Before President George W Bush referred to Iran, Iraq and North Korea as the "axis of evil", the word "axis" meant something quite different to Americans concerned with a war effort. The Axis powers of Japan, Germany and Italy – along with their respective satellites – represented an abstract evil after the USA's entry into World War II. After the Japanese attack on the Hawaiian naval base of Pearl Harbour, Uncle Sam rallied the troops and the GIs were shipped out to Europe and the Pacific. Hitler, Hirohito and Mussolini had to be stopped.
The war – the bloody catastrophe that it was – was in many ways integral in building superhero comic books as we see them today. The Nazis – and, to a slightly lesser extent, Imperial Japan – was a ready-made crew of baddies with their own costumes, logos and crimes. All that was needed was a brawn super-man (sometimes Superman) to give them the heave-ho.
Mark Fertig is a comic book enthusiast who serves as Chair of Art and Art History at Susquehanna University, a liberal arts college in Pennsylvania. In 2014 he released a book collating a load of noir movie posters, and this year he's published Take That, Adolf! – in which he's turned his attention to the pulpy comics of WWII.
I spoke to him about racism in comics, KKK Nazis and 9/11.
VICE: Does your interest in this subject come from a deep love of comic book history, or is it a WWII history thing – or is it just a mixture of both?
Mark Fertig: It's definitely a mixture of both. I'm a lifelong comic book collector. They're beginning to take up too much space in my house, which is sort of pathetic. I'm a college Art professor and I've been passionate about the Second World War for a long time, so I've taken students to various places in Europe for World War II reasons and visited spots and cemeteries and battlefields and things like that. That's always been a part of what I cared about, and this book was a great way to couple those two interests. I was really surprised it had never been done before. The war is such an important part of the history of comics.
It must have been quite an easy sell to the publisher with the way things are right now.
Sure, I mean… I wasn't thinking about the whole Trump thing when I came up with the idea to do the book. I don't think he was even on our radar yet, but yeah, that's a happy coincidence as far as I'm concerned. If people are looking back at that moment in history and coupling it with this dick, then that's fine by me. I just put a gallery together in a blog of ten or 15 images and sent it to a publisher at Fantagraphics, and they just said go.
Are all these covers from your extensive private collection or did you have to source them?
No, I had to actively go out and search. I don't have those kinds of comics – they cost too much. I have a few, but the covers that are in the book would be probably millions of dollars when taken all together. There's a book that came out in the late 80s or early 90s that's called The Photo-Journal Guide to Comic Books, and it's a two-volume thing with these tiny little pictures of golden age comic book covers. I went through that with a magnifying glass and tried to identify all the WWII covers that I could, with a list, and then I used a couple other research methods to fill out the list. When I got to the point that I'd had enough I started to acquire the images and put the book together that way.
Do you think the aesthetics of Nazi Germany lend themselves to comics? I'd imagine there were a lot of 12-year-olds doodling swastikas back then.
As a graphic designer, I think the power of the swastika as a corporate identity is very strong. If we think of things like the IBM logo and the CBS logo as these iconic marks, it's pretty undeniable. The brand the swastika represents as a visual icon is really powerful, and certainly comic book creators at the time plastered it everywhere they could. There was a conversation I had with the publisher about how prominent swastikas should be on the cover. I didn't want to be the guy with the big swastika book, but it's undeniable that people tend to pick up things that have swastikas on them. I had originally wanted to use a different title, but Fantagraphics had already published a book that had a similar title to the one I proposed, so they said, "See if you can find a way to get Hitler in the title, because research suggests that books [with Hitler in the title] sell better," so that's where we ended up.
British war comics seem to be quite factually accurate, based on actual battles and whatnot, and the drawings seem to be a lot more realistic, whereas the American ones appear to be a lot more fanciful. There are more capes. Why do you think there's this disparity between the two in the way they treat their roles in the war?
