For the past nine years I’ve taught high school English. And–more important to this article and Graphic Policy’s focus in particular–for the last three years I’ve taught a graphic novel class that I created. (See here and here for past writings on that experience).
Throughout that time, whenever I’ve seen students read graphic novels in either class, (they read Maus in connection with Night in the non-graphic novel classroom), I saw greater student engagement, greater understanding, and greater confidence from all students. This was true of fictional comics, but I found that it was truer for nonfiction comics, informative comics.
Students don’t like to read textbooks, complex articles, big biographies and the like: but they would gobble up graphic novels about these same topics.
Some preferred the dark My Friend Dahmer.
Others steered towards comics that were more positive and empowering, like Brazen: Rebel Ladies Who Rocked the World;
and others chose some more theoretical work that made it easier to understand abstract ideas like Logicomix.
This interest in informational comics, along with my interest in history, led me to create my own informational comic about the Standard of Ur (found here). Here’s a short preview of one page. Yes, it’s not drawn the best–I’m a pro writer and an amateur artist (which shouldn’t be a bad thing, to pursue something for passion, not pay)–but there is some intriguing info here and some innovative designs that make it worth checking out this and the other pages.
The more and more I saw this trend of love for nonfiction comics from my students, and a rising love in myself, the more I wanted to know about this genre within the medium. Sure, I’d read a few bios here, a few memoirs there (something I’m not going to tackle in this series unless there’s a significant amount of information presented). But I hadn’t jumped into informational comics the way I dove and swam through super hero comics, the way I took leaps of faith by following certain creators from project-to-project, from publisher-to-publisher.
I took that plunge, though, and ended up loving informational comics. More importantly, I came to this realization, the subject of this post: Informational comics have existed for most of comics’ history, and their unique evolution has increased their appeal and audience in a way that other genres of comics haven’t.
Before we begin our historical journey, though, there are a few important details to note:
- Even though I am a history major (and English teacher–I try not to limit myself into one field, which might be why I don’t like to limit myself to one genre), I don’t know the whole story. Even though I’ve done research for this article and paired that with my own background knowledge and historical academics, I am sure I’m missing part of the story. So–in the comments section–if you note an error, a missing piece that needs to be added, or details that should be downplayed or played up: please let me know. We’re all learning on this planet and respectful interactions like that help all of us, right?
- Secondly, while political and propaganda comics were around earlier and more frequently (generally speaking) than informational comics, I’m going to start with the rise of informational comics in the US and only touch on propaganda comics of that time period for proper context. This isn’t too downplay any works focusing on the earlier, political and propaganda pieces: it’s just to have a clear boundary to avoid my tendency to digress. These are some examples of what you’re missing out on given those self-imposed guidelines:
Instead, I am going to focus on the first big surge of informational comics in the US, a surge that coincided with World War II and government-backed comics. Seeing the previous use of comics for propaganda–especially in World War I, comics which were partially collected in the above Cartoon Book by the US government–the US government decided to pursue that path again.
But this time they didn’t just use comics for propaganda: they used them to inform their citizens–at home, in basic training, and abroad. And this time, they brought some of the most popular comics artists of the time to help them create these comics.
Primarily, they were used to inform military members proper procedure, smart tactics, health prevention, and equipment maintenance. This could cover the simple message–like this comic by Al Avison, co-creator of the Whizzer and noted Captain America artist, from Military Courtesy on how to salute:
It could cover more complex scenarios of life and death–like this comic about bomb safety procedures from Terry and the Pirates and Steve Canyon creator Milton Caniff:
Dealing with explosives was a common thread among military comics, and this next example shows a similar content–
–with a very different artistic style, opting for a more cartoonish and humorous approach (artist credit not found on site I obtained this image):
Others could cover strategic insights that would need to be acted on by instinct when in combat–
–like this other piece by Milton Caniff, that has some dated, loaded language. Comics and other media of course were subject to prejudices of the time, reflected in language and stereotypical images. This was true for all comics, not just military and government funded ones: Walt and Skeezix, great in many other ways, had the stereotypical large lips and noses that artists used to portray African Americans.
