© Copyright 2018 Sarah Morris, Ryerson University
The 1940s not only brought on the devastation that was the Second World War, but also helped with the advancements and changing roles of Canadian women. The Second World War, being larger than that of the First World War meant that Canadian women had to step up to replace the countless men that had to head overseas as soldiers. Women all over Canada were moving into the everyday and militaristic workforce (Yesil 103). Women had become much more prominent in society, and this is what began to be seen in the female characters of Canadian comics. The fourteenth issue of Active Comics, released under Bell Features, in Toronto, Canada, during 1943 is where these prominent female characters are seen. There are four specific comics from the fourteenth issue that are significant to the research of supportive female characters being “Capt. Red Thortan”, “Thunderfist”, “King of Fury”, and “Active Jim”. The female characters that play big roles in these comics are “Missy Howath”, “Dave’s unnamed sister”, “Tanya”, and “Joan Brian”, respectively. Each of these female characters play important roles in their comics when it comes to helping the male protagonists fulfilling their heroic duties. It is these supportive female characters that then aid the research topic of why female characters were so commonly depicted as supportive sidekicks to the male protagonists (heroes) in the fourteenth issue of Active Comics.
Having a better understanding as to why these female characters were shown as supportive sidekicks can reveal how the real women of Canada were being perceived in media and everyday life. The perception of women during the early and mid-20th century is complicated as there was advancements, but also disadvantages. Women were being seen as strong and independent during the war, but they were also only being shown as the supporters. It was the male soldiers who were being seen as the heroes of the war, while the women were there to aid them. The female characters in Active Comics represent this contrast of being seen as independent, and as only sidekicks. These more supportive and helpful roles that the female sidekicks play can be linked back to the Canadian Women’s Army Corps during the Second World War, the changing roles of women from the 1930s to the Second World War, and even the strong influence of the popular Nancy Drew novel series.
The CWAC and “King of Fury”
The female sidekick in “King of Fury”, Tanya, is a perfect example of the real Canadian women who held positions in the Canadian Women’s Army Corps (CWAC) (Dundas, Durflinger). Tanya, who works with the Nazis, has a higher ranked position than some of her male counterparts. When Tanya asks to be let inside the prison cell of one of the male protagonists, the Nazi soldier allows her in, although the soldier is reluctant, as explained by the narrator, he cannot say no to her (Lipas 29). Like Tanya, many Canadian women also held high positions in militaristic jobs. Mary Dover was the second highest ranked women in the Canadian forces, and was well respected by both men and women (Thrift 10). Tanya and Mary Dover are similar through their high ranked positions, and their support for the men in their lives. It is understandable to see a woman in Canadian comics with such a high ranked position, when many women in Canada were the same.
The support that Tanya provides for the male protagonist can also be linked back to the women of the CWAC. As Mary Dover once stated:
“As men are needed to take their place in the field of battle, so the women are needed in theirs behind the lines…” (Thrift 9).
The women of the CWAC and Tanya are all supporters, and would explain why, despite having higher positions, are still only the sidekicks to the male protagonists. Mary Dover was known to say that once the war was over, the women would leave their positions, and go back to their household duties (Thrift 7). This is comparable to when Tanya is injured by Nazi gunfire, and the male protagonist must bring her to safety. in the end, the women of the CWAC will go back to their household duties and Tanya will be saved by the male heroes. The women of the CWAC and Tanya of “King of Fury”, although independent women with high ranked jobs, are still only the sidekicks to the heroes. Seeing the female character as a sidekick to the male hero is not only seen in “King of Fury”, but also “Capt. Red Thortan” with Missy Howath.
Changing Roles of Women and “Capt. Red Thortan”
Over the course of the Second World War, the roles of women went through a drastic change (Yesil 103). Women began working in predominantly male based professions, like factory work, as men took their place as soldiers for the ongoing war. The changing of Canadian women’s roles can be seen in the abundant amounts of Canadian war propaganda, which urged women to join the working force. The changing of female roles is also depicted in Canadian comics, with many female characters playing supporting roles for the male protagonists.
