© Copyright 2017 Dylan Gibbons, Ryerson University
During WWII, after having print materials such as comic books and magazines restricted from other countries, Canada in turn experienced the “First Age of Canadian Comics” from Bell Features and lead artists such as Adrian Dingle (Kocmarek 148). Predicated on the need to bolster the Canadian dollar during the war, the early years of comic books in Canada are particularly interesting, being that art and story telling were never at the core of the media, as they might have been in other countries. As this paper will show, this implicitly entails an agenda. The comics were designed not only with economic prosperity in mind, but also with the explicit agenda of adding to patriotic, nationalist attitudes, the promotion of traditional British niceties and politeness, and to instill in the reader the necessity of supporting the war effort (Kocmarek 150). These tropes and underlying motivations behind the creation of this media are blatant in most comics of this time, including the primary source material of this exhibit, Triumph Comics: No.19.
Perhaps what is most significant is what the comic signifies within the broader context of the war effort: a shift from simply believing that the Allies’ enemies in WWII are bad to a collectivised message with focus on patriotism and doing one’s civil duty in supporting the war effort. This exhibit will analyze Triumph Comics: No. 19, created in 1944, with reference to other contextual sources, to show how this comic was used, similarly to other media released at the time, to propagandize the Canadian people into adhering to certain normative attitudes and into making certain economic decisions, and show how this was not at all random, but implemented by government institutions.
Perhaps the most explicit implementation of propaganda the comic gives us is found in Ted Steele’s ‘Speed Savage’ story (38-46). The story follows the superhero the ‘White Mask’ and his attempt to administer justice in wartime (WWII) Canada. In the comic, the main villain is one who is trying to sabotage the war effort by shooting factory workers out of a cannon (Steele 42-45), wherein they plummet to their death, subsequently frightening the citizens and preventing them from working (Steele 39). However, what is more interesting is that the White Mask’s heroism involves, not only defeating the villain, but assaulting a frightened factory worker who no longer wants to support the war effort through the creation of missile shells (Steele 39-41).
Upon closer examination, this tells us that in wartime Canada the highest form of villainy is someone derailing the war effort and the highest form of heroism is the patriotic perpetuation of the war effort, by any means necessary. That the citizen who has lost faith in the war effort becomes criminal in the eyes of the hero suggests a propagandistic element behind the making of this comic and the attempt to manufacture a new normativity of radical nationalism. Here we find a double-sided message on the part of the comic’s creators. We see a desire to instill supreme, unwavering support of the nation by glorifying patriotism and, conversely, the threat of being removed from the group and becoming enemy if you fail to comply. The comic shows us, quite crudely, the repercussions for not engaging with the community and subscribing to the war effort narrative: beaten up by a masked ‘superhero’, while all your friends cheer your beating on. This makes explicit the agenda the government and emerging comic book industry were sending to the audience, in this case, children: assimilate, be patriotic, or face ostracization.
Upon further investigation, this turns] out to be exactly what was intended. During WWII, the Canadian Government enacted an institutional campaign to create propaganda over multiple media, including this comic, utilizing fearmongering and patriotism with the hopes that these two incentives would suffice in promoting the purchase of war time bonds (Brownell 67-74). Citizens were even recommended to rent out their spare rooms to workers so there would be more space to create armaments, as shown in an animation titled Empty Rooms Mean Idle Machines (National Film Board of Canada). In this way, even the privacy of one’s home was meant to be infiltrated and politicized. Overall, each and every media, from film to poster to comic book, was coopted, to a greater or lesser extent, in the pursuit of propagandizing the Canadian populace for various reasons, mostly economic.
Gives Us Your Money and Do Your Patriotic Duty!
