POST WORLD WAR II COMIC BOOKS: An Imitation of Life?

April 12, 2011

“I always felt that if I had super-power, I wouldn’t immediately run out to the store and buy a costume.” –Stan Lee

Many generations have asked the question; does art imitate life, or does life imitate art? During World War II a relatively new American art form gained considerable popularity. The first postwar decade, 1945 – 1954, brought what is considered to be the comic book’s Golden Age. Comic books grew out of the comic strips of the newspapers; they were a more complex and longer version of the stories in “the funnies” and for the most part had lost their comedic aspect; their plots consisted largely of war stories, detective stories, westerns and superhero folklore. Though comic books had been around since the 1930’s, they reached the height of their popularity during World War II, and it lasted almost a decade after the war had ended. Their demise could be attributed to a combination of the rise of television and campaigns led by concerned moralists criticizing the content; they claimed comics were too violent and too sexual for the targeted age group of children. It is easy to attribute this moral campaign to the hypersensitive atmosphere of the 1950s, but there was obviously something appealing to the public about comics. With sales as high as 60 million comics per month, it is apparent that more than just children and adolescents were buying them. If the content of these comics struck such a cord with the American public, it is safe to say that they were speaking to that generation. Could it also be said that comics are a reflection, an imitation, of 1950s American thought and perception of life? William Savage, Jr., author of Commies, Cowboys, and Jungle Queens; Comic Books and America, 1945-1954, thinks so.

According to Savage, historians have, for the most part, ignored the impact of comic books on the postwar generation. Savage believes that the content of comics provide important insight into American cultural views of that time (ix). During the late forties and early fifties there were three major issues that loomed over and seemed to threaten the very fabric of American society; the atom bomb, communism and war; Americans particularly sought ways to understand and rationalize World War II and the Korean War. Savage explores how comics responded to these issues and attempts to understand the culture of the time through the comic-book response.

It is no question that the atomic bomb was heaviest on everyone’s mind after Hiroshima. At first for Americans it was a source of joy. The War had been successfully ended, and God had given the most powerful weapon on Earth to America; there was no question to her superiority now. Comic books consistently echoed the sentiment. Savage explains that “the comic book contribution to the folklore centered on the idea of a benign Bomb, a friendly Bomb, a Bomb that would never hurt anybody unless we willed it–and certainly it would never hurt us” (17). When the government and other advocates of atomic energy sought ways to minimize the dangers presented by an atomic age and emphasize the positives aspects, one medium they turned to was the comic book. Comic books were used to explain the concept of fusion and to talk about the benefits of atomic energy (Boyer 296). Apart from any governmental influence, superheroes in comics were able to use atomic bombs for very frivolous means such as traveling the blast wave to get to a far away destination. In short, “comic-book[‘s]…reinforced the idea that atomic explosions could mean fun for kids” (Savage 17).

Comic books had long been preaching American patriotism, yet even after the Russians had developed an atomic bomb of their own, it didn’t seem to affect the comic book response that we were still the best and most powerful nation. By this time war comics presented both American militaries and her enemies as well equipped with outrageous atomic weapons, ranging from bombs to rifles. When America used her atomic power, it would always wipe out their enemies, yet when Americans were subjected to atomic explosions, they seemed strangely ineffective. In one story that Savage cites, two Americans are protected by a large tree from an atomic blast (18). Sometimes comics would take a more realistic approach and superheroes would counsel the bad guys and, by default, the reader against the use of atomic warfare; “neither Wonder Woman nor any other World War II survivor could come around to advocating its use, since a second employment of such a horrible weapon would weaken our moral posture.” It showed the growing concerns of our ability for world destruction; “the comic-book response to the unthinkable…indicated the extent to which lots of people were indeed thinking about the unthinkable” (Savage 20&21). Savage also comments, however, that these little lessons were “infrequent” in comics “because, on the whole, American culture simply refused to make the Bomb an unhappy, unpleasant, or unappealing thing” (23).

If comics refused to express much concern over atomic warfare, one thing they did seem to perceive as a threat was world domination of the communists. That is not to say that the Commies had any chance of beating us; as Savage explains; “Comic books were…consistently assuming the swift and inevitable downfall of all Communist states, cells, and individuals…[they] boldly stated that our people, being bigger, smarter, and tougher to start with, subdued their people every time” (37). Yet comic books did not completely escape the atmosphere of McCarthyism. Just about anybody could turn out to be a communist traitor. One series followed the actions of T-Man, a group of secret agents who investigated and foiled the attempts of communist domination. Displayed on the first page of the “Red Murder Incorporated” issue is the statement “For as world domination is the Communist goal, so wholesale slaughter is their means of reaching it!” Clearly no communist was capable of any good intentions. In T-Man anyone could turn out to be a communist spy. In one story, “Ring of Doom,” their own double agents were actually spies for the Soviets who were systematically killing the agents of T-Man. In another, “The Code of Death,” a lyricist who translated American songs into Chinese was planting communist code into the songs which were broadcast over the radio.

