© Copyright 2017 Malcolm Abbas, Ryerson University
Comic books, a unique medium that uses panel type illustrations mixed with dialogue and narration. Telling fantastical stories, comic books intended audience has always been children. Housing stories of super heroes defeating villains trying to wrong with pictures depicting these event, kids fell in love with comic books.
Gaining popularity in the early 20th century, the comic book medium saw its rise during a very hectic time in society’s history. At the time when comic books were gaining popularity among youth, the world was still recuperating from World War I, while at the same time having World War II loom in the back of people’s minds. Eventually people’s fears were realized as World War II came into fruition. And even the comic book industry could not escape the effects of World War II.
Due to the war, American comics were not able to make their way past the border and into the hands of Canadian kids. Seeing an industry untapped, Canadian companies like Maple Leaf and Bell Features decided to jump into the market and create Canadian comic books. What followed was a variety of different home grown comics hitting Canadian shelves. One of these comics went by the name “Commando comics.”
Focused on World War II, Commando comics was one of the marque Canadian comic books during the period between the 1930s – 1940s. Commando Comics multiple series all were primarily about Canadian soldiers besting the Japanese and Germans, Canada’s main enemies during the war. These Canadians soldiers, who almost always had no superpowers, would be able to beat the Japanese and Germans through their brains or brawn.
Despite both being portrayed as the main antagonists, the Germans and Japanese in the twelfth issue of Commando comics were completely different. While the Germans were drawn normally, accurately capturing how Germans looked, the Japanese were drawn to look like inaccurate caricatures of themselves. Exaggerating certain features such as their eyes and teeth, the Japanese in Commando comics looked nothing like their real world counterparts.
Why was there a huge disparity in the depiction of these two races in Commando comics #12, despite both being Canada’s wartime enemies? Well, there’s a few reasons why this phenomenon occurred.
They’re no threat to us
Although one of Canada’s main adversaries during World War II was Germany, people of German descent received very little discrimination in the country during war time. Unlike other ethnic groups, Germans were not faced with a huge amount of systemic propaganda by the media, or burning epithets on the streets. At this point in Canadian history, there were around 360,000 individuals of German descent living in the country, making up 11.2% of the nation’s population (attitude towards Germans 18). Considering the time period and percentage, this statistic meant that those with German ethnicity made up a significant portion of Canada’s population. Canada, even if they wanted to instill an anti-German sentiment onto the country, the Canadian government would face major backlash from a significant part of their population. Logistically this proposition would lean towards being unfeasible.
Although it would be difficult, if Canada really wanted to push an anti-German agenda, there would be good reason to believe that the government would find a way. Though Canada did not want to alienate not only German Canadians, but also Germany itself. William Lyon Mackenzie King, Canada’s prime minister from 1935 – 1948 had a unique perspective on the events leading up World War II. Unlike the leaders of Britain and France, before war broke out, King’s opinion of Hitler was positive. Feeling empathy towards the strife Hitler and Germany were going through post Versailles conference, after meeting with the leader of Germany in 1937, King came away feeling that Hitler was a good man, trying to to do the best for his country, which at the time were in an economic crisis. (Attitude Towards Germans 19). This empathy extended all the way up to Germany’s invasion of Danzig. In his diaries, King revealed that he thought Germany’s invasion of Poland was partly due to Britain and France (King Diaries). If Britain and France had given Hitler and Germany some leniency on the restrictions created at Versailles, this invasion would have never come into fruition (King Diaries). With all this good faith King was trying to build with Hitler/Germany, there was no way he would throw away this hard work by authorizing slanderous propaganda of Germans.
Additionally, during the start of World War II, Canadians were informed by the government that while all Nazis were bad, not all Germans were Nazis. This move by the government got Canadians to focus their anger and rage not on German Canadians, but at the Nazis living within the nation. This caused an investigation by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) to find and takedown all Nazi affiliated organizations in Canada (Agents Within the Gates). This investigation resulted in the Canadian government assuring its citizens that all Canadian-based Nazi organizations were taken down, thus giving Canadians peace of mind (attitude towards Germans 17).
Throughout Commando Comics issue #12, you can see this chain effects translate into different stories. In The Young Commandos (Smith 17), one of the comics in the issue, the Canadian soldiers meet a many different German people, who looked much like the soldiers themselves. The only person depicted in a distorted manner was the lone Nazi spy, who made his reveal nearing the end of the comic.
