Category Archives: Active Comics

Canadian Nationalism and Indigenous representation in “Dixon of the Mounted”

Comic books are often considered to be monopolized by America. Canada’s relatively unsung comic history creates an interesting space to investigate the cultural and social narratives that were relevant to the era. Bell Features and Publishing Company Limited began printing comic books in 1941 as a result of the War Exchange Conservations Act, which “restrict[ed] the importation of non-essential goods” (such as comic books) (Canadian Golden Age of Comics).  This essay will analyze the “Dixon of the Mounted” stories in the sixth and eighth issues of Active Comics (1942). Throughout the comics, there are stark instances of racism, prejudice, and misrepresentation as well as complete lack of representation or acknowledgment of Indigenous culture. To refer to this lack of representation I will use the term “erasure”, or more specifically, Indigenous or cultural erasure. Through the examination of the comic’s appropriation, misrepresentation, and erasure of Indigenous culture, this essay intends to investigate the effects that these portrayals may have on the sociopolitical position of Indigenous people and culture.

Nationalism and “Dixon of the Mounted”

“Dixon of the Mounted” is a white male who is employed by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and is stationed in the Hudson’s Bay area (Steele 5-6). In other words, he is portrayed as what would have been seen as the “ideal Canadian” male in the 1940’s (Beaty 434). In the sixth issue of the comic, he is chasing down three German Nazis. Dixon exhibits expert skills in canoeing, tracking and overall knowledge of wilderness, particularly in contrast to the Germans. It is important to note that Dixon is portrayed as exceedingly proficient in activities which are generally viewed as having a strong association to Canadian identity and moreover, that these activities historically originated from Indigenous culture and were taught to European settlers by Indigenous communities. Furthermore, it is also noted that there is no representation or acknowledgment of Indigenous people throughout the entire sixth issue. Subsequently, the portrayal of Indigenous people in Issue eight is criminalizing and demeaning, dealing with drug use; murder; and the inability of the Chief to maintain a safe and functioning community without the help of Dixon. This representation plays into harmful stereotypes, ultimately perpetuating an already disgraceful treatment of Indigenous people by European colonizers.

It is equally essential to observe the strongly nationalistic tone that is displayed throughout the Dixon comics. Canadian nationalist ideals represented throughout the comic include the glorified ability to navigate the wilderness and the portrayal that colonization is for the betterment of Canada (i.e. portrayal that Indigenous communities cannot function without assistance). As Beaty recognizes, there are often nationalist narratives in comics, and that this effectively “reduces Canada’s multicultural heritage and champions the . . . face of a heterosexual, middle-class, white, male government employee as the ultimate desire of the populace” (Beaty 434). Dixon is represented in the comics as the Canadian ideal, which disregards the history of Indigenous and European interaction and exchange, omitting the cultural and historical significance of these Canadian ideals. As will be considered further throughout this paper, the ideals by which Dixon is represented are rooted in Indigenous culture, which is problematic due to the misrepresentation and erasure throughout the comic.            

Indigenous Erasure

Residential schools and “the 60’s scoop” are two examples of Canada’s extremely blatant attempts to completely eradicate Indigenous culture. The complete lack of Indigenous representation within the “Dixon of the Mounted” story in issue six is a much smaller, nonetheless still harmful, example of erasure. Cultural erasure is damaging because it discredits and disregards communities which are already marginalized, and works in favour of the dominant group. Such a dynamic distorts the history and representation of said marginalized culture, resulting in mistreatment of minority groups. It can be difficult to identify something that is not present in a piece of visual culture such as a comic book, but it is essential to consider the aspects of a narrative which are omitted and the effects this may have. Throughout the sixth issue, there is a noticeable lack of representation of Indigenous characters, this is representative of the attitude held towards Indigenous people at the time these comics were published.     

In order to obtain a more broad understanding, it is beneficial to focus on other instances of cultural erasure in popular Canadian art. Considerable Indigenous erasure is shown (or not shown) throughout many landscape paintings done by the famous Group of Seven (Jessup 146). Paintings done by the Group of Seven most often depict untouched Canadian wilderness and landscapes, giving the impression that there was no culture or community there, to begin with. This creates the perception that the Canadian wilderness is pristine and untouched, which in turn allows for European settlers to claim ownership of land which is, in actuality, stolen. Canada’s reputation as a white settler nation allows for the continuation of inequitable representation within institutions as well as the ongoing mistreatment of Indigenous communities by said institutions (Waldron). Jessup argues that the omission of Indigenous communities within these popular paintings proliferated the romanticization of pristine wilderness in Canada and eventually led to the relocation of Indigenous communities in order to portray untouched environments throughout Canadian National Parks for the enjoyment of tourists (Jessup 146-147). As discussed previously and will be discussed further, displacement is only one example of the consequences which have been the historical norm for Canada’s Indigenous people. Cultural erasure holds effects far beyond that of underrepresentation, it creates space for social and political mistreatment, as well as opportunity to misrepresent marginalized communities.


“Black Tom”, Pg. 6-7. 1942. Active Comics No. 8.

The negative representation of Indigenous characters in the Dixon story that is featured in the eighth issue is perpetuating the perception that Indigenous people are unable to sustain a functioning community without the assistance of white men (Steele 4). In a paper discussing comic book portrayals of Indigenous communities (specifically “Nelvana of the North”), Arnold argues that negatively representing and “dehumanizing” Indigenous people allows for them to be mistreated, and furthermore for their voices to be ignored and/or appropriated in regards to the formation of policies affecting the Canadian North (104-105). When a culture is portrayed as subordinate and problematic, it is more likely that their mistreatment will go unquestioned. Furthermore, this gives the impression that their voices and knowledge are less valuable than that of the oppressor, causing their input to be overlooked, undermined, or even stolen by others claiming it as their own. Canadian history illustrates this unfortunate reality through injustices such as the “60’s scoop” and over one hundred years of residential schools. There has been ongoing unjust treatment of Indigenous communities in the seventy-six years since the “Dixon of the Mounted” comics were published. These injustices exemplify the importance of education and representation regarding cultural diversity and acceptance, which were clearly lacking in the 1940s. Furthermore, it demonstrates the importance of working towards equal representation within Canadian institutions in order to create equal opportunity.            


“When it Comes to Getting Speed Out of a Canoe…” Pg. 4-5. 1942. Active Comics No. 6.

Dixon is portrayed as having exceptional canoeing skills throughout the story featured in issue six. As he chases down the three Germans in a canoe, Dixon says that the Germans “may know how to handle a gun, but when it comes to getting speed out of a canoe…”, at this moment the Germans begin shooting at Dixon and their canoe tips over, leaving them to swim to the riverbank (Steele 5-6). At first glance, this seems harmless enough as canoeing is a very well known Canadian activity, it makes sense that Dixon would be proficient. However, there is absolutely no mention of Indigenous culture throughout the comic or recognition that the canoe holds roots in Indigenous history (Benidickson). This lack of acknowledgment ignores the history of the canoe and is a subtle but relevant form of cultural appropriation exhibited throughout the comic. Liz Newberry notes that “the canoe often calls up a version of Canada that predominantly reflects the desires of a dominant, settler/invader society and thus calls up a Canada that may exclude Indigenous and broader immigrant communities and histories” (134). Here, it is recognized that there is a strong correlation to colonialism, appropriation, exclusion, and erasure when it comes to the relationship between Canada’s Indigenous people and European settler/invaders. It is problematic that Canadian nationalism has adopted so many Indigenous values and activities as main stakeholders of an identity that is seen as Eurocentric because the appropriation and subsequent erasure of Indigenous roots play a lead role in the subordination of Indigenous communities within Canada.

Sociopolitical Consequences

This essay has focused on the erasure, appropriation, and misrepresentation of Indigenous culture in Canada and their role in the development of Canadian nationalist ideals. In order to grasp the seriousness of these actions, it is helpful to recognize the historical consequences. In a 1997 documentary entitled Forgotten Warriors, Indigenous veterans of WWII speak out about the treatment they faced after returning home from the war. Thousands of Indigenous people who served had voluntarily enlisted. One veteran named Al Thomas states: “When I came back from the war, they wouldn’t let us go curling, they wouldn’t let us go golfing . . . and when you went to the show, the Indians used to have to sit on one side of the picture show” (Forgotten Warriors 00:31:58).  These veterans voluntarily went overseas to serve their duty to a country that undervalued and disrespected them, returning home to face racism, prejudice and segregation. Based on the previous analysis of the Canadian portrayal of Indigenous people, it is clear that these depictions were not harmless.

Consequences were not only social but political, Indigenous communities were taken advantage of by the Canadian government. For example, in 1945, “the entire Montney reserve was taken through the soldier settlement act and sold to non-native war veterans”, the land that was taken was over eighteen thousand acres says Chief Gerry Attachie (Forgotten Warriors 00:27:11). Attachie states that they had been living there for five-to-six-hundred years previously. This corruption intensified when oil pools were found on the land, yielding five-hundred-million in royalties (Forgotten Warriors 00:27:43). After twenty years, a settlement was finally reached, the Blueberry river and Doig bands were compensated one-hundred-and-forty-seven-million dollars (Brunet). The settlement was a substantial amount, but nowhere near the actual value of the lost land. Instances such as Montney demonstrate the lack of regard for Indigenous communities that was held by Canadian government institutions. Bernelda Wheeler points out “the irony of Aboriginal soldiers fighting a war against the oppression of fascism, giving their lives for that, and coming home to face oppressive fascism” (Forgotten Warriors 00:31:38). This documentary illustrates the extent of the mistreatment and injustice that Indigenous people have faced throughout Canadian history, these injustices are only perpetuated by harmful misrepresentations, appropriation, and cultural erasure.


In conclusion, the sixth and eighth issues of Active Comics and specifically, the story of “Dixon of the Mounted” exhibit largely problematic narratives of the relationship and perception of Indigenous communities and European settlers in the 1940s. Through the examination of Canadian popular culture, the exclusion, erasure, appropriation, and misrepresentation of Indigenous culture stands out. It becomes clear that there are ongoing issues of unequal power dynamics and underrepresentation of Indigenous communities within Canadian institutions. Realizing the ongoing injustices towards Indigenous communities within Canada, this essay recognizes the role that representation in popular culture plays in the treatment and acceptance of Indigenous people. An equitable relationship between Canada and it’s Indigenous communities will be achieved through greater representation of Indigenous people in media as well as within decision making roles, and creating equal opportunities for all Canadians, thereby creating a level power dynamic.


Works Cited

Arnold, Samantha. “Nelvana of the North, Traditional Knowledge, and the Northern Dimension of Canadian Foreign Policy.” Canadian Foreign Policy Journal, vol. 14, no. 2, Taylor & Francis Group, Jan. 2008, pp. 95–107. doi:10.1080/11926422.2008.9673465.

Beaty, Bart. “The Fighting Civil Servant: Making Sense of the Canadian Superhero.” American Review of Canadian Studies, vol. 36, no. 3, Taylor & Francis Group, Oct. 2006, pp. 427–39. doi:10.1080/02722010609481401.

Benidickson, Jamie. “Canoeing”. The Oxford Companion to Canadian History, Oxford University Press, 2004.,

Brunet, Robin. “Be Careful What You Wish for: Two Northern Indian Bands Are Awarded $147m in Mineral Claims [Doig River & Blueberry River Indian Bands].” British Columbia Report; Vancouver, vol. 9, no. 30, Mar. 1998, p. 28.

Canadian Golden Age of Comics, 1941-1946 – Comic Books in English Canada Beyond The Funnies.

Jessup, Lynda. “The Group of Seven and the Tourist Landscape in Western Canada, or the More Things Change…” Journal of Canadian Studies; Toronto, vol. 37, no. 1, Trent University, Spring 2002, pp. 144–79. doi: 10.3138/jcs.37.1.144

Newbery, Liz. “Paddling the Nation: Canadian Becoming and Becoming Canadian in and through the Canoe.” TOPIA: Canadian Journal of Cultural Studies, vol. 29, no. 29, Topia, 2013, pp. 133–62. doi:10.3138/topia.29.133.

Steele, T.A. “Dixon of the Mounted”. Active Comics, no.6, Bell Features and Publishing Company Limited, July 1942, pp. 1-10. Canadian Whites Comic Book Collection, 1941-1946. RULA Archives and Special Collections, Ryerson University, Toronto, Canada.

Steele, T.A. “Dixon of the Mounted”. Active Comics, no.8, Bell Features and Publishing Company Limited, September 1942, pp. 1-9. Canadian Whites Comic Book Collection, 1941-1946. RULA Archives and Special Collections, Ryerson University, Toronto, Canada.

Todd, Loretta, director. Forgotten Warriors., National Film Board of Canada, 1997,

Waldron, Ingrid. There is Something in the Water, Fernwood Publishing, 2018. pp. 37-52. 


