War's Comic Side

October 1, 2004

 

World War II has been exhaustively studied, but Duke professor Clare Tufts is investigating one aspect of the war that has received little attention: the French comics front.

Le Journal de Mickey; licensed from Walt Disney by French Company until 1944

Le Journal de Mickey; licensed from Walt Disney by French Company until 1944

After Germany subdued France in the summer of 1940, the country was divided into a German-occupied North, including Paris, and a southern territory overseen by the French Vichy administration. The French Resistance, based in London, opposed both governments. One way each group sought to win the hearts and minds of French citizens, especially children, was through comics.

That is the conflict that Tufts, a Romance studies professor of the practice, is researching. And with help from Duke Libraries, she is also creating a collection of French comics from 1937 to 1947 that, when complete, could well be the largest public collection of its kind, she says.

"Comic books and comic art are actually an enormous part of French culture," Tufts says, "much more important than in this country." Before the war, American comics, such as the Walt Disney-licensed Le Journal de Mickey, were popular. Domestic comics were also successful, with most being published in Paris.

When the Germans conquered the country in 1940, publishers of a number of comics had to make political accommodations. Some, including the publisher of Le Journal de Mickey, fled to Vichy. A few of the comics, such as the Catholic-supported Coeurs Vaillants (Valiant Hearts), overtly endeared themselves to the Vichy administration by printing Vichy political propaganda.

Other publishers stayed in Paris and were tolerated or even supported by the Germans. The pages of Vincent Krassousky's comic Vica, which was created in Paris during the occupation, reveal a Nazi influence. Vica comics depict a French sailor who travels the world and uncovers, according to its author, Jewish conspiracies to turn the Allied countries against Germany.

The French Resistance used comics, as well. One communist-influenced comic, which began appearing in 1944 after the Germans retreated from Paris, was called Vaillant (Valiant). One issue of Vaillant shows its young French hero, "Fifi," ambushing a German convoy.

After the war, Vica and Coeurs Vaillants were shut down by the post-liberation government as punishment for their political support of the Nazis and the Vichy government, and some cartoonists were singled out for their actions. Krassousky, for instance, was tried for breach of state security, sentenced to a year in prison, and fined 1,000 francs. Tufts tells his tale in the Spring 2004 issue of the International Journal of Comic Art.

Tufts recently returned from Paris with another five comics and a children's book. (Her best sources are a pair of small shops in Paris that cater to comic collectors.) Her collection of wartime publications now stands at sixty-eight items, including comic books, newspaper supplements, and weekly comic magazines.