Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Comic Strips, Cold War and Vietnam

George Orwell said that “all art is propaganda,” which is true in a sense, but whether propaganda is “good” or “bad” is all in the eye of the beholder. “Maus” is good propaganda, unless you are a holocaust denier, in which case it’s bad propaganda. Ernst Zundel, defending himself in Toronto on the archaic charge of publishing false news in 1985 said Canadian children were “brainwashed” by anti-Nazi films, pocket-books and comic books. “We were cowards, animals, romantic dreamers, butchers, Colonel Klinks. We were the butt of all jokes. I would not be party to such a blanket condemnation of my people.”

In 1935 the Italian comic magazine Marc Aurelia published cartoons of the British hanging Africans “with British phlegm,” Vichy France published comic booklets on “How to be a Nazi in 22 lessons,” and the Japanese in May 1944 set up a “greater East Asia comic strip study” in Tokyo to be “utilized in bolstering the fighting spirit.” As columnist Drew Pearson commented in 1948 “There is nothing like comic books to tell a friendly propaganda story.”

In September 1950 a comic book featuring the idol of servicemen round the world, Frank Baker’s gold-bricking Private Sad Sack, meant to “spur enlistments,” was attacked in print by Senator Homer Capehart (R-Ind). “This alleged comic book looks to me like socialistic propaganda, aimed at discrediting American industry. It relates the experiences of a soldier discontented with army life who gets out and finds civilian life even worse. He finally draws his paycheck -- 5 cents after all the deductions have been made, and the nickel turns out to be a counterfeit one. So he goes back to the army.”

Ten days later Sixth Army headquarters at Fort Ord, California ordered “several unopened packages of the colored books, containing several hundred copies…thrown into the incinerator.” The army had spent $17,544 on 500,000 copies to be distributed world-wide to American army posts. The Day (New London, Conn.) commented that “Sad Sack, to whom the peeling of a potato represented an almost insurmountable challenge, must have been in a state of near shock to hear himself charged with such high-flown and socially significant activities.”

In 1960 the Red Chinese were distributing comic books in Vietnam with “a villain who always looks curiously like John Foster Dulles and a hero who looks like Chou-En-Lai or Ho Chi Minh… Children of 10 or 11 read the comic books to their illiterate elders at night.” Russia and China ran full-time publishing houses supplying books written in Urdu, Japanese, Kurdish, Hindi, Indonesian, Thai, Bengali, Chinese, English, French and Cambodian.

By 1965 the United States was engaged in psychological warfare against the Vietnamese. One tactic was to drop toys, dolls, rubber balls, candy and pamphlets containing comic strips into North Vietnam. One comic strip, “ANH (brother) NAM,” was a scrawny character (likened by one reporter to Sad Sack) who outwitted the Viet Cong. “A typical episode shows a Communist molesting a girl. Anh Nam holds up a camera and takes a picture. The Communist rushes at Brother Nam and grabs the camera which proves to be only a box containing a mouse.”

In 1967 David M. Kunzle, British author of a two-volume history of the comic strip, came under fire from congressman Durward G. Hall for receiving a U.S. grant to study comic strips while publicly attacking the U.S. war effort in Vietnam. “The Red Chinese and Russia certainly are using comic books today as propaganda devices, said Kunzle, “and so are we.”

That same year in Havana the government made plans to crack down on a “thriving market” in street stalls (doubling as cigar and shoeshine stands) selling American ‘sex-and-sin” paperbacks and comic books. They were “especially interested in doing away with scores of different editions of American comics they say were translated into Spanish in Mexico City years ago.”

The government explained that “This black market is competing with governmental publishing houses seeking to bring culture to a people poisoned for years and years with non-literature and pornography.” Stall owners profited on each sale by requiring that the buyer trade in another book or magazine “of the same type,” thus ensuring a full stock.

Left unmentioned were the government sponsored comic books described by an American tourist in 1962: “Bright-colored comic books show children how “wicked” the Americans are. They depict granite-faced Americans whipping Negroes or prodding them with bayonets.”

In 1971 American troops stationed in Vietnam, demoralized by the unpopular war, were using drugs to ease the tours of duty. The Pentagon issued the men 150,000 “gaudy propaganda books” originally made for distribution in Washington, D.C. schools. One comic, called “Beware the Booby Trap,” with lurid pictures of women tormented by hairy spider-like beasts with bugs crawling all over their bodies, was criticized by Admiral Mack: “Shock-type illustrations, when overplayed, are detrimental to one’s credibility with this audience…

“The use of equivocal intimidating statements is ineffective. The statements ‘many young people are in mental hospitals because,’ or, ‘there is no doubt a person’s mind will be destroyed by LSD’ both appear. The target audience would summarily dismiss both as establishment ‘bull.’”

