There is a single story line titled, “Spooky Tales: Mortimer McFright” that is found in the 17th issue of Wow Comics (January 1943) that tells the story of a young boy named Mortimer who gorges himself on cream puffs and gingerale, goes out into a cemetery in the middle of the night and eventually falls asleep on a tombstone—dreaming of being seduced by a voluptuous vampire. The absence of a parental figure is apparent, the only sign of any sort of parenting is the mention of a bedtime curfew set at 10:30, which Mortimer dutifully ignores as he casually strolls into a cemetery at midnight.
The Purpose of Spooky Tales
At this time, in the early 1940’s, the roles of children and indeed the roles of parents were changing due to the strains that the Second World War placed on familial structures. Suddenly, fathers were being deployed to foreign countries to fight for their country and their lives, mothers were being sent into the workforce out of financial necessity, and children were left alone or neglected. The latchkey kid emerged from this era of independence; a child that was doomed to be involuntarily self sufficient. In the comic that is being discussed however, onomatopoeias like “gulp” are repeated by Mortimer throughout the story line, as are emanating motion lines that indicate stress or surprise (Virgan 13). These elements work together to create a distinct comical tone, one that, despite the disturbing imagery of homicidal vampires, is light and juvenile. After examining the conditions that children were dealing with at the time of this story’s publication, it becomes apparent that Spooky Tales utilizes comedy as a way to subliminally educate children on the dangers they may encounter if they should misbehave while home alone, or unsupervised.
Mortimer, the star of this storyline, is a goofy looking kid, and at first glance his hair looks like a mustache, or a toupe. He has a large wrinkled divot on his forehead and his nostrils almost look like pince nez glasses; something that no young boys at the time wore.
Mortimer is sitting on a chair that is much too big for him, one that his father might like to sit on. On the table beside him there are empty bottles of ginger ale which upon first impression resemble beer bottles. The picture forms quite quickly after the first few visuals of Mortimer; he is a child parodying an adult. As the story progresses though, it is obvious that Mortimer does not possess the exceptional decision making skills of an adult, as he eventually creeps into a graveyard at midnight to investigate the potential existence of vampires.
In 1942, a nocturnal curfew was imposed, and as Gleason notes, some children who were used to prowling the streets after dusk resisted the change. There was a heap of controversy surrounding the curfew; some seeing it as a stabilizer for family relationships at the time, and others noting that the bourgeois child saviour approach blinded the more privileged to seeing that some less fortunate children worked at night (Gleason et al. 3). The nocturnal curfew poses as a significant contextual clue as to why in “Spooky Tales” a child was seen sneaking out into a cemetery in the middle of the night, because it was newly illegal, and comics would have certainly wanted to take this opportunity to address a current controversy.
Concerns For The Latchkey Kids
Many were severely concerned for the “eight hour orphan”, otherwise known as the “latchkey child” (Zucker 43). Zucker refers to these children with sympathy, but maintains a critical tone as he addresses the apparent neglect that these children faced. He says that the house key around these children’s necks were symbols of “cold meals” and of a “child neglected”, “shorn of the security of a mother’s love and affection” (43). According to Zucker, this neglect and “maladjustment” to self sufficient life is directly linked to a surge in delinquent behaviours that Zucker observes in children. It should be noted however that Zucker’s journal article was published just two years after my comic’s publication, so the author may have been too temporally close to the subject he discusses. However, other more modern scholars also share Zucker’s remarks, including Venter and Rambau’s study on a latchkey child’s mental health. In a child’s primitive years, important bonds and attachments and lessons are usually made; with the absence of a carer, the child’s mental health and academia suffers. In such primitive years, this article argues that important bonds and attachments and lessons are made, and with the absence of a carer, a child’s mental health and academia suffers (346). As a child grows older, they form relationships with the self, parents, peers, educators, and other people who may play a prominent role in their life. Relationships can be viewed as the very substance of life, but a negative parental relationship can be linked to risky behaviours from children, such as “delinquency, sexual experimentation, and experimentation with harmful substances and various forms of peer pressure.” (Rambau et al. 349).
