The sense of ‘pulling together for the greater good’, as we in Canada are doing now under the jackboot occupation of this pandemic, would have had a sympathetic resonance with the Canadians of the Second World War homefront eight decades ago.
At that time, we were a nation doing its best to push back against an external enemy and this affected and created a new-normal daily life in our country for a period of six years. Admittedly, our present tribulation shouldn’t be anywhere nearly as long, but the tone of a human and national struggle against a common foe–that could very well do us in–is not that different. While the threat of that time had a face that we could vilify, pillory, and caricaturize, the microbial, spikey ball haunting us today is given its public incarnation through statistics and graphs and through the panorama of human consequence that stretches across our media screens during our waking hours. The front lines in the early forties were the European and Pacific theatres, today they are drawn up in our hospitals and ICUs. During the war, we, on the home front, pulled together against the Axis by drawing together in rallies, staging scrap and paper drives, and by organizing all sorts of social events to raise funds to buy war bonds. Today, we at home fight by repelling each other with two-metre magnetic shields and the forced cocooning of stay-at-home isolation.
Given the context of this great new ‘super-villain’ in our lives (and the front-line health care workers have stepped out of phone booths with their super-hero emblems blazing), I wanted to talk a little about a far more trivial topic–the representation of villains in our Canadian comics of the Second World War.
It’s strange that none of the hero story lines in the Canadian war-time comics produced a recurring arch-villain. No counterpart of The Joker, Luthor, Red Skull or Doctor Doom ever stepped out of those black-and-white pages. The great enemy was The Axis, and perhaps that was enough. True there were a set of minor transplants from Fawcett (Sivana, Captain Nazi, and Mr. Mind) in the Anglo-American redraws, but we never produced an appropriate archfoe for Johnny Canuck—we had to rely on Hitler. Perhaps there wasn’t enough evil in our country to match the evil abroad….
I think we started to come close towards the very end of the time of these first Canadian comics when Adrian Dingle brought back Vultor from Glacia to battle Nelvana (F. E. Howard’s Super Duper Comics No. 3 May-June 1947) and especially when Tedd Steele conjured up The Mole to fight Speed Savage as the White Mask in the three-story arc of Triumph Comics Nos. 27-29. However, the most prominent menace in the first five years (1941-45) of Canadian comics was the three-headed, fire-breathing dragon of The Axis bearing the faces of Hitler, Tojo, and Mussolini.
For the first year (1941), Canadian comics seemed to shy away from cartoon political statements altogether, leaving them to the editorial pages of newspapers. True, a comic book-like collection of editorial strips by former soldier, Harry Hall, titled Mean Scamp-F appeared in that year featuring caricatures of the German and Italian despots (Japan had not yet entered the war), but it certainly wasn’t a comic book. During that year, depictions of the enemy were relegated to the odd sentry that was roughed up or dispatched by a protagonist.
It seems that the first appearance of Hitler in those early Canadian comics was in the penultimate panel of the first-ever Johnny Canuck story in the first issue of Dime Comics (February 1942) where he places a bounty on our hero’s head. Johnny punches him in the nose in the next issue. Il Duce also has a couple of appearances during this pre-Dingle time at Bell Features.
Now, Hitler’s first cover appearance on one of these Canadian war-time comics seems to be on Dingle’s first issue for Bell Features, Triumph Comics No. 7 (c. May 1942). Here The Fuhrer is about to be crushed by the iron thighs of Nelvana looking to have done a WWE leap off the corner ropes. What a way to go!
The strange thing is that this is the only Bell Features cover on which Hitler, or any of the Axis leaders, appears. In fact, none of them appear on any Educational Projects (Canadian Heroes Comics) issues out of Montreal, and I can only come up with one cover appearance from the Vancouver publisher, Maple Leaf Publications, and that is Better Comics Vol. 3 No. 1 (Dec.-Jan. 1943-4) where the spooky 1944 New Year’s baby has Hitler and Tojo secured in a duffel bag and ready for prosecution.
The main culprit seems to be Anglo-American Publications where I count three, possibly four, Axis leader covers. The earliest of these is Three Aces Comics Vol. 1 No. 9 from October 1942. It depicts Les Gilpin’s comic “superhero” character Sooper-Dooper roughing up two-out-of-three of the heads of the Axis dragon.
A month later, Anglo put out Whiz Comics Vol. 1 No. 11 (November 1942) and here it’s another comic representation with The Big Red Cheese confronting a troll Mussolini and troll Hitler.
A couple of years later Anglo put out Grand Slam Comics Vol. 4 No. 1 (December 1944) showing a proper Canadian superhero, Commander Steel, giving gut punches to Tojo and Adolph.
The one I’m not sure about and is probably the best of the lot is Grand Slam Comics Vol. 2 No. 5 from April 1943. This clearly isn’t Tojo, but it’s probably a good representation of the way Canadian propaganda hyperbolically demonized the Japanese, sometimes turning a corner down a dark alley that they don’t seem to do with representing European members of the Axis.
After the war, the governments and the public in Canada pretty much rebuilt normal and we headed into the Cold War. I don’t think it’ll be as easy a transition into the new normal around the corner this time. I wonder to what extent it’ll impact our trivial little comic book hobby moving forward?
We have formed a small team to plan our celebration of the 80th anniversary of the first Canadian floppy (Better Comics Vol. 1 No. 1 March 1941) next year (2021). The team is headed by Brendan Montgomery of Sequential Magazine and we hope to be able to execute a number of manageable events that will bring attention to the fact that 2021 will be the 80th year of Canadian comics. I have heard the 80th anniversary of anything called the “oak anniversary” and the second “diamond anniversary”, but I think we should call it the Red Maple Anniversary and revel in the fact that Canada has such a rich eight-decade legacy of this popular art form.