Censorship: The Constriction of Artistic Choice in Issue #5 of WOW Comics

© Copyright 2017 Courtney MacKerricher, Ryerson University

Canadian Censorship Background

Censorship is a word most commonly associated with war. It is a word that has been fashioned to promote positively reinforced environments through negatively impacted situations. For decades, censorship has plagued the world to ensure that any truth that needs to be contained must be filtered in a way that serves to protect countries from themselves and those around them. Mark Bourrie describes Canada’s participation in censorship during World War II as “the toughest of those imposed by any Allied countries” (“Between Friends” 7). Canada’s position towards the usage of censorship was to warrant restrictions as a form of deterrence during times of civil unrest in order to “keep military and economic secrets out of enemy hands, and to prevent civilian morale from breaking down” (Bourrie, “The Fog of War” 10). These restrictions primarily pertained to forms of written expression, where laws such as Canada’s War Measures Act, The Comics Code Authority and other influential regulations served together to assure the public’s mind on issues relating to the war.

The Pressures of Persuading the Public

One area that suffered greatly from these constricting laws was the publication of comic books. Although Canada respected the rights of the media, there were scores of laws with loop holes that allowed the censorship system to be overruled by publishing companies, thus creating a sense of voice through the constriction. This active voice gave readers access to information that they were entitled to receive. There is no doubt that numerous comic book authors were driven by patriotism or a noble cause, such as Canada’s participation in the war, but there is however, proof that the pressure to illustrate the government’s dominant ideology of the war was detrimental to creation. This fact alone made it difficult for creators to illustrate the government’s limited view of the time. These creative limitations impacted the comic book industries immensely. One series in particular, the Canadian Whites collection by Bell Features, fell victim to Canada’s strict publication laws. While there was no set list for what needed to be censored in Canada, anything relating to graphic content such as violence in children’s literature had to be removed. The question remains, how does a comic book company write a story about a superhero with no violence?

Substandard superheroes

When it comes to most superhero stories, violence is inevitable; however, unlike your average superhero, Dart Daring and Whiz Wallace are strategically detailed characters created to illustrate ordinary individuals. In issue five of WOW Comics, both characters possess no super human abilities apart from conquering extraordinary tasks. With charismatic charm, a strong sense of determination and the ability to survive any ship wreckage, Dart Daring establishes himself as an adventurer of the seas. When it comes to Whiz Wallace’s attributes: unthinkable courage, sharp instincts and his undying love for a woman named Elaine, these characteristics shape him into an intriguing intergalactic being. Both characters share solid foundations of Canadian morals which emphasizes the morality of their stories, proving Bart Beaty’s point that “superheroes are…exemplars of nationalist ideologies” (428). Due to the presence of censorship, readers were brainwashed into believing that the decisions made by these superheroes are politically correct, when inadvertently, these comics books taught children that the death of Native Indians and other races alike was necessary to achieve peace.

A psychiatrist by the name of Fredric Wertham saw comic books as “one mass medium…which taught children that violence was a solution rather than a problem” (Duncan and Smith, 276). Wertham dedicated his life to preserving childhood innocence by protesting against comic books industries and other mass media corporations. His protests came to one conclusion: graphic violence was a flourishing source to influence negative behaviours in readers and it needed to be stopped.  Ultimately, his one number goal was to keep comic books out of the hands of children and into the flames of a fire; much like Germany’s Nazi book burning campaign introduced by the German Student Union. With sheer determination and several failed attempts to bring about any legislation against comic book companies, Wertham helped to create what he believed to be a solution to the comic book problem: The Comics Code Authority. This “self-censoring agency” worked efficiently and effectively to make sure that any comic books produced during the times of World War II and several decades after that, were “suitable only for children” (276). Although Wertham’s ideologies possess reasonable points, his protests to entirely ban comic books from children were too extreme for the public. Without the use of violence, comic books were challenged to narratively undertake opposing ideologies and conjure eye-popping stories.

Violation of the Superhero Code of Ethics

A panel of the emotional and physical destruction caused by the volcanic erruption
Figure 1. E.T. Legault. Panel from “Whiz Wallace and the Bat-Beasts of Aralee.” WOW Comics, No. 5, February 1942, p. 64. Bell Features Collection, Library and Archives Canada.