The comic “Capt. Red Thortan” shows this supportive female role through the character Missy Howath. The Japanese, who have captured Howath and Red (the male protagonist), say that Howath is a very wealthy Dutch woman. It is later revealed that Missy Howath must be in a position of power or has slight influence as an unnamed Indigenous man frees the male protagonist, Red, so they can go and help Howath. It is Missy Howath’s unknown influence (as of issue fourteen of Active Comics) that frees the male protagonist from captivity, leading to her own liberation. However, Missy Howath’s character, despite her power, still conforms to the early 20th century’s idea of “stereotypical femininity” (Hall, Lopez-Gydosh, Orzada 234). After she is saved, Missy praises Red for saving her, as if Red’s escape from captivity was of his own doing. Although Missy Howath enabled Red’s escape from prison, she is still merely portrayed as the supporter, while Red is shown as the hero. The roles of supporter and hero were also being seen in the real world with Canadian women and men. Even though Canadian women were stepping up to take on the previous jobs of the men, they were still only the supporters to the ‘real’ heroes of the Second World War, the male soldiers. However, these changing roles of Canadian women were not the only things influencing Canadian comics as other aspects of the entertainment industry were as well.
Nancy Drew’s Influence in “Thunderfist” and “Active Jim”
The Nancy Drew novels were a series that, after first coming out in 1930, became immensely popular with children and young adults (Boesky 189). Nancy Drew was an iconic heroine character, known for her independence and brilliant detective skills (Cornelius). These traits are also present in the female characters of Canadian comic books, such as “Thunderfist” and “Active Jim”. Both these comics include female characters who aid the male protagonists of the story with their detective skills. Dave’s unnamed sister in “Thunderfist” is the one to inform Thunderfist (the male protagonist) about the gangster’s plot to steal money, and possibly murder her brother. If it was not for the information that Dave’s sister presented, then Thunderfist would never have known about the dire situation.
Nancy Drew’s influence is even more prominent in the character Joan Brian from the comic “Active Jim”. In “Active Jim”, Joan and Jim overhear important gossip from some girls in their university. At Jim’s request, Joan quickly enters the girl’s conversation, and acquires the details that they need to continue on with their mission of stopping the Nazi supporters. Joan Brian is very similar to Nancy Drew in the fact that her role is to infiltrate and obtain information that will aid her in her missions (with Jim). The only difference with the female characters in comics, compared to Nancy Drew is that they are not the heroines in the story. These female comic characters have more realistic standings with the real women of Canada as they were both the supporters of the men. The women were the sidekicks, and not the ‘heroes’ of the war, as that went to the male soldiers. However, this does not mean that women were not treated fairly, compared to their male counterparts. The truth of how women were seen during the Second World War is not as obvious as many would like to think.
The Complicated Roles of Women
It is almost impossible to know exactly how women, as a collective, were treated during the Second World War as it is unfair to ultimately decide that all women were either treated as lesser or as equals to men. It is better to assume that the roles and treatment of women were improving, but with the prolonged presence of some misogynistic aspects. When analyzing the roles that the female characters in Active Comics played, they can be seen as both independent women and stereotypical “damsels in distress”. Characters like Tanya and Missy Howath despite possessing higher positions of power, still are saved by the male protagonists. Tanya is described as a “burden” (Lipas 31) that the male protagonist has to carry to safety, while Missy Howath throws herself into Red’s arms when he saves her. Both women are the reason that the male protagonists are able to escape, yet it is the males who are shown as the heroes of the comics. It is the same with the characters of Joan Brian, and Dave’s unnamed sister, who are influenced by Nancy Drew, despite not being the heroines of the story, like Nancy Drew is in her novels. The female sidekicks are the main reason why the male heroes are able to complete their missions, and without the women, the men would not be able to function, in both the comic world and the real world.
The common depiction of female characters as supportive sidekicks to the male protagonists in Active Comics issue fourteen is a research question that requires further investigation to fully be understood. Not being able to ask the Active Comics illustrators and writers, means that the exact intentions of the supportive female characters cannot be known. The influence of the evolving roles of Canadian women, and the Nancy Drew novel series are very likely to be the inspiration for the female characters in Canadian comics. Tanya and Missy Howath both share similarities with the improving roles of Canadian women during the Second World War. Tanya is a women of high standing in the military, as were the women of the CWAC. Missy Howath is an example of women being seen with more influencing positions, as she is someone that the Japanese are interested in. Joan Brian and Dave’s unnamed sister share detective like similarities with the popular heroine of the novel series Nancy Drew. However, these women are not fully in control of the story, as that goes to the male protagonists that they aid. Tanya is described by the narrator as being a burden to the male protagonist when he has to carry her, while Missy Howath throws herself into Red’s arm to thank him for saving her. Joan Brian and Dave’s unnamed sister, although sharing many similarities with Nancy Drew, they are not the heroines of the story, like Nancy Drew is. The female comic characters, although helpful, are merely the sidekicks to the male heroes, like how Canadian women were the supporters for the male soldiers.
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