©Copyright 2017 Jessica Suljic, Ryerson University
Introduction: The Origin of Bell Features
During World War II, Canadian comics experienced a ‘golden age’ (Bell). Due to the War Exchange Conservation Act (WECA) passed in 1940, luxury goods like comic books were banned from being imported (Kocmarek 148). Several publishing companies filled the gap, and Bell Features was established. Bell Features published Triumph-Adventure Comics and Wow Comics with enthusiasm concerning the chance to portray Canadian nationalism in comics previously unseen. This new development in Canadian comics faced a reality of cheaper production methods compared to the previously popular American comics, so the comics produced did not have the luxury of vibrant colour printing, and appear antiquated and primitive from their shoddier artwork (152). The reversion to black and white printing between the front and back covers created a distinction between American-made and Canadian-made comics. The comics published during this era were dubbed ‘the Canadian Whites’, and a new addition to symbolic Canadian identity was born.
Amongst the other series produced by Bell Features, Dime Comics was published under the genre of “action-adventure-science”, i.e. science fiction. Issue no. 21 comic reads more like propaganda, featuring stories set on the war front in abundance. It was released June 1945, during the end of WWII; the European front had ended with Germany’s surrender, but Japan had yet to (Stacey). The continuation of battle on the Asian front is explicitly represented in the narratives set in Japan with Japanese enemies. I take careful note of “Rex Baxter and Xalanta’s Secret”, “Johnny Canuck”, and “Action in the Pacific”.
First, Rex Baxter and Gail Abbot rescue their alien accomplice, Zoltan, from a Japanese prison and then escape by stealing a Japanese aircraft (Dingle 1-7). Action lines are seen establishing dynamism amongst the various flying shots. Next, Johnny Canuck bravely takes on a seemingly impossible bombing mission, then bombs a Japanese railway and shoots from his bomber aircraft at Japanese enemy planes (Bachle 23-29). He winds up captured, and the story ends with a cliff-hanger. Last, Robert Segal arm/2c in “Action in the Pacific” introduces the action-driven flying fighting scenes with an illustration with a bomb splashing in the sea and Segal flying off (Alexanian 44-45), and leads into a dogfight against the Japanese. These three stories have in common a usage of “Jap” and “Nip” alongside caricatured portraits of Japanese men to dehumanize the enemy while Canada still fought on the Asian front, a white European-looking male protagonist with strong, masculine features, an emphasis on human qualities and existing technologies to defeat enemies, and exciting and dynamic flying fighting scenes.
The Fighter Plane Iconography
The common image that characterizes issue no. 21 is the fighter plane. Aircrafts are scattered throughout various plotlines, like in one panel of “Nitro” (Lazare 13) and in the premise of “Chik ‘n’ Fuzz” (Thomas 46), but accentuated heavily in the three stories outlined above. Accompanied by guns and bombs, the fighter plane provides distinct imagery that moves along the action, stylized with action lines and sharp contrast to build tension and motion. The compelling image provides a source of pride to associate with the
heroism of Canadians against perceived inhuman Japanese enemies. “Johnny Canuck” opens with a ¾ page illustration of the titular hero posed with flexed, enlarged muscles and a machine gun with rows of ammunition, next to his parked plane. Johnny Canuck is a humbly-abled hero possessing limited super-strength, appearing to be an exceptional athlete (Beaty, 430). This is one example of the correlation of the lack of supernatural heroes (i.e. heroes with ‘super powers’ or unnatural abilities) and the heavy fighter plane imagery. I argue that this correlation accounts for the perceived propaganda of Dime Comics, acting as a recruitment method by appealing to its demographic of young boys.
The lack of supernatural characteristics paired with the hyper-masculine attributes allows for a stronger identification of the hero by the reader. The fighter planes and war heroes are juxtaposed with positive masculine presentations, with a dominant male presence in the protagonists showing traits of intelligence, cleverness, and physical and mental strength. The heroes fight for justice and justice wins, allowing young readers to idolize such heroism in the war effort. Despite the detail in the illustrations done by Adrian Dingle, Leo Bachle, and Aram Alexanian resulting in readers identifying less personally with the characters (Mcloud 36), the details are used to define and sculpt the hyper-masculinity of the heroes with chiseled facial features and enormous muscles renders a distinctly masculine and super-human figure. With their design, the characters represent a young boy’s aspirations which leads to a personal association when juxtaposed with the all-white, all-male faces of the heroes. This is placed inside the context of Canada during WWII, where much of the public’s ideas surrounding the war are formulated and reinforced with propaganda. Taking the forms of posters, film, and more, propaganda reflects Canada’s identity, ideology, and priorities concerning the war. Kocmarek highlights the importance of Canadian identity for the golden age comics, stating, “Being born and bred during the Canadian experience of the Second World War would infuse ensuing books with its themes and tropes almost to the very end of their runs.” (149). With this he means an inherently Canadian narrative will emerge, superseding outside influence, through the fact of Canadian production. In a simplistic narrative form, Dime Comics reveals the relationship between children and the war.