In “the Bat-Beasts of Aralee”, Whiz’s story juxtapositions to allegorical transposition, by which “instead of conflict between capitalism and communism…war [erupts] between earthlings and alien invaders,” (Arnaudo, 120) in this case, the alien invaders take the form of bat creatures. Like most children’s fiction, the hero saves the girl and lives happily ever after; consequently, Whiz makes a political choice not to save the rest of the Tizani men who await their untimely demise. In Figure 1, Elaine is seen weeping for the lives lost to the volcanic eruption while Whiz comforts her by saying that the Tizani men“only met the fate they had wished upon [him and Elaine]” (E.T. Legault, “The Bat-Beasts of Aralee” 64). The rule that a superhero can never kill an individual under any circumstance or let a civilian die when they can be saved, was not yet formed back then as it is today. Without the installment of the “superhero code of ethics”, Whiz Wallace and Dart Daring must identity themselves as “rugged protagonists who weren’t…worried about the lives and deaths of others” (Arnaudo, 78). With this in mind, their characters created an image that fulfilled the anxieties Canada felt during the second World War.

The Integration of Comix Contents

Although Canadian land was never attacked during either World Wars, the bubbling anxieties citizens felt on the home front were overwhelming. Physical violence was a caution that the government did not wish to integrate into children’s everyday lives. One of the reasons the government chose to censor any information pertaining to violence in children’s literature was because they were afraid that children would “get the wrong idea” and become more aggressive to those around them. Any visual violence was removed from children’s literature after considerable backlash came from mothers who were worried that their sons would develop aggressive behaviours. Comix contents, otherwise referred to as underground adult comic books, are believed to have been subtly laced into Canadian comic books during World War II as a way to embed alternative beliefs of the time period into government approved works. These comics were banned due to the warning signs of aggressive readers sometimes obtained as a consequence of reading and seeing such graphic violence. One of the reasons why distributors banned visually graphic violence from comic books was to encourage children to intellectually process the war in a less explicit matter; consider war as a platform to peace (Duncan and Smith, 56).

Troubles in Publishing

After the War Exchange Conservation Act completely halted the importation of non-essential materials, primarily from the United States, new perspectives were able to arise through the rush to build a successful Canadian comic book industry. Unfortunately, the Golden Age of comics did not survive for very long in Canada due to technical difficulties such as of paper shortages, on top of the pressures of creating a censored voice and style that would keep readers wanting more. Bell Features quickly realized they made a mistake after their first issue was completely printed in colour. The labour-intense work, time and money that was saved by formulating iconic black and white cores was what kept Bell Features alive for several years. But even at that, creators and artists were unhappy. On a daily basis, they faced multiple creative constraints which led many readers to think less of comic books. Not only were there space limitations, there was a problem with reproduction technologies. Paper quality and production was poor, not to mention the page-by-page ink process (Duncan and Smith, 119). Because of this, the artistic style represented in these comic books suffered in terms of encapsulation, layout and overall composition, “the very manner in which an artist…has expressive power” (146). Which makes one wonder, if these issues were erased, could be presumable that the production of comic books in Canada would have continued to thrive even after the years of World War II, instead of reverting back to selling only American-made comics?

Physical and Visual Limitations of Censorship

With the overwhelming pressures creators faced to ensure that the views of the Canadian government where presented properly and promptly, publishing companies were kept under a watchful eye. Anyone who wrote, published, circulated, or possessed anything banned by the government was fined $5,000 and/or up to five years in prison (Bourrie, 21). These restrictive measures lead publishing companies to come up with clever ways to corporate their own ideologies into their work without the government knowing. Although most of Dart and Whiz’s battle wounds are visually disguised, in “the Bat-Beasts of Avalee,” Whiz’s cheek is subtly drawn to have an outlined wound. This the only time in the comic where one of Whiz’s several battle wounds appears. The rest of his wounds: claw marks, blooded fingers, ripped clothing and other lava burns are missing entirely from the drawings of his story.

Tactics Used to Avoid Censors

On page 49, Whiz makes his way up a volcano until he reaches the highest point of the summit, the last place he saw the bat creatures take Elaine. After a long struggle, he acquires several blooded fingers which are strategically placed outside of the image box, leaving the reader open to graphic interpretations. This is the one of the clever tactics comic book companies like Bell Features used in order to represent violence in a non-aggressive way, yet still demonstrating Whiz’s external and internal struggles in the process. Others tactics used in Whiz’s story include creating smaller images. By differentiating the size of his character when the narration refers to battle wounds “bleeding from many scratches” and clothes torn off of his body, readers cannot tell by Whiz’s small-drawn body that he obtains these marks.

Panel depicting Dart's fight against the Natives
Figure 2. E.T. Legault. Panel from “Dart Daring and Treacherous Trails.” WOW Comics, No. 5, February 1942, p. 25. Bell Features Collection, Library and Archives Canada.

