© 2017 Hallett-Hale, Thomas, Ryerson University
The Second World War was an event that sparked tremendous social upheaval in the western world, and entire societies were bent on achieving military victory. Such a focus on military service came to elevate it to the top of the social ladder. Soldiers in the service were praised for their bravery, sacrifice, and loyalty; being a part of the military effort during World War Two represented serious social elevation for all, making heroes of ordinary citizens. The status military service offered freely, regardless of ethnicity, represented for minorities and marginalized groups social redemption. Social Redemption here means an elevation of social status for groups who endured repression and discrimination in peacetime society. Media such as Issue #4 of WOW Comics offer a fascinating window into how wide audiences were fed this idea of wartime heroism. The characters of Lorraine and Elaine in WOW Issue #4, as well as women on the wartime homefront, are all excellent examples of how combat heroism and redemption was extended to a priorly marginalized group.
Heroic Redemption for Female Characters
The largest marginalized group who found opportunity and redemption in the Second World War were Canadian women. Opportunities for work at factories, in the Royal Air Force, and in the Army brought women into the limelight. In contrast, the female lead of “Whiz Wallace” is treated with a spectacular lack of respect, and thus tackles social redemption more directly. Her name is Elaine, and in Issue #4 she becomes deeply distressed that other women are fawning over her dearest- the protagonist Whiz. She becomes overcome with despair in her rooms, despair that’s narrated with stark disrespect.“Lying across her bed, Elaine Kenyon, like a foolish child crying for no reason at all, sobs her heart out” (Legault, 36). These words make clear the esteem that the reader is intended to hold Elaine in. On the counter side, our protagonist is portrayed as an earnest hero being snubbed; “Wearied of trying to get an audience with his sweetheart, Whiz goes back to the gathering honouring him, to apologize for Elaine’s action”(Legault, 36). Later, as a seeming punishment for her behaviour, Elaine’s request to join in a combat expedition is rebuffed – and she is left behind. This immense collection of “flaws” that the writer amasses against her only serves to highlight her redemption, as she stows away and fights with the men. Elaine manages to save the life of her companion, despite her perceived weakness. After taking the initiative, Whiz goes from demeaning her to; “Good girl Elaine, I don’t know how you happened to be here, but you’re mighty welcome!” (Legault, 43). This stands as the perfect example of redemption through military action, even from a group so marginalized as to be scorned and left behind for petty misbehaviours. Elaine therefore serves as a figure who, by taking action to aid the military cause of her friends, becomes a heroic figure in her own right; one whose prior misdeeds are erased by bravery.
A New Kind of Wartime Character
A reflection of women’s new status is found in my WOW issue, in the character of Loraine. She inhabits the story of “Dart Daring,” as the love interest to the titular protagonist. My issue opens to her brave rescue of Dart from a tribe of angry natives, in which she scales a sheer cliff by herself, sneaks by a hostile camp, and unties our indisposed hero. This is a far greater display of agency than other female characters throughout wartime comics; who often find themselves the victim of unfortunate circumstances rather than the solution. The writer does, however, portray her exploits in language far less heroic than applied to Dart. “Her heart misses a beat,” “Loraine, fear gripping her heart…” (Legault, 5). Her fear is emphasized, and she does not exhibit the cool courage of her male counterpart. And yet, the fact remains that Loraine indisputably clambers up a towering cliff, and braves a camp full of enemies to untie her friend. These feats far exceed being tied to various objects to be used as bait- a fate that inordinately befalls other female characters in many wartime comics. In a time where love interests were often portrayed as kidnapped, threatened, or helpless to create tension, Lorraine’s agency is a heroic new tone. That a heroine could perform heroic deeds in a similar league as a male character is a new brand of story, a portrayal of new, redeemed women, capable of playing stronger roles in w society.
Beyond the world of comic books, the concept of women engaged in the war effort blossomed into the idea of wartime Heroines. These women stepped up to aid the war effort, and were acclaimed for doing so. The acclaim was built into the image of women as selfless, patriotic individuals who stepped up to aid their country in its time of need. The wartime service changed the concepts of men and women’s work; instead lauding women for accepting jobs that they could only dream of a decade before. “The war effort and patriotism are presented as the artimcentral motivators for women’s work and the progressive national narrative is strongly endorsed” (Wakewich & Smith, 59), meaning that women’s jobs had become emblematic of patriotic service. The social redemption lay in this recasting of working women as noble heroines aiding their country, simply because the jobs they took were supporting the military effort. This massive shift in thought was so powerful that, even after the war, official wartime record favours the stories of exceptional heroines rather than the everyday exploits of ordinary wartime women (Wakewich & Smith, 59). Thus, the wartime saw women rising from the marginalized social dynamic of women in the 1930s, to be given both greater access to jobs and greater social standing. This social redemption was the prime example of the power the war effort had to elevate and even glamourize marginalized groups.
