Encouraging the Militarization of Scientific Advancement in Triumph Comics No. 23
© Gabriela Will 2017, Ryerson University
World War II had a monumental affect on Canada’s advancement as a country, most notably on the cultural and scientific fronts. Culturally, Canada developed a strong sense of identity, as seen through the advent of the Canadian Whites: a series of comics made in Canada, targeting Canadians, and propagating Canadian imagery and values. The comic also depicts the rapid technological advancement rampant through the war years. In Triumph comics: No. 23, this is manifested through the repeated images of weapons in all sorts of contexts and across genres, including westerns, noir, superhero, and joke comics. These comics do not provide a historical lens to observe the period, so much as a mirror, reflecting back to the Canadian population the values and needs of the country, including the persistent emphasis on the invention and manufacturing of weapons technology. The importance of these advancements are reinforced throughout the comic in the form of acknowledgement and praise of the home front’s contributions, generating interest in the sciences, and instilling nationalism, with the intent of encouraging their reader’s eventual contribution. The prevalence of guns throughout the comic also contributes to the underlying theme of justice threaded throughout, suggesting further complexity to the comic’s aims, including constructing a new understanding of ethics during war time.
MEDIA AS PROPAGANDA
Like most forms of media during the time, Triumph No. 23 takes advantage of its reach and readership in order to encourage a pro-war nationalism among Canadians. It’s specific audience, as strictly Canadians, allowed for an outpouring of “nationalistic material” that was never previously possible in a comic subculture that was entirely subsidized by other countries (Foster). Beginning with the invention of the printing press, which lead to large-scale spreading of ideas and ideals, most subsequent mass produced texts served as avenues for social and political messages (Valentine 124-125). This is only amplified in war time, when writers were being pressured by many different industries to contribute to the war effort through subtle indoctrination of their readers.
The newspapers – which many comic authors are indebted to as the inaugural platform of comic strips – printed articles informing Canadian authors of their duty to portray Canada’s “proud and honourable past” in order to show the “heroic youth-and those who stay at home-what they are fighting for” (“Important”). Some comics even included “laudatory endorsements from Canadian cabinet ministers” who were trying to perpetuate an agenda of their own (Kocmarek 37). With a printing of around 500,000 copies of comics in any particular month (a number almost tripled by the known practice of circulating a single comic through multiple sets of hands), the messages contained within the pages reached a huge and often impressionable audience (Kocmarek). The effectiveness of the infiltration of the comics’ content into the Canadian consciousness is evident through the implementation of “active clubs” and other initiatives suggested by the comics that were successfully actualized throughout the population, amassing an impressive number members (Bell 156-160). By the mid-war period it was clear that the Canadian Whites had substantial influence over their large and varied readership, bringing the content “in the pages of [the comics into] the real world” (Bell 37).
INVENTION OF WEAPONS
Comics originated in the pages of newspapers, where they were “the most frequently read part … by children, and the second most [frequently read] by adolescents” (Foster). This familial relationship becomes important when analyzing the messages of the newspapers of the era, and how the news and events the authors read influenced the content of the comics they created. One such article from the Hamilton Spectator, 1942, talks about the scientific instruments that were being created in Canada including “radio-locators” and “navigation instruments”, which were at the forefront of the scientific boom (“Secret”). The added intrigue of ‘secret’ devices was used to increase interest and prestige among the readers of the newspaper, and may have influenced one particular writer, Adrian Dingle, in his comic “Nelvana”.
In this comic, Nelvana is trying to secure the “precious plans” for the secret “ice-beam,” an invention she and her Canadian companions are trying to keep out of the hands of the axis-agents (Dingle 1). This weapon is fantastical, yet not totally unrealistic, and may have been representative of some of the “secret devices” that weren’t talked about, but were nevertheless floating around in the consciousness of the Canadian population (“Secret”). By recycling the ideas and themes permeating the newspapers within his comic, Dingle emphasizes the importance of new scientific invention in helping the war effort. Indeed, it is the ice-beam invention that eventually defeats the Nazi “Roboms” in “Nelvana,” as told through a newspaper heading in the last frame of the comic (Dingle 7, Fig. 1). This full circle effect found in “Nelvana” – from authors reading newspapers, to creating their comics based on what they read, to portraying newspapers in their comics that share the same messages – reflects the life Canadian readers back to them in a more dramatic, elevated, purposeful way. Keeping the population attuned to the needs and realities of the situation on the home front permeates through every level of authoritative texts.
