A View of History: True Comics, 1941-1945
by Dr. William E. Blake, Jr.
It was the "Golden Age" of Comic Books. Seven new publishers entered the field in 1939, the largest number in any year since the first comic book appeared in America in 1929. But the number doubled in 1940, and, though successive years saw additional entries, the fourteen new publishers of that year holds the record. Thus, the late 1930's and early 1940's constitute the "hey-day" for comic books in this country 1.
In the midst of that period, April, 1941, True Comics was born. Here was a very different type of comic book. "Originally, comic strips and magazines attempted to be funny," wrote George J. Hecht, originator and publisher of True Comics, "and in a few cases succeeded." But things had changed, continued Hecht: ". . . Nowadays most of the comic magazines no longer even try to be funny. They consist largely of exciting picture stories which everyone recognizes as not only untrue but utterly impossible. 2" Hecht informed the reader in an editorial in the first issue that he and his associates were presenting to the public a comic book containing only true stories and real people. From some lines of Lord Byron, "'Tis strange, but true; for truth is always strange - stranger than fiction," the slogan of True Comics was formed and heralded across the front page of every issue. "Truth is stranger and a thousand times more thrilling than fiction. 3"
I have a number of reasons for being interested in this particular genre of comic book, not the least of which is that I faithfully purchased from the newsstand numbers one through sixty-five, which I still possess and which have considerable monetary value. (If you ask why I stopped with #65, dated October, 1947, when the magazine continued to be published until 1949, the answer is that, for a high school graduate going on eighteen, it was getting increasingly embarrassing to hand the soda clerk a dime for a comic book. I didn't have any kid brothers and I was too young to be a parent!) These magazines interest me also for clues they offer for self-understanding. Why did this comic attract me, when other kids my age went for Batman, Superman and the Green Lantern? (I do confess that, even for me, by age fourteen Sheena of the Jungle was giving True Comics a run for its money.) There is also the intriguing question of what these comics showed about American society during the war years.
My major concern in this paper, however, is a historiographical one. Here was a comic book, unique in its time, that was going to present history contemporary history as well as that of the more distant past.
Eminent historians, such as Dr. David S. Muzzey, formerly of Columbia University, and on whose histories of the United States, many of us cut our college history teeth and Joseph H. Park, Professor of History at New York University, were enlisted to write histories of America and England respectively. These are the lengthiest "histories" in True Comics. Most of the "true stories of the past" deal with specific subjects, eg., stories of glass, codes, playing cards, etc.; single events, eg., Washington's Only Defeat, William Dawe's Ride, the Battle of Marathon, etc.; or historical biographies; eg. Genghis Khan, Houdini, Clara Barton and dozens more.
If we didn't know it before Carl Becker's Everyman His Own Historian, we know now that, however close to von Ranke's dictum we attempt to hew, our selection, interpretation and conclusions regarding the past are shaped by our assumptions and presuppositions. Nowadays many historians begin their books and articles with explicit declarations of their assumptions. Even when they don't, the critical reader seeks for them. So my question of True Comics is what are the presuppositions which lie behind and are expressed in its pages? (I realize that there is some begging of the question in my question, particularly in a literary situation in which so many different people are involved -- publishers, text editors, art editors, writers and artists. The very legitimate question becomes one of whose presuppositions are being expressed? I intend to address this.)
There can be little doubt about the philosophical and cultural orientation of the publisher, Mr. George J. Hecht. It is that of the liberal humanist, who, as did his spiritual progenitors in the Classical and Italian Renaissance worlds, believes that history has the power to encourage good deeds and inhibit evil ones. Hear Cicero, "History is the witness of the times, the torch of truth, the life of memory, the teacher of life, the messenger of antiquity." The Italian humanist, Coluccio Salutati spoke of the historian's duty to ". . . hand down to posterity the memory of things done so that the examples of kings, nations, and illustrious men can be either equaled or exceeded by imitating them . . . ." Now hear Mr. Hecht, though in somewhat less elevated rhetoric, respond to some letters to the editor inquiring whether some of the true stories were really true:
Yes, TRUE COMICS is all that the name implies. However, we sympathize with those readers who have become so accustomed to impossible fiction stories in the "comic" magazines that they find it hard to believe fact when they see it: And, of course, many of the feats accomplished by real people are so exciting and spectacular that it sometimes seems as if those who performed them must have been endowed with superhuman powers. But the very fact that they were not superhuman . . . just ordinary mortals like you and me . . . makes their stories all the more thrilling. Their heroic deeds or their brilliant accomplishments are not imaginary . . . they are real . . . and any of us with sufficient courage and will power and ambition might earn an equally important place among the world's great names." (Italics mine)4
Hecht, who was president of The Parents' Institute and publisher of Parents' Magazine until 1978, told this writer in a phone interview recently that he "disapproved strongly of most of the comic book magazines current in the late 1930's and early 1940's." Since millions of children were reading comics, he determined that, both to divert them from the psychologically and socially damaging "comics," and to edify them, he would put in their hands a new, "true" comic book that would "educate and stimulate them by placing before them the examples of important and courageous people." 5
Evidences in his comic magazine confirming his purpose are numerous. His selection of subjects is one line of testimony. There are explorers and adventurers, medical scientists and inventors of sometimes awesome inventions. There are patriots, heroes and battles. Liberators and freedom seekers, free enterprises and stories of other nations and people abound.
