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  1. #1
    Groucho Marxiste Omar Karindu's Avatar
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    Default Hitler vs. Comic-Book Hitler; or, Why Super-Heroes Shouldn't Fight Al Quaeda

    Every so often, someone will ask, "Where is today's version of a comic in which Superman or Captain America deck Bin Laden?" They point, with nostalgic pride, at the cover to Captain America Comics #1, or to Siegel and Shuster's oft-reprinted Superman strip from a 1940 issue of Life Magazine featuring the capture and Hague-style trial of then-allies Hitler and Stalin. (As an aside, the crime for which they're punished is "modern history's greatest crime -- making war on unarmed nations!" The news of Nazi and Stalinist genocide hadn't made it big yet, apparently.)

    I'm here to argue that we oughtn't bother with such bizarre posturing by proxy. I'm here to argue for the long-overdue death of nostalgia for the WWII propaganda comic.

    Portraying Cap punching Osama on the cover or interior of a comic, like Frank Miller's recent announcement that he's sending Batman after the murderous demagogue's organization, seems quite silly and meaningless in a a world where the real Al Qaeda virtually daily blows up a bunch of civilians or soldiers.

    And before you ask, I have some trouble with the Cap vs. Nazis stuff as well. And those problems are exactly those that'd inhere to nearly any direct portrayal of "Cap vs. Bin Laden" as well.

    It's the same problem one gets when one sees Kruschev comedically ranting about how he'll destroy Iron Man and crush freedom in old Tales of Suspense issues, or in that awful West Coast Avengers story where historical monsters including Stalin and Himmler came back from Hell with costumes and powers and proceeded to run around having punch-ups with Wonder Man and Tigra. It's just, at a certain level, deeply stupid and offensive.

    It invariably amounts to the pretense that these guys are no different than comic-book supervillains and can be dealt with in the same way. Of course no one sane or decent likes Stalin, bin Laden, Hitler, or the rest. But most of those people don't need a clumsy cartoon to make them feel better by having pretend heroes beat up unrealistic, pretend versions of real dangers to humanity.

    At a basic level one has to remember that all of those old stories featuring a caricatured, cowardly, blowhard Hitler 1) came out before most people knew the extent of the Nazi regime's anti-Semitism, and long before any of the creators or buyers of the comic knew of the Shoah; and 2) already seem rather trivializing of the monstrosity of the real Hitler and the deaths of real people when you consider that at the same time the average comics fan of the 1940s was reading about Cap punching cartoon-Hitler in the face, the real Hitler was oppressing millions and his troops were shooting real bullets at real troops; and 3) the average age of a comics reader at that point in time was somewhere between 6 and 10 years old; no one much older read the things until Stan Lee and the 1960s came around, and, if anything, comics had an even worse reputation as juvenilia back then than they have for quite a while now.

    Does anyone read the vaudeville-accented, utterly silly Hitler of those comics -- hell, of even a number of 1960s Cap comics -- and think that caricature in any way resembles the real Hitler or does justice to the real sacrifices made to stop him, the very real horror he caused? Or is he at best a mere shorthand for "comic-book evil" requiring minimal work ont he writer's part and at best a madly errant effort to make people with minimal power and some degree of insecurity over the final outcome of a conflict feel as if they were winning all the same?

    Viewed in that light, it's at best misguided and at worst rather tasteless.

    Consider also the general message one might take from such a comic: real soldiers are useless, and it would take a superhero to actually threaten these tyrants and terrorists. It elevates the enemy to the status of a grand supervillain, when the enemy was never that grand or that omnipotent...nor, sadly, that absurd and comical.

    More to the point, it's a profoundly uninspiring message in today's context, where it's infinitely harder to simply pretend that a clash of symbols can solve a problem of reality. Such stuff provides imaginary, childish hope at the expense of practical, adult solutions. Patriotism is no longer interchangeable for most people with jingoism, and propaganda of that sort no longer functions even as working propaganda. Nor do most people read reality in the terms of heroic epic.

    Bin Laden, like Hitler, will probably always stand in (in Europe, America, well, pretty much everywhere wihtout a significant population os Islamist militants) as a byword for unspeakable evil, but the binary doesn't, for most today, automatically confer nobility and virtue on whoever opposes them. And that conferral of nobility is the other side of the allegorical transfer meant by pitting comics' paragons of morality against reality's icons of monstrosity and atrocity. That's the danger of propaganda; it fools us into believing in our absolute virtue without being bothered to demonstrate it, without being forced to check it against our actions and their results.

