For all the flack that comic books used to catch for being “funny books” or, less euphemistically, useless magazines, they have turned out to be, in more ways than one, a way of looking back through history on the way in which many issues were perceived — little secret gems of history contained in 24 pages. While this can be seen across almost every comic book genre, rarely is it ever as prevalent as the stories of war.
Though comics as we know them have been around in one form or another since around the year 1500, with one-page graphics and quick, quippy commentary in a newspaper marking what would be considered the first comic strip, comic books as we love them now were primarily a WWII-era phenomenon. As much as people often love to romanticize the pride and unrestrained patriotism of this period of America, the truth is that the country at that time was largely isolationist with little desire to explore anything beyond the familiarity of safe-but-daring for the time adventure stories such as Milton Caniff’s Terry and the Pirates or Tailspin by Hal Forrest — hence why so many of these beloved comics have aged with a glaringly racist tone when viewed from today’s perspective.
The late 1930s was when the United States began to see the emergence of the comic book as we enjoy them now. 1938 saw Action Comics #1 being released, and children everywhere clamored towards the newsstands for an ongoing series featuring all-new characters and adventures, as opposed to the cheaply produced reprints of newspaper strips and pulp stories previously available. Action Comics, of course, was the original home of Superman, an alien to Earth — and, thus, also an immigrant, much like many of the population of the U.S. at the time — standing for hard work, justice, and, most importantly, fighting for the idealistic “American Way.”
That last element wasn’t overlooked by either the character’s quickly growing fanbase or those outside of the U.S.; two years after the character’s debut, a two-page comic for Look magazine in 1940 called “How Superman Would End the War” caused such a fuss among the Nazi party that a famously fascistic newsletter wrote a hit piece on Superman’s creators Joe Shuster and Jerry Seigel themselves.
Superman was far from the only starter for patriotic virtue though, as many other costumed heroes quickly emerged throughout the Great Depression, including Green Lantern and Batman, each becoming famous for taking down corrupt businessmen villains — echoing the desires of a population feeling left in the dust by their employers and their country. Fortunately, the most unfortunate circumstances would begin to distance readers and the subject of their comics from the struggles there at home soon after.
The desire to win the war and help the war efforts was something that went hand-in-hand with comics. As much as there was resistance by early readers who were reticent to deal with anything more than a Tintin adventure when it came to seeing happenings around the world, the largely Jewish creative line-ups of early superhero comics were ready and willing to use every ounce of influence that their beloved characters could sway — and sway they did as WWII began, with 15 million comic books were being sold every month. As that number skyrocketed to 25 million copies within two years, who better to stand as the top customer for comic books in this period than the United States military? Both military men eager for the diversion and the medium’s original target audience of young children proved to be groups hooked on the stories, their characters, and the seemingly all-American virtuous fight against the evils abroad.
Superman and other big name fan-favorites never fought in the wars during their early years, though, with multiple flimsy excuses made to keep our heroes at home from the minds of Siegel, Shuster, and their fellow creators. (Clark can’t pass his Army enlistment physical because he gets to anxious that he accidentally uses his x-ray vision on the next room’s chart and gets declared unfit for duty!) That’s not to say that Superman didn’t do his part with the war efforts, however, as his new main mission after being declared 4-F came down to doing what every good American at the time was expected to do for the war: the most you can from home or, in Clark Kent’s case, from Metropolis inside the pages of his regular adventures.
Some heroes proved to be an exception to this idea, as it happened, with the prime example being none other than Timely Comics’ Captain America and his plucky sidekick Bucky Barnes. Unlike the way in which many other heroes of the time personified the hope of rallying the help from home, Captain America’s role was planted firmly on the front lines, helping to fight the forces of evil even before America’s official engagement had actually begun.
