© Copyright 2017 Olivia D’Agostino, Ryerson University
This exhibit identifies the ways in which Women are portrayed to younger audiences in Active Comics Issue #3, April 1942. The portrayal of women present in the comic book that display women as helpless and weak do not match how women acted during World War II. Women played a major role in World War II, helping in munitions factories as well as keeping everything together on the home front. In the comic book, there are advertisements that are aimed towards boys and girls, this created the research question, why do the comic books display women as helpless and clueless when it comes to efforts in the war? After doing some research, it was evident that there is not much information on why women were perceived and illustrated this way. However, through analysis of the comic and seeing how women were portrayed, the display of women may have been depicted this way to help encourage men to enlist in the war by making it look glamorous.
Women in WWII
World War II caused political, ethnic, language, gender and class lines that changed the roles each person played during the war and these changes included women becoming a key role in war efforts (Morton, 989). As expressed in the article, Women and War, women have been involved in war efforts since the beginning of war time (Chenier, 1). They’ve been assets to the war in different fields including nursing, munitions factories, and by providing efforts at home that boosted war efforts (Chenier, 1). Women even took over male jobs during wartime which helped Canada during the war and helped advance women’s rights (Chenier, 1). Women even took on the role of training for the home defense which included outfitting themselves in uniforms and training themselves in riffle shooting and military drill (Chenier, 1). Eventually women also enlisted to help in the war which included the air force, army and navy (Chenier, 1). At first the women were only trained for clerical, administrative and support roles but eventually were trained as parachute riggers, laboratory assistants, and trained in electrical and mechanical trades (Chenier, 1). Eventually the Canadians Women’s Army Corps trained their women in the same way, starting them off as cooks, nurses and seamstresses but later began training them as drivers and mechanics (Chenier, 1). On the home front women also helped with code breaking and espionage (Chenier, 1). Women on the home front also ensured the economy did well by producing and conserving food, raising funds to finance hospitals, ambulances, hostels and aircraft, and even volunteered their services inside and outside the country (Chenier, 1).
In the article, The Nursing Sisters of Canada, they discuss how the Nursing Sisters became a major role in the second world war. The work the Nursing Sisters conducted is important to note because it shows how important women were and how they could be perceived as heroes as well. The Nursing Sisters were even sent into action performing first aid to wounded soldier wearing battle dress, steel helmets and backpacks (1). They worked under pressure, they were brave, intelligent and resourceful which are traits that all the male superheroes possess.
There are even some war posters that are present in the Toronto Public Library that depicted the importance of women’s help in the war. One of the posters titled “Housewives! Wage war on Hitler” displays what the women did on the home front to support the war. Their job was to save and re-use items such as rubber, metal, paper, fats, bones, rags and glass to help salvage resources. Another poster with the title “We’re in the army now” was used for the same effect. To help support the idea of re-using items to save on resources.
One poster found in the Toronto Public Library states, “They (women) have done a great work for the Empire in encouraging the men to enlist.” This information proves that the government used women to encourage men to enlist in the war. Women being used as propaganda by the government proves it can also be true that women could have been used as propaganda in comic books to promote men into believing that enlisting in the war could make them more desirable. The stories that follow in the issues of Active Comics number three demonstrate how women were depicted as clueless and helpless in every story in the Canadian comic.
Active Comics Representation of Women
Inside the issue of Active Comics number three, the first story is called The Brain and the Mummy Man (1). In this story, the authors make being the heroine look desirable to the young male audience. This story starts off with the Mummy Man asking his henchman to find a pretty girl to capture so that the heroine of the story, The Brain, must come to her rescue. “master say…catch purty girl…use as bait to trap brain!” (3). The illustration also displays the nameless women as helpless by showing her tied up to a chair. She is also displayed with a perfect figure and ripped clothing to make her look desirable and in need of rescuing (3). When The Brain rescues the woman, she stands helplessly at the back waiting for The Brain to do all the work, deliver justice to the villain, and then get her to safety (8-9). With the woman just standing in the background doing nothing, this makes her look weak, and at the mercy of all the men around her. Then to make being the heroine look even more desirable, at the end of the story, the pretty woman rewards The Brain for saving her with a kiss, meanwhile The Brain acts modest (11). Therefore, this teaches young male audience that, if they join the army they can become a hero just like The Brain, save the day by defeating villains as well as win over the pretty girl. However, this also leaves an impression on young female readers that they are not heroic and resourceful but should only be pretty and defenseless to attain the attention of a superhero.
In the short excerpt that introduces Active Jim, they do introduce a woman, Joan Brian, as a working woman. However, she only assists Active Jim in sorting his mail and picking him up from the airport (12-14). Joan does not assist in any crime fighting, or even gathering information on villains, but is instead just an errand girl. This subconsciously sends the message to young female readers that they can not be superheroes who save the day, but only assistants who help the male hero. In the first frame, Joan is seen checking herself out in a compact mirror making sure her hair is perfect (12). Joan is also depicted as a beautiful woman with a perfect figure. This proves that all women associated with superheroes in comic books must be perfect looking. This also send the message to young female readers that they must be beautiful and helpless to keep male attention.
