Comic books were very quick to villainize the European fascist powers prior to America’s entry into World War II. This is hardly surprising given that a great many comic writers, artists, editors, and publishers were first or second generation Jewish immigrants who retained close ties with “the old country”. But despite Japan’s furious aggression in the Pacific which cost thousands of lives (including well-publicized atrocities in China, such as the infamous “Rape of Nanking”), pre-1942 comics generally left the Japanese alone. Bear in mind that Imperial Japan was not yet allied with fascist Germany and Italy; aggression in Europe and aggression in the Pacific were treated as separate (but similar) issues. While some Americans were outraged by Japanese actions in the Pacific, President Franklin Roosevelt had been elected to an unprecedented third term partly on the promise that he would keep America out of international wars. Thus economic embargoes were placed on the export of oil and steel to Japan (supplies crucial to the effective operation of their Imperial war machine), the surplus was used to fashion Lend-Lease war material for Great Britain, and the United States went about the business of trying to claw its way out of the Great Depression. Europe remained the main focus of attention; the American government, mass media, and thus the proverbial man in the street viewed Asia as a minor concern and the Far East was left to sort its own problems out.
Then, on December 7th 1941, the forces of Imperial Japan attacked the U.S. naval fleet at Pearl Harbor without the courtesy of a prior declaration of war. Hot on the heels of the attack came word that the European fascist powers had declared war on the U.S. And suddenly it all hit the fan. One moment the United States felt relatively secure in its isolationist policies, and in the next it was mired hip-deep in an international fracas which was to become known as World War II.
To say that Americans were “angry” after Pearl Harbor would be a major understatement. Americans were pissed off like a swarm of angry hornets whose nest had just been whacked with a stick. Membership in once popular isolationist movements like America First dried up overnight. Men lined up by the thousands to enlist in the armed forces.
The closest most of us have come to seeing anything like this in our lifetimes occurred in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on the U.S. on September 11, 2001. There was a sudden onrush of angry patriotic fervor at that time, too. But while in the twenty-first century the anger lasted only for a few months (by the start of 2002′s baseball season few civilians continued to fly flags on their vehicles or talk tough about the newly-christened War on Terror), by contrast the righteous anger of Americans in the 1940′s remained superheated for years.
While that anger was directed at all three Axis powers, the brunt of it fell on the Germans and Japanese (rather than the Italians, who were generally viewed as more or less hapless) because of those countries’ voracious expansionist tendencies and their harsh treatment of subjugated peoples. While in 1941 the full extent of the European atrocities were still not known, the existence of concentration camps (though not their true purpose) was common knowledge even before America’s entry into the war (and said camps were even mentioned in pre-war comics). As for Japan, atrocities such as the Rape of Nanking made instant headlines in the United States. It’s no wonder that in post-Pearl Harbor America the propaganda machines accelerated from first gear to overdrive; our World War II foes were demonized (in some cases quite literally) in movies, comic books, and even animated cartoons (more than one of the now-legendary Fleischer Superman cartoons depict the Man of Steel battling the Japanese, and even Bugs Bunny got in on the act).
In today’s post-modernist politically correct culture there’s much hand wringing, tongue clucking, gnashing of teeth, and rending of garments over the “racism” of our parents and grandparents, generally over the occasional pop culture stereotypical depiction of our foes or some relatively minor verbal slur. The Internet hyperbole surrounding the original 1943 Batman movie serial has recently hit a high peak online (since the serial has within the past few years appeared in an inexpensive DVD edition widely available at Toys’R’Us) over its “shocking racism” — which consists of little more than a couple of “slant eyes” slurs and the presence of a non-Asian actor, the wonderfully talented J. Carrol Naish [a great favorite of mine], portraying the Japanese villain. Viewers should be more appalled at the fact that the serial is so damned bad, with Batman getting his ass kicked at least once in each chapter. The serial’s only bright spots are the presence of the aforementioned Mr. Naish and the lovely Shirley Patterson as Linda Page (who spots one of those spectacular 1940′s hairstyles which could turn even a homely girl into a looker).
To hear the post-modernist hand wringers tell it, we are so much more culturally evolved these days. We would never stoop to such “barbarism” as our parents often did when they stereotyped our wartime foes for the purposes of nationalist propaganda or for cheap laughs.
With that in mind, we now turn our attention to a comic I’ve wanted to spotlight for a long time: the long-running Airboy feature. If you’re offended by the “racist stereotyping” of America’s wartime enemies in the 1940′s, turn back now and go find another blog to read. Consider that to be fair (and final) warning. By today’s standards Airboy was gloriously and unabashedly politically incorrect right from the start; the cover from his first appearance is a big favorite among writers of overpriced “coffee table” comics history books as an illustration of racism and stereotyping in the Golden Age:
After the introduction of Airboy’s foe (and later love interest) Valkyrie about a year into the character’s run one might even conceivably want to throw “sexist” into the mix (although I’d consider that to be something of a major stretch), as Val was nearly always depicted in a cleavage-baring flight tunic.
Airboy was co-created by artist Al Camy and writers Dick Wood and Charles Biro (the latter being a longtime favorite here at the Big Blog o’Fun). Airboy first hit the racks in the autumn of 1942 as the lead feature in Air Fighters Comics. Originally depicted as a little kid of about ten years of age, Airboy’s look had matured to that of an older teen by the time the feature was a year old.
I recently read a message board post in which the writer opined that Airboy would have been just another “forgotten” Golden Age character had the feature not been revived by Eclipse Comics as a bi-weekly magazine in the mid-1980′s. I find that comment hard to fathom, as Airboy was arguably the second most popular aviator comic of the 1940′s (behind Quality’s Blackhawk series); the feature enjoyed a very long run of nearly ninety issues before finally being cancelled in 1953. One could argue that Airboy rode the tails of Blackhawk’s aviator jacket to success; Biro wasn’t above cribbing from the competition, and Airboy seems to be his effort to create an aviator character with whom kids could identify rather than idolize.
Airboy’s origin is a rather “dense” tale with enough narrative packed into it for two or three stories. The page composition is great, with the action and dialogue often bursting through a panel’s borders. After an essentially pointless introduction (which serves as a very artificial springboard into the tale, but may have been included just to pad out the story to the desired length) we meet an orphan named Davy and his mentor Padre Martier, the latter of whom is a sort of modern day Leonardo da Vinci. In a standard 1940′s comic trope, young Davy is ultimately left alone to battle with the gangsters responsible for the monk’s death and, later, fight against Japanese aviators who are raiding into California (the tale’s location). Davy emerges victorious, of course, because he pilots Padre Martier’s miraculous aircraft which can soar, swoop, dive, land on a dime, and even perform a hummingbird-like hover by flapping its bat-shaped wings. Another Internet message board poster recently observed that Airboy’s miracle plane (nicknamed “Birdie”) exhibits more personality than the title character. It’s a harsh observation, as Airboy is everything he’s supposed to be: honest, forthright, a skilled aviator, the hero of a long running series of two-fisted hair raising adventures, and someone whom the average kid of the war era could identify with as his or her own best pal.
Page scans are courtesy of The Digital Comic Museum.
Have fun! — Steve
Copyright 2014, Steven A. Lopez. All rights reserved.