© Copyright 2017 Julie Veitch, Ryerson University
This exhibit examines the representation of women in Dime Comics Issue #25 (February 1946). Particularly, it will be looking into why, in this issue of Dime Comics more than the previous issues, female characters are portrayed as being more powerful and active in their narrative. Previously, women in comics had mostly just been eye candy, but in this issue, the female characters are active in the storylines- if still somewhat scantily-clad in some cases.
As such, this exhibit seeks to prove that this issue of Dime Comics demonstrates the post-war view of women as active and powerful people who helped war efforts on the homefront. The theory here is simple: when women took over the jobs that were previously done by men and could do them well, the perception of women began to change and this is reflected in the female characters presented in this issue.
Research into this topic has revealed that while there is writing on women in comics, these writings tend to focus more on American superheroes such as Wonder Woman and Supergirl, more recent heroes, or if they do focus on Canadian female superheroes, it is usually solely Nelvana. Lesser-known Canadian female superheroes and comic book characters have hardly been looked at in any depth, and side characters such as Gail in “Rex Baxter” have certainly never been talked about. Additionally, the relationship between the role of women during WWII and the portrayal of women in comics at the time has not been explored before.
The Women in Dime Comics #25
While some of the big name comics in this issue such as “Drummy Young”, “Johnny Canuck” and “Nitro” have little to no female characters, this issue does feature some powerful, active female characters, which will be looked at in-depth in this section.
In “Rex Baxter: Counterspy”, Gail joins Rex on his quest to find Hitler, who is looking for the underwater city of Atlantis. Acting as Rex’s sidekick of sorts, Gail tags along while they fly across the ocean looking for any sign of Hitler, and she is the one who ends up spotting the wreckage of Hitler’s plane on an outcropping of rocks. After that discovery, she accompanies Rex under the sea to find Hitler himself.
While Gail is clearly meant to be a side character to the heroic Rex Baxter, in this issue of the comic she is seen playing an active role in the story. Instead of being passive and pretty, Gail spots the plane wreckage that leads them to Hitler. Perhaps Rex would have spotted the wreckage without her help, but maybe he would not have, if she had not been there, so her keen eyes were crucial to his mission.
Similarly, in the comic “Police Harbour”, The Polka Dot Pirate plays a key role in the plot. When Russ’ sidekick Ricky gets thrown off of a boat to drown, The Polka Dot Pirate picks him up in her motor boat and potentially saves his life. Later on, working with Ricky, she fights the thieves who have captured Russ and saves him.
This is an interesting twist on a common trope, as most comics in the 1940s and before had the main male hero saving women, not women saving the main male hero. The Polka Dot Pirate, while pretty and wearing a rather ridiculous outfit that is clearly meant to show off her body, is portrayed in this comic as an active, powerful woman who is not afraid to fight some bad guys and save the day.
Finally, in “A Betty Burd Adventure: Guns of Greed”, the title character Betty finds birds dead and animals trapped in the jungle and sets the trapped animals free, taking the snares with her. When the hunters who set the traps find that their prey have been set loose, they set a trap for Betty and capture her. In the end, she is saved from being mauled by a leopard by Commissioner Storm, an army man who had been tracking the hunters.
While Betty Burd is saved by a male character in this comic, this fact does not subjugate her as it might in other narratives. Betty was only captured by the hunters because she had saved the animals in the jungle from their snares, so it was her heroic action that landed her in the sticky situation. Additionally, because Betty is the title character, and one of the only female characters in Canadian comics to be a title character in 1939-1945, she is clearly not meant to be a passive character who exists only to be a plot device or eye candy.
Unlike typical women in comic books during WWII, these three ladies all have active roles in their comics, whether they were the main characters or side characters. The only other female characters featured in issue #25 of Dime Comics were those in “Izzy Brite”, a three page joke comic that included a poster of a pin-up model, a stereotypical little girl and stereotypical old woman/grandmother character. None of these women play much of a role in the comic and while these portrayals of women are not very modern or ground-breaking, they are relatively harmless, especially since the comic in question is a lighter, more silly comic.
Women in WWII Efforts
At the peak of female employment during WWII, in 1943, 261,000 women were employed in war production, and by 1944 over 1,000,000 women were working full-time in various industries in Canada (Pierson 9). Just an example of this massive jump in women’s employment is demonstrated by the employment records of aircraft plants (10). In September of 1939, only 119 women were employed in aircraft plants, but that number rose to 25,013 women by the beginning of 1944 (10). It is clear from these numbers that women stepped up in a big way during WWII, eagerly filling the void left in Canadian industries by their husbands, brothers, fathers and sons who were off fighting in the war.
Testimonies from former female members of several military organizations such as the Canadian Women’s Army Corps in the book Greatcoats and glamour boots: Canadian women at war (1939-1945) discuss working military jobs on the homefront as being “lonely” and “isolated” at times (Gossage 236-238). They also described stressful situations such as working as plotters in Halifax and staying up after their shifts to watch German U-boats get further up the St. Lawrence river than most Canadians thought they did (236). These testimonies and others like them shed light on the trials and tribulations that women on the homefront confronted head on with courage and strength that would have previously been deemed distinctly male. Instead of being the docile homemakers that men thought they should be, these women showed their strength and capability, and the men had to take notice.
However, things were not all well and good on the homefront (socially), even though women stepped up in the way that the government and Prime Minister King stressed was crucial to Canada’s success. The fact that women were taking over traditionally male jobs lead to some people believing that the war had “emancipated women” because it equalized the roles of both genders in society (19). Some Canadian became very anxious about women becoming too masculine because it was acceptable for them to wear pants and they were working in jobs that had previously been monopolized by males (20). For this reason, women were often assured that things would return to normal when the war was over, and that their work would not require that they do anything unbecoming of a lady, or “unwomanly” (20).
