Imagine you are riding in a bus in the middle of summer. It is hot, stuffy, and you are starting to sweat. Would you not wish for the air-conditioning to be turned on? I will be looking at how air-conditioning is represented in the comic “Buz and His Bus” by Harry Brunt from Commando Comics: No. 18 pg 1-3, why it is represented that way, and what that representation does to the readers.
“Bus and His Bus”
The comic starts out with a bus driver named Buz. He is excited about the new air-conditioning that was installed in his bus, and tells his passengers to keep the windows closed. The passengers comply and Buz starts to drive the bus, driving by a sign that says “Stop ‘b.o.’ with pew-boy soap.” (2). During the ride, one passenger takes out his lunch, which happens to be a garlic. The smell fills the bus and the passengers and Buz express their displeasure towards the odour. The passengers are having trouble breathing, but still, Buz drives on. Just when things could not get any worse, a skunk happens to cross the road at the wrong time. Buz accidentally runs over the skunk with his bus and everything goes wrong. The smell slowly drafts into the bus and mixes with the garlic odour. The passengers are suffocating and Buz no longer cares if the windows are closed or not. They are desperate for fresh air. They punch and kick the windows until they can breathe again. Buz brings the bus to a stop and he and the passengers catch their breaths. One passenger half-jokingly asks Buz his opinion towards the air-conditioning, to which he replies, with a clothespin on his nose, “It stinks!” (5)
While reading this comic, I found it bizarre that they would introduce air-conditioning as this new and improved way to cool down only to put on such an elaborate show of its flaws. New inventions like this are quite helpful, so why would they go to such lengths to prove otherwise? I decided to do a bit of research to find out.
What I Found
It turns out that the answer is quite simple. It takes a lot of power to run an automobile air-conditioning system. In fact, “the overall diesel consumption of the engine will increase by 7%-38% when the vehicle’s A/C is operated” (Farrington, R.; Rugh, J., Impact of Vehicle Air-Conditioning on Fuel Economy, Tailpipe Emissions and Electric Vehicle Range: Preprint.). During WWll supplies such as food, gas, and rubber were precious. Many items were told to be saved in order to help contribute to the war effort. Fuel was one of them. Fuel was needed to help power military machines such as tanks and planes. To make sure there would be enough fuel for the war, fuel had to be preserved, starting with the home front. How was that fuel saved? By not driving unless needed, carpooling, and by, you guessed it, opening the windows instead of using the A/C.
How it relates
Going back to “Bus and His Bus”, it is clear why air-conditioning was shown in a negative way. Even though it was a groundbreaking invention, in vehicles it does use a large portion of the vehicle’s power and fuel to operate. During this time resources were slim and everything needed to be used in moderation. Fuel was needed for military purposes, so the common person had to compromise. How does this comic make its readers not use air-conditioning in their vehicles? By showing it in a negative light.
The sign on the road, the man with the garlic, the skunk, the excessive use of stink lines (Figure 1); all are tools that are used to create a situation in which the readers can imagine themselves in. Scent is a string sense and many are able to imagine and react to a scent from a description along. By having the garlic and the skunk in the comic, the readers are able to imaging just how terrible that bus smelt. If they were in that situation they would want fresh air too. The comic conditions the readers to associate vehicle air-conditioning with horrible odours, then offers an alternative: open windows. It tells the readers that it is not worth using the air-conditioning in a vehicle if the windows are going to eventually be opened anyways. If they just open the windows they be able to stay cool and breathe at the same time.
In “Bus and His Bus”, there is a strong emphasis on the shortcomings of air-conditioning. While it does cool you off, it does not allow you to open the windows in case the vehicle you are in starts to smell bad, The comic encourages its readers in a subtle and funny way to open the windows and contribute to the war effort by saving fuel.
After World War II, the media, specifically in the form of television and film, newspapers, and comics played a large role in contributing to Canadian society’s perception of minority races. Commando Comics, a war comic series, attempts to provide historically accurate information to readers on World War II from the perspective of Canadian soldiers. The sixteenth issue of Commando Comics (1945) contains negative representations of minority races and depicts the Canadian heroes and soldiers as superior. I will be analyzing the negative portrayal of Japanese individuals and touch on the representation of German individuals in Commando Comics by observing the impact of this representation on minority races and how this affected Canadian society’s treatment of them. Furthermore, I will analyze how the comic and other forms of Canadian media degraded other races to promote Canadians as superior. The sixteenth issue of Commando Comics “promotes nationalism” (Montgomery 19), as the Canadian heroes are not only presented as the “right side”, but minority races are degraded and portrayed as the “enemy”. The constant use of stereotypes in this comic, as well as other forms of media during and after the war, contributed to society’s negative and unjust outlook on individuals of Japanese descent.
Constant Use of Stereotypes
Commando Comics heavily discriminates and stereotypes Japanese and German individuals based on physical attributes and language. The comic’s use of stereotypes contributed to the unjust prejudice that the media already held against minority races. A pilot story in the issue, “Ace Bradley Again!”, contains problematic illustrations of Japanese soldiers. As seen in Fig. 1, the soldiers are drawn with slanted eyes and protruding teeth, which are stereotypes that were and still are made about individuals of Japanese descent. These stereotypes were heavily used in other anti-Japanese stories in the comic, as well as other forms of media at the time.
The sixteenth issue also uses stereotypes in terms of language. In “Wings Over the Atlantic”, the dialogue of the German soldier is written in broken English and the character is given a stereotypical accent; for example, “I vill be safe and den ha-ha-ha, ve vill see if dey vill catch him,” (Andre 27). In this dialogue, the “w” is replaced with a “v” and the “th” is replaced with a “d” to give the character a stereotypical German accent. There is also an issue with the way that the Japanese language is represented. In “Lank The Yank”, a soldier says “Have bombs ready yesss?” (Brunt 24). This was done deliberately, to make it seem like the character is speaking in broken English once again. Furthermore, the dialogue of the Japanese soldiers is written in Japanese characters. In Fig 2, the word “censored” is under the soldier’s dialogue, to show that the soldier is cursing. The Japanese letters and soldier’s broken English are used to create a language barrier between the Canadian and Japanese individuals, in an attempt from the Canadians to try and differentiate themselves from the Japanese soldiers. In addition to this, the comic gives the Japanese language a negative connotation, as each time the Japanese letters are used, the soldiers are supposed to be swearing or insulting the Canadian soldiers.
