© Copyright 2018 Melanie Fernando, Ryerson University
The Canadian Whites are a body of comics produced in Canada during World War II after trade restrictions cut off the supply of “luxury goods” from the States. These black and white stories provide a window into Canadian culture during this time period, and the study of them helps us understand our predecessor’s mindset in the creation of a Canadian identity during this time of hardship.
The “Speed Savage” story in the 19th issue of Triumph Comics (Steele) uses racism and othering to vilify the circus and create a Canadian identity through exclusion. In doing so Steele is able to condemn the idea of entertainment and relaxation without alienating its young readers. Within this issue, the circus acts as the hub for villains who murder workers from the munitions factory by shooting them out of a cannon and making bodies mysteriously fall from the sky. Speed Savage, otherwise known as the ‘White Mask’, has to find out where these bodies are coming from and put a stop to it before the factory workers leave their jobs out of fear. By using racialized villains, a distinguished art style for the circus folk, and heavy-handed propagandistic text, this story attempts to convince Canadians to keep working through hardship and not leave their important jobs for recreation by instilling fear in them. As well, by representing many forms of the ‘other’, this comic defines the Canadian identity through means of exclusion. This specific issue was released in 1944, in the midst of World War II, when citizens were tired and fearful of the negative psychological consequences of war (Iarocci and Keshen 204). This comic is an example of how racism might have been used to boost morale and give Canadians a feeling of purpose so that they would continue to support the war effort as the fighting dragged on. The use of racism in tandem with the obviously villainous circus made luxuries such as days off of work seem disloyal to the Canadian identity, and a lack of these things during wartime a more palatable concept.
The Cultural Coding of “Circus Freaks”
In “Speed Savage”, Ted Steele uses pre-existing impressions of the circus as exotic and mysterious to further his own point about the ‘danger’ of entertainment. The circus at this time was known to be filled with people of colour as well as working women, things that were only really acceptable in these travelling shows (Hughes). The circus was one of the few spaces during the early 20th century where it was deemed suitable to have different races mingle, as the goal wasn’t to build bridges between white people and people of colour but to widen the social and emotional gap through exaggeration and stereotypes. Because of the cultural coding surrounding these travelling shows, the circus became both a place of empowerment and degradation for minorities, as it offered otherwise unattainable employment at the cost of humiliation and discrimination of one’s culture (Hughes).
Davis states that “the circus’s celebration of diversity was often illusionary.” (10) as it embodied the racial and gender norms of the time but claimed to be different from the rest of society. This dichotomy made the circus a particularly appealing concept to citizens during wartime as it offered something familiar and comforting under the guise of something mysterious and new that would distract them from their daily hardships. Davis also describes the circus as an escape for young boys who felt as though they were outcasts in their regular life (31). The circus being a place of refuge would be a dangerous concept during wartime, as citizens would be looking for an escape from the fear and lack that surrounded them, but all hands were needed on deck.
This is not to say that the circus was seen purely as an escape, as it was a space filled with visually and socially unacceptable things such as women in tight clothing or black individuals in ‘traditional’ garb (Davis 102, 134). These usually scandalous and possibly horrific images were framed under entertainment and thus were deemed safe to partake in. That said the circus was still thought of, in at least some ways, as a threat. In Hutchison’s article on travelling shows he used Intergroup Threat Theory (ITT), which examined how perceived threats could lead to prejudice, to argue that since the circus relied on exaggeration to shock and entertain the audience, it garnered fear and thus the deepened the prejudice that Canadians felt against the minorities depicted (238).
This fear is made even more clear and utilized in “Speed Savage” as the tension surrounding these mixed spaces expresses itself through the vilifying of the circus members. It is this preexisting knowledge that the circus is filled with exotic and ‘strange’ things that Steele uses to alienate the reader from the idea of entertainment as a whole, as well as unite Canadian citizens. Within “Speed Savage”, the idea of the circus as a place that holds dangerous ‘savages’ is placed in opposition to the honest factory workers in order to create a Canadian identity. By using exoticism and racializing characters from the circus, this comic promotes the war effort and more specifically tells its readers that instead of being associated with something as malicious as the circus, they should be working at the factory and supporting the men out on the home front.
Drawing Lines Between ‘Us’ and ‘Them’
In order to solidify a Canadian identity that would urge civilians to support the war effort, Steele drew the villains in “Speed Savage” as more distinguished and detailed than the factory workers to clearly illustrate what a Canadian isn’t. The circus folk are much uglier because of their distinct features, and as a result less relatable than the hard-working Canadians. Specifically, the owner of the circus is drawn in much more detail than the other characters. He has thick eyebrows, a handlebar mustache, is quite bald, and has obvious and defined wrinkles. In some panels, the way he is drawn is reminiscent of an angry ape, as can be seen in the image on the left.
Drawing the owner, along with the rest of the villains, in this detailed but ugly style shows Canadians what they aren’t and shouldn’t be. While the factory workers all look like average men that the young boys reading Triumph Comics could grow up to be, the circus folk are drawn to look strange and unfamiliar. Speed Savage is the only good guy that is particularly distinguished, as his superhero persona wears a white mask and tight suit. That said, his primary trait is that he is ‘white’ and Canadian, which safely separates him from the racialized villains.
