Comics and the World Wars: A Cultural Record

AHRC funded, 2011-2015



With the centenary of 1914-18 approaching, followed by commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the end of World War 2, these epic events will receive a high public profile worldwide. This timely project therefore asks the question: what is the contribution of the comic form to the cultural heritage of these global experiences & what different kinds of historical meaning emerge?

The project research & the two major exhibitions that go with it - one on World War One comics in 2014 & one on Second World War comics in 2015, both at London's Cartoon Museum- will emphasise to the heritage industry the potential of comics as a cultural artefact.


Research Showcase
  • Principal Investigator: Prof. Jane Chapman
  • Research Assistant: Anna Hoyles
  • Research Consultant: Dan Ellin
  • PhD students: Adam Sherif and Andrew Kerr
  • Project consultant: Dr Kent Worcester
  • Administrator
Ca Ne Fait Rien, Australian War Memorial
Courtesy of Australian War Memorial

Media Coverage‌

  • Propaganda, sexism and atrocities illustrated - University news pages
  • Can comic books shape our understanding of major cultural events? - This is Lincolnshire
  • BBC Radio 4 Woman's Hours interview
  • YouTube. Uncurated - Comics and the representation of female war-time bravery

AHRC - Comics and the World Wars

Many people have childhood memories of comic strips and of following war stories with familiar characters on a regular basis. The comic format has now expanded from strips and magazines aimed at children, to books aimed at adults, spawning a new 'genre' of factually based stories. In France comics are referred to as the '9th art'.
Ca Ne Fait Rien, Australian War Memorial 15 Feb 1918
Courtesy of Australian War Memorial
In the UK world war stories faded into decline from the mid 1980s, whereas Francophone and Asian comics are still being produced today. So, a transnational comparative approach to WW1 & WW2 strips reveals different aspects of each country's experience as either undefeated, or occupied lands and peoples. Comics can be for children's educative purposes, or have a political message focused upon adult audiences, or contain covert propaganda.
Christmas Presents - Gould
Courtesy of Australian War Memorial
Researchers are examining the kind of views that comics offer in specific aspects of world war history that usually receive less attention, such as the endangered heritage of The Great War that has become overshadowed by the popular emphasis on World War 2. Is there a unique form of insight into the harsh realities of trench warfare or in comic depictions of heroes, enemy and victims?
Researchers are also investigating the relationship between creators, publisher & reader & the mutual influence upon each other, demonstrated by the long term survival of certain popular characters & formats. Further, the project looks at ethnic issues through depictions of the Asian theatre of war. The role of women either as caring mothers or uniformed workers is being scrutinised. Researchers will look at the way eye witness accounts & personal testimony interact with elements of illustrative fantasy in order to represent events that are 'un-representable' such as the Holocaust and Hiroshima.
Ca Ne Fait Rien, Australian War Memorial
Courtesy of Australian War Memorial
Thus this project will open up a new area of debate, drawing attention publically to the need to revisit old comics. The message is that these cultural artefacts can offer a popular record of attitudes, feelings & character types. Findings are likely to suggest that the range of cultural archives used by historians as sources should be widened to include some factual comics & that future 'public history' (now dominated by popular film & TV) should also include them.
‌National Archives of Singapore
Courtesy of National Archives of Singapore

The Comics Team


Jane Chapman

‌Prof. Jane Chapman: is a comparative media historian, specialising in amateur proto comic strips from the 'Dominions' in WW1, produced mainly by soldiers in their trench publications, and in comic strips and books from occupied France during WW2. She has written on 'Paroles d'Etoiles'-the words of the star-a series of radio interviews with verbatim personal testimonials that were printed first in book form, followed by a comic book, as memories of hidden Jewish children who had fled the Holocaust & were forced to assume false identities to survive.
Soleil Productions - Clara et du Catherine
Courtesy of Soleil Productions
Prof. Chapman has published in several journals on the WW1, and also on gender in Australian comics during the Second World War, when women were recruited for the first time to the armed forces - a subject covered in a journal article and book chapter. She is editorial lead for the team's publications of two monographs for Palgrave Macmillan (2015), and is a consultant for BBC WW1 centenary programming.
Australian Journal of Communication
Courtesy of University of Queensland
Ca Ne Fait Rien, Australian War Memorial Christmas 1917
Courtesy of Australian War Memorial 

