Just in case I haven’t made it clear, I love Ethan Persoff’s web page. It’s one of the Internet’s best resources for finding strange bits of pop culture ephemera, especially comic books. The stuff he posts is like a secret history of comic books, and his most recent addition to the site is a great example. In the 1940’s, cartoonist Milton Caniff, best known for manly militaristic strips like Terry and the Pirates and Steve Canyon, did a propaganda piece for inclusion in a U.S. Army handbook called “How to Spot a Jap.” It stars the characters from Terry and is unabashed racism depicting the supposed differences between “the Japs and our Oriental allies.” For instance, “the Chinese strides…. the Jap shuffles.” The strip is now infamous among comics historians and rarely seen, for obvious reasons. It’s not actually that great a departure from Caniff’s ordinary stuff; after all, one of the most pervasive Asian stereotypes is named after one of his characters: the Dragon Lady. But it’s not just a product of Caniff, but of official policy of the U.S. Army; the strip was probably of little practical use in helping U.S. soldiers distinguish between Chinese and Japanese, but it was probably more effective at helping them to see the enemy as cowardly and subhuman. It’s a remarkable piece of history.
Back before AIDS and HIV, before the invention of antibiotics, the Big Bad that haunted sexuality was syphilis. Untreated syphilis is a truly monstrous thing, that ultimately leads to madness, blindness, and extreme disfigurement. And like AIDS, because it was a sexually-transmitted disease, it took decades before it was treated with anything like compassion; puritans found it useful as a device to control the sexuality of the masses, and attempts to treat it were often opposed as promoting promiscuity (is any of this sounding vaguely familiar?)
Ethan Persoff, whose web site has perhaps one of the best collections of graphic ephemera on the Internet, has twenty anti-syphilis health posters from the 1940’s. In their approach, they range from fear-mongering misogyny to enlightened compassion, and are simultaneously products of their time and strangely modern. One of the most interesting to me is the green one below, with the caption “Stomp Out Syphilis!” Note that it lists several hospitals for treatment and testing, indicating which ones are “Colored Only” and which are “Whites Only.”