In forty-four out of forty-six issues the deeds of notable women--and some less notable ones--are chronicled. Blacks, Indians -- even Gypsies are presented. The religions of Catholics, Protestants and Jews are treated with respect. Beethoven, Michelangelo and Mark Twain are examples of musicians, artists and writers whose activities are celebrated. Finally, there are many stories of the exploits of athletes -- male and female, black and white -- and achievements of stage and circus performers. Thus, there is a great variety of people and events drawn from the spectrum of human achievement to serve as models for the readers.
If the reader missed Hecht's moral and cultural stance implicit in the variegated subject matter, three specific stories made the point explicit. The December, 1943, issue carried a story entitled, "They Got the Blame." In word and picture the reader learned what a "scapegoat" was, how the idea originated and who have been the scapegoats of history.
Christians, witches, Irish immigrants, Catholics, blacks, and Jews are portrayed as having been the objects, at one time or another, of society's scapegoating violence. The text in the last frame, picturing the people of many nations together, carried the message:
Marching together in the common cause of human freedom, the men and women of the united nations are determined to build a world free of prejudice and intolerance . . .A world in which the basic rule of conduct for nations and individuals is the Golden Rule 6.
A similar article appeared in the Sept.-Oct., 1944 issue under the title, "There Are No Master Races."The first half of the story presented the anthropological argument for the origins of races and presented evidence from history, science and religion that race has nothing to do with intelligence and civilization. The "Master Race," so the latter part of the story related, arose out of the drive for power by a clique, who foist the myth onto the larger population. In short, the message was that attitudes of racial superiority are learned and have no basis in scientific fact. One of the humorous touches in the story was in a panel with the caption at the top stating, "Hitler called his Nazi followers 'Pure Aryans,' and encouraged their feeling of superiority by stressing their 'distinctive differences' from other people." The three Nazi chiefs --Goering, Goebbels and Hitler-- stand beside each other below. Goering says, "An Aryan is Slender:" Goebbels follows with ". . . and tall!" Hitler brings up the rear with ". . . and blonde! 7" (Though he did not do so in this instance, the editor has on other occasions, when such liberties are taken with history-as-actuality, tossed in the caveat "This story is not 'true' in the sense that it really happened. But the facts are true.")
The last of the three stories giving explicit revelation of the publisher's outlook on history occurs in the summer, 1945 issue. Its title is, "A Third World War Can be prevented Now!" Following a brief historical sketch of attempts at peaceful cooperation between people from primitive times to the present, a page depicts the failure of such efforts, erupting in two Twentieth-century wars. The rest of the story is given to a description of the organization and function of the proposed United Nations with a concluding, urgent plea, "We Must Support the United Nations Organization to Prevent Recurring World Wars! 8" Thus, Hecht reveals clearly this keen sense of the oneness of mankind, his concept of the enrichment society derives from the intermingling of people and the high value he placed upon concord in the world.
One of the features of True Comics, not found in any other comic book, not even in the later imitators, such as William H. Wise's It Really Happened; or DC's Real Fact Comics 9, was the editorials, most of which were written by Hecht, with a few penned by an occasional guest. These appeared in nearly every issue through March, 1944. The earlier editorials pushed the new comic book concept. Hecht's philosophy was in each of them. Take, for example, one entitled, "Reaching for A Star." The "star" is the hero or heroine that we follow toward excellence. But there are "dream-stars" and "true stars." The "dream stars" are, of course, the fanciful characters in the other "comic" books; the "true stars" are told about "in the following pages: The scientist, [Samuel F. B] Morse; the head of the U. S. Marines, Thomas Holcomb; and, of course, George Washington." Hecht continues, "Their success was not due to cosmic rays or supernatural strength, but to human qualities. That means that you, too, may hope to achieve success if you follow their fine example. The stories of great men and women have both inspiration and practical advice for us if we will just read and learn from them. By doing so, and by hitching our wagon to such true stars, we may ourselves become great 10.