In an article titled “Building Citizenship: English Canada and Propaganda during the Second War”, William R. Young illustrates the process of Canadian propagandas shift from promoting unified hatred of an enemy to the promotion of collectivism, or ‘Canadianism’ (123) and having shared goals to promote support for the war effort during WWII. Simple hatred of an outgroup, such as what is seen in Ross Saakel’s ‘Ace Barton’ and the hostile portrayal of the Japanese, was found to be a limiting approach that failed in selling Victory Bonds (Canadian war bonds) during WWI. Simply propagandizing a nation into hating another was not sufficient in creating unity within Canada, nor did it help in the efforts to convince Canadians to invest in these bonds, thus new methodologies were conceived. The idea of shared goals was much more effective in collectivising otherwise disjointed groups, such as Indigenous Canadians, Francophones, and Anglophones (Young 124-125). Thus, the Wartime Information Board (the institute in charge for the creation of propaganda) undertook the task of convincing Canadians to make evermore sacrifices to support the war effort (Young 125-130); Prime Minister Mackenzie King signed off on all of this (Young 125). This is not to say that hatred for the enemy was discouraged in subsequent media, which nearly every story in Triumph Comics: No.19 shows to be the case. However, this is always coupled with sentiments of doing one’s duty, protectionism, ingroup preference, etc., which is very much explicit in the aforementioned ‘Speed Savage’ story.
The comic’s title story, Rene Kulbach’s ‘Tang’, also has this tactic imbedded; though, it fails dreadfully. The story is clearly a parody of the popular American television show The Lone Ranger, with a one-dimensional Indigenous sidekick and all. The story displays a meager attempt to amend race relations, despite the story, on the surface, supposedly being uninvolved with the war effort. This attempt is made through the conceptualization of ingroups and outgroups. While the protagonist’s Indigenous sidekick, Hank Steel (of course possessing a highly Westernized name), is made and dressed to appear as part of the ingroup, in the third through sixth panels Buddy Brackenbridge (the protagonist) slaughters a group of Indigenous raiders, Buddy remarking as he fires his gun, “One Redskin less…” (11). This, and that Hank Steel is only given the capacity to make observational one-liners, leads to the conclusion that Hank is being made out to be ‘one of the good ones’. This shows the incapacity of the artists to understand outgroups, unless members of those outgroups assimilate into the ingroup and take up the role of flatterer, sidekick, and tag along, incapable of expressing complex thought or emotion. Fundamentally, despite being an attempt to create a unity between races, it misses the mark of genuineness by several leagues. However, it is an attempt nonetheless, and one that likely would not have been made without the previously mentioned government initiative to create unification between Canadians. Certainly, the protagonist’s, and, potentially, the artist’s, attitudes towards Indigenous people more generally suggests this.
A Change in Gender Roles (Sort of… For now)
Another major part of government propagandizing was changing the role of women in the absence of a large male workforce; this is reflected in the conflicting consistency of presenting women in the comic. Most of the female characters are presented in their stereotypically helpless gender role; however, there is also the emergence of something quite new: a female superhero, Nelvana of the Northern Lights (Dingle 1-9). Even in this case, the female protagonist is given little action or dialogue, but it is still noteworthy in that she is portrayed as being dignified and maintaining the aspect of self-sufficiency – something that would have been reflective of a primarily female population needed for factory work. It is important to note this dualism: women are expected to play their assigned roles as perpetual ‘damsels in distress’, as seen in Ross Saakel’s ‘Captain Wonder’ (20-26), but are now having their identities affirmed so as to be dignified in the archetype of the heroine, the polar opposite of the damsel.
Perhaps one might postulate that this is not evidence of propaganda, rather evidence of the natural progression of women’s improved agency in society. However, in hindsight, nothing about this societal shift was natural, rather an explicit symptom of government campaigns to manipulate women into occupying the factory assembly lines to support the war effort. By 1944, nearly half of adult women had joined the work force (Harttman 16), which was aided by government changes in policy to allow women to serve their country in the production of military equipment and armaments. During this time, numerous government campaigns were implemented to achieve this, and women’s participation was won primarily through the amalgamation of femininity with the idea and setting of factory work to promote female friendly environments where women could see themselves working (Hartmann 17). This was evident not only within the factory, where monthly beauty competitions were held as an appeal to women’s desire not to come off as too masculine, but can be viewed in several wartime propaganda posters, particularly posters aimed at selling victory bonds. These posters were explicitly created with the intent of coercing the female populace into joining the factories, again, by appealing to a sense of patriotic duty (Halbesleben 77-78). The assault was, then, twofold: feminize the workplace to hoodwink women into desiring the monotony of factory life, and, in case this was not sufficient, guilt them into supporting the war effort with persistent talk of duty.
