© Copyright 2017, Mariam Vakani, Ryerson University
The early moments of Canada’s declaration of war against Germany saw a time of economic turmoil. By the end of 1940, the Foreign Exchange Control Board introduced the War Exchange Conservation Act, which essentially banned the import of non-essential American goods, which included comic books and pulp-fiction periodicals, in hopes of conserving the American dollar. (Bell, 30). The American comic-books enjoyed by Canadian children disappeared from the newsstands, leaving a gaping hole in the popular culture of the time.
This gap was quickly noticed by children, and just as quickly exploited by the four independent publishing houses that reacted immediately to this business opportunity, beginning what would later be known as the Golden Age of Canadian Comics. First led by Maple Leaf Publishers and Anglo-American, the Golden Age was marked by the onslaught of creative Canadian heroes and stories written by Canadian artists. Amongst these artists and publishers was Adrian Dingle, who had first worked with Hillborough Studies on their only title, Triumph-Adventure, but later joined the brothers Cy and Gene Bell in creating what would come to be known as the greatest publisher of Canadian comic books, Bell Features. Amongst their several titles was Dime Comics, which ran through the end of 1946.
The black and white paneled pages of Dime Comics showcase many stories of bravery and damnation, demonstrating the complex creativity that was born during the war. Issue No. 23 of Dime Comics was published in October of 1946, little more than a month after the war officially ended. The issue includes full-length comic stories, shorter spreads, and direct insight into the world that inspired the fictional stories. Amongst the themes that we see in this particular issue is that of the idealized masculinities embedded in the stories of superheroes, promoting a framework of stereotypical hegemonic masculinity that was both a standard to which the men of the era were held and a dream that adolescent readers aspired to become.
WHAT MAKES A HERO: COMIC BOOK PHYSICALITY AND HYPER-MASCULINITY
“…Hyper-masculinity is the most visible and most mute way of responding to the anxiety generated in the North American male’s search for masculinity” (1103) writes Klein, author of the journal article, “Comic Book Masculinity”, in which he discusses the links between body-builders and internalized misogyny and homophobia. In addition to their valiance, the superheroes must also fit a certain physical type. Each of the men is broad-shouldered and chested, with a strong jawline and chin; they are young and handsome and ready for action. A strong build was one of the physical demands of war-time strength.
Even in the case of exhaustion, as we find Johnny Canuck in during his kidnapping, the male superhero is always ready for action, Terry Allen is instantly prepared to become Nitro and save the day, Drummy Young is immediately ready to engage in physical combat with the enemy; their bodies work in their favour and are undeniably strong, flexible, and healthy. “There seems never to be a hesitation or a backward glance: the superhero knows what he has to do, even if this implies only being on the move—performing, in a word,” states Yann Roblou (79), discussing the hyperbolic activity of the male superheroes’ body. No matter the situation, the heroes are never to be seen as fazed in their speech or in their body language.
WHAT’S A MAN TO JUDGE: THE MORAL INTEGRITY OF COMIC BOOK HEROES
Comic book masculinity also extends itself to expectations of male vitality: they must always be ready for combat and be above feeling pain. Indeed, even when Johnny Canuck succumbs to pain and fatigue, he is revitalized by the end of the page and announces that he is ready to “take another crack at the Japs.” (Bachle) While exhaustion and fatigue are felt by the superhero, he must be quick in recovery and be ready to continue his duties. The Faces of War collection at the Library and Archives Canada depicts the male soldiers of the Second World War, all of whom have the same strong build and vitality that we see in the heroes of Dime Comics. The physical build was a reality as much as it was a fictional depiction, though the comic book drawings were a hyperbolic version of that reality.
Issue No. 23 of Dime Comic hosts four interesting male characters: Rex Baxter, Nitro, Drummy Young and Johnny Canuck. Each of these men embody an idealized masculinity, characterized by their rationale, justice and sense of protection. Hutchings writes, “almost all attempts to characterize (military) masculinity include risk taking and rationality as well as discipline, endurance, and absence of emotion.” (393)
Rex Baxter, the “United Nations Counter-Spy”, leads his squadron through the air and is faced with the threat of new invasions from Hitler. Nitro, the second hero that we see, is the alter-ego of Terry Allen, a patriotic Canadian shown buying war bonds with his fiancée, Lynn, when the bank is robbed. Terry Allen turns to Nitro, determined to save the day, whilst remaining a concerned fiancé and leaving the crime-scene with Lynn when she is shot.