The second story of the issue Active Comics number three, introduces the character Carole Powell who needs rescuing by Capt. Red Thortan. In the first image, Carole is seen on her knees, with the Capt. holding her head down and asking her to stay back (18). This depiction displays that Capt. is the dominant person in this situation. He is in charge and in control which shows us that he will do everything to save the day and all she must do is sit back. Later in the story Carole feints after watching Capt. wrestling the tiger. This shows the reader that Carole is weak and delicate. Carole can not handle the situation and can not handle the thought of the Capt. getting hurt (29-31). Once again, Joan is depicted as having a perfect body with a beautiful face (18). After being saved from the tiger, Carole rewards the Capt. with a kiss. Again, the superhero acts noble and suitable while acting coy (31). While Capt. is off fighting the Japanese, Carole gets lost from him again which proves that she is clueless and in need of constant guidance and assistance. This story proves that the males have the dominant helpful stereotypes while the females have the submissive defenseless stereotypes.
The third story of the issue Action Comics number three is about Dixon of the Mounted. The synopsis of the story immediately reads that he must go find Ruth Barton, another female who has been captured by a villain in the Northern Yukon. Ruth, like the rest of the women, has the perfect body that is paired with a beautiful face. She is also wearing revealing clothing displayed by a dress that is ripped (42). Her disheveled appearance reinforces the idea that she needs to be saved. Throughout the story Ruth gets tied up to a post and is rendered useless (42). The helpful character stereotype even goes towards the dog in this story, who can untie Dixon who can then free Ruth (45). This story demonstrates to the reader that Ruth is clueless, non resourceful and helpless to the point where a dog does more to get them free.
In the fourth and final story of the issue Action Comic number three, the woman they introduce is a reporter named Beverly. She is displayed as clueless because she cannot figure out that Randolph Steele is also Thunderfist. Thunderfist arrives at the location where the report is occurring, while talking to Beverly he realizes that he needs to help so he disappears to save the day. Once the situation is resolved he returns to Beverly who is worried and searching for him. Beverly never once puts the two facts together that Randolph could be Thunderfist. A woman who is supposed to report on odd things and come to realizations for the public could not put two simple facts together. This makes Beverly look unintelligent, while making Thunderfist look mysterious, intelligent and brave.
The Canadian White comic books were created with multiple genres as the focus, with war being one of them and which also ended up being the most prominent (Bell, 1). The Golden Age of comic books arose because of the ban on American Comic books during the war (Bell, 1). The production of Canadian comics started at first as a business opportunity to make a lot of money on a product that was desperately sought out by children of the time (Bell, 1). Using women as propaganda as a sort of prize to be won was not the focus for producing comic books. However, based on the depictions of these women and the number of times these stereotypes are depicted throughout the comic, it is evident that men would be more likely to join the war after seeing how the heroes fair with women. Women of this period participated and helped in the war in numerous ways that were beneficial to war efforts, therefore there is no logical reason, other than propaganda, as to why women would be depicted as clueless, unintelligent and useless. After analyzing all the information, it seems apparent that at the time of World War II, using women to get men to enlist in the war was more important than creating positive female ideals towards the younger female audience.
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). “The Brain and the Mummy Man.” Active Comics, no. 3, April, 1942, pp. 1- 11. Bell Features Collection, Library and Archives Canada. http://data2.collectionscanada.gc.ca/e/e447/e011166504.pdf
Bell, John. “Comic Books in English Canada.” The Canadian Encyclopedia, www.thecanadianencyclopedia.com/en/article/comic-books-in-english-canada/. Accessed 5 Mar. 2017.
Canada, Veterans Affairs. “The Nursing Sisters of Canada.” Veterans Affairs Canada, 18 Nov. 2016, www.veterans.gc.ca/eng/remembrance/those-who-served/women-and-war/nursing-sisters. Accessed 5 Mar. 2017.
Chenier, Nancy Miller. “Women and War.” The Canadian Encyclopedia, www.thecanadianencyclopedia.com/en/article/women-and-war/. Accessed 5 Mar. 2017.
Cooper, Al. (w, a). “Capt. Red Thortan” Active Comics, no. 3, April, 1942, pp. 17-30. Bell Features Collection, Library and Archives Canada. http://data2.collectionscanada.gc.ca/e/e447/e011166504.pdf
Legault, E.T, (w.) and M. Karn (a). “Thunderfist.” Active Comics, no. 3, April, 1942, pp. 51-64. Bell Features Collection, Library and Archives Canada. http://data2.collectionscanada.gc.ca/e/e447/e011166504.pdf
Morton, D., Granatstein, J. L., & Cafferky, S. (2004). Canada and the two world wars. International Journal, 59(4), 988-991. http://ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/220852809?accountid=13631
Steele, Theodore. (w, a). “Dixon of the Mounted.” Active Comics, no. 3, April, 1942, pp. 35-48. Bell Features Collection, Library and Archives Canada. http://data2.collectionscanada.gc.ca/e/e447/e011166504.pdf