In the 1940s they were all in color for a dime and many packed a whopping 52 pages between their covers. They were comic books, and the infant industry (for all practical purposes founded in 1938 when Superman debuted in Action Comics No. 1) went to war before the nation did with costumed champions called super heroes.
In December 1940, the cover of Action Comics No. 31 depicted Superman swooping down to save a prisoner from being shot by an unidentified military firing squad. Twelve issues later, on the cover of Action Comics No. 43, Superman was fighting it out in the sky with a pistol-packing German paratrooper, a Nazi swastika boldly seen on his brassard.
With a cover date of March 1941, the comic book publisher Timely (later Marvel) attacked the Axis in a big way. That month, in a comic book boldly named after him, Captain America dramatically leaped into action on the cover, delivering a knockout punch to Adolf Hitler’s jaw. Joe Simon, Captain America’s co-creator, later wrote in his autobiography The Comic Book Makers that “Captain America was the first major comic book hero to take a political stand. . . . Hitler was a marvelous foil; a ranting maniac.” The adventures in Captain America irreverently turned Hitler into a caricature, infuriating the German American Bund, a powerful pro-Nazi organization in the country and particularly powerful in the Yorktown section of New York City, which had a large German immigrant and German-American population. Soon the staff at Timely began receiving death threats in the mail and employees noticed groups of menacing-looking men gathered at the street corners near Timely’s Manhattan offices. The police
were notified and the city’s mayor, Fiorello LaGuardia, personally called Joe Simon, Captain America’s editor, to assure him of the city’s protection. When the United States became an active belligerent the Bund was disbanded.
Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, the comic book industry went on a war footing of its own, ramping up production, and war themed titles quickly proliferated. They ranged from fictional (Uncle Sam Quarterly, The Fighting Yank, and Airboy Comics, amongst others) to biographies and real adventures (two were titled, appropriately enough, Real Heroes and Real Life Comics). Some, like Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo and Guadalcanal Diary, were adaptations of best selling books. Others, like The American Air Forces, Don Winslow of the Navy, and Military Comics: Stories of the Army and Navy, focused on a particular branch. There was even a title, Popular Comics, that reprinted war themed newspaper strips, most notably “Terry and the Pirates” and “Smilin’ Jack.”
“You boys over there are doing a good job. The City of New York will see that no harm will come to you.”
—N.Y. Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia to Joe Simon, co-creator of Captain America
Though the Bund was gone, national security was now an issue, as comic book artist Reed Crandall quickly discovered.
In 1942, he became the artist for the “Blackhawk” aviation series in Military Comics (the series later got its own self-named title). One day Crandall found a pair of FBI agents at the door of his Long Island studio who wanted to speak to him. It turned out that the aircraft drawn in his Blackhawk adventures bore a suspiciously accurate resemblance to Grumman’s XF5F-1 Skyrocket, an experimental naval fighter, and the agents wanted to know how Crandall was able to be so spot-on with his illustrations, particularly from their many angles.
At one point during the meeting they heard the engine roar of a low-flying aircraft. Looking out the studio’s window, the trio saw a Skyrocket from Grumman’s nearby airfield performing aerial stunts as it conducted a test flight over Long Island Sound. The agents politely excused themselves.
Publishers contracted with the military and comics accompanied troops and sailors across the globe. Hundreds of thousands, in some cases millions, of copies a month were printed. But attrition through disposal by readers after they had finished reading them, war paper drives, or being trashed by mothers cleaning up after their kids, resulted in few copies of Golden Age comics, as this period came to be called, surviving the war. For example, it’s estimated that only 50 to 100 copies of Action Comics No. 1 are still in existence – a reason why the book in which Superman made his first appearance recently sold at auction for $1.5 million.