    Old-style propaganda comics aren't bad because they're anti-bin Laden or anti-Hitler, they're bad because, like all propaganda, they at some level aim at producing psychological relief by way of the inherently disempowering impulse to avoid a real confrontation and real complexities in favor of a pretend showdown where victory is easy and the foe is both absurdly large-scale and inanely non-threatening.

    In short, it's not only kids' stuff, but badly-done kids' stuff. And I don't think contemporary comics or their readers or the war effort will benefit from reviving any of it today.

    I'm sensible enough to realize that Nazi iconography and, yes, comic-book Hitler are effectively now fictions almost totally detached from the original reality; that Hitler in the Marvel Universe really isn't the real Hitler, but instead just one more super-villain who occasioanlly wears a colorful costume and spouts a melodramatic rant and wields a Kirby raygun; but you see, that's just about the only way he works in the MU: as something that really isn't the real Hitler in any way, shape, or form, but instead as an astoundingly reductive allegory for prejudice that Captain America defeats by refusing to give in to his hate, or Nick Fury beats up and shoves through a space-station airlock.

    Nor am I arguing that superhero comics can't do real-world problems and threats; they do 'em all the time. What I'm arguing is that superhero comics generally have to do these problems as reductive allegories; that the price of bringing gun control into the Marvel Universe is that it becomes Superhuman Registration; that the price of writing a story where Batman confronts terrorism is that neither his methods nor his opponents will really be all that much like any real military operation or any real terrorist, nor will they wind up being all that distinguishable from his last go-round with Ra's al Ghul (who is, really, already a vaguely Arabic terrorist, isn't he?). Putting the face and name of the real enemy on such thin fictions is, at some level, profoundly dishonest. Pretending that pretend, often impossible methods have direct relevance to real problems likewise seems dishonest, and more than that, willfully stupid.

    To do politics, let alone war, superheroes need instead to take into account just what the translation of those issues into the terms of the artifices of the genre will do upon what I might term a re-translation. There are stories that I think have done this aspect halfway well, to be sure. I won't name them here, at the risk of sparking an even bigger and certainly more tangential argument than this post might.

    No, I'm here to argue against the return of a type of story that really isn't as inspiring or as clever or, ultimately, as good as some people seem to remember it.
    Last edited by Omar Karindu; 09-13-2007 at 05:28 PM. Reason: Edited for clarity and focus

  2. #2
    New Member EmeraldCity's Avatar
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    Our propaganda is done differently these days as well.

    Furthmore, I think when they are done semi-tastefully they can be good stories that serve a purpose of pride and hope for people; as well as, something that allows use to remember what was going on at that time in the world. We can go back and see the "oldies" comics and catch quick look at the state of the world from the US' view in that era.. in some ways it is like a time capsule of sorts. Frank Miller's project seems to be along those lines. Doing stuff like the WCA is a sad excuse for a comic and stuff like that should never be used.


    But damn if what you wrote wasn't a great read! :D

  3. #3
    mindless drone zuludelta's Avatar
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    Those are some very good and well-thought out arguments on why a superhero comic book featuring real-world antagonists could be "bad comics." Still, I think it all comes down to execution, more so than topical content and context. The old wartime comics from the 1940s (and to a lesser extent, the Cold War comics from the Silver Age) were "bad" not because they featured Hitler or Hideki Tojo or Nikita Kruschev, they were "bad comics" because they presented one-dimensional villains that exposed ill-informed writers and artists relying on racist/xenophobic tropes to make up for their ignorance. A comic book done well, even one that features a punch-up between Batman and Bin Laden, is still a well done comic book. That being said, doing a well-written comic featuring real-world politics mixing it up with superheroes is a pretty tricky balancing act that too easily could fall into tiresome, unimaginative ranting or outright propaganda (no matter what side of the political spectrum the work is immersed in, whether it's Ellis' "Black Summer" or Miller's upcoming "Batman vs. Al-Qaeda" project).

  4. #4
    Senior Member CBikle's Avatar
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    Nah, I disagree. The old wartime propaganda was good for morale.

    The nazis portrayed themselves as the pinnacle of evolution/eugenics and an unbeatable enemy, so I'd have had no problem with covers showing Hitler getting punched by Cap or getting a hotfoot from the Newsboy Legion and taking the wind out of their sales.

    However, today's comics readers are a little more cynical and/or sophisticated, so I'm not so sure how well it'd work now anyways, especially since political correctness hasn't died off yet.

