Johnny Gets the Word

Richard Graham, Government Issue: Comics for the People, 1940s - 2000s

Abrams, 304pp, £19.99, ISBN 9781419700781

reviewed by Jeffrey Petts

In 1940 George Orwell analysed the comics sold in a typical English newsagent, concluding that they were ‘the best available indication of what the mass of English people really thinks and feels.’ The comics reproduced in Government Issue, in full size and colour, and Richard Graham's thematic introductions to them, are similarly revealing about how American state and federal governments in the 20th century thought the mass of people could be made to think and feel about things as diverse as the threat of nuclear war, savings plans, inflation and litter. Using comic books governments exploited a popular medium – the American tradition of syndicated comic strips had established a readymade mass audience – to deliver their ‘behavioural change objectives’. More than a contribution to social and cultural history, Government Issue also allows us to judge a claim for comic art made by its first theorist in the mid-19th century, Rodolphe Topffer, that comics’ ‘greater liveliness to a greater number of minds’ means that ‘he who uses such a direct method has advantage over those who deal in chapters.’

The book is organised around four themes: comics about the military, about employment and economics, about civil defence, safety and health, and about landscapes and lifestyles. In the first section, the author records his own introduction to government comics, reading a comic-style military manual used by his father. Indeed Graham notes that the US military is and remains the biggest producer of government comics. Military use during war changes the emphasis, of course, from the merely instructional to the ideological and persuasive, to propaganda in short: ‘Comics, with their combination of images, economy of text, and widespread popularity, proved a most useful tool for the military.’ Graham provides a brief but insightful history of military use of comics – including the Office of War Information's interest in both producing comics and influencing newspaper comic strips during World War Two. Its special media division employed ‘regular stiffs’ who drew, inked and lettered cartoons, but also established comics artists like Milton Caniff and Will Eisner.

Some of Caniff's work is reproduced and no punches are pulled in reproducing How to Spot a Jap (1942) which shows the level of offensiveness he was prepared to embrace. As Graham duly notes, even the military quickly dropped this kind of comic. Caniff's contribution to Bullets or Words, also reproduced, is a no less fascinating manual on psychological warfare from 1951, the comic leaving no doubt about its aims: encouraging among other things ‘Subversion’ (illustrated by a worker with hammer aloft about to smash machinery) and ‘Consolidation’ (an American soldier shakes hands with a peasant couple while overhead distant bombers continue the war).

Eisner’s work was largely put to other practical ends, and his characters were ‘enlisted’ as cast members in various comics on the maintenance and operation of military equipment (examples in Government Issue include Meet Joe Dope from 1942, on how not to maintain army vehicles, and Sweet 16 on the M16 rifle from 1969). The tradition of such use continues with manga-style manuals used to communicate, for example, the working routines and life of navy corpsmen in The Docs from 2010 (again reproduced). The section on military comics also reproduces a number of recruitment comics from the 1950s to 1970s, some extolling the history of a service like Navy History and Tradition: the Daring and Diplomacy that Built a Great Nation and Navy, while others, like Time of Decision from 1955, suggest a wasted, even cowardly life outside the military.

Graham introduces comic books about employment and economics in the context of the US government’s increasing involvement in labour issues from the New Deal era onwards – encouraging saving, personal financial literacy and explaining the benefits of the new and evolving social security system. These included the Social Security Administration’s John's First Job (1958) and the US Department of Labor’s Are You Looking into Your Future, another Will Eisner production from 1960. The military again gets involved, urging the link between army work and transferable skills for future employment. But Graham tellingly notes that government's interest in promoting careers and entitlements lessened in the 1970s with economic decline.

From then it was the Federal Reserve that took up the challenge of explaining an increasingly complex economic situation; today, the emphasis is on a younger audience accessing comic books on banks, for example, through its website (The Story of Monetary Policy, 2007, is reproduced here). Interestingly, Graham says nothing about the success of these latest initiatives. The comic form’s ability to convey complexity remains; but the subject matter is less suited to the inherent adventure and narrative pace of (glorified) war. As Graham notes of The Story of Inflation from 1981: ‘the story, which describes the causes and effects of inflation and discusses alternative anti-inflation policies, is not nearly as eye-popping as [Al] Wenzel's artwork.’ The fact that cartoonists worked with such prosaic content is again evidence of the tradition of producing comic strips that could be syndicated across America – cartoonists were used to producing within cultural constraints and with certain audiences, rather than their own artistic ideas, in mind.

Governments’ need to get information in ‘dreary pamphlets’ read by the public also got them interested in the comic book form, using established characters as spokespeople, but occasionally too tempted to create their own 'cheesy super heroes' to deliver health and safety messages. Here Graham's laconic doubt about effectiveness is delivered: ‘healthy eating habits [etc] … were some of the exciting topics ... it must be left to the reader to judge [their] effectiveness.’ No doubt Eat Right to Work and Win (1942) was always more likely to ‘succeed’ in the context of the ‘victory meal’ than later equivalents in an era when consumption drives individual worth and GDP. And there remains the general problem of rigid narratives set by government objectives that great artwork cannot hide. Government Issue reproduces some exceptions where the subject matter embraces ‘adventure’, like Johnny gets the word (1957) about Johnny's ‘siff’ (syphilis). In this context it is worth noting that comic books, rather than strips, had come under political pressure in the 1950s for supposedly engendering negative behaviours; the comics industry reacted by taking up public duty commissions from government, realising their PR value. Anti-drugs messages in Teenage Booby Trap (1970) and Captain America Goes to War Against Drugs (1990) are reproduced and representative of this role. In the final section, ‘The American Way’, Graham looks at comics that aimed to support American institutions and values. In fact, the idea is thematic throughout the book and is perhaps more pronounced in other sections – here the focus is on comics extolling the disparate virtues of national parks, recycling and so on.

Government Issue shows American governments' concern to defend and advance the American Way at home and abroad through comics to be a divided endeavour. The comic strip tradition was attractive to governments, both because of the large numbers it reached and because of its inherent conservatism, its necessary appeal to middle-of-the-road values. The comic strip and book also seemed especially appropriate mediums, characteristically using non-specialist street language, and where the simple hero-villain dialectic was easily transferred to government wars of all kinds. But for all this, government content sits uneasily with the form, with the exception perhaps of ‘fighting war’ content. Topffer's historically first ‘comics’ were satirical, and underground ‘comix’ and alternative comics from the 1960s reassumed this oppositional and subversive role. And the spontaneous fusion of writing and drawing that marks out making comics as an art is necessarily absent in government-commissioned work. Richard Graham's selection of comics perfectly represents this dichotomy: the history of American governments’ concerns in the 20th century, as seen through the behaviours they desired of their citizens and their earnest attempts to ‘reach’ them; and the essential aesthetics of a genre and a medium struggling to accommodate those demands.
Jeffrey Petts has recently completed a PhD on 'Work and the Aesthetic' with the Department of Philosophy at the University of York.