Comics, the Panama Canal, & World War II

Close up of a comic panel showing a fake opening in the Panama Canal as a plot device.
Submitted by Celeste Velazco, 2020 Smathers Library Undergraduate Student Fellow

Nowadays, people of all ages enjoy comics and blockbuster comic book-inspired movies. However, in the 1930s, comic books were written mostly for children. They were available in places like grocery stores, drugstores, bus stations, and they were often traded between friends or neighbors. But World War II changed everything, even comics.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941, comic books shifted their narrative, but not their target audience. Wartime comics encouraged children to support the troops, buy war bonds and stamps, and view the American war effort in a positive light. The use of comics as propaganda tools consequently painted the wartime enemy as immoral and cruel.

These comics include Big Shot Comics, Master Comics, Popular Comics, Blue Ribbon Comics, and National Comics. The latter brought American hero Uncle Sam to comic pages. Created by Will Eisner, Uncle Sam was portrayed in National Comics as a hero who appeared whenever Americans needed him to fight Nazis, the Japanese, and spies. He first appeared in comic book form in 1940 with super-human strength, teleportation abilities, and other powers. Uncle Sam also had a young sidekick named Buddy Smith with a tragic, war oriented back story. His father was killed by the Purple Shirts, a Nazi Gang. By bringing Buddy on his adventures, Sam allowed children readers to imagine themselves as helping the war efforts by, for example, keeping an eye out for spies.

Open pages of National Comics #17. It features Uncle Sam and Buddy Smith fighting their enemies over 18 panels.
Uncle Sam and Buddy Smith fighting their enemies. National Comics, Nov. 1941. #17

Racism in World War II Comics

In some strips, Sam subtly told readers to buy stamps and war bonds. While in others, a simple insert at the end of the story promoted their purchase. In these segments, children could see how their money would help assist soldiers. For example, $1.00, at that time, would buy an entrenching shovel.

Other comics had more troublesome elements, portraying non-white individuals in ways that were stereotypical, which perpetuated racism and prejudice. While Germans were drawn as ginger characters who were autocratic, arrogant, and cruel, the Japanese had their facial features exaggerated, with buckteeth and rodent-like features and acted treacherously. This unbalanced racism more negatively portrayed the Japanese. It perpetuated a resentment for Eastern culture that we can still observe in the 21st century. Dehumanizing representations made it easier for children to view Japanese people as enemies that were drastically different than the American heroes.

  • Dated and stylistic drawing of Hirohito crying to promote the purchase of US war bonds.
  • 15 pannels of Popular Comics #81 featuring fighting related to the Panama Canal during WWII.
  • Open pages of Blue Ribbon Comics # 4 featuring German and French troops engaged in combat.

Comics in the Panama Canal Museum Collection

What does this have to do with our collections? The Panama Canal Museum Collection at the George A. Smathers Libraries holds some Golden Age Comics featuring these stereotypes and inaccuracies. Besides enriching the collection and demonstrating the importance of the Canal in popular culture and public consciousness, these comics also support ongoing research by the PCMC curatorial staff about the Panama Canal in pop culture.

People weren’t the only ones who suffered inaccurate representations in comics, places did, too. Most of the comics’ artists were from New York and never visited Panama. Therefore, their depictions of the Panama Canal were inaccurate and sometimes even outlandish. For instance, the Canal doesn’t have a hidden door that covers a secret passage. While someone living in the area would be aware of this misrepresentation, someone from another part of the world wouldn’t; this ultimately creates distorted ideas of what the Canal looks like and how it functions. While it may seem odd for the Panama Canal to be featured in wartime comics, the Canal was of critical strategic importance to the Allies.

The nature of propaganda is not to be easily identifiable. During WWII American public opinion was guided to support the war through the arts- including comics, posters, radio programs, and more. This propaganda often included stereotypes and misrepresentations that promoted racial discrimination or misinformation about other countries. Today, these comic books give librarians and researchers insight into how World War II was perceived by the United States public.

Close up of a comic panel showing a fake opening in the Panama Canal as a plot device.
Faulty portrayal of the Panama Canal; there is no opening like the one illustrated. Big Shot Comics. Oct. 1941. #18

All comics featured in this post are from the Panama Canal Museum Collection.

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