Though superheroes moved to the background in the communist struggle, cowboys were still called upon to unearth communist plots on American soil at times; however, for the most part the plight of communism was left to the military, the FBI or various secret agent groups. With heroes who were simply normal men doing their patriotic duty, comics began to restrain themselves to plots that were more realistic and more dependant on historical fact. They attempted to explain current events and even the origins of the conditions of the world. They therefore began to have an opinion of current world issues. Comics taught that the Russian people were not bad, but were themselves victims of the minority group running the government. Savage explains that “Such interpretations indicated that comic books were trying harder than ever before to inform American readers about the origins of current problems;” however, “comic books oversimplified for the sake of the argument no less than for the preferences of the market. Comic-book interpretations ignored vast swatches of inconvenient history” (39). Comic books still gave the American public the heroes and the hope they were looking for in the beginnings of a Cold War, but this drift towards realism went full current once the Korean War broke out.

During World War II, comic book plots were still very black and white. It was good verses evil and good always prevailed triumphantly. Though few superheroes made it overseas, there were some who were allowed to fight for the Allies. Captain America, in particular, was a super soldier created for the War. The enemy was inherently evil, Germans and Japanese were made to look like devils (Savage 10). By the time of the Korean War the rules had changed dramatically. Comic books, explains Savage, “in [their] comparison to their accounts of World War II, what they presented about Korea was awash in ambiguity and uncertainty” (51). Political issues were now much more complex and the darker side of war was revealed psychologically and graphically.

Superheroes did not venture into this war. It was left up to the common soldier in all of his frailty and weaknesses. “Comic books portrayed the American fighting man in a new and troubling light. He was frequently brave and sometimes cowardly…his character was probably not without serious flaw…he had a better than even chance to wind up dead” (Savage 52). Though it was the Commies who usually fought with cruel and cold tactics, sometimes you had to fight fire with fire, and our men would be forced to be just as cruel and unfeeling. Comics spoke frankly about the stress war put on a man and graphically portrayed our men dying in full color as frequently as the enemy; “Death was the thing that separated comic books of the Korean era from those of World War II” (Savage 53). In one story call “Ambush,” a group of soldiers walk into a trap and they all end up dead. The story ends with the quote: “No, not a happy story…but it happens just that way sometimes…no wonder Gen. Sherman said ‘War is Hell!’” 

Not a happy story indeed. Children were writing and complaining that the stories were too sad, however; the editors simply replied that they were representing the reality of the war. Apparently the servicemen agreed; they were writing and praising the comics for being so realistic (Savage 57). This, and the addition of “’pinup’ pages of girly art, suggest[ed] something about the intended audience for the books” (Savage 59). Savage sums it up for us:

From the perspective of the mid-1950s, World War II was a safer place for comic books to be–and perhaps a safer place for their readers. World War II was more satisfying to contemplate than Korea, because it had been a declared war that ended in clear victory. In the popular mind, ambiguity had not characterized the American response to World War II. An evil enemy had been decisively defeated. None of that could be said about Korea… (Savage 59).

And since comics were now trying to give the real story, they simply could not give us a safer, happier ending.

By their very nature, however, comic books could not be completely realistic. A comic is a medium of entertainment, and real life is simply not entertaining without some sort of embellishment. Savage says that “comic books took cues from reality, and then engaged in necessary acts of distortion. Thus,” he adds, “comic books tended to define America as much by what they did not present as by what they consistently offered to their audiences” (75). In other words, the truth, justice and American way that comic book heroes fought for was not necessarily truly just for everyone in America. Just as those who were comfortable in the postwar decade tended to overlook this little piece of hypocrisy, so did the comic books that they bought and read. Two particular groups who did not share equal rights were African Americans and women. The fact that comic books were lacking any black heroes and rarely had any female heroes gives us insight into their second class status in 1950s American society. Savage explains that “to judge by comic-book representations of the period, there was no civil rights movement, nascent or otherwise, because there were hardly any black people in America, and the few in residence were perfectly content with bowing and scraping to the white folks who employed them as menials” (75). Women had a few exceptions to the rule, like Little Lulu, who was very much a feminist (Savage 79), and Wonder Woman, who was “invented by a psychologist to serve as role model for little girls” (Savage 77). But for the most part, women were simply minor characters falling for the male hero who consistently saved them from trouble. When women were the main heroine, they were usually scantily clad “Jungle Queens” whose looks were their main assets; if they possessed any authority or higher capacity over men, it was only men of the appropriate race or the bad guys. Again Savage explains; “Criteria for male conduct in comic books were established…by men–the same ones who established criteria for the appearance and behavior of comic-book women” (78). 

Savage concludes his book by reviewing the many aspects in which comic books reflect and reveal the culture of the postwar decade in America. There can be no denying that comics give us considerable insight into the nature of American thought at the time, but it is important to remember that they at best only represent the ideas of a portion of society. They are only a piece of the puzzle; we need to look at other productions of society as well to get the whole picture. Asking about art imitating life is like asking about the chicken and the egg. We know that a society is defined by its culture and the culture produces art which in turn influences the society and promotes some kind of change. It is an endless cycle, but it is well worth looking at what societies produced at particular moments in time in order to gain a better understanding of the culture.

Peter Richardson
8/10/2004

Boyer, Paul. “Dagwood to the Rescue: The Campaign to Promote the ‘Peaceful Atom’” By the Bomb’s Early Light – American Thought and Culture at the Dawn of the Atomic Age. New York: Pantheon, 1985.

Savage, Jr., William W. Commies, Cowboys, and Jungle Queens – Comic Books and America, 1945-1954. Hanover: Wesleyan University Press, 1998.

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