Sunday, March 21, 2010

Exploring the Japanese American War experience through Comics, Part 1

A few years ago, Marvel Comics released a comic as part of the Civil War Story line that brought to mind a number of issues touch close to home as a fourth generation Japanese American and a son and grandson of Internment Camp survivors. The issue, Front Line #1, featured an interesting back-up story that examined the super hero civil rights story through the lens of a flash back in an unnamed camp in the desolate western America.  At the onset of WWII for America,  thousands families of Japanese heritage were forced to leave their home and in what was one of the greatest mishaps of the twentieth century. Numerous reasons were given; the official government statements justifying the camps proclaimed that this exile would be for their protection, in reality, this mass removal of American citizens from their own home was fueled by growing war paranoia and xenophobic undertones felt all across the country.

Front Line #1 somewhat missed the point as to the societal and cultural impact of this event. Attempting to draw parallels with omnipotent beings having a clash and common civilians being forced to leave all of the freedoms that their country granted them for the sake of a greater good didn't work as a story trope in this instance. Yet this story illustrates a few interesting points of history in regards to how the interment and the Japanese experience has been examined in comic book history.

To begin with, I present this political cartoon by Dr. Seuss.

The common sentiment toward the Japanese living in America at the outbreak of WWII, was one of fear, if not abject hatred. The concept of the model minority or even the tokenist fetishism of contemporary  popular culture (see Final Crisis Aftermath: Dance) had not set in as we see it today. The Japanese on the West Coast were successful immigrants--they were farmers, small business owners, employers, and a force in the economy. White fear and jealousy blamed them for any social ill that might have occurred in the a region while in reality they provided a major cornerstone in local economies. The bombing of Pearl Harbor made anyone with yellow skin and hooded eyes an enemy of the state as this comic illustrates. Whether Dr. Seuss believed this or not, is up to debate; his comics were reflections of the social climate of the time. But every Japanese person on the in Oregon, Washington, and California soon found themselves in prison camps dotted throughout the American west. They were suspect. They could be conspirators. In reality, most were children.

Our major heroes new the Japanese could not be trusted. The Emperor held sway over them even though  the majority were American citizens and had never set foot on Japanese soil. In one particular printed serial of Superman Dailies from June 28th to August 21st, 1943, Clark Kent and Lois Lane visit an internment camp and find that the reason why they have to exist.

Mr. Kent's investigative skills find disloyal Japanese plotting an attack from within the barbed wire confines of this desert prison. Superman takes charge and does what he does, beats the snot out of all of the devious "Jap Rats" once again protecting America. 

In reality not a single Japanese interned during the war was found to be involved in any type of anti-American activities. Many young Japanese Men took up the fight and battled Nazis in Europe. While finding reprints of this serial is difficult, a great deal of commentary exists. A wonderful book, edited by Lawson Inada, Only What We Could Carry, discusses this piece of comic book lore along with many other literary glimpses into the internment.

Superman's heroics during this time presents prime example before people began to reflect on the internment and that, in reality, the US government made a mistake. In the 80s, new heroes appeared with ties to this incident. I will explore those part two of my post.

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