DeFlip Side #5: Riding in Cars with Hitler

DS05.mp3

Welcome everybody. This is DeFlip Side.

I was tooling around the Internet last week when I came across some classic WWII propaganda the U.S. once used to help rally the nation to war. It was an illustration of a purple-suited, blue fedora’d man driving a convertible. Next to him in the front seat sits a hollowed out Hitler, rendered only in white lines—Der Führer himself, ghosted out like Space Ghost, hitching ride on the American dream. The headline at the top of the picture boldly proclaims, “When you ride alone, you ride with Hitler!” Beneath it is an admonishment to “Join a car club, today!”

I get a big kick out of the hilarious ways our WWII propaganda dehumanized and demonized the enemy.  The ludicrous, over-the-top stereotyping makes you wonder how anyone could ever have taken it seriously.

Evidently, a lot of people did. Propaganda was big business. The Hitler poster was painted by Norman Rockwell, and it was only one of a series commissioned by the War Department. Another big name to lend his talents to the war effort was movie director Frank Capra. The creative force behind such great American cornball classics as It’s A Wonderful Life produced an entire series of shorts called Why We Fight.

The funny thing, though, is most Americans already knew why we were fighting. The sneak attack on Pearl Harbor took care of that. I think the propaganda was created mainly to foster comfort and a sense of purpose—to give people a laughably inferior, easily-defeated enemy, and to help them focus on the war effort.

All the popular media at the time followed suit, be it Lamont Cranston busting up Nazi spy rings, or Bugs Bunny urging people to buy war bonds. But in no place was the propaganda movement more evident than in the comic book industry. It virtually revolutionized comics, acting as the catalyst behind the very first team up of many popular superheroes united for a common purpose: in this case, to defeat the Axis powers. They called themselves the Justice Society of America, a name that stands testament to the driving ideals of the time.

It would be stupid to say that things were simpler back then, because the notion of simpler times is a myth. But I do get the impression that Americans of that generation had simpler definitions of ideals like truth and justice, and could more comfortably label things, or even people, as good or evil. The superheroes of the day were an extension of that black and white mindset.

Now America finds itself in a new war, in a new century. And we rightfully have new, real life heroes—the cops, firemen and military personnel who are on the front lines of the war against terrorism. A bunch of clowns running around in tights seems kind of trivial in the light of the mass murders of September 11.

So where do our old heroes—our Supermans, our Captain Marvels—fit into the vast scheme of our cynical, media-savvy society? It doesn’t look like they’ll ever again be able to mirror the national hearts and hopes as they once did in their Golden Age heyday. Yet they endure.

Just look at the latest TV season. We’re seeing new interpretations of traditional comic icons in two new shows: Smallville on the WB, and Justice League on the Cartoon Network. The shows are completely different from each other, but both are good examples of why these characters—and the ideals they represent—are still around after half a century.

Smallville recreates the Superman story using the “pretty-white-kids-with-problems” program format that has become a staple on the WB. Okay, so I stole the pretty-white-kids line from MadTV, and there is some ethnic diversity on the show. But Smallville could just as easily be called Clark’s Creek, or Smallville 90210, in that it focuses on a 15-year-old Clark Kent, whose newly emerging superpowers are just one more thing to cope with on top of the more traditional teen woes like peer pressure and dating.

So let me get this straight… You’re an invincible teen with super strength who can see through the wall into the girls’ locker room, yet you still manage to find things to whine about? Please. The show has a chronic case of teen angst that tends to wear thin after a few episodes. Also, the villains each week are afterthoughts, used as space-filler between Clark’s heart-to-heart chats with his dad and his unsuccessful attempts to get close to Lana Lang.

This being said, the show does have some very good points: Chiefly, the strong, positive relationship between Clark and his adoptive parents the Kents. It’s good to see Clark struggling through all the grey areas between right and wrong, building the foundation for the Superman we all know. And Kristin Kreuk who plays Lana Lang somehow manages to come off as both hot and wholesome. I can understand why Clark has it bad.

But the strongest aspect of the show is the growing friendship between Clark and Lex Luthor, maybe because we know it’s ultimately doomed. The writers have really taken care with Lex’s character. His evolution is charted with just as much depth as Clark’s and we get to understand him as more than an over-the-top super villain bent on world domination. It will be an interesting journey to watch.

The Cartoon Network’s Justice League takes the opposite tack from Smallville, abandoning the examination of life’s grey areas in favor of straight out fantasy action. It’s not hard to figure out why, considering that the prime demographic for this show is 7-year-olds, and comic book geeks like me. And while the show is enjoyable overall for a cartoon, so far it lacks the more sophisticated aspects of the characters as they’re portrayed in the comic books.

In this incarnation, the Justice League line-up includes Superman, Wonder Woman, Martian Manhunter, Flash, Green Lantern, Hawkgirl and, occasionally, Batman. The choice of black Green Lantern John Stewart may seem odd, as might the inclusion of Hawkgirl at the expense of Aquaman, but I can understand where creator Bruce Timm would want to give the characters some diversity. What I can’t understand are some of the mistakes that Timm makes with the characters and their abilities.

First off, Superman gets his ass kicked way too easily. Green Lantern mainly uses his ring to shoot bolts of power at the bad guys as if wielding a ray gun. Where are the creative ring constructs that we see in the comic books? They have Flash on the team, but they obviously have no idea what to do with him besides give him cringing dialog meant to be comic relief.

To cite a brief example, there was a scene in the pilot episode in which the team was immobilized by having their hands and feet trapped in rock. I’m watching, thinking, okay, Wonder Woman and Superman can just break right out of this with their super strength. Flash can vibrate the rock with his speed and make it explode, and Lantern’s ring would still work regardless. The only one who would be truly trapped would be Hawkgirl, being that she’s pretty useless anyway, like a female Aquaman. But none of these things came to pass. It was just a last-minute rescue by Martian Manhunter and Batman that saved them.

It’s little things like this that make me worry that Timm will get it all wrong. He’s had such success with his other animated Batman and Superman series; I’d hate to see him screw up the Justice League. I’m hoping that he’s holding back on the bells and whistles in order to give the viewers a chance to see the characters develop their skills.

One thing I agree with is his decision to throw larger-than-life, world-encompassing threats at the Justice League. As he said in one interview, it would be kind of silly to have a team with such incredible power chasing after gangsters.

I think it’s equally unlikely that we’ll see them duking it out with Osama bin Laden or terrorist cells hidden within our mists, as they once might have with Nazis. As Smallville and Justice League show us, those notions of superheroes are no longer relevant. It’s something we’ve outgrown, like so much obvious propaganda.

But I don’t think we’ll ever outgrow the ideals they represent. That’s why these characters have become timeless, why they continue to be embraced anew and reinvented by each generation. They provide a stable example of what is right and what is wrong, and help us all in our continuing struggle to keep Hitler out of the passenger seat.

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