Comics and the World Wars – a cultural record by Anna Hoyles

30 Jan

At the University of Lincoln, Professor Jane Chapman and her team of researchers have been funded by the AHRC to explore the cultural impact of comics produced during and about the World Wars. Two exhibitions are planned – one on World War One comics in 2014 & one on Second World War comics, 2015, both at London’s Cartoon Museum – as well as two monographs on the subject. Other outcomes already include conference papers and journal articles published in Australia and the UK (see below for links). In addition, further funding was secured from the AHRC’s International Placement Scheme for the project’s two PhD students to spend six months each at the Library of Congress in Washington DC, where they were able to utilise the library’s extensive comics archive material.

The team are conducting transnational comparative research with an emphasis on comics produced during the World Wars that provide a valuable cultural record. The premise of the project is that comics can offer a popular record of attitudes, feelings & character types during the world wars. As Kemnitz (1973) and Witek (1989), have pointed out, both comics and cartoons can be valuable primary historical sources; with the impetus added by the forthcoming anniversaries of the wars the hope is that the project will lead to a broader understanding of this viewpoint in relation to the former.

Fig.1 - Trench publication Ca ne fait rien 18 September 1918 - Courtesy of Australian War Memorial

Fig.1 – Trench publication Ca ne fait rien 18 September 1918 – Courtesy of Australian War Memorial

For the First World War there are significant new findings on how early comic strips may be viewed as a prevenient form of citizen journalism. For instance, the team have discovered over 100 soldier proto comics, multi-panel cartoons, created and published by British, Canadian, Anzac and American soldiers in trench publications (their own amateur newspapers). As these were subject to less censorship than many other forms of wartime communication, the soldiers were able to use the publications to safely give vent to any grievances and complaints (Fuller, 1990, p.19). Common themes, such as disrespect for authority, dissatisfaction with the conduct of the war and the poor standards of food and medical support have been discovered in the proto comics across all nationalities. Not only did trench publications allow expressions of feelings otherwise frowned upon, they also kept up morale with their humour and inspired a feeling of comradeship. As a record they provide an immediacy and collective account of the soldier’s world which accounts written, or drawn, after the event cannot rival. Since the audience was often intended to be other soldiers (and families back home) the recognition factor was the major selling point, meaning researchers may presume high levels of accuracy in their depictions.

Sharing a similar role to trench publication comics was, in the labour movement, what team researchers refer to as the ‘gullible worker’ – a character which appeared internationally in socialist and trade union newspapers, primarily in North America and Australasia. On these continents such publications were pioneers, quickly utilising comic strips as an accessible method to educate their readers about capitalism and the causes of war. At the same time they provided a collective catharsis by allowing readers to let off steam about unenlightened fellow workers. These ‘foolish worker’ comic characters who always believed what the capitalist newspapers and their employers told them, became household names and spread far beyond the confines of their countries and organisations of origin. As a cultural record, not only do the strips show how activists viewed historical factual events (they gave details of elections, newspapers and strikes) they also depict how socialists regarded their fellow workers and themselves. As with the trench publications the newspapers were often largely written by unpaid reader correspondents and thus show the strips as being a consistently democratic, grassroots medium for social groups.

Fig 2 - ‘Gullible worker’ Henry Dubb, 1915 - Courtesy of Eugene V. Debs Collection, Cunningham Memorial Library, Indiana State University

Fig 2 – ‘Gullible worker’ Henry Dubb, 1915 – Courtesy of Eugene V. Debs Collection, Cunningham Memorial Library, Indiana State University

A third area of research on the First World War is the analysis of the popular adaptation to ‘total war’ made by ‘father of the British strip cartoon’ (Frank 1951), W.K. Haselden, in the Daily Mirror. Haselden’s almost chronological account of the events of the war as seen from a British home-front perspective is being analysed, as well as his portrayal of heroes and villains, such as the immensely popular Big and Little Willie – Kaiser Wilhelm and his son the Crown Prince.

The team’s Second World War research, using comparative methods, aims to contribute to a widening of the understanding of the role and usages of comics, by focusing on a diverse and more inclusive range of social groups, such as women as comics characters, POWs and labour organisations. This conflict, when women were directly recruited into the armed forces for the first time, saw the emergence of female comic strip characters in new, more active roles, acting alongside men, both in and out of uniform. The team are scrutinising what insights comic books can offer relative to discussions of contemporary attitudes towards the presence (and action) of women in the theatre of war.

One of the project monographs will focus on comics, trauma and the Holocaust. Researchers are looking at the way in which eye witness accounts and personal testimony interact with elements of illustrative fantasy in order to represent events that are ‘un-representable’ such as the Holocaust and Hiroshima. The team are also engaging with literary criticism’s trauma theory and contemporary cross cultural understandings of Post-Traumatic Stress. Building on the existing important and extensive scholarship relating to Maus (Spiegelman, 1986) the team have sought further examples of survivor accounts including Barefoot Gen (Nakazawa, 2004) and Paroles d’etoiles (Guéno & Le Tendre, 2008) that raise issues of testimony and memory.

Fig 3 - Paroles D’Etoiles (2009) – Courtesy of Soleil Productions

Fig 3 – Paroles D’Etoiles (2009) – Courtesy of Soleil Productions

Further chapters will analyse depictions and references to the persecution and extermination of Jews and other, often overlooked, minorities within Second World War US comic books. This investigation pertains to the historiographical discussions of US governmental and popular awareness of the Holocaust.

