In the first of a two-part series, Andrew Selth explores the relationship between conflict and comics in yesterday’s Myanmar.
In his 2011 study, British Comics, James Chapman wrote that comic books were ‘a valuable but neglected source of social history that provided insights into the societies and cultures in which they were produced and consumed’. Like other forms of popular visual culture, such as movies, comics are not only a reflection of the tastes and social values of consumers, but also play an important role in influencing their attitudes and behaviours. Chapman went on to state; ‘The fact that the main consumers of comics have been children make them an even more potent form of popular culture’.
In this regard, George Orwell’s views remain pertinent. In an essay on ‘Boys’ Weeklies’ first published in 1940 he wrote that:
Most people are influenced far more than they would care to admit by novels, serial stories, films and so forth, and from this point of view the worst books are often the most important because they are usually the ones that are read earliest in life. It is probable that many people who consider themselves extremely sophisticated and ‘advanced’ are actually carrying through life an imaginative background which they acquired in childhood.
Orwell was writing about children’s story papers like Gem (1907-39) and Magnet (1908-40), but his comments could apply equally to comics.
With these thoughts in mind, it might be instructive to survey the development of comic books in key English-speaking countries and to look at the way in which Burma (formally known after 1989 as Myanmar) has been depicted in them.
Comics can be traced back to the 19th century and the use of cartoons, usually consisting of a single panel and caption, to amuse and inform adult audiences. These illustrations developed into sequential frame-enclosed pictures with captions and speech balloons. By the early 20th century, comic ‘strips’ were a regular feature of most major newspapers. The first modern comic book, Famous Funnies, was released in the US in 1933. While read by adults, they were aimed mainly at juveniles. The name ‘comic’ derived from their original satirical and humorous content, but they embraced a wide range of subjects.
Before World War II, most British comics were ‘funnies’ meant for young children, but in the US they tended to focus more on action and adventure stories for older readers. In 1938, Superman made his debut in Action Comics, followed a year later by Batman in Detective Comics. These and other costumed superheroes became enormously popular, greatly boosting sales. They made comic books a major arm of the global publishing industry, particularly during their ‘golden age’, generally taken to be from 1938 to 1954.
References to Burma in Western comic books have been linked to events in the country, topical issues in the wider world and, to a lesser extent, popular literature.
The first mention of Burma appears to have been in 1938. In the US that year, Detective Comics reproduced a 1930-31 newspaper comic strip based on Sax Rohmer’s novels about the Chinese arch-villain Dr Fu Manchu. Both the strip and comic book referred to Fu Manchu’s Burma connections and those of his nemesis, former Police Commissioner Sir Denis Nayland Smith. However, it was the construction of the Burma Road from Lashio to Kunming, begun in 1937, and the invasion of Burma by Japan in December 1941 that prompted its depiction in comic books. Once again, US publishers led the way.
In 1941, a Grit Grady comic placed its eponymous hero in Rangoon, where he was recruited by a mysterious woman to run guns to Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist Chinese forces. In 1942, Action Comics sent the adventurer Congo Bill to ferry supplies up the Burma Road. Pat Patriot, who was billed as ‘America’s Joan of Arc’, spent most of her time protecting the home front. However, in her last adventure she went to Burma with 100 female soldiers (all wearing skirts and high heels) to train the ‘slack, slovenly and unmilitarised’ Chinese troops guarding the Burma Road (Daredevil Comics, 1942).
The comic strip (and later books) Terry and the Pirates, created by Milton Caniff in 1934, described the adventures of a soldier of fortune in the ‘Far East’. After the outbreak of World War II, Terry joined the US air force and the action revolved around an air base in southern China, similar to that operated by the ‘Flying Tigers’ American Volunteer Group in 1941 and 1942. A major character in the comic was a sultry and morally ambiguous blonde woman named ‘Burma’. Caniff was widely praised for his realistic and sympathetic portrayal of military life in the China-Burma-India (CBI) theatre.
Other American comic book characters were recruited to assist the war effort. In 1942, for example, the Strange Twins featured in a story entitled ‘The Burma Road Bombers’. In a 1943 Action Comics story entitled ‘Burma Remembers’, Tex Thompson (known to his fans as Americommando) was sent to destroy a Japanese rubber stockpile. Also that year, the air ace Spin Shaw was shot down over Burma and secret agent Jane Martin was sent to Rangoon to expose a Japanese spy ring. At the same time, ‘The Black Venus’, a former exotic dancer turned fighter pilot, who favoured tight leather bodysuits, earned her reputation as the ‘Terror of the Burma Skies’.