The American comic strips, which had proved so useful during WWII, carried their propaganda into the cold war. The following article is from Toronto Saturday Night, 10 Feb 1962 >

How to win the cold war: send in Little Orphan Annie

When Roy Crane accepted the Silver Lady award as cartoonist of the year last November from the Banshees -- a club of King Features Syndicate writers and columnists -- he recalled that when he first started drawing comics in 1924 “the popularity of the strip could almost be gauged by the number of jokes a cartoonist had.” Comic strips have changed. A few weeks after he said this Crane’s Buz Sawyer was removed temporarily from the pages of the Toronto Star because, as the editors told a reader who wrote in to complain about sawyer’s absence, “There may be a place for cold war propaganda but we don’t believe it’s on the comic pages.”
When the Star objected to Sawyer, the naval aviator was in Japan foiling a gang of communist agitators who were stirring up demonstrations against U.S. bases by paying the demonstrators 500 yen apiece. Sawyer is just one of the American adventure strip heroes (not comic: these strips are about as funny as the editorial pages of the New York Times) who have recently become preoccupied with international politics and the struggle against the communist conspiracy. Some of the others:

*Terry and the Pirates. Terry is now in England, without pirates, as an air force major there to “give the striped pants people on our side some cards to play at a bargaining table.” To prove to Terry “how enchanting, how aesthetic (the) Russians really are,” Lady Delphinium Druid of the village of Hurly Cum-Burly, where Terry’s squadron is stationed, invites Walska, a beautiful Russian ballet dancer, to perform at a party she is giving for the Americans. Terry applauds the performance but refuses to talk to Walska because “her act gets drowned out by the sound of the Soviet bomb tests.” Terry, of course, is right. Walska it turns out is a spy.
*Winnie Winkle, who is now in Moscow with a show of American fashions. The Russians want to embarrass Winnie because her designs have proven too popular with Russian women, but Winnie easily outwits the Russian secret police -- not a noticeably dull lot outside the comic strips -- and returns triumphant. This is not at all improbable as Henry Radouta, a writer of Winnie Winkle, explains it, because “Winnie is a pretty bright girl herself. She’s head of a big fashion house and we like to think of her as being in the $50,000 to $75,000 a year class.”

*Little Orphan Annie, whose Daddy Warbucks has been waging a lonely battle against such things as the New Deal and public welfare since the 1930s. Recently, though, Daddy decided to take on a helper, Johnny Quick.
After Daddy recues Johnny from the island of Tributo, where Johnny has just hanged the dictator Mustachio Toro from his own balcony (Johnny had to escape very quickly because the natives were getting very restless) the two talk things over calmly. Commenting on Johnny’s summary execution of General Toro, daddy says: “You’ve hanged a dirty pirate and saved over a hundred people; even got your hijacked plane back. That used to be O.K. back in the days of wooden ships and iron men as they say. But today? Hmmm. Oh well, you know the score.”

When some of Daddy’s enemies parachute onto his secret island Daddy captures one of them but the prisoner refuses to talk. Daddy’s ubiquitous Indian bodyguard, Punjab, jabs the little man in the back with his sabre and says” Here are no soft judges, shyster lawyers, or sniveling bleeding hearts to turn a killer free. Here a hoodlum talks loud and clear.” This message is carried in 372 newspapers with a combined circulation of 31,600,000.

International politics aren’t new to comic strips. As far back as 1936 Joe Palooka was calling the Nazi’s “rats” and in 1937 Terry and the Pirates took the side of the Chinese against the Japanese in Manchuria. But since the start of the Korean war, when most of the heroes in adventure strips rejoined the armed forces, the amount of undiluted propaganda on the comic pages has been steadily increasing. Roy Crane, who travels extensively to gather material for Buz Sawyer explains it this way: “I’m not involved in politics except for anticommunism. I’m simply reporting the news of the day in a different medium for people who don’t read the editorials or the international news.” -- David Lewis Stein.

When George Wunder retired from Terry and the Pirates on Sunday, 25 February 1973, following a decline in readership from 300 to 100 newspapers, he said it had a lot to do with the Vietnam war, even tough Terry was never a participant. Long -running strips like Terry and the Pirates, Smilin’ Jack, Little Orphan Annie, Buz Sawyer, Li’l Abner and Steve Canyon had been losing international readers by the ton, particularly in Canada where the increasing political stance of the strips was seen as painfully obvious American war propaganda.

Milton Caniff had begun Terry and the Pirates in 1934, and in 1947, anxious to have control over his creations, dropped Terry to start Steve Canyon. The artwork on Terry was taken over by George Wunder, historically still a vastly underappreciated cartoonist, with help from ghosts George Evans and Russ Heath. When Wunder retired from Terry and the Pirates he laid the blame partly on television and partly on the Vietnam war.

“The fighter pilot,” Wunder said, “is no longer the glamorous, reckless defender of the free world against all comers. He’s now the cold-blooded professional dropping napalm on women and children.”