In “Dart Daring and Treacherous Trails,” Dart and his newly acquainted friend, Bob Huntley, find themselves at the core of a “savage” attack, fighting their way through a sea of tomahawks. In Figure 2, the artistic dimensions of the page demonstrate how Edmond Good’s articulately-drawn triangular-shaped image boxes mask the evidence of violence displayed on the page. At first glance, a reader more then likely will not recognize that Dart is shown stabbing a “savage” to death on page 25. In many cases, readers put most of their visual attention towards the narrative aspect of the story, the middle of the page or image. With the clever use of puffs of smoke from the guns that Dart and Bob use, it is unlikely a reader would notice this display of violence. This could be why it was permitted to be published and distributed to children in Canada. These acts against the censorship of violence could have been detrimental to Bell Features, but instead, it allowed their readers a window of opportunity to experience what the brutalities of the second World War were really like.


Similar Acts Against the Censorship of Freedom of Voice

Throughout the years of the second World War, Canada’s Federal government used censorship for self-interested purposes but this never stopped individuals from pursuing and publishing the truth. Much like E. T. Legault’s clever uses of visual camouflage as a way to integrate violence and controversy into his comics, a team at the Globe and Mail newspaper company were considered some of the country’s earliest wartime censorship critics. A columnist by the name of Judith Robinson, fought with Toronto censors regarding the assertion of her opinion in a column dating back to December of 1939. After initially being rejected, Robinson’s original, uncensored work made its way to the lead paragraph of her column that was published, printed and handed off to the streets the very next day (Copp, 105). This story goes to show that censorship demanded too much of a societal constraint for those working inside and out of publishing companies; the voices of Canadian citizens were not being heard. In “The Bat-Beasts of Avalee,” the character of Elaine represents the suppressed voices of Canadians when she sheds a tear for the unfortunate lives lost to a volcanic eruption. In contrast, Whiz’s character is the perfect representation of Canadian government morality. These clashes of voices demonstrate the frustration that Robinson, along with numerous other writers, felt during the time period. With an abundance of frustration, criticism towards the government’s priorities was top on a writer’s list.

Criticism on Canadian Censorship

On December 11th, 1939, a newspaper article titled Newspapers and the War by the Globe and Mail, made its national debut. This article wrote to confirm that criticism is a writer’s rite of passage, you can choose to withhold it, or splurge. Criticism was something Canadian newspapers faced on a daily basis during World War II. The most criticism was initially presented towards the Canadian government “due to the fact that the nation’s preparedness for the war [had] been unwisely explained and overemphasized”. At the time, there was quite a sense of disappointment with the government but also “room to hope”. With the country becoming further and further submerged into the horrors of the war, censorship of graphic content was one of the few ways in which the government could provide a measure of innocence to a world full of destruction. However, Wilfrid Eggleston, the man the Canadian government appointed as their Chief of Censoring even questioned himself as to whether censorship “was an effective way of keeping secrets and maintaining morale,” (Copp, 98). It’s just like how children eventually understand that Santa Claus isn’t real; one way or another, everyone learns the truth. There will always be a constant battle of whether society will think that they went too far to suppress information or not enough. Dart Daring and Whiz Wallace’s visually disguised battle wounds demonstrate that even with the pressures of censorship, the ideologies of Canadian citizens were cleverly and dynamically expressed during the time period of World War II.


Works Cited

  • Arnaudo, Marco, and Jamie Richards. Myth of the Superhero. Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013.
  • Beaty, Bart. “Fighting the Civil Servant: Making Sense of the Canadian Superhero,” The American Review of Canadian Studies, vol. 36, no. 3 (Fall 2006), pp. 427-39. Pro Quest
  • Canadian Business and Current Affairs Database, http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/cbcacomplete/docview/214007738/abstract/6B9303D71CDE485CPQ/1
  • Bourrie, Mark. The Fog of War: Censorship of Canada’s Media in World War Two. Vancouver, Douglas & McIntyre, 2011.
  • — “Between friends: Censorship of Canada’s media in World War II.” University of Ottawa, 2009, pp. 1–448, ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/login?url=http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/docview/230969316?accountid=13631
  • Copp, Terry, et al. Canada and the Second World War: Essays in Honour of Terry Copp.Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2012.
  • Duncan, Randy, et al. The Power of Comics: History, Form and Culture. New York City, NY, The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc., 2009.
  • Legault, E.T. (w) and Good, Edmond (a). “Thrilling Adventures of Dart Daring: Master Swordsman.” WOW Comics, no. 5, February, 1942, pp. 1-64. Bell Features Collection,Library and Archives Canada. http://data2.collectionscanada.gc.ca/e/e447/e011166668.pdf
  • The Globe and Mail. “Newspapers and The War.” The Globe and Mail, 11 Dec. 1939, www.warmuseum.ca/cwm/exhibitions/newspapers/information_e.shtml.


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