FOR AUTHOR Warren Bernard, it has been a long road to San Diego — one that went through the Allied’s front lines and along the American home front.
At next week’s Comic-Con International in Southern California, the result of Bernard’s decade of World War II research, “Cartoons for Victory” (Fantagraphics), will be up for an esteemed Eisner Award for best archival comic-strip collection project. And it’s a well-earned nod, given the depth of the collection — a cartoon trove of which 90 percent had not been republished since the war.
“Cartoons for Victory” also illustrates, in prose and picture, the complexities of shifting social life at the time, including the evolving roles of women in the workforce and the multifaceted prejudices and progressions involving African Americans and Japanese Americans especially.
Bernard, an author-historian who is based in the Washington area and is also executive director of Small Press Expo, will share insights into his book noon Wednesday at the Library of Congress’s Madison Building.
The Washington Post’s Comic Riffs caught up with Bernard to delve into this wartime era through illustration, which ranges from stark political cartoons to the wartime recruitment from Donald Duck:
In your introduction, you paint such a vivid picture of World War II life on the home front. What were some of the ways you best accessed these crisp details in your research? What sources best informed you about 1940s American life in order to so keenly deliver the pulse of the nation to the reader?
I had to leaf through hundreds of magazines of the day, such as the Saturday Evening Post, Liberty, Colliers, Life, Look and others, to see what cartoons and ads were fodder for the book. Online sites such as Proquest Historical Newspapers and Newspapers.com were consulted, where I read numerous articles about blackouts, rationing, war-bond drives and all of the other privations of the war. The Library of Congress held the original print editions of the African American weekly newspaper the New York Amsterdam News, and all of the newspapers giving a true immediacy to wartime conditions in the United States, especially the New York Amsterdam News, as [it] covered the racial tensions ignored by the white press of the day.
In terms of interviews, my parents were children during the war and gave me their perspective. Al Jaffee was the only cartoonist covered in the book who is still alive, and he gave a great interview about his life in the Army Air Corp. And a personal friend who just turned 96 gave me a long interview about his life in the Army and how the war changed his home town of Philadelphia.
You write that “a nation at war tends to blur the lines among entertainment, education and propaganda.” This seems a crucial prism with which to view most of the cartoons you include in “Victory.” Did that idea continually reemerge as a central theme when curating this book?
It became clear after seeing lots of cartoons, comic strips and cartoon-based advertising that the line between the three — entertainment, education and propaganda — was blurred beyond any meaningful difference. Comics and cartoons are great ways to make people laugh while showing them how to abide by the new rules of a society during total global war. My fave example is an ad campaign for Pennzoil by Rube Goldberg, who used his contraptions to show how to ration your gasoline. One can enjoy the cute cartoons and be entertained yet also subliminally be educated about the new rules and behaviors that total war brings to the home front.
This is a book you lived with for a decade — is there something about this era that especially fascinates, rivets or beguiles you?
For some reason World War II has always held a fascination for me. While younger, I played army with the older kids in my neighborhood and was informed by such TV shows as “McHale’s Navy” and “Hogan’s Heroes.” As absurd as those were, the one that really held an impact at a young age was the gritty and realistic show “Combat.” In college, they showed the excellent series “World At War,” which led me to take a few college courses on the topic. Still later, with reading some more books on the subject I realized the vast numbers of combatants, casualties and armaments coupled with the sheer brutality and scale of the war were an unearthly aberration, hopefully never again to be seen on that scale.
Your chapter on a Jim Crow America going to war is especially interesting, because the range of cartoons and cartoonists — Harrington, Jackson, Yancey and others — reflects not only racism at large during the war but also very specific shifts and changes and struggles that played out in complex ways. Will you touch on that in your Library of Congress talk? And what are some of the parallels and echoes you see to America seven decades later?
Yes, I will of course talk about the Jim Crow world of World War II, as well as the internment of the Japanese Americans. The racial issues of the United States run very deep, and talking about what happened back then when we were supposedly “making the world safe for democracy” helps us to understand that while great strides have been made, there is still a way to go. People also need to be made aware of the great political cartooning work by those all-but-forgotten African American cartoonists, for both their art and the racial injustice they were pointing their fingers at with their fantastic work.
Rosie the Riveter became such an iconic symbol for women working for the larger war effort, not a quarter-century after American women finally got the vote. In studying a period when 5 million women entered the workforce, facing any number of obstacles in attitudes and opportunities and even facilities, what do you most glean from the cartoons of the era?
The single most amazing thing about women on the assembly line and in the armed forces is that the cartoons of the day, as a rule, did not belittle women in those roles. In fact, a large number of the cartoons one see’s on the subject actually show men being the ones befuddled by women in authority roles, be it a female manager of an assembly line or a woman standing guard at an Army base.
For those who attend your talk, what are some of the ideas and insights they are most likely to come away with?
Well, that the entire United States — its government, people, society, industry and material resources — was assembled for the single purpose of defeating the barbaric totalitarianism that enslaved hundreds of millions of people around the world. Never before had this massive rearrangement of America’s institutions occurred to the level we saw during WWII. This stands in stark contrast to today, where many people think that a number of things in America are broken, such as barely being able to get a budget passed in Congress. Imagine President [Franklin] Roosevelt trying to get a peacetime draft during an election year — which he and Congress did in 1940 — or a Lend-Lease bill to help the British with today’s political paralysis.
For more information on Bernard’s free Library of Congress lecture today, go to: loc.gov/loc/events