Well, I think that given the American comics were being made while the actual fighting was going on, and from a position of limited information, it kinda makes sense. The notion of using comic books to help win the war as a propaganda tool is probably why. In a similar vein, the US government didn't release any photographs from D-Day and didn't want any dead soldiers to appear in venues like the Saturday Evening Post or Life Magazine. I don't think the comic industry was particularly interested in reporting in a journalistic sense. I think they were way more interested in making money first and being a propaganda tool second.
Aside from 9/11, Pearl Harbour was the only real huge attack on American soil, and people still haven't forgotten about it, as evidenced by some of the reactions to the Japanese tsunami in 2011. Some of the images in the book are strikingly racist – what do you think these say about the American psyche?
You know, that's an ugly thing to touch on, but it's undeniably true. I think I quote a statistic somewhere in the book where a poll was conducted in which a god-awful percentage of the American people said that every Japanese man, woman and child should be killed at the end of the war. I'm not old enough to really understand the depth of feeling surrounding Pearl Harbour. I was unaware of the people saying they deserved it, but sadly it's not surprising.
I don't know if people are thinking that way now. I think we're fucked up for a lot of other reasons, but I don't know if there's a cultural memory of Pearl Harbour here. I think, instead, it's more likely that younger Americans couldn't tell you the first thing about it other than that they remember it or somehow carry a grudge. It's definitely fair to bring up 9/11. It's comparable. When you look at 9/11 and the entitlement to hate, which some Americans feel, the relationship to Pearl Harbour and the way that it surfaces in the comic books and the imagery of the time is really clear.
There's one particular cover I found quite striking, but also quite odd. It was the Suspense Comics cover with the KKK swastika jungle guys. It was kind of a mish-mash of different sorts of fascistic themes.
See, the thing I don't understand about the cover is what that guy thinks he's doing with the spear.
Yeah. What the fuck's going on there?
It's like there are these KKK Nazis guys down there with Tommy guns, so there's some classic American gangster in there too, and this guy's attacking them with a spear. It doesn't make a lot of sense. It's an Alex Schomburg cover, too, and he's really the pre-eminent cover artist from the war. There's more stuff of his than of anybody else in the whole book. By that point in the war you were beginning to see more and more comics that were salacious in an effort to make sales. I think, in a case like that one, it backfired, and news vendors pulled that one off the stand before people could actually buy it – or the comics that did make their way into the hands of school kids were then destroyed by their parents. That's a very notorious comic right there, in the sense that so many copies were destroyed for one reason or another that it's become really valuable today. Any time a copy comes up for sale it sort of becomes buzzy news in the comic book collecting culture.
One thing I noticed is that they don't really deal with any of the more sombre elements of the war, like the Holocaust. Have you come across any that do?
There's one Captain America cover that's pretty explicit. I think it's issue 46 that has Captain America and Bucky bursting into this scene where there are rows and rows of these really bedraggled people, each with a red tag around their neck, that are sort of lined up whilst these Nazi guys are shoving an old man on a stretcher into an oven. Cap and Bucky arrive, I guess, in the nick of time to try and stop this, but that's really the only cover that I could find that more or less directly addressed the Holocaust or the idea of genocide.
Do you think there was a reason they shied away from it?
I think they didn't know. When London was under the Blitz, everybody in America sort of sneered at the notion of indiscriminate bombing of civilians and everything like that, but what the Americans and the British learned as the wars went on was that we supposedly needed to do the same things to win the war. So we bombed Dresden and Tokyo, and firebombed all of those people, and the writers sort of used comics as a vehicle by which they could convince the American people that that kind of war was necessary in order for the Allies to win.
If we had known about the Holocaust to the extent that we did in the months after the war ended, I'm pretty confident that it would have been used as a way to convince people that everyday Germans – and not just the Nazis – were responsible for the war, and that that kind of bombing was politically and morally acceptable in order to win. But since that's not the case, that leads me to believe that they didn't know. At the same time, nobody was really paying that much attention to what was going on in comics, so there are a lot of moments when you can hear creators saying things like, "We could literally put whatever we want in there" in terms of trying out new heroes, but then also making political statements. That's why the Writers War Board as an adjunct of the government felt that comic books, because of how prevalent they were and how read they were, was a good spot to place that propaganda.
More from VICE: