Wartoons: Cartoons During WW II
By Don Vaughn
Most veterans of World War II have fond memories of the era's military strips, like Bill Mauldin's 'Up Front,' George Baker's 'The Sad Sack,' and Milton Caniff's 'Male Call.' To servicemembers everywhere, they were as coveted as mail from home and dry socks. But these weren't the only cartoons to address the war. Many popular civilian strips aided the war effort on the home front by boosting morale, maintaining a strong sense of patriotism, and encouraging Americans to do their part by buying war bonds and contributing to scrap drives.

'People were swept up in a sense of common purpose,' recalls Will Eisner, a comic-book artist who created instructional cartoons for the Army during the war. 'It was by common consent that we were in the war, and no daily strip dared make an antiwar remark. All of the civilian strips were involved in promoting the war effort because we had an enemy that had to be defeated.'

Cartoon Characters Enlist
The smoke from the attack on Pearl Harbor had barely cleared when the comic strips' most beloved characters lined up to enlist. One of the first was Ham Fisher's Joe Palooka, who refused a commission because he felt he wasn't smart enough to be an officer and spent the entire war a buck private.

There were many others: Terry of Milton Caniff's 'Terry and the Pirates' became a flight officer with the Air Force, and his mentor, Pat Ryan, became a lieutenant in naval intelligence. Roy Crane's Captain Easy helped the FBI fight spies and saboteurs when war broke out in Europe; after Pearl Harbor he became a captain in the Army. Even Russ Westover's Tillie the Toiler did her part by joining the Women's Army Corp, her ditsy personality quickly replaced by patriotic duty.

Characters unable to join the service for whatever reason did their bit at home by ncouraging readers to give until it hurt. In Merrill Blosser's 'Freckles and His Friends,' asked by his father what he and his pals had contributed, Freckles proudly reports: 'June and Hilda are rolling bandages for the Red Cbross, Nutty is an assistant block warden, Tag is buying defense stamps, I've sold $1,200 worth of defense bonds, and Sue is assisting at a canteen for soldiers.'

'The majority of strips accurately reflected the sacrifices made by the average American,' notes Brian Walker, son of 'Beetle Bailey' creator Mort Walker, writer and editor of 'Hi and Lois,' and director of a recent exhibition of wartime cartoons at the International Museum of Cartoon Art in Boca Raton, Fla. 'The men and women drawing the strips weren't in the military. They were home at their drawing boards and didn't have a firsthand view of what was going on like Bill Mauldin and others did. So they wrote about what they knew, which was collecting money for bond drives and maybe some boot-camp humor. There was a general agreement among most of the artists that their job was to keep readers entertained. They didn't go out of their way to remind people of this horrible thing going on; they wanted to reassure them that life in the comics would continue as it always had.'

Mauldin Meets Patton
Like most soldiers on the front line, Bill Mauldin's Willie and Joe were more concerned with survival than spit and polish. It was this characterization, as real as it was, that got Mauldin into trouble with no less a figure than Gen. George S. Patton, USA.

According to Mauldin in his book The Brass Ring, Patton was infuriated with what he perceived to be a lack of respect for authority and the military dress code in Mauldin's cartoons.'Now then, sergeant, about those pictures you draw of those god-awful things you call soldiers,' Patton said upon meeting the cartoonist.'Where did you ever see soldiers like that? You know goddamn well you're not drawing an accurate representation of the American soldier. You make them look like goddamn bums. No respect for the Army, their officers, or themselves. You know as well as I do that you can't have an army without respect for officers. What are you trying to do, incite a goddamn mutiny?'

Fiercely independent, Mauldin stuck by his guns. He told Patton he was drawing only what he saw. Mauldin was never officially reprimanded, and he continued to draw the war as he saw it, without interference.

Military Strips--Keeping Spirits High
The military comic strips that appeared in Stars and Stripes, independent camp papers, and stateside publications were a tremendous morale booster — both for the fighting forces and their families back home.

