Like any other country, America has had a complicated history with prejudice. Generally, we view American history in very specific eras of “unenlightened” and “enlightened”, with us in the latter. As with any simplifying of history, this ignores the nuances of race and political relations throughout the years. Nothing is ever black and white. The study of any history always needs to take this into account, which in this case will be comic book history.
One of the most vitriolic interactions our nation has had is with Japan. The moment Japanese immigration became legal, several organizations endeavored to give Japanese-Americans as much shit as possible, including one as petty as the “Anti-Jap Laundry League” which is exactly what it sounds like. This was vastly exacerbated by World War 2 and Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. As with any war effort, major media rushed to create war propaganda for the homefront.
This included comic book companies. Characters who previously held no prejudices were now vehicles for Anti-Japanese rhetoric.
One of the most prominent heroes of this generation was Hoverboy. The character was created by Chicago ad execs Bob Stark and C.L. Nutt in 1937. In short, he was a boy that hovered. Actually, he was a man, so his moniker is a bit of a misnomer. And we haven’t even gotten to the bucket helmet yet, which some claim was either an homage to a cartoon character named “Lil’ Bucketboy” or a reference to the “slop gangs” of the 30’s who competitively ferried various goods in buckets for cash. The only thing the character was noteworthy for was his…leanings. Whereas Superman merely dabbled in prejudice, Hoverboy was a full-on racist, misogynist, xenophobic, anti-intellectual asshole.
While unpopular at first, during wartime, he got his niche as a “domestic” superhero who fought the Japanese threat in the States in a series called “Yellow Peril”.
From the very beginning of this particular story, we get one of the most common forms of propaganda: demonization. Though it’s become more of a figurative term, demonization originated in religious scholarship to describe how Christians literally viewed other religious deities as demons. In this case, the literal interpretation is more apropos. The perceived extent of Japanese “foreignness” meant that they were often literally viewed as monstrosities such as this Octo-Man (who sadly isn’t in the actual comic). Representing the Japanese through octupi is a strangely recurring element in WW2 propaganda. The octopus’ could possibly be an attempt to communicate that the Japanese are grasping and greedy.Or maybe the artist saw The Dream of The Fisherman’s Wife and thought they were into that kind of thing.
One would think the focus of Hoverboy’s “heroism” would be a Japanese saboteur or another worthy opponent. Well, it’s not quite that…
So our hero is actually running down an escapee from an internment camp. If you’re not aware, during WW2, Japanese-Americans were thrown into internment camps without regard to a proven connection to the war. Most of these people were ordinary citizens, so chances are this guy isn’t quite Lex Luthor.
Hoverboy’s confidence in the threat of the escapee is ludicrous, but remember that these stories were meant for children. Hoverboy – as a then-popular superhero – had enough clout to make these fears seem valid. This propaganda method is often called ‘assertion’: it’s akin to how advertisers often have a celebrity (let’s say Shaquile O’Neal) hawk a shitty product (let’s say Shaq Soda).
This is where the comic delves into a strangely smart bit of irony. Hoverboy’s correction of the woman attempts to ground this story in “reality” where there is a limit to the evils of the Japanese. It turns Hoverboy into a reasonable authority rather than a racist, bucket-headed loon. Of course he makes sure to remind us that Japanese people would kill a baby if given the chance. Just so we’re clear.
The end of this issue is baffling. The comic built up the threat of the escapee as a representative of the Japanese as a whole, so to drop it in the penultimate panel seems to be counter-productive as propaganda. Hoverboy ends the story claiming his guilt was irrelevant, meaning that the Japanese don’t even have to commit an actual crime to be worthy of death. A message that macabre begs the question: what is the point of this comic?
Unsurprisingly, Hoverboy lost much of his popularity after wartime, but then was picked up again in the 1950’s due to the influence of the House of Un-American Activities Committee (often abbreviated to HUAC). The committee was a government agency responsible for rooting out Communism in American society, particularly involving arts and entertainment. Who better to combat the foreign menace than asian-hunting, black-punching superhero Hoverboy! An animated series was created in 1953 during the ongoing Korean War. One of the plots involved Hoverboy fighting a villainous Julius and Ethel Rosenberg , who are two convicted communist spies executed for treason in real life.
As you can imagine, the series was as ridiculous as the comic that preceded it. But even through such obvious prejudice, it’s possible that we could be misreading the series’ purpose.
The cartoon portrays real-life spokesman for American anti-communism – Senator Joe McCarthy – as a mentor figure for Hoverboy. McCarthy was famous for making wild claims about the pervasiveness of communism in American politics and culture, to the point where his very name became associated with “the practice of making accusations of disloyalty, subversion, or treason without proper regard for evidence” (definition courtesy of Wikipedia). In other words, “McCarthyism”. While the series at first seems to present McCarthy as an intimidating figure, his behavior seems to shift into being even more ridiculous than Hoverboy himself. In one episode, he reveals that an American scientist was building a robot for the army, but the Russians bribed him to sell it to them. McCarthy is quick to call the scientist a commie, to which Hoverboy questions ” If he were a communist, why would he SELL them the design?“. Flustered, McCarthy tells him there’s no time to explain and then insinuates that Hoverboy is a communist, which shuts him up immediately. As much as the show seems to favor anti-communist rhetoric, it clearly lambastes the authorities behind that rhetoric. In this example, it mocks the idea that ANYONE who questions authority must be a communist.
In addition, Hoverboy spouts advice directly to kids that would be considered horrendously jarring, including warning children that “Anybody could be a commie, even Mom and Dad“. This brings us back to the issue of the comic series: who the fuck would agree to this? Would a child believe a cartoon over their own parents? Would the same child believe that any Japanese person is guilty of death for no apparent reason? It’s possible that this series and the comic that preceded it were never true propaganda at all but extremely subtle satire.
While it’s easy to dismiss the satirical nature of the Hoverboy franchise, it’s important to remember satire had to be much more underwritten during these periods. The validity of the Japanese Internment was never officially questioned by the American government until the Carter administration in 1980, meaning that for almost half a century, many thought it was reasonable to lock up Japanese citizens without trials during WW2. During the Red Scare of the 50’s, even indirectly challenging American ideals meant you can be excluded from the entertainment industry for being a communist. This meant that the few creators who thought “This is whack!” had to express themselves in as covert a way as possible. And that way was by taking a “refuge in audacity”. If Hoverboy seems like the most racist, anti-communist hero one could imagine, he’d simultaneously appease the superficial censors and hopefully signal to a smarter-than-they-look youth how outmoded these ideas were. He took the occasional racism of mainstream comics (i.e. Superman “slapping japs”) and took it beyond the bounds of reason. Even Hoverboy’s first appearance has a bit of subversion to it; the title of “Fun Comics” is modified into “Somewhat Fun Comics“, telling us there’s something wrong with the story it’s telling.
While the 60’s popularized social protest, the 50’s both intentionally and unintentionally laid the groundwork for upheaval. The 50’s saw the gradual decline (and literal death) of Joe McCarthy, who’s effect on the nation actually soured most of America’s anti-communist and xenophobic passions. For the first time in awhile, Americans began to realize how silly some of their own prejudices are when displayed on such a grand stage. This gave the flower children and collegiates fodder for protest in the following decade. While I’m sure most wouldn’t consider Hoverboy part of the movement that led to the firebrands of the 60’s, hopefully he can stand as an example that while we may judge history, we should never settle for it’s cover.
Most images courtesy of hoverboy.com,internet reviewer Derek The Bard’s review of the cartoon, and comic artist/fellow blogger Ty Templeton
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