Dr. Monique Tschofen
29 November 2017
Appropriation and Misrepresentation: Race Issues in WOW Comics
Illustrations are used as a means to convey messages and information text cannot quite capture. Examining illustrations closely in WOW Comics issue no.15 reveal stereotypes and ideas imparted by the creators based on their opinions and the effect of their environments at the time of production. These comics were produced during WWII, a time where racial conflict ignited all around the world and negative stereotypes about ethnic minorities were widespread. Canada had different ethnic minorities fighting in the war efforts, including Indigenous, Black and Asian Canadians, therefore accurate representation of ethnic minorities in comics, or lack thereof is important to explore. The ways through which ethnic minorities are illustrated in this issue convey animalistic themes and messages of enmity. The illustrations also shed light on racial inequalities prevalent in Canada by always depicting white Canadian characters as heroes and characters of other ethnic backgrounds as villains. In Marc Singer’s journal article “Black Skins” and White Masks: Comic Books and the Secret of Race”, he emphasises that racial stereotypes are understood through comics. He argues “Whether these stereotypes assume the form of unrealistic portrayals of racial minorities or an equally unrealistic invisibility, they often fulfill this double function of oppression and reaffirmation”, explaining how representation and erasure in illustrations found in comics matter in developing racial understanding. Despite the documented efforts of ethnic Canadians during WWII, literature created during that time often portrays them in a negative light or erases their efforts during the wartime. Analyzing my chosen comic’s illustrations will shed more light on the racial perceptions and stereotypes directed towards ethnic minorities in Canada during WWII.
Misrepresentation and Erasure in Statistics & Media:
Not only did ethnic Canadians face racial stereotypes similar to and worse than those illustrated in WOW Comics issue no.15, their efforts during wartime were misrepresented in government recordings. This inaccuracy assists in explaining the lack of diversity in the comics, as the documented reality did not support diversity, nor do the illustrations in the comics. The government documentation of ethnic Canadian participation in war efforts is directly contrasted by this comic’s lack of ethnic Canadian representation in recognizable military roles. Recorded facts clearly demonstrate participation, however inconsistencies in Canadian statistics make it difficult to gauge how misrepresenting and inaccurate the illustrations are. The Canadian government exemplifies statistical uncertainty through their use of language such as one about the Indigenous community that reports “At least 3,000 status (treaty) Indians – including 72 women – enlisted, as well as an unknown number of Inuit, Métis, and other Natives. The actual numbers were no doubt much higher” (WWII: Facts & Information). More exhaustive research reveals other ethnic groups contributed to Canadian wartime efforts, with records indicating that “‘Hundreds’ of blacks are said to have joined, as did 3,090 status Indians or 2.4 percent of males, a figure that does not include non-status or metis males. About six hundred Chinese-Canadians served, or so Chinese cultural groups claim” (Granatsein 177). It is evident that despite poor record keeping, there is irrefutable proof of ethnic participation in WWII. While there are multiple comics in this issue depicting war scenes, no characters represent Canadians from ethnic backgrounds. All soldiers are Caucasian males in the comics, and these illustrations neglect representing ethnic Canadians efforts in WWII. The comics serve as a representative example of how the documented realities of wartime efforts by ethnic Canadians were erased in mass media.
Indigenous “Savage” Representations in Illustrations:
The minimal representation ethnic minorities receive in the comics are characters that play the antagonist role of enemies, with animalistic illustrations. Regardless of ethnic Canadians efforts in establishing and strengthening Canada’s economy, communities, and war efforts, their role in Canada is diminished to that of an enemy. Indigenous depictions in the comic solidify this notion as Indigenous Canadians are represented as foreign savages because they did not fit the idea of what a Canadian would look like. Analyzing comic books reveal how the “savage” Indigenous character is a popular theme in North American popular culture. Richard King explains, “conventionally comic books confine Native Americans within ugly images and partial histories” (215), which is seen in WOW Comics through the way Indigenous Canadians are illustrated as well as the role these characters are assigned. “Jeff Waring” by Murray represents is a comic in this issue that represents this idea where Jeff Waring and his partner stumble onto land populated with an Indigenous community after getting lost on one of his frequent adventures. Despite Jeff and his partner entering Indigenous lands while armed, they are illustrated as victims and the Indigenous characters are illustrated as savages in an animalistic manner.