During my research, I found that many of the characters in the Canadian Whites comics are given stereotypes; not only classics such as JohnnyCanuck and Nelvana of the Northern Lights, but in CommandoComics as well. The Canadian characters are stereotyped, however, the stereotypes seem to be positive and based off of well-known “Canadian stereotypes”, in contrast to the negative stereotypes that the comic uses for characters of minority races. The Canadian soldiers are given traits such as striving for peace and avoiding violence; for example, in “The Young Commandos”, a soldier says, “it only goes to show how brave the lads in our armed forces are,” (Lazare 15) to enforce the idea of the brave Canadian hero. However, the Japanese soldiers are given traits, such as being dangerous or violent and are portrayed as the antagonists. The use of stereotypes is a theme throughout Canadian comics and characters, however, there is a clear difference in how the stereotypes are used; this difference is clearly based off of race. The idea that the Canadian soldiers are brave and fighting for justice is constantly reinforced, as is that Japan is “the enemy”.
Discrimination and Use of Derogatory Words
As war topics and violent content “dominated the mass media” (Montgomery 20) during the war, Commando Comics also contains racial slurs and explicit violence against minority races, specifically Japanese individuals.
Throughout the entire issue, the Japanese soldiers are referred to as “nips” or “Japs” by the Canadian soldiers, which are derogatory terms. In “Clift Steele and the Island of Floating Death”, Clift says, “those nips’ll blow us to bits in a minute!” (Dariam 6). In “Lank The Yank”, Lank refers to the soldiers as “these Jap jerks” (Brunt 25). These are just a few of the numerous times that racial slurs are used against Japanese soldiers in the comic. These terms are extremely offensive, as they are derogatory abbreviations being used as an insult and are a sign of disrespect.
In addition to racial slurs, the sixteenth issue of CommandoComics also discriminates against the Japanese soldiers in terms of skin colour. In “Ace Bradley Again!”, a soldier refers to the Japanese soldiers as “little yellow rats” (Thomson 20), which is extremely offensive. Furthermore, in “The Young Commandos”, Chuck, a Canadian soldier, does not want to fight and is called a coward by his fellow soldiers. His superior says, “You can’t turn yellow on me now!” (Lazare 13), which is a clear reference to skin colour once again. Moreover, the Canadian soldiers are using the phrase “turning yellow” (Lazare 13) to call Chuck a coward, which means they are referring to the Japanese soldiers as cowards.
Impact on Japanese Individuals
As a result of the unjust representation of Japanese individuals in the media and following World War II, Japanese families in British Columbia, many of which were Japanese Canadians, were forced into internment camps by the Canadian government. There was heavy racism expressed against Japanese individuals at the time, between 1942 and 1949, and they were unfairly denied of their rights. A substantial amount of Japanese families lost their homes and finances to the government, and were forced to move to the unpopulated areas of British Columbia. Although racism against Japanese individuals was mostly occurring in the west coast, it was present all throughout Canada. This racism was fuelled by World War II, as well as the news of the Pearl Harbour attack. The Japanese Canadians that tried to protest for their rights were sent to prisons. As a result of Canada’s actions towards the Japanese Canadians, the idea that individuals of Japanese descent were dangerous was promoted, therefore causing many people in society to be fearful and untrusting of them. Approximately forty years later, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau apologized for the unjustified treatment of Japanese individuals that occurred during the wartime period (Marsh 1), however, it truly could not compensate for the suffering that Japanese Canadians endured.
An accurate representation of what Japanese Canadians experienced can be interpreted from Joy Kogawa’s novel Obasan, which tells her story of being forced into an internment camp and being “separated from her family” (Davis 60). The most interesting aspect of this novel is that it depicts a side of Canada that many readers might not be accustomed to, as Canada is often known as a multicultural society that is accepting of everyone. This novel provides insight on what Canada was like during and after World War II and analyzes how the transition to a multicultural society has allowed individuals to be ignorant of the fact that racism still exists in Canada to this day.
Impact on Minority Races
During and after the war, the treatment of minority races was influenced by the way they were portrayed in the media. During this time, different forms of media, including comics, were promoting the idea that individuals of minority races were dangerous. This negatively impacted many aspects of their lives, such as employment opportunities and exclusion from jobs, and immigration restrictions. Many Canadians believed that minority groups were “undeserving” (Partias 10) of certain rights, such as voting. As there was constant “suspicion of foreigners” (Partias 15), many employers and workplaces’ racist views were accepted by those in higher power because society, as a whole, had an inaccurate outlook on minority groups. After the second war, many Canadians displayed uneasiness towards Japanese individuals, which resulted in unfair treatment and scrutiny. Although a vast majority of these individuals were Japanese Canadians, this factor was overlooked as the public was persuaded by the media’s representations, making them untrusting towards other races. The media played a large role in this as television, newspapers and comics constantly labelled Japan as the “enemy”. According to Partias’ observation, individuals of minority groups were only hired for jobs that were short of workers and that most Canadians avoided; in most cases, these jobs were low-paying and required hard labour.
The negative portrayal and representation of minority races in this comic as well as other forms of media were used to uplift Canadian heroes and promote the Canadian race as superior. In “Representations of War and Peace in High School History Textbooks”, Montgomery discusses his analysis on how Canadian textbooks promote nationalism and present the information in textbooks as fact and truth. Similar to Montgomery’s theory, the comic promotes Canadian soldiers as the right side who are “fighting for a better world” (Montgomery 20) and portrays Japanese individuals as the antagonists; the comic presents these ideas as if they are facts and the truth. This strategy that many forms of Canadian texts seem to use can shape the reader’s perspective of minority races and overall, Canada’s outlook on minority races.
Throughout the comic, there is clear prejudice against minority races, and these representations in the comic and other forms of media attempt to portray these races as inferior. Although individuals in society held their own misconceptions about individuals of other races, the media, Commando Comics included, also promoted these negative ideas about minority races. The sixteenth issue of CommandoComics not only heavily stereotypes Japanese individuals, but also degrades them in order to portray Canadians as superior.
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.