Because of publishing schedules, it was not until the April, 1942, issue that the U. S. entry into the war became apparent in the magazine. Hecht's editorial, "Little Things Can Help Win the War," began with the ominous words, "Our nation is at war: That means that you and I are at war just as truly as General MacArthur or any member of our own or our Allies' fighting forces. What are you going to do to help win the war? 11"
War effort by the youth became the staple for subsequent editorials up to the end of 1943. At that time Hecht turned again to some of the matters nearer his peacetime heart - good neighbor relations in the Western hemisphere, concord between the races, the growth of one world and global security. In November, 1943, he had the Director General of the Pan American Union write about, "Our South American Neighbors 12" Over the next three months Hecht penned, "How Many Indians Do You Know?" "Not So Big," and "An International Police Force 13." What is striking about these editorials is that they were directed at youth from ages 8 to 17, and were predicated on the assumption that this age group would find such topics appealing. The editorials ceased appearing just after the paper shortage forced a cut-back from 56 to 48 pages in the magazine. They were clear and concrete testimony to the broad, humanistic values and goals that the publisher of True Comics held and propagated.
The publisher, editors, writers and artists endeavored to maintain a non-partisan political policy. During the 1944 election campaign, stories of Roosevelt and Dewey were featured. On the front cover of the September--October issue in the space announcing the Roosevelt Story inside, words story a message stated, "Note: This magazine is strictly non-partisan. Our next issue will feature a similar story of the Republican candidate for President 14." Consistent with this evenhandedness the cover
of the next issue starring Dewey noted that F. D. R. had had his turn the previous month 15. Each story also had the same number of pages devoted to its subject.
Writers were also concerned to conclude their "true" stories with morals and, by all means, to include the famous utterances of history's greats. First, here are a few instances of some of the morals. Concluding the biography of the Welsh-born blind pianist, Alec Templeton, the writer observed, "The Blind are not always so gifted as Alec Templeton, nor so independent . . . so often lend your eyes to those who cannot see 16."
In a story on "Bread Through the Centuries" the last panel informed the reader that ". . . today the needed vitamins are added to bread at the bakery and the 'enriched' bread is helping to make us a stronger nation 17. "The Greatest Athlete of the Middle Ages" revealed the skill and fortitude of William Marshall, English knight in armour "who rode from tournament to tournament." The conclusion of the matter? "And with England at war today, her men fight with the same courage that made William Marshall the greatest athlete of the Middle Ages! 18" Winding up a story of Mexico over the past five centuries the writer proclaimed, "Side by side with her neighbor, the United States, Mexico --Lender its president, Manuel Avia Camacho-- fights the Axis enemies who would destroy the liberty for which 19 Mexico fought for 500 years 19."
The writers of True Comics stories rarely missed an opportunity to give their readers the notable quotes of historical persons. Here is a brief list gleaned from a few stories. George Rogers Clark unfurls the stars and bars in the doorway of the British dance hall at Fort Kaskaskia and wryly announces, "Dance on . . . but now you will dance under this flag. 20" After defeating the British in the Battle of Lake Erie, Oliver Hazard Perry "took from his pocket an old letter, used his cap as a desk and wrote in pencil his famous dispatch, 'We have met the enemy and they are ours. 21" From more recent history we have the soothing assurance of you all know who, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself. 22" There is Churchill in an appropriate setting of falling bombs, burning buildings and fleeing citizens saying he has only "blood, toil, tears and sweat" to offer 23.On occasion the collaboration of writer and artist to spice up the setting in which a famous quote is uttered produces a rather comic, (in the old sense) scene. Take, for example, Woodrow Wilson waving his hat to thousands of troops lining the rails of a ship headed to France and shouting, "Remember, boys, you're going to make the world safe for democracy. 24"
It is not surprising that occasional errors of fact appeared in True's history stories. Samuel de Champlain stands above the falls of the St. Lawrence River and says to his Indian guide, "I'll name them the falls of St. Louis." And above the picture the writer informs us, "He named the falls on the St. Lawrence River for King Louis XIV. 25" The text is wrong on at least two counts: Louis XIV would not be king until some years later and only the most ardent royalist would vouch for the Sun King's credentials for sainthood.
