J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, July 25, 2008

Tracking Tomahawk through the Decades

Having subtly reestablished my scholarly standing yesterday, I feel free to highlight some images that I gathered for Wednesday’s workshop at Old South Meeting House about using graphic novels (comics) to teach the Revolutionary War.

The most successful American comic book about that historical period was DC’s Tomahawk, published monthly and then bimonthly from 1950 to 1972 (the last ten issues under the title Son of Tomahawk). The character of Tom Hawk, Revolutionary frontier warrior, also appeared in Star Spangled Comics (1947-52) and World’s Finest Comics (1948-59). I linked to Scott Shaw!’s essay about this comic last November, but that link seems to have broken, so I have to point to Don Markstein’s Toonopedia instead.

Most of the time Tomahawk was a western that just happened to be set during the Revolutionary War. The hero’s costume (and that of his boy sidekick) reflected the mid-1900s image of American frontiersmen regardless of time period: fringed buckskin and coonskin cap. Only the dress of other white characters showed that these stories took place in the eighteenth century, along the old northwest frontier.

Tomahawk usually fought Native Americans as well as British soldiers, though (as in the real Revolution) the Continental forces also had Native allies. The covers of the Tomahawk magazine tended to emphasize those “Old West”-style battles, as on this one from August 1954.

But the fad for western comics faded, and Tomahawk had to keep up with the times. In the late 1950s, comics of all sorts were borrowing from science fiction; that was when Batman kept leaving Gotham City to go into space, or into other dimensions. This issue of Tomahawk from Sept-Oct 1958 is one of many which show the frontiersman meeting monsters of one sort or another.
The word “dinosaur” wasn’t coined until 1841, and the Enlightenment was only barely beginning to conceive of the possibility of “prehistoric” times. But such details didn’t stop America’s Favorite Frontier Hero!

Costumed superheroes started to dominate the comic book form again in the late 1950s and early 1960s, eventually driving out nearly every other type of story. Again, Tomahawk reflected that fashion in July-Aug 1962 by adding a costumed heroine who dropped by periodically.

By the end of Tomahawk’s second decade, many comic books were reflecting their young target audience’s concerns about social justice, and trying to offer more emotional realism. This remarkable issue from Mar-Apr 1969 portrays the Indian fighter’s regrets about, well, fighting Indians.
The Tomahawk comic book doesn’t really teach the Revolutionary War, of course, but it shows how comic books changed over time. All these covers, and more, come from the Grand Comics Database.


Anonymous said...

In the prior posts on Revolutionary War comics you missed a single issue comic based on the short lived TV show from 1970 The Young Rebels
http://www.comics.org/series.lasso?SeriesID=1984 Although the TV episodes were loosely based on a bit of history, the factoid was always presented at the end of each episode, the comic is more action without historic basis. The comic and the show attempted more to make the era a bit heroic an get people interested. It worked, many of us who were involved in Bicentennial activities traces our interest to the likes of The Young Rebels, Daniel Boone and Johnny Tremain.

J. L. Bell said...

The Young Rebels was a single issue based on a short-lived television show. I hope to write about the show at some point since it offers more material than the magazine, but I’ve never seen it and it’s an unlikely candidate for D.V.D. release.

I showed that comic cover on Wednesday, saying the series looked like “The Mod Squad with Benjamin Franklin,” but that’s all I could say.