  5. #5
    Elder Member Sean Walsh's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by EmeraldCity View Post
    Our propaganda is done differently these days as well.
    As in "if you do propaganda, you're an awful jingoist Neocon who hates and are insensitive toward everyone who thinks differently than you." :rolleyes:

  6. #6
    ich liebe Leni stelok's Avatar
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    I have to say Omar had made a very logical, valid and well-written argument.

    And I haven't forgotten the West Coast story about Stalin and Himmler having super-powers and a new second chance at life from a devil.

    No doubt that 1940's had made propaganda comics to appeal to a preteen audience with fantasies of good fictional guys beating bad non-fictional figures.
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  7. #7
    Junior Member Kid Monster's Avatar
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    What issue(s) of West Coast Avengers was that story in?

    Just morbidly curious.

  8. #8
    ich liebe Leni stelok's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Kid Monster View Post
    What issue(s) of West Coast Avengers was that story in?

    Just morbidly curious.
    West Coast Avengers #97-100
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  9. #9

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    One very important thing to remember about the Cap vs. Hitler comics is that they were written before Pearl Harbor, at a time when Hitler wasn't unpopular in the United States, no one cared very much about Europe or Asia, and the Axis powers could have very easily become our allies.
    If Japan didn't strike when they did, that's probably what would have happened as the War continued in the Axis' favor.

    That comic, with the cover showing Captain America fighting Hitler was extremely controversial, not because it presented Hitler as a caricature, but because it presented a conflict between America and Germany. It wasn't jingoistic propaganda. It was a bold statement of facts that people did not want to hear.

  10. #10
    Elder Member jesse_custer's Avatar
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    I don't have a long argument for this or anything. I just think Miller putting Batman in this situation is one of the funniest, over-the-top moves by a comic book writer in a while.

  11. #11
    BANNED rick's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by hyzmarca View Post
    One very important thing to remember about the Cap vs. Hitler comics is that they were written before Pearl Harbor, at a time when Hitler wasn't unpopular in the United States, no one cared very much about Europe or Asia, and the Axis powers could have very easily become our allies.

    You interpretation of history is deeply flawed here.

    By 1941, even though the Bund movement was still around to some degree, Hitler was massively unpopular inside of the US. True he did have his supporters, including such high profile idiots as Charles Lindbergh and Henry Ford, but by the end of the 1930’s they were definitely in a shrinking minority. And as the war in Europe progressed US public opinion toward the Axis, which was never high in the first place, became increasingly hostile.

    Also keep in mind that by 1941 the US was deeply involved in Lead Lease with the British, and had stopped most trade with both Germany and Japan, plus had already begun to reinstate the draft to get the American army up to speed.

    There was simply no way by the time that Captain America’s first appearance came out that there was even the possibility of the US forging an alliance with the Axis.

    Finally, the Captain America cover was definitely in your face, but it was hardly that shocking in a nation where the Nazi’s had already become the stock villains of pre-war American films like Casablanca or The Mortal Storm.
    Last edited by rick; 10-08-2007 at 09:06 AM. Reason: I actually spelled Lindbergh wrong. I am so ashamed

  12. #12
    Groucho Marxiste Omar Karindu's Avatar
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    Casablanca was not a pre-war film, having been produced and released in 1942.

    The Mortal Storm is a far better example, though the U.S. was already supplying Britain by 1940...and the Battle of Britain had already begun.

    Pro-Hitler sentiments in America were certainly a minority opinion by 1940, and arguably had been since the blitzkriegs in 1939; what's unusual about Captain America Comics #1 and The Mortal Storm is that they were openly agitating for war with Germany. In contrast, isolationism and non-combat support of Britain were quite popular positions prior to Pearl Harbor, thanks mainly to everyone's fresh and grim recollections of the Great War twenty years prior.

    While a draft was passed into law in 1940, it should be recalled that America did not send troops ibnto battle before Pearl Harbor, and that it was Germany wo declared war on the U.S., not vice versa. There quite certainly a mainstream sentiment prior to the attacks that the war in Europe was just that...a war in Europe.

    After all, it was virtually at the same time that the Ludlow Amendment, an isolationist effort to amend toe Constitution itself, was being hotly debated in Congress. Even after the German invasion of Poalnd in 1939, the Ludlow Amendment had 51% support in national polls. The Neutrality Acts of the 1930s were only very slowly amended; as late as November of 1941, they prohibited U.S. ships or citizens from so much as entering combat zones.