This was only to be flipped on women post-war, however, with reverse campaigns promoting the return to ‘the kitchen’, along with significant drops in the wages of women who wanted to continue factory work (Hartmann 17-18). What these factors suggest is that women’s labour was not only expendable to the Canadian government, but was actively exploited. What was, later, perhaps, falsely interpreted as societal recognition and acknowledgement of women’s capacity to fill traditionally male occupied positions was more realistically active manipulation. Furthermore, if government institutions had truly felt that women were equal to men, that they too could be superheroes and not just damsels, then they would not have been so apt to discourage female workers from factory work upon the return of the male populace. This, in part, may explain why the character of Nelvana, despite being a superheroine, still embodies stereotypes of female passivity. What this shows is the disingenuousness of the comic’s attempt to create a female protagonist that is empowering, but rather that the comic only followed trends of the Canadian wartime, helping to create the façade of recognition to facilitate women’s propagandizing.
Having comprehensively analyzed Triumph Comics: No. 19 and affectively contextualized the media, it is evident that the collection of comics is nested in and is an example of wartime propaganda for expressly economic purposes. What may cause the greatest disdain from this exhibit’s findings is the span of such propaganda, targeting women, children, men, and even reaching towards racialized groups. One may make certain allowances given the context, WWII, and make the case that all was a matter of necessity. However, regardless if such allowances are valid, the comic still serves as a prime example of a nations attempt to create a collectivist culture using fearmongering and nationalism. Subsequently, and rather unfortunately, this leaves the origin of Canada’s comic book industry muddied from the start, having less to do with art, and more to do with politics and propagandizing the citizenry.
- Brownell, Kathryn Cramer. “‘It Is Entertainment, and It Will Sell Bonds!’: 16mm Film and the World War II War Bond Campaign.” The Moving Image, vol. 10, no. 2, Feb. 2011, pp. 60–82. Project MUSE, muse.jhu.edu/article/415434.
- Canada, National Film Board of. Empty Rooms Mean Idle Machines, 1942. www.nfb.ca, https://www.nfb.ca/film/empty_rooms_mean_idle_machines/.
- Dingle, Adrian, et al., editors. Triumph Comics: No. 19. Bell Features and Publishing Company Limited, 1944, pp. 38-46. RULA Archives and Special Collections, Ryerson University, Toronto, Canada.
- Halbesleben, Jonathon R. B., et al. “‘We Can Do It!’ Recruitment and Socialization Through WWII War Effort Posters in the United States.” Journal of Applied Management and Entrepreneurship; Sheffield, vol. 8, no. 4, Oct. 2003, pp. 68–85. Business Premium Collection, http://ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/docview/203912716?accountid=13631.
- Hartmann, Susan M. “Women, War, and the Limits of Change.” National Forum; Baton Rouge, vol. 75, no. 4, Fall 1995, pp. 15-19. Periodicals Archive Online, http://ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/docview/1297782757?accountid=13631.
- Kocmarek, Ivan. “Truth, Justice, and the Canadian Way: The War-Time Comics of Bell Features Publications.” Canadian Review of Comparative Literature / Revue Canadienne de Littérature Comparée, vol. 43, no. 1, Mar. 2016, pp. 148–65. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/crc.2016.0008.
- Victory Bonds Flier. 1944, http://collectionscanada.gc.ca/pam_archives/index.php?fuseaction=genitem.displayEcopies&lang=eng&rec_nbr=2847132&rec_nbr_list=3635777,3635761,2847102,3635772,3665095,2846950,2847132,2846866,2847027,2847157&title=Enlist+Your+Dollars+in+Bonds+for+Victory+%3A++seventh+victory+loan+drive.&ecopy=e010695630-v8. Library and Archives Canada, MIILKAN no. 2847132.
- Wartime Propaganda Poster. http://www.airmuseum.ca/postscan.html. Commonwealth Air Training Plan Museum.
- Young, William R. “Building Citizenship: English Canada and Propaganda during the Second War.” Journal of Canadian Studies/Revue d’Études Canadiennes; Peterborough, Ont., vol. 16, no. 3, Fall 1981, pp. 121–132. Periodicals Archive Online, http://ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/docview/1300019791?accountid=13631.
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