Jeff Waring struggles to fight an Indigenous character, who is illustrated looking similar to what can be described a hybrid between a human and an ape. Jeff is subdued by this character, and is illustrated looking meager and helpless. His partner is taken by two Indigenous characters that tower over her, twisting her arm behind her back. The illustrations emphasize the notion that Indigenous Canadians would always be seen as foreign savages and would be considered as enemies. These illustrations made during WWII are accurate representations of how the Indigenous community was being treated at that time, as well as how other Canadians viewed them. The Canadian government operated as a white institution when recruiting soldiers for the army, only enlisting Indigenous Canadians when there were labour shortages (Riseman 905). Despite blatant discrimination while enlisting and fighting the war, Indigenous Canadians fought bravely during WWII. However, they continued to be represented through negative racial stereotypes in the media that contrasted the reality of Canada, as seen by the illustrations in the issue of my comic. Racial stereotypes were demonstrated through the illustrations in the comics of Indigenous Canadians who were portrayed as savages. Minimal thought is given to the understanding that illustrations such as these serve as a reinforcement of racial stereotypes. King argues that creators never “consider the impacts of such images or sought the input or interpretations of indigenous peoples” (215), which proves these illustration only further cement racial ideologies in media such as the savage portrayal of Indigenous Canadians.
Racial Stereotypes and Cultural Appropriations in Illustrations:
Throughout the comics, there are references to different ethnic groups within Canada and around the world. The illustrations depict how Canadians would perceive these ethnic groups to look like and the text bubbles accompanying the illustrations reveal how Canadians think these ethnic groups would speak like. Understanding the importance these illustrations possess is crucial, as the illustrations convey racial perceptions that are understood by the mass population of Canada, which are the intended population for these comics. Race in comics isn’t only understood and conveyed through the colour of a character, but the statements, phrases, body language, and clothing depicted by these ethnic characters. These characteristics shed light on racial stereotypes, and research reinforces the idea that “representations not only motivate individual readers toward prejudice, but affect society as a whole by normalizing racist standards through repetition” (Singer 108). In the comic, “Whiz Wallace and The Desert Demon” by E.T Legault, an American soldier Whiz Wallace and his partner Elaine get lost in the dessert and encounter a band of horsemen. Immediately the horsemen capture Whiz and Elaine, and tie up Whiz by all four limbs to prepare to brutally murder him. Not only are the bands of horsemen referred to as “desert savages” and are quoted swearing by Allah, they are illustrated to fit the description with long facial hair and turbans. These illustrations convey an understanding held by the intended audience of the comics, Canadians, of how people from the Middle East would look like. “Whiz Wallace and The Desert Demon” also highlights cultural appropriation as racial stereotype in the comic’s illustration. Whiz’s partner Elaine is seen wearing what appears to be a scarf or turban when she is travelling through the dessert and dealing with the dessert men. However when she is caught by the Germans, Elaine no longer has a scarf on and is back looking like a regular American.
Elaine’s wardrobe change is an example of cultural appropriation rather than appreciation, as she wears clothing depending on whomever and wherever she is. Appropriation such as the one in this example are extremely offensive to ethnic groups, as it is seen as mockery towards the customs and culture of such groups. Illustrations are artwork that can be understood as offensive by ethnic groups, while not seen as offensive by the creators, and research demonstrates that “The knowledge that artworks are being produced by means of cultural appropriation may be offensive even to people who do not experience the works themselves” (Young 135). Cultural appropriation is offensive and racist, and illustrations such as the ones in this comic depict how Canadians internalize these appropriations as well as racial stereotypes.
