Historian Paul Hirsch was a Caroline and Erwin Swann Foundation Fellow for Caricature and Cartoon at The John W. Kluge Center in summer 2015. His research explored the intersection of visual culture, race, policymaking, and diplomacy from World War II through the post-Cold War period.
Paul, your work investigates the convergence of comic book publishing with U.S. government propaganda during World War II. Let’s start with the context. Tell us about the comic book industry in the 1930s and early ’40s: what did the landscape look like?
Today, comic book superheroes represent safe, family entertainment. Movie adaptations of comic books generate billions of dollars for corporations like Disney and Time Warner. At the same time, graphic novels win literary awards and receive reviews in major newspapers. Comic books, themselves, are part of our collector culture – they are sold at stores catering to fans, while old issues can generate hundreds of thousands of dollars at auction.
In the 1930s and 1940s, the perception of comic books was totally different. Comics were viewed as crude, lowbrow entertainment for children or unsophisticated adults. They were almost totally uncensored, in contrast with traditional magazines, radio broadcasts, or books. And they were everywhere – comic books were available at grocery stores, newsstands, and drugstores, and strewn in waiting rooms, classrooms, and bus stations. The industry sold nearly a billion comic books a year during the 1940s. At the time, comics were disposable culture – buyers read comics then threw them away or traded them among friends.
The comic book industry, centered in New York City, was profoundly different, as well. It was run by a colorful collection of ex-pornographers, former left-wing radicals, and hustlers. Artists were paid by the page and often worked in sweatshops, cranking out work in assembly-line fashion. What unified the owners and creators was their status as social outsiders. Comic books were created and sold by men and women shut out of more mainstream professions. Women, African Americans, Asian Americans, and large numbers of Jewish immigrants invented and shaped the comic book, in part because they had no access to employment in other fields.
How is it that the U.S. government became interested in comic books?
The government took an interest in comic books for two primary reasons. First, they offered a covert means of spreading propaganda to an enormous audience. Nearly half of all servicemen identified as regular comic book readers, and millions of civilians around the world also consumed American comics. Second, because comics were uncensored, propagandists could use levels of violence, racism, and sexuality unthinkable in more official types of propaganda. Suddenly, the fact that comics were crude and packed with vicious imagery became an asset to the government – it enabled the creation of incredibly aggressive propaganda. And since it was often done covertly, the government did not appear to be involved at all. So the government could get its messages into print without raising suspicion about any links between itself and the racist propaganda about America’s enemies.
How did the Writers’ War Board fit into this picture?
On paper, the Writers’ War Board (WWB) was an independent organization staffed by volunteers committed to the creation of anti-fascist, pro-American culture. In reality, the WWB received funding and direction from a federal agency called the Office of War Information (OWI). The WWB allowed the government to create unofficial propaganda for consumption by civilians and servicemen. Shielded by its veneer of independence, the WWB wove propaganda into popular culture to fuel a hatred of fascism, using language and images not available to propagandists openly affiliated with the government.
Who was in charge of message development?
Within the WWB there was a Comics Committee that created comic book characters and story ideas that were then passed to cooperating publishers. Writers and artists would build artwork and language around ideas submitted by the Comics Committee, and then return drafts to the WWB for review. Frequently, the WWB returned these drafts with very specific requests for more anti-Japanese images, or more explicitly anti-German narratives. The WWB believed comic book publishers spent too much time attacking Nazis, specifically, rather than the German nation, as a whole. The board wanted comics to depict all Germans – not just Nazi party members – as responsible for the violence and atrocities committed during the war. WWB members also worried that comic books did not generate sufficient hatred for Japan. As the war against Japan dragged on into 1944, the WWB demanded stories that emphasized the need for a merciless, race-based war of extermination in the Pacific.
How would you describe the role of comic book authors and publishers? Reluctant participants or willing accomplices? Did anyone offer resistance?
Although some publishers did not work with the board, overwhelmingly, comic book companies were willing accomplices to the WWB. Cooperating with the WWB was seen as a patriotic obligation. Working with the WWB also made financial sense, as publishers had to comply with wartime rationing of wood pulp, the essential ingredient in comic book paper. A publisher in good standing that printed WWB-sanctioned stories might receive access to additional wood pulp, and sell more comic books.
As a final question, would you give us an idea of how the Library’s collections informed your research?
The Library of Congress contains several remarkable collections that enable historians to better understand the power of comic books during the mid-twentieth century. These, in conjunction with the knowledge of the Library’s curators and specialists, proved enormously helpful to my project. The Serial and Government Publication Division houses many thousands of original comic books not available elsewhere. The Manuscript Division houses the recently-opened papers of Fredric Wertham, a leading critic of the comic book form and a prolific correspondent. It is also home to the papers of the Writers’ War Board, which offer a remarkable window onto the relationship between the federal government and the comic book industry during World War II.
Paul Hirsch was a Caroline and Erwin Swann Foundation for Caricature and Cartoon in summer 2015. He is currently a Resident Fellow at the Institute for Historical Study in the Department of History at the University of Texas at Austin.
- Lecture: “No Evil Shall Escape My Sight: Fredric Wertham & the Anti-Comics Crusade” (Kluge Fellow Chris Bishop, 2013)
- Panel: “Is Gatsby More Culturally Significant than Superman?” (Kluge Center fellows Christopher Bishop, Andrew Kerr & Adam Sherif, 2013)
- Comic Books at the Library of Congress
- Cartoons and Comics in the Library of Congress collections
- The Small Press Expo Collection at the Library of Congress
For Further Reading:
- Library of Congress Opens Papers of Comics Opponent Fredric Wertham (Washington City Paper, August 11, 2010)
- Records of the Office of War Information (National Archives)
- More about the Writers’ War Board and the Office of War Information (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum)