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Subtle Coercion or Painfully Obvious Jokes? A Note on Fredrik Stomberg's Comic Art Propaganda: A Graphic History

By Lia Yoka
Stromberg, Fredrik. Comic Art Propaganda: A Graphic History. New York, NY: St. Martin's Press, 2010. Print.

I

The "post-production" of Comic Art Propaganda says a lot about the content of this 176-page book.[1] Five out of a total of seven chapters have 11 sub-chapters each, while one has 8, and another 10. Each one of the 73 sub-chapters discusses a comic book, a strip, a series, or a group of thematically linked comic books, and is illustrated with an average of four carefully selected and well-printed images, including reproductions of full pages of comic books and graphic novels. Images are all accompanied by thoroughly researched captions of an average of 45 words, often witty, always informative. Some contain commentary. Illustrations and their captions unfold in a coherent, self-standing narrative and create a separate reading experience.

The chapters' titles match the overall style of the prose: "Us Versus Them," "War: What is it Good For?", "You Dirty Rotten Commie Bastard!", "Social Seduction," "Religious Rants," "Sexual Slander," "Political Persuasions." Four alliterations and three catchphrases allude to the mass appeal of pop literature and try to combine content and style in the volume. This is a pop book about pop literature, it seems to be saying. It is written in the colloquial and self-referential prose of a fan turned historian and is packed with examples that will delight beginners and aficionados alike. The flood of reproductions in numerous recent anthologies, like Dan Nadel's Art Out Of Time and Art in Time, or Gravett and Stanbury's Holy Sh*t: The World's Weirdest Comics, may have by now familiarized many readers with less-known, less recognized para-mainstream moments of the medium. Still, the contents of Stromberg's book are so convincingly organized at first sight, and the examples so satisfyingly broad (yet not chaotic or irrelevant), that there is something here for almost everyone. It is excellent leisure reading, and there is great classroom material to be mined from it. With an architecture that is at once fluent and encyclopedic, you can choose to delve into each story or just flick through the pages. The distribution of research and information throughout the volume is balanced, and most of the chapters could make independent mini-feature articles in Sunday newspaper supplements.

II

Yet this reader-friendly and entertaining structure, and the stunning images, may only temporarily postpone a more pressing question raised by this volume: Is it really so easy to talk about "comic art propaganda"?

Stromberg offers definitions of propaganda throughout the book. "This book examines how positive or pernicious messages have been conveyed in comic books over the last hundred years," he promises on the back cover. And he continues: "Comics and comic art have frequently been used to communicate propagandistic ideas, whether intentionally or not."

Yet without the propagandist's intention, the very idea of propaganda seems to make less sense. A few examples: Solson Publications' Reagan's Raiders, the Chick Tracts or the Album de la Revolucion Cubana, the Catechical Guild's 1950 anti-communist Is This Tomorrow or the biography of Saddam Hussein published as part of the series of the Indian comic book Toms Chithrakatha, were works of propaganda, partly because it was their creators' conscious intention to convey a certain message and distribute it as easily and as massively as possible. So were the red comics of the Chinese cultural revolution, made to counter the "black" anti-Mao lianhuanua comics. They made a strong case of "us versus them" (here the chapter's heading is an aspect of the whole book's definition of propaganda), and they had a mass appeal—Stromberg mentions that in 1970, 16 million copies were printed in Shanghai alone.

The propaganda values of other works, though, are not so clear. One might ask, for instance, what is the 1940s Jane at War doing in the chapter about war propaganda? The comic certainly stereotypes the soldiers and was distributed to offer some controlled fantasy and escape at the barracks, yet its main function was not to "take sides" in a conflict, but to profit from an existing market. From another perspective, if sub-soft-porn Jane at War fulfilled the publishers' aim to promote degrading ideas about women, and thus qualifies as sexist propaganda, then why aren't romance and girls comics included in the volume at all, since they obviously attempted to indoctrinate female readers with the values of romantic love leading to marriage and domestic work?

If the propagandists' intentions are not considered a sine qua non of propaganda material, more historical qualifications of content and subgenre distinctions would be needed: To remain within the chapter on war, how could war comics of the 1950s form a homogenous "war propaganda" category with mid-war comics? They might both be about combat, yet they do not share an identical function. In his study of war comics between 1958-1988, Brian Edwards writes that the "call for comic strip propaganda faded in 1945, a consensus that people had enough of war prompted comic book publishers to drop most war-related comic strips" (Edwards 182). Then,"[t]he influx of American magazines saw war-comics being imported as part of the assorted batch of superheroes and funnies. However, these American war-comics failed to gain any popularity, and were always among those left on the rack to be returned to the wholesaler when the new assortment arrived" (Edwards 182). At the end of the 1950s "as the numbers of children coming into comic-reading age swelled at the end of the decade, the increased demand forced a change in the availability and choice of comic material. Children then demonstrated by their purchases that what they wanted most was all-picture action stories…and war [became] the most popular subject in serialized comic book fiction" (Edwards 183). In other words, the war comics of the British War Picture Library, after their reemergence at the end of the 1950s, were clearly a subgenre of "action comics". Their propaganda function had changed: Rather than idealizing the specific role of the US military in the Second World War like US war comics did until 1945, they propagated "war values" in general in a familiar historical setting.

III

Even if we could terminally accept all the above mentioned examples of comics as war propaganda, intentional as well as unintentional, since they were massively distributed and promoted the naturalization of war and the soldier, would we be prepared to accept the total identification of propaganda with advertising the book is suggesting?

The comics advertising Camel cigarettes were, the book implies, propaganda for smoking. Yet they primarily advertised a specific brand rather than promoted a lifestyle. Though promoting a smoking lifestyle and disputing studies that smoking caused cancer was extremely important for the tobacco industry front (and prompted companies to produce the famous joint "Frank Statement to Cigarette Smokers" in 1954[2]), brand competition had become a priority by the 1950s. By treating the Camel ads as pure propaganda of a "bad habit", we are underestimating the role of the actual company commissioning the artwork. Would selling soap or perfume in comic-strip form be less propagandistic? The chapter "Let's Go Shooting" poses this problem in yet clearer terms. "Comics have been used extensively to promote merchandise of all kinds, shapes and forms," Stromberg says (94). The comic books produced for the gun manufacturer Remington in the 1950s, for example, were made for advertising purposes, and while they do contain pro-gun propaganda, Stromberg himself admits that "[d]oubtless for many Americans there is nothing strange about [an older man trying to convince two young people of the beauty of shooting and owning a rifle]," which, he implies, renders them less suspect of propaganda. However, he then adds that "for someone living outside the US … it does sound rather odd." So is propaganda measured by the contingent effect a work has on its public? Maybe the finer point here is that the propaganda value of the Remington comics is found in their helping extend the promotion of the products (and subsequent behavior and ideology) of a powerful rifle industry, amongst a new target group, children. And since, as the book argues, propaganda relies on us versus them, and since there are always "two sides to an argument" (94), Stromberg also points to the relevant counter-propaganda. The example though is quite asymmetrical: As counter-propaganda, one would expect a 1950s campaign against owning and using arms, but instead, we are offered the 1991 comic book Born to be Wild, created for the benefit of P.E.T.A., which is more specifically against hunting and cruelty to animals. The P.E.T.A. comic book certainly has some (loose) thematic connection to the Remington ads. Yet one was actually created for a manufacturer of a specific product the comic was selling, while the other, produced decades later, was paid for by a charity as part of a non-profit awareness-raising campaign. The problem of treating the politics of advertizing as part of the communication techniques of any campaign message is as much an ethical as it is a categorical problem.

IV

But why do categories and taxonomies matter? Why not integrate ads and political campaigns, and even examine today's charity campaigns and cold war propaganda side by side? One might indeed go as far as asking: What is the problem with broadening the definition of propaganda? Why not include all kinds of persuasive techniques, why not make propaganda a matter of rhetoric rather than intent, content, commission, and channel of distribution? Wouldn't that actually enrich our critical apparatus? Wouldn't we be more able to actually understand what we are being served as "information" or as "entertainment"?

In the early 1920, Edward Bernays set out to prove that advertising, a neutral communication technique, was as benign as propaganda. With his book Propaganda, he attempted to legitimize the emerging science of public relations and turn propaganda into, first, a necessary evil, and by the end of his book, a necessity not so evil at all.[3] In trying to lend aura to his own role as counsel on public relations, not only did he remain immune to the connotations of the word propaganda but saw the engineering of consent as "an important element in democratic society" (Bernays 9).

Stromberg does not subscribe to this tradition of attributing all communication to marketing. Far from it. Quite the contrary, he has a sharp eye and a fine taste for critical radical literature. Like every true fan, he is aware that, even though they might have been used for all kinds of purposes, from the very birth of the medium, comics always had a humorous and even intrinsically critical edge.

One could go back and say, agreeing with David Kunzle's seminal study,[4] that comics were born with and as propaganda in the early modern era. In tracing the changes that the meaning of propaganda has undergone since the Reformation, we would see that indeed it has fluctuated from a derogatory to an even more derogatory and then finally to a neutral or even positive term. If, with Bernays, we see that selling market products and selling political ideas can share the same language, and if comics were born with and as propaganda in the early modern era, how could we exit a circular argument according to which everything is propaganda? Such an argument would make a book like Stromberg's dull at best—which it certainly is not.

If Stromberg had chosen to touch upon stylistic and aesthetic issues, that would have lifted some of the weight of the insolvable inherent contradictions in the definition of propaganda content. Indeed, as soon as we focus on comics as an artistic medium, and allow for a notion of artistic autonomy as an aspect of the appreciation of comics, a different set of demands arises. If the artistic medium of comics has often been subjected to the purpose of selling something, propaganda should be understood as a kind of betrayal of artistic purpose. And then, what content would be deemed artistic enough, and thus appropriate for comics?

V

Stromberg's book indirectly revisits the difficult issue of the genre's status: At their inception comics were a political art, then they became a highly popularized, de-politicized medium that kept their distance from highbrow, official artistic channels. Their claim to artistic merit, today fully recognized and secured, has actually given political purposes more, rather than less, value. It seems, though, that Stromberg does not want to acknowledge this as a positive fact and completely identifies politics with the evil commerce of ideas and products. This he does with no nostalgia for politics and no illusion whatsoever that politics ever could have been something more than just an ideological commodity, packaged and disguised as a noble vision of social change. Hence he finds it easy to attach the label of propaganda to certain works with a critical content. He includes the 1982 graphic novel Barefoot Gen by Keiji Nakazawa, a "survivor's true story" of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, which was translated into several languages, including Esperanto, and was recently translated again, just before it became tragically topical after the Fukushima disaster. Stromberg does not fail to praise Art Spiegelman's much-discussed Maus, as well as the superb World War 3 series. In all these cases, he still sees propaganda, because there's a visible enemy in the picture, even if not always personified. However, how can such works seriously qualify as propaganda? The autobiographical Barefoot Gen and Maus, and the radical World War 3 comics are too critical, too complex and argumentative for the readability and digestibility standards of any propaganda. There is too much balance between the "subjective" and the "objective" points of view, the poetic and the political here. The mark of challenge to authority, of doubt and of hope, is much more effective and intense than any easy dismissal of a clearly denoted "us versus them".

Stromberg tries hard to establish that even works with no intention to blackmail persuasion emotionally, works of radical critique or sarcasm, works published independently, can fall into the trap of propaganda. In his attempt to be as objective and as unforgiving as possible, Stromberg constructs a notion that propaganda can creep into a work beyond its intentions, narrative technique, content, publisher, commission, circulation or public. But even if any terminally acceptable definition of propaganda is quite hard to establish, we must wonder whether propaganda ever was just an undetectable virus rather than a clear imprint on a work, whether this came from the artist, the publisher, the multinational company, the Party or the State. While it is certain that propaganda, especially when it overtly lies or oversimplifies, does not want to pass as lies or oversimplification, or as politics disguised as fiction, its fundamental deceptiveness can never fully evade its target group. There seems to be a secret contract between the deceiver and the deceived here.

There has always been a part of the public that belonged to "them" rather than "us", and there was always a part of "us" who did not stand persuaded after the message had been received. Techniques of creating consent were widely discussed in the interwar era, when fascist rhetoric was being cultivated on both sides of the Atlantic. And especially after the 1920s, the use of the term propaganda started following two radically different paths of interpretation. One followed Bernay's science of Public Relations. Another encompassed sociological and psychological studies on propaganda which reversed Bernay's insight that propaganda can sell everything and anything. These studies tended to focus on fascist and communist propaganda and questioned the politics of the liberal marketplace itself, rather than just the close relationship of political rhetoric to the language of commerce. Based on Le Bon and Freud, thinkers adopting this approach, from Adorno, through H. G. Wells and Aldous Huxley to Jacques Ellul, all realized, with Bernays, the generalized appeal of propaganda, but also went much further. They asked not only "who are they" and "who are we", but also "who of us?" And while most fiction, and also Adorno's and the critical literature associated with the Frankfurt School, tended to suggest that mass deception is an effect of mass psychology,[5] Jacques Ellul proved that, while we are indeed embedded in a kind of "mass culture of mass deception," it is not the "uncultivated masses" who are mostly affected by it. It is rather the literati, the well-educated and well-integrated members of society, who play a far bigger part in reproducing the system of propaganda, which actually coincides with the system of mass culture at large.[6] Within this camp, a profound change has taken place from Freud to Ellul. We are no longer interested in identifying the content (rhetoric) and appeal (the psychological hooks) of propaganda as opposed to other, more innocent forms of mass communication, as much as we are interested in how it has managed to duplicate the structures of communication and completely identify with them. Today's pseudo-interactive infotainment regime makes this question even more relevant.

VI

The political split in the definition of propaganda—on the one hand, propaganda as a potentially all-encompassing technology of manipulation and alienation in modern capitalist totalitarianism, and on the other, propaganda as an isolated political tool that management and advertising can choose to avoid—should be taken into account in any definition of propaganda. Not acknowledging these radically different political uses might still produce interesting sociological models,[7] but these don't help much in understanding a medium like comics. We need a much more decisive and partisan definition in order to make an actual point when trying to detect propaganda in comics.

If we're lazy with the definition, we risk missing a lot of the jokes. Octobriana is a work of Eastern European humor, carnivalising Russia's October Revolution symbolism with a touch of wild psychedelia and sensuality. And Stromberg is aware of the irony. Yet within the pattern he has forced upon his wonderful idea for a book, he cannot really exclude this comic from propaganda. The same goes for the Freak Brothers. The question is inevitably in every reader's mind: Were they really just promoting the drug culture, or did Sheldon's protagonists (as part of a strong counterculture in which the medium of comics was comfortably at home) also show a slight shade of weariness and occasional self-pity, the self-critical mark of the anti-hero?

It must be repeated. Stromberg has composed a remarkably rich and accessible exposé, with dazzling images and a tight structure. He sets out to provide an unambiguous account of the relation between "Comics" and Propaganda," though there is still dispute about the definition of either. Certain historical contradictions and conceptual shortcomings are the price to pay for so grand an ambition.

Notes

[1] Unless otherwise specified, all page numbers cited in brackets in the text refer to Fredrik Stromberg's Comic Art Propaganda: A Graphic History.

[2] "A Frank Statement to Cigarette Smokers" was published on January 4, 1954 in over 400 newspapers and was signed by 14 U.S. tobacco companies.

[3] See Edward Bernays' opening sentence in his 1928 book Propaganda: "The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society" (Bernays 9), as well as his closing sentence: "Intelligent men must realize that propaganda is the modern instrument by which they can fight for productive ends and help to bring order out of chaos" (Bernays 159).

[4] See David Kunzle's The Early Comic Strip, chapter 1 (11-39).

[5] Adorno's "Freudian Theory and the Pattern of Fascist Propaganda" was very influential in establishing the idea of an "artificial" and "manufactured" behavior of the masses.

[6] This idea is particularly formulated in Jacques Ellul's Propaganda of 1965.

[7] See, for example, Sheryl Tuttle Ross: "[P]ropaganda involve[s] … the one who is persuading (Sender) [who is] doing so intentionally, [the] target for such persuasion (Receiver) and [the] means of reaching that target (Message). […] There are four conditions for a message to be considered propaganda. Propaganda involves the intention to persuade. As well, propaganda is sent on behalf of a sociopolitical institution, organization, or cause. Next, the recipient of propaganda is a socially significant group of people. Finally, propaganda is an epistemic struggle to challenge others' thoughts" (16-17).

Works Cited

Adorno, Theodor Wiesegrund. "Freudian Theory and the Pattern of Fascist Propaganda." Géza Roheim (ed.). Psychoanalysis and the Social Sciences, vol. 3. New York: International Universities Press, 1951: 408-433. Print.

Bernays. Edward L. Propaganda. New York: Horace Liverlight, 1928. Print.

Edwards, Brian. "The popularization of war in comic strips 1958-1988." History Workshop Journal 42 (Autumn 1996): 180-189. Print.

Ellul, Jacques. Propaganda: The Formation of Men's Attitudes. New York: Knopf, 1965. Print.

Frank Statement to Cigarette Smokers, A. Web. 21 March 2012. <http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=The_Frank_Statement>

Kunzle, David. The Early Comic Strip: Narrative Strips and Picture Stories in the European Broadsheet from c.1450 to 1825 (History of the Comic Strip, vol.1). Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973. Print.

Tuttle Ross, Sheryl. "Understanding Propaganda: The Epistemic Merit Model and Its Application to Art." Journal of Aesthetic Education 36.1 (2002): 16–30. Print.

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