My Christmas gift to myself last year was Batman #17, a 1943 comic. The cover shows Batman and Robin riding a bald eagle, urging the reader to keep it flying by buying war bonds and stamps.
As a Batman fan, I’ve always been drawn to the World War II war bond covers—I’m not totally sure why. They don’t feature the elements usually associated with the Dark Knight. There are no dark alleys, bizarre aliens or maniacal clowns. I guess they’re just a simple reminder of Batman’s national significance, only a few years after his creation.
It was already the crown jewel of my comics collection, but it will have a whole new dimension of meaning to me now, in the age of coronavirus. Some have objected to comparing the outbreak to World War II, but I don’t know how else to think about it. It’s the only other time in our cultural memory that the U.S. government has asked its citizens to make such extraordinary sacrifices to serve a common cause and defeat a global threat.
Celebrities ranging from Arnold Schwarzenegger to Larry David have taken to Twitter and TikTok, from their mansions, to urge Americans to stay inside. A bit tone-deaf, perhaps, but it recalls the bond efforts of both world wars, when well-known actors and entertainers like Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Orson Welles, Humphrey Bogart and Donald Duck urged Americans to lend support on radio waves and newsreels.
And, of course, Batman.
Not the likeliest of wartime icons, nor one of the most prominent. But he did his part, along with his superhero brethren.
The purpose of war bonds is a little counterintuitive. The idea seems simple enough: citizens loan the government money to fund the military. But in wartime, governments will normally go into debt or print whatever currency they need. Money isn’t the problem—inflation is. Which is to say that while money is unlimited, supplies aren’t, and the government has to make sure that Americans don’t buy too much of what’s needed in the field. Citizens needed to hold onto their cash, or be relieved of it.
John Maynard Keynes, the legendary British economist who helped guide the Roosevelt administration through the Great Depression, advocated forced savings and higher taxes. But FDR’s Treasury secretary, Henry Morgenthau Jr., said a voluntary program would be the “democratic way,” and could help unify the country behind the war. The administration would preserve that most American of freedoms, the right to spend, by convincing Americans not to.
“The war bond campaign has been called a unique fusion of nationalism and consumerism,” a post on the U.S. Treasury Department’s website stated. “They offered Americans a financial and moral stake in the war.”
Of course, the bonds weren’t the only way the government encouraged, or demanded, savings. Americans also saw rations and participated in scrap drives. This conflict wasn’t going to be won with one-off contributions to the cause, the government needed its citizens to adopt a whole new lifestyle. To think about the common good with every trip to the grocery.
Just like now.
Batman, a millionaire playboy with an extraordinarily expensive hobby, was going to convince Americans to live frugally.
Comics didn’t have to be drafted into the war effort, they happily volunteered. In fact, they’d been running war-themed and nationalistic issues before the war even started. Not just for patriotism but because, as Hollywood would soon discover, the Nazis made for such damn good villains.
Even though comics were written for children, not usually in charge of the family budget, they offered a unique entry point into the zeitgeist.
“Comic books rely on the reader’s imagination, which allows one to do almost anything in the medium,” said James Kimble, a professor of communications at Seton Hall University and author of Mobilizing the Home Front: War Bonds And Domestic Propaganda. “Motion pictures, in contrast, were limited by budget and technology in terms of what they could feasibly put on the screen.”
Comics were also hugely popular in the field, by one estimate outselling Reader’s Digest, The Saturday Evening Post and Life by 10 to 1.
DC’s editor at the time was Jack Schiff, an idealist who often looked to his work as a way to press campaigns important to him. (During his reign Batman crusaded for the rights of felons and coal miners.) He was happy to participate, and would eventually earn a citation from the U.S. Treasury Department for DC Comics’ support of the war bond efforts.
Batman and Superman both ran war bond covers in their September 1942 issues, during the run-up to Treasury’s first war loan campaign, which began that November. (The issues actually ran over the summer—Batman #12 on June 6, the date of the Battle of Midway.) Normally, comic book covers are an advertisement for the content inside, but with these issues the covers were standalone images. They were, essentially, wartime propaganda posters–bright, lively, and calling citizens to action.
(Though it should go without saying, many featured racist anti-Japanese images too offensive to be included here.)
Perhaps reflecting their respective superpowers–brawn and funds–Superman’s wartime covers normally showed him taking the fight to the Nazis, while Batman’s more often emphasized the bonds themselves. The Man of Steel can be seen confronting Nazi tanks and riding missiles, while the Caped Crusader delivers bond-bought guns to troops in the field. (In another he mans a Browning gun himself—both covers raise some questions about the wartime exceptions to his famous rule against firearms.) The images are master strokes at the “show and tell” sales technique. With these superheroes at your side you feel ready to take on the whole German army, and the covers make it clear just how you can do it.
War-themed issue covers were much more common for Superman, and started coming out earlier. This seems natural—he fits more obviously into the role of a rousing national figure. He even made a cameo appearance in a 1942 comic book published by the U.S. Treasury Department itself, “War Victory Comics,” pitching the lower-cost war stamps to young readers. The issue featured several of the most popular figures in comic books and strips of the day, from Dick Tracy and Green Hornet to Li’l Abner and Blondie, in stories which mostly focused on how or why a character buys war stamps.
