abide to. Alluding to the way that women are represented with over exaggerated hourglass figures, and their overly blemished faces that all lead to the characters vulnerability in the story (Larabee 2016). According the McCloud, this form of representation is unrealistic as it does not allow for women to go through “the experience of not being able to see one’s own face” (Larabee 2016). Highlighting the broader effects of a female representation that the damsel in distress trope emits, and which Elsie seemingly does not take part in.
However, in relating the last point with the way Elsie is illustrated, we can see how the character embodies the phenomenological issues of representations. As Elsie has accentuated hips, and a blemished face that accentuates her embarrassments, which is seen when she falls into the mafias trap (Bachle 60). This points towards to how Elsie can be seen as the prototypical damsel in distress, as she embodies themes of distress. Nonetheless, the character remains independent—overshadowing themes of distress to embody an independence not found amongst the other character. Resulting in what we call a progressive dame: an independent, resilient, realistic character.
Progressive Dames and Damsels in Distress: Enigmatic Figures?
In his critique of Scott McCloud’s definition of comics, Aaron Meskin focuses on McCloud’s idea that comics in their use of images and words allow the panels to “convey information and/or produce an aesthetic response in the viewer” (“Defining Comics” 2007). Meskin also pinpoints how as a critical thinker, and reader, we should not be presumptuous in assuming an author’s intention, which is extremely valid as it does not allow for any pitfalls of the sort. However it is also valid to assign meaning to the images and texts seen in comics. Its validity can be directly linked to sociological theories such as ethnomethodology, where a person’s interaction with an object is tied to its context (Dennis 2011). Meaning that the interaction relies on the time, and other varying factors that surround the context of its consumption (Dennis 8). All of which allows us to understand how readers begin to understand and correlate representation to actuality.
For example, in understanding the context around the publishing of Active Comics we comprehend the blossoming responsibilities given to women on the Homefront. Responsibilities such as partaking in the work force, reinforcing military munitions, and developing medical treatment—all while boosting morale and proving that women can balance work and home life (Haws 1940). Evoking images of a more progressive and rightful role for women, which can be seen as an unpopular opinion. As the only reason why these roles were thrusted upon them was due to the absence of a male presence, which ignited insecurity among majority of the men, who were the voice of the media (“Equal Rights Has Dangers” 1945).
Similarly, there is a frame in the comic where Elsie saves the Brain (55). Solidifying how, through her likeliness of women on the homefront, Elsie is a progressive dame. Raising the point of women as enigmatic figures: as their representation is inconsistent with the values on the homefront and the comic. Contextually, the independence that Elsie demonstrates mirrors a distorted freedom that women on the homefront gained from an entry into the workforce. Simply due to the way that they seize the chances that come across them, to help the war effort any which way they can. Compared to Ruth and Carole who do not seize that same opportunity, falling victim to their non-existent independence. Allowing Elsie’s independent characteristics to be bolstered and emboldened in comparison. Emphasizing how women, for male writers, are enigmatic figures whose representation is inaccurate without a strong feminist voice behind it. As it leaves room for female characters to fall into tropes like the damsel in distress.
Throughout the paper we have seen how women have been represented as both damsels in distress and Progressive Dames, embodying two extremities: one representative of the comic’s context, the other not. Through our analysis of the comics, ranging from the accentuated figures to the independence that only pertained to Elsie, we have seen how these characters are hypersexualized by their male authors and not reflective of their real life counterparts. With only few example that are exempt to such. Affirming the notion that they are enigmatic figures, in the way that they remain ambiguous in their characterization. Through the way it is prevalent that majority of the comic’s characters fall under tropes such as the damsel in distress. Portraying women to readers, as helpless and in need of saving; with a lack of independence, which muddle their real life independence presented by the progressive dames. This goes to show how women are intangible for the reader as much as they are for the writer. Accentuating how the female characters, written by men, are elusive for the writers just as much as they are for the audience.
Works Cited List
Braddock, Paige. “Women in Comics.” Phi Kappa Phi Forum; Baton Rouge, vol. 84, no. 3, 2004, pp. 22–23.
Conrad, Dean. “Femmes Futures: One Hundred Years of Female Representation in Sf Cinema.” Science Fiction Film and Television, vol. 4, no. 1, Apr. 2011, pp. 79–99.
Larabee, Ann. “Editorial: Teaching Young Women the Comics.” The Journal of Popular Culture, vol. 49, no. 2, Apr. 2016, pp. 247–49. Wiley Online Library, doi:10.1111/jpcu.12412.