'I think many of these cartoons were like a letter home from a soldier,' notes Mort Walker, who drew gags for Hallmark Cards and various military newspapers between his other jobs during the war. 'Guys like Bill Mauldin and Dick Wingert, who drew 'Hubert,' showed what was happening in a lighter, more encouraging way. It was very reassuring to the general public.'

The strips were also a heartfelt tribute to the forces in the trenches, who often saw their daily frustrations and anxieties humorously illustrated. 'The military strips were definitely good for morale,' says Walker. 'Often the experiences weren't funny at the time, but they seemed funny and ridiculous later. I think it helps when a strip reflects reality. That's what I try to do as a cartoonist — find the universal truth and make it funny.'

One of the best at finding that 'universal truth' was Bill Mauldin, whose generic dogfaces in 'Up Front,' Willie and Joe, experienced everything good and bad the war had to offer. 'Up Front' was especially popular with the average foot soldier because he knew Mauldin was right there on the front lines with him.

'In the military, griping is a very important part of life,' notes Eisner today. 'To be able to gripe out loud, which is what Mauldin did, was a tremendous relief. That's what made Willie and Joe so popular among servicemembers.'

Sgt. George Baker's 'The Sad Sack,' which premiered in YANK magazine in May 1942, was also popular. A former animator for Walt Disney, Baker conceived the weekly humor strip based on his experiences and those of his fellow soldiers. 'The underlying story of the Sad Sack,' noted Baker during the strip's heyday, 'was his struggle with the Army in which I tried to symbolize the sum total of the difficulties and frustrations of all enlisted men.' Baker succeeded well. In one infamous strip, Sad Sack watches a military hygiene film so graphic that he dons rubber gloves before shaking hands with another servicemember's girlfriend.

Other humorous military strips included Leonard Sansone's 'The Wolf' and Dick Wingert's 'Hubert,' which premiered in Stars and Stripes in 1942 and ran as a civilian strip from 1945 to 1994. The big-nosed private was a hit with servicemembers and even edged out 'Up Front' in some popularity polls.

Dave Breger, who had been doing a strip for the Saturday Evening Post titled 'Private Breger,' changed the title to 'GI Joe' in 1942 for YANK magazine and Stars and Stripes, thereby coining one of the most famous terms to come out of the war. The character was essentially the same in both military and civilian versions and remained popular even after the war. When the real and fictional Bregers were discharged in 1945, the title of the civilian strip was changed to 'Mr. Breger' and lasted until Breger's death in 1970.

Sex in the Strips
While 'Up Front' illustrated the daily grind of frontline duty, and 'The Sad Sack' and others showed the more humorous side of military life, Milton Caniff's 'Male Call,' which premiered in 1942, was something different altogether — a pinup strip whose main character, the sexy and sublime Miss Lace, constantly reminded its readers what they were fighting for. A dark-haired beauty with Bettie Page bangs who dressed as seductively as Caniff could get away with, Miss Lace was every servicemember's pal, and the readers adored her.

'I didn't base Lace on any movie stars,' Caniff notes in a collection of 'Male Call' strips. 'She was the visualization of an idea, a point of view. It was as if she was a genie, a waif, who appeared in your dreams. When she turned the tables on some hot-pants GI, or the hot-pants colonel, ... it was fun. It was wish fulfillment for the readers.'

'Male Call' came to an end in 1946, but Caniff continued to draw Miss Lace for military reunion programs. It was just one of the many ways the artist demonstrated his love of country and those who fought for it. So strong were Caniff's sentiments that a speech on patriotism given by a character in 'Terry and the Pirates' was read into the Congressional Record.

'Milton established relations with all branches of the armed forces, and they were [happy] to help him because he was helping them in the war effort,' notes comic-strip historian and author Jerry Robinson, who knew Caniff well. 'He was more valuable as an artist than if he had served because his strip reached millions of people very effectively.'

Comic Books Take On the Axis
Comic books are a uniquely American art form that came into their own during World War II. Some costumed superheroes, like Superman and Batman, were thrown into the war. Others were born out of it, including Captain America, the Fighting Yank, Spy Smasher, and Daredevil, who premiered in 'Silver Streak Comics' in 1940. The character was given his own book a year later, patriotically titled 'Daredevil Battles Hitler.' It was later shortened to just 'Daredevil.'

