Heroes and enemies: American Second World War comics and propaganda

Kerr, Andrew (2016) Heroes and enemies: American Second World War comics and propaganda. PhD thesis, University of Lincoln.

27880 Kerr Andrew - English - July 2017.pdf
27880 Research Electronic Thesis Submission Form - Andrew Kerr.docx

Request a copy
27880 Kerr Andrew - English - July 2017.pdf - Whole Document

[img] Microsoft Word
27880 Research Electronic Thesis Submission Form - Andrew Kerr.docx - Supplemental Material
Restricted to Repository staff only

Item Type:Thesis (PhD)
Item Status:Live Archive


During the Second World War, American comic books were put to use for the war effort as carriers of propaganda. This thesis explores the propaganda in comics that were published with the cooperation of government and military institutions such as the Office of War Information and the United States Marine Corps. The propaganda contained within titles published in tandem with government institutions was primarily communicated through the interplay of the characters of the hero and the enemy or villain. Grouping these characters into recurrent types according to their characterisation allows for close reading of their particular propaganda function.
This thesis establishes a connection between the Office of War Information, The Dell Publishing Company, Parents’ Magazine Press and Street and Smith Publications, carrying forward the work of Paul Hirsch (2014). Each of these publishers produced comics that included war related propaganda, as did the Office of War Information itself. Added to this sample are the war comics produced by Vincent Sullivan, the editor of Magazine Enterprises and its subsidiaries, that were published with the cooperation of the US Marine Corps and other military institutions. In addition, a sample of the comics of William Eisner are included in order to demonstrate that the same groupings of hero and enemy occur in fictional comic narratives as well as those that purport to be non-fictional. Similar to Joe Simon and Jack Kirby’s famous creation of Captain America, Eisner produced Uncle Sam in response to the rising patriotic fervour in 1941 as the country increasingly debated and prepared for war. Eisner was later enlisted to produce comics for the Pentagon on war related issues. There is also a discussion of Milton Caniff’s contribution to the US military publication Pocket Guide To China and the Office of War Information publication The Life of Franklin D. Roosevelt, 32nd President of the United States (1943).
As a counterpoint to the propaganda function of each type of hero and enemy contained within the commercially published sample, this thesis analyses a selection of unpublished, soldier-illustrated comics from the Second World War thanks to privileged access to the Veterans History Project (2013) at the Library of Congress. These unpublished artefacts demonstrate that the comics medium allowed space for alternative voices to express their reaction to the conflict, resisting the wider propaganda narrative exhibited by the commercial sample and reacting to the loss of individuality and authoritarian structure of the military, while stylistically demonstrating the soldiers’ affinity for comics such as George Baker’s Sad Sack and anti-heroes such as Bill Mauldin’s ‘Willie and Joe’. In this way these soldier-illustrated comics presented a democratic counter-point to the lack of democracy within the armed forces (Alpers, 2003, 158) and exhibit a form of patriotism focused on the ‘grassroots’ elements of American everyday life and culture as opposed to the jingoistic and ideological patriotism of the commercial comics.
Methodologically, application of close reading to the content of comics’ narratives, on the level of a particular panel, story, advertisement, or other content, reveals comics to be significant historical sources that offer insight into the propaganda embedded in the popular culture of the period. Critical discourse analysis is applied to the rhetorical elements of the comics in order to explore how many of them served to marganilise particular groups, identifying them as the ‘enemy’ in contrast with the ‘hero’ (Brundage, 2008). Similarly, a semiotic approach informed by the work of Roland Barthes (1973; 1987) is undertaken in order to understand the significance of both visual and rhetorical elements of the texts. Alongside this approach is the methodological assumption of the ‘implied reader’ advocated by Wolfgang Iser’s (1978) that allows the analysis the virtual scope to discuss an idealised reader’s potential response to each text. This notion of the ‘implied reader’ is counterbalanced by a consideration of Stuart Hall’s (1980, 1997) three potential decoding positions in tandem with a consideration of the wider historical context.
Once the groups of hero and enemy are identified, subsets of both groups are developed according to their characterisation and the attributes they display. This is done in order to facilitate analysis of the ideology communicated by each of these character types. Identifying the function of each type of hero and enemy makes a new contribution to the wider field of propaganda studies. This contribution encourages a greater understanding of the role played by comics during the Second World War in encouraging ideological propaganda as well as allowing for resistance to it.

Keywords:Comics, Propaganda, WW2, Second World War
Subjects:V Historical and Philosophical studies > V145 Modern History 1900-1919
Q Linguistics, Classics and related subjects > Q321 English Literature by period
Divisions:College of Arts > School of English & Journalism > School of English & Journalism (Journalism)
ID Code:27880
Deposited On:14 Jul 2017 14:28

Repository Staff Only: item control page