© Copyright 2017 Dustin Brousseau, Ryerson University
During the Second World War comic books were already in the pockets of the children of Canada and the United States. Heroes like Superman and Batman had already captured their imaginations with their stories full of action, adventure, and of course, dastardly villains. When the War Exchange Conservation act prevented those stories from coming through the Canadian borders. Children were left without their favorite heroes and villains, which in turn led to the creation of the Canadian Whites, Canadian comics which could have not competed with the colorful American comics before. The Canadian Whites brought with them new heroes and new villains for those heroes to fight. While everyone likes a good hero, what is a hero without its rogues gallery? Without the villains that fight against those heroes there would be no stories, action, no comics! Despite being written during a time of war however, the villains of these comics remained largely like those of American comics of the time, mostly divorced from the war happening at the time. Why is this? Using Active Comics #2 from March of 1942 as examples I will try and figure out why the comic book villains of the Canadian Whites were so strange and divorced from the very real enemies that were fought in the war at the time.
The Villains and Stories:
In Active Comics #2 there were four stories, each featuring a hero and a single villain or a cabal of evil doers. The first story stared Thunderfist, a hero with super strength and flight fighting Dr. Bruzzack (Figure 1), a mad scientist attacking a New York City with robotic dinosaurs. The second story featured a regular, if not extraordinarily brave Mounty by the name of Dixon of the Mounted who fought a demon known only in the story as “The Devil”, though this devil is unlikely Satan himself. After Dixon’s story there is Captain “Red” Thortan, an incredibly athletic man with no discernible superpowers fighting against the Japanese army, and finally the is The Brain, a hero with super strength and clairvoyance fighting against a criminal organization led by a man known as The Saboteur. Only one of these villains is connected to the war, with two of them seeming much like standard comic book villains, and one seeming like a threat that could exist in the real world, if not for their over the top way of doing things.
Why Not Focus on the War?
It is important to note that the Canadian Whites were written, at least in part by teenagers and younger people in general, some of which would have enjoyed comics before the ban. While much of my information is about American comics of the time these younger comic creators would have likely been influenced by the comics that they read before, and even if they were older it would have made sense for them to mimic the style of comics that were already popular with children in the first place. Because of this despite the information that I will be using comes from studies of American comics, they are still viable for the Canadian comics of the time as well. Many villains of the Canadian Whites are similar to the villains that American heroes would be fighting at the time, in that they were usually divorced from the war, or were taking part in the war in less important ways than being at the front lines. Many of the villains in Canadian comics at the time were using villains bred from the same tropes and ideas that their American counterparts were using. Things like evil geniuses, gang leaders, and mythical beasts were popular types of villains in the Golden Age of comics, so it only comes to reason that these teenagers that are writing the Whites would write villains that follow these sort of archetypes. Due to the format of the comics having several stories in one issue, there was not a lot of time to develop these villains, so making them recognizable as a certain type of villain immediately was important.
When Canadian comic books began to become popular due to the inability to import American comics it would come to no surprise to see comics with similar themes and characters. The heroes and villains of Active Comics #2 are no exception to this. In The Fighting Civil Servant: Making Sense of the Canadian Superhero Bart Beaty claims that “the concept of the man-god, a dedication to principles of justice, the secret identity, a conflict with the father, and the belief in the magical power of science.” (428) are key elements in superhero mythology. While the heroes don’t hit all of those traits they all hit at least one. The villains on the other hand are quite the opposite. Dr. Bruzzack certainly no “man-god”, using robotic dinosaurs in an attempt to destroy humanity, starting with New York City. Rather than believing in the “magical power of science” he believes only in himself, his robots being extensions of himself having been created by him. The Devil (Figure 2) appears to be no man, has no dedication to justice, or any of the above traits. The Saboteur is no “man-god” either, relying on his gang for help, and threatens to kill a woman helping The Brain. These villains are meant to be the opposite of what is traditionally seen as heroic back in the Golden Age of Comics according to Beaty.
Much like the superhero comics in America, superhero comics in Canada were in the golden age. While the Golden Age of Canadian Comics is differentiated from the Golden Age of Comics in America, they were happening in the same timeframe, the Canadian Golden Age happening between the years of 1941 – 1947, whereas the American Golden Age was happening from 1938 – 1954, both starting before and ending after the Canadian Golden Age (Fennell 305). This means that both Golden Ages were happening during the time of World War II. So the question remains: Why weren’t the villains in these stories representative of the war? Why are the most of the villains in Active Comics #2 divorced from the war that was going on at the time? Why would the heroes ignore the people fighting and dying against fascism? The reason, according to Jason Bainbridge in “The Call to do Justice”: Superheroes, Sovereigns and the State During Wartime, is because of the things that made them “super”, their superpowers, which could easily allow them to singlehandedly end the war, which could somewhat diminish the efforts put in by real soldiers on the battlefield (751). It was for those reasons that superheroes were often stuck fighting crime or monsters on the home front rather than helping with the war effort. Even those with no superpowers such as Dixon of the Mounted were still much more athletic and competent than any real man. Even when heroes were allowed to fight the same enemies that the soldiers were fighting in the real world they were often relegated to stopping either far-fetched schemes that only a superhero could stop, like the aforementioned robotic dinosaurs, or schemes that had little to do with the actual war effort, like capturing the daughter of a British commander, often to mask the horror of what the real war was like (751).