Legault, E. T., et al. Active Comics: No. 2. Edited by Bell Features and Publishing Company, vol. 2, Commercial Signs of Canada, 1942.
White, Hedy. “Damsels in Distress: Dependency Themes in Fiction for Children and Adolescents.” Adolescence; Roslyn Heights, N.Y., vol. 21, no. 82, Summer 1986, pp. 251–256.
Images in this online exhibit are either in the public domain or being used under fair dealing for the purpose of research and are provided solely for the purposes of research, private study, or education.
The theme of technology is present throughoutActive Comics No. 10, published in November, 1943 in Canada. The stories, in genres including science fiction, war, and adventure, feature repeated instances of transportation technology gone awry; two stories separately depict train wrecks. In “Active Jim”, Canadian boy Jim and his friend Joan encounter a Nazi character who attempts to derail a troop train. Through quick thinking and action, they are able to save the train from its fate, and apprehend the Nazi. The “Thunderfist” story features a train which is nearly derailed by a mountain slide, but is saved from its fate by the title character.
Both stories approach the subject of the train wreck differently, one as an intentional sabotage, and the other as an accidental disaster. Both stories resolve with no actual carnage, but the presence of trains in danger poses the question: what led to this subject matter being presented in a comic book intended for children, and were these depictions of disaster influenced by World War Two (WWII)? In examining historical documentation, and the public reaction to train disasters, we are able to apply a philosophical lens to understand the social-historical context and pro-conflict propagandistic roots of the seemingly innocent entertainment imagery.
The Train in Canada
The railway has played an important role in Canadian history. As a sprawling, disconnected country in the 19th century, the Intercolonial Railway was initially constructed to fulfill the government of Canada’s 1867 constitutional commitment to connect central Canada to the Maritime provinces (Cruikshank). Routes were selected to protect the railway from American attack, indicating an awareness for potential foreign hostility. During the completion of the railway between 1876 and 1914 there was a tenfold increase in freight and passenger traffic (Cruikshank).
The railway was eventually incorporated into Canadian National Railways, continuing to fill the role of connecting the eastern and western ends of Canada (Regehr). To find trains represented in a Canadian comic book is unsurprising, considering the significance of the train in Canadian culture. It is interesting, however, that these trains are presented in scenarios of danger.
The Advent of the Train Wreck
The railway has been connected to accidental death since its invention. An early major casualty was William Huskisson, a Liverpool MP, who in 1830 was run over and killed by the Rocket locomotive during the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway (Odden 30).
On a broader scale, the Angola Horror is an example of an early American train wreck that had a significant social impact. On December 18, 1867, a damaged track caused the last two cars of Cleveland’s lakeshore express to derail on a high bridge, falling into the gorge below. One car, lit with oil lamps and heated with coal ovens, burst into flames upon impact, resulting in the deaths of nearly 50 passengers trapped inside (Vogel). Mechanical accidents of this scale were unheard of prior to the invention of the train (Odden 31). Agricultural or carriage accidents were less impactful. The industrial revolution was underway, but while factory accidents could only injure workers, train accidents endangered consumers, making no distinctions between class.
The Angola Horror was reported in newspapers for weeks, accompanied by graphic illustrations. The American public demanded improved railway safety, resulting in the invention of the air brake, which was made mandatory on American trains in 1893 as a means of stopping trains in an emergency (Vogel).
The Role of the Train in WWII
The train was vital to the war effort, but they were not without failure. An example of a Canadian train wreck contemporary to WWII occurred in December 1942. A “troop special” carrying soldiers from Pettawa military camp collided with a local train full of holiday travellers at Almonte station near Ottawa. 32 were killed and 114 injured, and the town was thrown into confusion and panic (32 DIE, 114 HURT IN TRAIN WRECK 1). These accidents were not common (Björnstig and Forsberg 368), but had major impacts on the involved community when they did occur.
During the war overseas, however, train wrecks were often not accidental. A 1944 example was published in the Globe and Mail article “U.S. Tanks Blast Trains, Huns Burn in Perfume”, a graphic account of a “train bust”, or targeted attack on an enemy train. This particular German train carried personnel and “every kind of equipment”, as well as liquor and perfume (Denny).
