You all dislike Hitler, right?

*Propaganda! It’s everywhere! And it’s surely the latest hot trend in comics, hopefully poised to boot the desiccated husks of the zombie comics horde back into their graves. I mean, I like zombies too, but there's such a thing as too much.

But propaganda! Or allegory! Or satire! Whatever! Just look at it!

Obviously there’s no harm in my linking to this site, considering that I’m the 12,546th individual to bring it up; raising complaints about giving rubbish free publicity at this point is like investing in a brand new set of locks for the barn door now that the ponies are halfway back to Assateague Isle. No, I think I’ll just let everyone soak in the beautiful political messages of this fine work of superheroic fantasy.

But hey - we don’t even need dumb old superheroes! Wasn’t that Combat Zone thing supposed to be packed with succulent messages and tender polemic? Unfortunately, it looks like it may have been just sort of boring and nondescript.

God DAMN it! How are we going to be tastemakers of the new pop if these books don’t take off? I think we need to turn to the glories of yesteryear and extract whatever lessons we can.

Anti-Hitler Comics #1

New England Comics (or: NEC) is probably best known to anyone who happens to remember them at all as the publishers of noted multimedia presence, The Tick. But that’s not what I know them for, oh no. For me, it’s all Tales Too Terrible To Tell, NEC’s extended 1989-1993 pamphlet-format survey of non-EC pre-Comics Code horror titles, stuffed with reprints and cover art and lengthy essays analyzing various companies’ output, and plugging them into the larger ’50s horror comics scene; it’s truly a wealth of great info on a period of history that too often gets boiled down to ‘EC and a bunch of crap’ than brushed aside to focus on yet more Silver Age superheroes and hilarious DC covers regarding Superman acting naughty. Why deploy a 12-page essay on the output and impact of Story Comics in the middle of your vintage reprints book? Because nobody else will! That’s the spirit! Too bad the book croaked with issue #11, and the intended scholarly bookshelf collection never came about.

Editor George Suarez wasn’t just out for horror comics, though; NEC looked into alternate corners of comics history as well. Case in point: Anti-Hitler Comics, a 1992 release, the first issue of a projected series of WWII-themed reprints; no further issues were seen, it seems, despite ads for a horror-themed issue #2 appearing in other NEC books of the time.

I have to warn you all, the visual quality isn’t quite archival grade here; everything is printed in slightly muddy b&w, darker hues occasionally reducing characters to indistinct blobs of darkness. There also aren’t any credits given for the two stories reprinted within, although admittedly I didn’t have much luck digging up any info on my own. But Suarez more than makes up for presentational hurdles with an eye toward historical analysis in the obligatory accompanying essay. There’s two stories here, both of them superhero epics from obscure publishers. Suarez notes that superheroes leant themselves well to WWII, with its easily demonized dictatorial arch-foes suited for punishment by larger-than-life justice icons. And Hitler might well be the most popular real-world guest star in all of the history of US sequential art; even today, who doesn’t love to make fun of Hitler? Who doesn’t recognize him? It’s easy to find him in comics of the day, but the treatment of the propaganda itself is where our true interest lies.

First off, from 1941, we have the long-forgotten cloaked wonder Futuro starring in the descriptively titled Futuro Kidnaps Hitler and Takes Him to Hades! It’s reprinted from Great Comics #3, published by the no-doubt optimistic Great Comics Publications. But the title doesn’t truly say it all in this case, as you might expect. The story begins with Futuro inviting war refugees from all over Europe into his gleaming hall to watch a televised event from the future, in which Futuro and his U.S. Futurians team go to war against Hitler, personally. We’ll never hear from these refugees again, by the way; the unknown writer basically forgets about his framing sequence after page 2. The Futurians are a fun bunch, with names like 'Faith' and 'Freedom' and 'Truth' and 'Courage' and 'Justice.' And their boss, lest we forget, is named 'Futuro.' Why isn’t 'Futuro' anywhere in the Pledge, or the Constitution? He also has a flying dog named Nimbus, whose thoughts we hear via bubbles, just like in Garfield. Anyway, all of them are zipping around on flying machines powered by ‘Cosmic Gas,’ and they decide to take on Hitler because that’s what superheroes in 1941 do (“Nimbus just sniffed a Jap army medal Hitler once lost. He will guide us to Hitler‘s hideout.” - all the motivation I need!). Truth gets shot to death by Nazis on the way over; nobody seems very upset.

Hitler is characterized in a distinctly Loony Tunes style, all mincing and stumbling and prone to jumping away in fright at his own reflection. He tries to call Mussolini for help, but the fat bastard is too busy stuffing his face with pasta to aid him, and Futuro and company manage to sneak into Der Fuhrer’s castle. Did I mention that Futuro and pals are all invisible? That’s because they’re from the future, and the future cannot be seen. But apparently it can sock you in the kisser.

So anyway, The U.S. Futurians invade Castle Nazi and then immediately disappear for the rest of the story (picking up on a trend?) as Futuro likely violates the Geneva Conventions (the 19th century ones that everybody forgot about) by abducting Hitler and dragging him underground to Hades, for eternal suffering, I guess. But Hitler makes a crafty deal with Satan to learn the secrets of Futuro’s indistinct but almost certainly future-based power, so Futuro kicks everyone’s ass and hauls Adolph back up to Earth “…to face the justice of mankind!” Since, you know, the justice of eternal damnation obviously didn’t work out very well. Dumb old invisible Futuro.

