© Copyright 2017 Deanna Bucco, Ryerson University
When one thinks of comic books, what almost immediately comes to mind are children. Cheaply made, with storylines of superheroes and “funnies”, intellectual adults are rarely associated with such trivialities. However, if one were to analyze a comic book more closely, much can be revealed about the creators, readers, and society during the time of production. This information can be revealed not only from the narrative of the comics, but also from the visual styles and illustrations throughout a comic collection as a whole. When looking at Canada’s comic book collection, specifically those produced in the 1940s, it is apparent that comic books can also be seen as war memories. WWII was a turbulent time for Canada as well as the comic book industry, which ultimately led to the birth of the “First Age of Canadian Comics” after Canadian parliament declared the War Exchange Conservation Act (WECA) which restricted American comic books from being imported into Canada (Kocmarek 148-149). These Canadian Whites–named for being printed in mostly black and white–focused on Canadian superheroes and content. In Issue 13 of Bell Features’ Commando Comics (1944), one of the Canadian Whites, the main focus of each feature is the war against the Nazis and the Japanese. The celebrated “superheroes” are regular Canadian soldiers, rather than individuals with superpowers. Each feature is written and designed by various creators and the visual styles are all vastly different; however, their underlying themes appear to remain the same. Upon closer examination of the two features in Commando Comics Issue 13, “The Young Commandos” by Jerry Lazare and “Professor Punk” by Harry Brunt, it can be seen that different visual and illustrative styles are used to convey meaning to readers through the way the stories appear on the page. Although “The Young Commandos” is drawn in a more realistic visual style and “Professor Punk” is drawn in a humorous cartoon style, messages of propaganda can be deciphered from each feature both overtly, as well as through closer examination of the subtext revealed through the images.
Illustrative Elements Speak Louder Than Words
There are many visual styles and elements employed in the design of comic books that shape the meaning of the images that surround the narrative. Sometimes images are presented on their own without text, which provides a direct and bold statement to the reader. In comic books, the use of design elements such as page layout, panel shape and size, arrangement, and page placement contribute to the pacing of the narrative, which ultimately evokes tension and emotions through each scene (Jakaitis and Wurtz 211). For example, larger panels will draw a reader’s eyes quicker than smaller panels, oddly shaped panels will stand out as important, action that bleeds through the gutter from one panel to the next will create a feeling of fast paced anxiety or action that cannot be contained, and actions that are drawn out across multiple panels in moment to moment action sequences will prolong the tension of a scene. In reaction to war themed comics, these illustrative displays grow to be very meaningful. The manipulation of the combination of images and text imparts different value systems–here referring to political beliefs–and can create propaganda within the illustrative content both overtly and covertly (Jakaitis and Wurtz 130). This idea of comic book illustrative style as propaganda is evident in both “The Young Commandos” and “Professor Punk”.
The Film Noir Style and Canadian Attitudes in “The Young Commandos”
“The Young Commandos” (TYC) is a short, continuing feature that focuses on a group of young soldiers who work together to capture a Nazi spy who they then use to also trick and capture his Nazi leader (Lazare 14-19). This feature appears as the third sequence in the issue, and when compared to other features within the comic, it can be seen that TYC has a very distinct visual style.
This six page feature is drawn in a realistic, Film Noir storyboard style and includes different scenes and angles that would typically be used in movies. If referring to Figure 1, some visual film techniques such as close ups of faces, chase sequences spanning multiple panels with different angles of a car, and medium shots of static action such as dialogue can be seen. The feature is drawn in a complex story layout in which the panels are all different sizes and arranged in changing layouts on each page, such as in Figure 1. Throughout the feature, the action from one frame will even bleed through the gutter (the space in between frames) and extend into the next frame. This can be seen in Figure 1 in both the fifth panel where the villain’s leg extends past the gutter back into the fourth panel, and in the seventh panel where one of the Young Commando’s arm extends across the gutter into the next panel. Here readers experience a sense of urgency in the action which is too grand to be contained in a single frame.