In fact, trains were one of the most important modes of transportation during the war, transporting 90 percent of all military hardware and 97 percent of all troops in America alone. In 1943, the year Active Comics No. 10 was published, trains took 10 million troops off to war; these contributions were vital to the war effort (Keefe). This also meant that to gain control of an enemy train, or to destroy it, was an effective way to damage enemy resources.
Train busters were commended for their efforts. An example is John A. Gordon, who was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross in 1946 for destroying 20 locomotives and 64 other vehicles while stationed in the Mediterranean (“‘Train Buster’ Awarded DFC”).
The “Active Jim” story in Active Comics is directly inspired by these train busts, but it depicts a Nazi train buster operating in Canada, a scenario with no basis in reality, as these were primarily European occurrences. In the final panel of the comic the train conductor character breaks the fourth wall, telling readers, “The Nazis tried to wreck our train, to kill our fighting boys… Jim and Joan’s quick action foiled their murderous scheme.. It was close!.. But they’ll never beat people with courage! Keep it up Active Jim!” (Kulbach et al. 38). Jim is presented as a character to emulate, and here is commended for being active in the war effort, a stance that is ultimately pro-conflict. However, the comic presents a sanitized, child-friendly interpretation of a train bust, resolving with no death or destruction.
The Philosophy of the Accident
French philosopher Paul Virilio speaks of “the accident” as a consequence of advancing technology; according to Virilio, “The accident is … the hidden face of technical progress” (Redhead 10). For example, prior to the invention of the train, the “train accident” was not a possibility. As soon as this technology was invented, however, it brought with it the capacity for failure, and the train accidents of the 19th century were at a level of severity and violence that had never occurred before.
Virilio discusses a “society of spectacle”, referencing the media’s approach to accidents as “…the ravages wrought by the circulation of images, this constant concertina-ing, this constant pile-up of dramatic scenes from everyday life on the evening news.” (Virilio). Accidents have always been reported, and there is often an element of sensationalism attached to them. This has changed the nature of the accident in terms of scale, moving away from a localized event towards a potential for the “global accident” (Redhead 11); Virilio cited the 9/11 attacks as having occurred everywhere at once through live airing on television (Redhead 13).
He also describes the contrast between “the accident” and “the attack”, as two separate phenomena that become less distinguishable through common representation in the news and entertainment media. When accidents and acts of terrorism receive similar levels of attention and treatment, viewers become less adept at differentiating between them. (Redhead, 15)
Virilio’s theories hold true to the historical data related to train wrecks. One comprehensive review published in the Prehospital and Disaster Medicine journal examined data of 529 railway disasters over the course of a century, beginning in 1910. The study determined that the number of railway disasters has increased over the years, being relatively infrequent during 1910-1949, but with 88% of disasters studied occurring post-1970 (Björnstig and Forsberg 368). This was attributed to increased speeds and traffic on railways.
Train wrecks have always inspired public imagination and horror, reported widely in the news media. According to Virilio, the press has more interest in trains that are derailed than trains that are on time, and these interests are echoed in entertainment media as well. The dynamic that Virilio describes between “the accident” and “the attack” is represented recurrently throughout history and entertainment media. The two stories in Active Comics are a prime example, being presented in the same medium, publication, and in a similar artistic style, placing the “accident” of Thunderfist’s mountain slide and the “attack” by the Nazi on an even field.
Popularity of Disaster Imagery and Propagandistic Potential
Although Virilio writes about television media as a force of momentum in manufacturing public interest in accidents, this interest can be traced back long before the invention of the television. When researching historical disasters, one will often find accompanying dramatic illustrations produced during the period. One major producer of such imagery was Currier and Ives, 19th century lithograph artists. Lithography was a fast and cheap method of mass image production (Encyclopedia of World Biography 346). In 1840, Currier and Ives produced a current-events inspired lithograph of fire breaking out aboard the steamship Lexington. The sales motivated them to create more images of current-event disasters (Le Beau 21). The American public of the mid-19th century wanted visual representation of what they read in the newspapers, and so these prints remained popular.
The Angola Horror is an example of this phenomenon, being depicted through “grisly illustrations” in the newspapers (Vogel). The image to the left was published in Frank Leslie’s Weekly, showing mourners amongst dead bodies while the train burns in the background.
The Titanic disaster is a more famous example. As the 1912 sinking was reported in newspapers, the public wanted visuals, and the press commissioned artworks of varying quality for use in their publications (Historical Telegrams 19:45 – 20:30). These images followed in the tradition of presenting the scene dramatically, such as this engraving by Willy Stöwer showing survivors observing the disaster from the lifeboats.
