It may be difficult to imagine from our “enlightened” 21st century perspective that there was once a time when popular cartoons/comics aimed at children were used as propaganda to spread a racist agenda. At no period in our history was this probably truer then during World War II when all of America was united to fight the Nazis and the “Japs.” And in the world of comic books, the superheroes of the Justice Society of America (JSA)–featuring such favorites as the Flash, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern and Hawkman–got into the act in 1942 when they went up against the evil Black Dragon Society, a group of Japanese militants intent on destroying the U.S.
During the 1980s, DC Comics revived the Justice Society of America and other heroes of the Golden Age in a new comic entitled All-Star Squadron. I’m sure this posed an interesting dilemma for the creators of the new title: how do you tell the story of the Black Dragon Society in a way that was still true to the original concept while somehow addressing the inherent anti-Japanese xenophobia that was so integral to that original concept?
But before we get to that, I want to provide a bit of historical/cultural context. It wasn’t just the comic book world of the JSA that tapped into the anti-Japanese hysteria of the time. After the 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor that brought the U.S. into WWII, other popular cartoon characters also jumped on the bandwagon. I present two such examples below.
BUGS BUNNY NIPS THE NIPS (1944):
Popeye the Sailor in YOU’RE A SAP, MR. JAP (1942):
In 1942, one of the most popular comic book titles was All-Star Comics from All-American Publications (the precursor to today’s DC Comics) featuring the JSA:
Like most of the comics of the time, the plot (by comics legend Gardner F. Fox) was very simple. The evil Japs represented in the form of the Black Dragon Society (which was very loosely based on a real ultra-nationalistic, right-wing Japanese group) has infiltrated America’s shores and kidnapped several American scientists in order to steal their advanced inventions/weaponry. The JSA gets involved, kicks ass and effectively ends the “Jap” threat on U.S. soil. Again, very basic, very black-and-white and very racist. No distinction is made between the Japanese enemy and Japanese Americans. No mention is made of the mass internment of the JAs which was taking place during that very time.
Flash forward to 1981 and the premiere of DC Comic’s new title All-Star Squadron created by the team of Roy Thomas, Rich Bukler and Jerry Ordway. Also set during WWII, it is to be a “revisionist” take on the JSA and the other superheroes of that era. Instead of the simple black-and-white storytelling of the 1940s, All-Star Squadron will take those same characters and, in many cases, the same stories and put them in a more “real world” context addressing questions that weren’t previously addressed (i.e. if superheroes like Superman are so powerful, why didn’t they just go to Germany and take out the Nazis themselves?).
Which brings us back to the Black Dragon dilemma. Comic book fans have been known to get notoriously vocal if you mess with the continuity or back-story of their favorite characters so you can only change so much without risking mass outrage. So, in this case, how do you honor the memory of the original while addressing the inherent racism of that original vision?
For the most part, All-Star Squadron presented the original Black Dragon plot intact (the story appeared in issue #30, dated Feb 1984). The JSA is approached by Uncle Sam to stop the Dragons who have kidnapped the American scientists. The JSA spring into action and saves the day exactly as in the original 1942 version.
But what Thomas and co. tried to do is provide a historical context for the original story to both lessen its blatantly racist elements and introduce the Japanese American element. At its core, the story is still about evil Japs on U.S. soil so there’s only so much revisionism you can do. But it’s an interesting attempt that allows a mainstream comic to address issues like the internment experience.
There are subtle ways the creative team tries to do this, as in this panel:
It’s almost an exact reproduction of a similar panel (with the same dialogue) from the 1942 version of the story except with the addition of Wonder Woman’s line: “Not everybody with slanted eyes and sallow skin is an enemy of America!”
In other areas, the creative team is less subtle. As the Atom tracks down one of the kidnapped scientists, he realizes a “Jap” is secretly following him:
It turns out the “Jap” is actually a Japanese American Nisei named Morrie Fushido and he’s there to help our hero (Morrie is the one who eventually captures the bad guys prompting the Atom to respond, “Working with you could turn a guy lazy.”). The somewhat clueless Atom even gets a lecture from Morrie about how offensive the term “Jap” is and about the loyalty of the Japanese Americans to the United States:
The All-Star Squadron creators used the character of Morrie to try to provide some balance to the otherwise stereotypical Japanese bad guys. But they went even further. In a scene that didn’t exist in the 1942 version, Wonder Woman (who has only recently arrived in the U.S. from her native Paradise Island) has a discussion with another heroine, Liberty Belle, about the anti-Japanese sentiment in the air and rumors that the JAs might be forcibly evacuated from their homes:
This moment is immediately followed by a scene in the White House where President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signs Executive Order 9066 sealing the fate of the JAs (another scene not in the 1942 version). This is the last panel of the issue:
Like another popular DC character Aquaman (it is, in fact, later revealed that Tsunami’s future daughter is Aquaman’s half sister), Tsunami’s powers were mostly aquatic. She could control tidal waves, had great strength and could swim at incredible speeds. She was a Japanese American Nisei named Miya Shimada (born and raised in Santa Barbara, California) who moved to Japan to escape the prejudice she encountered in the U.S. When war breaks out, she sides with the Japanese and returns to try to convince her fellow Japanese Americans to reject America and pledge their loyalty to the Emperor. Initially a villain, Tsunami later reforms and breaks with the Axis to join Green Lantern and the rest of the All-Star Squadron to advocate for the release of the JAs from the internment camps (she even voluntarily lives in one of the camps with her family as a show of solidarity). And even though she is now one of the good guys, she’s not immune from the xenophobia of the time. In one story, Tsunami is attacked by racist bystanders in Los Angeles while, ironically, on a war bond tour to drum up support for the Allied efforts.
Now, you could argue that these attempts to present a more realistic depiction of JAs in the comic book format only superficially touches on the history and you’d be right. But there’s something significant in that too. All-Star Squadron was around when I was kid, but I wasn’t a fan (I was more into music than comics). But when I saw issue #30 in the drug store featuring the Black Dragon and other characters that bore some physical resemblance to me, I was curious enough to pluck down the 75 cents to purchase it.
The only thing I knew at that age about the internment was from one paragraph in my fourth grade textbook that basically said 100,000 Japanese Americans were placed in relocation camps during World War II as a war-time necessity. That was it. I learned more about the history in that one issue of All-Star Squadron then I had in all of school. And it made me curious to find out more on my own. So on this day when we pay tribute to our fallen war casualties, it seems fitting to also honor a comic book that showed a kid that those casualties weren’t just on the battlefield.
(Thanks to Michael H. for digging up most of the comic panels featured in this post)