© Copyright 2018 Michelle Ransom, Ryerson University
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.
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