In his recent book Take That, Adolf!, Mark Fertig looks at Golden Age comics and how World War II transformed the industry and the content. While for many people, the appeal of the book may be the hundreds of comic book covers that feature Adolf Hitler being punched and Nazis thwarted, the highlight is Fertig’s long essay.
In that piece Fertig examines race and gender; he looks at how the comics industry was changed, the ways that it’s impossible to think about the business and many characters without the influence of the war, and many more issues. Fertig is an Associate Professor at Susquehanna University in Pennsylvania, where he teaches graphic design, and we spoke about the book, World War II, graphic design and comics in the classroom.
I enjoyed the book – who doesn’t like seeing Hitler get punched repeatedly? When you conceived the book, I’m sure you never imagined that the media would be discussing when it’s acceptable to punch nazis.
Yeah, I did a Twitter search the other day, and the book showed up. I don’t think the book has really worked its way into the public consciousness on any level, and yet it showed up in a political tweet where somebody had linked to the book and said, “This is our book.” I thought that was pretty fascinating. When I wrote it I thought I was writing it for comic book people and World War II people, but if it’s interesting to other people, that’s fine by me.
Where did the book start?
I’m a longtime comic book collector and student of the war. The thing is those comics are out of reach for most collectors. I have a couple of them. As a college professor, it’s something that I’ve always been fascinated with. When I have students who are interested in comics, I try to steer them into the direction of Golden Age books and let them know that lots of interesting things happened in comics before they were born. I’m also somebody who looks at the state of world affairs and recognizes all of the connections to the world of the 1940s and how so many things that were determined at the end of World War II are relevant today. I’ve done a lot of student trips to England and Eastern Europe and Italy. I’ve taken groups of students to the Normandy beaches and Anzio and Dachau. Even though I’m a graphic design professor, I have this strong desire to make students aware of the Second World War however I can and as often as I can.
These things being two of my passions, the book was inevitable. I don’t remember the moment that I got the idea to do the book, but as soon as I did, I went to Amazon and Google saying this could be a really good book and I believe I’m the person to do it, but certainly it’s been done. I just couldn’t believe that nobody had done this book before. Warren Bernard did the Cartoons for Victory book for Fantagraphics a few years ago and it’s a great book, but the focus isn’t on comics as much as it is cartoons. I was astonished to see that this book hadn’t been done, and I’m really excited to be the person to have done it.
It’s an interesting idea, but I loved your essay where you try to give context to the war and the comics industry, and you don’t shy away from looking at issues of race and gender and how they played out. It’s not just, “Here’s Hitler getting punched a lot.”
I wanted to do the time period justice, and I wanted to also make sure that I covered all of my bases. Certainly the United States was a different country during the war years. I think the book would have been a failure to not dig into these relevant political and social issues that were going on at the time. How would you curate a group of covers where you would leave out the most egregious examples of racism? It couldn’t be done. It would be an incomplete book. If you’re going to include those covers, you’d better talk about them and talk about them as thoroughly as you can. That’s what I tried to do. I think that one of the nice things about being a college professor is that I’m not a particularly smart person, but I have access to lots of smart people who I was able to bounce ideas off of. My best friend here is a literature professor who has a lot of the same interests that I do; he teaches a comic book class, he’s traveled on those Europe trips with me and he’s also the director of the Jewish studies program. He was a really, really good person to let me know what he thought of my ideas, and I didn’t hesitate to take advantage of his expertise.
There’s this idea that the country went to war so comics went to war and became jingoistic. Which is what happened, but it’s more complicated than that.
Right. Particularly when you think about who the comic book creators were. They had an agenda, particularly in the early years, that was not in line with the way that the majority of the American public thought – and maybe not even their bosses thought. I think the thing that is interesting about Golden Age comic books is that, particularly in that early period where these guys were figuring everything out as they went, they were thought of as the bottom rung of American popular culture. I’ve read so many instances of writers and artists saying that none of the publishers or printers were reading the things, so they felt that they could put anything that they wanted into them. In that sense, comics had a wide-open drawing board for what could go in there. They could be subversive and they could manipulate and they could be a lot of different things to the children that were reading them. I’m fascinated by that.
As you write, the politics are interesting. A lot of people don’t know there was a draft before Pearl Harbor. The nation mobilized in a way that I don’t think any of us really understand.
If you think about the way that the country shut down on D-Day in the sense that stores closed as soon as word of the invasion came over the radio airwaves, everybody went home. The entire country stopped what it was doing, took a huge breath and went home to sit by the radios. I just finished both the O.J. [Simpson] documentary and the FX show, and I was talking about it with some of my students. It’s interesting to think that it happened before they were born. I tried to say, “Remember how crazy the election got and how tense we were and everybody just wanted the election to end? The O.J. trial was five times worse than that.” Everybody in the country stopped what they were doing on verdict day. The investment of the American public at every level at every age at every strata of society during the war dwarfs anything that you or I have ever seen in our lifetimes in terms of public investment in a moment or a verdict or an election or anything. Comic books were certainly on board with that – along with everybody else.