Why These Villains?
Now that we know why superheroes rarely interacted with the war directly, choosing to instead help the home front, why are the villains that they fight so outrageous? There are several reasons for that in fact. One reason is that the heroes of the time needed to be demonstrably good. In the Golden Age it was thought that heroes needed to be selfless and aid others who needed it because if they didn’t, then that character was not truly heroic (751). For villains to come in line with that line of thinking they had to be outlandishly evil. For example Dixon of the Mounted finds himself fighting an actual demon in Active Comics #2, even going as far as to call it “The Devil”. Even the less obviously evil villains in this issue are still extreme in their villainy. The Syndicate from The Brain story have James Bond villain style machine to kill those who betray them (Figure 3), and Dr. Bruzzack attempts to destroy New York City with robotic dinosaurs. Strangely the villains that have the least dastardly plans is the Japanese army that Captain “Red” Thortan fights, who have only kidnapped the daughter of a British commander, but still fall under the category of “plainly evil” by merit of being part of the Axis Powers. The villains of Active Comics #2 did not view themselves in anyway but evil.
Another reason for the villains being divorced from reality is that the heroes, and therefore the villains as well, are based on standards of justice of the time they were made (“Superhero Comics” 333). The morality of the time for fiction was influenced by Judeo-Christian ideals, combining the above self-sacrificing hero, with the idea of a crusader against evil, according to Ryan Edwardson in The Many Lives of Captain Canuck: Nationalism, Culture, and The Creation of a Canadian Comic Book Superhero (187). As such it would make sense for the villains that they fight to be the opposite: Self-serving, and completely evil, the perfect enemy for a self-sacrificing crusader against evil. While not all of the villains in Action Comics #2 are necessarily self-serving, with The Devil appearing to be a beast who mostly relishes in evil acts, with it saying nothing throughout the story and having torture implements in its lair, they are all most certainly evil. Dr. Bruzzack wants to kill all humans because he hates them, and The Saboteur is the leader of a group of gangsters who are going to kill a woman for betraying them to help The Brain.
It seems that the answer to the question of why the villains in Active Comics #2 is simple. They were divorced from both the war, and in many ways reality, because they had to be at the time. Both heroes and villains of the Golden Age, both Canadian and American, were simple in their conception. The heroes were meant to be the ultimate forces of good, being self-sacrificing and forces for good, and the villains had to be the opposite of them, self-serving and evil. Their villains were not made to be villains that would have any place in the war so that the efforts of the soldiers in the war would not be diminished, and even when they did participate in the war it was in ways that did not directly affect the war effort itself. The heroes could not use their powers to end the war themselves, and so the authors had to find some way to make sure that they could not, and that way was to simply make other threats that were bigger or more immediately dangerous such as Dr. Bruzzack’s robotic dinosaurs, or that were closer to home, such as The Devil or the Saboteur, both being in Canada, and both being immediately dangerous for the people on the home front.
Bainbridge, Jason. “’The Call to do Justice’: Superheroes, Sovereigns and the State During Wartime.” International Journal for the Semiotics of Law vol. 28, no. 4, May 2015, pp. 745-763. Springer Link, DOI: 10.1007/s11196-015-9424-y
Beaty, Bart. “Superhero Comics.” Fueling Culture: 101 Words for Energy and Environment, edited by Imre Szeman et al., Fordham University, NEW YORK, 2017, pp. 333–337, www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1hfr0s3.93.
Beaty, Bart. “The Fighting Civil Servant: Making Sense of the Canadian Superhero.” Amerrican Reviews of Canadian Studies vol. 36, no. 3, October 2006, pp. 427-439. Scholars Portal Journals, DOI: 10.1080/02722010609481401
Edwardson, Ryan. “The Many Lives of Captain Canuck: Nationalism, Culture, and the Creation of a Canadian Comic Book Superhero.” Journal of Popular Culture vol. 37, no. 2, November 2003, pp. 184-201. Scholars Portal Journals, DOI: 10.1111/1540-5931.00063
Fennell, Jack. “The Aesthetics of Supervillainy.” Law Text Culture vol. 16, no. 1, January 2012, pp. 305-328. Hein Online, http://ro.uow.edu.au/ltc/vol16/iss1/13
Legault, E.T. (w) and M. Karn (a). Active Comics, no. 2, March, 1942, pp. 1-15. Bell Features Collection, Library and Archives Canada. http://data2.collectionscanada.gc.ca/e/e447/e011166503.pdf
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