Other contextual clues support these scholars arguments; just flipping through the Toronto Daily Star proved that there was a surge in reckless child behaviour and child injuries. In one article, horrific stories were told. 4 year old Jeanette ended up in the hospital after setting her clothes on fire from the pilot light of the gas stove. She had been left alone for what was only “a minute”, and soon enough she was engulfed in flames (“Jeanette, 4, Badly Burned” 13). Her mother and sister were only notified of the fire when little Jeanette ran to the bottom of the stairs and calmly asked for help. The mother says the incident occurred because Jeanette had overheard her sister Margaret discussing with her brother John how their father had lit his cigarette from the pilot light of the gas stove (13). On the same page, there is a short article on Stephen Smith, a 6 year old child who was admitted to the Hospital for Sick Children with both legs fractured (“Both Legs Broken Of Chid, Age Six” 13). Police said the child was injured when he ran suddenly from a parked truck and straight into the path of oncoming traffic. He was hit by a car and rushed first to the clinic and then to the hospital. The article does not mention whether the boy was being monitored or by whom he was being monitored. The injuries seem to have occured due to their parents’ lack of supervision and control over their children. The rebellious behaviours that we see in these children (lighting themselves on fire, jumping in front of cars) were seen more frequently as the war progressed and children were continuously left alone. Drawing back to Rambau and Zucker’s articles, the self sufficiency and boredom that the latchkey children experienced resulted in pent up energy that eventually materialized as delinquent acts.
The True Villain
Children were being neglected, true, but by whom? Their parents? Or the government? Working mothers were petitioning for the right to proper child care and day care centres, subsidized by governments.
Oddly, the only woman featured in the comic is a vulgar vampire who goes by the name “Veronica Puddle, Queen of all vampires”. She is unapologetically lustful, a Nazi supporter and a potential child molester. This paints quite an evil figure of the types of women that walk the streets past children’s bedtimes. Veronica is essentially drawn as a prostitute, with dramatic makeup, nipples erect and dialogue that is so sexual it borders on perverse (Virgan 13). However it is important to note the misogynistic undertones present in Veronica’s character, and the misconceptions they brew about women who patrol the streets late at night. The Second World War morphed the duties and responsibilities of almost everyone it affected, but the most significant change in role, arguably, was the role of the mother. Before the war, mothers were accustomed to staying at home and concerning themselves with the upkeep of their houses and the welfare of their children and husbands. When fathers enlisted though, mothers headed off into the workforce to be the breadwinners of the home. Many saw mothers leaving to work rather than staying to take care of their children as an act of negligence, but they failed to see that mothers were fighting hard for proper child care. The real obstacle facing neglected children was the government. The establishment of daytime nurseries for children of mothers in the war industry began a controversy over who exactly was exempt from these nurseries and who was entitled to them. An Ontario Education Board trustee member at the time by the name of Loftus Reid objected to the apparent limitations to the nurseries, specifically objecting to how they appeared to only pertain to those wives in the “war industry” (“Says Serviceman’s Wives Can’t Use Daytime Nurseries” 23). He mentioned two wives of sailors who struggled to survive on their allowances and were forced to work (23). Reid pointed out that because they themselves were not in actual war industries, their children were exempt from the daytime nurseries. This of course posed a massive problem for mothers just entering a workforce that wasn’t technically under the war industry. The Canadian government felt that even when a father was deployed and a mother was working tirelessly, only those wives who the government perceived were working in a profession that directly benefited the war effort were considered eligible for subsidized daycare. This controversy is imperative to pay attention to, as it establishes a clear contrast to the type of woman portrayed in the comic and the one that dominated the workforce in reality. The comic falls prey to the misogynistic ideals that still prevailed at the time and showcased a pedophilic fascist succubus instead of showcasing a struggling, but dedicated working mother.
To the children that weren’t exempt from daytime nurseries, they were taught the importance of self sufficiency. They were taught not only how to eat by themselves, but also taught how to put their plates and cutlery away, how to wash their hands by themselves, how to groom and brush their hair, dress themselves (Parker et al. 12:16). These all may seem like menial mundane tasks to the average person, but it is crucial to understand that these are 3 year olds completing tasks that today’s 7 year old wouldn’t be able to complete. It is also important to understand that these nurseries weren’t teaching etiquette, but way of life. If children weren’t taught these tasks in nurseries, they would have to teach themselves alone at home. These children were being prepared for a life of relative solitude at the time, and there is a striking image captured in the beginning of the ‘Before They Are Six’ film where a little boy by the name of Roy, who looks to be barely 3 years old, is tied to the fence by his mother by a rope so he won’t run off. He is secured to this fence in the morning, and is only collected by his neighbour at meal time. The children of World War 2 all faced the same problem; solitude. It is a problem that no child should have had to face, but then, their parents were doing the very best they could under the circumstances of war, so what could be done? The government, while denying most mothers proper access to child care, was also advertising victory bonds that used children to tug at parents’ heart strings.
The axis, that is to say the two sides in the Second World War, had the inevitable outcome of spinning in a certain side’s favor. Someone would eventually come out the victor in the war. This poster warns of the possibility that everyone seemed to dread; the enemy winning. This is a parent’s worst fear, because the enemy is bound to mistreat the losers of a war, even the children that ended up on the losing side. This poster is a scare tactic–urging families to put in every last dollar they have into Victory Bonds–an “essential duty of the freedom loving citizen.”. The hypocrisy of the government is displayed here, as they urge parents to invest in Canada’s children, as they refuse to invest themselves in children and make nurseries more accessible to working mothers.
This comic is a warning to both children and parents, a cautionary tale for children who break nocturnal curfews and a subtle jab at mothers that have “abandoned” their children (Zucker, 43). During the second world war, the government attempted to persuade the female population to engage in their civic duty and help the war effort by volunteering or employing themselves in a war related industry. As a result, the myths surrounding the capabilities that women possessed regarding working the same jobs as men began to fade away. Women began to transgress the gender divide, half way through the war, the government began urging mothers with young children to join the war effort–not just single women. However these barriers were not broken unconditionally, and the government refused to accommodate the very same people they were urging to join the war effort. Daytime nurseries for these working mothers were only made available in 1942, and even then they were not available to mothers who did not work in a war industry, a clear discrimination. Examining this comic allowed for the misogynistic ideals that the government held to come through, revealing the prejudices and hypocrisies of the time.
“Both Legs Broken Of Child Age Six.” Toronto Daily Star, November 27, 1942.
Canada’s Children For Sale. n.d. Library Archive Canada.
Elza, Venter, and Eunice, Rambau. “The Effect Of A Latchkey Situation On A Child’s Educational Success.” South African Journal of Education 31, no. 3 (August 26, 2011). http://www.sajournalofeducation.co.za/index.php/saje/article/view/540/256
Gleason, Mona, ed. Lost Kids: Vulnerable Children and Youth in Twentieth-Century Canada and the United States. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2010.
“Jeanette, 4, Badly Burned Sings Bravely In Hospital.” Toronto Daily Star, November 27, 1942.
Parker, Gudrun. Before They Are Six. Documentary, 1943. https://www.nfb.ca/film/before_they_are_six/.
“Says Serviceman’s Wives Can’t Use Day Nurseries.” Toronto Daily Star, December 18, 1942.
Virgan. “Issue No. 17 Digital Copy.” Bell Features, January 1942. RULA. http://data2.collectionscanada.gc.ca/e/e447/e011166679.pdf.
Zucker, Henry L. “Working Parents and Latchkey Children.” The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 236, no. 1 (November 1, 1944): 43–50. https://doi.org/10.1177/000271624423600107.
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