    That said, U.S. involvement in the war was almost certainly inevitable by 1941, and people would certainly have hated Hitler. But the country was split down the middle for the most part so far as actual warfare was concerned. Comics like Cap's and films like The Mortal Storm were on one side of this divide, but they were not representative of a powerful majority's views.
    Last edited by Omar Karindu; 10-08-2007 at 10:36 AM.

  13. #13
    BANNED rick's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Omar Karindu View Post
    Casablanca was not a pre-war film, having been produced and released in 1942.

    The Mortal Storm is a far better example, though the U.S. was already supplying Britain by 1940...and the Battle of Britain had already begun.
    It was early, I’d have been better off mentioning Reagan’s International Squadron or Hitler’s Gang instead of Casablanca.

    For some reason I always mistakenly think of Casablanca as a 1941 picture.

    And my point in mentioning these films, including The Mortal Storm, is that they came out at approximately the same time as the first issue of Captain America. And as such demonstrate that having a magazine come out that was openly anti-Nazi in 1941 was not rare, but was in fact mainstream.



    Pro-Hitler sentiments in America were certainly a minority opinion by 1940, and arguably had been since the blitzkriegs in 1939; what's unusual about Captain America Comics #1 and The Mortal Storm is that they were openly agitating for war with Germany. In contrast, isolationism and non-combat support of Britain were quite popular positions prior to Pearl Harbor, thanks mainly to everyone's fresh and grim recollections of the Great War twenty years prior.

    While a draft was passed into law in 1940, it should be recalled that America did not send troops ibnto battle before Pearl Harbor, and that it was Germany wo declared war on the U.S., not vice versa. There quite certainly a mainstream sentiment prior to the attacks that the war in Europe was just that...a war in Europe.

    After all, it was virtually at the same time that the Ludlow Amendment, an isolationist effort to amend toe Constitution itself, was being hotly debated in Congress. Even after the German invasion of Poalnd in 1939, the Ludlow Amendment had 51% support in national polls. The Neutrality Acts of the 1930s were only very slowly amended; as late as November of 1941, they prohibited U.S. ships or citizens from so much as entering combat zones.

    That said, U.S. involvement in the war was almost certainly inevitable by 1941, and people would certainly have hated Hitler. But the country was split down the middle for the most part so far as actual warfare was concerned. Comics like Cap's and films like The Mortal Storm were on one side of this divide, but they were not representative of a powerful majority's views.

    But I am not even slightly arguing that the US wasn’t heavily isolationist before the attack on Pearl Harbor. What I am debating is the suggestion that Hitler was “popular” in the US before the start of the American involvement in the war.

    Obviously these are two completely different subjects.

  14. #14
    Groucho Marxiste Omar Karindu's Avatar
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    But I am not even slightly arguing that the US wasn’t heavily isolationist before the attack on Pearl Harbor. What I am debating is the suggestion that Hitler was “popular” in the US before the start of the American involvement in the war.
    And I'm clearly not arguin with you in my post, at least not on that score.

    I might, however, point out that the heavily isolationist sentiments of what were at least a significant minority of the population might color the public reaction to a comic that explicitly advocated direct U.S. action against Hitler and Germany...by a hero created and outfitted by the U.S. military, whose civilian identity was in the military.

    Given when it was published, Captain America Comics #1 is an unusually anti-isolationist, pro-war comic. Being anti-Nazi, as you note, was not unusual at the time; being so anti-Nazi that you favored direct U.S. entry into the war was a bit less centrist or "mainstream" a position. Your other example, The Mortal Storm, is very careful about taking place entirely in Germany and playing the issue as a crisis of conscience on the part of an anti-Nazi German citizen. It's quite compatible with the climate of isolationism in its own way.

    Of course, I'm not entirely sure what debating Hitler's popularity in 1940 or 1941 has to do directly with the question of whether or not we should have superheroes cathartically beating up Osama bin Laden today. I've no doubt that it probably does have a more direct impact on the matter, but I'm perhaps not making the connection myself.

  15. #15
    BANNED rick's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Omar Karindu View Post
    Of course, I'm not entirely sure what debating Hitler's popularity in 1940 or 1941 has to do directly with the question of whether or not we should have superheroes cathartically beating up Osama bin Laden today.

    As far as I know, nothing whatsoever.

    I became involved, simply because I was unable to leave hyzmarca's historical view unchallanged.
    Last edited by rick; 10-09-2007 at 09:52 PM.

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