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Skirball Cultural Center treads lightly with 'Batman' serial screening

The 1943 work is filled with racist depictions. Its content and images will be discussed.

August 08, 2009|Susan King

Holy zombies, Batman!

The Skirball Cultural Center is closing its "ZAP! POW! BAM! The Superhero: The Golden Age of Comic Books, 1938-1950" exhibition Sunday with a screening of the 1943 "Batman" serial.

The 260-minute, 15-chapter serial finds Batman and Robin attempting to rid Gotham City of a World War II Japanese spy ring. With each thrilling chapter, they encounter -- and foil -- zombies, alligators and even radium guns.

That's the good news. The bad news is that the "Batman" serial is racist. Made during the height of World War II, the film is filled with stereotypical images and ethnic slurs against the Japanese.

J. Carrol Naish, who was of Irish heritage, plays the evil Japanese Dr. Daka who is trying to help his countrymen take over the United States with the use of a special radium gun. All of his henchmen, ironically, are white.

Because of the racist depictions in the film, which will be shown in two parts, program director Jordan Peimer will discuss its content and images during the lunch break.

"I think you have to see it in light of what was going on during the war and the mass hysteria in this country over the Japanese presence here."

Of course, Peimer adds, "I am not in any way justifying it. It is ugly and full of caricatures that should never had been filmed. I had to really think long and hard if we should show this because of its content, but it's really important to look at how comic books were used as this form of propaganda."

World War II, he says, was "the first opportunity for these comic book heroes that had only been around for about four years to suddenly take on the world."

The majority of the villains in the comic book universe were Japanese, not German. "It was so much easier to bring white America around to fighting in the Japanese theater than against people in Europe who looked like them," he says.

Surrounding a Japanese villain with white henchmen was de rigueur in comics.

"It is almost as if they are completely emasculating the Japanese spies because they have white henchmen," says Peimer.

"There's a really famous Superman comic book from 1943 where he visits a Japanese-American relocation center and uncovers a spy ring that exists there. But they are all being helped by white people on the outside [as if to say] the Japanese are evil, they are monsters but aren't capable of functioning without Caucasian input."

For more information go to www.skirball.org.

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susan.king@latimes.com

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