Comic books as media today would not raise much attention if they featured heavy use of violence or representations of vigilantes who take the law into their own hands. On the contrary, the media now is deeply absorbed into the popular canon of the US. “The comic book, whether in the form of a collectible vintage title, action figure, Halloween costume, graphic novel, or film, is the epitome of American popular media at home and abroad.”

In the post-war years, however, several events – such as a popular focus on psychology, evidence for the development of negative stereotypical attitudes that may start in early childhood, and a number of other components that would inform preliminary character development – in one misunderstood hysterical uproar led to the burning, banning and finally control and censorship of comic books.
Even though basically directed at those editions that already on their front pages presented extreme violence, gore, blood, or horror. Nevertheless, also the harmless comics, such as a couple of superhero and avenger books, would be subject to inspection. After the establishment of control boards that supervised the contents, the horror and extreme violence vanished mostly, as the Comics Code banned representation of corrupt policemen, judges and the like and the several safety “seals” on the cover that had to be earned by censorship now tamed those contents down considerably.

However, other visual and conceptual aspects, no less disturbing, would survive the taming of the comics, namely racism, white supremacy, and violent (military) intervention as soon as the story required a setting where Americans were confronted by individuals from other nations. As between “… World War II and the mid-1960s, American policy makers and propagandists played a vital role in shaping the contents of commercial and propaganda comics.”

Cold War politics and propaganda would have anything from chewing gum, Coke and comic books work in the interest of American foreign policy to fight communism, while those wares were connected to the American way of life. Now they were available as goods (accompanied by American ideology) for foreign nations.

By simplification and all other characteristics of the comic book, the media is unique as document representing the general direction of US foreign policy. As “… the American commercial comic book can show us aspects of US policy making during the mid-twentieth century that no other object can. Additionally, state-sanctioned propaganda comic books from the same period can tell us much about the cultural Cold War, American imperialism and how the federal government looked at western Europe and the decolonizing world.”

While US censorship made comics for domestic distribution published in the 1950s “safer” for mostly young American readers, those comics in circulation before and during WWII were hardly subject to any control. The stories here often used plots that quickly led to extreme forms of nationalism on the brink to chauvinism, racism and pity for other, obviously “underdeveloped” nations, when it came to sharing an American glance at other countries.
Millions of comic books followed American soldiers all around the globe and were finally left behind when the GIs had long returned to the US. Now the books were read and reread by the native population, i.e. they consumed a certain image of the US as a country where seemingly – according to the plots – violence, racism, stereotypical images of other nations, humiliating presentations of scantily-clad women, and aggression and lust were mostly connected to dark-skinned people as a natural and everyday feature.

That American outlook, almost exclusively reserved for the comic book and hardly found in the domestic newspaper comic strips, would transport a negative image of the US to other nations, or wherever the book was consumed, federal agencies feared. To avoid anti-American notions (fed by comic book-style over exaggeration), they became active, as there naturally existed those critical voices abroad that called American foreign policy imperialistic and violent, just like their comics.
At the same time, as a parallel development, already in the 1940s, “… government agencies like the Federal Civil Defense Administration, CIA, and State Department recognized the medium’s potential for delivering propaganda.… They shipped tens of millions of comic books abroad …. What resulted was a pulp empire – a complex and fluid network of interactions among comic books, America’s mid-twentieth-century imperialism, and its crusades at home and abroad against fascism and communism. This empire, created by comic books, shows that Cold War diplomacy, culture, and race were a single cultural complex; these concepts were all intertwined and blended together, not artificially separated.”

Author Hirsch in Pulp Empire for the first time analyzes the massive cultural and political potential of the comic book for world history. This bizarre configuration (the US government both fighting and exploiting the power of the comic book several times) as the central topic of the book is a fascinating trip back to a period long ago.
When a rather innocent and simple mass produced item became a powerful tool of the US government until the end of the Cold War.
And there is a lot of evidence of that influence, although in the 1950s and 1960s hardly anybody knew about it. “At its core, in the pulp empire, the comic book is not a collectible or an artistic object: it is a political publication co-opted by government agencies as diverse as the CIA and the New York State Committee on Mental Health.”

With emphasis on the history of the media’s power as both cheap entertainment, dangerous influence on national audiences, but at the same time an effective, if a naive tool for American foreign policies, Pulp Empire with its 44 color plates is divided into two major parts.
Part one demonstrates a very detailed history of the media, tracing the major steps from the initial creation all the way to its use as an effective propaganda weapon during WWII and the early days of the Cold War. The pulp empire began just then, and it brought along a number of highly controversial issues, such as media control vs. artistic freedom, and individuality and personal freedom vs. powerful political agencies, both on a domestic and international level.
Part two covers the subsequent Cold War years and the problematic issues of extreme violence, horror, sexism, chauvinism and racism in those later publications and how they endangered the success of prior comic book marketing in favor of American politics, the American way of life and democracy as the superior ideology.
Furthermore, this part in a detailed style uncovers the role of several federal agencies to find a suitable style for their propaganda comics to fight communism abroad; what in general redefined comics as political objects that – often enough – received support from the agencies.

Apart from that, we find seven individual sections that deal with exclusive aspects, in particular; however, each chapter draws attention to the (sometimes very complicated) relationship between the comic book and the US government over the decades. Recommended chapters here definitely are “Donald Duck’s Atom Bomb” and “Thor Battles the Vietcong,” that deal with the introduction and discussion of atomic power in the comics and in American society and the “drafting” of superheroes (even those from other planets!) in post WWII comics when they become both ambassadors and warriors for US foreign policies, respectively.
Pulp Empire is an intriguing title that will find its way into many comic books studies libraries, and it is also of interest for students of American Studies and criminology.

Review by Dr. A. Ebert © 2021

Paul S. Hirsch. Pulp Empire: The Secret History of Comic Book Imperialism. University of Chicago Press, 2021, 344 p.