The Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines a comic book as “a magazine containing sequences of comic strips.”
Comic books are often looked at as a nerdy pastime, something to waste time and money on while engaged in a fictional battle between superhuman good and evil. But many do not know that they were also a very important part of one of the deadliest and most widespread wars in all of our Earth’s history: World War II. It seems almost comical itself that a thin paper book filled with colorful strips of art depicting superheroes battling ridiculous villains would be so important to history. Yet the fact remains that the superhero comic came of age at the same time as the second World War, and it was mostly due to the war itself. These books helped to promote patriotism, provide a form of entertainment and escape for soldiers, and help children feel their place in the war.
Comic books often promoted patriotism to an extreme. Superheroes were frequently seen battling Nazis and Japanese soldiers, diverting rockets from the Allied soil, and socking various Axis villains. Some of the most popular heroes of the war were Superman, Batman, Captain Marvel, and the Shield. And let’s not forget Captain America, himself a super-soldier created to fight the Nazis. He was the embodiment of all America and the Allies stood for, as his very name suggests. Even his costume loudly proclaimed his alliance: red and white stripes, with plenty of blue and stars thrown in as well. And, as R. T. Johnson reminds us, nine months before America even entered the war the cover of Captain America #1 pictured Hitler being punched by the hero himself (“Comic Books and World War II: Buying into the War”). These magazines also had advertisements for war bonds and stamps on the front, encouraging civilians to help out the soldiers in the trenches. One Batman comic shows the hero delivering a new rifle to a thankful soldier with the statement, “Here’s a new gun from the folks back home, soldier!” while Robin adds, “Yep! The folks that are backing the 7th war loan!” (Batman #30, August/September 1935).
Comic books also afforded a small pleasure to those whom would seem a much less likely audience: the soldiers themselves.
To quote R. T. Johnson, “The books were seen as something to take their minds off what was to come and what had taken place. They were cheap, easy to carry, and the comic itself didn’t require a college education to read. It was part entertainment, part instructional manual, and part psychologist for the soldier (“Comic Books and World War II…”).” And SuperheroMultiverse.com restates historian Mike Benton’s assertion in his book, Superhero Comics of the Golden Age, that out of all American soldiers in basic training, 44% read comics as a regular habit, and that these same comics were shipped to them once they were stationed abroad (“World War II and the Superhero”).
Wartime comics also helped another demographic, one quite different, yet not so completely removed from the soldiers. Young boys also read and enjoyed these books. The comics gave children a sense that they were doing something to help the war, as many advertised for paper and scrap metal drives which the children engaged in. Also, many superheroes were assisted by young cohorts who appealed to the boys. Captain America was aided by a 12-year-old kid named Bucky Barnes, while Batman had the aforementioned Robin.
Comics continue to be a prominent form of entertainment media to this day, and many of their starring characters and stories have been adapted for other mediums, such as television and movies.
These same heroes still speak to us today, mirroring the state of our world at any given period and giving an outlet to escape to when reality becomes grim. But many forget where they truly started, and the impact they had on their fans – and even the entire world.
“Comic Book.” Merriam-Webster, Encyclopedia Britannica, https://www.merriam-webster.com/ dictionary/comic%20book. Accessed 16 December 2016
Eury, Michael.“World War II and the Superhero.” SuperheroMultiverse.com http://superheromultiverse.com/world-war-ii-and-superhero. Accessed 16 December 19, 2016
Johnson, R. T. “Comic Books and World War II: Buying into the War.” The History Rat, https://historyrat.wordpress.com/2015/05/25/comic-books-and-world-war-ii-buying-into-the-war/. Accessed 17 December 2016