It is not just racism that is used to create an image of the other, femininity is also exploited and seen in the posture of the villains. This can be observed in the image to the right, when Jeff Blackett, a factory worker that is a double agent for the circus, makes a rather feminine gesture with hands left limp as he is punched by the White Mask. This works as both comic relief for the reader and as a way to further degrade the villains.
Attempting to create a Canadian Identity through othering is not a strategy limited to “Speed Savage” or this Triumph Comic issue. During and before World War II the US was a powerhouse in terms of comic production and it was difficult for Canadian publishers to keep up. To combat this, Canadian comics attempted to “take the higher moral ground for culture in opposite to that of the United States”(Beaty 438). Canadian comics had to focus on stereotypes and cliches in order to create a solid identity, and because of the fear of “American cultural domination” heroes such as Speed Savage ended up relying on othering and racism in an attempt to solidify their white Canadian identity (Beaty 438).
A Call to Arms
Ted Steele uses othering and heavy-handed text to unite his Canadian readers during the time of this comics production and rally their support for the war effort. The dialogue in “Speed Savage” directly links race to the circus as well as shames any workers that attempt to leave their post. On the first page, a description of the circus is given by a cigar smoking man seeking to promote his show. He states that they have a “killer lion from India” named Satan and “Fifteen gorgeous gals brought here from old Hawaii” (38). The descriptions that he gives pairs these faraway lands with intrigue and fear as most of the shows promoted sound dangerous in some way. Coding the circus as menacing accomplishes two things at once, it warns the reader not to be pulled in by the idea of the circus for entertainment and it gives Canadians something to fear and thus fight against.
Canadians fear of World War II is addressed in “Speed Savage” through the anxieties of the factory workers. On the second page of this story Speed Savage picks up a newspaper that details how the men at the munitions factory are being killed and this is causing “hundreds (to) leave the job” due to unrest. Which, of course, reflects the deaths of young men in the real world during 1944 happening across the sea. The next panel immediately transitions to later that night as the men at the factory get the news that yet another body has been dropped from the sky. Two of the factory workers talk about leaving work, but another calls them “Yellow rats” for thinking about walking out on their duty to the war effort and says that “Canada needs the shells we’re making”(40). This interaction, along with others like it sprinkled throughout the story, accepts that the reader might be afraid but declares that it is cowardly and unacceptable to walk out on one’s duty. There is a fair amount of shame linked to leaving their job, not just because they would be abandoning their fellow Canadians, but that they would be the same as a “yellow rat” linking them to the ‘other’ that Steele has so clearly illustrated is villainous.
Along with providing an enemy to avoid, Steele gives the reader a role model to aspire to be. Speed Savage acts as the perfect Canadian and encourages the readers to follow his lead. Throughout this story, he blatantly tells factory workers that they are needed at their jobs and can’t leave out of fear. On the last page Speed Savage even turns to the reader and states that “The workers at Carson city can go back to their vital jobs of victory”(46), directly calling Canadians to continue to support the war effort from the home front.
In Ted Steels “Speed Savage”, the representation of the circus as ‘other’ and dangerous is used to cement a Canadian identity that would make it easier for citizens to push through the difficult war times and continue to support the troops on the front. Steele did this by creating a clear divide between the hardworking factory men that the reader is supposed to identify with and the strange backstabbing circus folk, who are classified as the ‘other’. Using exotism and fear Steels story unites Canadians and vilifies not just the circus but the concept of abandoning ones duty for leisure. He paints the good Canadian as one that is willing to give up their own luxury as well as safety to keep evils such as the circus out of their country.
Beaty, Bart. “The Fighting Civil Servant: Making Sense of the Canadian Superhero.” American Review of Canadian Studies, vol. 36, no. 3, 2006, pp. 427–39. Scholars Portal Journals, doi:10.1080/02722010609481401.
Davis, Janet M. The Circus Age: Culture & Society under the American Big Top. University of North Carolina Press, 2002, http://catalogue.library.ryerson.ca/record=b1459347.
Ted Steel “Speed Savage” Triumph Comics: No. 19. Bell Features and Publishing Company Limited, 1944, pp. 38 – 46. RULA Archives and Special Collections, Ryerson University, Toronto, Canada.
Hughes, Sakina M. “Walking the Tightrope between Racial Stereotypes and Respectability: Images of African American and Native American Artists in the Golden Age of the Circus.” Early Popular Visual Culture, vol. 15, no. 3, 2017, pp. 315–33. Scholars Portal Journals, doi:10.1080/17460654.2017.1383028.
Hutchison, Paul, et al. “Predictors of ‘the Last Acceptable Racism’: Group Threats and Public Attitudes toward Gypsies and Travellers.” Journal of Applied Social Psychology, vol. 48, 5, May 2018, pp. 237–47. Crossref, doi:10.1111/jasp.12508.
Iarocci, Andrew, and Keshen, Jeff. A Nation in Conflict: Canada and the Two World Wars. University of Toronto Press, 2015. catalogue.library.ryerson.ca Library Catalog, http://catalogue.library.ryerson.ca/record=b2639176.
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