© Copyright 2017 Maxwell-Turanski, Victoria, Ryerson University
When a time is remembered, it is most often for their heroes. Those who stand out as admirable are an embodiment of the epoch values and beliefs. Thus, to analyze a hero’s characterization is to know the impact of the time period on their personality. Furthermore, to seek out fictional work from a historical moment is to know the time-specific idealizations of a hero.
In studying the “Canadian Whites,” a comic collection dating back to before the Second World War, there is a rare chance to understand the idealized Canadian hero (Kocmarek 148). Not too often does Canadian work spread as quickly and widely as the Bell Features comics did. The success was the result of an American comic ban placed by the Canadian government at the start of the war (Kocmarek 149). It is important to note that despite a recognizably lower quality of work than American competitors, (due to a lack of resources and experience) the children of the nation devoured Canadian comics. Readership was high and expectations were unimportant because of limited competition, giving the “Canadian Whites’” authors and artists freedom to create anything that their hearts desired (and resources allowed, which was not much considering that their materials only stretched so far as to print in black and white; hence the name “Canadian Whites”) (Kocmarek 148). The result has been an intriguing combination of references to both historic realities and dreams that provide a peek into World War II and those heroes who were ‘true’ Canadians.
CONTEXT: A STEP BACK IN TIME
During the years 1939-1945 (World War II), Canadians were riddled with anxiety about the survival of loved ones. 1.1 million of the total 11-million-person population of Canada served in WWII (Granatstein). This large number of involved Canadians was reached only after years of careful, steady increases in governmental persuasion, working to make citizens into soldiers. With the extreme unease of potential enforced consignment, there was a desire for some reprieve (Granatstein). This came in the form of entertainment. Leisure during the war was defined by the government as citizen participation in activities that had the ultimate, overriding purpose of bettering the nation. In any case turning away from the war often resulted in turning to the arts that celebrated the underlying themes and feel of the nation, the war-stricken nation.
In this vein of thinking it became clear that the importation of the American comic books was an unwanted method of “Americanization” in the eyes of the Canadian government (Morton). In order to lessen the grip of American culture on the related but certainly not identical nation of Canada, the American comic ban came to fruition (Foster). This governmental act not only allowed for an economic opportunity, albeit a naive one in the long run, but held the microphone to the lips of Canadian authors and artists, giving them a chance for their voices to be heard across the country. This chance gave life to the curiously ordinary Canadian hero. Ordinary insofar as the supernatural abilities of other comic heroes prevalent in the American market were non-existent in the vast majority of their Canadian counterparts. They were, however, extraordinary in their unique representation of Canadian ideals and values.
ACKNOWLEDGING PREVALENT IDEOLOGIES
In order to encapsulate the contextually important belief system of the time, the term “ideology” helps us to discuss “the way comics reflect various social and cultural beliefs in a given society” (Berger 377). It is evident within the “Canadian Whites” that the ideology, specifically about a citizen’s role, works as an assumed, universal belief by the heroes and fellow characters. Most often this means that there is a promotion of certain ideologies that have already been proven to be important in Canadian society or in other words it is about: “reproduc[ing] the status quo,” which in effect makes the comic “an instrument for mainstream ideological reproduction … [one of the] tools of indoctrination” (Mellor 122) (Pineda and Jimenez-Varea 1157). To be asserting these ideologies as nationally held was unquestionably a product of the war-time heightened desire to find unity and strong relations on every level of life. Its implication was that a wide audience experienced this decisive stance and were in some way affected in their beliefs. This is something that Caswell argues when he describes the comic as both resulting from and adding to the narrative about the society from which it is birthed (219). From understanding the larger context of Canadian pressures during WWII, we must seek to explore the consequence on the Canadian comic hero, what Beaty calls “a hero who had no superhuman powers” also known as the “Fighting Civil Servant” (430). The Canadian hero’s personality was not larger than life, but instead relatable and on most platforms, achievable.
CANADIAN COMMANDOS: THE HEROES
In the “Canadian Whites” comic collection, there are seven different types of comics produced and for the purposes of this study volume 16 of the Commando comics will be analyzed. There are distinctions to be made between the characters that populate the Commando comics but more significantly there are striking similarities between them. These similarities should be explained by the common traits of bravery, intelligence and good pilot skills. The traits are of course implications of the war time period, attested to by Beaty’s prescription of the comic hero being best “understood” through the examination of the ideology prevalent during their creation (428). Furthermore these specific traits add to the likelihood that the characters could be not only the heroes of the story but also that these representations of good Canadian character were attainable for the reader themselves, which was importantly not only suggested but encouraged.