Around the world, comic books have always been of interest to children and adults. Over time, the interests of readers change and comics must consequently change to adapt to those shifting ideas. Comics have altered through time not just because of the interests of the readers however, they will change also due to pressures of war. While comic books today are much different than those of the era of the Second World War, Canadian comics do still exist. However, after close examination and analysis of comics from the war period, it is clear that they have progressed since these were created. This essay will create an analysis of a set of comics found in Commando Comics issue fifteen. The comics in this issue of Commando Comics promote the comic ideas of Canadians during the Second World War in a way that allows for the humour to be interpreted in a number of ways. These ideas fall on a spectrum of being racist for the sake of humour, for the purpose of being beneficial to eradicate racism or politically driven. These humour ideals encompass racism through comics titled “Whoop-Um” and “Th’Chief” by Frank Keith. This essay seeks to research the way the comics are racist by critically examining those in question. Furthermore, the way in which the comics are beneficial will be explored as comics have positive outcomes to acknowledge the racism in society. Finally, the comics will be studied to highlight the political reasons for creating racism in comics.
History of Canadian Comics During World War Two
Prior to World War Two, Canadian children were highly invested in the comic books from the United States. These comics ranged in topics and genres that enticed kids and were hugely popular. Once World War Two had started comic books were considered non-essential goods. Non-essential goods were then banned from being imported to Canada. The status of being non-essential meant that comics would no longer enter Canada from the US beginning in 1940 (Beaty 429). With the lack of American comics but a huge demand for them, Canadian companies such as Bell Features and Anglo-American publishing created comics within Canada. These comics have come to be known as Canadian Whites, with the name largely referencing the black and white pages in the comic books, unlike the four coloured American comics. These comics, like their American counterparts, featured multiple genres and characters (Beaty 429). The comics produced during the World War Two period are better known as comics from the Golden Age of Comic Books.
Racism in the Comics
Featured in Commando Comics issue fifteen, there are two humour comics that are racist. The first comic, “Whoop-Um” by Frank Keith, features a story of an Indigenous chief going around a town or city while being followed by other Indigenous men making comments of what they see. The comments the other men make are riddled with improper grammar and spelling. “Whoop-Um” perpetuates the stereotypical ideas of Indigenous peoples through the comments that the Indigenous men make. One instance of the stereotypes is seen when one of the other Indigenous men says, “I see th’Chief’s out of th’dog-house – he smokum pipe of peace with um squaw” (Keith 16). By using improper grammar and spelling mistakes, Keith is giving the idea to the reader that Indigenous people are not as smart as them because they are unable to speak in a proper and coheistant sentence. Portraying the speech of the Indigenous people as incorrect, Keith provides evidence to Canada’s discrimination against Indigenous people. Including the bad grammar in the comic, it shows that Keith, and possibly many others, would have believed this sort of mocking as justified and comedic.
The other racist comic that is being examined is “Th’Chief” by Frank Keith. “Th’Chief” features a story of an Indigenous man going to a shote and buying a baby carriage for his wife to push their baby, instead of carrying it on her back. When he gives the carriage to her, she ties both the carriage and the baby on her back, completely missing the point of the carriage itself. Unlike the last comic, “Th’Chief” features less talking amongst the Indigenous characters as they mainly only say “ugh,” except when “Th’Chief” is in the store (Keith 17). This comic also portrays Indigenous people as incompetent because of the storyline itself. Keith’s storyline of the Indigenous mother not understanding what to do with a baby carriage portrays the mother, and other Indigenous people, as unintelligent. In making “Th’Chief” a humour comic, it gives the reader a chance to laugh at the incompetence of the Indigenous peoples, supporting the idea that Canadians during the World War Two period enjoyed jokes that had racist undertones.
Similarly in “Whoop-Um” as well, Keith portrays the Indigenous characters in an exaggerated way in his drawings. The characters in Keith’s comics are drawn with large noses that take up the majority of their faces. The white characters in both stories are not drawn with any exaggerated features besides roundness and fullness in their faces. The Indigenous characters are also always seen in blankets and headdresses, while the white people are always in regular everyday clothes (Keith 16-17). These stark contrasts in the portrayals of the two different groups of people show that the society felt this way as well, that they are not the same or equal. By creating a large divide between white and Indigenous people, it portrays society’s belief that the separation between these two groups was humorous because of the caricatures.
Racism in Canadian Culture
The racism seen in the two comics reflect the cultural ideas of Canadian society during the Second World War period. One of the biggest and most well known acts of racism against the Indigenous population was residential schools. Residential schools were institutions for Indigenous children who were placed there against their will. Residential schools started in the 1800s and ended in the 1980s. The schools sought to assimilate the Indigenous population with the rest of Canadian society. Residential schools were government run but were poorly funded, proving the lack of compassion of the society. Many children faced hardships and abuse while at the schools (Gulliver 79). These schools were specifically designed to make Indigenous people behave as white Canadians do. In Keith’s comics, the Indigenous characters are seen in the white town, pushing the idea of assimilating them. The character goes to shops and buys different things they may not need, like the baby carriage, in hopes that it promotes assimilation. Gulliver also explains in his article that white families brought Indigenous children into their homes to teach them how to behave like white people during the 1960s (Gulliver 82). While the Second World War was before the 1960s, it is plausible that these ideas were circulating in the minds of Canadians during the war period. As seen in Keith’s comics, he portrays the white and the Indigenous people to be very different in the way they look and act. This portrayal of Indigenous people gives evidence of the racist thinking in Canada.
This idea also connects to the humour aspect of the comics. With this way of thinking about the two different populations, white Canadians could have found the difference between themselves and the Indigenous people to be laughable. The caricature portrayals do not resemble how any person looks, but it is possible to think that that is how people thought Indigenous people looked, thus, making fun of them. In Jean Lee Cole’s article examining early portrayals of blacks in comics, they bring up important questions about black caricatures that can be related to the caricatures of Indigenous people in Keith’s comics. Cole asks, “Is caricature a way of representing the unknown and feared, as was the case for many whites?” (376). These questions can help to unpack the way Indigenous peoples were seen during this period. To answer the first question, white Canadians may have felt as though Indigenous people were one to be feared because of their long lived stereotype of being “savage.” White people in Canada may be fearing that, like the Germans and Italians who are fighting Canada, Indigenous people could do the same. Something that jumps out of “Whoop-Um” is that the Indigenous men do mention a tomahawk and that the Chief forgot it (Keith 16). The way this was implied is that Indigenous men always carry their tomahawk around and ready to fight, inciting fear into the Canadians who are reading this comic. Turing cultural anxieties into comedic relief serve a strong purpose as it means that the white Canadians who read these comics, will realize their fears are irrational.
