Earlier this week the United States observed the 74th anniversary of the Japanese attack on the U.S. naval and air base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. And, as happens each December 7th, people take to social media and Internet blogs to post pictures of the cover of December 1941’s National Comics #18, mentioning that the book depicts a German attack on Pearl Harbor. It’s one of those great “Believe It or Not” style factoids that frequently get passed around on the Internet, but there’s a problem with this one: the comic does not depict a German attack on Pearl Harbor. I don’t know whether it’s a case of people repeating as gospel something they’ve heard elsewhere or a case of modern-day readers who struggle with the highly compressed (by today’s standards) style of writing employed by 1940’s comics, but even the Golden Age website Comic Book Plus mentions the “German attack” on Pearl.

Either way, the assertion is dead wrong. But the real story is actually far better and even more ironic…

Unlike many Golden Age comics the cover of National Comics #18 depicts a scene from the interior story:

National Comics #18, December 1941

Uncle Sam was the primary character in National Comics from the title’s launch in 1940 through the end of 1944, and at one time he had his own book, Uncle Sam Quarterly (which ran for just 8 issues before being cancelled to make room for Blackhawk on the publisher’s schedule). The character was “created” by Will Eisner (but Uncle Sam was obviously just a riff on the established U.S. cultural meme) and although Eisner is credited for the story in the splash panel (below), people who make it their business to know such things say that Eisner really had nothing to do with the story and that Gill Fox was the writer while Lou Fine handled the art.

To analyze the plot we’ll need to break this story down page by page, but we should first mention a few salient points:

This story depicts an attack on Pearl Harbor in a comic book which was released the month before the Japanese actually did attack Pearl Harbor in real life.

The story was written and drawn at least two to three months (and probably longer) prior to the comic book’s publication.

The Germans and Japanese are never mentioned by name in the story.

The page scans are courtesy of Comic Book Plus.

National Comics #18, December 1941

There’s a lot to love about the splash panel. Although Germany is never directly mentioned, the style of the helmets (although drawn somewhat incorrectly) is a dead giveaway. Uncle Sam wades into a swarm of Nazi paratroopers with his sleeves rolled up and his fists flailing, while Buddy (who’s maybe ten years old?) is mowing them down with a machinegun. It’s a panel full of exciting action (and the German machinegun which breaks out of the panel’s lower border brings the reader right into the action).

OK, let’s get down to the matter at hand…

The very first narrative panel clearly states that Guam is being bombed by “Oriental” planes. Although Japan isn’t directly mentioned, they’d been the aggressors in Asia since the 1931 invasion of Manchuria, and they’d been actively at war with China ever since. In fact, the actual attack by the Japanese against the U.S. was prompted by America’s embargoes against Japan, enacted because of the Japanese war (and atrocities) against the Chinese.

So it’s not much of a logical leap to assume that the bombers are Japanese.

The second panel shows an enemy fleet attacking Pearl Harbor. Although the culprit nation isn’t directly identified in the panel, it’s certainly not Germany (as is so often claimed in social media and on the Comic Book Plus site), as the subsequent narrative flow of the story will show.

National Comics #18, December 1941

The first three panels on this page are crucial to proper understanding of the story’s plot. The Secretary of War determines that the entire U.S. naval fleet should be sent to the Pacific, while Sam argues that this will leave the Atlantic and east coast undefended. Another enemy fleet immediately steams out of a Mediterranean port. Keep all of this in mind, as it’ll be essential information in another few pages.

The action then shifts to the Maine coast where Sam and Buddy give a bunch of spies what for…

National Comics #18, December 1941

…before being captured. But they escape quickly.

National Comics #18, December 1941

And now we come to the key panel – the leftmost panel in the bottom row. An enemy fleet (which is obviously German, as the admiral starts his utterance with “Ach!”) is headed for the east coast. And the admiral goes on to say “Our ally was clever, luring America’s whole Atlantic fleet”.

Our ally…” That means some nation which isn’t Germany. The Tripartite Pact was signed by Germany, Japan, and Italy in September 1940. So, returning to the information we received on the first page of the tale, it was indeed Japan which attacked Pearl Harbor. National Comics #18 had a cover date of December 1941 which indicates the book was released in November, a month prior to the actual Japanese attack.

When one reads the comic book (instead of taking at face value the information tossed around on social media each December 7), the reader discovers that the story is even more coincidental and ironic than Internet posters lead one to believe. Of course, National Comics #18 is just a footnote to the monumental, world-changing events of that December, but interesting nonetheless.

The rest of the story is worth a read; it depicts German paratroops invading Boston, Massachusetts, some impractical improvised weaponry (including a half-baked form of Greek fire), and the ghost of John Paul Jones. It’s very silly fun.

National Comics #18, December 1941

National Comics #18, December 1941

National Comics #18, December 1941

National Comics #18, December 1941

National Comics #18, December 1941

Have fun! — Steve

Copyright 2015, Steven A. Lopez. All rights reserved.