Monday, December 7, 2009

Pearl Harbor in Comics

December 7, as you may know, is a day that will live in infamy, as today we mark the 68th anniversay of the attack on Pearl Harbor. On Sunday, December 7, 1941, a horde of Japanese attack planes descended on America's Navy outpost at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii and launched a suprise attack that left the U. S. fleet decimated, thousands of sailors dead and America faced with sudden entrence into World War II.

Less importantly, however, the day also had a significant impact on a burgoening artform that was just taking hold in the National consciousness: comic books. When the attacks on Pearl Harbor occured, comics were just getting into full swing, thanks to the surging popularity of the superhero genre. Since the debut of Superman three years earlier in 1938, comics had taken hold and were growing to become one of the most popular and ubiquitous forms of entertainment in the country. And that growth was unquestionably hastened and bolstered by the beginning of the war.

World War II was a watershed time period for comics not only artistically -- stories featuring superheroes battling Nazis and other Axis menaces became so synonymous with the genre that the period is now known as the Golden Age of comics, with the influence of those stories still being felt in just about every page of modern superhero books -- but also commercially. GI's on the front had little in the way of entertainment to speak of, except for comics, which were cheap enough to ship in bulk and lightweight (and disposable) enough for soldiers to read on the go. It's estimated that up to 90 percent of American troops received comic books while overseas, with tens of millions of comics in circulation among the armed forces alone.

Thanks to that, when the soldiers returned home form the war, they brought with them their new wartime habit: reading comic books. Sales boomed even more, with ever more mature subject matter catering to a now adult reading population that had left superheroes behind, a trend that eventually led to the witch hunts and comic burnings of the 1950's and the collapse of the industry.

All of that, then, indirectly stems more or less from the attack on Pearl Harbor. But if Pearl Harbor had such an effect on the comic business, what kind of effect did it have within the pages of the comics themselves?

Interestingly, comics and stories set during Pearl Harbor have been fairly uncommon. There have been, for instance, historical depictions of the attack (such as in Antarctic Press's Pearl Harbor: the Comic Book) and special commemorative editions honoring the fallen heroes (1942's Remember Pearl Harbor, for example), but compared to many historical events, there have been relatively few cameos by comic book characters. While I'm sure there have been a few here and there, my research hasn't turned up a whole lot other than the usual suspects (such as the fact that Sgt. Fury and his best pal Red Hargrove were predictably stationed at Pearl Harbor during the attack, where Red was killed in action).

Perhaps the most interestnig appearance of Pearl Harbor in comics, then, was in National Comics #18, where Uncle Sam daringly helped fight off a deadly attack on the naval base... by Germany. Yes, strangely enough, this issue, featuring a cover story depicting a surprise attack on Pearl harbor, actually showed a fictional version of events, but for a good reason: the comic came out in November of 1941, before the attacks happened. With a cover date of December, the story (which was featured here on the Comics Should be Good blog) detailed what seemed like pure fiction at the time -- an Axis attack on neutral America's Pacific stronghold. In an eerie foretelling of Japan's strategy, the story also detailed how the Axis would us simultaneous attacks on other Pacific bases as well, including Guam, to shock and surprise America with one massively co-ordinated offensive.

Unfortunately, those soliders and sailors who faced the real attacks in the early days of December, 1941, didn't have superheroes like Uncle Sam or the ghost of John Paul Jones to help them out. But while stories like those in National Comics #18 have become little more than historical curiosities, we as a nation should do just what the comics tell us to do, and always Remember Pearl Harbor.

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