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Long before white nationalist Richard Spencer took a fist to the face on Inauguration Day 2017, legendary comics creator Jack Kirby savored punching Nazis. His iconic cover for 1941’s first issue of Captain America is one of the world’s best-known pieces of anti-Third Reich art, featuring the good Captain braving gunfire from bewildered soldiers to plant a right cross on Adolf Hitler; this piece is the most prominent example of Kirby’s lifelong hatred of fascists. He is often considered the father of US comics due to his part in creating Marvel’s Thor, the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, and others, so in some sense fighting Nazis can be seen as a fundamental part of comics’ DNA.
Author Mark Fertig explores this relationship throughout his new book, Take That, Adolf!: The Fighting Comic Books of the Second World War (Fantagraphics). This treasure trove contains comic covers from World War II focusing on everything from life-or-death land battles and mid-air dogfights to the importance of war bonds. More than 500 covers grace the inside of the book, and each has been painstakingly restored; stains and creases in the paper have been removed, dirt has been expunged, and colors have been brightened from the source material. Fertig rightfully makes a point of leaving the staples at the spine visible in scans. This decision keeps the images from becoming sterile museum pieces and reminds the reader that the stories were mass-produced, plentifully available propaganda in their era of origin.
The most rousing motif is a hero — usually donning regalia in some combination of mask, cape, tights, and star-spangled patterns — punching an enemy (often Hitler) in the face. White movement lines create a perfect arc leading the fist to impact. The pop of an explosion stands where fist and face meet. The enemy reels backward. Depending on the hero’s superpowers, we sometimes get to see them applying this technique to the inanimate weapons of war, as in the case of Namor punching a tank on the cover of Marvel Comics 22. “Back then publishers didn’t feel obliged to make a connection between the cover and an interior strip,” Fertig writes. Disconnect between content and context leads to some truly outrageous tableaus.
Valuable historical context comes in the form of Fertig’s 40-page essay at the start of the book. In these passages, the author shares intertwining histories of World War II and the comics industry. He traces the two histories in parallel, showing where they met once early comics creators — several of whom were Jewish, like comics creators Stan Lee (real name Stanley Martin Lieber), Jack Kirby (aka Jacob Kurtzberg), and Will Eisner — started employing their medium to push for United States intervention in the war. Fertig also uses part of the essay to address embarrassing aspects of the industry’s past that must be discussed. For instance, women and people of color are rarely represented in these stories, and, when they are, it is often offensive. Fertig addresses the comics’ missteps in representation by drawing attention to racist caricatures of Japanese combatants and relating them to the United States government’s incarceration of Japanese Americans, showing the negative impact of this brand of patriotic propaganda.
The absence of the content behind these classic covers is the book’s major frustration. Due to traditional methods of display on shelves and spinner racks, the cover is the most important part of building interest in a comic, but that interest will not persist if the pages are weak. In Take That, Adolf!, the reader is barraged with covers but only gets to experience classic stories via Fertig’s brief descriptions interwoven in his text. A few scans of comics pages would enhance appreciation for the era’s work by showing the content that allowed this art to take root in readers’ imaginations.
Take That, Adolf! is best treated as a bibliography of World War II comics for future reading in other archival editions. Otherwise, the tome can have a great afterlife as a coffee table book, sitting in plain sight as a reminder in these difficult times that real heroes are needed to keep today’s neo-Nazis in check.
Take That, Adolf!: The Fighting Comic Books of the Second World War will be out next month from Fantagraphics.