Photo: Buz Sawyer comic strip (via The New Republic)

Comic book characters, and particularly superheroes, have long been a prism through which to explore American values and beliefs. During World War II especially, artists and filmmakers all over the country began producing work meant to support the U.S. military. But as the “Good War” ended and the cold one began, one comic strip artist continued to churn out explicitly pro-American propaganda. And he did so with the help of the U.S. government itself.

The New Republic’s Jeet Heer has a fascinating exploration of Roy Crane, the comic strip author who reached out to the government for guidance on Buz Sawyer, his comic about a former U.S. Navy pilot. Buz ran in over 300 newspapers from 1943 to 1977, and its stories and themes were often directly shaped by whatever foreign policy or intervention the government felt it needed to justify to the public.

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Of a 1952 strip about Buz delivering a new pesticide to help Iranians combat locust, Heer writes:

Before the publication of the Iran strip, a State Department official named Eugene V. Brown sent Crane a 10-page memo, explaining in precise detail the plot points the government wanted for Buz Sawyer, along with what purpose those points served. These included finding a way to “stress [the] importance of Private Enterprise” and to portray “the manner in which Communism attempts to discredit development and improvement programs of the West.” Crane, meanwhile, should do his best to steer clear of certain delicate topics. “It would be best to avoid any reference to OIL in discussing Iran.” Because winning hearts and minds was key, Brown wanted a story showing “a strong bond of friendship” between Buz and an Iranian pilot named Sandhu, the purpose of which was to “provide entry of Buz into local situations on a common level with indigenous forces.”

The article also has an excellent analysis of the larger social and political context around Crane’s work. Buz visited Central America, the Middle East, and Asia to spread his anti-Communist message to just about every country involved in a Cold War conflict. But as these conflicts became more morally murky, Crane’s propaganda began to lose public support:

As the Vietnam War heated up, Buz gave his propaganda a militaristic twist. A 1966 strip showed an American pilot returning from a mission to drop napalm bombs. In response, the Soviet state publication Pravda denounced Buz Sawyer, accusing Crane of justifying napalm bombing and trying to convince kids “of the necessity and the just character of the aggression in Vietnam.” But even those who disagreed with Pravda’s politics felt the Buz Sawyer strip was going too far. As Crane admitted in a letter he wrote to the archives at Syracuse late in life, “several prominent newspapers” dropped him because they thought he was too politically strident.

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The full article is long but incredibly fascinating. It’s available over on The New Republic.