© Copyright 2017 Christine Dionio, Ryerson University
During the Second World War, the War Exchange Conservation Act placed in December 1940 restricted the importation of non-essential, luxury goods. This placed a strain on several industries, such as the comic book industry, as American comics thrived amongst Canadian readers (Bell “Comic Books in English Canada”). Rather than halt the comic book industry, the importation ban proved to be a precedent to the golden age of Canadian comics through the creation of the “Canadian Whites,” Canadian produced comics that, unlike the coloured American comics, had pages printed in black and white (Beaty 429). Many of the comic books that composed the “Canadian Whites” are similar to American superhero comics, however, they are more in-tune with Canadian sensibilities. Since the “Canadian Whites” were produced during the war, the comics’ storylines are not only a reflection of how the war was perceived by Canadians, but how Canadians wanted to inform the comic book market (i.e. children) about the war with a particular ideology in mind. The visual and textual war references in the seventh issue of Active Comics from September 1942 depict the fictional stories in a wartime context that the readers were exposed to through other forms of media, such as newspapers, propaganda posters, and films. The explicit visual and textual references seen in seventh issue of Active Comics demonstrates how the “Canadian Whites” served as a pedagogical tool used to address the anxieties of Canadian youth during World War II, using war-focused, nationalistic imagery to ease their anxieties and foster pride and support for the Allies during the war.
Canadian Strength and Adversity
The visual and textual references found in the seventh issue of Active Comics paralleled the actual events of the war in a way that celebrates Canadian strength and adversity. This is despite lacking any kind of explicit superpowers, with the exception of “The Brain”, who has clairvoyant abilities. The narratives had to discourage cynicism the reader may have towards the war without creating an irrational, over-inflated sense of optimism. As well, the heroes are expected to support the country by being active in the war, but their capabilities cannot be great enough to end the war on their own since this would create an unrealistic vision of the war and the enemy (Cord 60). While The Brain is the only hero in Active Comics no. 7 to have a superhuman power, he does not participate in the war. Rather, he fights local city crimes and uses his clairvoyant powers to foil unlawful citizens. Dixon of the Mounted lacks any kind of powers and, rather than being classified as a superhero, is a mere corporal supporting the Allies by fighting enemies within Canadian borders. The seventh issue in particular has Dixon fighting against Nazi agents who “intend to wreak havoc and destruction [at a Canadian munitions centre]” (Active Comics 1). Similar to soldiers fighting the war, Dixon depends on his pistol and determination to thwart the Nazi’s plans. Not only does Dixon lack superpowers, he also acts as a symbolic metaphor through his Mountie attire. Similar to propaganda posters, the characters embody cultural symbols as a means to connote them to a particular culture and nation. Dixon, in his Mountie uniform, represents Canada and fights for the law. The Nazi agents, introduced with a Swastika as a backdrop (Active Comics 1) signify Germany and antagonize them as threats to Canadian security. As a Mountie, he acts for the sake of law and justice, embodying both without compromise through an explicitly Canadian character. Ultimately, Dixon parallels the strife of Canadian soldiers in their fight with Axis soldiers and, despite lacking superpowers, demonstrates how those fighting alongside law and justice shall overcome the enemy.
Collective Canadian Triumph
The comic also demonstrates how success lies not only in the individual, but in the collective effort, which also applies to the events of the war. Both “Capt. Red Thortan” and “Thunderfist” demonstrate success against the enemies through the cooperation of everyone involved. In both stories, the characters are fighting against Japanese in a naval context. Active Comics no. 7 came out in September 1942, a year following Pearl Harbor (Greenhouse “Canada and the Battle of Hong Kong”) and a month following the Dieppe Raid (Herd “Dieppe Raid”). During this time, the Allies had to not only combat an enemy in a territory that they were unfamiliar with, but they also had to strike back following the many casualties at Dieppe. In both “Capt. Red Thortan” and “Thunderfist,” the respective heroes are both seen to thwart the Japanese’s advances onto the Allies albeit in an unfamiliar terrain. The emphasis on collective efforts was prevalent during World War II, as demonstrated in posters among other ephemera that worked to promote recruitment, promote bond sales, and promote unity both through domestic cooperation and by sympathizing with soldiers fighting overseas (Halliday 3). While the heroes lacked any kind of extraordinary powers, they helped reassure the anxieties the young readers may have had about the war by including heroes that are similar to the soldiers who, despite lacking superpowers, can still unite and fight against the enemy.