To answer the second question posed by Cole is: “Or is it an imposition, a representation that dictates how one is seen?” (376). Cole explains that caricatures are “a site for the enactment of double consciousness,” giving someone the feeling that their identity is divided (376). She states that these ideas are “intentionally invoked by comics artists” (Cole 376). Keith could have been trying to demonstrate an idea similar to what Cole found. Keith’s comics do give an imposition of how someone else will see Indigenous people. A child who reads these comics will be influenced to believe the stereotypes that Keith put forward. The racism used to make the comic funny to a child makes it possible that they will connect their feelings towards the comic to how they see Indigenous people. This comic will then negativity impact how children see Indigenous people.
Racism in these comics do not elicit a beneficial outcome; however, the work of Jill E. Twark brings up countering ideas centering on racism in humour. Twark’s article examines how humour in contemporary controversial times can be used to help create a lasting memory of what happened during the period. The creation of racist jokes can be explained because of wanting to make a lasting impression. One of the examples given by Twark is a comic surrounding colonization in Africa. While it is a horribly dark humour comic, Twark believes that it “pack[s] a powerful emotional punch” (178). Keith could have been trying to use the “powerful emotional punch” in his comics as he would have been aware of the discrimination towards Indigenous people. Keith’s comics are memorable and may have made racist jokes to allow people to remember the subject matter and realize the problems within the situation. There is little material on Frank Keith so it is hard to say what race he was and his ideologies surrounding race. It is unfair to say he was making caricatures just to make fun of the Indigenous people, as he may have been trying to shed light unto the unfair inequality between the Indigenous and white people.
The final topic of discussion is the idea surrounding racist and immoral jokes can be found funny by various people. Scott Woodcock uses the idea of comic immoralism to understand when a joke that is seen as immoral may or may not be considered funny. Woodcock explains that “there are surely some jokes with offensive enough content that it detracts from their ability to amuse,” but with the right balance of immoralism, the offensive bits may help to give the joke more humour (203). Jokes that do contain immoral and degrading content are often seen as not clever and most of the time not funny. However, even with this idea in mind, immoral jokes can “exhibit sufficient wit to create humour without help from their immoral features” (Woodcock 204). Keith’s comics may have been attractive to people at the time because of their immorality. While every person has a different opinion on what they believe is funny, immorality in humour does not always equate not humorous. Keith may have added the racist speech of the Indigenous people in the comics to add a little more comic immorality to push the reader into thinking the joke pages were funny. Keith’s portrayal of racist jokes could have been what Canadians found to be funny during this war period as something to distract them from the atrocities happening in the world. It is not a definite answer but since Keith was not using the war in either of his comics, he could have known that the Canadians did not want to laugh about the war. Canadians wanted something else to laugh at to distract them from the horrible events of the war.
In conclusion, it is clear that there is racism in the fifteenth issue of Commando Comics regarding Indigenous people. The comics that were analyzed were both humour comics and encompassed racist undertones about Indigenous people. By examining these comics and using the works of other scholars, it is clear that these comics in one way or another were reflective of the Canadian society’s views on humour. As it is unknown of the true meaning behind Keith’s portrayal of racism in his comics, one can speculate multiple reasonings. His reasons could have been from a hatred for Indigenous people, influenced by the racism in Canada leading up to and during the period of World War Two; in order to shed light on the horrible treatment the Indigenous people were receiving at this time; or because the immoral jokes were something the Canadian population thought was funny to help distract from the horrors of war.
Beaty, Bart. “The Fighting Civil Servant: Making Sense of the Canadian Superhero.” American Review of Canadian Studies, vol. 36, no. 3, October 2006, pp. 427-436. ProQuest, doi:10.1080/02722010609481401.
Cole, Jean Lee. “Laughing Sam and Krazy Kats: The Black Comic Sensibility.” Canadian Review of American Studies, vol. 47, no. 3, 2017, pp. 373-402. Project MUSE, https://muse-jhu-edu.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/article/677488.
Gulliver, Trevor. “Canada the Redeemer and Denials of Racism.” Critical Discourse Studies, vol. 15, no. 1, 2018, pp.68-86. Taylor & Francis Online, doi:10.1080/17405904.2017.1360192.
Keith, Frank. “Th’Chief.” Commando Comics, no. 15, January 1945, pp. 17. Canadian Whites Comic Book Collection, 1941-1946. RULA Archives and Special Collections, Ryerson University, Toronto, Canada.
Keith, Frank. “Whoop-Um.” Commando Comics, no. 15, January 1945, pp. 16. Canadian Whites Comic Book Collection, 1941-1946. RULA Archives and Special Collections, Ryerson University, Toronto, Canada.
Twark, Jill E. “Approaching History as Cultural Memory Through Humour, Satire, Comics and Graphic Novels.” Contemporary European History, vol. 26, no. 1, February 2017, pp. 175-187. ProQuest, doi:10.1017/S0960777316000345.
Woodcock, Scott. “Comic Immoralism and Relatively Funny Jokes.” Journal of Applied Philosophy, vol. 32, no. 2, May 2015, pp. 203-216. Wiley Online, doi:10.1111/japp.12084.
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.
Comics may be set in the future or on a different planet, but no matter how out-of-this-world they appear to be, comics are still created in reality. Comics are not produced inside a vacuum they are connected to the historical era that they are created in. As historian Bradford Wright puts it “comic books are history” (Aiken 41). Just like other more prestigious, commonly studied types of literature comics are also worth examination, as they reflect the politics and concerns of a particular historical era (Aiken 41). The link between Canadian Golden Age comics and War World Two is easy to understand as comics of the era featured stories of fighting Nazis and Canadian soldiers winning in warfare. However, it is not that comics just reflect reality, because this would not be very appealing to audiences, especially those that were living through a world war. The most entertaining stories are those that are relatable but also present a better version of reality. In this essay, I will be arguing that comic books try to present an idealistic version of reality and what people lack in reality is presented to them in their comics. The first half of this essay, I will be using superheroes from different historical eras to demonstrate how comics changed over time to better fit the needs and wants of the current audience. In the second half of this essay, I will be analyzing how specifically, Commando Comics issue number twelve (1944) presents an idealistic version of reality that suits the needs of Canadian children growing up in the World War Two.