The RMS Lusitania was another ill-fated ship. During WWI on May 7, 1915, the passenger liner was sailing through an area south of Ireland that Germany had declared a war zone, when it was torpedoed by a German submarine, sinking in 18 minutes and killing 1198 people (Feldman 12). Aside from presenting a further example of technology enabling more dire disasters, the aftermath provides insight into the power of disaster imagery. The attack of a liner filled with civilians was obviously a controversial act, and in the U.S. this was heightened by the loss of many American civilians that had been on board. Cartoonists’ subsequent illustrations depicted ghosts of women and children haunting the Kaiser, and images of Uncle Sam shaking his fist at Germany (Feldman 14), and posters encouraged enlistment. By 1916, the event had become a “rallying cry for the Preparedness Movement”, a campaign for military enforcement (Feldman 15). In April of 1917, America entered the war, affecting the course of history (Feldman 16).
This disaster imagery has a profound social impact, effecting change in safety protocol, or even influencing a country’s participation in war in the case of these recruitment posters. This culture of disaster imagery presented as entertainment is also an influence on other forms of visual media, including stories of publications such as Active Comics.
The train wrecks depicted in Active Comics No. 10 demonstrate a binary dynamic between an “attack” and an “accident”. In keeping with Virilio’s theories, the comic depicts both scenarios on an even field, limiting our ability to distinguish between the two. This preoccupation with disasters is the result of decades of media influence, and a culture of “disaster imagery” being produced for the purposes of entertainment. Imagery with war themes serves a propagandistic social function, influencing historical pathways. In Active Comics No. 10, this imagery reinforces a moral message toward the primary audience, children, demonstrating clearly who the enemy is, and how to approach conflict scenarios correctly. The comic also brings concepts of overseas wartime events closer to home, an environment where there is already the potential for deadly accidents, mirroring those that occur through the war. Ultimately, while train wrecks throughout history have brought carnage, violence, and death, Active Comics No. 10 takes an optimistic approach, portraying heroes as capable of saving the day. These representations may have been sanitized for consumption by children, but there remains a dark and powerful history behind these forms of imagery.
Images in this online exhibit are either in the public domain or being used under fair dealing for the purpose of research and are provided solely for the purposes of research, private study, or education.
“32 DIE, 114 HURT IN TRAIN WRECK: Troop Special Plows Into Local at Almonte Rear Car, Filled With Holiday Travellers, Is Crushed; Dead Said to Be in Civilian Coaches; City Hall Turned Into Emergency Aid Station.” The Globe and Mail (1936-Current), 28 Dec. 1942, pp. 1–2.
Le Beau, Bryan F. “Art in the Parlor: Consumer Culture and Currier and Ives: Art in the Parlor.” The Journal of American Culture, vol. 30, no. 1, Feb. 2007, pp. 18–37. 10.1111/j.1542-734X.2007.00462.x. Accessed 23 Nov 2018.
The Canadian Whites are a body of comics produced in Canada during World War II after trade restrictions cut off the supply of “luxury goods” from the States. These black and white stories provide a window into Canadian culture during this time period, and the study of them helps us understand our predecessor’s mindset in the creation of a Canadian identity during this time of hardship.
The “Speed Savage” story in the 19th issue of Triumph Comics (Steele) uses racism and othering to vilify the circus and create a Canadian identity through exclusion. In doing so Steele is able to condemn the idea of entertainment and relaxation without alienating its young readers. Within this issue, the circus acts as the hub for villains who murder workers from the munitions factory by shooting them out of a cannon and making bodies mysteriously fall from the sky. Speed Savage, otherwise known as the ‘White Mask’, has to find out where these bodies are coming from and put a stop to it before the factory workers leave their jobs out of fear. By using racialized villains, a distinguished art style for the circus folk, and heavy-handed propagandistic text, this story attempts to convince Canadians to keep working through hardship and not leave their important jobs for recreation by instilling fear in them. As well, by representing many forms of the ‘other’, this comic defines the Canadian identity through means of exclusion. This specific issue was released in 1944, in the midst of World War II, when citizens were tired and fearful of the negative psychological consequences of war (Iarocci and Keshen 204). This comic is an example of how racism might have been used to boost morale and give Canadians a feeling of purpose so that they would continue to support the war effort as the fighting dragged on. The use of racism in tandem with the obviously villainous circus made luxuries such as days off of work seem disloyal to the Canadian identity, and a lack of these things during wartime a more palatable concept.
