March 22, 2017
Disclaimer: Take That, Adolf! was reviewed with a copy provided by the publisher.
“You must have a lot of opinions about what’s going on at Marvel right now,” said a recent date when I told her I was a comic book journalist. Like me, she is Jewish. We both wear Stars of David necklaces around our necks like neon signs that proclaimed, MY PARENTS WANTED ME TO MARRY A NICE JEWISH BOY, BUT HERE WE ARE. Then, she called Comics’ Schmuck of the Year by name: “Nick Spencer.”
Although having read a few comics in the past, my date was not “in” comics in the slightest. I, all-too-involved in this industry and clueless as to what people out of it understand, was sort of flabbergasted that she was aware of the whole scandal.
Because she knew, I suppose you know, but I’ll recap. Spencer thought it was a great idea to pitch to Marvel Comics that Jewish-invented Captain America join HYDRA, which is indisputably the Marvel Comics Universe’s fictional Nazi faction. And Marvel, with its daily operations run by non-Jews such as publisher Tom Brevoort and editor-in-chief Axel Alonso, thought it was a great idea to publish it. When this whole thing first started, I ended up tweeting an entire thread that detailed the crimes Nazis committed on Jews and other Holocaust victims, including gang rape, live vivisection, and the victims’ forced digging of their own graves before being shot into them. And people were shocked by these tweets because public school has truly failed us all.
My Jewish date and I, though? We grew up having all these details instilled in us through Hebrew school because our people knew that non-Jews would forget. We carry the story that must be remembered.
Long before us, however, when World War II and the Holocaust were going on, Marvel was completely run by Jews. And because of that, of course, the situation looked quite different, as Jewish writer Mark Fertig details in his book, Take That Adolf!: The Fighting Comics of the Second World War. While the majority of the US knew of but chose to remain uninvolved in the genocide occurring across the Atlantic, Jewish comics cartoonists created the first anti-Nazi propaganda via setting Hitler against their heroes.
Take That Adolf! is mostly composed of the many colorful comic book covers that depict superheroes and soldiers fighting Nazis. This was spawned by Captain America’s first comic book cover, drawn by creator Jack Kirby, which depicted the character punching Hitler in the face. Although the book features covers from dozens of comics publishers, including the better known DC Comics and Fawcett Publications, the majority of the covers originate from Marvel, then known as Timely Comics. They are not just Captain America covers—Timely stories also involved heroes such as the original Sub-Mariner and Human Torch in their anti-Nazi crusade.
Along with these covers, Fertig discusses the comic book industry as it existed during WWII. In general, all the moving parts of comics creation and publishing were done by poor Jewish men at a time where anti-Semitism was strong in America. And, like today, there were American Nazis. After the prior-mentioned Captain America #1 by Kirby and Joe Simon was published, the new character exploded in popularity among children. On the flip side, the Nazis started sending enough threats where, according to Fertig, New York City Mayor LaGuardia personally extended protective measures to Kirby and Simon.
Take That Adolf! is a thorough and dutiful overview of comics’ contribution to American patriotism in WWII. This doesn’t mean that Fertig presents an idealized version of the history, however. He analyzes the comics art and its context with bald honesty, presenting the warts of comics representation at the time, including its deeply-entrenched racism and sexism. He highlights harmful representation where it appears–such as Will Eisner, Chuck Cuidera, and Bob Powell’s Blackhawk’s racist caricature, Chop Chop (although he is too soft in referring to the character as “a terribly exaggerated…stereotype”)–and, most notably, compares the sophisticated presentation of Nazis with the monstrous depiction of Japanese soldiers.
On the other hand, Fertig also uncovers some of the bright spots in this oppressive period. He discusses one of the few Asian American artists, Bob Fujitani, who subverted the tropes of his racist contemporaries. He credits Ramona Patenaude, one of the few female creators in the industry, as “one of the earliest artists to integrate Jack Kirby’s cinematic storytelling into her own pages.” Outside of Captain America, Wonder Woman is the only character to receive her own section of the book–right after Fertig discusses the general situation of female characters at the time. This all combines into a balanced take that tries to look at more than the white man’s angle of WWII comics and the context in which they were conceived.
Through this all, Fertig returns to the significance of Captain America again and again. Although he doesn’t mention the current state of Marvel comics and its damagingly sympathetic angle of Nazis by casting them as superheroes, his book works as opposition to this malevolent message. Take That, Adolf! is a vital contribution against the rise of Nazism in America under the presidential term of Donald Trump and his white supremacist adviser Steve Bannon.
Like fellow Jews such as my date and I, Fertig carries the Jewish burden of the Holocaust to prevent a repeat of what the Germans enacted on millions of people. While current Marvel Comics is led into subtextual alliance with white supremacist terrorists through its non-Jewish leadership, Fertig brings out one of the brightest moments of its earlier years. By recovering this history, he strengthens the foundation of resistance against some of the most terrifying forms of evil humanity can commit upon its oppressed factions–a fact that we must remember every day is not an event lost to history, but a force that is happening here and now.