Funnies in Uniform: The Role of Comic Strips During WWII

By Terry Dunn

World War II demanded sacrifice and perseverance from every American. As strange as it may sound, comic strips were truly a guiding light during this time.

With a cursory glance, you could easily mistake Mike Dawson's collection of World War II-era training manuals as vintage comic books. Their covers are adorned with hand-drawn caricatures and slang terminology that you would expect to find in the Sunday funnies. The pages within appear equally informal. Yet, the subjects they discuss are no laughing matter.

To Dawson, the manuals are treasured mementos of his late father's service in the US Navy. The books also have value to a broader audience. Their pages provide a vivid reminder of the far-reaching influence of comics in America during World War II. Many beloved characters helped the nation to prepare, cope, and rally during those difficult years.

Training With Comics

In the summer of 1945, Tom Dawson was preparing for war. The Michigan native was barely 19 years old, but he already had several phases of flight training behind him. He was now learning to fly the steed meant to carry him into battle, the Grumman F6F Hellcat.

The Hellcat was a brutish machine. It had a massive 2,800-cubic-inch engine, six .50-caliber machine guns, and the ability to carry 2,000 pounds of bombs and rockets. Grumman's frontline fighter packed tremendous quantities of horsepower and firepower to put in the hands of a teenager. Just one false move could unleash the Hellcat's lethal fury in the wrong direction. The navy had to somehow train Dawson and his fellow aviation cadets how to master this deadly instrument with precision, finesse, and complete confidence.

At this late stage of WWII, the US military was highly-experienced in the business of creating competent young aviators. One important aspect of this success was that they understood their pupils. By most definitions, trainees in every branch of the military were still kids. Many of them were likely to spend their free time reading comic books. And nearly everyone had a favorite comic strip in the newspaper that they could relate to. It only made sense to incorporate similar styles and familiar characters into training curriculums.

Tom Dawson was still a teenager when he learned to fly fighter planes. That explains why many of his instruction manuals resembled comic books. (photo courtesy of Mike Dawson)

A super example of a training manual from this era is Flat-Hatting Sense. "Flat-hatting" refers to the low-flying antics often practiced by neophyte aviators-in-training. They would fly under bridges, buzz livestock, and zoom so low over populated areas that they "flattened the hats" of the bewildered civilians below. Flat-hatting accidents claimed the lives of countless rookie pilots and numerous innocent civilians…not to mention the wasteful destruction of airplanes and property. It was a serious problem. As Flat-Hatting Sense puts it, "…the enemy has downed a plane without firing a shot."

Despite the seriousness of the expensive and deadly topics that it addresses, Flat-Hatting Sense is a light read. It can be absorbed cover-to-cover rather quickly. The tone of the writing is almost whimsical. Take, for instance, the section that addresses low-altitude aerobatics:

"When an airplane goes into a spin at 100 feet, it generally keeps spinning for about 103 feet, which includes 3 feet of earth."

'Flat Hatting Sense' uses a whimsical tone and silly drawings to teach life-and-death topics. (image courtesy of Mike Dawson)

The manual is also dotted with a number of comical illustrations. Many of these drawings feature Dilbert Groundloop, a character drawn by Lieutenant Commander Robert Osborn. Over the course of the war, Dilbert became a familiar and much-loved mascot for naval aviators. The dim-witted pilot inevitably provided a good example of a bad example for every situation. He appeared in many other "Sense" manuals and publications by the navy.

When 25-year-old Will Eisner was drafted into the army in 1942, he was already an accomplished creator of comic books and comic strips. His detective-themed comic strip The Spirit was handed off to other artists while he served. One of Eisner's primary duties in the army was contributing to Army Motors, a monthly publication that was distributed to vehicle maintenance outfits.

Army Motors addressed the myriad issues faced by those who kept the army's war machine rolling. It primarily dealt with repairs for common problems and routines for preventive maintenance…not exactly inviting literary topics for most young men. The army understood this and compensated accordingly. Much like the navy's "Sense" books, Army Motors had a very conversational, and often humorous tone. It was almost satire; as if the army's mechanics were weekend enthusiasts of military vehicles. Eisner provided illustrations and comic strips that helped define the magazine's look and feel.

Will Eisner was already a successful comic artist when he joined the army. His drawings and comic strips for 'Army Motors' provided a fun and readable approach to the dry subject matter. (Will Eisner Studios image)

Following the war and his return to civilian life, Eisner resumed drawing The Spirit. He also created American Visuals Corporation. This company created comic-like instruction manuals and pamphlets for varied clients…including the US military. Beginning in 1951, the Army hired AVC to create PS, The Preventive Maintenance Monthly. The purpose of PS was similar to Army Motors, but it was presented in a format that more-closely mimicked a comic book. The magazine featured some of the characters that Eisner had created for Army Motors.

Eisner served as the artistic director at PS for 20 years. During that time, he also created one of his most famous commissioned works for the government, a 1968 preventive maintenance manual for the M16 rifle. The M16 had an unusually high failure rate when it was first issued to US soldiers serving in Vietnam. Investigations into the problem revealed that (among other things) many soldiers had not received proper training on using and maintaining the new weapon. Eisner's guide was drawn in a comic book style that featured a shapely and seductive female main character. The manual was then issued to soldiers as a part of the rifle's cleaning kit.

Enduring With Comics

It is difficult to overstate the popularity of comics in the US during the 1930s and 40s. While The Great Depression had the nation in a seemingly-endless funk, escapist outlets such as comic strips, movies, and radio flourished. The more popular comic strip creators earned salaries that translate to more than a million dollars per year in today's money. These artists and their colorful characters were household names.

In his book The Comics – The Complete Collection, comic strip historian (and artist for the strip Hi and Lois) Brian Walker, provides several examples of the personal connection that Americans felt with comic strip characters.

Americans felt a close bond to their favorite comic strip characters. Many sent sad and/or angry letters and held mock funerals when Raven Sherman was killed in 'Terry and the Pirates'. (Milton Caniff image)

"On October 14, 1941, Raven Sherman, a major character in Milton Caniff's Terry and the Pirates, died after being pushed out the back of a moving truck. Readers reacted emotionally to the loss and sent letters and telegrams, expressing both sympathy and outrage, to the syndicate's office. Students at colleges across the country held mock funerals for the fictitious American heiress..."

Because of the far-reaching influence of their work, comic artists felt compelled to ensure that those serving in the military would not have to go without. America's buildup for WWII included a rapid expansion of military publications. These ranged from small, unit-specific newspapers to widely-distributed magazines such as Stars and Stripes and Yank. Popular comic strips were regularly provided to thousands of these military publications free of charge.

Caniff even created comic strips specifically for military publications. His first such effort was a unique variant of Terry and the Pirates that was not released to civilian outlets. He later introduced an entirely new strip entitled Male Call. It's just as well that Male Call was only provided to military newspapers. It was likely much too risqué to be acceptable for civilian audiences. All of Caniff's military contributions were done completely pro bono.

Comic strips were important to civilian morale during WWII. When a labor strike halted newspaper deliveries in NYC, Mayor LaGuardia read comics to citizens over the radio.

There was also a strong push to keep comic strips flowing on the home front. Paper and ink shortages forced newspapers to begin cutting back the number of comic strips that appeared in each edition. Artists addressed the issue by physically downsizing their strips, allowing more comics to fit on a single page. The resized strips became the new standard, persisting even after material shortages were no longer a concern.

A labor strike in 1945 halted newspaper deliveries in New York City for nearly three weeks. No newspapers meant no comics for the masses. That just wouldn't do. So Mayor LaGuardia provided instalments of Dick Tracy and Little Orphan Annie to New Yorkers by reading them over the radio.

Motivating With Comics

Even before America was officially involved in WWII, several well-known comic strip characters were already in uniform. Snuffy Smith, Barney Google, Joe Palooka, Terry Lee (of Terry and the Pirates) and many other popular characters joined the military in fictional form. Even strips that did not have characters in uniform often featured war-themed plots. Why else would Superman duke it out with Nazis?

I think it is equally important to acknowledge the comic strips that did not include any reference to the ongoing war. Blondie and Li'l Abner were among the titles that never mentioned the conflict. Many soldiers appreciated the omission since their lives were already oversaturated with military matters.

In addition to lending their artistic talents, a handful of well-known comic strip creators also made personal appearances. Famous illustrator of fabulously complex contraptions, Rube Goldberg, was among them. Goldberg and other comic artists visited stateside hospitals to cheer up wounded soldiers.

Bill Mauldin emerged as a well-respected comic artist during WWII. Fellow soldiers appreciated the sincerity of his work. (Bill Mauldin image)

In addition to Eisner, several notable comic strip creators willingly joined the military. Flash Gordon's Alex Raymond became a marine. Even before the war began, Bert Christman resigned from drawing Scorchy Smith to become a naval aviator. He later joined the famous American Volunteer Group in China (aka the Flying Tigers). Unfortunately, Christman was shot down and killed in 1942.

While there were several comic artists who found themselves in uniform during the war, there were also instances of soldiers who emerged as comic artists. One of the most admired among this group was Bill Mauldin. His series, Up Front, was based on what he saw and experienced on the frontlines with infantrymen. Many of his drawings were grim rather than funny. But soldiers appreciated Mauldin's work because it was genuine. Up Front's Willie and Joe were characters that the average GI could relate to and commiserate with.

A Grateful Nation

World War II demanded sacrifice and perseverance from every American. As strange as it may sound, comic strips were truly a guiding light during this time. Comic strip characters and their creators proved to be massively influential threads of the American fabric. The characters on the page helped see the nation through every ordeal and celebrate every triumph.

Additional Reading: If you would like to find out more about the history of comic strips and their creators, Brian Walker's "The Comics – The Complete Collection" is a superb resource. A significant amount of the information in this article was derived from the book. I obtained a copy with the intent of researching the WWII era, but wound up reading the entire book. It's fascinating.

I also found the Comics Kingdom website to be an extremely valuable source of comics-related information.

My sincere thanks to Mike Dawson for motivating me to explore this topic by sharing his father's story. I also owe thanks to the following people for helping to put me on the right track when researching this article:

Jennifer Beck, editor at King Features Comics

John Rose, current artist for "Barney Google and Snuffy Smith"

Brian Walker, historian and current artist for "Hi and Lois"

Terry is a freelance writer living in Buffalo, NY. Visit his website at TerryDunn.org and follow him on Twitter and Facebook. You can also hear Terry talk about RC hobbies as one of the hosts of the RC Roundtable podcast.