Comics are always adapting to our changing society. Stories and characters, that were once loved, are often altered or replaced with more modern versions. This constant changing is necessary to better provide an ideal version of reality that suits the needs of the current audience. To demonstrate this, I will be analyzing how different superheroes, from different parts of history, gave their audiences something that society was lacking.
Spiderman, for example, was created during the Cold War. During the Cold War, there was a focus on young adults. Many programs were developed at this time that put American teens “in contact with peers overseas” (Scribner 542). Programs like penpals and overseas studying expanded with the goal of improving foreign relationships and overcome biases that were seen as “the root of international conflict” (Scribner 542). Spiderman being a teenager himself emphasized this “greater attention to adolescents” (Aiken 47). There is a lot of emphases that Spiderman is friendly, as he is so often called “your friendly neighbourhood Spiderman”, and he is rarely seen killing people, but rather trapping them in this web and then turning them to the police. This gentle approach to justice reflects this attitude of peace and understanding, that society was lacking at the time, and that officials were trying to teach young people during the Cold War.
Just as Spiderman was the first teen superhero, Wonder Women was the first female superhero. Wonder women made her first appearance in 1941 (Akin 46). The main lesson that Wonder Women taught, was that girls did not need superpowers and that they could exceed expectations if they worked hard. For example, Wonder Women is quoted saying “You can be as strong as any boy if you’ll work hard and train yourself in athletics, the way boys do” (Akin 46). This empowering message is reflective of the changing role of women during the Second World War, while men were off at war it became “women’s patriotic duty to help the war effort, either on the home front, through volunteer work, or by taking a ‘war job’”(Hall et al. 234). At a time when society is not accustomed to women doing “men’s work” Wonder Woman gives confirmation that women can do it too, and gives readers that confidence that women can live up to society’s needs and expectations.
Similarly to how Wonder Women was creating confidence in females, Captian Canuck was inspiring nationalism in Canadians. Captain Canuck was released in 1975, a time when comics and everything about them was American, “the heroes were American, the settings were largely American, and even the alluring comic-book ads… were American” (Edwardson 188). Captain Canunk was not just a Canadian version of Captian America, he had a strong moral character that “reinforced conceptions of Canadians as polite, kind, moral, heroic peacekeepers” (Edwardson 186). Canadians were lacking representation in their comics and Captain Cancuck is an icon that fills the gap in the market and gives readers a sense a pride and nationalism that they were not getting from other heroes.
It is interesting to look at the heroes from different moments in history because heroes are often used as teachers for readers. They are representative of what traits society believes are good and moral. Heroes capture an ideal person, and as society’s values shift, what constitutes as an ideal person changes. In the second part of this essay, I will be looking at how Commando Comics issue number twelve (1944), not only gives a portrayal of an ideal person but also portrays an ideal reality for the children growing up in World War Two era.
World War Two Ideals in Comics
Commando Comics issue number twelve was published in 1944, towards the end of World War Two. In order to understand how this comic creates an ideal version of reality for Canadain children of this era, I will be analyzing aspects of the comic that usually generate criticism such as lack of female characters and the negative portrayal of racial minorities.
One major criticism of comic books is that they lack female representation. A study was conducted on comic books from the 1990s to 2005 looking at the number of males characters compared to female characters, the study found that “men represented 85% of total characters” (Facciani et al. 6). And this percentage gets more drastic in older comics. The number of female characters in the twelve issue of Commando Comics is low, as there were only ten female characters. These ten females are either side characters or observers. For example in the comic strip “Corvette” there is only one female character who appears twice in the comice, she says two words “Help!” and “Oh!” (Darian et al. 4).
In order to understand why women were so rarely seen in comics at this time, it is important to look at the historical context and how it is at play in this comic. During World War Two, men were disappearing from children’s lives rapidly, “Older brothers, uncles and fathers enlisted in the military… Male teachers slowly abandoned the classroom for service” (Cook). Children were quickly losing the father figures and male role models that they were used to having. The hyper-masculine cast of comic books provides children with those older male role models that could no longer be there for them. This explains why the heroes in this comic are all older males, so they can more easily fit that father figure role.
Women were not disappearing from children lives in the same way men were. They were busy with “paid war work as well as their normal household responsibilities” but they were still in their children’s lives (Hall et al. 234). There was less reason for females to show in up in comics because children were seeing their mother’s and sisters on a daily basis, and were not missing the female figures in their lives. In summary, children growing up War World Two were lacking father figures and male role models. Comics present an ideal version of reality by being filled with males and having older male superheroes that children can look up to, while their real-life heroes are away at war.
Just as most comic book characters are male, the majority of characters are also white. A study done on the Modern Age of Comics (1991-2005) found that “aliens, demons, and other types of non-human lifeforms were more likely to be represented than all human racial minorities combined” (Facciani et al 6). It is fair to argue though, that comics during the Golden Age do have more representation of racial minorities. I found that about 63.6% of comics stripes in Commando Comics issue number twelve (1944) featured a racial background other than white North Americas, such as German, Japenese and Indigenous people.
There is some representation of these racial groups, however, it is the way that these groups are portrayed that is problematic. For example, Japanese characters are drawn in a very particular style. They are drawn with very pointed faces, thin eyes, and large lips (Darian et al. 4). Also, the way their speech is written is done so it reads like they are speaking in a stereotypical Japanese accent. This is seen when one Japanese character says “So Solly” instead of ‘So Sorry’(Darian et al.7).
This portrayal of Japanese soldiers makes them look like weak unintelligent enemies, they appear to lack a sense of strength and pride that the white North American soldiers are portrayed as having. In the comic strip, there is a close up of a German soldier’s face, his head is floating in the panel and his body is not visible. His eyes are sticking out of his head and his mouth is hanging open. (Darian et al. 14) The way he is drawn makes the German character look crazed and irrational, but it is also a humorous drawing which tells the reader to not take this character seriously. One possible explanation for the racist way that Japanese and German people are portrayed is that it helps build confidence in young Canadians that those races are not capable of winning of the war. This is a time when people were living with worry and doubt about losing their family members as well as losing the war, the racist portrayal of the enemies instills some confidence in the readers that Canadians and Americans are perhaps smarter or more serious and therefore more capable of winning the war. At a time when children are lacking complete confidence in the future of their country, comics provide them with a sense of superiority over the enemy.