Drummy Young, a model citizen, realizes that a radio-show host was a Nazi spy, using his platform to provide Nazi forces with the latitudes and longitudes of ships at sea, thus enabling their attacks. Drummy stops the “bad guy” on time, preventing further harm to Canadian servicemen at sea. Finally, we see Johnny Canuck, weakened in an enemy dungeon, but watch as he escapes, avenges the death of his prison-mate and seeks vengeance for the lives of all those who “endured a living death” in the dungeons.
It is interesting to note that while not all these characters are military men, per se, they clearly demonstrate the making of soldiers, in their particular strength of character, sense of justice and moral integrity. Perhaps it could be said that their remarkable feats of bravery were meant to demonstrate to children the power of the ordinary citizen- that by being vigilant and active, they, too, could play their part in the war.
EXCEPTION OR EXAMPLE?
Hourihan writes, “the hero’s task is to defeat the forces of chaos, fear and ignorance and so ensure the survival of the state, the realm of civic order and rational behaviour.” (88) This concept is evidenced in the characterization of each of these ultra-male superheroes; they are meant to act as defenders of peace and protectors of Earth. Rex Baxter tackles the peculiarity of seeing strange planes in the sky with a cool-headed approach, a curiosity and a strong sensibility of the possibility of danger. Johnny Canuck, fatigued from his capture and time in the enemy dungeon, still recognizes his moral responsibility to avenge the deaths of his prison-mates, and, once he escapes and is reinvigorated, is immediately ready to reengage with the enemy soldiers.
Drummy Young does not have explicit ties to the military in the same way that Rex and Johnny do, but, by being a vigilant citizen, Drummy finds the Nazi spy amongst a group of radio show hosts and saves the lives of hundreds of servicemen at sea. When the bank is robbed while he is buying war bonds with his fiancée, Lynn, Nitro rushes to stop the heist until he turns to find that she has been shot. At that point, he exclaims that “this girl’s life is worth more than a dozen like him!” (Latare) and leaves in order to find medical help for her. Nitro presents a duality of masculinity, conflicted when faced with a situation in which he must act as savior both to the masses and to his fiancée, Lynn, and is ultimately rewarded when he must fight the robber to obtain a blood sample for the transfusion that Lynn needs to survive.
This determination to save the day, the careless disregard for one’s own well-being, and the unwavering faith in their own goodness and conviction in the causes they fight for characterize our heroes, and our expectations of Canadian men. Our saviors fit the characteristics of being tall, muscular, conventionally attractive white men who seek protection for those that are weaker than them, placing the safety of women, children, and the elderly above their own needs.
TALL, WHITE AND HANDSOME: THE BIASES IN THE HEROES WE CHOOSE
Furthermore, the dominance of the white, muscular, heterosexual male superhero is asserted when he is placed against the backdrop of immoral characters and apathetic women, who play foil to his excellence. Within the black and white pages of Dime Comics, the hero exists in a metaphorically black and white moral binary, where he is the unequivocal force of goodness in a world that is populated by petty thieves, Japanese enemy soldiers, and Nazis.
As such, we begin to question exactly what differentiates our male hero from the antagonist, when they both engage in violent behaviour in the defense of their causes. The simple answer is that the heroes we follow, Johnny Canuck, Drummy Young and Nitro, (as we do not see Rex engage in combat with anyone) truly believe that they are protecting the weak as they fight. The more complex answer would be that the artists and writers have their own ideological biases that bleed through their stories –the masculinity that is acceptable is that which is in accordance with the commonly held values of the Canadian people, and through the blatant othering that is present throughout the stories, we are made to believe that the superheroes are dispensing justice.
