The Great World War II Comic Book Myth

Joe Simon's very first sketch for his co-creation, with Jack Kirby, of Captain  America!

Joe Simon’s very first sketch for his co-creation, with Jack Kirby, of Captain

By James H. Burns: In the last few major documentaries about comic books, including tonight’s fun outing on ABC, the myth has been perpetrated that comics were widely read by the soldiers in World War II.

I bow to few in my admiration for Jim Steranko–and a short piece I’ve noodled involving when I worked with him as a contributing editor to his Prevue magazine should go live in just a bit — but he was a toddler during the war, and he’s just wrong when he talks about this…  I grew up around a plethora of both European theatre and Pacific vets, and have had the honor of knowing hundreds more…

They were all children of the great era of radio, comic STRIPS, and the movies. (In another piece laying around here in a next to final draft, I talk about the influence the adventure pulps may have had on “the Greatest Generation.”) But to a man, Superman and Batman were basically just names they kind of knew, and my favorite, Captain America, was always NEW to them. And rightly or wrongly, the average “tough guy” teen or twenty-year old, would have looked down on any one reading “funny animal” stuff.  The guys read their Yank magazine, Stars and Stripes, and when they could get them, those neat military Horizontal novel paperbacks…

The history of comic books is fascinating enough, without this, ahem, inkless embellishment.

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8 thoughts on “The Great World War II Comic Book Myth

  1. I can’t say anything about the reading (comics or other) tastes of G.I.s during WWII. But during The Korean War (just a couple of years later) I don’t recall noticing many comic books (or other reading). N.B.: I was drafted c. 1950, served 8 months in the Occupation of Japan and 8 months (mostly On The LIne) in Korea.) Hey, even I ( an inveterat Reader) didn’t read much during those nearly-two years. My memory isn’t all that great, but it might be sigbnificant that I don’t recall ever seeing anyone during that period reading a comic book.

  2. Isn’t that the sketch Simon suddenly ‘discovered’ in the late 1960s or early 1970s, when he was apparently attempting to convince people Cap was his creation (without input from Kirby), and which many believe was a fake?

  3. I don’t believe that story about the sketch, maybe a sort of comics urban myth…! What folks may be misrecollecting is that I believe Simon COLORED the sketch much lafer on–if my memory serves, at the request of Phil Seuling, for the cover of the program book for one of his early 1970s comics conventions (The International Comic Art Convention, that is! 😉 ).

    In everything I’ ve ever read about Joe Simon, or even in my quick impressions the few times we were around each other, he was a gentleman.

    Here’s an interesting article about the creation of my favorite superhero, from the DANNY BOY comics history blog…

    Best, Jim

  4. P.S.: What I’d really like to read/see here are more memories from veterans, such as Don was kind enough to post! (And, by the way, “P.S.” was actually the name of another military magazine, later on, overseen for quite a while by another comics legend, Will Eisner!) (The full title for PS, apprenty, was THE PREVENTIVE MAINTENANCE MONTHLY–using illustratioans to demonstrate proper mechanical and othef techniques…)

  5. I read and looked over that collection of WW2 cartoons by Bill Mauldin, doesn’t mention cartoons or comic books, other than his own. Supplies and paper were often hard to find and often, he lost the originals, so in his collection of WW2 cartoons might be incomplete. Comic books would have been too bulky and would have taken up too much space. I am told that didn’t preclude cigarettes.

    Post war life in and about an air base as a kid, there was no shortage of them. Far too many issues of THE SAD SACK, which seemed to dominate the piles in the day car set ups.

  6. I am a Boomer, but my father served in the Army Air Forces during WWII, spending the whole time at bases in the U.S. During my comic-reading youth, he told me that he had not read comics himself, but that many of his fellow soldiers had read little except comic books. (He was already in his thirties by the War, so it may have been in part a generation thing that others read comics but he read actual books and newspapers, and watched lots of movies on base.) Probably comic books were more readily available in the U.S. than for soldiers who had been shipped overseas.

  7. So if ‘the myth has been perpetrated that comics were widely read by the soldiers in World War II.’ does that mean that it is true that some soldiers read comics, maybe one or two?

    And is it specifically Superhero comics, as I went to an exhibition at the Pritzker Military Library, of comics and posters, that were used to educate soldiers.

    Will Eisner worked on Army Motors, and I understand that cartoons and comics were used as a way to communicate in a form that regular soldiers would get.
    While Sad Sack was published, in The Yank, army weekly.

    120+ million Army Services Editions were published and distributed freely, and of the 1300+ titles there were titles such as The Adventures of Superman by George Lowther, which was prose, but, Superman and a book of Sad Sack which was a comic, and there was Yankee Comics

    Now, while I have not seen the referenced documentaries, nor the context they talk about, I do wonder how narrow the comic readership was.

  8. Sad Sack was hip, baby!


    George Baker’s G.I. was a comic STRIP, aimed at soliders, appearing in the military newspapers.

    The kind of watered down–but still terrific!– Harvey comic book didn’t appear for YEARS…

    (And entirely by the way, the character was a part of my family’s history. My Dad, in World War II, would get letters from my Mom,. They weren’t married yet, and one or two of my Dad’s friends would tease him about getting notes from a gal whose initials were S.A.D…., and they’d mention the character!

    But particularly then, comic strips were a whole different ballgame.

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