Some supported health education, especially new health concerns inherent in that new environment or inherent in activities soldiers commonly do overseas–
–like this cartoon by Arthur Szyk about the dangers of venereal disease and prevention options:
Even Dr. Seuss jumped on this health bandwagon, although the “comics” he created are more similar to the formats of children books made by him and others like him:
Most of these above comics are pretty boring and straightforward, but many comics of the time created salacious narratives out of their informational agendas. Some added sexy images (that have since been limited and removed from contemporary military comics) and some added action and humor to engage the soldiers reading the piece, thinking that more excitement would lead to better education.
As a teacher, I’ve found this to be generally true, but–honestly–sometimes work ethic matters more. That being said, this approach was successful, as seen by characters like Tex Lane–a comic only circulated on the Elmendorf Air Force Base in Alaska it was created, offering more of a unique and personable approach to its readers:
And, yes, sometimes these comics mixed the information with some patriotic propaganda–like Charles Biro, creator of Airboy did with this comic about a payroll savings plan, making citizens save smarter for the long haul of the war. The left two panels push the patriotic agenda heavily and the last panel offers some informational guidance to balance it:
Sometimes, due to the patriotic appeal taken precedence (and a desire for stronger images), comics would inform in a less direct, more implied way, instead of explicitly offering information like the above ones do. One such example of this type of comic is from Robert Osborn, showing (without telling) the proper technique to save a fellow soldier from drowning:
And, of course there were comics that were purely for propaganda, like this one by industry great Harvey Kurtzman:
The government even reached out to Marvel and DC comics for help pushing this patriotism, because–after all–who’s more patriotic than Captain America, Wonder Woman, and Superman? And who can so no to that appeal, especially when the creators of these icons were involved, like Siegel and Shuster were in the image below?
I briefly touch on this propaganda for a few reasons:
- To remind us that it still existed and was probably the biggest type of government-funded comics during this era. While it’s not my focus for this piece, it would be less than honest to give this proper context.
- To show that sometimes propaganda and informational purposes mix.
- And to transition into this last example, a piece of propaganda by an artist that would go on to have a drastic impact on military informational comics.
Private Will Eisner, famed creator of The Spirit and, later, A Contract with God arrived at his boot camp in 1942, where he was enlisted to create comics.
Some of his earliest military comics work was for Army Motors—often starring Joe Dope, a soldier who suffers for not following proper procedure (thus showing the procedure that should be followed and the reasons for following it).
After World War II, Eisner would be responsible for one of the military’s biggest pushes into informational comics. This time he wasn’t enlisted, though, having left the military to start American Visuals Corporation. AVC was soon contacted to produce PS, the Preventative Maintenance Monthly, the comic that rose from Army Motors’ ashes in 1951.
PS–a postscript of sorts for other technical manuals and preventative maintenance guides published by the military–used comics to once again inform the everyman in the military. Comics showed soldiers how to properly take care of equipment and prevent equipment failures that would be costly, both in bucks and bodies. And Joe Dope was back to help instruct as the, well, Dope who did everything wrong.
PS often used infographics (infographics being one of the most widely used ways that comics can deliver information clearly and concisely) like the one above. As many comics and other media of the time period, women were portrayed in a sexualized way to grip the interest of the males reading the comic. Of course that still applies to media today, but PS has moved away from portraying women in this way.
Part of what makes this move so surprising, is that PS was gaining steam just as comics in America were blazing out: Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent and Congressional Committees were portraying comics as corrupters of youth, leading to laws against comics, comic burnings, and the Comics Code Authority. (All that’s a story for another time, though). Simply put, as many times in the past, the government fought against a media at the same time it was co-opting it for its own purposes.
