Cartoons for Victory by Warren Bernard – A Review

9781606998229Cartoons for Victory
Warren Bernard
Fantagraphic Books, 2015, 255 pg

WWII was a total war and the war saturated everything as all means of communication became another means to further the war. Cartoons and comics were no exception. While the WWII services of the famous names in comics such as Super Man are easy to find in reprints, they lead to a juvenile view of the war. Warren Bernard’s Cartoons for Victory examines a different side of the war, one whose aims were to instruct, to propagandize, to reflect a society where every last detail of life was tied to war. While the art of many cartoonists is worth of reprint on its own merits, the book provides a glimpse at the little ways the war entered the lives of Americans, ways that seem almost inconceivable 70 years plus on.

Cartoons for Victory is divided in thematic sections that illustrate the ways the cartoons were used. There are sections on war bond drives, scrap drives victory gardens and proper lights out procedures, all of which mix a kind of light humor with serious home front campaigns. The target audience for the cartoons ranges from children to adults, although given the medium there is a pronounced targeting of young people. The cartoons themselves are a mix of the well known, Micky Mouse for example, and one off advertisements. While the former could take the shape of newspaper supplemental or a few pages in a comic, the advertisements, not for the war aim itself but a consumer product, are a mix of capitalism and patriotism. It is a fascinating mix that you see throughout war time advertising (Taschen’s All American Ads 1940’s is particularly revealing). For example, there is a Sunco Oil add with Donal Duck that touts the properties of an oil that doesn’t clog engines that are not in use due to rationing. The tag line is, Care for you  car…care for your country. These kind of ads served two purposes: advertise a company’s product so after the war consumers will buy it; and support the war. Some of the ads play on a humor of shared sacrifice. In one Parkay Margarine ad three women standing in front of a shop keeper say, What do you say girls? Should we flip for that last pound of Parkay Margarine? As Kennedy pointed out in Freedom from Fear, the United States did have guns and butter and these kind of ads are a window into a consumer culture at war.

In addition to advertorial cartoons, cartoons commissioned by the government are also well represented. Government cartoons are more serious and focus more on education. Included is a pamphlet on how to prepare for an air raid. It lacks any humor and, instead, shows determined Americans preparing themselves the best they can. In the last image, which is used on the book’s cover, a group of Americans are shown banding together with Uncle Sam pulling his selves up in the background. In more egregious example, the Office of Price Administration promotes rubber rationing with a cartoon of a racially exaggerated Japanese soldier standing in front of a stack of tires.

It’s the one panel cartoons from magazines and newspapers that are, perhaps, the most revealing of the war’s everyday nature. Most of the cartoons excerpted make light of all the inconveniences the war brought on. They also highlight the social changes the war brought on. In one cartoon some children look up at a bomber flying overhead and one says, my mother built that. But for all the Rosie successes, there are negative consequences too and a whole chapter is dedicated to the fear of juvenile delinquency and another racism. In all of these cartoons there is a reflection, at once humorous, proud, and concerned, as the war brought huge changes to the home front.

Finally, Cartoons for Victory celebrates some of the great cartoonists to come from that era such as Will Eisner and Theodore Gisel, and some lesser known such as Miné Okubo. For anyone interested in graphic art the collection is a rich store of work. The section dedicated to Eisner is particularly solid, showing a real command of his art.

Cartoons for Victory is not just for a specialists, but anyone interested in a different take on World War II. For those interested in cartoon history it is even more important.