The illustrations in Wow Comics issue no. 15 emphasize how racial stereotypes were enforced within the comics and understood by Canadians. The company that produced these comics, Bell, were extremely popular with Canadians and represented what it meant to be Canadian, as Library and Archives stresses “Bell’s line of comics was unabashedly Canadian” (Beyond the Funnies). Whether it was a war comic, a detective story or an advertisement selling arts and crafts for children, the content related to material Canadians would be able to relate to and understand. The illustrations convey the misrepresentation of statistics by the government through the lack of diversity present in military roles assigned to characters in the comic. There is also an erasure of certain ethnic groups such as Chinese and Black Canadians in the comics, despite documented assistance provided by Canadians from these ethnic groups in WWII on the home front as well as on the battle ground. The comics also assign ethnic characters the role of protagonists and further this portrayal by drawing them in animalistic and racist manner. The savage Indigenous character is a perception that has been ingrained within Canadian mass media, and continues to perpetrate racist ideologies. Racist illustrations are conveyed through the way ethnic characters are illustrated and the demeanor through which they carry themselves. Furthermore, characters depict racial appropriation which is extremely offensive but is in line with the lack of representation and diversity within the characters in this comic. It is essential to recognize that the illustrations in these comics are a medium for understanding racial ideas prevalent in Canada during WWII. The illustrations assist in comprehending the contradicting documented realities of ethnic Canadian contributions to how they are represented in mass media. Research conducted in a journal article, “Comics—A Medium for Racism” firmly establishes this idea, noting that “Comics have failed to recognize the multiracial society, let alone join it and they consequently remain a medium for racism and an artifact of cultural imperialism” (Carrington and Geoff 14). The representations conveyed through illustrations such as the ones found in WOW Comics issue no.15 lack diversity and convey clear racial stereotypes which are unfortunately all too common in comics.
ARCHIVED – History of Comic Books in English Canada – Beyond The Funnies. https://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/comics/027002-8000-e.html. Accessed 24 Nov. 2017.
Carrington, Bruce, and Geoff Short. “Comics—A Medium for Racism.” English in Education, vol. 18, no. 2, 1984, pp. 10–14. Scholars Portal Journals
Erik, Hillis. “WWII: Facts & Information – Canada at War.” Canada at War RSS, 4 July 2009, 20:33, www.canadaatwar.ca/content-7/world-war-ii/facts-and-information/.
Granatsein, Jack L. “Ethnic and Religious Enlistment in Canada During the Second World War.” Canadian Jewish Studies / Études juives canadiennes, vol. 21, 2013, pp. 174-180
Iseke, J. M., & Desmoulins, L. A.. “CRITICAL EVENTS: MÉTIS SERVICEWOMEN’S WWII STORIES WITH DOROTHY CHARTRAND.” The Canadian Journal of Native Studies, vol 33, no. 2, 2013, 29-54.
Kelley, Venita. “Negotiating Black Masculinity While Reading Comic Books.” Review of Communication, vol. 3, no. 3, 2003, pp. 192–99.
Patrias, Carmela. “Race, Employment Discrimination, and State Complicity in Wartime Canada, 1939-1945.” Labour / Le Travail, vol. 59, 2007, pp. 9–41.
Peppard, Anna F. “Canada’s Mutant Body: Nationalism and (Super) Multiculturalism in Alpha Flight vs. the X-Men.” Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, vol. 26, no. 2, May 2015, pp. 311–32.
Singer, Marc. “‘Black Skins’ and White Masks: Comic Books and the Secret of Race: Document View.” African American Review, vol. 36, no. 1, 2002, pp. 107.
Young, James O. “Profound Offense and Cultural Appropriation.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, vol. 63, no. 2, 2005, pp. 135–46. Scholars Portal Journals
WOW Comics, No. 15, Bell Features Publishing, Canadian Whites Comic Book Collection, 1941-1946, RULA Archives & Special Collections, Ryerson University, Toronto, Canada.
Disclaimer: 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.