Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Comics, Radio and the Prelude to War, Part 2

As we saw in the last post, Milt Caniff had to tap dance ever so slightly around the issues of Japanese and German aggression in his comic strip. Meanwhile, on the radio, something very similar was going on.

Superman began life in Action Comics in 1938, but his immediate and extraordinary popularity bounced him into other media almost without pause. He showed up on radio in February of 1941--The Adventures of Superman was one of the best children's serials of that decade and is still fun to listen to today.

A storyline broadcast in 1941--but still well before the attack on Peal Harbor brought us into the war--featured Superman going up against a gang of foriegn saboteurs. The spies are identified as anti-British and speak with obvious German accents, but are never actually refered to as Germans or Nazis. The show was doing the same tap dance Caniff was doing--taking sides in the war while avoiding the ire of any radio station owners with isolationist leanings.

In fact, at one point in the story, Daily Planet editor Perry White is captured by the foriegn agents. In what is, in retrospect, an absolutely wonderful moment, Perry starts to call his captors "dirty Nazis," but he only gets as far as "Dirty N..." before he's slapped and told to shut up.

As with Terry and the Pirates, Superman was able to overtly identify the villains as Axis agents once we were officially at war. In fact, the Nazis remained the bad guys for a while even after the war ended. In an extended (and truly excellent) story line that ran in late 1945, a German scientist injects a fanatical Nazi with liquid Kryptonite, giving him powers that threaten even the Man of Steel.

Caniff and the creative staff of The Adventures of Superman were all pretty cool guys, willing to take a stand for their beliefs. That they had to "cheat" a little in their storytelling to do this does not speak ill of them at all--they were simply taking advantage of the only route open to them to make an important point about the dangers of Nazism and of Japanese aggression.

If you own your own movie studio, though, you have a lot more freedom about saying whatever the heck you want.

Harry Warner--head of Warner Bros. studios-was increasingly concerned with Nazi Germany throughout the 1930s. In 1939, he began to reflect this concern in his movies. Confessions of a Nazi Spy, starring Edward G. Robinson, was released that year--a good six months before Germany invaded Poland. Loosely based on a real-life spy trial, it was fervently anti-Nazi.

Warner took a lot of heat for that movie. Several of his European-born stars, including Marlene Dietrich, had to decline to appear in it because they feared retaliation against relatives still living in Europe. The German government lodged an official protest and a number of Latin American countries banned the film outright.

The Warner brothers eventually landed in front of a Senate committee investigating "propaganda" and "war mongering" in movies. The Warners basically replied "Well, duh!" to these charges, reminding the committee that the movie was, after all, based on a true story. Then they went home and made more anti-Nazi pictures.

The Warners weren't alone in their overt depictions of the Nazis as villains in those last few years before we entered the war. Over at Timely (later Marvel) Comics, several of those new-fangled superheroes were doing their share of fascist-bashing. We'll take a look at this in the last post of this series.

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