Prize-winning cartoonist George Booth, who died late last year at age 96, was best known for his decades of work for the New Yorker Magazine. But that was far from the first publication to showcase his work.
After Booth was drafted into the U.S. Marine Corps War II, he was a cartoonist for the Marine magazine Leatherneck.
That’s the kind of detail Cord Scott would know. Scott, a professor of history, government and film with University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC) in Asia, has carved out expertise in the unusual area where cartoons meet the military.
“You can find history in all sorts of places,” Scott tells his UMGC students. His three books about military cartoons and cartoonists bear out that observation.
The most recent of the books, The Mud and the Mirth: Marine Cartoonists in World War I, grew out of a paper Scott presented at a conference marking the 100th anniversary of the U.S. Marines’ activities in World War II. Mud and Mirth was published in August by the U.S. Marine Corps University Press and is available for free via a download at U.S. Marine Corps University Press website or by requesting a copy from the publisher.
His first book, Comics and Conflict: Patriotism and Propaganda from World War II through Operation Iraqi Freedom, will see its paperback release this spring. The book was initially published in hardcover format in 2014 by the U.S. Naval Institute. It is underpinned by Scott’s doctoral dissertation in 20th century cultural history at Loyola University and his longtime interest in graphic novels.
“I had started a Ph.D. program a few weeks before 9/11, and I was teaching a class in propaganda—among other things—at a design school in Chicago,” Scott recalled. “I had been a comic book collector when I was young. It happened that I stopped at a shop and they said, ‘Do you realize that they’re reissuing a Captain America series with Captain America fighting terrorists?’”
Not only did Scott use the that new comic book in his propaganda class, but it provided fodder for an academic paper, “Written in Red, White and Blue: A Comparison of Comic Book Propaganda from World War II and September 11,” in the Journal of Popular Culture.
A side element from the research was the springboard for the release of his second book, Four Colour Combat: Canadian Forces in War Comics, by OnBrand Publishing in 2019. The book looks at Canadian war stories referenced within U.S. comic books.
Scott sees military cartoons as “an aspect of cultural history” but laments that their educational and informational elements are overlooked.
“It’s ephemeral. This particular type of visual media was never meant to be permanent. In some circles this is considered as throwaway,” he explained. “It’s not considered real history because of the perception that comic books are meant for little kids.”
But he said much can be learned from the cartoons and the graphic artists behind him.
“These book projects have made me look at the educational aspects of comics. Will Eisner—he’s considered the father of the modern graphic novel—drew cartoons with [urban crime-fighting character] The Spirit that were popular in the 1940s. I kept running across his stuff when I was doing research on the military.
“It turns out, during WWII, he did illustrations for Firepower, an Army publication,” Scott said. “Then he started working for Army Motors. The idea was that soldiers could learn from comic book-style illustrations in training manuals.”
Scott’s attention was also caught by military cartoonist, Abian “Wally” Walgren, who often tackled controversial topics in his two- or three-paneled cartoons at the top of Page 7 in Stars and Stripes each week.
“In World War I, he talked about conscientious objectors. And shell shock, which is now Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome,” Scott said. “Even just a decade ago, there was a tablet-sized comic book called Coming Home that looked at what veterans might encounter with PTSD. There’s something about the visual medium that everyone can understand.”
Still, Scott noted that not all content in military comics was educational. Some was propaganda.
“A lot of the guys, especially the World War II illustrators, were pretty much in favor of the war effort—although you did have some who used it as a form for venting on behalf of soldiers who had gripes about not getting warm food or about food that tasted terrible,” he noted.
Scott has not served in the military, but both his grandfathers and his father did. He said it is interesting to teach servicemember students and adjust to the unusual reasons why they may miss a class, including guard duty assignment. In his seven years with UMGC, he has also found himself in unexpected classroom situations, such as when he was teaching the history of the Korean War to U.S. servicemembers stationed in South Korea.
“I would tell students, ‘If you take the No. 1 subway line at Osan, you can get to the War Memorial of Korea,’” Scott said. “And I was the first professor in 20 years to teach in Camp Bonifas,” he added, referring to the UN Command military post about 400 hundred yards from the Korean Demilitarized Zone.
It can be challenging to research something like U.S. military cartoons while working on the other side of the globe, but Scott already has another project underway. He is looking at Black cartoonists—there weren’t many—and how race was addressed in military cartoons.
“The one good thing that came out of COVID is that a lot of material was digitized” so people could access it during the lockdown, Scott said. That digitization included information about the 92nd and 93rd Divisions, the segregated African American soldiers in World War I.
“I’m running across African American cartoonists I’d never heard of before. I was familiar with one and there are at least five,” he said. “Race is an underlying tone in some of their work.”
He said he’s finding that many other military cartoons played to stereotypes, particularly when depicting Black people and women.
“History has always been interesting to me. It was a focus when I was an undergrad, but I never thought I’d have a career in it. I got my master’s from Baylor University in international relations and, if you had asked me at 23 what I wanted to do for a living, I would have said, ‘Work at the State Department.’
“But then someone told me they thought I’d be good at teaching, so I started thinking about that,” he added. “And now I’ve been connected to the field of education for 30 years.”