In our first part of the Nazi Punchin’ Fourth of July Super Spectacular, we discussed how American superheroes had barely had time to celebrate their terrible twos with the debut of Superman in 1938 and Batman in 1939 before the sensational new cultural icons were co-opted as propaganda symbols to boost Allied morale both in the trenches and on the homefront in World War II.
Comics creators and publishers were eager to get the good guys in the fray, sending the superheroes to thrash Hitler and his goose-stepping cronies well before American combat boots ever set foot on occupied soil, and doing their best to convince an American public that was very non-committal, and still recovering from the sting of the Great Depression, that taking up arms against the oppressors in the Axis was the right thing to do.
By the time the U.S. entered the war in late 1941, the publishers might’ve been competitors on the newsstands, but were unified in their support of American G.I.s.
Rather than covers emblazoned with scenes of battle involving mad scientists and alien conquerers, the masked men and wonderous women took up arms against the Nazi menace, both on the front lines, and taking down saboteurs and fifth columnists within America itself.
Even the Dark Knight and Boy Wonder temporarily dropped their disavowment of firearms to support the troops:
Wonder Woman’s debut in All Star Comics #8 hit newsstands in December, 1941. Draped in a bustier with an American eagle emblazoned on it, and wearing a star-spangled skirt, Princess Diana was practically ready-made to be a symbol of American superiority, and it didn’t take long before she was trampling on German troops in her heels.
Superman, being the first and unquestionably most popular of the vanguard, had the notoriety of being singled out by the Third Reich after a story creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster did for Look magazine was published in 1940, where Superman headed off the trouble in Europe and took care of two potential threats to global freedom in a mere two pages:
The Nazis were *not* amused, and when the story reached Germany, the weekly newspaper of the SS, Das Schwarze Korps, ran a large article mocking writer Jerry Siegel, calling him “physically and intellectually circumsized” and “the inventive Israelite”. (The Korps left Joe Shuster alone, unaware of his heritage from just his name alone and apparently too lazy to do any sort of research.)
The article ended with the fifth grade playground declaration that “Jerry ‘Siegellack’ stinks”, and adding:
Woe to the American youth, who must live in such a poisoned atmosphere and don’t notice the poison they swallow daily.
At least we know better not to waste our time shooting at the Man of Steel with a mere Luger. Less time with your nose buried in Mein Kampf and a little more Action Comics in your reading diet, and you’d know that, too.
Jerry Siegel, on his part, hadn’t been called in the early rounds of the draft, and went as far to tell his family that the government specifically made him exempt because “Hitler would kill him” if the co-creator of the hated Superman went overseas.
It seemed plausible . . . up until the summer of 1943, when Jerry was finally called on to serve.
Other creators had experienced some blowback from Nazi sympathizers over their patriotic comics. Writer / artist Charles Biro, who wrote and drew one of the more famous propaganda examples, Daredevil Battles Hitler #1, claimed that the anti-Nazi sentiments in the comics of his publisher, Lev Gleason Productions, actually got him warned that for his ‘insolence’, Biro would be ‘strung up’ when the Nazis inevitably did invade America and Hitler took control of the United States.
The most classic example, however, involves legendary artist and Captain America co-creator Jack Kirby.
According to Cap co-creator, writer Joe Simon, in his memoir, The Comic Book Makers, angry Nazi sympathizers started their campaign against the Hitler-punching antics of Captain America with simple hate mail to Timely Comics, but soon accelerated to calling the offices of Timely on Forty-Second Street in New York. Some Timely staffers had noticed strange and dangerous looking men hanging around outside the office and called the police.
The response? A personal affirmation from New York mayor Fiorello LaGuardia that the NYPD would keep an eye on the folks who produced Captain America. LaGuardia was a huge comics fan who read comic strips out loud over the radio during a newspaper strike so his fellow fans, especially kids, wouldn’t miss out on their favorite strips because of disputes between labor and management.