Terry’s story-lines had not involved him in Vietnam, although he was an intrepid Cold War soldier battling Red China and the Soviet Union; most likely the strip was a casualty of editors linking Terry with Milton Caniff’s ham-handed Vietnam propaganda in the Steve Canyon strip in the late sixties.

Milton Caniff said at the time of Terry’s demise that “I hadn’t thought about Terry’s early years for a long time, but when I heard it was ending, all the memories came crashing back into my skull. Thirty-nine years is a good run but it was designed to run forever.”

When Japan invaded Manchuria in 1937 Milton Caniff quickly involved Terry & Co., even though America was neutral. Signs of trouble with Canadian editors had begun to appear as early as 1939 when Harry Hindmarsh of the Toronto Daily Star dropped Caniff’s Terry and the Pirates temporarily for disparaging the allied troops already fighting in theatre. Jack Mosher wrote in Saturday Night on Aug 1961 >

“Despite some coolness at times in Canada and other parts of the world where editors feel this comic strip type is taking too many liberties with the local terrain -- Caniff was recently criticized for having Canyon treat the Dew Line as if it were U.S. territory -- Steve Canyon continues to appear in over 600 dailies, reaching close to 60 million readers.”

Caniff had begun featuring Vietnam as a locale in Steve Canyon as early as 1964. A simplistic and jingoistic sequence begun in Feb 1967 raised the ire of Canadian newspaper editors who must have been struck dumb by its bone-headedly naive support for Vietnam. Editors in Canada and other neutral countries began dropping Steve Canyon and other war strips like hot potatoes. The Toronto Star, last Canadian paper to carry the strip, cancelled Steve Canyon in 1968 when, once again, a sequence was set at an experimental radar base in Northern Canada.

Caniff’s loss of the dozen or so Canadian papers was not large, but in R. C. Harvey’s words he was “chastened” by the turn of events. All of the newspapers cancelled because of Caniff’s support for Vietnam. It was only the beginning -- even though Caniff dropped Vietnam from his comic strip locale he was identified as a war-monger by a public fed up with Vietnam and American newspapers began cancelling as well. Caniff found out (as Al Capp had with his 1967 “Joanie Phony” sequence in Li’l Abner) that readers wanted entertainment and escape in the funnies, not lectures -- and editors were not about to cut him any slack.

The great comic and adventure artists were on the way out at any rate, the artists were aging, retiring, or dying, the stories were no longer fresh, and page-sizes were dwindling. Buck Rogers ended in 1967, Harold Gray’s Little Orphan Annie in 1968, the last Roy Crane page on Buz Sawyer in 1969, Abbie an’ Slats in 1971, Smilin’ Jack and Terry and the Pirates in 1973, Li’l Abner and Gould's last Dick Tracy in 1977.

Caniff and Capp (who attended the described meeting between comic artists and editors) should have paid heed to James S. Pope, editor of the Louisville Courier-Journal, who said in 1950 that there was a “tremendous uprising” by editors against any form of comic strip propaganda. “Editors seem to want to pick out their own targets for editorial crusades.”

During World War II there was a consensus among the allies that they were fighting a just war, while the Vietnam debacle was unpopular everywhere except in Washington. The great comic artists of the thirties were on the wrong side of history by the sixties and by 1968 the comics had begun a long slow decline into irrelevance. Propaganda had outlived its own believability, and today’s audiences, by and large, don’t believe everything they read in the newspapers, or see on TV.


* “Editors and Artists take Closeup on Comics,” Lewiston Morning Tribune, 23 April 1950.
* “How the Comics Keep Whooping it Up,” Saturday Night, 19 Aug 1961.
* Interpreting the News, Lethbridge Herald, 23 May1962
* “How to win the cold war: send in Little Orphan Annie,” Saturday Night, 10 Feb 1962.
* “Last Exploit for Terry, Pirates,” Beaver County Times 22 Feb 1973.
* “Caniff’s Private War to save Steve Canyon,” by R. C. Harvey, NEMO the Classic Comics Library, No. 32, winter 1992.
* “Meanwhile…A Biography of Milton Caniff,” by R. C. Harvey, Fantagraphics Books 2007.


  1. An interesting article. I hadn't thought much about foreign papers' reactions to the propoganda in these strips...they were so obviously American that it was easy to forget they appeared in papers outside the US.

    The only point I take issue with is your saying that Terry wasn't involved in Viet Nam. I wasn't reading the strip regularly in the late 1960s, but I still have a few Sunday tearsheets from a story concerning a plot to smuggle drugs in the coffins of dead American soldiers. I don't think Viet Nam was mentioned by name, but the setting was obviously supposed to be Southeast Asia.

  2. I kind of thought I might hear something like this, Ron, I was relying on my own aging memories and R. C. Harvey's article. Unfortunately except for my own small collection these sixties pages have never been reprinted in full so there was no way for me to verify this -- Wunder's Terry may never have been reprinted at all -- more's the pity.