Dan Ellin

Dan has undertaken research into cartoons included in First World War 'trench publications'; primitive newspapers often produced by the men themselves just behind the front line. He has found around a hundred examples of early comic strips in British, Canadian, Anzac and American trench publications and identified common themes within them. This has already led to the publication of an article with Jane Chapman, 'Multi-panel comic narratives in Australian First World War trench publications as citizen journalism' Australian Journal of Communication, 39, 3, 2012, p. 1-22. He is currently working on depictions of trauma in comics through the lens of literary criticism's 'trauma theory' for a chapter 'Comic Strip Narratives of Trauma and Innocence during World War Two' in the forthcoming Palgrave Pivot mini-monograph Comics and the Holocaust. Largely focusing on Keiji Nakazawa's Barefoot Gen, his chapter will discuss the ability of a sequential pictorial narrative to depict the traumatic experience of Hibakusha (Atomic bomb survivors).
Courtesy of Last Gasp

Courtesy of Last Gasp, images to appear in the book Comics, Holocaust and Trauma (forthcoming, Palgrave Macmillan, 2015)

Anna Hoyles

Anna is exploring the comic strips of Australian and North American socialist and trade union publications during the Great War. Above all, she is interested in the recurrence of certain types of characters, their significance to the labour movement (several became household names) and the extent of their geographical distribution.
Continuing on the labour movement theme, the second part of her study analyses aspects of comic strips published by the Communist Party of Great Britain's newspaper, the Daily Worker, during the Second World War. In both of the above cases she is interested in what part comic strips and humour played within these organisations and how the former can fulfil a valuable role as a historiographical source in broadening our understanding of these groups.
Eugene V. Debs Collection, Cunningham Memorial Library, Indiana State University
Courtesy of Eugene V. Debs Collection, Cunningham Memorial Library, Indiana State University

The People's Press - The Front Line
Courtesy of The People's Press
Her final area of research is the war comics industry and the motivations of its publishers and its readers, with particular reference to reception theory and Darnton's 'communication circuit'.

Andrew Kerr

The history of the phenomenon we now refer to a "comic", whether we follow the phrase with "strip" or "book", is well known. The historical role that comic strips and comic books have played and their effect on the species that developed them as a medium of communication, however, is not. From the CPI's Bulletin for Cartoonists to news stand depictions of the Japanese during the battles in the South Pacific, his research analyses historical evidence from both world wars in order to tease out the influence that comics have had upon the hearts, minds, and opinions of people and nations involved in both conflicts. His project, entitled 'Heroes & Villains: Reality & Imagination', focuses on how characters are represented in comics and the cultural significance these representations had as vehicles for wartime entertainment and propaganda.
Daily Mirror, British Cartoon Archive
Courtesy of Daily Mirror, British Cartoon Archive

Adam Sherif

With the title 'Forgotten History - Gender & Ethnicity', Adam's research sets out to examine US comic books of the Second World War within the rigid confines of historical analysis. Through integration with more conventional sources and in conjunction with the relevant historiography, he is seeking to establish to what extent comics can be considered historical evidence, in what different senses they may be said to be a record, and finally, what contribution the medium can make to established debates. His empirical work consists of two case study historical questions. The first focuses on the roles of women at war. He is examining what insights comic books can offer relative to discussions of contemporary attitudes towards the presence (and action) of women in the theatre of war. With the second case study, on National Socialist genocide, he is establishing and analysing depictions and references to the persecution and extermination of Jews and other, often overlooked, minorities. This investigation pertains to the historiographical discussions of US governmental and popular awareness of the Holocaust.

Comics and the World Wars - A Cultural Record 
Courtesy of DC Comics

 Media Coverage