The Cultural Coding of “Circus Freaks”
In “Speed Savage”, Ted Steele uses pre-existing impressions of the circus as exotic and mysterious to further his own point about the ‘danger’ of entertainment. The circus at this time was known to be filled with people of colour as well as working women, things that were only really acceptable in these travelling shows (Hughes). The circus was one of the few spaces during the early 20th century where it was deemed suitable to have different races mingle, as the goal wasn’t to build bridges between white people and people of colour but to widen the social and emotional gap through exaggeration and stereotypes. Because of the cultural coding surrounding these travelling shows, the circus became both a place of empowerment and degradation for minorities, as it offered otherwise unattainable employment at the cost of humiliation and discrimination of one’s culture (Hughes).
Davis states that “the circus’s celebration of diversity was often illusionary.” (10) as it embodied the racial and gender norms of the time but claimed to be different from the rest of society. This dichotomy made the circus a particularly appealing concept to citizens during wartime as it offered something familiar and comforting under the guise of something mysterious and new that would distract them from their daily hardships. Davis also describes the circus as an escape for young boys who felt as though they were outcasts in their regular life (31). The circus being a place of refuge would be a dangerous concept during wartime, as citizens would be looking for an escape from the fear and lack that surrounded them, but all hands were needed on deck.
This is not to say that the circus was seen purely as an escape, as it was a space filled with visually and socially unacceptable things such as women in tight clothing or black individuals in ‘traditional’ garb (Davis 102, 134). These usually scandalous and possibly horrific images were framed under entertainment and thus were deemed safe to partake in. That said the circus was still thought of, in at least some ways, as a threat. In Hutchison’s article on travelling shows he used Intergroup Threat Theory (ITT), which examined how perceived threats could lead to prejudice, to argue that since the circus relied on exaggeration to shock and entertain the audience, it garnered fear and thus the deepened the prejudice that Canadians felt against the minorities depicted (238).
This fear is made even more clear and utilized in “Speed Savage” as the tension surrounding these mixed spaces expresses itself through the vilifying of the circus members. It is this preexisting knowledge that the circus is filled with exotic and ‘strange’ things that Steele uses to alienate the reader from the idea of entertainment as a whole, as well as unite Canadian citizens. Within “Speed Savage”, the idea of the circus as a place that holds dangerous ‘savages’ is placed in opposition to the honest factory workers in order to create a Canadian identity. By using exoticism and racializing characters from the circus, this comic promotes the war effort and more specifically tells its readers that instead of being associated with something as malicious as the circus, they should be working at the factory and supporting the men out on the home front.
Drawing Lines Between ‘Us’ and ‘Them’
In order to solidify a Canadian identity that would urge civilians to support the war effort, Steele drew the villains in “Speed Savage” as more distinguished and detailed than the factory workers to clearly illustrate what a Canadian isn’t. The circus folk are much uglier because of their distinct features, and as a result less relatable than the hard-working Canadians. Specifically, the owner of the circus is drawn in much more detail than the other characters. He has thick eyebrows, a handlebar mustache, is quite bald, and has obvious and defined wrinkles. In some panels, the way he is drawn is reminiscent of an angry ape, as can be seen in the image on the left.
Drawing the owner, along with the rest of the villains, in this detailed but ugly style shows Canadians what they aren’t and shouldn’t be. While the factory workers all look like average men that the young boys reading Triumph Comics could grow up to be, the circus folk are drawn to look strange and unfamiliar. Speed Savage is the only good guy that is particularly distinguished, as his superhero persona wears a white mask and tight suit. That said, his primary trait is that he is ‘white’ and Canadian, which safely separates him from the racialized villains.
It is not just racism that is used to create an image of the other, femininity is also exploited and seen in the posture of the villains. This can be observed in the image to the right, when Jeff Blackett, a factory worker that is a double agent for the circus, makes a rather feminine gesture with hands left limp as he is punched by the White Mask. This works as both comic relief for the reader and as a way to further degrade the villains.
Attempting to create a Canadian Identity through othering is not a strategy limited to “Speed Savage” or this Triumph Comic issue. During and before World War II the US was a powerhouse in terms of comic production and it was difficult for Canadian publishers to keep up. To combat this, Canadian comics attempted to “take the higher moral ground for culture in opposite to that of the United States”(Beaty 438). Canadian comics had to focus on stereotypes and cliches in order to create a solid identity, and because of the fear of “American cultural domination” heroes such as Speed Savage ended up relying on othering and racism in an attempt to solidify their white Canadian identity (Beaty 438).