Think of it as a very analog way of torrenting.
According to legend — and the story seems to vary slightly depending on the source — at one point, despite the police presence around the Timely offices, a couple of men who claimed to be members of the American Nazi Party either called or actually showed up at the office, demanding to confront the men who created Captain America.
Jack, undaunted, rolled up his sleeves, got up from his drawing board, and went down to the lobby to meet his ‘admirers’ face-to-face. Depending on the version of the story, they’d either split before Kirby got downstairs, although some say Jack physically removed them from the building himself.
Kirby had grown up in some rough and tumble New York neighborhoods, and spent time running with street gangs in his youth before discovering art. Whatever the truth of the situation was, Jack wasn’t the meek pencil-pushing nerd the Nazi lovers were probably expecting. Jack had been in street brawls as a kid, so the prospect of trading punches with real life Nazi hanger-ons and re-creating the sock to the jaw Steve Rogers landed on Adolf Hitler on the cover of Captain America #1 probably wasn’t too intimidating for him.
(Comic pioneer Will Eisner had a similar story about how, when Kirby was working for Eisner’s studio earlier in his career, an even younger Jack had chased off a gangster who was lingering around the offices, looking for a protection payout.)
And that, folks, is one of the many, many reasons we have crowned him The King.
While it sounds crass to say so, the war had been good for comics, pushing circulation to new heights. In 1942 sales had reached over 15 million copies a month over nearly 150 titles being published, and beyond the official accounting figures, the estimates were that each comic sold was being read by as many as four different individual readers, giving the art form, just over a decade old, a reach of sixty million fans a month.
Comics were deemed a worthy enough part of the war effort that exemptions on paper rationing were readily made for publishers to keep turning them out in record numbers, to help bring a little four-color fantasy to an otherwise bleak and uncertain day-to-day existence.
On the homefront, superheroes helped to keep morale high, and kids were being taught that supporting the war by buying U.S. War Bonds would result in this:
American servicemen overseas certainly got regular doses of Superman and Captain America, but the lonely young men, often stationed in a foreign land far from home and their sweethearts, had a particular fondness for the good girl art in comics like Brenda Starr, Torchy, and Sheena, Queen of the Jungle.
As comics historian and writer Nicky Wright put it in his excellent book, The Classic Era of American Comics:
Fiction House good girl comics were just the thing our boys needed over there. Just like movie star actresses such as Betty Grable, Sheena was lording it in the barrack rooms across Britain and the Far East. Senorita Rio traveled in the soldier’s kit; in the crumpled and frequently re-read, pages of Fight Comics the lovely Senorita’s seductive looks promised great times back home.
When finally the men were slogging across a war-ravaged Europe, candy, gum and strips of sexy Sheena were all there was of home. For that reason alone, [creators and publishers like] Thurman T. Scott and Jerry Iger, probably without realizing it, did much for the sanity of innocent youngsters forced into a living hell.
While they served valiantly during wartime, sadly, after World War II drew to close and there was no need for Nazi teeth to be loosened with a gloved-wrapped knuckle sandwich, the superhero genre rapidly (if temporarily) fell out of favor. Comics themselves continued to be a dominant form of post-war entertainment and evolved into new styles and genres — particularly more adult fare such as crime and horror.
Certain caped stalwarts such as Superman and Batman never once disappeared from newsstand racks, but many of the era’s heroes and heroines faded into obscurity, their tour of duty having come to an end.
And that brings our little history lesson to a close. But before we go, like any good Fourth of July celebration, let’s send things off with a sense-shattering crescendo barrage of punches (with the occasional vintage bombshell tossed in for good measure). Cue up your favorite stirring patriotic music track. Ready?
Thanks for stopping by Public Domain!
Hope everyone has a safe and happy holiday celebration, and remember: if you do find yourself in a jam, follow Princess Diana McGuyver’s lead here, and remember the solution involves all that meat waiting to be BBQed.
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