Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Hitler and UK Comics

Here is an article I wrote for Crikey! magazine, before its recent demise. It's an extended and revamp version of a shorter blog post I wrote some time ago:

Fiction littered with scores of villains. They are a necessary part of what makes effective stories. Heroes need an opposing force to fight and struggle against. We see this in all types of narrative media, and comics are no exception. In comics the types of villains are varied: super-villains abound in mainstream American comics, while in British humour comics every hero has their nemesis – for the Bash Street Kids there is Teacher, and for Dennis the Menace there is Walter the Softie.

But comics also make use of real life villains in their fictional universe, and no villain occupies as significant a place in comics all across the world as Adolf Hitler. UK comics are no exception to this. While political cartoons satirising the German leader appeared in British newspapers during the war years, the earliest appearances in comics date to early issues of The Dandy and The Beano, produced during WWII. Paper was rationed and so publication moved from weekly to fortnightly, with each title being published on alternate weeks. Patriotism abounded in these publications, and every effort was made to boost public morale, and in the comics depictions of Hitler, the Nazis, and Mussolini showed them as pathetic, laughable buffoons easily dealt with by characters like Desperate Dan, and Lord Snooty in particular seemed to defeat Hitler on a regular basis. Even Korky the Cat was not averse to building a Hitler snowman on the cover of The Dandy.

Hitler even had his own strip in The Dandy. As bizarre as this seems in hindsight, 'Addie and Hermy the Nasty Nazis' was a regular feature.

Hitler and Hermann Goring were cast as idiots who spoke in a mangled, pseudo-germanic way, using “der” for “there” for instance. The Beano also joined in the fun by featuring 'Musso the Wop'. These comics did not go unnoticed by the Nazis. The Gestapo created a 'hit list' of UK residents who they would arrest once they had invaded. This list included both Dandy and Beano editors and the artist Dudley D Watkins. This alone reveals the extent to which the Nazis were troubled by UK comic versions of their leader and his colleagues.

Other media also portrayed Hitler as the embodiment of buffoonery, none more so than Charlie Chaplin, another person on the Gestapo list, for his ground-breaking satirical film The Great Dictator in which he played an obvious Hitler type called Adenoid Hynkel.

Both Chaplin and UK comics shared a burning desire to prick the pomposity and threat of the Nazis through comedy, but while The Great Dictator remains a classic, it's somehow more jarring to look back at these children's comics now, knowing what we do about the atrocities committed by Hitler and the Nazis. Some may even view them as tasteless, but I'd say that is a mistake. Historical context is everything, and making fun of an enemy during war time is a psychologically sound way of coping with the stresses and anxieties facing the UK at the time. However, following the end of the war, and the discovery of the true levels of horror inflicted by the Nazis, it would become bad taste to depict Hitler in a comic light. In the post war years Hitler has to be portrayed as a monster because being portrayed as a buffoon would be an insult to the millions who died as a result of the Nazis actions.

Hitler as the ultimate villain becomes a key feature of scores of comics produced in Britain during the 1970s. Dramatic stories of British bravery and fighting spirit abounded in comics like Battle, Victor, and Warlord. Some war stories are now critically acclaimed, like 'Charlie's War' and 'Darkie's Mob', and they are finally being reprinted in quality editions. But some are, sadly, almost forgotten. One neglected gem, 'Day of the Eagle', by Eric Hebden, with art by Pat Wright and Barrie Mitchell, is an interesting piece of work that appeared in Battle Picture Weekly between 8th March – 24th May 1975.

Mike Nelson, codename Eagle, is assigned the task of assassinating Adolf Hitler. His ruthless drive is largely the result of the death of his father and brother and Dunkirk. Early instalments have been reprinted in the recent Best of Battle book, while the whole series can be read online at the superb Captain Hurricane’s Best of Battle website:

Hedben was a veteran of the conflict and prided himself on producing stories with accuracy, something his son Alan continues to do so in the monthly Commando books for DC Thompson.

The death of War comics in the UK was soon followed by the death of variety in British comics. Scores of titles merged and died, leaving only the Dandy, Beano, 2000 AD and the Judge Dredd Megazine as the stalwarts of UK newsagent comics. One noble experiment was Crisis, Fleetway's attempt at producing a political adult comic. In issues 46-49 it printed a colourised version of a strip that had begun in Cut, a Scottish cultural arts magazine that had caused controversy. It was called 'The New Adventures of Hitler'.

The title suggests an action-adventure series, but the series is nothing of the sort. It was written by Grant Morrison, with art by Steve Yeowell. Both had used Nazism in a previous work for 2000AD, the superhero series 'Zenith', but went for broke in their depiction of a pre-WW1 Hitler. It's a masterful, surreal strip. Based on the conjecture that Hitler visited and relatives in Liverpool during 1912-1913 it's a masterful, surreal strip which combines a search for the Holy Grail with a wardrobe that contains, at various times, echoes of future cultural touchstones: Morrissey and John Lennon perform songs within it during the story.

It proved to be a controversial title, evoking conservative outrage and liberal scepticism in equal measure: The Sun was outraged, while musician and journalist Pat Kane also made his disgust evident, leading to a feud with Morrison over the strip. It remains uncollected, and this is a shame because it is a powerful piece of fiction, one which deserves more critical acclaim than it has received. Its irony is savage: through conversing with John Bull the reader realises that Hitler would find no bigger inspiration for his quest for power than in the example provided by British Imperialism. Yet such themes hit hard and don’t play well with the UK media, and so it seems unlikely that a reprint will occur, at least in this country.

The relative death of comics in UK newsagents has led to a lack of appearances by Hitler in comics on this side of the Atlantic. Beyond a cameo appearance by his mother in From Hell, which I would class as an honorary British comic anyway due to its creators nationalities (Moore being English and Campbell an ex-pat Scotsman), little else seems to have surfaced. Hitler’s comics alter ego seemed destined to remain mouldering away in the page of forgotten British comics, but at least he is frozen for posterity in online scans and commemorative print editions. He is the ultimate comics villain and, more importantly, the ultimate villain in history. The comics help us to remember this fact, and for that alone the actual comics deserve to be remembered and, whenever possible, archived for future generations of British readers.

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