Images in this online exhibit are either in the public domain or being used under fair dealing for the purpose of research and are provided solely for the purposes of research, private study, or educatio

Recontextualizing World War II: Familiarity as Propaganda in Active Comics no. 7

© Justin Hovey 2018, Ryerson University


20th century wartime propaganda conveyed a broad set of ideological arguments in radically different forms depending on its medium and, by extension, its intended audience. While the specific ways in which such propaganda is manifested in comics of the period –entertaining and fantastical – are particular to their readership of children and adolescents, the underlying themes and arguments are born out of the same pro-war, nationalist ideology that motivated propaganda directed at a more general audience. Despite the fictionalized, cartoonish elements of these comics, it is evident upon a closer reading that the propagandistic motivations that drove their production were intended to effect real-world consequences, and saw their target audience of children and adolescents as playing an active role in the war effort.

This is evident in issue no. 7 of the Canadian comics series Active Comics (1942), in which two war-stories (“Dixon of the Mounted” and “Thunderfist”) set particular geopolitical conflicts of the Second World War in North-American contexts (Canadian and American, respectively). Both strips present scenarios in which the conflicts of the war are thrust into the North-American sphere as a result of covert invasion, following Canadian and American civilians directly contributing to their respective country’s war effort by exposing and taking up arms against foreign spies.

By situating their stories in a North American context, these strips frame a foreign conflict that could seem detached from Canadian life as more familiar and immediate, and thus more relatable to the average Canadian youth. While Canadian youth were unlikely to be in the scenarios presented in these strips, they nevertheless intended to introduce them to the idea that they, as citizens, were not completely removed from the war. Ultimately, these comics were meant to encourage young Canadians to forge a personal relation between themselves and the war effort, and sought more broadly to instill the concepts of patriotism and civic responsibility into their culture.

Context: History of Isolationist Thought in North America

To understand what exactly the propaganda peddled by Active Comics no. 7 is in response to, it is crucial to examine the politics surrounding war at the time – specifically, the emergence of isolationist thought in North American foreign policy during the interwar period. Contrary to the view that isolationism was a distinctly American phenomenon during this period, recent scholarship has provided a more nuanced history of the ideology’s influence on Canadian politics and culture, and has particularly shed light on the distinct qualities Canadian isolationism took on in relation to that of its southern neighbour.

In English-speaking Canada, traces of isolationist thought only began to seriously pop up in mainstream discourse during the interwar period, particularly the 1930’s. This was born less out of a reaction of disillusionment against the foreign policy that led to the First World War (as was largely the case with the United Sates’ adoption of isolationism) and more out of an emerging ideology of left-wing, anti-empire nationalism (Spruce 3, 14). While the vast majority of Anglo-Canadians maintained loyalty to the increasingly distant British empire through the interwar period (Spruce 14), a growing vocal minority led by the likes of historian Arthur R.M Lower began to challenge Canada’s ties to its motherland and sought to turn away from colony-status toward an independent country. In the wake of 1931’s Statute of Westminster, Canadians were forced to re-evaluate what role their country was able to (and ought to) play in regard to foreign warfare (Spruce 5). With most political ties to the United Kingdom now cut, why should that autonomy not extend to Canada’s military?, asked the emerging isolationists.

This was a question not just of cultural identity, as Robert Bothwell notes, but of economic capacity. Canada, still a developing country in the minds of many of its citizens at the time, was clearly economically distinct from the wealthy British Empire its military was subordinate to; in light of this and of the domestic wealth inequality that plagued post-war Canadian society, Canadians were reconsidering the obligation they had in assisting their wealthier, more powerful allies in war efforts that did not directly concern them (Bothwell 79). Such populist sentiments were eventually quelled following the Second World War with the introduction of the modern social safety net (Bothwell 80), but in the meantime, they were an effective rhetorical tool that spoke to the immediate concerns of impoverished Canadians left behind after the Great War.

In all their different forms, these assertive articulations of Canada as an autonomous nation that came out of this interwar period continued to inform the country’s foreign policy well into the Second World War, with the Canadian delegate to the League of Nations, Raoul Dandurand, declaring in 1942: “We live in a fire-proof house, far from inflammable materials” (Stacey 61). While isolationism as such never exceeded beyond being anything more than marginal ideology in the Canadian political milieu, isolationist ideas had a profound influence on the changing notions of Canadian identity as it continued to transition from a colony to a sovereign state; and by the Second World War, pro-war propagandists were tasked with beating back against such ideas to prevent them from becoming fully lodged in Canadian culture – particularly among Canadian youth, who were growing up in a country with radically changing conceptions of patriotism.

Propaganda as Fear-Mongering: Invasion and Foreign Spies

The isolationist-adjacent views regarding Canada’s relationship with the British Empire logically resulted in a broader feeling of detachment from European affairs as the country forged a distinct North-American identity. This was problematic for Canadian pro-war institutions, which now faced the problem of selling the country’s populace on conflicts that almost exclusively concerned foreign states, to which Canada had an increasingly limited connection to, both politically and culturally. Consequently, propaganda during the Second World War concertedly served a fear-mongering function, stoking anxieties surrounding invasion and foreign spies among Canadians. By promoting the possibility of an invasion of the homefront (whether covert or overt), a war that might have been thought of as a purely Eurasian conflict suddenly posed a direct threat to the lives of Canadians.

Invasion propaganda was typically conveyed through mediums of entertainment – films, novels, and comic books, namely. Adopting such mediums served two main purposes: firstly, it ensured a broad and engaged audience; and secondly, it exploited fiction’s emotionally manipulative functions, maximizing the amount of fear elicited. Since the production of entertainment was predominately privately controlled, the Canadian government’s role in disseminating fear-based propaganda was largely carried out through propaganda’s counterpart: censorship. More specifically, which pieces of entertainment the government chose to censor, and which they chose to permit. Such decisions were carefully calculated; the exact boundaries of the Overton window the government demarcated reveal the sorts of ideas it wanted shaping Canadian culture. For example, at the beginning of the war, two films – All Quiet on the Western Front and Lest We Forget – were deemed “anti-war” by government officials and subsequently banned, while the invasion-oriented Confessions of a Nazi Spy was granted a “government blessing,” and immediately given an “extended run” in Manitoban theatres (“Canada Nixes”). Clearly, the appropriateness of war-related media was determined primarily by their propagandistic functions, which logically resulted in the government-accepted themes of invasion, xenophobia, etc. being echoed in privately-produced entertainment thenceforth, including the stories published in the Canadian Whites (Judy and Palmer 66).

Fig. 1. T.A Steele. Frame from “Dixon of the Mounted.” Active Comics, no. 7, August 1942, p. 1. Bell Features Collection, Library and Archives Canada.

The “Dixon of the Mounted” strip found in Active Comics no. 7 is an example of the increasingly ubiquitous ‘invasion stories’ that populated this period; it follows a Canadian Mountie in his pursuit of a gang of German spies who have breached the country. The comic draws on a wartime tradition of dehumanizing Germans, portraying the German spies as beastly, inhuman characters, seemingly devoid of morality and reason. Set in contrast to Dixon – a symbol of Canadiana who upholds his country’s virtues by giving his enemies a chance to surrender, and shooting to wound (at first) – the German spies are characterized by their lack of conscience: they view killing as a game, “celebrating” their supposed shooting of Dixon, and have no qualms about murdering a Canadian civilian (Steele 3, 6). The spies’ inhuman character traits are reinforced by their visual depictions; they resemble Frankenstein’s-monster-esque creatures, drawn with heavily shaded, sunken-in eyes under thick, low-set brows that connote cold insensitivity (fig. 1). This characterization is in line with other representations of Germans of the period; from the early 20th century, Germans were stereotyped as “dangerous warmongers, savage and aggressive … with no sense of the value of human life … and without mercy towards their defeated enemies (Storer 40). Such fictional depictions were especially useful, then, as Germany once again became a wartime enemy of Canada’s. Painting Germans as monstrous villains with an insatiable thirst for power rendered Canadians’ rationality (e.g., in considering Canada’s geographic relation to Germany) subordinate to their emotions, with respect to invasion. Situating these villains in Canada presented explicitly how the ruthless nature of Germans could propel them to conquer nations far beyond the European sphere – a terrifying prospect to these comics’ Canadian readership. Indeed, caricatures like these played a role in the justification for German internment camps that were introduced following the invocation of the War Measures Act in 1939 (Auger 101).

The deployment of this fear-mongering propaganda served a broader purpose than just drumming up public support for the war effort – it intended to reorient Canadians’ entire perception of their country in relation to the rest of the world. Coinciding with increasing globalization and technological advancement (martial or otherwise), this propaganda sought to dispel any notion that Canada was detached from European affairs, as the isolationists argued. Not only did the war pose a threat to Canada’s freedom and security, but Canadians themselves thus had an obligation to assist their allies in fighting it, as if directly it concerned the homefront.

Reclaiming Canadian Patriotism: Jingoism and Civic Responsibility

One of the more difficult parts of beating back against Canadian isolationism was attempting to construct a distinct conception of patriotism, a concept appropriated by isolationists of the inter-war period to the extent that the two ideas were inextricably linked. Pro-war propagandists now had to ‘reclaim’ patriotism – to make the case that a new Canadian identity does not have to necessarily entail total detachment from the British Empire, and that true patriotism should be exhibited by performing one’s civic duties to his/her country, especially during times of war. These wartime civic duties, while more obvious and direct for Canadian adults (e.g., enlistment; increased motherly duties during husband’s absence; etc.), were expected just as much from Canadian youth, in less direct and largely symbolic forms. However, youth-targeted propaganda as peddled in comic books like the Canadian Whites didn’t encourage civic responsibility by depicting such symbolic forms of participation, but rather promoted the concept of civic responsibility broadly through fantastical stories that would be much more engaging and persuasive for the reader.

Fig. 2. Murray Karn. Frame from “Thunderfist.” Active Comics, no. 7, August 1942, p. 52. Bell Features Collection, Library and Archives Canada.

Active Comics no. 7’s “Thunderfist” strip, another North-American-invasion story (this time American-oriented, however), utilizes its North-American setting not just to stoke fear, as the “Dixon of the Mounted” strip does, but to present civic participation in a familiar context more relatable to the Canadian reader – not in terms of content (in fact, it portrays a particularly outlandish example of civic participation) but geographically and culturally. The story follows an American reporter, Beverley Holmes, as she exposes a pair of Japanese spies in her city, and subsequently plays an active role in defending her country against a larger Japanese invasion. Importantly, this is not an affair that she stumbles upon, but rather, from the outset, it is a result of a deliberate initiative on her part to be mindful of foreign spies in her own country – “They look like Japs,” she notes upon seeing two Asian men sitting at a nearby table, and promptly confiscates one of their maps (Karn 52; Fig. 2). She is not simply a bystander assisting her country’s military indirectly; she actively initiates conflict with the foreign spies, and takes it upon herself to do anything in her means to thwart their plans. This reaches an extreme extent as Beverley’s decides to travel to the coast indicated as the point of invasion on the spies’ map to warn the Commanding Officer stationed there, which ultimately leads to her capture. Regardless of her personal safety, Beverley’s patriotic compulsion to defend her country remains unwavering. “I just had to go and see what was going on,” she explains after being saved, revealing that her actions were done out of obligation rather than preference (Karn 64). Here, Beverley, despite being American, is presented to the comics’ readership as the ideal Canadian patriot – selfless, brave, and actively engaged in her country’s war effort.

Fig. 3. Sia R. Chilvers. Propaganda poster: “Salvage! Every Little Helps.” 1914-1918. Library and Archives Canada.

Fantastical stories like this were obviously not intended to convince Canadian children and adolescents to necessarily confront foreign spies or involve themselves in actual conflicts, but portraying civilians as doing so inseminated the broader concept of civic participation into youth culture; it normalized the idea that civilians have “duties to fulfil” in regard to the war effort, and that “everyone should be preparing for the war,” no matter one’s age or relation to the battlefield (Judy and Palmer, 75). How this was actually manifested by Canadian children in reality was much less direct and exciting, consisting of mostly symbolic and comparatively inconsequential methods – but, as a propaganda poster from the prior World War reads, “Every Little Helps” (Fig. 3). Many of these methods were related to self-rationing and fundraising, such as assisting with the cultivation of “victory gardens,” a practice that stretched back to the First World War and was intended to both free up railway space that could be used to ship goods en route to Europe, and amass proceeds through the sale of food that would be donated toward the war effort (Mosby 104; Martin and Petrowski 6). Similarly, children were encouraged to save up their allowance money and donate it to organizations involved in assisting with the war (Glassford 223). This message implicitly pervades civic participation-related propaganda of the period like “Thunderfist.” Whatever from this civic participation took, the material impact it had was of less importance than what it stood for: a commitment among Canada’s next generation to maintaining traditional notions of patriotism that entailed pro-war, internationalist attitudes.


