A great American institution, comics reflect the sentiments of their readership. Through the last hundred years, we have had to fight around the world. From World War One to the War on Terror, comics characters have suited up and gone into the fray. In WWI, many characters saw battle in in the trenches, even some unlikely ones like the Brooklyn Eagle’s Buttons and Fatty who were shooting it out and taking prisoners when they were no more than little boys. Walter Allman’s NEA series, DOINGS OF THE DUFFS, had Wilbur Duff spending many weeks in a training camp, but he was spared from actual combat because the war ended while he was on a France-bound troop ship! The most notable impact WWI had on the Hearst strips was the changing of THE KATZENJAMMER KIDS name to “The Shenannigan Kids”, to deflect powerful anti-German sentiment, and they made it known that the Katzies were in fact Dutch all along. The name stayed until 1920.
Many consider World War Two to be the greatest of all wars. A high point of patriotism, this was an all-out effort, and everyone had a place. Comic strip characters joined up or were drafted. For instance, Barney Google became a sailor, Snuffy Smith a soldier. Even Archie from ROSIE’S BEAU was now in uniform. Popeye, though a sailor, was only off and on associated with the Navy. Kids like Tim Tyler followed in Button’s footsteps, though he was in the U.S. Navy and it was a serious continuity. Female characters had their place too. Tillie the Toiler went into the WAACS. Etta Kett joined the air raid wardens. When the War ended, some strip stars were caught in mid-story like TIM TYLER or BUZ SAWYER, but the cartoonists quickly wrote their way out of it.
After the war, some of the soldier cartoonists, such as Dave Breger or Dick Wingert, who started out in the service publications, took their characters into post-war civilian life. When a new war came upon us only five years after the WWII, there wasn’t a lot of enthusiasm for more war cartoons—either action-adventure or comedy based. During this time, Mort Walker created BEETLE BAILEY, albeit in a college setting at first. Beetle enlisted in the Army only months into the strip, almost by accident, and now it’s the best known “humor in uniform” strip in comics history.
The tide of American patriotism has waxed and waned mightily since then. The Vietnam War-era was decidedly low on pro-military adventures, and Walker wisely didn’t put Beetle and his Camp Swampy cohorts anywhere near that war. I guess the only real exception of any consequence was Milton Caniff’s Air Force hero, STEVE CANYON. The Navy had Hank Ketchum’s HALF HITCH of 1970-75, but that, in my opinion, would have to be considered inconsequential.
Half Hitch: Some Naval contemplation from 1970
In Tom Batiuk’s strip, FUNKY WINKERBEAN, Funky’s brother Wally joined the current conflict as a front-line soldier in Iraq. In early 2007, a minor controversy erupted when Wally and his troop were apparently killed as the result of an IED explosion, yet it was later revealed that it was only in the context of a video game.
C’est la guerre.
P.S. Fans of Popeye and Beetle Bailey, be sure to check out the “Army VS. Navy”-themed merchandise that will be available at Bloomingdale’s from now until the end of January 2012! King Features and Darren Romanelli (DRx) have collaborated with Bloomingdale’s to create an exclusive line of men’s apparel, bringing Beetle and Popeye to Bloomingdale’s stores around the U.S. Read more here