Not including women, and presenting different ethnicities in stereotypical ways is problematic, and a modern audience would reject this and they are correct to do so. However, these problematic elements fit the needs of the audience during the World War Two era. This comic creates an ideal version of reality for the Canadian children of War World Two, it gave them the father figures they were losing and provided them with confidence in their country which they were questioning for the first time
Comics reflect an ideal version of the audience’s society by presenting a fictional world that includes what is absent in the audience’s real world. In the first half of this essay, I use superheroes from different historical eras to demonstrate how comics change over time in order to better suit the needs of the current audience. In the second half of this essay, I examine Commando Comics issue number twelve (1944). I argue that while the comic’s lack of female characters and its problematic portrayal of Japanese and German people would be unacceptable today, it is accepted in the World War Two era because it suits the needs of the audience. I argue that the mostly all-male cast of this comic is because Canadian children were lacking males in their society during the World War Two era. I also make the claim that the humorous racist portrayal of certain characters is done in order to strengthen the potentially wavering confidence that Canada children of that era may have had about their country. It is important to not overly judge comics based on the values and ideals of modern society. It is more beneficial to critically examine comics through the eyes of the intended audience, this provides a better understanding of the comic as well as the era.
World War II was a victorious era for North America, with their triumph over Germany and Japan. Canada and the U.S benefited their victory from notable allies, mainly the U.K, Soviet Union and France. One of these allies included China. War comics portrayed the Chinese as allies to the West (U.S and Canada), as illustrated in “Clift Steele and the Mystery of Magon” in the 14th issue of Commando Comics, where a soldier code-named Captain Frank Hillary was sent into the Japanese camps as a spy, with the objective of unraveling their heinous plans and military secrets (Darian 5).
Though not directly mentioned in the comic, Hillary’s Asiatic features confirmed that he was in fact, a Chinese ally. Both China and the West shared Japan as their common opposition, therefore they co-operated as allies in defeating Japan, as recorded in World War II history. This exhibit explores the relationship between China and the West as allies, focusing on the role of the Chinese as sidekicks, which resulted in a victorious glory for both nations.
In the 1940’s, comics reflected hope for a better future after the war, where enemies were defeated by North American heroes like the beautiful and mighty Nelvana, the clueless yet lucky Loop the Droop, and the youthful symbol of hope, Captain Marvel Junior. In some of these comics, it is suggested that the heroes had assistance from Asian allies.
First, the depiction of Asian characters in World War II comics will be examined. Aside from their mutual physical attributes of caricatured eyes and high cheekbones, unlike the Japanese, Chinese characters are illustrated as courageous, full of leadership and ambition (Goodnow and Kimble 58). These courageous Chinese are also drawn in comics that featured the American air force team known as The Flying Tigers. Historically, the Flying Tigers were an American based Volunteer Group (AVG) of fighter pilots founded in 1941, because Chinese fighter pilots were incapable of being trained to prevent Japanese forces from entering through Western China, and into Burma (Troha 85). This showed early co-operation and partnership between America and China.
So why can’t the Chinese be the heroes? Goodnow and Kimble stated that, “The Flying Tigers story lines had established the Chinese as a kind of contemptible and erratic sidekick, not a fellow hero” (63). This could be for a variety of reasons, such as the fact that China did not have advanced aircraft technology and training, which prevented them from defeating the Japanese on their own. China was, however, a large nation with sufficient military. Combined with the U.S and Canadian army, China became a powerhouse in driving the Japanese out of their country.
This cultural stereotype of the Chinese being bound by their feudal tradition dates back to the political relationship between China and the U.S in 1944, where the Chinese government experienced internal turmoil between the Nationalists and Communists, making them unstable in planning their defense against Japan. American aid came when U.S Army Commander, General Albert C. Wedemeyer used his strategic reasoning and tactful approach to integrate himself with the Chinese Nationalists. Wedemeyer was able to identify the weaknesses and lack of coordination within the Chinese government that made them vulnerable to Japan’s attacks (Wang 238). At this stage, the Japanese had begun their notorious Ichigo Operation in April 1944, which has taken over most of Central China. When Wedemeyer realized that China was falling further under Japanese control, he made it a priority to drive Japanese forces out of China. In terms of war strategy, Wedemeyer ensured his tactics were compatible with those of Nationalist leader, Chiang Kai-Shek, with whom Wedemeyer cooperated well with (238).
Going back to the comic series, how is it acceptable for Asians to remain as sidekicks, and not as equals with the West? Despite the physically unattractive, grammatically incorrect depiction of Asian characters in comics, there is evidence to suggest that the Chinese had a more significant role in the war. Aside from serving as allies, the Chinese also benefited from the West, which has allowed them to experience modernism, economic growth and global empowerment.
Asians in Contemporary Films
An issue from Critical Arts journal introduces a new era of Chinese and Western collaborated movies in which, unlike in the comics, Chinese characters are pictured as decently cut, well-dressed and attractive individuals who speak correct English with only a hint of their native tongue. Set during the 1938 Japanese invasion, the film Pavilion of Women defies all stereotypes of Asian women being sexual objects for Western men’s desire, and Asian men as mere sidekicks (Yang 249). Here, the marriage-oppressed, Chinese female lead of Madame Wu is “led to the ‘correct’ track of freedom and liberty” by the male character of Andre (251), who is an American missionary-doctor, while still maintaining her independence and ability to make a decision that liberates her household from the chains of feudalism. This differs greatly from most Asian movies that are solely created for Western audiences, where the female Asian protagonist does not do much other than falling in love and being rescued by her “white male saviour”. Though this does not contribute directly to the argument of Asians as loyal allies, it does show early co-operation and a positive relationship between China and the West in a World War II setting.
