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Pulp Empire

The Secret History of Comic Book Imperialism

Publication supported by the Meijer Foundation Fund

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 led to 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 policy makers 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 worked directly with comic book publishers to stoke hatred for the Axis powers while simultaneously attempting to dispel racial tensions at home. Later, as the Cold War defense industry ballooned—and as comic book sales reached historic heights—the government again turned to the medium, this time trying to win hearts and minds in the decolonizing world through cartoon propaganda.

Hirsch’s groundbreaking research weaves together a wealth of previously classified material, including secret wartime records, official legislative documents, and caches of personal papers. His book explores the uneasy contradiction of 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 official propaganda on the other. Pulp Empire is a riveting illumination of underexplored chapters in the histories of comic books, foreign policy, and race.

344 pages | 44 color plates, 6 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2021

History: American History

Library Science and Publishing: Publishing

Political Science: Diplomacy, Foreign Policy, and International Relations

Sociology: Criminology, Delinquency, Social Control

Reviews

“Vividly illustrated and enjoyably hyperbolic, Pulp Empire tells its tale as a kind of horror comic. . . . Like any self-respecting superhero movie, it deserves a sequel. ”

J. Hoberman | The Nation

“I’ll be frank: I love this book. Hirsch’s writing is crisp and exciting and it’s a joy to see the history of comic books and the Cold War United States told from such a fresh angle. This fun, sharp book is one I’ll be thinking about for a while.”

Daniel Immerwahr, author of How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States

“Every so often, a single book changes our understanding of an entire topic. Hirsch’s brilliant, artfully written Pulp Empire does that for mid-twentieth-century American studies. The billions of comic books that rolled off American presses and circumnavigated the globe in the 1940s and ’50s reveal significant unexplored aspects of American society, politics, and foreign policy. While Hirsch’s spectacular research introduces American historians to a new field of study, his elegant writing invites a broad audience to read this unique and beautifully produced book.”

Martin J. Sherwin, Pulitzer Prize–winning coauthor of American Prometheus and author of Gambling with Armageddon

“It has been a long time since I read a history of comic books that genuinely brought significant new issues and sources to the table. Pulp Empire is such a book—smart, lively, and well-written. Hirsch positions the early decades of the American comic book in a global context and illuminates the anxieties this powerful new form of popular culture inspired not only in parents and cultural critics but also in government officials and world leaders.”

Jared Gardner, author of Projections: Comics and the History of Twenty-First-Century Storytelling

"As Hirsch outlines in Pulp Empire, comics have always been entwined with capitalism, race, and foreign policy. . . . Hirsch makes an important inroad into not only understanding the cultural politics of the Cold War, but in the forces that led to the omnipresence of comic book motifs in the present."

The Progressive

"Elegantly written and lavishly illustrated, the tome documents the author’s deep dive through the creepy archives of the United States government. . . . It’s a lurid, fascinating tale, narrated with pep and grace."

The Lowbrow Reader

"A remarkable volume, very rich and unique in the depth of research, attractive in design, highly-revealing and full in content, and crisp and pleasurable in readability."

International Journal of Comic Art

"Hirsch’s book is beautifully, evocatively written and—with its full-page color illustrations and gorgeous production value—will easily appeal to general audiences soaked in contemporary comic book culture. . . . Pulp Empire is an essential read for the current moment of reckoning in American culture, revealing how these issues shaped a business that has now, in the age of DC and Marvel blockbusters, become synonymous with America on the world stage."

International Journal of Communication

"Pulp Empire is filled with fascinating anecdotes and incisive analysis of the ephemera of US empire. This book offers something for an array of audiences from fervent comic book fans to historians of American foreign policy. Hirsch deftly deals with several dimensions of comics’ hidden history from their perpetuation of racist and sexist tropes to their use as a unique tool of soft-power popular abroad across class lines. Finally, Hirsch’s analysis of the debates over the atomic age played out in comic book pages proves both entertaining and enlightening. Pulp Empire effectively interrogates the intersection between politics and popular culture and profiles how superheroes have been deployed to serve American expansionist goals."

Not Even Past

“Vivid, lurid. . . Pulp Empire is an important addition to the growing library of books that are “serious” about comics. . . .  A must read for both scholars and fans.”

St. Louis Jewish Light

"Hirsch in Pulp Empire for the first time analyzes the massive cultural and political potential of the comic book for world history. . . . Pulp Empire is an intriguing title that will find its way into many comic books studies libraries, and it is also of interest for students of American Studies and criminology."

Pop Culture Shelf

"Pulp Empire is filled with fascinating anecdotes and incisive analysis of the ephemera of US empire. This book offers something for an array of audiences from fervent comic book fans to historians of American foreign policy. Hirsch deftly deals with several dimensions of comics’ hidden history from their perpetuation of racist and sexist tropes to their use as a unique tool of soft-power popular abroad across class lines. Finally, Hirsch’s analysis of the debates over the atomic age played out in comic book pages proves both entertaining and enlightening. Pulp Empire effectively interrogates the intersection between politics and popular culture and profiles how superheroes have been deployed to serve American expansionist goals."

Not Even Past

Table of Contents

Introduction: Making an American Monster

1 This Is Our Enemy

2 The Wild Spree of the Laughing Sadist

3 Donald Duck’s Atom Bomb

4 The Devil’s Ally

5 American Civilization Means Airstrips and Comic Strips

6 The Free World Speaks

7 Thor Battles the Vietcong

Conclusion: The Ghosts among Us

Acknowledgments

Notes

Index

Awards

Popular Culture Association: Ray and Pat Browne Award
Won

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