© Copyright 2017 Shae Loeffelholz, Ryerson University
Comics were a growing art across North America in the mid-1900’s. Kids would save up their change
for that month’s issue and spend days reading then waiting for the next issue to come out. In September of 1939, the outbreak of World War II brought on many economical problems in relation to trading with the United States (Bell). The William Lyon
Mackenzie King government passed the War Exchange Conservation Act in 1940; this act prohibited nonessential goods to be imported into the country, including American comic books (Bell). This inspired Canadian writer’s and artist’s to produce their own comics dubbed the Canadian “whites” because of the black and white interior pages in 1941 (Bell). The second issue of Dime Comics was published in April 1942, featuring favourite Canadian heroes Rex Baxter, Johnny Canuck, and Scotty McDonald; true manly men with their confident attitude and muscular physique, all excellent role models for young boys to look up to. What does seem to be missing from this issue is the active presence of women, that is, women in roles where they are not the ones being saved or treated as a sidekick to her male counterpart.
Gail Abbott – the only named female in the comic –, a mysterious female spy, and a perky blonde all are portrayed, though not necessarily negatively, in ways that fail to show the strength that woman had at the time and their advancements in society.
The opening comic is “Rex Baxter and the Island of Doom”, also holding the largest feature on the cover, where Rex and his female companion, Gail are “captured” by Zoltan and his men. Rex’s first task is to rescue his damsel in distress from the strange men who abducted her while he was away. Upon confronting them and also being captured, Rex learns the men are completely harmless and help Rex defeat an enemy submarine.
Throughout the comic, it seems as though Gail is there by accident, spending her time grasping for Rex or standing in the background, ignored. The event that most contrasts her actions around Rex occurs in the top left panel on page 10 when h
e calls her his “friend”, while on the next page she is seen holding him for protection and he ignores her for the majority of the comic (Good 10-11). When it is decided that Rex must accompany Zoltan back to his home land, Rex tries to leave Gail on the deserted island before she begs to be taken along (Fig. 1).
Women have a very minimal role in this episode of “Johnny Canuck”, visually featured in four panels over 18 pages. The first time is in an underground spy ring where Johnny is flanked by two women, and a third sitting seductively on the ground talking to the captain. It is not until the final pages that we meet Etta in one of Hitler’s camps, ready to be sent to the guillotine. She is the most active female in this issue as she is the reason for Johnny escaping his near death. On his return to the spy ring, he finds out that she is also a spy and calls her “a raven-haired beauty”(Bachle 39).
The “Goofs and Gags” section features three comics, in one of which a petite blond is seen wandering through a battlefield setting and retreating to the arms of a soldier after being scared by the gunshots; he then takes her away because she is not meant to be there (Fig. 2).
Women in Comics
Women throughout popular fiction intended for male audiences are often placed in the damsel-in-distress trope, a beautiful woman found in a situation where she needs to be saved, and is most often wearing something revealing; a trope clearly seen in this issue of Dime Comics. In an journal article by Paige Braddock, she discusses the issues surrounding female characters within comics. Even in a modern setting, these problems are not old news as they are clearly featured in this issue of Dime Comics; “female characters should always have small feet, hands, and waists” and always good-looking (22). On each of the women, the only things that seem to be big about them is their bustline and their hair, adding to their sex appeal. Even active females within comic books such as superheroines stick to this mould even though they act like men (23).
One reason why women are passive within male dominant comics is because male characters often have more opportunity for action (22). Women are typically seen as
housewives and meant to stay within the home doing domestic activities. In Rex Baxter, his original plan is to leave Gail on the island – alone – while he goes with Zoltan to defeat the Axis Powers. Though the island is not necessarily the ideal “home” that a woman would be situated it, anything is better than going out and assisting in battle. The cover art
for this episode also shows Gail’s highly feminized figure; her large bust, and thin arms contrasted by her captor’s hands, as well as the colour red which is a striking colour associated with sexuality.
One of the more demeaning lines is actually spoken by a Minister to Johnny Canuck where he claims that Etta was captured because of her beauty which (Fig. 3), though it sounds like a compliment, would not be deemed as acceptable in modern times. Though she is known for her brains, Etta’s looks are what stand out to the male characters in the episode and she is the one that has to be saved – even though she had a knife with her in her cell proving her capable of attempting to escape.
On the Job
Though the comics discussed present women as weak and unhelpful, that was the opposite of their actual involvement in the war efforts. Since World War I women had been in the labour force due to many men leaving their jobs to go fight, creating jobs for women in both office and factory positions (Anderson). As the years went on, women gained more rights including the right to vote in all provinces by 1922 and the right to hold political office in 1919 (Anderson), and more women were attending university being roughly 25% of post secondary students (Thrift 2) It took years after the war had begun to form an official association of women in the military, and many notable women fought for the right for Canadian women to be involved, including Her Royal Highness Princess Alice, who became the commander-in-chief of the volunteer Auxiliary Territorial Service (Gossage 32).