What can be derived from the above points? First, it’s an undeniable fact that the role of Asians in comics and films cannot exceed the heroic roles of Western characters. From World War II, it had been a clear fact that the Chinese needed help from the West; therefore the Flying Tigers air force was formed. Even the late Chinese Nationalist, Chiang Kai-Shek stated his disappointment in the West’s view of China as only needing aid (Wang 244). But is this really a bad thing? The answer is no. For there are many factors influencing the Chinese governance that made it difficult for them to achieve victory. One is their strict influence of Confucian teaching (Wang 246), which puts values in social order and limits of individuality, and is greatly implemented in their military strategies. For this reason, Western influence became crucial in modifying those traditional, feudal strategies into tactics that could bring victory. The West provided a ‘bridge’ that guided China toward a path that promised victory over Japan, and China returned the favour by crossing that bridge to the West as allies, forming a partnership. Similar how in Pavilion of Women, the character Madame Wu was led out of feudal oppression in the correct path by the American missionary-doctor Andre. This film not only shows racial integration between China and the U.S, but also features early feminism in Asia. In a wonderful irony, this film was released in 2001, just before China made its entry into the World Trade Organization (Yang 250).
Modern China and Japan
On a great, triumphant ending, Asian roles in comics and the battlefield is not a gesture of the West in belittling them, but is a gateway that allows Asians to showcase their courage, cleverness and heroic deeds that contributed to the victory of World War II. Integration with the West has resulted in positive outcomes for China and Japan, as both nations have become advanced and industrialized today, each holding a powerful position in the global economy. Both China and Japan have come out of Imperialism and have become modern nations that continue to benefit from Western ideology, while maintaining the uniqueness and exoticism of their people and culture.
Darian, Jon “Cliff Steele and the Mystery of Magon”. Commando Comics No.14, pp.1-6.
Bell Features Canada, 1944.
Goodnow, Trischa, and James J. Kimble. The 10 Cent War: Comic Books, Propaganda, and World War II. University Press of Mississippi, 2016.
Troha, Anthony L. “Historical Note on the ‘Flying Tigers’. “ Physics Today, vol. 55,
no. 7, 2002, pp. 84-85. Ryerson University Library & Archives. Accessed 10
November 2018 from https://physicstoday-scitation-
Wang, Peter C. “Revisiting US-China Wartime Relations: A study of Wedemeyer’s
China Mission”. Journal of Contemporary China, vol.18, no. 59, 2009, pp. 233-
247. Ryerson University Library & Archives. Accessed 20 October 2018 from
Yang, Jing. “The Reinvention of Hollywood’s Classic White Saviour Tale in
Contemporary Chinese Cinema: Pavilion of Women and the Flowers of War”. Critical Arts, vol. 28, no. 2, 2014, pp. 247. Ryerson University Library &
Archives. Accessed 20 October 2018 from https://journals-scholarsportal-
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.
Media in Canadian society during World War II largely covered the subject of war, which translated through all forms of media, including comic books. The 21st issue of Commando Comics, a comic book from the Canadian Whites collection published during World War II, displays the prominence of war-related media. Additionally, much of the content in this issue is regarding race, particularly portraying Japanese people as the antagonist of the stories. What this exhibit will discuss is that this issue 21 of Commando Comics reflects the general societal view of Japanese people as “the enemy” during World War II, as well as representing Japanese people in a negative light in order to shape public opinions of Japanese people. This reflection of society within the comic is evident through the consistent pattern of Japanese people being the antagonists of the stories, as well as the physical content in the issue portraying Japanese people in a stereotypical, offensive way, such as referring to them in derogatory terms. The importance of this is that this purposeful shaping of public opinion resulted in mistreatment and discrimination against Japanese-Canadians that would continue for decades following World War II.
Distorted Portrayals, Derogatory Terms
This issue of Commando Comics displays the overt racism prevalent at the time it was written, through the way Japanese Characters are referred to and the stereotypical way in which they speak and act. The most prominent way this is evident in the comic is the use of the word “Japs” to refer to Japanese people. In the story “Doc Stearne”, the antagonists, which are Japanese soldiers, are referred to as “Japs” six time in the first three pages of the story(Dexter, 44-46). This excessive use of the offensive term confirms that not only is the overall tone towards the Japanese strongly negative, but also that the author of the story, Fred Kelly, did this very deliberately; It is a very strongly offensive term, and the repetition serves to emphasize this. As for the word “Japs”, it is a crude, shortened version of a word encompassing an entire race, showing direct disrespect and outright hatred for the race as a whole, through refusal to use proper terminology. This is significant, as the Canadian Whites, the group of WWII comic books in Canada, were popular and widely-read. Therefore, the messages and ideals that the stories in issue 21 of Commando Comics presented were being spread throughout Canada, cementing a very anti-Japan mentality into Canadian society.
Another aspect of the physical comic book and its illustrations that demonstrate the same anti-Japan sentiment is that the antagonists of the stories sometimes are not explicitly identified as Japanese, but are drawn to look Asian, leading the reader to believe that these characters are also Japanese. Additionally, in the Doc Stearne story, Japanese writing characters are presented in a speech bubble above a Japanese character’s head. This is significant, as the Japanese character not speaking English creates even more of a barrier between Japanese people and the comic’s English-speaking readers, leading to misunderstanding and discrimination. The visual portrayal of antagonists as Asian in the stories and the use of a language barrier make it very clear that these characters are Japanese, and therefore the fact that the antagonists of many of the stories are Japanese further confirms the idea of Japanese people being the ultimate enemy.
The significance of this negative portrayal of Japanese people lies in the fact that this was done deliberately in comic books in order to sway public opinion regarding Japanese people, and therefore create a country united against the enemy of Japan. In a journal article published in the Pacific Historical Review called “This is Our Enemy”, the way in which war and media are intertwined is discussed: “The comics are drumming up a lot of hate for the enemy, but usually for the wrong reasons—frequently fantastic ones (mad Jap scientists, etc.). Why not use the real reasons—they’re plenty worthy of hate!’’ (Hirsch, 54) This quote demonstrates the anti-Japan mentality that existed in the Western world during World War 2, as the speaker clearly has many reasons to hate Japan. Additionally, they are not concerned about public opinion being swayed by comic books, but encourage hate towards Japan. This supports the claim that the negative portrayal of the Japanese in comic books swayed public opinion about the race as a whole, as well as that this was done deliberately by comic book writers.