This was an exceptional turning point for many war comics, because Captain America was offering readers something different than what they were used to: more violent, more bloody, and, for all intents and purposes, more realistic to the perils of what many of the fighting men overseas were experiencing. That’s not to say that these books weren’t ready for young eyes, though, with Captain America always making it clear that the rules of war are ones that are imperative, with his adversaries always portrayed as playing dirty or trying to cheat and, of course, losing because of that. Even in wartime, impressionable minds needed to be taught the right lessons, after all.
As disposable and seemingly ephemeral as the medium may have started out, the thought of comic books being the way to reach potential freedom fighters was not lost on the American government, and soon reached far beyond mere fictional hints at helping with the war effort.
"Junior air raid warden kits, aircraft recognition flash cards, paper drives, money for war bonds and scrap metal drives were all supposed to help children feel like they were doing their part for the war effort.”
As the war wound down, however, so did the opportunity for such clear-cut propaganda. Captain America was cancelled, Superman and Lois Lane discovered the joys of petty crime and surreal science fiction, and the reign of romance comics, westerns, and Archie Andrews began to take over as the superhero genre fell from dominance in sales terms. But, as the story goes, this couldn’t last forever, and the stories of World War II — and the much more present Korean War of 1950 — began to appear in comics once again.
This new generation of war comics had a different vibe from what readers had gotten used to reading in the patriotic days of yore, however; wrought with peril, shrapnel, and a deeper focus on the emotional toll of a battlefield death, war comics like Foxhole, The United States Marines, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s Sgt Fury and His Howling Commandos, and War Battles* (cut them some slack — there’s only so many “war” titles out there), and many others. This shift became something of a trend, with more comics featuring actual military tales or military forces in a semi-realistic light that, aside from being glaringly racist and misogynistic by modern standards, also played with the idea of becoming an informational tool for prospective draftees, carrying forward into the war in Vietnam.
In fact, famed cartoonist Will Eisner served as a cartoonist for a regular series of technical bulletins called The Preventative Maintenance Monthly during the Vietnam era, using exclamation points, quippy writing, and funny, sexually suggestive titles like How To Strip Your Baby and All the Way with Negligee to pull in young male draftees who had, just a few years earlier, gone gaga over his work with The Spirit. Eisner’s Preventative Maintenance work was so popular that it persists to this day in reprints, with more than 95% of its content still applicable to use — minus the delightfully cheesecake art though, maybe.
Moving forward in history, contributions from Joe Kubert and many other seminal creators whose war comics took a more harrowing approach to storytelling meant that many comics of the 60s and 70s ultimately presented a much more realistic view of war to young and impressionable readers, revealing that going to war was not necessarily the glorious thing that previous stories would have them believe.
The idea of not only telling true stories from the front lines, but putting emphasis on the repercussions and emotional impact of war, is a welcome and ongoing process for many war comic creators. The concept of war comics as propaganda has thankfully left the building, along with the painfully aged cover slogans, and instead the comics often beg readers for empathy — even sympathy — for those involved, allowing readers to come to grips with the idea that, while pride in country is one thing, being tricked — or financially shoehorned, in many cases — into a thankless service to harm others for money during times of war is a decision that is not to be taken lightly.
Books like The White Donkey: Terminal Lance by Max Uriarte from Little Brown offers a story of experience in Iraq from the author’s own experiences — taking a middle ground view of the social conflict of happening in the Middle East, and DC’s The Sheriff of Babylon from writer Tom King and artist Mitch Gerads offers a unique and unexpectedly liberal take on American and Middle Eastern relations through the lens of King’s own experience as a former CIA operative. Even war books of fiction offer a new flavor of understanding when it comes to playing to their audience.
There’s no doubt that comics have done more than their fair share of advocating for “God and Country”, whether that is in more datedly inappropriate ways (like giving rifles to kids, perhaps) through to being more open and honest about the stresses and consequences of the sacrifice of service. But through the near-century that American comics have gone to war, if there's one thing that we can count on in the future it's that as long as there will be comics there will be comics about war.