The Unredeemed First Nations in Issue #4
However, the forth issue of WOW comics is not entirely generous with this idea of redemption. While women benefit from redemption in combat, the same cannot be said for the Native Americans depicted in the story of “Dart Daring.” These faceless foes are heaped with cultural stereotypes, but with none of the redemption experienced by Elaine. They are termed both as “Howling Redskins,” (20) and “A pack of blood thirsty savages,” (19). Both of these terms are meant to demean and demonize the Natives- a common practice for wartime comics that wished to display their enemies as inferior. Despite Natives being Canadian minority, the writer pulled no punches, as seen when Lorraine is told; “If your friend is wise, he will easily outsmart those varmints! They’ve been drinkin’ the fire-water given to them by some unknown renegade, and they’re on the rampage!” (17). What makes this stereotyping relevant is that Native Canadians, like women, were a minority whom where actively engaged in the war effort on the Allied side. In theory, the principle of redemption that applied to women should have aided them, however this was not the case. Native Americans were welcomed into the Armed Forces, distinguishing themselves there; “[Charles Byce] won the Military Medal in the Netherlands and the Distinguished Conduct Medal in the Rhineland Campaign. His citation for the latter was impressive: “His gallant stand, without adequate weapons and with a bare handful of men against hopeless odds will remain, for all time, an outstanding example to all ranks of the Regiment”(“Indigenous People”). Native American men were accepted and honoured for their service, same as any others. Furthermore, many in the Native community found social “redemption” of their own, a chance to be validated as true Canadians the same as anyone else; “We’re proud of the word volunteer. Nobody forced us. We were good Canadians—patriots—we fought for our country.” – Syd Moore” (“Indigenous People”). Thus, the failure of Issue #4 to portray the heroism that the Natives earned overseas appears to be the inherent preference of Comic writers to stereotype and simplify their villains for children to grasp easily. When contrasted to the respect that real First Nations individuals won through wartime service, the cruel portrayal in Issue #4 does not refute the theory of social redemption.
Japanese Canadians in the Military
A strong example of this idea of redemption through military service lies outside my comic, in the stories of the Japanese Canadians during World War Two. Japanese Canadians, unlike the prior two marginalized groups, belonged to a minority whose former country was actively opposed to Canada and the Allied cause. This caused deep suspicion to fall on an already maligned group. The majority of Japanese Canadians lived on the coast of British Columbia, where they were viewed with deep suspicion and distrust by English Canadians. Eventually, through a mixture of distrust, racism, and a desire to eliminate fishing competition, the Japanese Canadians were relocated all over the country, a great many ending up in internment camps (Sugiman). This kind of widespread social distrust perpetuated appalling conditions that this group were forced to suffer, their homes, possessions, and lives stripped from them. The awful conditions makes the “social redemption” that many young Japanese-Canadian men experienced by joining the Armed Services even more marked, perhaps more so than that attained by Natives and women. These men did not hesitate to join the Forces, since “For [Japanese Canadian] men, a symbolic demonstration of both loyalty to the nation and confirmation of manhood was enlistment in the armed forces” (Sugiman, 195). This show of loyalty was rewarded largely by an escape from internment camps, and a form of social approval. A young Japanese Canadian at the time, by the name of Akio, detailed in an interview the results of joining the Forces; “In almost every reference to his decision to join the army, Akio introduced two related themes: his father’s support of this decision, and his belonging in Canada as opposed to Japan” (Sugiman, 196). It seemed that joining the forces switched the social standing of Japanese Canadians from that of possible enemy agents to loyal, patriotic Canadians. This change is a drastic example of how the redemption process not only exists, but how powerful it was during the war time years. Akio goes on to detail how his military status served as a protection against the racism and discrimination of every day life; “In almost every memory story, Akio juxtaposed the harshness of such discriminatory acts with the loyalty and support of Hakujin [White Canadian] men in the army. Akio believes that his military status in some ways shielded him from the impact of the racism that Japanese Canadians encountered in daily life” (Sugiman, 207). Even the depths of suspicion that an entire ethnic group had fallen to could be redeemed by service in the military, and all that it represented- the patriotism and dedication to one’s country that endowed a social standing all of it’s own, above the stereotypes and judgements of ordinary society.
To conclude, the characters within my issue- Loraine and Elaine- provide an abstract portrait of how the wider society of World War II was taught that military and combat engagement meant social elevation, and in some cases, redemption. The Native Americans, portrayal adds more nuance to the idea, contesting the reality of this social redemption with what the widespread, propaganda-like media spread. What the oral and archival evidence shows is that the social elevation of military service was profound to many minorities and marginalized groups, despite the castigation the Natives receive in my issue. In the end, the drive to win World War II was great enough to defy even the cast iron social standards of pre-wartime society.
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