Why not the Japanese
Why not offer the Japanese the same level of empathy and understanding the German population received? Like with most prevalent issues of the early 20th century, it was because of race. While many of the Germans in Canada during World War II were immigrants, they still looked like the other Canadians in the sense that they shared the same skin colour/facial features, practiced the same religions of Canadians, and for the most part had an easy time integrating within Canadian society. Japanese immigrants on the other hand were quite the opposite. The Japanese looked entirely different from “White Canada”. The Japanese spoke a foreign language, Followed different social queues, practiced different religions, and the list goes on.
When Asians first started immigrating to Canada at the beginning of the 20th century, Caucasian Canadians, who made up almost Canada’s entire population began to feel threatened. Dubbed the “yellow peril”, Canadians felt that the Asians were trying to change Canada’s identity as a nation, slowly forcing Canadians to bend to their ideals (Kawai 112).
Japan’s actions during World War II also made it very easy for Canadians to both fear and hate their countrymen. Aside from their battles against Canada, Japan was engaging in villainous acts across the world during World War II. While the war was occurring, Japan made an attempt to invade and take over neighboring nation, China. While their efforts ultimately failed, during this invade, Japan committed gruesome atrocities towards the Chinese, the most notable act being the Nanking Massacre (Guo 3). When the Japanese made it to Nanking, the capital of China at the time, Japanese soldiers engaged in mass murder and rape of Chinese civilians, spanning over the course of six weeks (Levene 28).
With the addition of Japan’s hellacious war time acts stacked atop of Canadian’s already prejudice thoughts towards Asians, and a nationwide hatred for Japanese citizens in Canada is created. Unlike the Germans, the Japanese only made up a tiny percentage of Canada’s population (McAllister 146), meaning that there was almost no way to fight against this discrimination. Eventually Canada’s fear and hatred of the Japanese grew so large that they created and sent the Japanese to internment camps during World War II (144).
How does this relate to Commando comics #12? Well, during this time period war time focused comic books like Commando comics were used as a tool to indoctrinate the youth with the ideologies of the state (Scott 328). These comics would feature villains of the same race/ethnicity of those Canada were fighting as a way to get children to also grow a hatred towards those foreign groups. For Canada, this indoctrination tool was especially needed given their circumstances. Sending an entire ethnic group to internment camps, Canada needed to make sure that the youth “understood” why the Japanese were considered evil and needed to be sent away.
Thus, Canadian children were greeted with Commando comics #12, an issue which predominantly targeted the Japanese. In the various comics within the issue that featured the Japanese, they were always without fail drawn to be inaccurate caricatures of themselves, with the artists giving the Japanese buck teeth and slit eyes.
In Lank the Yank, the second comic featured in Commando comics #12, the protagonist calls a Japanese soldier “nip” (Brunt 10). This Japanese racial slur coined during World War II is written into Lank’s dialogue as if the word was part of everyday speech. This type derogatory language was normal to see in these old war time Comics.
Reading comics like Commando comics #12, Canadian youth subtly were indoctrinated to the anti-Japanese mindset of Canada.
Back to present day
As you can see, comic books historically have been politically motivated. During World War II, the rise of Canadian comics, society was able to use the medium to fuel racially driven issues. Commando Comics #12 was an example of this.
A comic based around the World War II, one read through any almost anyone would notice a difference in the depictions of the Germans and Japanese, the two main villains in the stories. While the Germans were drawn accurately, the Japanese were depicted to look like terrible caricatures of themselves.
And as we have learned, there a myriad of factors that caused this difference of discrimination. But among these factors, the two most prevalent were the backroom politics dealings between William Lyon Mackenzie King and Germany, as well as the already existing racism towards Asians in Canada in the early 20th century. If anything Commando comics #12 serves to show how far Canada has come in the 70 years since the comic’s release. Now looking back it is shocking to think that a comic once given to children is now looked back upon with disgust.
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Brunt, Harry (w). “Lank the Yank.” Commando Comics, no. 12, July 1944, pp 10-12. Canadian Whites Comic Book Collection, 1941-1946. RULA Archives and Special Collections, Ryerson University, Toronto, Canada.
Darion, John (w). “CLIFT STEELE.” Commando Comics, no. 12, July 1944, pp 2-9. Canadian Whites Comic Book Collection, 1941-1946. RULA Archives and Special Collections, Ryerson University, Toronto, Canada.
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Scott, Cord. “Written in red, white, and blue: A comparison of comic book propaganda from World War II and September 11.” The Journal of Popular Culture, vol. 40, no. 2, 2007, pp. 325-343. doi: 10.1111/j.1540-5931.2007.00381.x, ProQuest
Smith, Gordon, C. (w). “The Young Commandos.” Commando Comics, no. 12, July 1944, pp 12-17. Canadian Whites Comic Book Collection, 1941-1946. RULA Archives and Special Collections, Ryerson University, Toronto, Canada.
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