Animation buffs know that when the United States entered
World War II, Hollywood animators and their characters joined the military and
did war work, just as their live action counterparts did. It’s easy to watch
once difficult to see titles like Der Fuehrer’s
Face, Coal Black and Sebben Dwarfs
and Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips on DVD,
Blu-ray or YouTube. Print cartoonists and their characters also signed up to Do
Their Bit, but their work is harder to find. The handsome, large format
anthology Cartoons for Victory offers a welcome overview.
During the War, newspaper circulation hovered around 45
million copies per day—about the same as 2012, as Bernard notes. Newspapers and
radio were the most important media for disseminating news, humor and
commentary to eager audiences. Magazines also enjoyed enormous popularity, and
most of them ran cartoons. Artists could reach an enormous readership through
the printed page.
Unlike the current wars in the Middle East and Asia, World
War II had immediate and profound effects on daily life in America. There were
blackouts in preparation for possible enemy bomber attacks—Moon Mullins, Mickey
Finn and Donald and his Nephews all made jokes about blackouts. Milt Caniff of
“Terry and the Pirates” fame illustrated a booklet on “What To Do in an Air
Raid.” Across the countyr, people learned to cope with rationing and wartime
shortages. Mickey, Minnie, Donald and Pluto appeared on ration book covers that
businesses gave to their customers. New Yorker cartoonist Chas Addams drew a
miser lovingly caressing a white sidewall in a vault filled with tires.
Millions of Americans bought bonds. The War Bond program
raised over $180 billion—more than half the estimated $300 billion cost of the
War (in today’s figures, the numbers would be $2.4 trillion and $4 trillion.) Little
Orphan Annie organized the neighborhood kids into the Junior Commandos to sell
bonds, and do odd jobs to earn money so they could buy bonds. Dagwood, Mammy
Yokum, Mickey Mouse and Maggie and Jiggs appeared in strips either buying bonds
or urging readers to.
Many cartoonists also did war-themed advertising work. A
clutch of Helen Hokinson’s ample matrons argued over a grocer’s last package of
Parkay margarine. Disney military insignia appeared in General Motors ads.
Dudley Fisher (“Right Around Home with Myrtle”) drew magazine ads for pancake
flour. At the bottom of one ad, a much darker and less attractive version of
Aunt Jemima declares, “WHOO—EE! My tastifyin’ AUNT JEMIMA PANCAKES sure perks
up appetites!” Modern readers may be surprised to see print ads promoting the
alleged virtues of Camels and other cigarettes.
The war also brought lasting social changes to the nation. Women
entered the workforce in record numbers, took jobs traditionally held by men
and joined the Armed Forces. Many artists did gag cartoons about female service
members getting tattoos; others dealt with the discomfort men felt at dealing
with female officers and co-workers. For his series “The Thrill That Comes Once
in a Lifetime,” H. T. Webster drew a little boy pointing to an airplane
overhead and proudly announcing “My mother made that one.”
Racial conflicts came to the fore as segregation in the
military crumbled under the demands of the War. The African-American press
urged black service members to win a “Double Victory:” over the Axis and the
racism embodied in Jim Crow laws. Bernard presents two very interesting but
rarely seen comic strips from black newspapers: “Speed Jaxon” and “Jive Gray.”
Their stories focus on brave African American soldiers who fight bigoted
officers and civilians, as well as Nazis.
Incredibly, at the start of the War, the Red Cross not only separated
“White” and “Negro” blood and plasma, they refused to give interracial
transfusions, despite the protests of the AMA. Cartoonists lampooned this
idiotic practice (which puts the Red Cross’ current discriminatory policy against
gay men in a new light).
Although Bernard includes some cartoons about the notorious
relocation of Japanese-Americans, he largely omits examples of what would now
be considered racist cartoons that made ethnic minorities the butt of the
humor. Animated and print cartoons in the 40’s often featured racial humor that
is embarrassing and insulting by modern standards, but was considered good fun
and good taste then.
Bernard saves some of the most striking material for the
final section of the book, “Cartoonists Serve Their Country.” Pulitzer Prize
winner Bill Mauldin, Robert Osborn, Al Jaffee, Will Eisner, Harvey Kurtzman and
Hank Ketcham were among the cartoonists who worked on booklets, newspapers,
posters, etc. for the military while in the service. Even hard-core fans may be
surprised at the didactic adventures of Eisner’s Joe Dope, Osborne’s spot
illustrations for instructional brochures and Kurtzman’s posters for
entertainments held on the base where he was stationed.
Cartoons for Victory By Warren Bernard (Fantagraphics: $34.99)