In this volume the first enticement of being a hero is when there is an implicit acknowledgement of brotherhood and friendship in becoming a soldier. The Canadian soldier is the occupation most conducive with the aforementioned traits. This sense of brotherhood between soldiers is established best when the text utilizes common ground language. In the story “Clift Steele and the Island of Floating Death” the two Canadian soldiers refer to each other as “fella” and “brother,” which indicates a shared understanding, relationship and experience (Dorian 4). This is a recurring instance in many of the stories. Although this exploration may seem to lean towards discovering propagandistic tactics of persuasion for nationalistic agendas, I would insist that this is a different case. Despite promoting many of the same messages that government propaganda of the wartime typically would, propaganda is not meant to “foment enthusiasm or assent” (Skylar). This comic book very clearly incites enthusiasm and is implying desirability in terms of the conditions of a soldier’s life. The propagandistic feel of the text occurs simply from the inevitable leakage of ideology into the fictional heroes’ behaviours.
Further to this point of being inviting to the reader, the text addresses its audience’s present state of youth in terms of ability and maturity by how it presents its advertisements. In the commercial for “a barrel-body chariot,” “microscope made from a spool” and “pair of stirrups” the products are advertised as “both safe and comfortable,” which seems at curious odds with the idea of a brave, heroic Canadian (R.S. 16). The fact is that the comic acts as an invitation to the youthful reader. The invitation says: we know you are only young children right now, but we want to teach you how to be like these heroes, so begin here with safe learning and then aspire to be brave, intelligent and great pilots.
Then the comic moves towards the next step, providing a more tangible motive to do these hard things. In the story “The Young Commandos” it is apparent that one action can lead to a specific reward. This is developed when the main character describes how his older brother “knocks down zeros” and then “gets medals and gals” (Lazare 11). Essentially, if you do this brave act then you get rewarded with the prominent desires of fame and love. The tale even ends with the reaffirming line: “That’s the story…and it only shows how brave the lads in our armed forces are!!!” (Lazare 15). This takes the hero character one step further to be inclusive of necessary participation in the armed forces and this is implied again to be the place most suitable for doing the heroic actions and then receiving the ideal rewards.
In an expansion of the possible actions, the stories each work to outline different methods for achieving the same heroic status. For instance in “Ace Bradley Again” the hero is known for “seizing the moment” while in “Lank the Yank” the hero becomes intelligent and creative with weapon making when noticing a boot that is “not dainty but definitely useful” (Thomson 22) (Brunt 25). In “Wings Over the Atlantic” the hero “keeps a sharp look-out” and “tries to stop” the enemy and similarly, in “Professor Punk” the hero tries “to solve the problem” as hard as he can (Andre 27) (Brunt 46). There are countless more defining actions of heroes in each of the comic stories. Evidently the greatest gift that the superpower-less hero gives its readers is the picture of reality that comes across as less sensational than American heroes but is really the best way to “attempt to bolster the morale” (Weigel). If the superheroes of Canadian comics were not “essentially hatless Mounties out of their scarlet tunics,” but instead supernatural, entirely fictional characters then the outcome would be far less potent for inspiration, potentially even ineffectual (Kocmarek). In a time of great horror plausible optimism seems to be the comic book’s answer to the unsure nation.
THE READERSHIP AND PROLIFERATION OF COMIC HERO MESSAGES
After consideration of the traits that the comic heroes ascribe to, it is important to establish the likely impact on its readers. Knowing that the “Canadian Whites” heroes were “based on the real life exploits [of Canadian heroes] … [and that] most of their characters and stories had Canadian backgrounds and connections,” it becomes a reaffirmation and further repetition of the things that one must do to become great (Kocmarek). The audience was largely males ages eight to twelve who were born into a time of distress and would naturally be motivated and interested in solving the problems that they faced daily (Foster). The messages that were conveyed by the portrayal of the Canadian hero were doable things that a child could hold onto. It was also a means to negotiate the role that they saw their nation playing in the conflict.
For adults war was interpreted through news that was circulated. In a Toronto Daily Star article from 1944 a soldier is described with the utmost admiration for his heroic actions that saved lives because of his bravery in the face of fear (“Canadian Hero of Ortona”). This was celebrated because Canadians desperately needed something to be hopeful about. The heroes were discussed at length because they were meant to inspire people to do the tough things that humans are tempted to shy away from.
The young men who read comics were likewise establishing themselves in a narrative. While they knew the hardships of war, they did not have much information on the state of the conflict, in fact: “The comics provided that young audience, which did not read newspapers … with probably their only source of information on the war” (Kocmarek). With little real information the comic book audience may have been subjected to a “clever way of sugaring an ideological pill,” but they inevitably also gained hope from those heroes who did not seem quite so far away from their reality (Mellor 123). These arguably goofy, short comic stories were a way to give “interpretive agency to the reader (an empowerment perhaps especially important to readers in the liminal state of adolescence)” and one that could very well have made all the difference in a choice between mediocrity and heroism (Hatfield and Svonkin 433). These comic book heroes were role models that gave unique hope to their avid readers.
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