Fredrik Strömberg is a comic book historian who heads the Comic Art School of Sweden. The following passage is taken from his new book, "Comic Art Propaganda."

One of the most successful series of religious comics of all time is the Spire Christian Comics, and this mostly due to the conversion to Christ of professional cartoonist Al Hartley. In 1967 Hartley went to a prayer meeting and, moved by the sermon, "turned his life over to God―lock, stock, and drawing board." Within ten years he had converted twenty-six family members and dropped the secular comics he had been producing to focus on doing evangelical work through his comics.At first he tried to inject Christian thought into the Archie comics he was working on, but was told by the publisher to tone down that aspect. Then came the opening he had hoped for, when the publisher Fleming H. Revell asked him to make comic books with stated Christian content. The series-with titles like There's a New World Comics, The Cross and the Switchblade, and God's Smuggler-was very successful and Hartley made about sixty Christian comics, including Bible story adaptations, biographical adaptations, and "Kiddies Christian Comics," all through the 1970s.

Of all these, one of the most memorable is Hansi: The Girl Who Loved the Swastika from 1973. This is the story of a young girl in Sudetenland, who, when the Germans invaded, was pleased because they brought books to read. Soon she wins an award for being a good student and is sent to Prague to become leader of the Hitler Youth. All through this, she is an undying believer in the Nazi party, saying things like, "We are nothing . . . The Reich is everything!" on being confronted with a disillusioned, blind soldier coming home from the front. When the war turns, she is put in a Russian labor camp, where all the women are raped at night except Hansi, who is deemed "too skinny." After escaping, she finally finds her way to an American camp, where to her surprise she is treated decently by the gum-chewing soldiers. After the war, she builds a new life together with her old love, but they are not happy until he brings home a Bible and they are rejuvenated by its message. Finally they move to America, where Hansi is astounded by the decadent lifestyles but sets out to love this country, which is, after all, "one nation under God," and runs Christian support groups in prisons and halfway houses all across California.

It's quite a fascinating story and becomes even more so when you know that it was based on a true story. The Hansi comic book was part of a series of biographies of famous Christians in the 1970s, like the musician Johnny Cash, the football coach Tom Landry, and the concentration-camp survivor Corrie ten Boom. The Hansi comic book was based on the autobiography of Maria Anne Hirschmann, who actually lived through most of what is described in the comic.

OK, so it's based on a true story, but the treatment of the story is questionable. First, it's published by a Christian publishing company, so the moral should be quite obvious. Yet, here we meet a girl who at first only believes in the Bible, then suddenly only believes in Mein Kampf, and then goes back to only believing in the Bible. Not much of a statement for free thinking . . . And then there's the moral of the experience with the Russians, where Hansi is kept "pure" all the way through and is saved, but the other women who were raped were "rewarded" by being shot when they tried to escape.

The way Hansi is drawn throughout this comic is also problematic. Since she is supposed to be a pure and true "bride of Christ," she is not allowed to age noticeably in the comic, which is a problem when the story stretches on for decades. The real clincher is the last scene, when Hansi is giving a speech to the inmates of an American prison, retelling her life's experience and commenting that "None of you were born then"-but still looking like she did during World War II.

Fredrik Strömberg
is a comic book historian who heads the Comic Art School of Sweden. This passage is taken from his new book, "Comic Art Propaganda."

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