Editorial Introduction to Exhibition on Commando, Triumph, Joke, and Wow Comics, from the Canadian Whites Collection at Ryerson University
Dr. Monique Tschofen, Ryerson University
This exhibition features the original research projects of second-year students in Advanced English Research Methods at Ryerson University. Their essays examine issues of four comics from the “Canadian Whites” collection held by Ryerson University Library Special Collections and Archives and digitized in the Library and Archives Canada. Commando and Triumph are war comics featuring tales of bravery and heroism of soldiers as well as seemingly ordinary people, while Joke and Wow feature how-tos, crafts, gags, slapstick humor, and humor that traffics in innuendo and stereotypes.
The comics in the “Canadian Whites” collection were published by Cy Bell in Toronto during World War II in runs that approached 500,000 a month during their heyday. Bell took advantage of a market that was opened up by the War Exchange Conservation Act’s restrictions of the importation of non-essential goods from America. Together, the comics offer a unique perspective on the domestic front during the war.
While Canada was supplying manpower and resources to the war, at home, Canadian artists and writers were being asked by the government “spread understanding about the war and develop patriotic zeal to fight it,” “mold public opinion” (“Writers”) and “inform soldiers of their duties to fight” (“Important Task”). While they were not technically propagandists, the writers and illustrators of the “Canadian Whites” were caught up in the zeal of this collective mission.
Comics are written by adults, but chiefly addressed to children. As a consequence, they tell us much about prevailing ideas about childhood. The “Canadian Whites” issues English 810 students study in this exhibition expose the complex ways that childhood was being curated to suit the needs of the nation in wartime. The comics would have provided pleasurable distractions for children who were experiencing food rationing, blackouts, and the loss of fathers, brothers, and sometimes even mothers. However, they also speak openly about these experiences.
One thing that stands out from the collection is the degree to which they also engage overtly in the political and social affairs of the day. The stories of superheroes and action heroes often refer by name to Adolf Hitler, Herman Goering, Goebbels, and Mussolini, while the threatening “japs” are ever-present, however their leaders are not named. One issue of Wow even invites children to think about ways to solve the war in an essay contest answering the question “What Would You do with Hitler and His Gang?” (Wow). Even when the comics are less explicitly political, it is clear that their mythologies are designed to arouse public consensus. Heroes glorify the soldier and their villains mock the enemy. Advertising of toy guns urges children to engage in war-themed play.
The non-narrative materials in the comics are especially interesting for the picture they offer of the kind of well-rounded citizen children were expected to become. Educational features about foreign lands and exotic animals and plants cultivate a consciousness about a world that extends far beyond the nation’s borders. Detailed step-by step instructions for activities like wrestling or dive bombing present self-defense and military strategies as essential life-skills.
To contemporary eyes, the comics are shockingly racist. The Germans and Japanese receive particularly noxious treatment, but the comics also offer seemingly gratuitous and viciously stereotyped representations of Africans and Indigenous peoples. The representation of women is more inconsistent. On the one hand, many of the female figures in the comics are weak, helpless, and sexualized. On the other, there are also strong women who participate in fights alongside the male hero, and Canada’s Triumph comics proudly feature a female superhero who happens also to be Inuit, the glorious Nelvana of the Northern Lights.
Studying these mostly-forgotten popular cultural texts at a moment when Canada is celebrating its 150th anniversary forces a reconsideration of the image that Canadians have of themselves as peace-keepers committed to diversity. It reminds us that the world of children in zones of conflict is shaped by intersecting interests such as nation, capitalism, and patriarchy, as well as by contradictory sets of values such as individualism and self-sufficiency on the one hand, and loyalty to country on the other.
The exhibitions here were produced by students in Professor Monique Tschofen’s section, ENG 810-021. Their work below captures many other aspects of this intriguing comics collection.
“Catalina.” Commando Comics, No. 14, November 1944, p. 65. Canadian Whites Comic Book Collection, 1941-1946. RULA Archives and Special Collections, Ryerson University, Toronto, Canada. http://data2.collectionscanada.gc.ca/e/e447/e011166543.pdf
“Hitler and His Gang,” Wow Comics, no. 6, March 1942, p. 32-33. Canadian Whites Comic Book Collection, 1941-1946. RULA Archives and Special Collections, Ryerson University, Toronto, Canada.
“Important Task Facing Writers of the Country.” Hamilton Spectator, Aug. 24, 1940. Democracy at War: Canadian Newspapers and the Second World War, Canadian War Museum. http://collections.civilisations.ca/warclip/objects/common/webmedia.php?irn=5065629.
Triumph Comics, No. 16, Oct/Nov 1943, Bell Features Publishing.Canadian Whites Comic Book Collection, 1941-1946. RULA Archives and Special Collections, Ryerson University, Toronto, Canada.
“Blackouts.” Joke Comics, No. 1, March/April 1942, Commercial Signs of Canada, p.7. Canadian Whites Comic Book Collection, 1941-1946. RULA Archives and Special Collections, Ryerson University, Toronto, Canada.
“Writers and Artists in the War Effort.” Toronto Daily Star, Aug. 22, 1942. Democracy at War: Canadian Newspapers and the Second World War, Canadian War Museum. http://collections.civilisations.ca/warclip/objects/common/webmedia.php?irn=5044065
Images in this online exhibition 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.
Thank you to the staff at Ryerson University Library and Archives, especially Val Lem and Alison Skyrme to Reginald Beatty for their support of this research.
Anti-Japanese and Germanphobic Sentiments: Perpetuating Fear and Loathing of the Enemy in Commando Comics, Issue No.15
The Relatable Hero: The Inception, Impact and Novelty of the Canadian Comic Hero During World War II in Commando Comics No. 16
Superheroes as a Spokesperson to Children through the Visual Indistinct illustration of Soldiers in the 13th Edition of the Triumph Comics