The Super-human Pilot
In his book on the Royal Canadian Air Force during WWII, English notes, “Canada embarked on a massive aircrew-training program known as the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP)” (English, 5). The project commenced a natural following of the glamorized image of the aircraft. Expanding military air forces comes with distinct challenges, particularly of recruitment and selection. In WWI, Canada lacked a national air force altogether (English 19). Officials made elementary mistakes regarding the physical requirement of flying. What would be considered neglectful now, like enlisting flyers with vision impairment or experiencing battle exhaustion, was the norm, and some cases justified by a perception of flying as a rest from fighting. A revolution of recruitment, selection, and training was necessary due to the unprecedented strain on the military’s medical branch. Psychology and its progression plays a key role in the advancement of selection methods. Post-WWI, Canada began a recruitment campaign, starting May 1917, and selection methods began to change. English observes, “One advertisement for ‘The All-Seeing Aviator’ asked for “clear-headed, keen-young men … possessing a fair education and sturdy physique” (23). Johnny Canuck and Rex Baxter prove themselves as quick-witted in their respective narratives. Johnny Canuck masterly flies his plane and aims at enemy planes, and Rex Baxter outsmarts trained Japanese military men. Robert Segal also attained mastery over the aircraft and skillfully dodges enemies and hits targets. This trait of expertise in flying is the super-human characteristic all the characters possess in lieu of typical super-natural abilities.
Dime Comics presents flying as brave and adventurous, without realistically depicting the dangers and risks associated. Johnny Canuck engages in air warfare and faces a crucial hit to his plane that forces him to land, and he says, “No use! …This ship’s a goner! ..And I’ll have to drop right into those Jap rats’ laps!” (Bachle 25) While bullets are being shot at him, Leo Bachle wrote in that it was shrapnel from his own bomb hit that brought the plane down, implying his enemies are too incompetent to aim. Canuck’s pessimistic phrase is significant because it shows the courage of the hero to face any oncoming challenges, on land or in air. Being captured by the enemy is fatal in war and, as previously mentioned, Johnny Canuck is a mere mortal. He displays traits of intelligence and mental strength that make him desirable for military flying.
Bainbridge outlines the effect had on morality during war-time. He claims, “Perhaps unsurprisingly, superheroes traditionally enjoy their greatest popularity during times of transition and uncertainty” (746). The heroes in Dime Comics are not pacifists, but the narrative requires the reader to trust in the hero’s sense of justice which justifies violent actions. Johnny Canuck blows up a railway station and brings down an enemy aircraft, but the bloodied bodies and dying faces are not pictures. Robert Segal similarly releases bombs and bullets on enemies, mid-air. The comic would be too graphic for its demographic of children to read if it portrayed a realistic image of war and violence, but the moral uncertainty of war-time permits a distorted image of fighting, justice, and heroes and enemies as accessible. Canadian war posters provide insight and context for the Canadian identity and experience during the time.
This ephemera documents a history of propaganda, and precisely by their nature they present a necessary snapshot to capture and understand WWII on the home front. The 1940 poster inscribed with “Roll ‘Em Out” glamorizes the strength and power of airplane technology and the hard work of Canadians working in factories carefully painted in the image of the Royal Air Force insignia at the time. The man looks strong and powerful, while remaining childlike by appealing to the familiar image of a child playing with toy airplanes. Establishing a national identity during war-time includes ensuring the war effort is nation-wide. Hero worship for the military frequents Canadian WWII propaganda yet factory workers, those conserving their essentials as per WECA, and those investing in the war effort through victory bonds and the like are celebrated similarly to boost morale and give everyone a part and responsibility in the success of the Canadian military. Dime Comics is placed within the hero worship portion of Canadian propaganda due to its dynamic and attention-grabbing aspects, abstractly depicted through brave men with a duty for their nation and prevailing against impossible odds, to work parallel to pre-existing ephemera posters and advertisements which instill comradery in each individual’s contributions to the war effort.
Conclusion: A Lesson in Homogeneity and Hegemony
The appearance of propaganda in all its forms is important to study and to familiarize oneself in order to avoid ignorance in politically-charged contexts, like in war or other moments of moral uncertainty, which would lead one to overlook products that promote shifting ideology to serve the state. The Canadian military had immense incentive to ensure Canadian citizens upheld positive views about its involvement in WWII, particularly to promote the air force to improve the risky activity of flying with better selected and trained pilots. Pride and respect for one’s nation is natural, but the cultural conditioning of its citizens by the state is not. While Dime Comics was merely a commercial product, unlike other instances of propaganda ephemera, the political is sold commercially to profit from a culture homogenized and hegemonized intimately by state action. Children are susceptible to adopting ideology pushed by media and commercial products, and should arguably be barred from indoctrination through children’s literature, but especially if a product asserts its war-specific moral code. Young readers are drawn to comics, like Mccloud states, “When you enter the world of a cartoon—you see yourself” (36). The young, male comic book readers idolize masculinity in the forms of service to the nation displayed by the protagonists in Dime Comics no. 21. With a critical approach to commercial ephemera, the Canadian identity can represent a dynamic and intelligent population unwilling to submit to the state’s attempts to sway public opinion to comply with its efforts when they do not serve the Canadian people.
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.
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