War comics at the time of World War II can be viewed as icons of nationhood, with Captain America (for example) starting out as a jingoistic wartime crusader against Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. In the comics, America is represented as a peace-loving and the embodiment of freedom, as opposed to representations of Germany as aggressive, with any American who is not supportive of the war effort portrayed as corrupt and weak. Similarly, Wonder Woman includes representations of America as the land of democracy and freedom, encouraging women to become involved in the war efforts and support their country.
The historical context of World War II saw a change in audience to include adults, which happened largely through the nationalist content. This included shipping thousands of comic books to military personnel to raise morale through patriotic fever. Captain America and Wonder Woman are not the only examples of comics or cartoons as a form of war propaganda, with comic book superheroes flooding the stands in the wake of Pearl Harbour. The collective myths represented in the comics served to help shape collective responses, in this case to the war effort, and shape a sense of American identity. Drawing on Anderson’s (1991) notion of the nation as an ‘imagined political community’ made possible by print capitalism, with media and literature playing a key role in bringing the nation into existence, the important role of these works is clear, with communities distinguished by the style in which they are imagined.
As with war comics, political cartoons have traditionally had a central role in wartime propaganda, with wars being crucial moments in the creation of a national identity and media under pressure to not only support the war effort, but also to spread this support among the wider public. Not only does the media propaganda serve to legitimise war efforts, it also plays an important role in the creation of an enemy. As Marcuse (1971) explains ‘[l]anguage not only defines and damns the enemy, it also produces him; and this product does not represent the enemy as he really is, but rather how he must be in order to fulfill his function for the establishment.’ Similarly, Laswell (1927) notes that one of the roles of propaganda is to mobilise hatred against the enemy. Describing his role as a cartoonist during the Cold War, Smirnov (2012) writes: ‘the cartoonist’s job was to expose flaws, to criticize and to ridicule; like doctors we subjected society to a forensic diagnosis of its ills. Our target, however, was not Soviet society, but the West and the USA, and our themes were grand ones such as war, pollution, military expenditure and civil rights.’ Likewise, the wartime comics became a key part of Allied propaganda machines.
Images from Mike Conroy’s War Comics. A Graphic History. (2009)