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Propaganda posters, comics and visual vocabulary

2011 April 28

About time for another comics post. Fortunately the past week has seen the release of cover art for Marvel’s Red Skull: Incarnate series, which along with notes from artist David Aja provides a fascinating subject for deconstruction.

By way of basic background, the Red Skull is an enduring Marvel supervillain, originally introduced alongside perennial foe Captain America as a Nazi opponent for the good captain. As is tradition with comic book publishing, nowadays, the upcoming Captain America feature film is being preceded by a legion of tie-in comics, including a Red Skull origin series.

Covers from Red Skull: Incarnate series, by David Aja

Some of the announced covers

Lot of interesting aspects, here. My first impression, probably, was “these look less like Nazi propaganda posters and more like Soviet Constructivism.” After seeing Aja’s notes and reference samples, though, it’s more a gray area than I thought. Of the three designs which are directly based on reference cited by Aja, all three references are products of Nazi Germany. There’s even a partial antecedent for the square lettering on the final issue cover (above right), which looked plainly Soviet Russian, to me.

It still does look more Soviet than Nazi in terms of typographic style, mind you, as does the red, white and black color scheme. But again, the latter was used in Nazi poster artwork as well, not to mention the Nazi flag, and is probably used here for the same reason it was used then: it packs an aggressive, confrontational visual “punch.”

The blackletter used on the first and third issues looks far more like “Nazi typography” than the type on the other issues, of course, largely because by World War II blackletter was already a primarily-German phenomenon which, because of its use under the Nazi regime, was subsequently “contaminated” and allowed to go into disuse, a bit like the swastika in western culture, if not quite to that extent.

(Though, for what it’s worth, the Nazis’ relationship with blackletter was a bit more complex than has come down to history, as documented in Paul Shaw’s interesting Blackletter: Type and National Identity.)

Speaking of the swastika, you may notice that it’s entirely absent from the covers of Red Skull: Incarnate. Aja writes that Marvel “decided not to show swastikas on covers, but we thought readers’ brains would fill blanks on issue #2.” Well, Red Skull, Hitler salute, blackletter, goose-stepping legions, and lots what would be Nazi flags if they featured a swastika… yes, I suppose that most people probably will “fill in the blank” by themselves.

Which, when you think about it, makes the exclusion of the swastika awfully weird from an objective perspective: Marvel is publishing a comic book set in Nazi Germany, about a villain who epitomizes everything evil in the Nazi ethos,  sporting covers awash with Nazi imagery… and which presumably includes lots of swastikas once you get past the cover, as Marvel has generally had no hesitation about doing so in the past… and yet the one thing they go out of their way to exclude is any cover appearance of a glyph which has actually been used across many cultures since Neolithic times.

Swastika found on tiled floor of Garfield Monument, Lake View Cemetery, Cleveland, Ohio

This is a 'counter-clockwise' swastika, but still, do you think it would have been used in a monument built post-WWII?

But, logically or no, the swastika is probably the single most “charged” graphic symbol that exists, at least in modern western culture. It was no coincidence that the little tiny design, above, immediately caught my eye amongst all the images and ornaments inside the monument to slain president Garfield, after all.

Meanwhile, getting back to Aja’s cover designs and their antecedents in wartime propaganda posters, it’s worth noting that this particular “well” is visited over and over again by designers; arguably the Red Skull series is a relatively rare instance of using these poster designs for a historically “legitimate” reason, as opposed to most such “swipes.”

Indeed this is not Marvel’s first use of these designs, nor even their first use of at least one specific design; the cover of Red Skull: Incarnate issue #3 was immediately familiar to me, but not from the original. Rather, I recalled this composition from a previous Marvel villain series, set more than 150 years after World War II ended:

Red Skull and Doom 2099 covers based on same WWII German propaganda poster

Swipe File ^2

The image at right is the cover of Doom 2099 #30, drawn by Pat Broderick, and one of a number of symbolic covers Broderick drew for Warren Ellis’ run on the series, all of which were probably inspired by wartime propaganda posters to a greater or lesser extent. Broderick really went to town with these covers, to all appearances, producing several which were probably just used almost arbitrarilly over a period of months, being largely independent of any story-specific content as is also the case with Aja’s Red Skull covers.

Indeed, as a final note, it’s interesting how Doom 2099, like Red Skull: Incarnate, was a series about one specific “bad guy” yet drew freely on artwork from both Germany and its opponents, and in the case of Doom 2099 from both world wars as well.

American WWI-era war bond poster, and artwork from 2099: World of Doom Special

Two more drawings illustrating the appeal of these sources

Above, a first world war era American poster by Joseph Leyendecker, and a page from the 2099 World of Doom Special. Actually I don’t think the above-right image was by Broderick; I have two other Doom 2099 issues from the same period with similar cover artwork and one has a signature which is definitely not Broderick’s, unfortunately I can’t make out whose name it actually is.

In any event, I think there really is, in the modern world, a readiness to draw on propaganda artwork from both world wars (which, in a sense, were after all just one conflict interrupted by a 20-year cease-fire) with little concern for who originally employed them or why. I suppose that if one wants to venture into “deep” interpretation, it may be that these posters represent a social context close enough to our own to have resonance, yet distant enough to have a sort of brash, in some sense even “innocent,” confidence which our post-faith, post-bomb, post-modern culture can no longer dare attempt to use except ironically, through direct “homages” to older work.

Or something like that. Please understand: you don’t spend four years in design college without at least developing some ability, and probably a readiness, to throw out extemporaneous art-history theories which are probably BS but, as you realize, are in that sense not fundamentally less valid than what gets printed in your textbooks. 🙂

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