Japan: The “Enemy”
Race is a prominent theme throughout the entirety of issue 21 of Commando Comics, as the majority of the protagonists of the stories are white Canadians and most of the antagonists of the stories are either Japanese or unspecified Asian. For example, in the story “Doc Stearne”, Doc Stearne, the white male protagonist, fights a group of Japanese kamikaze corps. Most of the stories in this issue that featureJapanese antagonists present them in a very negative and violent light. For example, in the story “Ruff and Reddy”, the antagonists, a group of presumably Japanese men are very violent, kidnapping the protagonist as well as highjacking the protagonist’s plane. (Dexter, 10-15) The presentation of Japanese people as violent and as the enemy, not only paints all Japanese people, and even all Asian people as bad people, but leads the public to believe this rhetoric and act accordingly.
In Ann Gomer Sunahara’s book, “The Politics of Racism: The Uprooting of Japanese Canadians During The Second World War”, the effects of World War 2 on Japanese people in Canada are outlined: “[…]the events of the eight years between 1942 and 1950 left Japanese Canadians in a state of trauma that has been compared to that of a rape victim.[…] Although conscious that they were innocent victims, Japanese Canadians felt humiliated by their degrading experiences.” (Sunahara, 1) The use of the phrase “innocent victims” is significant in this quotation, as it reflects the reality of the situation during
World War 2, which was that Japanese Canadians were innocent of the war crimes of the Japanese.The negative, antagonistic way in which the Japanese are portrayed in issue 21 of Commando Comics greatly contrasts this reality. This reveals that comic book writers were deliberately using overly negative portrayals of Japanese people to negate the reality of their innocence. The distorted portrayal of Japanese people as the ultimate enemy in this comic led to massive ramifications for Japanese people in Canada at the time.
Additionally, the image displayed in this section demonstrates the way in which media was used to cement Japanese people as the enemy, as it shows two white English Canadians standing over the body of a Japanese dragon they killed. Even in media like posters, Japanese people were deliberately being presented as the enemy that was to be destroyed. Being that this is a propaganda poster, the presentation of the Japanese as the enemy, signified by a Japanese dragon, is significant; Japanese people were deliberately displayed as the enemy in media, such as propaganda posters, in order to shape an anti-Japan sentiment throughout Canadian society.
The portrayal of Japanese people as the enemy in WWII comic book issues had lasting ramifications for Japanese Canadians for decades to come, impacting the lives of decades of Japanese Canadians. As previously discussed, the portrayal of Japanese people in issue 21 of Commando Comics is very negative, labelling them as the enemy in many stories, and this portrayal of the entire race led to the public opinion of the Japanese to become increasingly negative. The years surrounding World War 2 held a large amount of discrimination for Japanese Canadians; Japanese people were constantly being shown as awful enemies, leading society to view Japanese Canadians in the same light, which then led to incredible discrimination and mistreatment.
In the Canadian Historical Association booklet “Ethnic Minorities During Two World Wars”, this discrimination is discussed: “The day after the destruction of Pearl Harbour, The Royal Canadian Navy confiscated 1300 fishing boats, for fear that their Japanese Canadian owners would use them to guide an invasion force[…]” (Thompson, 16) This quotation directly outlines the discrimination against Japanese Canadians due to the war crimes of the Japanese, highlighting the ingrained anti-Japan sentiment present in society during World War II. Additionally, the majority of this discrimination is a result of the public opinions of Japanese people and the need to please English Canadians, as well as calm their fears about Japanese Canadians, even if these fears are unjustified. Issue 21 of Commando Comics displays clearly the use of media to reflect public opinion in opposition of Japanese people. The significance of the large role media had on public opinion is the impact that these opinions had on Japanese Canadians. Another excerpt from the booklet “Ethnic Minorities During Two World Wars” states that “[…] Japan’s rapid series of military successes inspired a public hysteria which in turn forced the federal cabinet to implement policies of rapidly escalating severity.” (Thompson, 16) The term “public hysteria” is significant, as this shows that public opinion had a direct impact on the treatment of certain groups.
In Commando Comics issue 21, many of the stories display the way that Japanese people are viewed in society, through the negative portrayals of Japanese people. “Ruff and Reddy” and “Doc Stearne” are not only almost always Japanese or unspecified Asian, but are also shown as violent and evil. In an excerpt from “Doc Stearne”, a woman is captured and tortured by a man, the man saying: “Sato! Throw the woman into a cell until I devise a
suitable torture to loosen her tongue.” (Dexter, 45) This page is included on the left, as this displays the clear anti-Japan sentiment present in much of the comic book. An additional story in the comic book that clearly displays the way in which the Japanese were viewed in society at the time is the story “Salty Lane”, in which a white Canadian convoy is destroyed by unspecified Asian soldiers. Not only are both of these examples presenting the Japanese, and even encompassing all Asian people in a very violent light through violent actions, but also presents the people themselves as evil.
The damaging way that comic books shaped public opinion of Japanese people, through the generalization of Japanese people as evil and the violent acts they commit, directly affected the way that Japanese Canadians in society as a whole were treated. This is also displayed directly by the included page, as it shows the strong anti-Japan sentiment present in society. The damaging effects of the discrimination against Japanese Canadians, like the confiscation of Japanese Canadian property, are therefore a lasting result of World War II comic portrayals of the Japanese.
Throughout issue 21 of Commando Comics, Japanese characters are presented in a stereotypical and offensive light, through the use of derogatory terms like “Japs”, and the Japanese characters are almost always the enemy in the stories. This clear distortion of Japanese people as a whole had a direct impact on public attitude towards the Japanese in Canada, shown through the fact that public hysteria directly led to the mistreatment of Japanese Canadians. The portrayal of Japanese people in this comic book was not only deliberately used by comic book writers to shape public opinion, but it therefore also shaped the way in which Japanese people were subsequently treated, revealing the extent of power comic books have over society.
Hirsch, Paul. “‘This Is Our Enemy’: The Writers’ War Board and Representations of Race in Comic Books, 1942-1945.” Pacific Historical Review, vol. 83, no. 3, Aug. 2014, pp. 448– 86. JSTOR, doi:10.1525/phr.2014.83.3.448.
Images in this online exhibition 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.