Not only did PS stick around through the Comic Scare, it has stuck around to today. Like many paper periodicals, though, it has gone digital. The 771st issue (November, 2017) was the last print copy. But soldiers can still read comics that inform and entertain them on the PS magazine app, available on smartphones. The evolution of PS is a story for another article, though.
Before we leave our first foray into informational comics, specifically government-backed informational comics, there is one more topic to cover: government comics that were created outside of the military, available and intended for all citizens. Seeing the success of the military comics, the US government decided to distribute comics on a bunch of other issues of national concern: health, education, safety, and more.
Smokey Bear (not Smokey the Bear, as he is commonly misidentified) was one of the first public-funded comic characters created, helping spread a message against forest fires that still resonates with today’s citizens, albeit in a different way and for different reasons. The above slogan–the most familiar to Americans–was created in 1947, but Smokey Bear was created in 1944 by artist Albert Staehle and writer Harold Rosenberg. He was created for a U.S. Forest Service ad campaign and became the longest running PSA character and campaign.
Like military comics, the government continued these educational comics even in the midst of the comic scare amplified by Wertham. Trying to help anyone working with adolescents and children–educators, coaches, and parents for instance–the government created a manual that offered comic advice. “The Youth You Supervise” was released in 1954, and, like many military comics, it drew on established comic creators and figures, featuring Al Capp’s Li’l Abner.
Most of our focus in this article has been on comics from the federal government, but states jumped on this bandwagon too. The New York State Department of Health, under the Department of Mental Hygiene, published a comic that focused on tips to maintain positive mental health. Like with Li’l Abner, they decided to use a popular comic strip character: Blondie and Dagwood.
The Health Services Administration in the Department of Health in New York also made comics about sexual health a priority, as seen in the Health Department’s comic “Johnny Gets the Word”, published in 1957. The “word”, in this case, is syphilis. And STDs in general were tackled in infographics like the one below:
The sexual nature of this comic–including discussing that teenagers might have mutliple sexual partners–marks a controversial topic that Wertham might have campaigned against; maybe Wertham was more concerned with superhero comics and EC comics, comics that were marketed towards children and made a profit.
After an onslaught of military comics, the government had decided to use comics for other purposes, a use that would only continue to expand. And it would expand outside of government: Marvel and DC would join the game, using superheroes to educate their readers; traditional book publishers would also get on the board, giving rise to biographies and other traditional nonfiction graphic novels. But those are stories for future installments.
A preview of some of those comics that will be studied in future installments. Note: they don’t represent my views (I was never a fan of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” for instance).
CJ Standal is a writer and self-publisher. He is co-creator of Rebirth of the Gangster, which has been featured in Alterna Comics’ 2017 IF Anthology; he has lettered the webcomic Henshin Man; and he has written for online sites like Graphic Policy and the now-defunct Slant. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram (@cj_standal), Facebook, and visit his website: cjstandalproductions.com.
Campbell, Colin. “World War II-Era U.S. Army Comics on Display at Baltimore Museum.”
Military.com, The Baltimore Sun, 2019, www.military.com/off-duty/off-beat/2017/03/06/ world-war-ii-era-us-army-comics-display-baltimore-museum.html.
“Don’t Be a Dope! Training Comics from World War II to the Korean War.” Pritzker
Military Museum & Library Chicago, Pritzker Military Museum & Library, 2019, www.pritzkermilitary.org/explore/museum/past-exhibits/dont-be-dope- training-comics-world-war-ii-and-korea/.
“PS, The Preventive Maintenance Monthly.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 15 Feb. 2019, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PS,_The_Preventive_Maintenance_Monthly.
Sergi, Joe. “Tales From the Code: Welcome to Government Comics.” Comic Book Legal
Defense Fund, Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, 12 December 2012, 2019, cbldf.org/2012/12/tales-from-the-code- welcome-to-government-comics/.