And comics were so changed by the war that they had to change after the war.
The redefinition of Superman and Batman – Superman more than Batman. I think most casual comic book readers don’t have a sense of what Superman was like before the war. They just know the post-war Superman. To a lesser extent Batman, because he was always more of a vigilante. I wish I could have written more about trying to imagine what comic books might be if the war hadn’t happened. Maybe we wouldn’t have comics at all. Maybe they would have been a fad if it hadn’t been for the war. The way that the war helped the comic book industry grow up and explode. The portability of comic books was really exploited by the war, the readability of comic books – meaning that you didn’t need to be able to read in order to enjoy a comic book, which is something that is far less relevant now than it would have been back then when literacy rates were much lower. All of those things contributed to the blossoming of that business.
People have written about pulp fiction and film noir and how the hero was transformed by the war, and we don’t talk about comics in the same way even though Jack Kirby and a lot of well-known creators saw combat.
I think if you’re looking for a parallel to the way that movie protagonists changed as a result of the war, the way to do it is to recognize not the change in the characters but the change in the audience. In the 1930s we had these crazy screwball comedies where women in satin gowns do kooky things in Manhattan and in the forties when everybody came home from the war, and everybody was worried about the bomb – and everybody was fascinated by psychoanalysis as well – you get a gloomier, more cynical and jaded protagonist and the rise of crime films. The same thing happened in comics. Superheroes weren’t the right characters to be in those comics, and so in the years after the war crime comics, westerns and horror comics rose in the place of superhero comics. I get into this a little bit in the book, but that notion at the end of the war all of these guys came back and everybody revered these guys so the idea of Superman and Captain Marvel just seemed a little bit ridiculous when you had thousands and thousands of these real-life superheroes walking around right there. At the same time, those guys had become comic books readers while they were overseas, and they didn’t want to read superhero comics anymore.
Which is why superheroes don’t come back until 1959-60, and you have a new generation of readers and a new context.
Those guy’s kids. That’s not a coincidence.
You’re very upfront that a lot of these books were sometimes horrifyingly racist. They were racist toward African-Americans, toward the Japanese. There’s a reason why so many of them never get reprinted.
Young Allies in particular. The Whitewash Jones character just makes it impossible to read those comics nowadays.
I knew of Boy Commandos, because it was a Simon-Kirby comic, but there were a number of series about kids fighting in the war. Which is a little odd.
Yeah, that kids would actually be in combat. But I think that there was an appetite for that. The way that the war permeated American culture, kids wanted to do their part. Seeing other kids doing it by proxy in comics was, I guess, therapeutic for them. And then would encourage them to do their scrap drives and collect old comic books to turn into pulp and things like that. The thing about the Boy Commandos is they didn’t have a black character, so that probably is why we’re still aware of that book. If you think about Young Allies, it had Bucky, who’s a character in the movies nowadays, and the Human Torch’s sidekick. There’s a comic right there with everything going for it, in that sense. If you look at the Boy Commandos and the Young Allies, you would assume that the Young Allies book would be the one that stood the test of time, but it’s because of the Whitewash Jones character that that doesn’t happen.
As a designer, were there plenty of times you looked at a cover and went, “Oh god, what is this?”
I spent a million hours in Photoshop with these covers. There’s hundreds in that book, and I cleaned up every single one of them. After a while to zoom in on so many swastikas and more clearly define them and remove the dirt. Same thing with these racist caricatures. It was a strange thing to do. Not at all unemotional. It was a little exhausting after a while. If I’m looking at Hitler’s face on a comic book cover and there’s a piece of dust lying across his face, I had to ask myself every time, “Do I really want to clean this up? Do I really want to make him look better?” Do that for a few hundred covers, and it wears on you after a while.
What do you teach, and how does it intersect with comics?
I’m a graphic design teacher, and I’m really the sole graphic design teacher at my school, so I take students through the program from start to finish. There are some adjuncts that teach classes. I’m not able to find a lot of ways where I can work comics into what I’m doing, but so many of our students are comic book people and that makes me happy. If you look at the back of my book, I’m very devoted to my comic shop, and my comic shop is an incredibly important part of my life. I think that people who draw comic books are astonishing. I was never able to do that, but I wanted to be some sort of an artist, and I think that’s why I became a graphic designer. I have a lot of students who I think are like me. They’re really into comics, they can draw and so they start to look for career options that would enable them to exist in the art world and make a living.
Well, Mark, it’s a great book. I’m sure you’re proud of it, and I’m sure you’re glad it’s over. I hope people check it out.
I worked so hard on this book. The movie poster book I did had 125 or so images in it. This was had more than 600. In addition to having many more images, I think I cared about it more. I just have a really deeply emotional connection to this book. I really hope that people enjoy this book.