The Film Noir visual style is an important aspect to note in its use in TYC since it emerged as a prominent film genre in the 1940s at the same time Bell Features began to make the Canadian Whites (Conrad 1). Film Noir makes use of dark, negative space and plays with lighting to create interesting shadows that change the intensity and mood of each scene (Conrad 2-3). In Figure 1, we can see this technique of dark, negative space being employed, especially in the close-up panels as a way of heightening tension and the emotion of the character in the panel. Film Noir also deals heavily with themes of disorientation, alienation, pessimism, and a rejection of traditional ideas about morality (Conrad 7). These are the same attitudes that were commonly felt and broadcasted by the Canadian population during the Second World War. This is further highlighted in an article from The Globe and Mail on December 4, 1941, when B. A. Trestrail, president of the Canadian Radio Corporation, announced that 90% of Canadian attitudes toward the war were those of complete detachment and apathy (Globe and Mail 4). The article ends as a call to arms for Canadians to show more interest and exert more effort toward the war, a message that is also evident in TYC.
“The Young Commandos” as Propaganda
True to the Film Noir style, all of the frames in TYC contain a lot of black, negative space which creates drama within the images. We also see characters’ faces shadowed in different ways depending on the tone of the scene. The images themselves; however, are very heroic which is in conflict and a direct rejection of the typical film noir style. In Figure 1, for example, we see our Canadian heroes engaging in a chase scene and gallantly pursuing their enemy, which makes them come across as very bold and determined, rather than apathetic and disassociated. The contrast between the valiant action in the feature and the Film Noir style is subconsciously hinting at readers that they too can rise above the pessimistic and apathetic attitudes and fight to be more heroic and patriotic. These characters aim to instill patriotism and build support on the home front during a time of crisis as well as aim to inspire children to want to fight for their country (Scott 54). Since TYC urges patriotism and heroism it can be read as a piece of propaganda. Here, propaganda refers to anything that attempts to influence the public’s opinion, as well as attempts to affect later behaviour, including actions toward the war. The purpose is not exactly to properly educate the population on events, but rather to change or solidify attitudes, behaviours, and ideologies (Seidman 414). If TYC is aiming to change Canadian attitudes toward the war and encouraging Canadians to be more patriotic and involved in the war effort, then it is in fact propaganda, but can the same be said for “Professor Punk”?
Action to Action: The Illustrative Style of “Professor Punk”
“Professor Punk” appears as the fourth feature in Issue 13, directly following TYC. We immediately see a drastic shift in visual styles. Rather than the realistic human facial features and film-like storyboard quality of the illustrative style in TYC, “Professor Punk” appears as a two-dimensional humorous cartoon. “Professor Punk” is a very short, two page feature that focuses on a crazy professor who is asked to create a new type of bomb for the war. He decides to fill bomb shells with termites instead of explosive material so the termites will eat Berlin to the ground rather than burn it (Brunt 20-21). Although this feature still focuses on the war, it is more comedic than TYC and has a much less serious tone. Also unlike TYC, all of the action in “Professor Punk” is contained within the panels without ever bleeding over the gutter into the next frame. As seen in Figure 2, the gutters in “Professor Punk” are much smaller than those in TYC which creates a feeling of less time passed between frames and less tension between actions. Figure 2 also displays the employment of the simple story layout technique through the ten panels that are all of the same shape and size, consisting of static, medium, or wide shots. The feature is free of action sequences that are prevalent in TYC. Each panel is simply drawn in a way that furthers the narrative in an action to action sequence, never lingering on or going back to any one action. In a visual style so different from that of Film Noir, can “Professor Punk” also be read as propaganda?
