In the winter of 1942 the Second World War is raging. It has been a year since Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. Five weeks after that fateful day Hitler had declared war on America as well. Germany is moving into Russia and in America, factories are turning out planes, tanks and gear with an efficiency and quality level that rises to meet the demand.
America has hunkered down. Its military, government and citizens are in battle mode. Almost everything and everyone in this country is focused on the effort to win the war.
DC understood what was happening around them. The country needed to stay focused. It needed to be on the same page. It needed to be united in both name and spirit. The publisher and editors both felt an obligation to do what they could to buoy up spirits and inspire those who bought their magazines.
On the cover of World’s Finest Comics #9, artist Jack Burnley gave comic fans and newsstands around the country a terrific example of a shared unity.
Three of America’s most popular heroes are seen playing an old carnival game. One that would be familiar to anyone from the rural farms of Arkansas to the concrete giants such as Pittsburgh or New York.
The object is simple. Smack an idiot on the head with a baseball. There are other variations such as Dunk the Geek, Milk Bottle or Knock Down the Cloth Clown. But everyone who sees this cover knows exactly what Superman, Batman and Robin are doing.
They are throwing baseballs (straight from America’s pastime…) at the heads of America’s three biggest enemies, Hitler, Mussolini and Emperor Tojo. All three have been demonized in the press.
As happens during war, each leader has been reduced to cultural and, especially in the case of the Emperor, a clear racist stereotype of the day. A year into the war and their images have become easily recognizable to even the youngest of citizens.
e cover is a perfect representation of its time. It is a window in the experience of a world at war that, in the case of the covers of World’s Finest Comics, had begun year earlier with #5 (Spring 1942). This run of patriotic covers would last until a year later when #14 (Summer 1945) saw the end of such war-era cover art on the title with Superman, Batman and Robin down by the old swimming hole
Seeing Hitler take a punch had occurred a year earlier on Captain America Comics #1 (March 1941). His photograph had been seen on the cover of Daredevil Battles Hitler (July 1941).
But those issues had hit newsstands before America had been attacked. While both books are revered today, and sold well at the time, they featured unknown characters.
DC had several of the most established and popular characters in the business. With the publication of Action Comics #1 (June 1938) the company, for all intents and purposes, had started the superhero craze in comic books.
They had a different mindset than other publishers. They already had commercial properties worth a lot of money. They couldn’t go too far out. Such as placing a photo of Hitler on the cover. Their art reflected a house style that was quickly evolving.
Unlike Timely, which had introduced Captain America with that famous punch to the jaw of Hitler, DC more often than not went for a more simplistic, uncluttered and easily recognizable image.
As editorially conservative as they may seem in retrospect, in 1942 it was hard not to showcase the enemy as fools. Each one of them easily vanquished by everyone’s favorite pastime. Burnley’s deceivingly simple cover art gives the nation something to laugh at for just a brief, brief second.
He gives everyone a smile before the reality of ration cards, limited foodstuffs, telegrams bearing sad news of an older brother or sister or the screaming headlines of newspapers filled with terror are glimpsed at the newsstand or sitting on the kitchen table. Before the radio blares the latest horror from overseas…
As the war progressed other publishers featured Hitler and his pals on their covers as well. Over at Quality Comics, their anthology title National Comics #38 (January 1944) anticipated victory in the war with Uncle Sam standing triumphant over the same three villains that DC had been throwing baseballs at a year earlier. Alex Kotzky’s cover art seems to announce that it was almost time to smile again.
By 1945 war covers had begun to slip into the past. Soon publishers were struggling to hold onto a once rabid readership.
The book itself is one of the great anthology titles of the Golden Age. This issue featured a Superman solo story, Zatara, The Star Spangled Kid and Stripesy, The Boy Commandos, Green Arrow, Batman with Robin the Boy Wonder as well as a couple of humor stories.
World’s Finest #9 is one of the classic covers of the War. But with such attention focused on Captain America Comics #1 or Daredevil Battles Hitler #1, it often gets passed by.
Burnley’s art is exceptional but it is his ability to reduce the horrible complexities of world conflict to a single image that even a ten year old could understand that speaks of a man who not only was gifted at his craft, but knew and understood the minds and hearts of those he was making it for.
It was truly a fear-filled time in American history and for a second, DC and Jack Burnley made a lot of people smile.