- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 25, 2003

ATLANTA — When the United States went to war in 1941, so did the comics.Many comic strip characters joined the armed forces during World War II. Others waged war on the home front by battling saboteurs and war profiteers, conducting paper and scrap metal drives, and touting the purchase of war bonds.

Some cartoonists preferred a more direct contribution to the war effort and enlisted. The military services, aware that comic strips were important for morale, sometimes put cartoonists into positions that allowed them to continue producing their strips. In other cases, strips were taken over by assistants or discontinued until after the war.

Terry and the Pirates was one of the first comics to enter the war. “Terry, the kid who was now 19 or 20, had never been in the United States,” says Robert C. Harvey, author of “Children of the Yellow Kid” and other books and articles on comics history.

“He had lived in the backwoods of China, wandering around with vagabond writer Pat Ryan, getting into one scrape after another and encountering characters like the Dragon Lady and Burma,” Mr. Harvey says. “After Japan invaded China in 1937, [cartoonist] Milton Caniff had had his characters encountering military units in China referred to as ‘the invaders’ — readers knew it was the Japanese.”

After the United States entered the war, Mr. Caniff had Ryan go into naval intelligence as a lieutenant, and Terry Lee flew with the Army Air Forces. “It became an adventure strip about American servicemen in the Air Corps in the China-Burma-India theater,” Mr. Harvey says.

Joe Palooka didn’t wait for Pearl Harbor. Ham Fisher had his prizefighting champ enlist in the Army in November 1940. Palooka refused a commission and remained a buck private until he left the Army in 1946.

Barney Baxter in the Air, a strip about a free-lance pilot, even managed to echo the news. In one strip, produced eight weeks before it was printed, Baxter made a bombing run over Tokyo. The strip ran in papers on the same day in April 1942 that Jimmy Doolittle made his famous raid on the Japanese capital, Mr. Harvey says.

This was how some other comics characters joined the war effort:

• Skeezix, the orphan in Gasoline Alley, turned 21 in 1942 and enlisted in the Army, seeing combat in Libya. His fiancee, Nina, took a wartime job working on a farm.

• Captain Easy of Wash Tubbs became a captain in Army intelligence, was captured in China by the Japanese, escaped with the help of an exotic dancer and served in the Philippines and Europe.

• Buz Sawyer, a strip started by Roy Crane in 1943, was a Navy fighter pilot on an aircraft carrier who saw action in the Pacific.

• Tillie Jones of Tillie the Toiler enlisted in the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, as did Mopsy. The husband of the title character in Winnie Winkle joined the Army and disappeared, leaving Winnie as the comics’ first war widow.

cSnuffy Smith joined the Army as a private, and Barney Google went into the Navy. Both saw action in the Pacific.

cEven Mickey Mouse got in on the action. He caught a saboteur, captured the crew of a Nazi submarine, was kidnapped and taken to Berlin and became the guardian of war orphans. In his own daily humor strip, Donald Duck contended with gasoline rationing while his girlfriend, Daisy, did volunteer work.

• In Little Orphan Annie, Daddy Warbucks gave his factories and wealth to the U.S. war effort and joined the Army. Annie organized the Junior Commandos, a children’s group dedicated to gathering scrap metal and paper for the war effort. Also joining scrap drives were Felix the Cat and Nancy and Sluggo.

• Dick Tracy “was too valuable on the home front to enlist,” Harvey says. Instead, the police detective kept busy combating saboteurs and fifth columnists. So did Superman and Batman and Robin.

Mr. Harvey says Al Capp felt that Li’l Abner wouldn’t fit into the military mold, and so Abner remained in Dogpatch, but pushed sales of war bonds and stamps.

Some artists found new careers in military newspapers, and their work appeared stateside as well: Bill Mauldin’s Up Front, with soldiers Willie and Joe; Dave Breger’s Private Breger (which appeared in Yank magazine as “G.I. Joe,” thus coining one of the war’s most famous terms); and George Baker’s Sad Sack, a pathetic Army private.

After the war ended in 1945, the comics returned to their regular adventures, but forces had been put in motion that would change everything.

However, there was still an opportunity in 1947 to begin one last great adventure comic: Steve Canyon by Milton Caniff. Caniff’s reputation from Terry and the Pirates was such that more than 160 newspapers signed up for his new strip before even seeing samples.

Steve Canyon was contrived to appeal to a postwar audience of ex-GIs, Mr. Harvey says. Canyon was a former Army Transport Command pilot who, like thousands of other veterans, started his own business after the war. He operated a private cargo airline, Horizons Unlimited. But when the Korean War broke out in 1950, Canyon re-enlisted in the Air Force, where he remained until the strip ended in 1988.

World War II exerted a toll on comics that was to have long-lasting consequences. Because of wartime paper shortages, newspapers got smaller, and they shrank the space devoted to comics. Syndicates and artists cooperated by making their strips smaller.

Before the war, daily strips ran across five or six of the eight columns that then constituted a newspaper page. During the war, the strips ran only four columns wide, or half the width of a page. Today, most daily comics still run half the width of a page — and the page itself is narrower than in the 1940s.

After the war, newspaper editors balked at expanding the comic strips back to their previous sizes. Newsprint was no longer cheap, and they wanted to devote more of it to news. The era of the full-page Sunday comic strip was over.

Although no one knew it at the time, the era of adventure strips was ending, too.

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