© Justin Hovey 2018, Ryerson University
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.
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