In 1944, Quality Comics published ‘Bait for a Death Trap’, in which the intrepid pilot known as Blackhawk was based in Burma’s Shan hills. After being shot down, he was about to be executed by the Japanese when he was rescued by a bull elephant trained by ‘Burma Jack’, ‘a bearded rascal, formerly an elephant dealer and now a soldier of fortune’. Jack’s houseboys referred to him by the hybrid Hindi/Burmese term, ‘Burra Thakin’. After appearing to betray Blackhawk and two other members of his squadron to the Japanese, Burma Jack reveals himself to be an undercover British intelligence officer.
During World War II, millions of comic books were printed each month. The US government considered them critical to the morale of the fighting forces. They were also powerful propaganda tools, depicting superheroes like Captain America, and ‘actual people and events’. The latter category included stories about Burma, such as ‘Wingate’s Raiders’ (American Library, 1943) and ‘Merrill’s Marauders’ (Real Life Comics, 1944). Even after the war ended there were stories like ‘The Secret Warriors’, which described how the Office of Strategic Services (which became the CIA) trained an army of ‘250,000 monkey-eating Kachins’ (True Comics, 1946).
In the mid-1950s, the Joint European Series of Classics Illustrated comics (which were written in German, Swedish and Dutch) published ‘The Burma Road’. In a fictionalised but reasonably accurate account, it traced the route’s history from the Mongol invasion of Burma in the 13th century to the end of World War II. It is unclear why this title was not issued as part of the main Classics series (1941-71), which was very popular in the US, UK and countries like Australia. However, in the 1980s the comic was translated into English, and reissued with the original artwork.
The war in Burma continued to be a rich source of material for the comic industry. The way that it was portrayed, however, varied between British and American products. At the risk of over-generalising, the former tended to be more restrained and factually accurate. Stories in War Picture Library (1958-84), Air Ace (1960-70) and Commando (1961-present), for example, were often written and drawn by British veterans. Some had served in the CBI theatre. They also drew on historical records for greater authenticity. Their descriptions of combat in Burma were thus (within obvious limits) quite credible.
These comics depicted Burma in predictable terms. Sixty-four page stories like ‘Soldier of Burma’, ‘Special Forces Burma’, ‘Gliders Over Burma’ and ‘Escape From Burma’ gave ample scope for writers and artists to describe the country’s rugged terrain, lush tropical vegetation, exotic fauna and extreme weather. Favourite themes were the trials of special units like the Chindits and efforts by downed RAF pilots to return overland to India. Pro-Allied ethnic groups like the Karen, Kachin and Naga were treated sympathetically, while the Japanese were almost always depicted as ruthless fanatics.
In US war comics, by contrast, the plots involving Burma tended to be more far-fetched, the action more extreme, the dialogue more improbable and the heroes less believable. Warfront Comics (1951-67), for example, trumpeted the exploits of the ‘Lone Tiger’, who flew solo fighter missions against the Japanese. ‘Sergeant Fury and his Howling Commandos’ (Marvel Comics, 1963-81), wreaked mayhem along the Burma Road while ‘Captain Savage and his Leatherneck Raiders’ (Marvel Comics, 1968-70) conducted equally unlikely operations. In a 1971 comic, ‘The Losers’ escaped a tiger and trekked through Burma’s ‘dense fetid jungle’ to attack a Japanese base, helped by an elephant.
By the 1980s, a more relaxed censorship regime and an appetite for uncompromising detail had blurred some of the distinctions between British and American war comics. This was demonstrated by Battle Picture Weekly, which was published in Britain from 1975 to 1988. It was perhaps best known for a series produced in the mid-1970s entitled ‘Darkie’s Mob’, in which the tormented (indeed, almost psychotic) anti-hero moulded a squad of dispirited men into ‘the most savage fighting force the Japanese [in Burma] have ever known’. In 2011, the stories were collected and reissued as a graphic book.
Comic books with a Burma theme, however, have not been confined to stories about gung-ho heroics during World War II. The country has also provided a setting for much lighter fiction, fantasies and foolishness.
To be continued…
Andrew Selth is Adjunct Associate Professor at the Griffith Asia Institute, Griffith University, and at the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, Australian National University.
A related article by Andrew Selth, on colonial Burma in pulp fiction, was published in Nikkei Asian Review on 11 July 2016.