Another worry that some, particularly employers and managers, had was about what would happen when the men came back from the war and took their jobs back from the female employees that had been labouring in their stead (Cardinali 132). For this reason, managers tried their best to hire the wives of the workers turned soldiers in the hopes that they would be willing to give up their jobs to their husbands (132). They also hired wives of current employees who had not been sent off to fight in the hope that the women would be willing to step aside if their husbands were still employed (132). These measures clearly denote a nervousness about the women being unwilling to return to their lives as dutiful, passive housewives. However, despite many women expressing a desire to continue working after the war, the managers’ strategies were mostly successful (132). Despite this large return to normalcy, though, women gained permanent privileges during the war, as well as proving to themselves and those around them that they were capable of doing work that was previously not available to them and viewed as “men’s work” (132-133).
Conclusion: The Real and the Fictional
The women in Dime Comics #25 are clearly active, powerful characters that play a fairly significant role in the comics they are featured in. An interesting detail to note is that these women, Gail, The Polka Dot Pirate and Betty Burd, are portrayed as active, but in a very helpful way. They are helping the hero on their mission or saving people or animals, not necessarily saving the day and getting all the credit. This connects with the wartime idea of women not only entering the workforce to help on the homefront, but also the idea of women “joining the army” by being helpful- collecting scraps of metal, paper, bones, rubber, and other materials that can be used in war supplies (see We’re in the army now poster).
Additionally, the anxiety about the differences between men and women becoming less pronounced, or women becoming more masculine due to their taking over male work, may have had an impact on how women were portrayed in comics after the war. If the comic artists saw the roles of men and women becoming more equal as a good thing, then this could explain why some female characters were able to come out from the shadows and play an integral role in their comics. While the women in these comics, Gail, The Polka Dot Pirate and particularly Betty Burd, were all still very much feminine in appearance, their roles as active, intelligent and resourceful people could be seen as more “male roles” than traditional “female roles”.
It is also worth noting that at the time of WWII, there was a lack of female comic book characters, the only two of note at the time being Wonder Woman in the U.S.A. and Nelvana in Canada who both emerged in 1941. Due to this lack, female readers were hungry for female characters- they wanted to read about strong, smart and capable women (Jorgenson and Lechan 269). Girls and women in the 1930s and 1940s wanted characters that they could look up to and aspire to be like, which could have also been a factor in the women of this comic issue showing traits such as intelligence and strength (269-270).
This creates an interesting contradiction in the quest to please both male and female readers: the female character or superhero as sex object and role model (Lavin 94). Make Betty Burd an ecological hero who saves animals to appeal to the female audience, but also put her in a scanty crop top and booty short ensemble to please the male audience. After all, how could the male audience possibly relate to a female character, even if she is active and capable? However, considering that previous to the wartime era of comics female characters had only been eye candy with very little presence or substance, this was at least a step in the right direction, and one that female audiences surely welcomed.
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.
Cardinali, Richard. “Women in the workplace: Revisiting the production soldiers, 1939-1945.” Work Study, vol. 51, no. 2/3, 2002, pp. 121-133. ProQuest, http://ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/login?url=http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/docview/218385570?accountid=13631
Dexter, Clayton (w, a). “Rex Baxter: Counterspy.” Dime Comics, no. 25, February, 1946, pp. 1-6. Bell Features Collection, Library and Archives Canada. http://data2.collectionscanada.gc.ca/e/e447/e011166587.pdf
Gossage, Carolyn. “On Duty at Home and Overseas.” Greatcoats and glamour boots: Canadian women at war (1939-1945). Dundurn Press, 2001. Scholars Portal, December, 2009. http://books2.scholarsportal.info.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/viewdoc.html?id=/ebooks/ebooks0/gibson_crkn/2009-12-01/4/410661
Jorgenson, Anna, and Arianna Lechan. “Not Your Mom’s Graphic Novels: Giving Girls a Choice Beyond Wonder Woman.” Technical Services Quarterly, vol. 30, no. 3, July, 2013, pp. 266-284. Scholars Portal, http://journals2.scholarsportal.info.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/pdf/07317131/v30i0003/266_nymgnggacbww.xml
Kelly, Fred (w, a). “A Betty Burd Adventure: Guns of Greed.” Dime Comics, no. 25, February, 1946, pp. 43-47. Bell Features Collection, Library and Archives Canada. http://data2.collectionscanada.gc.ca/e/e447/e011166587.pdf
Lavin, Michael R. “Women in comic books.” Serials Review, vol. 24, no. 2, June, 1998, pp. 93-100. Scholars Portal, DOI: 10.1016/S0098-7913(99)80121-X.
Mendes, Ross (w, a). “Harbour Police.” Dime Comics, no. 25, February, 1946, pp. 23-26. Bell Features Collection, Library and Archives Canada. http://data2.collectionscanada.gc.ca/e/e447/e011166587.pdf
Moyer, Hy (w, a). “Izzy Brite.” Dime Comics, no. 25, February, 1946, pp. 20-22. Bell Features Collection, Library and Archives Canada. http://data2.collectionscanada.gc.ca/e/e447/e011166587.pdf
Pierson, Ruth R. Canadian Women and the Second World War. The Canadian Historical Association, 1983. Library and Archives Canada, March, 2007. http://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/obj/008004/f2/H-37_en.pdf