In World War II and the Cold War, government agencies recognized how powerful comic books were and exploited the medium to sell the idea of America across the world. Although by 1954, legislators had become alarmed by the violent and sexual content of comics, and stepped in to force the industry to self-regulate—see: the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency, the Comics Code—other parts of the federal government saw potential in the medium’s reach and appeal, and exploited it. The Writers’ War Board and, later, agencies within the State Department found ways to use comic books to sway hearts and minds across the globe toward the objectives of the American government.
This is the argument of a new history of government involvement in the production of pro-American comic books, Pulp Empire: The Secret History of Comic Book Imperialism, written by Paul S. Hirsch. I asked Hirsch to walk me through a show and tell of a few of the most telling government-endorsed and government-created images from his book.
Today, they’re far from selling the American idea around the globe, and more interested in tearing it to shreds. But even then, who knows if they really were interested in encouraging other countries to use their democracy structures as a template for their own systems? This was the era of FDR, after all. And while so-called culture observers still have a problem with sexual content, they sure don’t have one as severe anymore with violence.
But this does say something eyebrow raising about portrayals of Japanese at the time:
The board secretly got all its funding from the Office of War Information, which was a larger propaganda agency during the war. But on its face, the board was a volunteer agency helping fight fascism through popular culture. So they didn’t have any final say over what publishers printed—they were not a censorship organization. That said, the publishers had a lot of compelling reasons to cooperate with the board. So, if the board told them not to print something, at least from my reading of the documents, it seems like in most cases, it wasn’t printed.
The board had pretty frequent communication with the major publishers cooperating, and they knew that if they were going to print anti-Japanese stories, or stories about Nazi atrocities, they may want to submit it to the board, and they may actually ask the board for assistance scripting it. In some cases, the board would go to the companies and tell them, Please write a story with these characters and this plot. And when that happened, the publishers would submit drafts for editing.
A big part of the program to co-opt comic books was to get publishers to make very specific images of Japanese characters. Above all, they wanted to make sure that there’s no such thing as a “good Japanese person” in comics. There was a story submitted to the Writers’ War Board by one of the big companies, and in it, there is an anti-fascist resistance in Japan. There’s a woman who is presented as anti-fascist, and pro-democracy, and she’s fighting for democracy in Japan. And the company submitted this to the Writers’ War Board, and immediately the board says, No, there’s no such thing as a good Japanese person.
Well if that was the position at the time, it sure wasn’t a healthy one. Certainly not if Germans, by contrast, were allowed to retain dignities in color-of-personality as opposed to Japanese. There were people with more common sense in Japan who weren’t sold on barbarism that the government of the time was selling its soul to over in Germany under the National Socialists. A standout example of a righteous Japanese representative was Chiune Sugihara, who saved many Jews from the Nazis at the time. Yet the board shut out stories of heroic folks like those entirely, and the publishers, regrettably enough, obeyed their demands to the max. Today, there’s still examples like that going on, and not necessarily involving government influence per se, but rather, left-wing university-style influence, which is just as bad in its indoctrination.
They also wanted to promote, however mildly, equality on the homefront between races, not out of any sense of altruism, but to make sure that wartime production was not disrupted by riots, and that dissension in the United States wouldn’t offer propaganda opportunities to Germany and Japan.
What made them think there’d literally be riots? But if there would’ve been, did they have any concern the racial segregation in the US military at the time could lead to offense? FDR even promoted other forms of racial segregation at the time too.
Then, in a description of a comic called Eight Great Americans:
This one is a creation of the State Department’s, during the Cold War. This one interests me, because the U.S. government really wanted to keep comic books away from Western Europe during that time. They thought comic books were the perfect propaganda vehicle for the global South and the decolonizing world, but that comic books were an embarrassment among white audiences in Western Europe. So this was one of these rare comics that was intended for distribution in areas including Western Europe.
They obviously didn’t have any knowledge of the comic strips and other similar publications that had been turning up in Europe in the early 20th century, with Tintin being a notable example, and while Europe did have problems with censorship during the late 40s (and still does), comics were pretty much accepted as an art form there. But, it’s hardly a surprise people like these could take such a nervous approach to the material, and underestimate the intelligence of Europeans as much as the USA itself.
There was this fear in Europe that American comic books, along with American culture, were washing over the globe. Wherever American soldiers travel, wherever American tourists travel, they leave comic books behind them. And after World War II, since there was no censorship of American comics until 1954, the comics those people were bringing were free to be transgressive, violent, sexual, racist. Crime, romance, and horror comics hit the top of the sales chart, and these can be deeply problematic in a lot of ways. It’s this combination of violence, sexuality, and racism that could cause huge problems for the U.S. government abroad, particularly in Western Europe, which is the place where America most wants to appear cultured and sophisticated.
Is the author saying romance is a problem? Though initially, it most unfortunately was in Europe, until by the dawn of the 60s, they wisely came off that stance, and comic strips like Barbarella were introduced. But were the early US comics as jarringly violent as this implies? Much of what I’ve read from that era were admittedly superhero-related, but while I did read some early Batman tales, they were far from gory or graphic, and even bloodletting wasn’t heavy. Profanity was rare at the time too, and if it were alluded to, it was, similar to some mainstream comics reaching as far as the early 90s, changed into asterisks and skull-like drawings to substitute for the actual thing. (Of course, actual profanity became more common in the early to mid-70s, though again, it wasn’t used in all instances.) This part of the interview doesn’t sound particularly well written. At the end:
American comic books spread around the world during the 20th century, and they infiltrated every aspect of cultural life—not just in the U.S., but in many countries. And these 20th century comics still exist as ghosts among us. All the excitement, trauma, rage they generated—they’re not dead. Contemporary global perception of the United States emerges from memory as much as experiences. And that’s the impact these comics still have.
The problem is that, no thanks to all the PC obsessions prevalent today, there’s a lot of great creations of the 20th century that’re being turned into relics of the past that the left in particular no longer considers valid, seeing how today, they’ve come to consider the medium little more than propaganda vehicles for indoctrination and soapboxes for their political platforms. Which does not equal recognizing them as a legitimate art form. And that’s something this article, predictably, won’t dwell on in what looks like another otherwise disappointing view of history, even if there are a few parts that do tell a thing or two of what mistakes were made in the past, but which liberals in the present aren’t actually learning from. And, this article decidedly obscures the entertainment value of most comics during the 40s and 50s, all in order to suit a political perspective, which is just as unfortunate.
Originally published here