On August 13th 1941, the Canadian Women’s Army Corps (CWAC) was announced, providing jobs to women typically performed by men, and became an official part of the Canadian army by March of 1942 (Wood) – the month that the second issue of Dime Comics was being created. The reasons for enrolling in the CWAC are very interesting; 40% of women said they enlisted because they were patriotic and wanted to support their country and loved ones, wh
ile others wanted bigger opportunities and excitement (Wood). The women in my comic, despite being held back by men, do want to get involved in some way and are very adamant about it; Gail persuades Rex to allow her to go with him to fight (Good 19), and Etta was actively involved in espionage before being captured (Bachle 39). Clearly it is not the case that women do not want to be involved because much of the female population of Canadian was involved in the war in some way, be it through factory, clerical, or medical jobs, or even donating what they could (Fig. 4). The image of the tag along that the women are meant to portray within the three comics is a restriction put on them by men within fiction; even in the real world, men were strongly opposed to women having more responsibility and the possibility that they would wear the same uniform (Gossage 40).
Meanwhile, women in Russia had already been allowed to join the army with notable fighter being Valerie Khomyakova, “the flying witch”, who was the first woman to take down an enemy aircraft at night before being killed in action (Gossage 47).
Mary Dover was a large figure in the CWAC, becoming Commanding Offic
er in 1942 and being a large inspiration to many of the women who had enlisted. She fought for the proper training of women and made sure they gained the public’s respect throughout the war, strongly advocating for their femininity; “if you talk to them as I have done so many times and listen to plans and hopes for the future, for ‘After the War’, you will find that
almost without exception, they are looking forward when this job is done … and turning their minds to homes of their own made safer for them and their children by the contribution made during the war years. That, to me, is REAL femininity” (Thrift 7).
Gail and Etta were trying to get involved only to be overshadowed by the male hero of the story; apparently, there cannot be more than one hero in a story, and men and women cannot share the spotlight.
Women in Popular Media
Though the women in this issue are highly sexualized for a children’s comic, using femininity to promote women’s involvement was not uncommon. In an essay by Michelle Denise Smith analyzing women in fiction and magazines during the war, she believes that Canadian popular culture helped to shape femininity in a time of patriotism (6). The most popular female image at the time was the idea of the home and domesticity, and according to Smith, the home was also equal to Canada as a whole (7). Promotional posters were also very popular, as seen in Figure 5, and often donning the CWAC slogan “We serve that men may fight” (Wood).
More adult directed fiction published in magazines were more accepting of women’s active role in the war, often fictionalized stories promoted their involvement in any ways; “Lady Going West” by Jenethea York was publishing in Canadian Home Journal in June 1942 and is the main focus of Smith’s essay (14). The story follows a British woman who falls in love with a Canadian soldier and moves to Canada where she is faced with the friendly atmosphere that is Canada, and decides that she will do whatever she has to to stay with the soldier, further proving the nation-as-home image that Canada promoted. Smith also notes that main character, Theodora struggles to find her place in Canadian society because of her lack of education and experience in the real world, being form a rich family (19). This observation makes that of being an active woman in society and getting as much education as possible even more of an asset when it came to the war.
Dime Comics were not about promoting equality or catering to the young girls that might be reading along with the boys who these comics are clearly directed at. Each of the stories have to do with exceptional but very ordinary men who have no super powers but still save the day, and the girl, in the end. Boys have someone to look up to, whereas the girls are faced with female characters who are pushed to the back burner into passive roles.
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.
Anderson, Doris. “Status of Women.” The Canadian Encyclopedia, www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/status-of-women/. Accessed 9 Apr. 2017.
Baddock, Paige. “Women in Comics.” Phi Kappa Phi Forum, vol. 84, no. 3, 2004, pp. 22-23. Research Library, http://ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/235179647?accountid=13631
Bell, John. “Comic Books in English Canada.” The Canadian Encyclopedia, www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/comic-books-in-english-canada/. Accessed 9 Apr. 2017.
Gossage, Carolyn. Greatcoats and glamour boots: Canadian women at war, 1939-1945, revised edition. Dundurn Press, 2001. Scholars Portal Books, http://books1.scholarsportal.info.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/viewdoc.html?id=37268#tabview=tab1
Smith, Michelle Denise. ““Hello, Canada! It’s fine to have you here”: Canadian Nationhood, Women and Popular Fiction during the Second World War.” The Journal of Commonwealth Literature, vol. 4, no. 1, March 2009, pp. 5-22., DOI: https://doi-org.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/10.1177/0021989408101648
Thrift, Gayle. ““This is our war, too”: Mary Dover, Commandant of the Canadian Women’s Army Corps” Alberta History, vol. 59, no. 3, 2011. Academic OneFile, http://go.galegroup.com.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/ps/i.do?p=AONE&u=rpu_main&id=GALE|A264270504&v=2.1&it=r&sid=summon&authCount=1#
Wood, James. “Canadian Women’s Army Corps.” The Canadian Encyclopedia, www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/canadian-womens-army-corps/.