Some of the errors appear to arise from the need, which is inevitable in a project of this sort, to compress facts and events. This may explain a panel in "Michelangelo-Maker of Giants." The master is shown lying on his back on a scaffold doing the Sistine ceiling and in the distance, over the altar, is the completed painting of the "Last Judgment." One observer standing beneath the artist says to another, "Who, but Michelangelo would tackle the creation of the world to the Last Judgment? 26" Of course, anyone familiar with the period, knows that the two projects are separated by nearly four decades. That same compressed approach probably accounts for the writer's comment in a story on the "Fall of Napoleon" that in 1814 the little general "had been master of Europe for 20 years. 27" Surely, we are not to believe that Napoleon was "master of Europe" when he saved the Thermidorian Convention from a crowd of royalist rioters with his famous "whiff of grapeshot." And without question the artist can be forgiven, who in a September, 1942, issue depict General Jimmie Dolittle's flyers, "mission Tokyo" in their heads, rushing to their planes, which are parked firmly on terra firma. The comment above the picture is a little ironic, "Dolittle took off from -- the Japs would like to know where! 28"
Over all, the war had a negative impact upon the quality of the magazine. The reader was inundated by war heroes and heroines. Sixty-eight of them were paraded before the reader, from Colin P. Kelly, Jr. to Wing Commander Robert Davidson, RCAF30 29. The distinctions between the warriors began to blur. Deja Vu became chronic. Even a kid would catch the unreality of sixty-eight crusaders, restless until they could get to the front where they could collar themselves a "Kraut" or a "Jap." The alert young reader was bound to notice the contradiction between the plea for peace, understanding, and one world in some of the strips and editorials, and the revelling in the destruction of Huns and Nips in many others. Whoever else in the world we were bidden to love, it was not our enemies in these stories. Whether God and his angels slept as these violent depictions of the destruction of Allied foes flooded the pages of True Comics, I cannot say. Perhaps, less metaphysically, George J. Hecht wearily nodded as his editors attempted to match the mythical violence of the "other" comic books with the true violence of True Comics. Liberal humanism has little room to operate in the midst of global conflict.
As the war wound down in the spring of 1945, the cultural and historical pieces, similar to those that characterized the magazine before U. S. entry into the struggle, began to occupy greater space. Nevertheless, the covers continued to play up the battles. Earth-rocking explosions, dive bombing planes, sprinting torpedo boats, and body-crushing tanks were the attention getters. But if you fixed your eye on the announcement of " many exciting features" in the little box in the corner of the front page, you would see also that the issue had stories of Toscanni, Patty Berg and Chapter II of the series on the Cavalcade of England 31.
At its best True Comics attempted to entertain and edify the young readers by parading before them the great person, the hero, and the heroine. This was a popular form of Thomas Carlyle's "hero in history." While a number of stories attempted to deal with movements, forces and institutions, the overwhelming number focused upon individuals. Given the limitations of the comic book form, there could be little or nothing of the critical, analytical approach that characterizes authentic historical writing. The technique employed was preeminently anecdotal. Nevertheless, Hecht's motives were noble, and, in our own "hero-less" age, strangely compelling.
I am not sure that I can say that the "truth" about True Comics is "a thousand times more thrilling than FICTION," but it is, indeed, fascinating.
- Jerry Bails and Haines Ware, Eds. Who's Who of American Comic Books. Detroit: Jerry G. Bails, 1976. p. 346.
- George J. Hecht, President and Publisher, True Comics. New York: Parents' Institute, 1941. No. 1 (inside front cover). Hereinafter True Comics will be designated as T.C.
- T.C., No. 5. (inside front cover)
- Phone Conversation between Mr. George J. Hecht and Dr. William E. Blake, February 18, 1980.
- T.C., No. 30.
- T.C., No. 39.
- T.C., No. 44.
- It Really Happened. New York: William H. Wise and Co., 1944. Real Fact Comics. New York: World's Best Comics Co., 1946.
- T.C., No. 10.
- T.C., No. 11.
- T.C., No. 29.
- T.C., Nos. 30-32 respectively.
- T.C., No. 39.
- T.C., No. 40.
- T.C., No. 17.
- T.C., No. 20.
- T.C., No 17.
- T.C., No. 1.
- T.C., No. 3.
- T.C., No. 24.
- T.C., No. 1.
- T.C., No. 24.
- T.C., No. 2.
- T.C., No. 14.
- T.C., No. 2.
- T.C., No. 16.
- T.C., No. 11.
- T.C., No. 47.
- T.C., No. 42.