A Tool for Propaganda.

AuthorLeanza, Emilio
PositionBOOKS - Paul S. Hirsch's "Pulp Empire: The Secret History of Comic Book Imperialism"

Today, the superhero blockbuster reigns supreme as the United States' most significant cultural export.

Emilio Leanza is associate editor of The Progressive.

Avengers: Endgame (2019), the three-hour culmination of twenty-two Marvel films, remains among the top-grossing movies of all time, due in part to $600 million in Chinese ticket sales. And though the genre is frequently panned as the "death of cinema," the global ubiquity of Spider-Man, Iron Man, Wonder Woman, Captain America, and other costumed vigilantes collectively project a vision of the United States--usually a conservative one--to the rest of the world.

But the "soft power" commanded by superheroes isn't coincidental, and it isn't new. As historian Paul S. Hirsch outlines in Pulp Empire: The Secret History of Comic Book Imperialism, comics have always been entwined with capitalism, race, and foreign policy. While physical comic books are now overshadowed by television, movies, and video games, it's difficult to overstate how beloved comics were for most of the twentieth century. Cheap, easy to read, and available almost everywhere, they saturated schools, waiting rooms, drug stores, and, notably, military bases. It was these traits that made comics such an attractive propaganda tool for the federal government during World War II and the Cold War.

Pulp Empire chronicles how comics, once nothing more than a lowbrow form of pop culture, were adopted by the government as a strategic weapon in the battle to sway populations to embrace a U.S.-led future. Hirsch--who spent months combing through archives, searching for prints that were, for the most part, meant to be thrown away--begins his account with the early and unregulated years of comic book history.

When comics first became widespread in the 1930s, newsstands were dominated by crime and horror titles. Series like Murder, Inc. and Crime Does Not Pay, created by writers and artists toiling in New York's underbelly, depicted a version of U.S. society that was replete with extreme violence, chaos, and disrespect for authority. It was not uncommon for these comics to be "packed with murder, dismemberment, and torture committed by--and against--very average-looking American men, women, and children."

This uncensored world of...

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