Throughout the project research has underlined the omnipresence of propaganda as an influence on comics in both World Wars. Thus areas of investigation include not only the roles of government in this area, such as the First World War U.S. Bulletin for Cartoonists and newsstand collaborations between the US government and commercial publishers (see Graham, 2011) but also comic strips of political groups, such as the Communist Parties (CPs) of the USA and Great Britain during the Second World War. While some work has been done on the prolific comic strip output of the CPUSA (see for example, Brunner, 2007) the British party’s Second World War comic strips have hitherto remained unexplored. Thus it is possible to chart the Communists’ commitment to ‘total war’ and the everyday realities that this entailed through the comic strips of the Daily Worker’s ‘Front Line’.

Fig 4 - Darlan – The Front Line comic strip in the Daily Worker 14 December 1942 – Courtesy of the Morning Star

Fig 4 – Darlan – The Front Line comic strip in the Daily Worker 14 December 1942 – Courtesy of the Morning Star

The project team contend that the heroes and villains theme assumes a particular significance in relation to propaganda in the Second World War, focusing on how characters are represented in comics and the cultural significance these representations had as vehicles for wartime entertainment and propaganda.

Humour and its role in comic strips is also an on-going strand of research – whether recognising the incongruity of soldiers’ everyday life or engendering a feeling of superiority amongst socialists, who could scorn the ‘gullible worker’, it is clear it helped to bind groups together (‘T Hart, 2007:6).

As the above article is a record of work in progress, any conclusions about the significance of the project’s findings for comics studies still need to emerge. Nevertheless the existence of recurring themes during the World Wars and of specific aspects of comics as a record of mentalités (Hunt, 1989) both suggest that further research could contribute to discourses within comics studies.


‘A Cultural Record’ research showcase

The project webpages:

Research Articles

‘Multi-panel comic narratives in Australian First World War trench publications as citizen journalism’, a journal article by Jane Chapman and Daniel Ellin. [PDF, available via the Comics Forum Digital Text Archive]

First published in the Australian Journal of Communication (39: 3), 2012.

‘Representation of female war-time bravery in Australia’s Wanda the War Girl’, journal article by Professor Jane Chapman. [PDF, available via the Comics Forum Digital Text Archive]

First published in The Australasian Journal of Popular Culture (1: 2), Bristol: Intellect.

For further information on publications please see The Lincoln Repository []


Professor Jane Chapman speaking on ‘Comics and the representation of female war-time bravery in Wanda the War Girl (Australia) and Paroles d’etoiles (France).’

Works cited:

Barker, Martin (1984) A Haunt of Fears, Pluto Press, London

Blake, B. B. (2009) ‘Watchmen: The Graphic Novel as Trauma Fiction’ Interdisciplinary Comic Studies, 5, 1. Accessed 12.11.13

Brunner, E. (2007) Red Funnies: The New York Daily Worker’s ‘Popular Front’ Comics, 1936-1945. American Periodicals: A Journal of History, Criticism and Bibliography, 17(2), pp. 184-207.

Fuller, J.G. (1990) Troop Morale and Popular Culture in the British and Dominion Armies 1914-1918. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Graham, Richard L. (2011) Government Issue: Comics For The People, 1940s-2000s, New York: Abrams ComicArts.

Guéno, J.P. and Le Tendre, S. (2008) Paroles d’étoiles: Mémoire d’enfants cachés (1939-1945). Toulon: Soleil.

Hunt, L. (ed.) (1989) The New Cultural History. Berkeley and London: University of California Press.

Johnston, I. (2001) On Spiegelman’s Maus I and II.

Kalmierczak, J. (2005) Raymond Williams and Cartoons: From Churchill’s Cigar to Cultural History. International Journal of Comic Art, 7(2 Fall/Winter), pp. 147-163.

Kemnitz, T.M. (1973) The Cartoon as a Historical Source. The Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 4(1), pp. 81-93.

Kusek, S. (2011) ‘Retelling Trauma through Panels and Word Bubbles (Revisited)’ A Life in Panels Accessed 12.11.13

Men of Anzac (2010) The Anzac Book. Sydney: University of New South Wales Press Ltd.

Nakazawa, K. (2004) Barefoot Gen, Vol. 1: A Cartoon Story of Hiroshima. San Francisco: Last Gasp. The story was originally serialised in 1973.

Roberts, Frank C. (1951), Obituaries from the Times, Newspaper Archive Developments Limited.

Scully, R. and Quartly, M. (eds) (2009) Drawing the Line: Using Cartoons as Historical Evidence. Monash University ePress.

Spiegelman, A. (1986) Maus I: A Survivor’s Tale: My Father Bleeds History. Pantheon.

‘T Hart, M. (2007) Humour and Social Protest: An Introduction. International Review of Social History, 52, pp. 1-20

Witek, J. (1989) Comic Books as History: The Narrative Art of Jack Jackson, Art Spiegelman and Harvey Pekar. Jackson and London: University Press of Mississippi.

Anna Hoyles is the research assistant on the, AHRC funded, ‘Comics and the World Wars’ project at the University of Lincoln. Her main areas of interest are labour movement comic strips of both world wars and charting the changes within comics during the Second World War. She is also writing a PhD on the journalism of the Swedish syndicalist writer Moa Martinson.


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