With Great Power Comes Great Propaganda
By 1939, comic books featuring illustrated renditions of pulp detective stories were no longer selling. The medium, with the introduction of Batman and Superman months before, had completely shifted to a new landscape- one that was dominated by science fiction and an environment distanced from the mundane. Sales for issues featuring Fu-Manchu (and his copycats) rapidly declined, suggesting that the character did not share parallel success within the comics medium as he had with the pulp magazines. (Daniels, 1995). Different factors were at play. Whereas Fu-Manchu provided a general evil for the audience to lash out against, the public was no longer interested in such unfocused anger. Despite the US's adherence to isolationism, a number of its citizens showed great displeasure at the events unfolding in Europe. Among this group of citizens was publisher Martin Goodman, who owned a number of magazine companies including Timely Comics (the predecessor to Marvel Comics). As was suggested by author Les Daniels in Marvel: Five Fabulous Decades of the World's Greatest Comics, the Jewish Goodman strongly opposed the presence of Fascism in the East. Perhaps this is why, starting in 1940, Timely Comics (who now had its own line of superheroes comparable in popularity to DC comics' own costumed crimefighters) began publishing stories which depicted the Nazi's as the antagonists; the company mixed the supernatural elements of its characters with the real horrors (though largely underplayed) of war. It is also important to note that these stories were published almost a full two years before the events of Pearl Harbor.
Within much of this section, the focus will be on Timely (Marvel) comics. DC comics, though it did feature some aspects of World War Two in its titles, did not stray very far from its science fiction plotlines. Rarely would Superman in the 40's do battle with a Fascist instead of his general mad scientist rogues, such as the Ultra Humanite and Lex Luthor. Perhaps by now, these two separate publishing entities had found their own niche. Sales were high for both companies despite their different approaches. Goodman of course enjoyed the sales, but again maybe it was his ideology that was the fundamental catalyst for including propaganda within his magazines.
Three of Timely's best selling characters were Namor the Submariner, the Human Torch, and Captain America. Immediately after each hero's introduction, he soon found himself battling a German foe. This all changed with the bombing of Pearl Harbor (Nevins, 1998).
Notice the shift in primary villains. Captain America #1 features the hero introducing Hitler to a haymaker. In Captain American #13 (with a cover date of April 1942, though publishing protocols probably meant this issue was distributed earlier), he is applying the same technique to a Japanese General.
Japan and its army were now the targets of Timely's arsenal of costumed fighters. The art portraying the Japanese military was reminiscent of the Fu-Manchu illustrations found in comics just a few years earlier. The yellow skin, rotting teeth, undeniably outlandish mustache... all the elements were there. The biggest differences were the costuming and technology. Whereas Fu-Manchu was a mastermind who dealt with the mystic arts, these Japanese generals were no strangers to modern militaristic advancements. In many issues Captain America and his sidekick Bucky dealt with remote controlled missiles, armoured tanks, and a barrage of raining bullets. Gone were the savage henchman, now replaced by soldiers ready to kill on order. And yet there was that strange, persisting dichotomy. If Timely was revolutionary by combining "real" war plotlines with its fantastic heroes, it was equally disturbing in mixing yellow peril caricatures with advanced technology. The message seemed to be that the threat was foreign and almost unworldly, yet very real and very dangerous.
In the past, especially during the late 19th and early 20th century, a number of the White American public viewed Asians as a threat to their jobs and as a potential source of degeneracy. Now this was no longer the case. Asians (particularly the Japanese) were deemed a serious enemy, something that stood in the way of America's freedom. From the successful sales of these war-driven Timely issues, apparently much of the audience was in sync with Goodman and companies' portrayal of the "yellow terror." One question that persisted while I was looking at these covers was, "why were Asians drawn in such an exaggerated sense?" Comics at this time drew an audience of primarily teenage boys; companies probably felt that subtlety and accuracy would not make as much of an impact on the reader, at least not enough for their sales to increase. Marc Singer, in his essay (cited in Sources below), comments that the comic, while an influential medium, was at times limited because it "rely(s) upon visually codified representations in which characters are continually reduced to their appearances...this system of visual typology combines with the superhero genre's long history of exluding, trivializing, or 'tokenizing' minorities to create numerous minority superheroes who are marked purely for their race." Though Singer here is referring to minority heroes prevalent later on in the 70's, his point also rings true for many of the Asian villains seen in the 40's. Race is not embedded into a part of everyday life, but rather used as a vehicle for conflict in the superhero comic. Maybe, at this time, it was both equally a result of the limitations of the genre as well as Timely's intentions toward their work and their audience. Afterall could white teenage boys relate to a character if he was Asian? Would they be willing to buy such an issue? How could they all of a sudden introduce an Asian character and not expect that character's race to play a role in the conflict? It would not be until the "tokenization" of several superheroes in the 70s that Asians would begin to be featured in a uniformly (perhaps pseudo) positive light. Despite the stereotypes still involved, this would later allow for the transition of race (previously only found as an element of discontent or conflict) to be intertwined with the everyday life of the character.
1. Daniels, Les. DC Comics: Sixty Years of the World's Favorite Comic Book Heroes. 1st ed. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1995.
2. Daniels, Les. Marvel : Five Fabulous Decades of the World's Greatest Comics. New York: H.N. Abrams, 1991.
3. Nevins, Jess. "The Timely Comics Web Page." 1998. 3 Apr. 2008 <www.geocities.com...>.
4. "The Outsiders:: Asian/Asian-American Characters in Comics." 16 Apr. 2008 <www.reappropriate.com>.
5. Singer, Marc. ""Black Skins" and White Masks: Comic Books and the Secret of Race." African American Review 36 (2002): 107-119.
Marvel Masterworks: Golden Age Captain America