The Axis and Otherness
One important aspect of visual representation in Active Comics are the way that characters coming from Axis countries are represented through stereotypical characteristics. In doing so, the Japanese and German characters are dehumanized and delineated from the reader as the other – something not to be identified with (Murray 181). With comics as both a visual and textual medium, it is important to consider how the visual representations retain as much meaning as what is demonstrated textually. Most of the major characters in Active Comics involved in the war are drawn realistically, thus the reader cannot identify as well with the protagonist and the antagonists as well as they could a more abstract figure (McCloud 36). However, this works to the advantage of fostering feelings of contempt towards the Axis powers. While the reader may not be a muscular adult male, they identify much closer with them than they do the dehumanized German and Japanese characters. The exaggerated, menacing depictions of the Axis powers not only reduce the enemies to flattened stereotypes, but also associate them with evil (Murray 191). The characters act as metaphoric symbols, standing in place of countries, and the stories of Dixon fighting the Nazi agents and Thunderfist thwarting the plans of the Japanese navy are meant to parallel the ongoing narratives of the war. The Axis characters, being visually antagonized, are not only delineated from the reader, but connoted with evil, thus rationalizing the archetypal triumph of good over evil which is prevalent in Active Comics‘ stories.
Shifting War, Shifting Narratives
It is important to keep in mind that, due to the uncertainty of events, the visual and textual war references are subject to the changing events in the war. In a sense, the characters are a reaction to the battles, as was the case with how the Japanese are presented in Canadian media. In Legg’s film, “Warclouds in the Pacific,” Japanese residing in Britain and America are described to be “intensely loyal to the democratic principles they have adopted [and] proud of the New World heritage” (Legg “Warclouds in the Pacific”). However, Active Comics no. 7 expresses a different sentiment through the way that the Japanese characters are stereotyped and, as seen in “Capt. Red Thortan”, referred to as “Japs” and even “yellow friend” (Active Comics 38). Since the seventh issue of Active Comics was published following the attack at Pearl Harbor (Greenhouse “Battle of Hong Kong), it can be seen that as the events shifted in the war, as did the feelings towards the Axis powers and, in turn, the way that they are represented in mass media. However, the comics were not limited to negative depictions of the enemy with respects to the war. The comics inform the reader of the war both by negatively portraying the enemy and glorifying Allied soldiers. Despite Dieppe being a tragic loss for Canadians (Herd “Dieppe Raid”), “Active Jim’s Monthly Message” commended the “heroism displayed by all ranks at Dieppe” (Active Comics 29). While the Dieppe Raid resulted in a high amount of casualties, “Active Jim’s Monthly Message” celebrates the soldiers’ efforts, discouraging any kind of pessimism regarding the casualties at Dieppe. The comics, being released on a monthly basis, actively react to the events and foster particular ideologies. That said, the comics act as propaganda, however it is with the youth readers’ anxieties and sensitivity to the war in mind.
The characters in Active Comics engage in realistic cases of violence, however they are rationalized through the context of the comics’ plots. The wartime context of the comics are what is considered “a state of exception” (Bainbridge 757), meaning that while the actions of the characters may go against the law in a regular context, acting against the law in favour of justice is permissible so long as it is in favour of the common good. In “Dixon of the Mounted”, the story in the issue is resolved with Dixon shooting a traitor, Karnz, dead. While murder is condemned, Dixon’s actions are rationalized since killing Karnz subverts “another Nazi Plot of Sabotage” (Active Comics 10). The comics justify wartime violence so long as it is at the benefit of defending the country and subduing the enemy which, during World War II, are the Axis powers. This can also be seen in “Capt. Red Thortan” when a Japanese pilot is shot down by a turret (Active Comics 44) – Captain Red Thortan killing another individual is permissible during these exceptional circumstances. While the readers of the comic are too young to fight in the war themselves, rationalizing violence still had a practical function at home. Similar to wartime posters, justifying wartime violence against the Axis powers works to promote feelings of contempt which then help foster nationalism and, in turn, support for the war effort (Halliday 128). The readers who associate themselves closer to Canadian characters such as Dixon and Captain Red Thortan than with the Japanese and German characters then are prompted to help support the war effort despite being to young to fight themselves. Overall, in rationalizing the war and the violence associated with it, the comic works to foster nationalistic support for Allied soldiers since the characters, despite technically breaking the law, are acting in exceptional circumstances for justice’s sake.
The seventh issue of Active Comics demonstrates both how Canadians responded to the war and the kinds of ideologies that they wanted to disseminate through wartime ephemera. In celebrating the valour of Canadian heroes, delineating the reader from the enemies, and justifying the violence, the comics work as a highly ideological pedagogical tool that not only informed their market, but influenced them in favour of nationalism. Doing so had pragmatic purposes, as doing so acted as a means to garner support for the war effort from members of Canadian society to young to fight on the war front. What differentiates the “Canadian Whites” from other wartime ephemera is how the approach had to appeal to a youth audience that, while is not completely passive, is still highly impressionable. Active Comics, in taking advantage of its visual and textual capacities, demonstrates the multifaceted ways that different mediums can be encoded with particular ideologies.
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