“Professor Punk” as Propaganda
The Canadian comic books that emerged during WWII were also used as a tool to enlighten younger or less educated readers about current and historical events (Scott 54). On the surface, this feature does not appear to be a piece of propaganda; however, once examined closer, elements of propaganda can be deciphered. While the feature is humorous and engaging, it also enlightens readers that there is a war going on and Berlin is one of the enemies. The lighter, less intense tone, as well as brighter images in comparison to TYC, makes the content easier for young readers to relate to since it is simplified. This can be seen in Figure 2 where the action of dropping bombs is contained in only one frame and the violent destruction that bombs usually cause is instead reduced to the less destructive image of termites eating away at Berlin. This drastically downplays the act of violent destruction. Oversimplification is a key factor for propaganda through the act of playing on the emotions of viewers and readers by presenting them with something visually appealing and easy to relate to or understand (Seidman 414). While “Professor Punk” is funny and engaging, it also contains serious images relating to the war, such as the subtle image of Hitler in panel one in Figure 2 (where his name is never actually stated) and the poster in Professor Punk’s office in panels three and ten urging readers to “Buy More Bonds” (Brunt 21-22). Subconsciously, readers are taking in this visual information and forming opinions of the war based on it; however, this form of propaganda can be useful. It is said that those who do not understand the past are doomed to repeat it. Comic books are an efficient way of disseminating a message to the relatively uninformed masses and the sooner history is instilled in the minds of children, even subconsciously, the better chance they have of correcting those wrongs in the future (Scott 16). Although the message in “Professor Punk” can also carry positive undertones, the feature can still be read as a propaganda piece.
While the Canadian Whites emerged as a response to the banning of American comic books, they were effectively able to provided young readers with entertainment as well as important information on the war through a medium that was easy to understand and relatable to younger readers. Through differing visual styles and the arrangement of images, both “The Young Commandos”and “Professor Punk” are effectively able to convey meaning to readers through the way the stories appear on the page. Although “The Young Commandos” is drawn in a more realistic visual style and “Professor Punk” is drawn in a humorous cartoon style, messages of propaganda are present in both features both overtly and covertly, ultimately suggesting that the Commando Comics were used as a way of influencing readers to be more patriotic and essentially want to fight to protect their country, just like their favourite heroes from The Canadian Whites.
Brunt, Harry. “Professor Punk.” Commando Comics, no. 13, September, 1944, p. 20-21. Canadian Whites Comic Book Collection, 1941-1946. RULA Archives and Special Collections, Ryerson University, Toronto, Canada.
Conard, Mark T., and Robert Porfirio. The Philosophy of Film Noir. Paperback ed., Lexington, UP of Kentucky, 2007.
The Globe and Mail. “WAR EFFORT, PARTY POLITICS ARE DENOUNCED: B. A. Trestrail Blasts Attitude of Canadian People as a Whole POINTS TO APATHY.” Globe and Mail [Toronto], 4 Dec. 1941. ProQuest Historical Newspapers, ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/login?url=http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/docview/1356324368?accountid=13631.
Jakaitis, Jake, and James Wurtz. Crossing Boundaries in Graphic Narrative. McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2012. ProQuest Ebook Central, ebookcentral.proquest.com.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/lib/ryerson/reader.action?docID=876782&ppg=220.
Kocmarek, Ivan. “Truth, Justice, and the Canadian Way: The War-Time Comics of Bell Features Publications.” Canadian Review of Comparative Literature / Revue Canadienne De Littérature Comparée, vol. 43, no. 1, Mar. 2016, pp. 148-65. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/crc.2016.0008.
Lazare, Jerry. “The Young Commandos.” Commando Comics, no. 13, September, 1944, p. 14-19. Canadian Whites Comic Book Collection, 1941-1946. RULA Archives and Special Collections, Ryerson University, Toronto, Canada.
Scott, Cord A. Comics and Conflict. Naval Institute Press, 2014. ProQuest Ebook Central, ebookcentral.proquest.com.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/lib/ryerson/detail.action?docID=1577594.
Seidman, Steven A. “Studying Election Campaign Posters and Propaganda: What Can We Learn?” International Journal of Instructional Media, vol. 35, no. 4, Fall 2008, pp. 413-26. Academic OneFile, go.galegroup.com.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/ps/i.do?p=AONE&u=rpu_main&id=GALE%7CA273359031&v=2.1&it=r&sid=summon&authCount=1.
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