A Call to Arms
Ted Steele uses othering and heavy-handed text to unite his Canadian readers during the time of this comics production and rally their support for the war effort. The dialogue in “Speed Savage” directly links race to the circus as well as shames any workers that attempt to leave their post. On the first page, a description of the circus is given by a cigar smoking man seeking to promote his show. He states that they have a “killer lion from India” named Satan and “Fifteen gorgeous gals brought here from old Hawaii” (38). The descriptions that he gives pairs these faraway lands with intrigue and fear as most of the shows promoted sound dangerous in some way. Coding the circus as menacing accomplishes two things at once, it warns the reader not to be pulled in by the idea of the circus for entertainment and it gives Canadians something to fear and thus fight against.
Canadians fear of World War II is addressed in “Speed Savage” through the anxieties of the factory workers. On the second page of this story Speed Savage picks up a newspaper that details how the men at the munitions factory are being killed and this is causing “hundreds (to) leave the job” due to unrest. Which, of course, reflects the deaths of young men in the real world during 1944 happening across the sea. The next panel immediately transitions to later that night as the men at the factory get the news that yet another body has been dropped from the sky. Two of the factory workers talk about leaving work, but another calls them “Yellow rats” for thinking about walking out on their duty to the war effort and says that “Canada needs the shells we’re making”(40). This interaction, along with others like it sprinkled throughout the story, accepts that the reader might be afraid but declares that it is cowardly and unacceptable to walk out on one’s duty. There is a fair amount of shame linked to leaving their job, not just because they would be abandoning their fellow Canadians, but that they would be the same as a “yellow rat” linking them to the ‘other’ that Steele has so clearly illustrated is villainous.
Along with providing an enemy to avoid, Steele gives the reader a role model to aspire to be. Speed Savage acts as the perfect Canadian and encourages the readers to follow his lead. Throughout this story, he blatantly tells factory workers that they are needed at their jobs and can’t leave out of fear. On the last page Speed Savage even turns to the reader and states that “The workers at Carson city can go back to their vital jobs of victory”(46), directly calling Canadians to continue to support the war effort from the home front.
In Ted Steels “Speed Savage”, the representation of the circus as ‘other’ and dangerous is used to cement a Canadian identity that would make it easier for citizens to push through the difficult war times and continue to support the troops on the front. Steele did this by creating a clear divide between the hardworking factory men that the reader is supposed to identify with and the strange backstabbing circus folk, who are classified as the ‘other’. Using exotism and fear Steels story unites Canadians and vilifies not just the circus but the concept of abandoning ones duty for leisure. He paints the good Canadian as one that is willing to give up their own luxury as well as safety to keep evils such as the circus out of their country.
Beaty, Bart. “The Fighting Civil Servant: Making Sense of the Canadian Superhero.” American Review of Canadian Studies, vol. 36, no. 3, 2006, pp. 427–39. Scholars Portal Journals, doi:10.1080/02722010609481401.
Davis, Janet M. The Circus Age: Culture & Society under the American Big Top. University of North Carolina Press, 2002, http://catalogue.library.ryerson.ca/record=b1459347.
Ted Steel “Speed Savage” Triumph Comics: No. 19. Bell Features and Publishing Company Limited, 1944, pp. 38 – 46. RULA Archives and Special Collections, Ryerson University, Toronto, Canada.
Hughes, Sakina M. “Walking the Tightrope between Racial Stereotypes and Respectability: Images of African American and Native American Artists in the Golden Age of the Circus.” Early Popular Visual Culture, vol. 15, no. 3, 2017, pp. 315–33. Scholars Portal Journals, doi:10.1080/17460654.2017.1383028.
Hutchison, Paul, et al. “Predictors of ‘the Last Acceptable Racism’: Group Threats and Public Attitudes toward Gypsies and Travellers.” Journal of Applied Social Psychology, vol. 48, 5, May 2018, pp. 237–47. Crossref, doi:10.1111/jasp.12508.
Iarocci, Andrew, and Keshen, Jeff. A Nation in Conflict: Canada and the Two World Wars. University of Toronto Press, 2015. catalogue.library.ryerson.ca Library Catalog, http://catalogue.library.ryerson.ca/record=b2639176.
