Comics and the war

Comics and the World Wars – A Cultural Record

A major body of research from a historical communications expert at the University of Lincoln has re-categorised comic books and strips as significant cultural artefacts, demonstrating their potential to reveal uncensored information about societies’ attitudes, emotions and propaganda at significant points in history.

Professor Jane Chapman embarked on pioneering research to encourage a better understanding of the major cultural impact of comics produced during and about the two world wars. Her project, entitled “Comics and the World Wars – A Cultural Record”, is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and explores forgotten publications worldwide. 

It is common for the reading public to harbour nostalgic memories of childhood publications, without realising they reveal significant cultural insights of great relevance to social historians. They highlight for instance the gendered and class aspects of world war history that often remain unacknowledged.

Professor Chapman, who commenced her investigation in 2009, now leads a team of four other expert researchers. Their extensive research demonstrates that far from being an ephemeral art form, comics tell us about epic historical events, public consciousness, emotions, trauma, contemporary political satire and our own cultural heritage.

"Comics can reveal emotions in a way that a straight history book wouldn't. They're a very good instant record, but they can also be used for propaganda purposes. They can be compared to official records; you can say 'What do you get from this that isn't in the official records?'"

With the centenary of the First World War (1914-18) and the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War (1939-45) fast approaching, the research will culminate in two major exhibitions at London’s Cartoon Museum. The timely project explores wide-ranging publications from across the UK, Europe, Australasia, Japan and the USA, examining different countries’ attitudes to war.  

Leading the ground-breaking investigation, Professor Chapman places particular emphasis on publications from the First World War that contributed to the origins of the comic format. She examines how ordinary soldiers drew comic strips in their own amateur trench newspapers, discovering hundreds of poignant examples that address the everyday concerns of the lower ranking servicemen. Her fascinating research prompted the BBC to select her as an elite consultant for their 2014 anniversary programming on the First World War.

Professor Chapman also discussed the representation of gender in her findings on Australia’s 'Wanda the War Girl' and the Daily Mirror’s famous 'Jane at War' during a dedicated BBC Radio 4 Woman’s Hour talk.

Furthermore, two PhD students on the research team secured additional AHRC funding to search for previously unseen archive material at the world’s largest library, the Library of Congress in Washington DC, making it the most extensive and instructive study of its kind to date.