Additionally, the women that are placed around the men serve little more purpose than props or plot devices, such as where Lynn distracts Nitro from his work saving the bank and Gail Abbot, Rex Baxter’s girlfriend, exists in the background as he expounds on the conflict. We find the men in drawn as unquestionably more intelligent and interesting than the women around them, and continue to read them as such. The men exist, then, as unequivocally good because they are never confronted with their equal opposites, only men who are meant to be read as evil and women who are purposefully written as unintelligent.
While the truth of the matter is that the Canadian superheroes were fighting to protect the weak and the helpless, it cannot go unstated that “such figures are not helpful role-models for ordinary boys and men who are full of normal imperfections, who must live in a mundane world where there are no unequivocally evil enemies to fight against…” (Hourihan, 72). The comic book hero exists in a vacuum, there is no goodness but him and he has little evil in him, at all.
HEROES TO OUR CHILDREN:
However, this does not negate the fact that these heroes were role models to children both during and after the war. They stood as symbols of patriotism, created by artists specifically for the purpose of providing Canadian children the same patriotic heroes that American superheroes were for American children. As narrated by John Bell in his book Invaders of the North, Johnny Canuck was created by a fifteen-year-old Leo Bachle, who amused a Bell Features investor with his criticism of the artwork of some of the Bell Comics. (50) Upon request, he showed the investor some of his own artwork and was hired the next day as a freelance artist for Bell Features, soon creating Johnny Canuck, who stands to this day as a symbol of patriotic Canadian heroism. Johnny Canuck was a hero who constantly came in contact with Hitler, frequently “slugging the Nazi dictator”, and in essence, became a catalyst of wish-fulfilment for many of the children who had to watch the war from home.
Despite the aggression and structured expectations that the comic books seemed to be setting forth, that the heroes also presented themselves as a means through which the child-readers were allowed to partake in a war they had to see from the sidelines is undeniable. It is also undeniable that the heroism and war-like behavior of the comic-books was an exaggerated, over-sentimentalized versions of what war-time masculinity should look like. Neither of those facts override the other but exist simultaneously as the context which created the comic culture of the time.
The stories of Rex Baxter, Nitro, Drummy Young and Johnny Canuck portray a double-ended societal expectation and youthful desire to be the hero of the war. These heroes exist because they were needed, in the way fiction is, to comfort, appease, enlighten and intrigue children, although not necessarily to teach them the realities of war as it played out for soldiers on the home-front. They portray the aggression and masculinity that was deemed appropriate for the time, channeled, unfortunately through their hatred for the “others” and the sense of masculine superiority and dominance that exists within the stories; but there remains the fact that the heroes and their worlds provided a sanctuary in which Canadian children could dream themselves into super-heroes and military men, fight alongside their fathers and brothers and make their way towards a victory.
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.
- Bachle, Leo (w, a). “Johnny Canuck.” Dime Comics, no. 23, October, 1945 pp. 39-45, Bell Features Collection, Library and Archives Canada. http://data2.collectionscanada.gc.ca/e/e447/e011166585.pdf
- Bell, John. Invaders from the North: How Canada Conquered the Comic Book Universe, Dundurn, 2006.
- Hourihan, Margery. Deconstructing the Hero: Literary Theory and Children’s Literature. Routledge, 1997.
- Hutchings, Kimberly. “Making Sense of Masculinity and War.” Men and Masculinities, vol. 10, no. 4, September 2007, pp. 389-404. Sage Journals. DOI: 10.1177/1097184X07306740, http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1097184X07306740
- Klein, A. “Comic Book Masculinity.” Sport in Society, vol. 10, no. 6, November 2007, pp. 1073-1119. Scholars Portal Journals. DOI: 10.1080/17430430701550512, http://journals.scholarsportal.info/details/17430437/v10i0006/1073_cbm.xml
- Latare, Jerry (w, a). “Nitro.” Dime Comics, no. 23, October, 1945 pp. 11-16, Bell Features Collection, Library and Archives Canada. http://data2.collectionscanada.gc.ca/e/e447/e011166585.pdf
- Roblou, Yann. “Complex Masculinities: The Superhero in Modern American Movies.” Culture, Society and Masculinities, vol. 4, no. 1, 2012, pp. 76-91. Men’s Studies Press. DOI: 10.3149/CSM.0401.76