In the beginning there were comics. They were without message or meaning, and the Spirit of God moved across the pages. And God said, “Let there be Chick”, and He saw that Chick was good and commanded him to spread the Word to the people. So Chick made the comics and spread them across the Earth, in truck stops and rest areas and libraries and parks. And God saw that it was effective. God knows a good thing when he sees it.
Who am I to question God? But are Chick tracts, those little black and white comics that tell readers all the different ways they might go to hell, really a good thing? Is it appropriate to condense complex theological ideas into a few literal-minded panels and leave them in truck stop bathrooms for road-weary travelers to read? Of course, because like all propaganda, Chick tracts aren’t about facts, they’re about a message.
Fredrik Stromberg, author of Comic Art Propaganda writes that reading comics has an “almost hypnotic” effect, making them perfect for conveying messages of any type. With two or more images placed together, he says, the reader never has a chance to stop reading, whether they like the message or not. Stromberg’s point is supported by a book filled with strange, terrifying, and funny examples of comics used as a platform for conveying messages of all kinds. Each section features a short, self-contained article on its subject and a wealth of illustrated examples. Despite the brevity, there’s plenty of information in the caption and the comics pages themselves.
Stromberg uses a broad definition of propaganda, avoiding the strictly negative connotation of the word to include messages about sexual freedom, racial equality, and living drug free. Still, there’s evil in these pages, too. In the chapter “Us Versus Them” Stromberg explores various racial stereotypes in comics, particularly the countless negative portrayals of African Americans and Asians that dominated comics’ Golden Age. There’s a small reproduction of a Terry and the Pirates strip called “How to Spot a Jap” that was handed out to US soldiers heading off to the Pacific theater in World War II that is particularly nasty, but there are also positive images, too, like Bertram A. Fitzgerald’s Golden Legacy comic book which tells the stories of prominent African Americans throughout American history.
Most interesting are the comics written as dark predictions of America’s future. In 1947, Is This Tomorrow imagined America as a communist nation, its free markets stifled, and its children turning in their parents for having forbidden “religious junk” in their homes. One can imagine Glenn Beck has a copy in protective plastic on his night stand.
Chick tracts are the most prevalent forms of propaganda comics in the US, but some images are familiar faces that have been used in the battle of ideas. Mickey Mouse and Goofy explored the “Universe of Energy” courtesy of Exxon, and Marvel Comics’ Captain America provided moral support for soldiers fighting in Iraq.
This book isn’t an in-depth analysis of the many ways in which comics have been co-opted by political, corporate, and religious groups, but it is an excellent introduction to what is obviously a vast, complex subject waiting for further exploration. Each comic Stromberg features could fill a book, and one gets the feeling he might just be the author to do it.
Many of the examples Stromberg cites are extreme—so ideologically loaded they’re obvious to most anyone. Stromberg notes, however, that comics have traditionally been marketed to children who are, he writes, “prone to accept what they are shown without critical thinking”. Comics have never been just for kids, nor has critical thinking, for that matter. The truth is, we’re all prone to accept what we hear or read without question, especially when the medium of that message is a colorful cartoon with a smile on its face.