Tag Archives: propaganda

Investigating Informational Comics Part 1: The US Government, World War II and Post-War era

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.

my friend dahmer

Others steered towards comics that were more positive and empowering, like Brazen: Rebel Ladies Who Rocked the World;

brazen gn

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.

standard of ur p 1

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?
i read the comments meme
  • 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:

gov comics 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:

gov comics bomb control Milton Caniff

Dealing with explosives was a common thread among military comics, and this next example shows a similar content–

gov comics a dud bomb comic

–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–

gov comics how to spot a jap milton caniff yeah its racist

–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:

gov comics vd prevention

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:

seus gov comics malaria
seus gov comics mosquito

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:

gov comics tex lane aircraft accidents

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:

gov comics propaganda mixed with informative Charles Biro creator of Airboy

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:

gov comics robert osborn propaganda informative mix

And, of course there were comics that were purely for propaganda, like this one by industry great Harvey Kurtzman:

gov comics pure propaganda 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?

gov comics air force enlists comic aid
gov comics superman propaganda

I briefly touch on this propaganda for a few reasons:

  1. 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.
  2. To show that sometimes  propaganda and informational purposes mix.
  3. 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.

gov comics joe dope part propaganda precursor to PS
gov comics joe dope sand in tank PS precursor

Some of his earliest military comics work was for Army Motorsoften 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 1

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 infographic

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.

comic burning newspaper

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.

more comic burnings
PS promo

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.

smokey bear ad
youth you supervise comic

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.

blondie mental health comic cover
blondie mental helath comic strip

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.

johnny gets the word splash intro page

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:

johnny gets the word infographic

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.

PS may 2004 harry potteresque cover

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/.

Sergi, Joe. “1948: The Year Comics Met Their Match.” Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, 12 June 2012, 2019, cbldf.org/2012/06/ 1948-the-year-comics-met-their-match/.

“Smokey Bear.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 24 Apr. 2019, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ Smokey_Bear.

See X-Men, Want to Join the Army?

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Go_Army_X-MenWe previously reported on the Pentagon using X-Men: First Class as a recruiting tool, by sponsoring the movie and producing recruitment ads comparing joining the X-Men with  soldier’s life.  There’s no argument that soldiers are part of the folks I’d put in the “hero” category, it was a bit of a stretch for me.  When reading an article today by David Sirota about military propaganda and movies this stuck out to me about that recruitment drive:

The spots played in cinemas, and exit polls of 17- to 24-year-olds leaving the movie theater found that those who saw the ad were 25% more likely to say they would consider joining the Army than those who didn’t, according to U.S. Army Accessions Command Chief Marketing Officer Bruce Jasurda.

“We get asked all the time, ‘Why do you market?'” said Jasurda. “We’re a nation at war going on 11 years, which is … the longest period of consistent conflict that the U.S. Army’s ever been involved in, that the nation’s ever been involved in, longer than any war we’ve been in…That’s why we market. We want to make sure people understand the full nature of this product. The Army is the ultimate considered purchase.”

So, after seeing the movie and recruitment spots, did any of you feel more like joining?

Around the Tubes

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I decided to hit up a Borders sale last night, it was a bit difficult to pass up books at 50% off.  So, I took a shot and checked out some new series I’ve never read.  But, for the most part the place has been gutted.  Get there quick and take advantage.  Hopefully Borders decides to use the money to pay back it’s suppliers…. if nothing else I have some new cheap reads.

Around the Blogs:

The Independent – Asterix creator embroiled in family feud after sacking daughter – This is why you shouldn’t work with family.

BBC – Yuri Gagarin comic dubbed ‘propaganda’ – As opposed to everything else in Russia?

Bleeding Cool – Disney Have Ditched The Next Film From Tron: Legacy’s Director – Wasn’t there a Radical tie-in too?

Bleeding Cool – Christopher Nolan On Board To Reboot Batman, Batman To Appear In Justice League Movie – Is it now going to be three movies then a reboot? Is it that difficult to come up with an original plot?

Around the Tubes Reviews:

Comicvine – Detective Comics #875

Good Comic Books – Nonplayer #1

Anti-Soviet Propaganda in Comic Form

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The website Conelrad Adjacent has a great piece of comic book history with Is This Tomorrow: America Under Communism. The comic book was created by the Catechetical Guild Educational in 1947.  Catechetical was founded by Father Louis Gales to distribute comic books with Catholic themes.

4 million copies were distributed in the 40’s.

The book tells the story of a Red sleeper cell that takes over America after a nation-crippling drought. The saboteurs place agents in the media, foment racial unrest, take over Congress, brainwash schoolchildren, and rig elections.

The 48 page comic book tells how Communists could take over America and involves such classics as the manipulation of the media.  Conelrad has a great break down of the plot which is to say awesome.  It’s one to definitely check out.

Is This Tomorrow

Iran Versus Spider-Man

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President Obama and Spider-ManMohammad Reza Naghdi, the commander of Iran’s Basij force has announced the creation of “The Organization of Basij and the Media.”  It’s goal is to increase the activities of the Basij force in media and entertainment.  Naghdi made the announcement earlier in the week blasting “false” cartoon characters and taking direct aim at Spider-Man (was Captain America too obvious!?).  He also suggested that characters who promote the authority of the Islamic Republic should be used in television programming instead.