Considering the largely symbolic nature of the civic duties Canadian children undertook, there is reason to believe that those behind the propaganda found in Active Comics no. 7 (and other youth-targeted media of the time) were less interested in their readership’s immediate manifestations of patriotism than they were in the long-term implications of pro-war messages shaping them from a young age. In other words, what this propaganda effected was less important to its producers than what it prevented: isolationist thought corrupting impressionable young Canadians. Youth-targeted propaganda acted more or less as insurance, ensuring that the next generation of Canadians were not only willing but felt compelled to go to war once they came of age. In fact, one of the ways by which Canadian youth were told they could help their country’s military was by “keep[ing] themselves healthy, in order to be of use to their country now and in the future” – explicitly revealing that the government valued their potential as future servicemen and servicewomen above whatever contributions they were currently capable of providing to the war effort (Glassford 223).

The technique of recontextualizing the Second World War in North-American contexts, then, was well suited for the fantastical, unrealistic elements that the comic medium entails. The comics examined in this essay could stretch the reality of how its readership would be engaging with the war because its producers were not at all concerned with such reality, but rather with the implications of it. These propagandists effectively utilized the generic conventions of the comic to convey broad ideas that concurrently were being inseminated in the culture of Canadian adults (e.g., xenophobia, anxiety, civic participation) in a highly mediated form that played well with the country’s children, sowing a culture of pro-war patriotism that would go on to unconsciously shape how they approached the war as adults.


Works Cited

Auger, Martin F. Prisoners of the Home Front: German POWs and “Enemy Aliens” in Southern Quebec, 1940-46. UBC Press, 2005.

Bothwell, Robert. “The Canadian Isolationist Tradition.” International Journal, vol. 54, no. 1, 1998, pp. 76–87. JSTOR, doi:10.2307/40203356.

Chilvers, Sia R. Salvage! Every Little Helps Poster. 1918-1914. Library and Archives Canada, 1983-28-190.

Glassford, Sarah. “Practical Patriotism: How the Canadian Junior Red Cross and Its Child Members Met the Challenge of the Second World War.” The Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth, vol. 7, no. 2, May 2014, pp. 219–42. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/hcy.2014.0024.

Goodnow, Trischa, and James J. Kimble, editors. The 10 Cent War: Comic Books, Propaganda, and World War II. University Press of Mississippi, 2016.

“International: Canada Nixes ‘All Quiet’ But Okays ‘Nazi Spy.’” Variety (Archive: 1905-2000). Los Angeles, vol. 136, no. 1, Sept. 1939, p. 6.

Karn, Murray (a). “Thunderfist.” Active Comics, no. 7, August, 1942, pp. 52-64. Bell Features Collection, Library and Archives Canada.

Martin, Andrea, and Tyyne Petrowski. “‘Are You “Doing Your Bit”?’: Edith Robertson, Letter-Writing, and Women’s Contributions in First-World-War Winnipeg.” Manitoba History; Winnipeg, no. 82, Fall 2016, pp. 4–11.

Mosby, Ian. Food Will Win the War: The Politics, Culture, and Science of Food on Canada’s Home Front. UBC Press, 2014.

Spruce, James. “Two Solitudes Lost: Comparing and Contrasting Interwar American and Canadian Isolationisms.” American Review of Canadian Studies, vol. 48, no. 1, 2018, pp. 1–19. Scholars Portal Journals, doi:10.1080/02722011.2018.1428206.

Stacey, C. P. Canada and the Age of Conflict: A History of Canadian External Policies. Macmillan of Canada, 1977.

Steele, T.A. “Dixon of the Mounted.” Active Comics, no. 7, August, 1941, pp. 1-10. Bell Features Collection, Library and Archives Canada.

Storer, Colin. “’The German of Caricature, the Real German, the Fellow We Were up against’: German Stereotypes in John Buchan’s Greenmantle.” Journal of European Studies, vol. 39, no. 1, Mar. 2009, pp. 36–57. Crossref, doi:10.1177/0047244108100806.

Images in this online exhibit are either in the public domain or being used under fair dealing for the purpose of research and are provided solely for the purposes of research, private study, or education.

Setting and Breaking Boundaries: Women Written by Men


Characters have always been the heart of a work’s story, representing different pieces to the author’s puzzle. These imaginary people are reflections of their real life counterparts, even if they are sometimes distorted. One of the many examples of distorted portrayals of real life can be rendered down to an issue of gender, where women are represented inconsistently. As their representations vary in comparison to their real life counter parts. Such is the case in comics, where women have been presented as sirens and mindless plot devices. This distortion is blatantly evident in comics from the Second World War. Where in E.T Legault’s Active Comics #2, female characters are presented as both progressive and helpless; independent and dependent. As is illustrated by the characters written by Legault who set boundaries, as well as break them. With Elise who breaks the boundaries set by characters like Ruth and Carole, who embody the trope of the damsel in distress, she is presented as more progressive. Highlighting how these characters are represented as enigmatic figures who remain intangible for their male authors.

Damsels in Distress

Women in need of saving: a synonym to the term and trope of the damsel in distress. Where typically a woman finds herself in trouble and in a situation where she needs to be saved, which is typically done so by the male hero. The trope is realized through the theme of distress, a theme that in Hedy White’s study allow him to examine the reoccurrence of the damsel in distress in children’s fiction. White furthers his point by discussing his evidence as to how such a theme is seen mostly amongst female characters, making it a gendered theme (White 251). Highlighting in his conclusion, after proving that the theme of distress is most relevant amongst female characters that the female characters under study in children’s literature tend to “reflect the cultural stereotype of the helpless female, the perennial damsel in distress in need of male protection” (White 255). Showing how a key element to the trope is the need to be saved, as they are in distress and are typically saved by a male character; a lack of independence and capability to choose. In simpler terms: they lack the agency to prevent distress.

Moreover, this notion of being saved by a male character is evident in the second issue of Active Comics, whether Dixon saves Ruth from a demon, or Capt. Red holds Carole with an earnest demeanor. The images and motifs shown emphasize and emit a feeling of relief and ease, mainly due to the way that tension builds and is relieved in the comics through the characters need to be saved. The relief coming from when the reader understands the purpose of the comic’s protagonist and they have achieved their purpose, thanks to the tension being resolved. Highlighting the start to the notion of how women in comics are used as plot devices.

After all, in the segment of “Dixon of the Mounted”, the main love interest: Ruth, has gotten herself into a situation in which she is helpless and in total distress. Allowing Dixon the chance to save Ruth multiple times from the demonic figure. The imagery being very cinematic, emphasizes Ruth’s helplessness, specifically on one page where there is a panel of her tied down to a rock, followed by her crying in Dixon’s arms (Legault 24). Allowing the audience to start to understand the level of distress emitted by Ruth, and how gendered roles are starting to develop: man as a hero, woman as a helpless dame.


Fig.1 E.T. Legault. Panel from “Dixon of the Mounted”. Active Comics, no.2, March 1942, p.24.Bell Features Collection, Library and Archives Canada.

In “Capt. Red Thortan”, Carole is a typical damsel in distress. Specifically when the character is rescued from being tied-up in a Japanese camp, and is then constantly being aided by the titular character. However, after the characters escape, the frame that lends itself to evoking the trope is when both Red and Carole fall into a trap, and Carole flails her arms into the air while Red remains steadfast. It represents the trope in its entirety due to the comparison between the characters. Even if it is a slight, but major, detail of Carole flailing her arms. The point remains that the character is helpless, whereas Red remains prepared and ready for the trap as her braces himself (Cooper 47). Even if this may be a stretch, it adds to the notion established by White, in the way that Carole is helpless and is visibly in distress.

Commonly, both Ruth and Beverly affirm the presence of the damsel in distress trope, as the characters embody a repetitiveness of being saved by their narratives male hero. One could say that the characters create a motif of sorts, in the way that the imagery highlights their helplessness. Whether it is sharply angles that emit tension with Ruth being tied down to a large rock (Legault 24), or the frame in which Capt. Red stares at Carole—who looks relieved (Cooper 46). Themes of the damsel in distress remain relevant in the visual aspects of the comic. Solidifying how, in similar terms to that stated by White, the trope of the damsel in distress is a blatant stereotypical stamp on the representation of the female gender whose sole purpose is to propel plot and story (White 255).

Progressive Dames

Seeing how the second issue of Active Comics was published in 1942, it is fair to say tensions were not only high on the battlefront, but also on the homefront. In a 1942 Globe and Mail article discussing new volunteer centers on the Canadian homefront, and specifically how the centers will “insure proper co-ordination of effort and give all volunteers an opportunity to help where they are most needed” (“New Volunteer Centre Setup” 1942). Framing the need for help on the Homefront, which is furthered by the director of the volunteer service, W.E. West, who says “there is a war to be won on the home front, and misdirection and overlapping can be just as tragic at home as on the battlefront” (“New Volunteer Centre Setup” 1942). Emphasizing the need, and the responsibility that women occupy on the Homefront.

In addition, in the segment of “The Brain”, female characters start to distance themselves from the tropes set by Ruth and Carole, and start to embody characteristics of their real life counterparts. Such is exemplified by Elsie, as the character takes charge of her situation—not becoming victim to it. Reason being that the character ignores all of the advice given by the protagonist, and goes after the antagonizing mafia—fighting battles and trying to bring them to justice. Elsie is an example of not abiding by the dominant, male character. Due to the way that the character, unlike Ruth and Carole, is not undermined by the Brain: the protagonist of the narrative that she partakes in.

Rather, Elsie starts to break through the barriers of what Ann Larabee, with the help of Scott McCloud, described to be the “phenomenological representations of the body” (Larabee 2016), which so happen to be the confines that Ruth and Carole abide to. Alluding to the way that women are represented with over exaggerated hourglass figures, and their overly blemished faces that all lead to the characters vulnerability in the story (Larabee 2016). According the McCloud, this form of representation is unrealistic as it does not allow for women to go through “the experience of not being able to see one’s own face” (Larabee 2016). Highlighting the broader effects of a female representation that the damsel in distress trope emits, and which Elsie seemingly does not take part in.

However, in relating the last point with the way Elsie is illustrated, we can see how the character embodies the phenomenological issues of representations. As Elsie has accentuated hips, and a blemished face that accentuates her embarrassments, which is seen when she falls into the mafias trap (Bachle 60). This points towards to how Elsie can be seen as the prototypical damsel in distress, as she embodies themes of distress. Nonetheless, the character remains independent—overshadowing themes of distress to embody an independence not found amongst the other character. Resulting in what we call a progressive dame: an independent, resilient, realistic character.

Progressive Dames and Damsels in Distress: Enigmatic Figures?

In his critique of Scott McCloud’s definition of comics, Aaron Meskin focuses on McCloud’s idea that comics in their use of images and words allow the panels to “convey information and/or produce an aesthetic response in the viewer” (“Defining Comics” 2007). Meskin also pinpoints how as a critical thinker, and reader, we should not be presumptuous in assuming an author’s intention, which is extremely valid as it does not allow for any pitfalls of the sort. However it is also valid to assign meaning to the images and texts seen in comics. Its validity can be directly linked to sociological theories such as ethnomethodology, where a person’s interaction with an object is tied to its context (Dennis 2011). Meaning that the interaction relies on the time, and other varying factors that surround the context of its consumption (Dennis 8). All of which allows us to understand how readers begin to understand and correlate representation to actuality.

For example, in understanding the context around the publishing of Active Comics we comprehend the blossoming responsibilities given to women on the Homefront. Responsibilities such as partaking in the work force, reinforcing military munitions, and developing medical treatment—all while boosting morale and proving that women can balance work and home life (Haws 1940). Evoking images of a more progressive and rightful role for women, which can be seen as an unpopular opinion. As the only reason why these roles were thrusted upon them was due to the absence of a male presence, which ignited insecurity among majority of the men, who were the voice of the media (“Equal Rights Has Dangers” 1945).

Similarly, there is a frame in the comic where Elsie saves the Brain (55). Solidifying how, through her likeliness of women on the homefront, Elsie is a progressive dame. Raising the point of women as enigmatic figures: as their representation is inconsistent with the values on the homefront and the comic. Contextually, the independence that Elsie demonstrates mirrors a distorted freedom that women on the homefront gained from an entry into the workforce. Simply due to the way that they seize the chances that come across them, to help the war effort any which way they can. Compared to Ruth and Carole who do not seize that same opportunity, falling victim to their non-existent independence. Allowing Elsie’s independent characteristics to be bolstered and emboldened in comparison. Emphasizing how women, for male writers, are enigmatic figures whose representation is inaccurate without a strong feminist voice behind it. As it leaves room for female characters to fall into tropes like the damsel in distress.

Fig 2. Leo Bachle. Panel from “The Brain”. Active Comics, no.2, March 1942, p.55. Bell Features Collection, Library and Archives Canada.





Throughout the paper we have seen how women have been represented as both damsels in distress and Progressive Dames, embodying two extremities: one representative of the comic’s context, the other not. Through our analysis of the comics, ranging from the accentuated figures to the independence that only pertained to Elsie, we have seen how these characters are hypersexualized by their male authors and not reflective of their real life counterparts. With only few example that are exempt to such. Affirming the notion that they are enigmatic figures, in the way that they remain ambiguous in their characterization. Through the way it is prevalent that majority of the comic’s characters fall under tropes such as the damsel in distress. Portraying women to readers, as helpless and in need of saving; with a lack of independence, which muddle their real life independence presented by the progressive dames. This goes to show how women are intangible for the reader as much as they are for the writer. Accentuating how the female characters, written by men, are elusive for the writers just as much as they are for the audience.