Images in this online exhibit are either in the public domain or being used under fair dealing for the purpose of research and are provided solely for the purposes of research, private study, or education.
Comics may be set in the future or on a different planet, but no matter how out-of-this-world they appear to be, comics are still created in reality. Comics are not produced inside a vacuum they are connected to the historical era that they are created in. As historian Bradford Wright puts it “comic books are history” (Aiken 41). Just like other more prestigious, commonly studied types of literature comics are also worth examination, as they reflect the politics and concerns of a particular historical era (Aiken 41). The link between Canadian Golden Age comics and War World Two is easy to understand as comics of the era featured stories of fighting Nazis and Canadian soldiers winning in warfare. However, it is not that comics just reflect reality, because this would not be very appealing to audiences, especially those that were living through a world war. The most entertaining stories are those that are relatable but also present a better version of reality. In this essay, I will be arguing that comic books try to present an idealistic version of reality and what people lack in reality is presented to them in their comics. The first half of this essay, I will be using superheroes from different historical eras to demonstrate how comics changed over time to better fit the needs and wants of the current audience. In the second half of this essay, I will be analyzing how specifically, Commando Comics issue number twelve (1944) presents an idealistic version of reality that suits the needs of Canadian children growing up in the World War Two.
Comics are always adapting to our changing society. Stories and characters, that were once loved, are often altered or replaced with more modern versions. This constant changing is necessary to better provide an ideal version of reality that suits the needs of the current audience. To demonstrate this, I will be analyzing how different superheroes, from different parts of history, gave their audiences something that society was lacking.
Spiderman, for example, was created during the Cold War. During the Cold War, there was a focus on young adults. Many programs were developed at this time that put American teens “in contact with peers overseas” (Scribner 542). Programs like penpals and overseas studying expanded with the goal of improving foreign relationships and overcome biases that were seen as “the root of international conflict” (Scribner 542). Spiderman being a teenager himself emphasized this “greater attention to adolescents” (Aiken 47). There is a lot of emphases that Spiderman is friendly, as he is so often called “your friendly neighbourhood Spiderman”, and he is rarely seen killing people, but rather trapping them in this web and then turning them to the police. This gentle approach to justice reflects this attitude of peace and understanding, that society was lacking at the time, and that officials were trying to teach young people during the Cold War.
Just as Spiderman was the first teen superhero, Wonder Women was the first female superhero. Wonder women made her first appearance in 1941 (Akin 46). The main lesson that Wonder Women taught, was that girls did not need superpowers and that they could exceed expectations if they worked hard. For example, Wonder Women is quoted saying “You can be as strong as any boy if you’ll work hard and train yourself in athletics, the way boys do” (Akin 46). This empowering message is reflective of the changing role of women during the Second World War, while men were off at war it became “women’s patriotic duty to help the war effort, either on the home front, through volunteer work, or by taking a ‘war job’”(Hall et al. 234). At a time when society is not accustomed to women doing “men’s work” Wonder Woman gives confirmation that women can do it too, and gives readers that confidence that women can live up to society’s needs and expectations.
Similarly to how Wonder Women was creating confidence in females, Captian Canuck was inspiring nationalism in Canadians. Captain Canuck was released in 1975, a time when comics and everything about them was American, “the heroes were American, the settings were largely American, and even the alluring comic-book ads… were American” (Edwardson 188). Captain Canunk was not just a Canadian version of Captian America, he had a strong moral character that “reinforced conceptions of Canadians as polite, kind, moral, heroic peacekeepers” (Edwardson 186). Canadians were lacking representation in their comics and Captain Cancuck is an icon that fills the gap in the market and gives readers a sense a pride and nationalism that they were not getting from other heroes.
It is interesting to look at the heroes from different moments in history because heroes are often used as teachers for readers. They are representative of what traits society believes are good and moral. Heroes capture an ideal person, and as society’s values shift, what constitutes as an ideal person changes. In the second part of this essay, I will be looking at how Commando Comics issue number twelve (1944), not only gives a portrayal of an ideal person but also portrays an ideal reality for the children growing up in World War Two era.
World War Two Ideals in Comics
Commando Comics issue number twelve was published in 1944, towards the end of World War Two. In order to understand how this comic creates an ideal version of reality for Canadain children of this era, I will be analyzing aspects of the comic that usually generate criticism such as lack of female characters and the negative portrayal of racial minorities.