The war brought an onset of technological advancements to the Canadian home front, specifically in regards to the manufacturing of weapons and transportation of supplies. Canada’s reputation as a country with a “virtually nonexistent” capacity for scientific or industrial development changed rapidly with the desire to be seen as self sufficient and separate from Britain’s influence (Avery 14). Therefore, Canada began their own endeavours into “radar, explosives, proximity fuses, and chemical and biological warfare,” as well as massive manufacturing projects in areas of transportation, such as the Corvette ships (Avery 25). However, the manpower needed to manufacture all these weapons was usually at a deficit (Avery). Many forms of media set their sights on improving this ratio through sending messages containing positive reinforcement to boost morale, nationalism, and the incentive for everyday Canadians back home to participate in manufacturing efforts. The first frame of the comic “Barnacle Bull” shows him on a Corvette: a ship built in Canada and used by the Royal Canadian Navy during World War II (Brunt 41, “Corvette”). These minute details threaded throughout the comics help instil a sense of pride on both a personal level for those have first hand experience with the ship, but also on a national level, wherein every Canadian can feel a sense of pride for their country’s accomplishments.
This covert propaganda tactic was seen throughout the media of the day, including a radio broadcast from 1942. Using testimony from Canadian’s on active duty stationed across the fronts, the speakers repeat the same message of thanks and appreciation to the home front for all the “new equipment [and] new weapons” (Messages). They emphasize how much it means that it “comes from Canada”, their home, and how “the people on the front [are] every it as important as any other” (Messages). Almost every person says “keep up the good work Canada,” and there is strong sense, especially in some of the stuttering, that the soldiers are following a script provided to them (Messages). This same persuasive elements of testimony and ‘glittering generalities’ are found both in “Barnacle Bull” (more discretely), as well as overtly in the radio broadcast. Both mediums use praise as means to make the Canadian home front feel more directly connected to the cause at large, creating a greater feeling of nationalism and desire to participate.
ENCOURAGEMENT OF SCIENTIFIC ADVANCEMENT
The manufacturing of weapons was not the only source of contribution that was lacking on the home front; the Canadian government and universities were also in need of educated youth to participate in the scientific invention stage of weapon making. The government tried to achieve this through “mobiliz[ing] Canadian universities for war” by allocating the majority of their resources on achieving this goal (Avery 42). Their two main goals were “developing new weapons” and recruiting students to “continue their studies in all branches of science, especially along the lines required to met national requirements as they develop[ed]” (Avery 83, 43).
The pages of Triumph Comics No. 23 are saturated with recurring depictions of weapons in many different forms. In the comic “Speed Savage,” the technical, scientific jargon alludes to the complexities of scientific advancement at the time. The evil mastermind’s “fluid of life giving cosmic energy” used to bring a statue to life was only possible because of his “years of study and research,” much like the career trajectory required of actual scientists (Steele 26). This story is also reminiscent of Frederick Banting’s career high, a Canadian scientist who’s lifesaving injection of insulin only a decade before was hugely celebrated and still fresh in the consciousness of the Canadian population around the time of World War II, when he again enlisted as a pathologist in the Canadian Medical Corps (Hume 128). Thus, a comic which prophecizes the possibilities of scientific advancement while alluding to Canada’s past scientific successes can be seen as a form of subtle propaganda aimed at instilling a sense of scientific curiosity and interest in young readers.
The connection between the necessity for a higher education in the advancement of weaponry is even more blatant in the comic “Professor Punk” (Fig. 2). As pointed to in the title, the main character is irrefutably associated with a university through his title of “Professor,” as well as the graduation cap he wears (Brunt 8). He uses scientific laws, such as deferring to the light of the “the deadly German V-2 rocket bombs” to track them, as they “travel faster than [the speed of] sound, so they strike before they can be heard” (Brunt 8). To defeat the bombs, he uses moles, who dig into the ground in order to avoid the light of the oncoming bombs, incidentally creating big craters for them to fall into and rendering them harmless. Even though this invention seems ridiculous, it was actually not far off some of the real suggestions put forth by actual scientists, such as “freez[ing] the clouds and mount[ing] guns on them,” or building a “bridge from Newfoundland to England” for the troops to cross over (Avery 50).