Works Cited List

Braddock, Paige. “Women in Comics.” Phi Kappa Phi Forum; Baton Rouge, vol. 84, no. 3,   2004, pp. 22–23.

Conrad, Dean. “Femmes Futures: One Hundred Years of Female Representation in Sf Cinema.” Science Fiction Film and Television, vol. 4, no. 1, Apr. 2011, pp. 79–99.

Dennis, Alex. “Symbolic Interactionism and Ethnomethodology.” Symbolic Interaction; Hoboken, vol. 34, no. 3, Summer 2011, pp. 349–56. ProQuest, doi:

“‘Equal Rights’ Has Dangers.” The Globe and Mail (1936-Current); Toronto, Ont., 8 Aug. 1945, p. 6.

“Government Booklet Describes New Volunteer Centre Setup.” The Globe and Mail (1936-Current); Toronto, Ont., 20 July 1942, p. 10.

Hawes, Stanley. Home Front. Columbia Pictures Canada, 1940.,

Larabee, Ann. “Editorial: Teaching Young Women the Comics.” The Journal of Popular Culture, vol. 49, no. 2, Apr. 2016, pp. 247–49. Wiley Online Library, doi:10.1111/jpcu.12412.

Legault, E. T., et al. Active Comics: No. 2. Edited by Bell Features and Publishing Company, vol. 2, Commercial Signs of Canada, 1942.

White, Hedy. “Damsels in Distress: Dependency Themes in Fiction for Children and Adolescents.” Adolescence; Roslyn Heights, N.Y., vol. 21, no. 82, Summer 1986, pp. 251–256.


Images in this online exhibit are either in the public domain or being used under fair dealing for the purpose of research and are provided solely for the purposes of research, private study, or education.


Train Wrecks in Active Comics No. 10: Representation of Accident and Attack

© Copyright 2018 Sarah Kovacko, Ryerson University

Introduction: Train Wrecks in Comic Books

The theme of technology is present throughout Active Comics No. 10, published in November, 1943 in Canada. The stories, in genres including science fiction, war, and adventure, feature repeated instances of transportation technology gone awry; two stories separately depict train wrecks. In “Active Jim”, Canadian boy Jim and his friend Joan encounter a Nazi character who attempts to derail a troop train. Through quick thinking and action, they are able to save the train from its fate, and apprehend the Nazi. The “Thunderfist” story features a train which is nearly derailed by a mountain slide, but is saved from its fate by the title character.

Edmond Good. Panel from “Active Jim”. Active Comics, No. 10, November 1943, Commercial Signs of Canada, p. 38. Bell Feature Collection, Library and Archives Canada.
Murray Karn. Panel from “Thunderfist”. Active Comics, No. 10, November 1943, Commercial Signs of Canada, p. 48. Bell Feature Collection, Library and Archives Canada.










Both stories approach the subject of the train wreck differently, one as an intentional sabotage, and the other as an accidental disaster. Both stories resolve with no actual carnage, but the presence of trains in danger poses the question: what led to this subject matter being presented in a comic book intended for children, and were these depictions of disaster influenced by World War Two (WWII)? In examining historical documentation, and the public reaction to train disasters, we are able to apply a philosophical lens to understand the social-historical context and pro-conflict propagandistic roots of the seemingly innocent entertainment imagery.

The Train in Canada

The railway has played an important role in Canadian history. As a sprawling, disconnected country in the 19th century, the Intercolonial Railway was initially constructed to fulfill the government of Canada’s 1867 constitutional commitment to connect central Canada to the Maritime provinces (Cruikshank). Routes were selected to protect the railway from American attack, indicating an awareness for potential foreign hostility. During the completion of the railway between 1876 and 1914 there was a tenfold increase in freight and passenger traffic (Cruikshank).

The railway was eventually incorporated into Canadian National Railways, continuing to fill the role of connecting the eastern and western ends of Canada (Regehr). To find trains represented in a Canadian comic book is unsurprising, considering the significance of the train in Canadian culture. It is interesting, however, that these trains are presented in scenarios of danger.

The Advent of the Train Wreck

The railway has been connected to accidental death since its invention. An early major casualty was William Huskisson, a Liverpool MP, who in 1830 was run over and killed by the Rocket locomotive during the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway (Odden 30).

On a broader scale, the Angola Horror is an example of an early American train wreck that had a significant social impact. On December 18, 1867, a damaged track caused the last two cars of Cleveland’s lakeshore express to derail on a high bridge, falling into the gorge below. One car, lit with oil lamps and heated with coal ovens, burst into flames upon impact, resulting in the deaths of nearly 50 passengers trapped inside (Vogel). Mechanical accidents of this scale were unheard of prior to the invention of the train (Odden 31). Agricultural or carriage accidents were less impactful. The industrial revolution was underway, but while factory accidents could only injure workers, train accidents endangered consumers, making no distinctions between class.

The Angola Horror was reported in newspapers for weeks, accompanied by graphic illustrations. The American public demanded improved railway safety, resulting in the invention of the air brake, which was made mandatory on American trains in 1893 as a means of stopping trains in an emergency (Vogel).

The Role of the Train in WWII

The train was vital to the war effort, but they were not without failure. An example of a Canadian train wreck contemporary to WWII occurred in December 1942. A “troop special” carrying soldiers from Pettawa military camp collided with a local train full of holiday travellers at Almonte station near Ottawa. 32 were killed and 114 injured, and the town was thrown into confusion and panic (32 DIE, 114 HURT IN TRAIN WRECK 1). These accidents were not common (Björnstig and Forsberg 368), but had major impacts on the involved community when they did occur.

During the war overseas, however, train wrecks were often not accidental. A 1944 example was published in the Globe and Mail article “U.S. Tanks Blast Trains, Huns Burn in Perfume”, a graphic account of a “train bust”, or targeted attack on an enemy train. This particular German train carried personnel and “every kind of equipment”, as well as liquor and perfume (Denny).

In fact, trains were one of the most important modes of transportation during the war, transporting 90 percent of all military hardware and 97 percent of all troops in America alone. In 1943, the year Active Comics No. 10 was published, trains took 10 million troops off to war; these contributions were vital to the war effort (Keefe). This also meant that to gain control of an enemy train, or to destroy it, was an effective way to damage enemy resources.

Train busters were commended for their efforts. An example is John A. Gordon, who was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross in 1946 for destroying 20 locomotives and 64 other vehicles while stationed in the Mediterranean (“‘Train Buster’ Awarded DFC”).

Edmond Good. Page from “Active Jim”. Active Comics, No. 10, November 1943, Commercial Signs of Canada, p. 36. Bell Feature Collection, Library and Archives Canada.

The “Active Jim” story in Active Comics is directly inspired by these train busts, but it depicts a Nazi train buster operating in Canada, a scenario with no basis in reality, as these were primarily European occurrences. In the final panel of the comic the train conductor character breaks the fourth wall, telling readers, “The Nazis tried to wreck our train, to kill our fighting boys… Jim and Joan’s quick action foiled their murderous scheme.. It was close!.. But they’ll never beat people with courage! Keep it up Active Jim!” (Kulbach et al. 38). Jim is presented as a character to emulate, and here is commended for being active in the war effort, a stance that is ultimately pro-conflict. However, the comic presents a sanitized, child-friendly interpretation of a train bust, resolving with no death or destruction.

The Philosophy of the Accident

French philosopher Paul Virilio speaks of “the accident” as a consequence of advancing technology; according to Virilio, “The accident is … the hidden face of technical progress” (Redhead 10). For example, prior to the invention of the train, the “train accident” was not a possibility. As soon as this technology was invented, however, it brought with it the capacity for failure, and the train accidents of the 19th century were at a level of severity and violence that had never occurred before.

Virilio discusses a “society of spectacle”, referencing the media’s approach to accidents as “…the ravages wrought by the circulation of images, this constant concertina-ing, this constant pile-up of dramatic scenes from everyday life on the evening news.” (Virilio).  Accidents have always been reported, and there is often an element of sensationalism attached to them. This has changed the nature of the accident in terms of scale, moving away from a localized event towards a potential for the “global accident” (Redhead 11); Virilio cited the 9/11 attacks as having occurred everywhere at once through live airing on television (Redhead 13).

He also describes the contrast between “the accident” and “the attack”, as two separate phenomena that become less distinguishable through common representation in the news and entertainment media. When accidents and acts of terrorism receive similar levels of attention and treatment, viewers become less adept at differentiating between them. (Redhead, 15)

Virilio’s theories hold true to the historical data related to train wrecks. One comprehensive review published in the Prehospital and Disaster Medicine journal examined data of 529 railway disasters over the course of a century, beginning in 1910. The study determined that the number of railway disasters has increased over the years, being relatively infrequent during 1910-1949, but with 88% of disasters studied occurring post-1970 (Björnstig and Forsberg 368). This was attributed to increased speeds and traffic on railways.

Train wrecks have always inspired public imagination and horror, reported widely in the news media. According to Virilio, the press has more interest in trains that are derailed than trains that are on time, and these interests are echoed in entertainment media as well. The dynamic that Virilio describes between “the accident” and “the attack” is represented recurrently throughout history and entertainment media. The two stories in Active Comics are a prime example, being presented in the same medium, publication, and in a similar artistic style, placing the “accident” of Thunderfist’s mountain slide and the “attack” by the Nazi on an even field.

Popularity of Disaster Imagery and Propagandistic Potential

Although Virilio writes about television media as a force of momentum in manufacturing public interest in accidents, this interest can be traced back long before the invention of the television. When researching historical disasters, one will often find accompanying dramatic illustrations produced during the period. One major producer of such imagery was Currier and Ives, 19th century lithograph artists. Lithography was a fast and cheap method of mass image production (Encyclopedia of World Biography 346). In 1840, Currier and Ives produced a current-events inspired lithograph of fire breaking out aboard the steamship Lexington. The sales motivated them to create more images of current-event disasters (Le Beau 21). The American public of the mid-19th century wanted visual representation of what they read in the newspapers, and so these prints remained popular.

The Angola Horror, Frank Leslie’s Weekly, 1867. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

The Angola Horror is an example of this phenomenon, being depicted through “grisly illustrations” in the newspapers (Vogel). The image to the left was published in Frank Leslie’s Weekly, showing mourners amongst dead bodies while the train burns in the background.

Willy Stöwer. Der Untergang der Titanic. Engraving. Die Gartenlaube, 1912. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.







The Titanic disaster is a more famous example. As the 1912 sinking was reported in newspapers, the public wanted visuals, and the press commissioned artworks of varying quality for use in their publications (Historical Telegrams 19:45 – 20:30). These images followed in the tradition of presenting the scene dramatically, such as this engraving by Willy Stöwer showing survivors observing the disaster from the lifeboats.

The RMS Lusitania was another ill-fated ship. During WWI on May 7, 1915, the passenger liner was sailing through an area south of Ireland that Germany had declared a war zone, when it was torpedoed by a German submarine, sinking in 18 minutes and killing 1198 people (Feldman 12). Aside from presenting a further example of technology enabling more dire disasters, the aftermath provides insight into the power of disaster imagery. The attack of a liner filled with civilians was obviously a controversial act, and in the U.S. this was heightened by the loss of many American civilians that had been on board. Cartoonists’ subsequent illustrations depicted ghosts of women and children haunting the Kaiser, and images of Uncle Sam shaking his fist at Germany (Feldman 14), and posters encouraged enlistment. By 1916, the event had become a “rallying cry for the Preparedness Movement”, a campaign for military enforcement (Feldman 15). In April of 1917, America entered the war, affecting the course of history (Feldman 16).

John Shuley & Co. IRISHMEN AVENGE THE LUSITANIA. Lithograph. Imperial War Museum. Central Council for the Organization of Recruiting in Ireland. Dublin, 1915. © IWM (Art.IWM PST 13654)
Fred Spear. Enlist. Wikimedia Commons. Boston Committee of Public Safety, 1915. Public Domain.

This disaster imagery has a profound social impact, effecting change in safety protocol, or even influencing a country’s participation in war in the case of these recruitment posters. This culture of disaster imagery presented as entertainment is also an influence on other forms of visual media, including stories of publications such as Active Comics.



The train wrecks depicted in Active Comics No. 10 demonstrate a binary dynamic between an “attack” and an “accident”. In keeping with Virilio’s theories, the comic depicts both scenarios on an even field, limiting our ability to distinguish between the two. This preoccupation with disasters is the result of decades of media influence, and a culture of “disaster imagery” being produced for the purposes of entertainment. Imagery with war themes serves a propagandistic social function, influencing historical pathways. In Active Comics No. 10, this imagery reinforces a moral message toward the primary audience, children, demonstrating clearly who the enemy is, and how to approach conflict scenarios correctly. The comic also brings concepts of overseas wartime events closer to home, an environment where there is already the potential for deadly accidents, mirroring those that occur through the war. Ultimately, while train wrecks throughout history have brought carnage, violence, and death, Active Comics No. 10 takes an optimistic approach, portraying heroes as capable of saving the day. These representations may have been sanitized for consumption by children, but there remains a dark and powerful history behind these forms of imagery.