Batman can seem like a puzzling choice, however. There’s nothing intrinsically patriotic about Batman’s story or mission. Superman and Wonder Woman’s costumes evoke American colors while Batman’s blue is only because four-color comics couldn’t handle grey and black. But at the time he was an intensely popular new superhero and a near-equal to Superman. He was just what Uncle Sam was looking for—a figure adults and children alike wanted to emulate, and whose message could slip past the innate skepticism of a war-weary populace.
In fact, many of the most memorable war bond covers show Batman and Superman teamed up. The cover for a special issue at the 1939-40 World’s Fair featured the two together for the first time ever, with Robin tagging along. It inspired a new title, World’s Finest Comics, that premiered in 1941 and included both Batman and Superman stories. They wouldn’t actually cross over for years, but they always shared the cover—so those covers had to be stand-alones. It was perfect for the war bond format.
World’s Finest showed the trio selling bonds, cheering soldiers and leading scrap paper drives—intermixed with covers of them generally screwing around and doing everyday activities like swimming and baseball. It was an ideal way to push the message that this was the new American normal.
One of my favorites shows them harvesting a Victory Garden, a popular way for Americans to tighten their food purchases during both world wars. (Eleanor Roosevelt planted one on the White House lawn, and at their height Victory Gardens produced one-third of the country’s vegetables.) There’s already talk of VGs making a comeback.
This period inspired dozens of new, war-themed superheroes rushing to the battlefields–Uncle Sam, the Shield, Spirit of ‘76 and Batman’s future Justice League colleague Wonder Woman. And, of course, a shield-bearing, blue-clad muscleman avenger first seen cold-cocking Adolph Hitler on the cover of his premiere issue, launched in 1941 by a young upstart publication that would one day be known as Marvel Comics.
But Batman and Superman stayed home. War-themed stories involving either are few and far between–normally about fifth columnists or spies threatening Gotham and Metropolis. Often the stories themselves involved war bonds, such as when Nazis tried to sabotage a Batman-lead rally. Hitler pops into a few Superman comics (as well as a 1941 animated short) but the story almost always ends up back in the U.S. The most significant World War II story for Batman is likely his first on-screen appearance, the 1943 serials, which feature an evil Japanese scientist who hypnotizes Americans into betraying their country. But a casual reader might not realize these were wartime comics at all. Things seem….normal.
Deep down we know that superheroes can’t defeat Hitler, or a virus—their job is to stay here and convince us it’s possible.
Treasury’s war bond program was seen as an overwhelming success, raising $185.7 billion (nearly $2.6 trillion in today’s dollars) from citizens and corporations, representing about half of the war’s total cost. But perhaps even more valuable was its victory as a work of messaging—or propaganda, if you prefer—and public mobilization. The government bought millions of dollars in advertising, on top of the millions worth of donated ad space, to create a campaign more vast and more effective than the government’s official communications office. As Morgenthau pitched to Roosevelt, the goal was to use bonds to sell the war, not the reverse—and it worked. War bonds remain a powerful cultural metaphor for shared sacrifice, and some are already talking about bringing them back to help shoulder the economic burden of coronavirus. (Unlikely at the government level, but the private sector is already using the concept—one of my local comic book shops is offering its fans “Battle Bonds,” gift cards which accrue perks, as it tries to stay afloat.)
Patriotism always has a price, and for Batman the cost of service was to sand off nearly all of the hard edges that made him unique in the first place.
In an issue a few months before the war, Commissioner Gordon makes Batman an “honorary” police officer and there’s little in this period even implying that he’s a vigilante. Also gone is any mention of his deceased parents. The Gothic noir flavoring was washed away.
“The Detective Comics of the mid-’40s may have been, very literally, escapist reading—a brief respite from the war, whether the reader was in a kitchen in St. Louis worrying about a faraway loved one or hunkered in a European foxhole worried about tomorrow morning’s attack,” wrote famed DC editor Denny O’Neil in a 2000 introduction to a hardback collection of the stories. “Batman was the world’s best big brother and Robin that feisty, lovable kid down the block—heroes, sure, but heroes who’ve just stepped out of a Normal Rockwell painting rather than refugees from an urban nightmare, recognizable American types as normal as Mom’s apron.”
DC Comics also went to great lengths to keep Batman family-friendly in the post-war period, as the comics industry came under fire from moral crusaders like Frederic Wertham. Schiff today is somewhat of a pariah among Batman fans for steering the character towards sci-fi and then absurdity before he snapped back into noir in the 70s and 80s.
I would argue, though, that as Batman was forced into the awkward position of a patriotic figure, you can begin to see the faint outlines of an idealistic philosophy that came to define him in later decades–even the dark years. A proactive desire to protect others and defend justice, not only to satisfy vengeance against criminals.
“This man who daily risks his life to save others–who never carries a gun–who is aided by his young friend, Robin, fights crime with the courage and zeal born of love for his fellow man,” Commissioner Gordon says in a courtroom showdown, before granting him the honorary officer status. “This is—the Batman!”
Batman’s whatever we need him to be–a pulpy gumshoe for the Depression, a rallying figure for World War II, an ironic hipster for the 60s, a gloomy introvert for the gothy 90s and an existential warrior for the post-9/11 era.
Just like a garbage worker or grocery store clerk, no one had Batman figured as a national hero. But when the time came, all that mattered is that they did what they had to do.
All images from DC Comics Database.
This post also appears at The Parks Department