One major criticism of comic books is that they lack female representation. A study was conducted on comic books from the 1990s to 2005 looking at the number of males characters compared to female characters, the study found that “men represented 85% of total characters” (Facciani et al. 6). And this percentage gets more drastic in older comics. The number of female characters in the twelve issue of Commando Comics is low, as there were only ten female characters. These ten females are either side characters or observers. For example in the comic strip “Corvette” there is only one female character who appears twice in the comice, she says two words “Help!” and “Oh!” (Darian et al. 4).
In order to understand why women were so rarely seen in comics at this time, it is important to look at the historical context and how it is at play in this comic. During World War Two, men were disappearing from children’s lives rapidly, “Older brothers, uncles and fathers enlisted in the military… Male teachers slowly abandoned the classroom for service” (Cook). Children were quickly losing the father figures and male role models that they were used to having. The hyper-masculine cast of comic books provides children with those older male role models that could no longer be there for them. This explains why the heroes in this comic are all older males, so they can more easily fit that father figure role.
Women were not disappearing from children lives in the same way men were. They were busy with “paid war work as well as their normal household responsibilities” but they were still in their children’s lives (Hall et al. 234). There was less reason for females to show in up in comics because children were seeing their mother’s and sisters on a daily basis, and were not missing the female figures in their lives. In summary, children growing up War World Two were lacking father figures and male role models. Comics present an ideal version of reality by being filled with males and having older male superheroes that children can look up to, while their real-life heroes are away at war.
Just as most comic book characters are male, the majority of characters are also white. A study done on the Modern Age of Comics (1991-2005) found that “aliens, demons, and other types of non-human lifeforms were more likely to be represented than all human racial minorities combined” (Facciani et al 6). It is fair to argue though, that comics during the Golden Age do have more representation of racial minorities. I found that about 63.6% of comics stripes in Commando Comics issue number twelve (1944) featured a racial background other than white North Americas, such as German, Japenese and Indigenous people.
There is some representation of these racial groups, however, it is the way that these groups are portrayed that is problematic. For example, Japanese characters are drawn in a very particular style. They are drawn with very pointed faces, thin eyes, and large lips (Darian et al. 4). Also, the way their speech is written is done so it reads like they are speaking in a stereotypical Japanese accent. This is seen when one Japanese character says “So Solly” instead of ‘So Sorry’(Darian et al.7).
This portrayal of Japanese soldiers makes them look like weak unintelligent enemies, they appear to lack a sense of strength and pride that the white North American soldiers are portrayed as having. In the comic strip, there is a close up of a German soldier’s face, his head is floating in the panel and his body is not visible. His eyes are sticking out of his head and his mouth is hanging open. (Darian et al. 14) The way he is drawn makes the German character look crazed and irrational, but it is also a humorous drawing which tells the reader to not take this character seriously. One possible explanation for the racist way that Japanese and German people are portrayed is that it helps build confidence in young Canadians that those races are not capable of winning of the war. This is a time when people were living with worry and doubt about losing their family members as well as losing the war, the racist portrayal of the enemies instills some confidence in the readers that Canadians and Americans are perhaps smarter or more serious and therefore more capable of winning the war. At a time when children are lacking complete confidence in the future of their country, comics provide them with a sense of superiority over the enemy.
Not including women, and presenting different ethnicities in stereotypical ways is problematic, and a modern audience would reject this and they are correct to do so. However, these problematic elements fit the needs of the audience during the World War Two era. This comic creates an ideal version of reality for the Canadian children of War World Two, it gave them the father figures they were losing and provided them with confidence in their country which they were questioning for the first time
Comics reflect an ideal version of the audience’s society by presenting a fictional world that includes what is absent in the audience’s real world. In the first half of this essay, I use superheroes from different historical eras to demonstrate how comics change over time in order to better suit the needs of the current audience. In the second half of this essay, I examine Commando Comics issue number twelve (1944). I argue that while the comic’s lack of female characters and its problematic portrayal of Japanese and German people would be unacceptable today, it is accepted in the World War Two era because it suits the needs of the audience. I argue that the mostly all-male cast of this comic is because Canadian children were lacking males in their society during the World War Two era. I also make the claim that the humorous racist portrayal of certain characters is done in order to strengthen the potentially wavering confidence that Canada children of that era may have had about their country. It is important to not overly judge comics based on the values and ideals of modern society. It is more beneficial to critically examine comics through the eyes of the intended audience, this provides a better understanding of the comic as well as the era.