Images in this online exhibit are either in the public domain or being used under fair dealing for the purpose of research and are provided solely for the purposes of research, private study, or education.

Works Cited

“32 DIE, 114 HURT IN TRAIN WRECK: Troop Special Plows Into Local at Almonte Rear Car, Filled With Holiday Travellers, Is Crushed; Dead Said to Be in Civilian Coaches; City Hall Turned Into Emergency Aid Station.” The Globe and Mail (1936-Current), 28 Dec. 1942, pp. 1–2.

Björnstig, Ulf and Forsberg, Rebecca. “One Hundred Years of Railway Disasters and Recent Trends.” Prehospital and Disaster Medicine, vol. 26, no. 5, Oct. 2011, pp. 367–373. Accessed Nov 23. 2018.

Cruikshank, Ken. “Intercolonial Railway.” The Oxford Companion to Canadian History, Oxford University Press, 2004. Accessed 23 Nov 2018.

“Currier and Ives.” Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2nd ed., vol. 4, Gale, 2004, pp. 345-346. Accessed 23 Nov 2018.

Denny, Harold. “U.S. Tanks Blast Train, Huns Burn in Perfume.” The Globe and Mail, 1 Sept. 1944.

Feldman, Seth. “Winsor McCay’s The Sinking of the Lusitania and the Origins of Animated Documentary.” Cineaction, no. 97, 2016, pp. 12-22. Accessed 23 Nov 2018.

“Historical Telegrams Ep. 2: The Artistic History of the Titanic” Youtube, uploaded by Titanic: Honor and Glory, 24 Sep. 2018, Accessed 23 Nov 2018.

Keefe, Kevin P. “Riding the Rails: Michigan’s Super-Power Steam Locomotives.” Michigan History Magazine, vol. 100, no. 6, 2016, pp. 17+. Accessed 23 Nov 2018.

Kulbach, René, et al. Active Comics: No. 10. Bell Features and Publishing Company Limited, 1943. Accessed 23 Nov 2018.

Le Beau, Bryan F. “Art in the Parlor: Consumer Culture and Currier and Ives: Art in the Parlor.” The Journal of American Culture, vol. 30, no. 1, Feb. 2007, pp. 18–37. 10.1111/j.1542-734X.2007.00462.x. Accessed 23 Nov 2018.

“Munitions Train Blast in Hungary Wrecks Main Line.” Hamilton Spectator, 8 Jan. 1941. Accessed 23 Nov 2018.

Redhead, Steve. “The Art of the Accident: Paul Virilio and Accelerated Modernity.” Fast Capitalism. Accessed 23 Nov 2018.

Regehr, T. D. “Canadian National Railways.” The Oxford Companion to Canadian History, Oxford University Press, 2004. Accessed 23 Nov 2018.

“‘Train Buster’ Awarded DFC.” Globe and Mail, 18 Feb. 1946.

Virilio, Paul. “The Museum of Accidents.” International Journal of Baudrillard Studies, translated by Chris Turner, vol. 3, no. 2, July 2006. Accessed 23 Nov 2018.

Vogel, Charity. “The Angola Horror: A Deadly Train Wreck 140 Years Ago Brought Tragedy to a Western New York Village–and Gave John D. Rockefeller Reason to Be Thankful.” American History, 1 Feb. 2008. Accessed 23 Nov 2018.

Identifying the Robot as the Enemy in Active Comics: No. 15

© Copyright 2018 Natalia Orasanin, Ryerson University


In the midst of the Second World War, the growing trade deficit Canada experienced with the United States resulted in the Canadian government implementing the War Exchange Conservation Act, in an effort to stabilize the Canadian dollar (Bell 1). Canada banned all imports that were considered non-essential, deeming books and comics as luxury items  (Nguyen 1). As a result, Canadian publishers began producing their own comics books, referred to as The Canadian Whites, due to their black and white interiors (Bell 1). Although the production and sale of Canadian Whites such as Active Comics, Commando Comics, and Dime Comics plummeted after the ban was lifted near the end of the war, these comics can be viewed as a portal or window to Canadian society during wartime. Superhero characters were especially popular for soldiers on front lines, representing strength and patriotism — the same characteristics associated with soldiers during the war (Babic 111). Therefore, the character representation in comics provides a glimpse at the historical attitudes and perspectives of the time in which they were produced (Babic 111). Additionally, many comics reflect the anxieties surrounding war time, including the shifting roles of women in society, fears of losing the war to Axis powers, pressure on increased production, and related issues (Babic 111).

I will be examining the ways in which robots are portrayed throughout Active Comics: No. 15. (1944), specifically three key areas: “King Fury and the Robot Menace,” (22 – 28) the front cover, as well as an activity page that prompts the reader to identify all of the hidden robots throughout the issue (11). In the same way that the public view of soldiers was associated with superhero characters, robots in the comic are much more than merely characters, they function as mirrors to the representations of Axis powers during wartime. In this essay, I will show how the portrayal of robots as mechanic, mindless followers is representative of the way Germans and other Axis powers were viewed during the Second World War, and how this portrayal was utilized in comics and newspapers in order to identify the enemy within popular discourse. Further, the identification of the robot as the enemy highlights the resemblance between the activity page and government propaganda during World War II, both instructing individuals to remain on the look out for enemies who are under the control of a dangerous leader.

The “Robot” and the Enemy

The term “robot” was incredibly common in public discourse and Canadian newspapers during World War II. “Robot” appears hundreds of times in The Toronto Daily Star, The Globe and Mail, Hamilton Spectator and many other news sources. Notably, in these articles the word is excessively used to describe members of the Axis powers. In an article, titled “Human Robots” by George Axelsson featured in the Globe and Mail, both the terms “civilian robots” and  “a senseless robot, mechanically obeying his master’s voice” are used to describe the Germans (Axelsson 1). Comparatively, in an article in the Hamilton Spectator, Japanese soldiers are described as having the mentality of robots, completely dependant upon commanding officers and “helpless” without their guidance (“Nothing to Fear From Jap Entry; Men But Robots”). Additional terms found in articles range from “Nazi robots,” “Robots of the German airforce, [who need] a slave – driving general to tell them what to do,” to describing Germans as “slaves” and British pilots as “free men, self – reliant and ground in the dignity of manhood” (“Knights on Winged Steeds”). These terms are all degrading and speak to the lack of agency and mindlessness associated with robots, relating these attributes to the Germans and the Japanese Axis powers.  Another way in which the word robot is used in these articles is in reference to the robot bomb, even coincidentally a 1944 article titled “Menace of the Robot Bomb” in the Globe and Mail. The robot bomb, created by the Germans, is essentially a pilotless bombing aircraft specifically designed to attack the British. The fact that it is pilotless, and unmanned is important as it is a machine that is set out to perform a particular task, decided by those in possession of it. Parallels are also drawn when one takes into consideration that the robot bomb is a an aerial bomb, and that in the comic “King Fury and the Robot Menace” the Germans escape with the robot menace on a soundproof plane that King Fury and the Canadian Military cannot detect (28). In the comic, the robot is considered “good” when in the possession of the Americans, and “bad” when in the possession of the Germans, indicating that the “goodness” or “success” of the machine is completely dependant upon who has control. Seeing as the Germans had predominant control of the robot bombs, and they gain control of the robot in the comic, the robot symbolizes  an empty vessel for potential evil.

The Robot Menace

When comparing the portrayal of robots within World War II newspapers to Active Comics,  the identification of the robot as the enemy is present in the comic “King Fury and the Robot Menace” by Kurly Lipas, as well as the front cover. King Fury pays a visit to Dr. Tone and his daughter Tonee, and is welcomed by a robot identified as Dr. Tone’s newest invention (23). Dr. Tone is excited about the robot, as he can exercise his control over the robot with a remote control, stating that the government can make great use of his invention (23). It was not uncommon in the wartime for robots to be used as symbols for the portrayal of the enemy, as psychologically, many individuals associate robots with manufacturing and militarization (Cheng 1). In her analysis of Kakoudaki’s Anatomy of a Robot, Jennifer Rhee writes that robots are often a mechanical reflection/representation of our own human bodies, and our vulnerability to being controlled by forces external to us (Rhee 408). Further drawing from literary examples, Kakoudaki states that robots are often used to provide labour through elements of control, and that this relationship between the robot and the possessor brings forth notions of dehumanization, objectification and slavery (Rhee 409). In “King Fury and the Robot Menace,” this element of control is largely prevalent as the German’s overlooking Dr. Tone’s home break in to steal the robot. When they enter Dr. Tone’s home, Dr. Tone is so busy directing the robot that one of the Germans knocks him out and gains possession of the remote control. The robot then attacks King Fury and the Germans escape on a soundless plane with the robot, undetected by King Fury or the military (27). The robot in the story demonstrates no sense of agency, and surrenders completely to the individual in possession of the remote control. Control implies that the robot can be in the wrong hands, and Dr. Tone’s distraction when directing the robot to follow him as the Germans invade his home is ultimately the reason he is caught off guard and gets the remote control taken away from him. When the robot attacks Dr. Tone and King Fury as a result of this, the robot also becomes the enemy. Furthermore, the front cover of the issue features a terrified young woman in the arms of a robot that appears as though it is going to hurt her. Yet again, the robot is not captured in any positive light, and the human being is innocent and under the threat of the robot. The cover illustrates the identification of the robot as an enemy, and subsequently the fear of this enemy.

Destroying the Robot Menace

Cover, Active Comics No. 15, January 1944, Bell Features Publishing.
Dingle, Adrian. Cover, Active Comics No. 15, January 1944, Bell Features Publishing. 

There is no denying a rhetorical trend in newspapers describing Axis powers as being robotic, mechanized, thoughtless, and incredibly vulnerable to external influence and control. In “King Fury and the Robot Menace,” the German agents are often being commanded. For starters, it appears as though they are on a mission to steal the robot to bring back to Germany, commanded by an authoritative figure. When in possession of the remote control, the German agent states, “It’s as if I were the robot itself” (24). Ultimately, this quote suggests a mirroring between the German agent and the robot, that is only reinforced by the reverse shot sequence of the Nazi attacking Tonee, and the robot attacking King Fury, both of them striking the other in the head (26). In this way, the robot and the German operate as one in the same. The comic creates these parallels yet again in the second last panel, when King Fury tells Tonee, “If the Nazis ever build up an army of those robots our boys would have no chance against them… somehow with my strength and God’s help, I’ll destroy the robot menace” (28). Language plays a key role here, as the comic features the heroic character King Fury, who “Utilizes his great strength to help destroy the axis dictators,” and “Pits his strength and wits against the robot menace” (22). The term “menace” used to describe the robot directly implies a negative connotation, whereas the terms “King,” “strengths” and “wits” used to describe King Fury attribute his man power to goodness, identifying King Fury as the hero. Moreover, when one of the German agents says “Dis vill be a great day for the Reich,” (in reference to the Third Reich) on the plane, the text only reaffirms the rhetoric that these men are under the control of a leader and carrying out an instructed task. 

Spot the Robots 

"Even Under This Friendly Roof There May Be Enemy Ears." Wartime Security Poster, 1939 - 1945. Canadian War Museum.
“Even Under This Friendly Roof There May Be Enemy Ears.” Wartime Security Poster, 1939 – 1945. Canadian War Museum.

Seeing as the comic establishes the robot as an enemy that the protagonists fear, it is also important to note the preventative measures the comic is advocating for in resistance of these enemies, and how this is a reflection of World War II government propaganda. Comics were often directly marketed to children due to their cheap price, accessible narratives, adventure and sense of escapism (Babic 14). Many of the messages found in the comics directly correlated with the roles children had in society during that time. When the war started, new responsibilities were given to children as their parents either entered the workforce or left to fight overseas (Cook 1). Children were considered involved in the war effort, with posters around schools encouraging children to be on the lookout for spies and to avoid spilling any information or talk that would help the enemy (Cook 1). Spy work as an activity is exemplified on page 11 of Active Comics: No. 15, as the page features a competition titled, “How Many Robots can you Find on the Cover” (11). The competition asks readers to tear off the cover of the comic and circle all of the robots that they can find, looking at every “figure, tree, rock, boat, gun, etc” (11). The page illustrates the activity of being on the lookout for robots, as they may be hiding. Seeing as the robots are portrayed in a negative light throughout the entirety of the comic, the activity speaks to being perceptive and on the lookout for the enemy. The responsibility that is being put on the reader in this comic is exemplified in much of the propaganda regarding security during World War II in Canada. As demonstrated in the “Wartime Security” poster, there was a climate of fear built on the notion that the Germans were constantly listening, stating that enemy ears could be everywhere. Thus, propaganda instructed individuals to look beneath the surface, look out for enemies, and to police themselves in order to ensure national security. The comic does this in the form of  a competition, but it is nevertheless the same idea of surveying others due to a fear that has been ingrained in the individual based on the idea that the enemies can be anywhere. 


