Pulp Empire: A Secret History of Comic Book Imperialism
by Paul S. Hirsch
University of Chicago Press, 2021
Cloth: 978-0-226-35055-4 | eISBN: 978-0-226-35069-1
Library of Congress Classification PN6725.H57 2021

In the 1940s and ’50s, comic books were some of the most popular—and most unfiltered—entertainment in the United States. Publishers sold hundreds of millions of copies a year of violent, racist, and luridly sexual comics to Americans of all ages, until a 1954 Senate investigation spearheaded by psychiatrist Fredric Wertham led to the adoption of a censorship code that nearly destroyed the industry. But this was far from the first time the US government actively involved itself with comics—it was simply the most dramatic manifestation of a long, strange relationship between high-level policymakers and a medium that even artists and writers often dismissed as a “creative sewer.” In Pulp Empire, Paul S. Hirsch uncovers the gripping untold story of how the US government both attacked and appropriated comic books to help wage World War II and the Cold War, promote official—and clandestine—foreign policy, and deflect global critiques of American racism.

As Hirsch details, during World War II—and the concurrent Golden Age of Comic Books—government agencies like the Writers’ War Board began to work with comic book publishers, supporting the creation of characters and stories designed to stoke racial hatred for the Axis powers while simultaneously attempting to dispel racial tensions at home. Later, as the Cold War defense industry expanded its reach—and as comic book sales reached a peak of nearly a billion copies a year—the government again turned to the medium, this time trying to win hearts and minds in the decolonizing world through cartoon propaganda.

Pulp Empire deftly brings to light the complicated decades-long symbiosis between the upper tiers of government and lowbrow mass-market publishers. Hirsch’s groundbreaking research weaves together a wealth of previously classified material, including secret wartime records, official legislative documents, and caches of personal papers, including Fredric Wertham’s. His book illuminates how comics were both vital expressions of American freedom and unsettling glimpses into the national id—scourged and repressed on the one hand and deployed as propaganda on the other. Pulp Empire is a riveting illumination of underexplored chapters in the histories of comic books, foreign policy, and race.
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