Pairing images of defensive weaponry advancement with symbols of university education not only emphasizes the necessary relationship between these two undertakings, it also suggests a relationship between publishing and university institutions. Both institutions, based in Toronto, received direct (in the form of monetary endorsement in the case of the University of Toronto) and indirect pressure from the government to aid in the recruitment of people in the war effort, especially needed in the scientific realm (Avery). Thus, the seeming collaboration of the two in the comic “Professor Punk” is not a surprising result of succumbing to these external pressures.
REINFORCING WARTIME MORALITY
The repetition of representations of weapons throughout the whole comic, specifically bombs and guns, trivializes violence and perpetuates a war time view of justice. Guns are used with a sort of reverence to their power, drawn by heroes with words like, “I’ll split you wide open,” “lead for the artist,” and “Speed’s gun is out of its holder and spitting death” (Steele 28, 30). These phrases, accompanied by flashy visuals, romanticize the act of killing another person, but only once they have been sufficiently villainized. The emphasis of a self vs. other dichotomy throughout the comic exemplifies a moral reasoning that justifies killing the enemy as long as it is the interest of the greater good. For example, in “The Voice of Justice” the detective is allowed to lie to the public in order to catch the murderer, in “Capt. Wonder,” children are absolved of their guilt to protect their innocence, and in “Ace Barton” people can be killed outright if they are an enemy or traitor (Alexanian, Saakel “Capt,” Saakel “Ace”). This type of morality has undertones of propaganda because it demonizes the enemy for the purpose of making the audience more united and, in the case of a war-time country, more nationalistic.
Scientists working on war weapons already had ethical concerns that were only amplified by the continued immensity of destruction that could be achieved now that “modern science had intensified the savagery of war” (Avery 39). Already in the first World War the invention of chemical warfare was being questioned on ethical grounds, and in World War II, with nuclear weaponry on the horizon, ethical concerns only increased. Scientists are being implicated in the ethical problems of a war they don’t necessarily support through their participation in creating the weapons being fought with. Therefore, those scientists “who contribute directly to that war will … be acting immorality” through their role in the death of thousands of young kids “due in no small part to their ‘ingenuity’” (Blue 20). This creates conflict between the advancement of scientific technologies and their implications on the war-front, where they employed the full extent their destructive power (Blue 89).
Clearly, the unethical attitudes portrayed in Triumph No. 23 do not align with the morality of Canadian scientists. This solidifies the content in the comic as propagandistic rather than realistic. Attempting to show a representation of justice that diminishes the act of killing the enemy would be more beneficial to Canada’s aim of recruiting scientists for war purposes rather than showing the result of their inventions in the form of thousands of dead youth. By advertising a new type of war-time morality that quantifies the killing of villains, traitors, and enemies, Triumph Comics partakes in an undeniable form of flag waving propaganda technique that “justif[ies] an action based on the undue connection to nationalism or patriotism or benefit for an idea, group or country” (“Flag-Waving”). Thus, with the comic’s reach as a media influence throughout the Canadian population already established, the assumption of the Canadian Whites as neutral media can be confidently refuted.
Triumph Comics No. 23 was a product of it’s time, informed by the context in which it was written and becoming part of the Canadian consciousness, infiltrating the minds of the Canadian population with the overt and covert messages about the war it carried. While the Canadian Whites dissipated with the termination of the war and the WARSAW pact, reading them reveals magnitudes about what life was like on the home front. The comic’s creators’ attempt to encourage their readers in certain directions, such as using persistent imagery of weapons to instil a curiosity in the sciences of weapons technology with the intent of motivating Canadians to participate in the invention, manufacturing, and advancement of these weapons. The theme of justice threaded throughout Triumph No. 23 in the form of demonizing the enemy in a self/other dichotomy absolves Canadians of any guilt attributed to helping create weapons used for murder, fulfilling the authors’ prescribed obligations to propagate a war-time morality within the Canadian population.
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