The portrayal of the robots within the issue relates to the narratives that dominated government propaganda and newspapers at the time, tying into a much larger representation of the axis powers within the media. Just on the cover, the issue establishes the threat, featuring a woman being defeated by a robot, surrounded by rubble. The portrayal of the robot in “King Fury and the Robot Menace” as being entirely susceptible to control and whose sole purpose is as an object controlled to achieve a means to an end calls to mind the discourse of the time comparing the Germans and Japanese as being controlled by an evil leader, machine like in their actions. Robots as machine like and in the possession of the enemy can also be viewed as a symbol for the robot bombs during World War II and the climate of fear perpetuated by these pilotless bombs, used heavily by the Germans. Overall, the use of robots in Active Comics: No. 15 establishes the enemy as a looming threat, challenging the reader to search for the robots just as children and adults were told to survey those around them. The activity page, when combined with the portrayal of robots throughout the issue, suggests that the enemy was using unassuming vessels to perform dangerous tasks, that could be found everywhere and anywhere, successfully heightening the public’s paranoia towards them.

Works Cited

Axelsson, George. “Human Robots.” Globe and Mail, 13 November 1944.  Democracy at War:  Canadian Newspapers and the Second World War, Canadian War Museum.

Babic, Annessa Ann.  Comics as History, Comics as Literature : Roles of the Comic Book in Scholarship, Society, and Entertainment, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2014. ProQuest, doi: 978-1-61147-557-9.

Bell, John. “Comic Books in English Canada.” The Canadian Encyclopedia. 8 July 2015.

Cook, Tim. “Canadian Children and the Second World War.” The Canadian Encyclopedia. 12 April 2016. wwii.

Cheng, Ching-Ching, Kuo-Hung Huang, and Siang-Mei Huang. “Exploring Young Children’s Images on Robots.” Advances in Mechanical Engineering, vol. 9, no. 4, 2017. ProQuest, doi: 10.1177/1687814017698663.

Dingle, Adrian, et al. Active Comics: No. 15. Bell Features and Publishing Company Limited, 1944. RULA Archives and Special Collections, Ryerson University, Toronto, Canada.

“Even Under This Friendly Roof There May Be Enemy Ears.” Canadian War Museum. 1939 – 1945,

“Knights on Winged Steeds.” Globe and Mail, 22 August 1940. Democracy at War: Canadian Newspapers and the Second World War, Canadian War Museum.

“Menace of the Robot Bomb.” Globe and Mail, 31 July 1944. Democracy at War: Canadian Newspapers and the Second World War, Canadian War Museum.

Nguyen, Linda. “Artist Part of the Golden Age of Canadian Comic Books; Helped to Create this Country’s Superheroes After WWII, Designed Graphics, Logos for Products.” Toronto Star, 2006. ProQuest, 439026882?pq-origsite=summon.

“Nothing to Fear From Jap Entrey; Men But Robots.” Hamilton Spectator, 11 December 1941. Democracy at War: Canadian Newspapers and the Second World War, Canadian War Museum.

Rhee, Jennifer. “Anatomy of a Robot: Literature, Cinema, and the Cultural Work of Artificial People by Despina Kakoudaki (Review).” Science Fiction Film and Television, vol. 10, no. 3, 2017, pp. 407-412. Project MUSE, 674425.

Images in this online exhibition are either in the public domain or being used under fair dealing for the purpose of research and are provided solely for the purposes of research, private study, or education.

Violence Against Women in Active Comics No.9


Copyright © 2018 Anjali Jaikarran, Ryerson University


Women are multi-faceted individuals who play many roles and undergo an abundance of experiences, however, society, on many occasions tends to delegate them to roles and experiences far beneath them. In the ninth issue of  The Active Comics (1943), two particular comics portray women being subjected to violence at the hands of another. In ‘The Brain: The Scarlet Zombie’, the villain threatens to strangle a female character if she does not relinquish information the villain believes she has. He follows through with his threat, wrapping his hands around her throat as the woman is paralyzed with fear (Bachle 24). Earlier, within the same comic, the villain’s monstrous creation, the Scarlet Zombie is seen

M, Harn. Panel from “Thunderfist.”
Active Comics, No. 9, January 1943, p. 58. Bell Features Collection,
Library and Archives Canada.

roughly grabbing the woman and tossing her across the room (22). In ‘Thunderfist’, another superhero comic, the hero’s love interest is taken captive by a Japanese spy when she attempts to follow up on a lead for a story she is pursuing. The villain binds her to a chair with rope to keep her from escaping so that he may use her as leverage (Harn 58). Examples from the reality surrounding women’s contributions and tribulations during WWII will be drawn on to shed light on the discrepancy between reality and the portrayals of women in the comics as a reflection of the value of women in Canadian society during the 1940s.

Women’s Contributions During the War

        The Second World War focuses on fearless soldiers laying down their lives on European soil for their country. Men are immortalized in history for their contributions, while the women are overshadowed by their counterparts. On the homefront, women inhabited every occupation possible to provide aid during the war. Stanley Hawes’ film, Homefront (1944), a propaganda film intended  to boost morale and incite patriotism, depicts women taking part in hospitality endeavours: anywhere from running canteens for weary soldiers to forefronting blood transfusions in the medical field as nurses. These women are said to be  ‘the living link between home and the inferno’ (Hawes, Stanley). In this propaganda film, women were seen as important and crucial to the war effort; without the aid of these formidable women, soldiers would not have been able to fulfill their duties to their nation. In the story, ‘Thunderfist’, the captured woman is a reporter who is following a lead on a possible story related to the war (Harn 58). Although her contribution is of a different sort than those aiding in domestic or medical affairs, her job lands her in a dangerous position as the captive of a Japanese spy. If the creators and illustrators of the comics had wanted to draw parallels alongside what was occurring within the real world, they would have created strong female heroines instead of male ones. They could have also created ones that worked alongside the male heroes as their equals. This is not the case with the female heroine in ‘Thunderfist’ as the woman is forced to wait for the male hero to come to her rescue, insinuating that she is incapable of saving herself, delegating her to a role without allowing her the chance to prove herself.

       On the front lines, women in WWII made an equally significant impact: “About 350, 000 women served in the [American] military… 14 000 were WACs, 100, 000 were WAVEs, 23, 000 were marines, 13, 000 were SPARs, 60, 000 were Army nurses, and 14, 000 were Navy nurses” (Campbell 251-253). While these numbers are not as staggering as those of men that enlisted during the war, however, it proves that women were not insignificant on the warfront. The most noteworthy reason for women choosing to enlist were “patriotic and emotional reasons” (Campbell 254). They risked their lives, left their family and friends behind to serve their country and help end a war that tore them from safety and normalcy. Propaganda was also essential in their involvement, there are many posters and films geared towards enlisting these brave and fearless women to the war front. One example is a propaganda film titled, ‘I’m the Proudest Girl in the World,’ which is a Hollywood-esque musicale that gives further insight into the duties of women during the war (Roffman, Julian). This musicale number can be seen as glamorous and whimsical, in which in the women are presented as driven, eager, and pragmatic. The discrepancy lies within the comics, where women are depicted as weak and subservient, waiting to be saved from one man (the villain) by another (the hero). In reality, women went towards the danger alongside the men as real life heroines.  Another propaganda piece is a poster titled, ‘The Spirit of Canada’s Women’, this poster depicts fierce women in uniforms whom are flagging a woman on a horse (Odell, Gordon K.).  The woman on the horse is assumedly Joan of Arc. This furthers the idea that the women portrayed alongside her are equally as strong and brave. However, in the comics, when they try to portray strength or bravery, the villains easily force them to back down, either through physical or verbal abuse; enforcing the ideal that men are the dominants while women are the submissives as a reflection of the societal views of the era. The Canadian government would have been desperate and in need of additional support if they were advertising for the enlistment of women in the war, thus, the portrayals within the propaganda film and poster are purely circumstantial as it benefited what was necessary at the time. The contributions made by women both on the home front and the front lines were influential to the war effort, the stereotypical portrayals of them in the comics do them a great disservice. Furthermore, the sexual violence they were subjected to is not only a slight against their contributions but their humanity as well.

Sexual Violence During the War

      Sexual violence against women  is known to be a consequence of war. ‘A Dictionary of Gender’ defines violence against women as:

   “‘any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life’. Such violence is widespread in both the public and private sphere, and may take the form of domestic violence or rape in war’” (Griffin, Gabrielle).

     Throughout the course of the war, women were subjected to sexual violence by American, Canadian, British, French, and Soviet soldiers alike. The exact amount of rapes is unknown but they could range from tens of thousands to millions, which were incited in no small part by a desire for revenge against the Germans for their assault of ‘non-Aryan’ women in the East (Matthews, Heidi). The idea itself of revenge by means of committing the same heinous acts perpetrated by the Germans gives strong insight into the value of women by men. Women, both in the comics and in the real world were merely token pieces used by men for their own convenience. In both ‘The Brain: the Scarlet Zombie’ and ‘Thunderfist’, the female characters are used by the villain for their own means. In ‘The Brain’, the woman is a source of information for the villain, when he does not get what he

L. Bachle. Panel from “The Brain: The Scarlet Zombie.”Active Comics, No. 9, January 1943, p. 24. Bell Features Collection, Library and Archives Canada.

desires, he throttles her in retaliation (Bachle 24). While in ‘Thunderfist’, the woman is used to both lure the superhero into the villain’s clutches but also to stop her from foiling his plans to blow up a ship harbour (Harn 58).  In a way, the women pose a threat to the villains as they need the women to commit their evildoing, but without their cooperation, the villains resort to physically assaulting the women to elevate their role as the antagonist.

    This does not justify the sexual violence experienced by women in reality, but only serves to make the depictions in the comics more problematic. In her dissertation, ‘Silenced Voices: Sexual Violence During and After World War II’, Cassidy Chiasson states:  “…sexual violence should not be brushed off as a consequence of this type of war since it is a problem with long-lasting negative effects on its victims. Sexual violence appeared in many forms during World War II, not just as rape. Mass rape was a major problem, but women also fell victim to sexual violence because of complicated situations and circumstances they were placed in.” (Chiasson 1) This conclusion makes the violence illustrated in the comics insensitive, it trivializes their suffering for the sake of creating an entertaining storyline. Statistically, psychological symptoms are more severe and frequent in victims of sexually related violence in war in comparison to non-sexual violence in war: “Results of the current study revealed that rape survivors reported greater severity of avoidance and hyperarousal symptoms compared to survivors of other war-related traumas; these symptoms are between 0.29 – 0.41 higher for victims of sexually related assaults in comparison to other war related traumas.” (Kuwert et al., 1062)  These statistics suggest that the comic creators are only mocking and devaluing the women who had become victims of sexual violence during the war. If they had any concern for women, they would have excluded it or allowed the women to save herself and exact revenge on the villain, but she remains in the clutches of the villain and her trauma until the hero rescues her.

     The article, ‘A Content-Analysis of Race, Gender, and Class in American Comics’ discusses the concept of benevolent sexism and its relation to submissive women and violence in comics: Benevolent sexism refers to delegating women to roles that are stereotypical and confining. These roles insist that the women have the protection of men. Furthermore, portrayals of violence against women has declined in comics but the ideas of benevolent sexism and the ‘damsel in distress’ still remain ( ‘A Content-Analysis of Race, Gender, and Class in American Comics’). However, this is only done in an effort to evoke a reaction from the male hero as they hold a significant relationship with him as a love interest or a friend.  In reality, circumstances forced women to learn agency and the find means to survive: untold numbers of women in the “German-occupied territories found themselves forced into survival prostitution. Due to the atrocious living conditions and strict legal regime, women and girls of all ethnicities resorted to this… They bartered sex for food, shelter, documents, and jobs,” (Jolluck 523). Thus, being in said state (at the ‘mercy’ of the villain) leaves the the female character no choice but to wait for the hero to come to save her as society typically has women in roles that do not allow them the agency to fend for themselves.

      Similarly to reality of the war, the villains are violent towards the women in both comics in an effort to elicit feelings of degradation and submission from them. Chiasson illustrates again the widespread severity of the sexual violence in WWII, “One must understand that this type of sexual brutality and dominance over women occurred on almost every side, and was not limited to one or two militaries. For example, when the Germans entered the Soviet Union, they raped, pillaged, and acted with extreme brutality,” (Chiasson 1). By degrading and hurting the women that are valued by the male heroes, the villains are exacting revenge on the heroes. This is because during the era, a woman’s value was seen in relation to the value she had to a man, and this still occurs today. Based on the values of the era, in her helpless state, the woman is at her most useful state as she elevates the status of both men. She elevates the villain when he captures her because it serves to make him more dastardly. While, when she is saved by the hero, she glorifies his heroic stature. Sexual violence is not to be trivialized as the victims suffer from severe physical and psychological trauma. The violence within the comics display a lack of concern regarding how female readers would react to it while the violence during the war occurred simultaneously; women both fighting for their country and their lives.