According to Radio Free Europe/Radio Free Liberty it’s thought this is in reference of a so called “soft war” against the Islamic Republic, where entertainment is used to sway the hearts and minds of individuals.

“Today, we are engaged in a unique and historical war with the enemy in the frame of a soft war,”said Naghdi, who expressed concern that the whole Iranian establishment is not doing more to fight the so-called “soft war.”

Friday Fun – Meet JFK The Comic Book

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Today’s Friday Fun is an interesting nugget of Presidential history.  Entitled, John F. Kennedy: New U.S. President, it’s goal was to introduce the newly elected President to the world.  Produced in 1961 it was distributed by the USIS (United States Information Service) to US Embassies.  Two copies have been found one from an embassy in Brussels Holland, another from Brisbane Australia.

The comic told the tail of his life with an interesting focus on his families international connections as well as his own.  Also, there’s an emphasis on his anti-Communist stance.

It’s a great piece of Presidential history and well worth the read and study.  It’s clear it was written for the time, political climate and the international audience.  Below is a sampling of some of the comic.

John F. KennedyJohn F. KennedyJohn F. KennedyJohn F. KennedyJohn F. Kennedy

You can read the full issue at http://www.ep.tc/jfk/.

Thanks for http://www.ep.tc/ and it’s amazing collection of these fantastic nuggets of history.

Using Comics to Understand North Korea

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We’ve covered how comic books have been used as propaganda AGAINST North Korea.  Heinz Insu Fenkl, a literature professor at the State University of New York (SUNY) at New Paltz is using comic books to understand more ABOUT North Korea.  The professor spends hours translating North Korean comic books call “gruim-chaek” in North Korea that he picks up in shops in China and from colleagues who travel to Pyongyang.

The comic books the professor has gathered tend to be spy thrillers with loud Americans our Japanese as the enemies.  The comics are in black and white and poor paper quality.  To be expected in a country short on resources.

The books are also designed to instill the father of North Korea, Kim Il-sung’s, philosophy of Juche — radical self-reliance of the state, added Nick Bonner, founder of Koryo Tours, an English-language tour company in Beijing that takes visitors to North Korea several times each year.

Fenkl is planning is planning a massive web archive to share his studies to the world.  You can read more about this at the Global Post which has some examples.

Friday Fun – The C.I.A. Gets Into Comics

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In 1984 the Central Intelligence Agency produced a comic book for the people of Grenada denouncing Communism.  The comic book was air dropped over the country as part of an invasion by the United States and a few allies.  President Reagan worried about a Communist friendly government and used the safety of 800 medical students as a reason to invade the tiny country.

This was an interesting moment in history as it shows off American military action that many people don’t remember and is a physical item produced by and American agency that’s rather secretive in their endeavors.

You can learn more about the Grenada invasion here.

The cover says “Number 1 of a series.”  Our question is what’s in the rest of the series?  Did the CIA produce one for each of our invasions?



Ah government propaganda, isn’t it fun?  You can read the full comic book at http://www.ep.tc/grenada/.

Thanks for http://www.ep.tc/ and it’s amazing collection of these fantastic nuggets of history.

Duck and Cover – Government Created Comics

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The United States Government isn’t a stranger to using media to educate the public whether it’s through modern new media such as videos or blogs, or in the past posters and even comic books.

According to the book The Ten-Cent Plague by David Hadju, J. Edgar Hoover plotted out comic books to help sway public opinion about crime.  Some people might refer to these works as educational pieces, others might call them propaganda.

The University of Nebraska at Lincoln has a large collection of these interesting bits of history and have digitized them for public consumption.  You can visit their website, UNL Libraries Digital Collections: Government Comics Collection, to check out 183 different examples of these nuggets of history.

Expect a review of all 183 pieces on their website with some historical context starting in the next few weeks.

Anti-North Korea Comic Books Distributed – Update

Yesterday we brought you the news about the National Police Agency having published a comic book critical of the North Korea regime and it’s nuclear program.  The Financial Times picks up the story and expands upon the story a bit.

The comic is called Ji-yong goes time travelling to school children between the ages of 10 to 15. The plot focuses on a young boy who rides through time with his grandfather’s ghost on a giant, red dragon.  He witnesses the North Korean invasion of the South in 1950 and the Stalinist dictatorship built by Kim Il-sung as well as present-day labour camps, starvation, nuclear weapons and cyber attacks.

The goal of the comic is to provide security education to elementary and middle school students. The creators cite a survey showing that 57 per cent of schoolchildren were “not aware” of the Korean war and 60 per cent of people in their 20s could not say when the war started.

“In the past, national security education was conducted forcefully and stirred up hostility,” the police said. Children’s cartoons would depict North Korean soldiers as wolves and Kim Il-sung as a pig. “These new comic books are based on facts to help children form a fair appraisal.”

The agency invested 90 million Won which is about $77,000 in American dollars.  They produced 150,000 copies and distributed them to schools and police stations.

The comic books follows a “spot the spy” computer game that South Korea’s intelligence agency put online during the summer.

The two nations went to war in June of 1950 and paused confrontation in July 1953.  There has never been an official treaty ending the war (it’s technically still going on for this reason) and occasional flair ups and skirmishes have occurred.  North and South Korea are divided by a demilitarized zone (DMZ) at the 38th parallel.

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