But as stupid and slapped-together as the story is, Suarez notes that it serves as a signpost to where the US stood in the war at the time. Mobilization of ground troops was still just beginning, and attention was largely being paid to Japan; thus, Hitler is portrayed as a buffoon, a scheming bumbler who’ll eventually get his just desserts, though there’s a certain admission that justice won’t be served immediately. Perhaps in… The Future?!

The reader is then all but slapped across the lips with contrast; the opening splash of the book’s second feature depicts a US soldier literally crucified on the battlefield as a legion of zombie Nazis march toward a horned, demonic Hitler, gunfire and explosions dotting the background. And there’s a masked hero, of course: The Unknown Soldier, but don’t confuse him with the identically-named DC character. This boy’s an Ace Books creation, and the story (titled simply The Unknown Soldier although it’s not his debut appearance) is from Four Favorites #12, released in 1943. Mr. Unknown Soldier is a pretty basic supernatural-tinged Captain America rip-off; luckily, he’s not the main character of this little epic. Instead we’re introduced to George, an average all-American conscript who’s honestly kind of pissed to be stuck in a hole fighting Rommel: “I wish I were anywhere else, anywhere. This isn’t my war! I didn’t want it! I’d sell my soul to the devil or to Hitler just to be safe!”

Fortunately for the plot, it turns out that Hitler and Satan are now not merely conniving pals, but literally one and the same! His Satanic Majesty appears at George’s side and promises him 100 days of invincibility in exchange for his soul. Our pal instantly accepts, and becomes the Army’s greatest killing machine, scoring medals and making headlines as a top Nazi killer, a one man army! But little does he realize that he’s become a symbol for US spirit and perseverance for the homefront, and Hitler (who, despite being an immortal being, still cares about his mortal empire a bit too much) plans to expose the taking of his soul to America, turning their idealism to cynicism and sabotaging their fighting spirit! The fiend! Luckily, The Unknown Soldier appears from the sky whenever Democracy is in trouble. Unluckily, he’s a pretty piss-poor superhero, mostly resorting to impassioned speeches (“Snap out of it, you can’t crack up! You’re not important, it’s America!”), and then simply clocking George unconscious when he doesn’t listen, the masked hero stealing his uniform to carry forth the image of heroism in order to keep the troops rallied. In response, Hitler distracts The Unknown Soldier with a massacre in Norway, knowing that Mr. Unknown can never tolerate the slaughter of innocents. And that’s literally the last we see Our Hero until the final panel. Loser.

Anyhow, George is back to his old doubting self again, but then The Ghosts of War Heroes Past appear to give him a vision of America under the jackboot of Nazi rule, and George is thusly empowered and pulls the pin of a grenade and executes a flawless suicide bombing in front of a tank which causes a rockslide and somehow wins the battle. He’s buried a hero, having finally lived up to his own hype by making the ultimate sacrifice.

And as much as I mock The Unknown Soldier (who, like a true poser, would doff the whole Not Captain America get-up after the war and try to make it as a spooky ghostly hero, to no avail), I’ve gotta admit that the story is first-class propaganda. As Suarez points out, the key lies in its honesty, its willingness to concede certain points in favor of making a stronger, more focused case. Yes, soldiers are going to have doubts. Yes, the war is gonna be hell. Sure, we’re not going to see an instant victory. Absolutely, folks will die. They absolutely will. But baby, It’s Worth It. It’s All Worth It. We must subsume our individuality into the common good, give ourselves up for the cause, die for an example, keep spirits up on our quest. Because our quest is what matters most - onward, toward the future!

It’s seductive. And hey - it’s Hitler. Why not believe in it? But like much good propoganda, it’s also applicable to many different situations, a versatile approach; you can easily swap a few details around and change the scene to Vietnam, especially given the bits about sabotaging the spirits of the public back at home. And I bet, given such alterations, many readers will have a very different reaction to the story. Perhaps heroism will transform into delusion, honor to tragedy. I'm sure you can all play the patent current global situation hypotheticals out for yourselves, to whatever end you reach. But the tapping of such basic emotions is a hallmark of effective propaganda, something that stirs you, even when it troubles you after you come downfrom the buzz. Suarez sees such darker, more intense subject matter as indicative of the US’s understanding of what the fight would entail after exposure to ground action. I think it’s just indicative of better, more cutting storytelling, more canny emotional tinkering. Not caricature-centered personality wanking like Futuro’s outing, or any prospective upcoming books based on popular media folk, from the looks of things. Personal attacks (or personality-based attackers) will age, and few of them will remain quite as readily visible as Hitler, thank heavens. There ought to be something universal in our propaganda, or our allegories, or our satires, or whatever. Something to travel.

Damn it. These old superheroes are pretty dumb. Some of our current comics will look pretty dumb in half a century too. So we should at least demand style in our manipulations, so the blogs of fifty years subsequent can find something lasting and infernal and satisfying! Think of the kids! Yeah! Right on!