     The comics, ‘The Brain: The Scarlet Zombie’ and Thunderfist’ within the ninth issue of the Active Comics portray women being subjected to violence by the male villains. The female character in ‘The Brain: the Scarlet Zombie’ is physically assaulted by both the villain and his creation (Bachle 24). While, in ‘Thunderfist’, the woman is tied up to prevent her escape in the midst of doing her job as a reporter (Harn 58). These women are forced to become victims in these comics as the values of society in the era have bleed into these stories. Their contributions upheld the war yet they were undervalued and assaulted in both media depictions and real life as a result of normalization of said behaviour. In the 1940s, it is perpetuated, whether in reality or within a fictional story, a women’s value is tied to a man; based upon how she builds his masculinity. In truth, women are nothing less than the resilient, fierce, and exemplary individuals they strive to be in the face of adversity; whether it is it is in war or in everyday life.


                                                                                          Works Cited

Bachle, L. “The Brain: The Scarlet Zombie” Active Comics, no. 9, Bell Features, January, 1943, pp. 20-28. Canadian Whites Comic Collection, 19-41-1946. RULA Archives and Special Collections, Ryerson University, Toronto, Canada.

Bachle, L. Panel from “Thunderfist.” Active Comics, No. 9, January 1943, p. 58. Bell Features Collection, Library and Archives Canada.

Campbell, D’Ann. “Servicewomen Of World War II” Armed Forces & Society, vol. 16, no. 2,     Jan. 1990, pp. 251–70. Crossref, doi:10.1177/0095327X9001600205.

Chiasson, Cassidy L. Silenced Voices: Sexual Violence During and After World War II.   University of Southern Mississippi, Aug. 2015.

Facciani, Matthew, et al. A Content-Analysis of Race, Gender, and Class in American Comic     Books. Vol. 22, no. 3/4, 2015, pp. 216–26.

Griffin, Gabriele. “Violence against Women.” A Dictonary of Gender Studies, Oxford   University Press, 2017,                                                                                                                                     

Harn, M. “Thunderfist.” Active Comics, no. 9, Bell Features, January, 1943, pp. 54-63.     Canadian Whites Comic Collection, 19-41-1946. RULA Archives and Special Collections,   Ryerson University, Toronto, Canada.

Harn, M. Panel from “The Brain: The Scarlet Zombie.”Active Comics, No. 9, January 1943, p. 24. Bell Features Collection, Library and Archives Canada.

Hawes, Stanley. Home Front. National Film Board of Canada, 1940.,                   

Jolluck, Katherine R. “Women in the Crosshairs: Violence Against Women during the     Second World War.” Australian Journal of Politics & History, vol. 62, no. 4, Dec. 2016, pp.     514–28., doi:10.1111/ajph.12301.

Kuwert, Philipp, et al. “Long-Term Effects of Conflict-Related Sexual Violence Compared   with Non-Sexual War Trauma in Female World War II Survivors: A Matched Pairs Study.” Archives of Sexual Behavior, vol. 43, no. 6, Aug. 2014, pp. 1059–64. Link-springer-, doi:10.1007/s10508-014-0272-8.

Matthews, Heidi. “Allied Soldiers — Including Canadians — Raped Thousands of German   Women after Second World War: Research.” National Post, 8 May 2018,                                        thousands-of-german-women-after-second-world-war-research.

Odell, Gordon K. The Spirit of Canada’s Women. 1942,                                                                        Canadian War Museum   Archives (online).

Roffman, Julian. ‘I’m the Proudest Girl in the World!’: A WWII Recruitment Film. 26 Feb. 1944,


Images in this online exhibit are either in the public domain or being used under fair dealing for the purpose of research and are provided solely for the purposes of research, private study, or education.

Females as Supportive Sidekicks to the Male Protagonists in Active Comics No. 14

© 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.

A photograph of Mary Dover in uniform taken in 1942.
“Mary Dover (1905 to 1994)”. Alberta Champions, 1942. Champions/mary-dover-1905-1944/.

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.

Canadian propaganda poster from 1943 titled "ATTACK ON ALL FRONTS".
Rogers, Mr. Reginald Hubert. “WARTIME PRODUCTION POSTER, ATTACK ON ALL FRONTS”. Canadian War Museum, 19730004-030, Wartime Information Board, 1943. https://www.

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.

A scene with Active Jim and Joan Brian from the comic "Active Jim".
Dariam. “Active Jim”. Active Comics, no. 14, 1943, pp. 53-56, Bell Features and Publishing Company Limited, 1943, Toronto. Canadian Whites Comic Book Collection, 1941-1946. RULA Archives and Special Collections, Ryerson University, Toronto, Canada.

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.

Work Cited

Images in this online exhibit are either in the public domain or being used under fair dealing for the purpose of research and are provided solely for the purposes of research, private study, or education.

Patriotism in Active Comics no. 5/ Instilling the Canadian Identity


©Copyright 2018 @Yousef Farhang, Ryerson University


American comics were popular during WW2, and the Canadian youth immensely enjoyed reading them. However, the Canadian Whites, “due to the black and white interiors that distinguished them from the four-color American comics of the period, arose in response to the wartime importation ban on non- essential goods that removed American comic books from Canadian newsstands” (Beaty 429). These comics were used an entertainment medium for young readers, and influenced the role of youth during the war. Political messages were spread in newsletters and narratives of these comics to direct the readers into being faithful towards their country. In Active Comics no.5, the repeating theme of loyalty portrayed by Active Jim and other narratives, portrays the political aspects of the comics during the war, and how these messages were ultimately used to instill the Canadian identity into both the male and female readers. These comics advertise allegiance in their narratives, while also challenging the political issues of the war.

Themes in Comics: Loyalty

The Canadian Whites were not just a medium for entertainment. They included a variety of themes in their stories to influence the readers. Active Comics no. 5 (May 1943) is filled with stories about different superheroes who fight evil and represent the Canadian identity through their actions. In fact, Active Jim, “an athletic and clean-cut young man who serves as the spokesman and figurehead of the Club and who, from this issue on, merits a regular story in Active Comics until issue 24” is the voice of a Canadian youth during the war who advertises loyalty and how vital it is to be allegiant (Kocmarek 157). By using a character such as Active Jim, the writers not only made these comics interesting, but they also effectively included themes of loyalty which influenced patriotism to the children and adolescents who read these comic books.

As previously mentioned, the comic books were not only there for entertainment. Ann Babic, in her 2013 novel Comics as History, Comics as Literature, says “the stories within [the comic book’s] pages are more complex than a tale of a hero surpassing a villain” (Babic 15). In the Canadian White comics, there are some deliberate choices of themes in these comics. The comics bring political ideas to readers through their theme of good versus evil, which is portrayed by the superheroes and the villains. Active Comics no. 5 portrays the themes of good vs. evil by having two narratives where the hero of the story stops a villain who attempts to betray their own country. To illustrate, in the first story if Active Comics no. 5, “Dixon Of The Mounted,” Dixon, who is the protagonist of the story,

Steele, T.A. (w.a). Active
Comics. Dixon of the Mounted. No.5, May 1942, Bell Features Collection, Library and Archives Canada.

finds out the sheriff of the town is helping the villain of the story get away with his crimes. Similarly, in the story “The Brain,” the mayor of the city deceives everyone into thinking that he is helping the hero of the story, The Brain, save the city from Dr. Black who is a corrupted villain. However, The Brain is able to outsmart the mayor, and reveals that he was in fact Dr. Black. Aside from having racial intentions in naming a villain “Black,” which is interpreted as people of colour being evil, both of these short narratives were written to portray the themes of not only good versus evil, but also the theme of loyalty. In both stories, the villains were of high authority (sheriff and mayor) and are both breaking the law. In this way, the writers of the comics were able to show how being disloyal is being evil and it leads to not succeeding. Although the theme of loyalty is covert here, it is obvious that the plot of these stories had a message behind them and were done deliberately. To glorify loyalty and patriotism, Active Jim is a utility used by the writers of the comics to remind the audience of their duty towards their country. In fact, “Active Jim’s Monthly Message” does the same job as those two narratives. As mentioned before, in this monthly message, Active Jim praises loyalty and explains the importance of being loyal towards the “king and country” (Active Comics no. 17). This section of the comic is dedicated to a whole message about why allegiance is important. With the corrupted characters losing in every story, and the theme of loyalty and its benefits being spread in the comic, it is evident that that the repetition of this theme is vital because it is glorifying loyalty and denouncing corruptness.

Loyalty was taken seriously when it came to the Second World War. The pressure of war forced governments to do as much as they could to minimize any betrayal of loyalty. In fact, they praised loyalty through propaganda and newspapers. For example, in “French-Canadian Loyalty Demonstrated at Montreal,” a newspaper article from April 14th 1942, it is mentioned that “loyalty is, and always has been, one of the greatest qualities of French-Canadians” (“French-Canadian Loyalty Demonstrated at Montreal”). This praising of allegiance illustrates how much loyalty was important to Canada, and how conveying themes of loyalty in comics was not out of the ordinary and in fact, done deliberately.

Challenging The Norms of Political Messages

During the war, political messages were spread using many different mediums from television, radios, newspapers, and, of course, comics. While political messages that glorified Canada are easily spotted in Active Comics no. 5, political comments that are against Canada are not expressed overtly. However, when looking at both the art and the narratives of these comics, it is safe to assume the writers did have their own opinion of their government and what they thought of it. Going back to “Dixon Of the Mounted” and “The Brain,” these two stories do have messages that challenge the corruptness of the government of Canada itself. For instance, Dr. Black, who ends up being the mayor, wears a hat that has the British flag on it. This hat is very hard to see in the comic because it is shaded extremely dark. However, when looked closely, it is obvious that the hat does have the

L, Bachle. Panel from “The Brain”Active Comics, No. 5, May 1942, p. 18. Bell Features Collection, Library and Archives Canada.

British flag on it. The hat is significant because the artists of the comics were pointing fingers at the people in authority who ran the government (Dr. Black does after all end up being the mayor) and questioning their faithfulness towards their country. Similarly, in “Dixon of the Mounted,” it is the sheriff who is corrupted, even though it could have been anyone else in the story. Also, the sheriff being corrupt is only mentioned towards the end of the story, and they did not put much focus on that part; the writers did not challenge these norms by being blatantly obvious. This is vital because it shows how furtive the writers must have been to share their own unpopular and unwanted (by the government) opinion. This could have been because they knew what the government wanted the audience to take away from the comics, and that was to become more loyal towards their country instead of questioning if the government is corrupt or not. These issues of corruption are ways in which the writers broke thorough norms and challenged authority, while also pushing allegiance towards the readers. By doing this, the authors were able to express their own ideas through small details in the comics, while also being able to help the readers become more attached to their country and perhaps join the war for their country, since that is what their childhood heroes (the superheroes) have advertised in the comics they read.

The Male & Female Audience of The Comics

It is clear that these comics were used to push messages of loyalty to the readers and influence their ways of living during the war. However, it is vital to understand who these audiences were, and why they would be influenced by these comics. The comics “were read eagerly by the adolescents and pre-adolescents of Second World War” (Kockmarek 156). “During World War II, Canadian comics were the only option for comic book readers, [and these comics were] different from their American counterparts in their scope as well as their levels of violence and patriotism” (Reyns 15). The Canadian Whites being the only accessible comic, forced the readers to read these comics and also helped the messages these comics contained reach all the comic book fans, which were “both boys and girls” (J.L. Granatstein and F.Oliver). Knowing that both male and females read the comics, it is certain that Active Jim’s monthly message to stay loyal during the war was therefore for both the male and the female audience. It is easy to assume women did not have a role in the army, and therefore that his message most likely was not directed to the female audience of the comics. However, this is entirely false. Women were active in the war effort just as much as men, and they had many responsibilities such as “street car drivers to aircraft designers – and 1.4 million women were employed, a participation rate of almost one in three, at the wartime peak in 1945” (J.L. Granatstein and F.oliver). Understanding the role of women in connection to the comics is significant since that means the political messages of loyalty were just as much directed towards the female readers as the male readers.

Instilling The Canadian Identity

The superheroes are the characters who express loyalty towards Canada, and the evil villains are the ones described as “crooks” (Active Comics no. 5 11). The children who read these comics praised these heroes and wanted to be like them. This is why all the superheroes are men who are loyal to their countries. According to Beaty, the superheroes in these comics represent the Canadian identity (Beaty 431). With this being said, the superheroes were “not just entertaining fantasy figures” (Beaty 431), and indeed they played a much higher role. The roles of heroes such as The Brain were to show what a good soldier is like and how important it is to not lose your self identity. However, having superheroes who have powers was not very productive in influencing the readers. Therefore, the comics that “were often doled out by teenage creators only a little older than” the readers themselves” (Kocmarek 157), used characters like Active Jim to leave more room for the readers to relate to the comics. Active Jim did not have any powers and was an ordinary teenager during the war. He was the perfect example of a hero who was “exciting, but not overly exciting; active in the war, but not so active as to accomplish much of significance” (Beaty 430). Including relatable characters was done deliberately to help the readers connect to the characters more which ultimately helps the influence of the heroes become much higher; if the heroes did something completely unimaginable for the readers, the young readers would not be able to put themselves in the position of the hero and therefore not relate to the Canadian identity.


