I watched an old Robert Mitchum movie a couple of weeks ago. It was a war film called Gung Ho! about the formation of the 2nd Marine Raider Battalion and its first mission against a Japanese garrison on Makin Island. I’ve seen a lot of war films in my life and many of them have disturbed me, but something about this one was especially unsettling. It felt real, and not just because of the excellent use of the stock footage. (I assume it was stock footage, but it was so well edited that it looks like it could have been shot especially for the movie.) It was the emotions that felt so genuine. Especially the anger and the hatred towards the Japanese.
A lot of the war movies I’ve seen were filmed years if not decades after the wars they depict were already over. Gung Ho! was filmed a year or so after the attack on Pearl Harbor. The hurt and the fear and the anger were all fresh and those feelings overshadow the entire movie. Watched today, you can either dismiss it as racist garbage or you can be powerfully impacted by it as an historical document; a time-capsule of what it was like to be a (non-Japanese) US citizen in the early ‘40s. I shouldn’t have to say – but I will – that none of what I’m talking about here is meant to excuse racism in general or the horrible atrocities inflicted on Japanese Americans during that period. Obviously I don’t approve of the way this country handled its feelings, but for the first time in my life I understand the feelings themselves.
On the inside front cover of Air Fighters Classics, Volume 1 the editor has this to say: “This is a facsimile edition of Air Fighters Comics vol. 1, no. 2, originally published by Hillman Periodicals in November 1942 … We re-present these original stories with the understanding that in 1942 America was at war with Japan and the image of the buck-toothed, orange-skinned Japanese was common. We know now – and we also knew then – that such racial stereotypes are not accurate. We present this volume as both a piece of history and as an example of one of the most-loved comic books of the 1940s.”
Air Fighters Classics #2 was the first appearance of Airboy, a pulp hero who’s been revisited a few times over the years. In fact, Moonstone recently announced an all-new Airboy series. Because it was a pulp comic, Air Fighters Comics wasn’t designed to convey emotions in the same way that Gung Ho! did. Both portray the Japanese in horrible, caricaturized ways, but Gung Ho! was meant (I’m supposing) as a cathartic experience for movie-goers. Air Fighters Comics was after a different reaction.
In addition to Airboy, it’s filled with characters like Sky Wolf (who wears a wolf-skin over his flying goggles), the Iron Ace (who wears a suit of medieval armor and flies an armored plane), the Black Angel (a female pilot in a tight, black costume), the Bald Eagle (he’s bald), and the Flying Dutchman (guess which country he’s from). Airboy himself flies a bat-winged plane designed after birds because they’re a lot more maneuverable than regular planes. All of these are awesome, fun ideas and can still be enjoyed as such today.
But because of that emphasis on entertainment the Japan-hating in Air Fighters doesn’t add to my historical experience in the way that it does with Gung Ho!. Air Fighters is meant to be fun and funny and oh, by the way, look at how ridiculous those Japanese people look. Seeing Gung Ho! and feeling what I felt while watching it helps me appreciate the mindset behind the creation of Air Fighters Comics, but if I hadn’t seen that film shortly before reading this comic, I could just dismiss the adventures of Airboy and friends as racist nonsense. The threat of the Japanese military is palpable in Gung Ho!. Air Fighters, on the other hand, holds the threat up as a subject of mockery.
Which, I suppose, is a valid way of dealing with a very real, terrifying menace. You caricaturize it and make fun of it until it doesn’t seem so scary anymore. For example, not every story in the comic deals with the Japanese. Iron Ace, Black Angel, and the Flying Dutchman are exclusively Nazi-fighters in this volume and even in those stories the Nazis have ridiculous accents and are made into silly objects of ridicule.
None of which explains a strip like Air Fighter’s “Wun Wing Spin” though. This one – the most purely “humorous” strip in the book – portrays a stupid Chinese laundryman who’s made to fly an experimental plane because its white inventor thinks it’s too dangerous to test himself. The gag is that the plane is so awesome that even dumb ol’ Wun Wing can shoot down Japanese fighters in it. I’m not a WWII scholar or anything, but weren’t we allies with the Chinese? I mean, what the hell? I’m genuinely trying to understand the 40s’ mindset here, but I get to “Wun Wing Spin” and my brain quits trying.
And that’s where I’m left. There are a lot of cool, crazy ideas in Air Fighters and reading this makes me even more excited for Moonstone’s modern, non-racist version. But on its own, even as a piece of history, it’s not something I want to experience more of.
Two out of five pilots in medieval armor.