The most popular forms of reading material on military bases during the war, comic books were much more gung ho than the daily strips, which made them the perfect medium for war-era propaganda. The Japanese were almost always depicted as short, bucktoothed, slant-eyed devils and the Nazis as warmongering beasts — perfect foils for peace-loving superheroes, almost all of whom were good-looking Americans.

One of the most influential comic-book artists of that period was Alex Schomburg, who painted dozens of action-packed covers for 'Captain America,' 'Marvel Mystery Comics,' 'All Winners,' 'USA Comics,' 'Thrilling Comics,' and 'All Select Comics.' In almost every case, superheroes are engaged in hand-to-hand combat with Nazis, Japanese, and every conceivable kind of spy and saboteur. Hitler, Mussolini, and even Emperor Hirohito were often on the losing end of these fights--no doubt catering to the deep-felt wishes of every American who read them.

'It was all very exaggerated, though I don't think you can exaggerate the cruelty of the Nazis,' notes Mort Walker. '[The intent] was to stir up the hatred as well as the patriotism to keep our guys going. No one wanted to be there, no one wanted to get killed. Comic books tended to whip them up and keep them fighting.'

Comic books were able to instill hatred for the enemy, boost morale overseas and on the home front, and encourage Americans to do all they could to support the war effort. Of course, the United States was not the only country to employ comic art as a propaganda device. The Nazis used vicious caricature to turn national sentiment against the Jews and other ethnic groups and minorities. Even American comic-book characters were fair game for the German propaganda machine; 'Das Schwarz,' a Nazi propaganda organ, went so far as to brand Superman a Jew in an effort to discredit the beloved man of steel.

Entertaining the Troops
While Caniff was unable to serve on military duty because of phlebitis, many other cartoonists found themselves exchanging their brush for a rifle as the war escalated. Alex Raymond of 'Flash Gordon' fame joined the Marines. Zach Mosley, creator of 'Smilin' Jack,' flew antisubmarine patrol. Bert Christman, who had taken over 'Scorchy Smith' from Noel Sickles, joined Chennault's Flying Tigers and was shot down by the Japanese over Burma. He was able to bail out but was machine-gunned to death before he reached the ground.

Cartoonists unable to serve did their part by entertaining at Army camps and hospitals all over the country. 'These tours, which were arranged by the National Cartoonists Society, proved to be an enormous morale builder,' notes Robinson, who went on three excursions. 'We were flexible entertainment; all we needed was a roll of paper and some chalk.

'We would go from bed to bed [to visit soldiers in the hospital] and draw pictures of [them] or of our characters. After that, if there was a theater on the base, we would do a full 90-minute show, usually with an attractive model.'

The program was so successful that it continued through the Korean conflict and into the Vietnam War. Some of the international bases the cartoonists visited were extremely remote. Robinson remembers a trip to a small base in Morocco that housed 100 men, and 94 of them attended the cartoonists' show--the remaining six had to man the radar system. 'We felt sorry for the guys who couldn't make it,' Robinson recalls, 'so we decided to put on a show just for them when they got off duty at 6 a.m. ... When we left, the [men] lined up along the runway to see us off. It was very moving.'

World War II wasn't the first military conflict to be reflected in our favorite cartoons, nor was it the last. But after the war ended, things changed quickly. Caniff continued to promote his pro-military philosophies in 'Steve Canyon' through the wars in Korea and Vietnam, but the celebrated illustrator gradually found himself a lone voice in the cartoon wilderness. Increasingly, the public's attitudes toward military service were more accurately reflected in gag strips like Mort Walker's 'Beetle Bailey' or cartoon commentary such as Garry Trudeau's 'Doonesbury,' which took frequent and funny jabs at America's involvement in Vietnam (and every conflict since).

It was television, however, that affected things most dramatically. With every war graphically detailed on the nightly news, people no longer wanted it mentioned in their morning funnies. Pen-and-ink patriotism had done its job, but it was increasingly considered passé — People didn't want to be forced to think — they only wanted to laugh.

A Gallery of WW II Comic Art & Covers



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