The Canadian Whites have been part of the Canadian culture since the Second World War and have been a great medium to influence the children of war. These comic books were not only used as entertainment in a time of war, where Canada was having difficulties with American goods; they were also used to influence the young readers to become more patriotic towards their home country. The political messages of allegiance spread by the narratives such as “The Brain” and “Dixon of The Mounted,” as well as “Active Jim’s monthly messages,” all contributed in helping the comic writers shape the Canadian identity and influence readers to not betray their own country and even join the war to support their leaders and families.

Continue reading Patriotism in Active Comics no. 5/ Instilling the Canadian Identity

Canadian Nationalism Informed by Captain Red Thortan in Active Comics No.1

© Copyright 2018 Nicole Bernard, Ryerson University

The Second World War saw the emergence of a Canadian national identity, crafted by the actions of the government and military, and articulated through the popular literature of the era. During the war, maintaining the Canadian economy was essential, and so the government sought to prevent the diversion of Canadian funds to other nations unless absolutely necessary. The War Exchange Conservation Act was introduced to restrict luxury imports including popular fiction. This created a demand for Canadian equivalents. One form of Canadian popular fiction which emerged from the War Exchange Conservation Act was the Canadian Whites, a collection of comic books which were iconically Canadian in both their production and content. The War Exchange Conservation Act not only encouraged the investment of Canadian money in its own market, it created an opportunity for Canadian artists to showcase their talents and for Canada to take pride in the abilities of its citizens.  In this paper, I will be focusing on the character Captain Red Thortan from A. Cooper’s “Capt. Red Thortan” featured in Active Comics No. 1 published in 1942. Captain Red Thortan reveals the inherent hypocrisy of Canadian society by representing the emerging Canadian nationalism of the Second World war despite the transgressive reality of racist, anti-democratic, and discriminatory practices in Canada.

The Canadian War Hero in Comics: Captain Red Thortan

Captain Red Thortan in search of his captured companion, Lieutenant Harley, in the Malayas.
A. Cooper. “Capt. Red Thortan” Active Comics, No. 1, p. 34

The protagonist and namesake of the “Capt. Red Thortan” comics is an iconic Canadian hero, reflecting inherent cultural assumptions regarding who merits idolization based on gender, race, loyalties, language, and ethics. Captain Red Thortan is depicted as an Anglo-Saxon male in the military. He also presents Canada’s loyalty to Britain by protecting the British Malayas from Japanese invaders and saving a British unit from impending harm (Cooper 32). Captain Red Thortan speaks exclusively in English, reflecting British tradition as well as a discontent with alterity. This appeals to the majority of the Canadian population and the narrative of Anglo-Saxon superiority. The democratic ethics of Captain Red Thortan, along with the public’s desire to eradicate all anti-democratic people, makes the discrimination against those who do not conform to the ideals of the Anglo-Saxon Canadian evident. The Canadian war hero, as embodied in Captain Red Thortan, is qualified through masculinity, Anglo-Saxon heritage, loyalty to Britain, English language, and democratic values.

WWII and Canada’s Emerging National Identity

World War II was a milestone for Canadian identity as it was the first war in which Canada acted independently of Britain. Historically, Canada had loyalties to Britain as a member of the British Commonwealth alongside nations such as India, Australia, and the Malayas. Canada officially declared war on Germany one week after Britain, showcasing its independence while still maintaining loyalty to Britain out of respect rather than obligation.

Canada maintained this relationship through military actions, allying itself with Britain first and foremost. Canada hosted British children in the homes and schools of Canadian families in 1940. The British Commonwealth Air Training Plan also instated air training schools and ancillary units in rural Canadian communities (The Canadian Encyclopedia). The formal cessation of Canada’s obligation to serve Britain allowed for the emergence of an innovative and modern national identity. Canada gained the ability to declare independent values and standards.

Gatekeeping in the Military: Who are Canada’s Heroes?

In 1939, Prime Minister Mackenzie King inquired as to Canadian popular opinion and due to French-Canadian dissent, chose that enlistment would be voluntary. However, within a year, under pressure of societal demands, he rescinded his promise and instituted conscription across the nation (The Canadian War Museum). The process of conscription began with the distribution of the national registration: a series of questions which were to be used to determine which individuals were eligible to serve and their skills.

Military service has a psychological association with national loyalty and rights to citizenship: “Being prepared to die and to kill on behalf of the nation continues to be an ideological cornerstone of national belonging and a sound qualification for the material benefits of democratic citizenship” (Ware 321). The social value ascribed to those who serve in the military contributes to the concept of the national hero. The Canadian government’s selective choice in who among its citizens could serve in the military undermined the status of certain minority ethnic groups within Canadian society. This gatekeeping was an underlying principle of the national registration and the ensuing conscription for service: “[M]obilization officials charged with the calling up of men into the Armed Forces were instructed to classify men identified as Negros within their internal documents, ‘along with the Chinese, Japanese etc., as “not acceptable for non-medical reasons” (Department of Labour 1943a, n.p.)’ (Thompson 710)”. The explicit exclusion of certain ethnic groups from serving in the military is an injustice that isolates such groups from being included in the concept of Canadiana.

The racist exclusion of these groups from military service subjected them to additional discrimination as even Canadians who served at on the homefront were disdained and deemed “zombies”: lacking human decency, subhuman beings (The Canadian Encyclopedia). Serving in the army was viewed by the majority as an act of duty and valour, and being willing to sacrifice one’s life to defend democracy overseas was regarded as the greatest of such acts.

Questioning Canadian Democracy

In “Captain Red Thortan”, the Axis nations of the Second World War are referred to as “the enemies of democracy” (Cooper 18). This mentality of the war as a defense of political beliefs rather than a war between countries juxtaposes the Allied countries and the Axis countries, distinguishing a disdain for the alterity of non-democratic nations. However, this implies that in order to be a member of the Allied nations, a nation would need to be democratic. This implicit requirement demands the questioning of Canadian democracy.

In 1939, the Provincial Elections Act prevented Chinese, Japanese, Hindus, and Indians from voting in British Columbia. That same year, women were deemed eligible to vote in Quebec. The isolation of certain minority groups from their right to vote in British Columbia were repealed in 1947. It did not extend to all groups but it was a conscious start to right the wrongs done in the name of national interest: “This discovery of prejudice and discrimination, and the steps taken to safeguard human rights, were remarkable in a country where discriminatory practices remained largely unchallenged until the war (Patrias and Frager 1).” Discrimination had been an implicit subtext within the narrative of Canadian national identity. Canada is, after all, a nation formed by frontier men, who took advantage of the groups native to the region for personal profit. The repeal of 1947 still prevented Japanese and Aboriginals from voting and certain other groups lost their right to vote without performing military service. The voting rights for all racial groups within the body of Canada was not completely restored until 1960 (The Canadian Human Rights Commission).

Canada’s choice to legally remove voting capabilities from certain members of its body specifically violates the concept of democracy. Therefore, Canada was an anti-democratic nation defending democracy abroad when it was absent within the confines of the country itself. This hypocritical judgement of minority groups emphasizes the narrative of Canadian policy makers and of the sole group which possessed complete inalienable rights: English-speaking Anglo-Saxon males. Their loyalty to their nation was not subject to questioning due to race or heritage. In fact, popular media praised the Anglo-Saxons, in a fashion similar to the white-superiority narrative propagated by the Nazi party:

” [Watson Kirkconnell] was a leading member of the Nationalities Branch and author of the Bureau of Public Information’s most important propaganda effort to promote national unity [. . .] proclaimed that ‘ [. . .] The Anglo-Saxons, who have displayed the greatest political genius of any age or people, have bequeathed to Canada the master-principle of responsible government and federalism.’ (Patrias and Frager 6)”

The implications of these racial biases is that there was one concept of a true Canadian, which was a descendant of Britain, maintaining British values.

The Treatment of Enemy Aliens in Canada

Japanese internees preparing to board a train from Slocan City, B.C. where they were relocated.
Photographer unknown, taken in 1946.

During World War Two, tensions were high and, out of fear, Canada turned inwards likening race and heritage to political position in the war. Due to the Axis powers’ fighting in opposition to Canada in the war, discrimination against Germans, Italians, and Japanese was prevalent. The most extreme and most documented of these cases of discrimination is against Japanese:  

“Canadians of Japanese descent were actively harassed after Canada went to war with Japan in December 1941. [. . .] 23,000 Japanese Canadians who were viewed as threats to Canada’s security [were] moved by the government from their homes on the British Columbia coast to communities and camps in the interior (The Canadian Encyclopedia).”

While not explicitly violent, this segregation creates a national divide within Canada, reinforcing prejudices against alterity.

Enemy alien groups in Canada were subject to frequent questioning of their loyalties. In order to assess these loyalties, individuals were tested and then were treated in a method corresponding to their attitudes:

” Ultimately, enemy alien individuals were allocated to one of three categories. First, those determined to be un-Canadian were relegated to internment camps across the country. Second, those who were found to be participating in Canadian society but were not above suspicion were to be kept under police surveillance as part of a parole system. Finally, those who had proven their importance to Canadian society were to be granted Certificates of Exemption, marking these individuals as exempt from nearly all of the government’s legal exclusionary policies targeting enemy aliens (Thompson 711).”

Even though one could possibly obtain a Certificate of Exemption, all groups who visually conform to the image of an enemy alien individual were subject to question and to prejudices based on the government narrative of these individuals as suspicious.

Jim Crow Law and the Treatment of African-Canadians

African Canadians also experienced discrimination in Canada during the Second World War. While slavery had been abolished for a long duration, African Canadians still were not treated fairly due to the Jim Crow Laws. These laws enabled individuals and businesses to refuse to serve African Canadians on the grounds of racial difference. This discrimination was not forgotten during the war:

” African Canadians were acutely aware of the glaring injustice of the government using slogans like ‘Canadians all’ to urge them to make sacrifices in the fight for freedom overseas while permitting fellow Canadians to deny them jobs, housing, and even service in restaurants and bars at home because of the colour of their skin (Patrias and Frager 8).”

This exemplifies the disparity between Canada’s desire for the participation of previous civilians in the war through conscription with its racist dialogue against the right of minority members of its ranks to merit citizenship.

The Importance of the Image of the Canadian Military Hero

Characters like Captain Red Thortan were important in Canadian society during the Second World War. He was a role model for the youth who were the readers of Active Comics. In wartime especially, it is important for children to have a strong role model encouraging the traits of strength, valour, and loyalty which are commonly ascribed to the masculine. The choice for the embodiment of Canadiana to be an English speaking Anglo-Saxon male is a reflection of the sociopolitical climate of World War Two Canada. The lack of representation of minority groups in literary positions of power and influence is a direct product of the racist rhetoric which was then prevalent. Yet, the White image of a Canadian Military hero is problematic due to the social theories of Anglo-Saxon supremacy that were accepted during the Second World War. Canada’s explicit action in preventing certain ethnic groups from meriting citizenship mirrors the anti-democratic attitudes embraced by the Nazi regime. The character of the Canadian Military hero has historically held inherent prejudices against certain groups. It is because of this blind hypocrisy that the representation of Canadian Military heroes in popular literature such as “Capt. Red Thortan”  must continually be questioned to reveal the underlying morality of such characters.


Works Cited

Cooper, A. “Capt. Red Thortan.” Active Comics, No. 1, Commercial Signs of Canada, 1942.

Library and Archives Canada. ‘Embarkation of W.W.II Japanese Internees from Slocan City, B.C., Probably in 1946’. Library and Archives Canada, 1946,

Patrias, Carmela, and Ruth Frager. ‘“This Is Our Country, These Are Our Rights”: Minorities and the Origins of Ontario’s Human Rights Campaigns’. Canadian Historical Review, vol. 82, no. 1, 2001, pp. 1–35. Scholars Portal Journals, doi:10.3138/CHR.82.1.1.

The Canadian Encyclopedia. Canadian Children and the Second World War. Accessed 1 Oct. 2018.

The Canadian Human Rights Commission. ‘Voting Rights’. Human Rights in Canada: A Historical Perspective, Accessed 13 Nov. 2018.

The Canadian War Museum. ‘Conscription – Canada and the War’. Democracy at War, Accessed 1 Oct. 2018.

Thompson, Scott. ‘Real Canadians: Exclusion, Participation, Belonging, and Male Military Mobilization in Wartime Canada, 1939-45’. Journal of Canadian Studies/Revue d’études Canadiennes, vol. 50, no. 3, 2016, pp. 691–726.

Ware, Vron. ‘Whiteness in the Glare of War: Soldiers, Migrants and Citizenship’. Ethnicities, vol. 10, no. 3, 2010, pp. 313–30. Scholars Portal Journals, doi:10.1177/1468796810372297.



Images in this online exhibit are either in the public domain or being used under fair dealing for the purpose of research and are provided solely for the purposes of research, private study, or education.