Tonight, UCSB history doctoral student Paul Hirsch will give a lecture regarding the use of comic books to circulate propaganda during the Cold War era at Unity Church in Santa Barbara beginning at 7 p.m.

Sponsored by UCSB History Associates, “Why Are These Men Smiling? The Cold War in Comics” will discuss the use of culturally popular Cold War-era comic books and art that used characters such as Superman and Dick Tracy to promote the respective interests of the United States and the Soviet Union. Hirsch received a graduate education and research traineeship from the National Science Foundation as well as awards from the Borchard Foundation for European Studies, the Philip and Aida Siff Educational Foundation and UCSB’s Lawrence Badash Prize in the History of Science, Technology and Medicine. The cost of admission is $12 for the general public and $10 for UCSB History Associates.

According to Hirsch, the number of comic books printed and sold from the 1940s to the 1970s was immeasurable, indicating that political officials likely found them to be successful vehicles for expressing special political interests. However, Hirsch also said it is difficult to determine just how effective or important this use of propaganda really was.

The unregulated nature of comic books led to their featuring controversial and sometimes profoundly offensive content, Hirsch said.

“During World War II and until 1955, comic books weren’t censored. So, unlike movies or radio shows, or any other mainstream media, comics really were free to print whatever they wanted, so comics were extremely racist and unbelievably violent,” Hirsch said. “They were also usually very sexual, so because of that the U.S. government was a little embarrassed of them, and communist propagandists did point to comic books as evidence of how depraved and crude the U.S. was.”

According to Hirsch, both Cold War superpowers took part in the propaganda game, stating that American officials responded to the Soviet use of American commercial comics by creating their own anti-Soviet ones to build up patriotism.

“[Comic books] were used primarily in the decolonizing world because the United States government thought that comic books were really powerful since everyone loves comics, and they thought they’d be a really effective way of building support for the U.S.,” Hirsch said.

Research professor and UCSB History Associate Harold Drake said the idea for the talk came from the realization that this month marks the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Hirsch’s lecture marks one of many recent and upcoming events that are intended to educate students, staff and the general public about Cold War history.

“The History Associates have two primary functions. One is to raise money for student support — primarily graduate students, but we do have some undergraduate student awards,” Drake said. “The other function is to promote interest in history in the community.”

Susan Miles Gulbransen, a member of UCSB History Associates, said her Cold War experience comes from her husband’s stories of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

“Gary — my husband — is the one who sat on the tarmac all night in his F100 at Homestead Air Force Base that night while the negotiations and decisions were being made about Cuba,” Gulbransen wrote in an email. “[That was] a night he’ll never forget.”

According to Hirsch, Cold War-era comic books illustrate the ways in which political and social issues had become increasingly interconnected by that point in history.

“It’s a really good example of how popular culture is very closely linked to foreign policy and how things you do everyday and things that you care about on a personal level have a huge impact on how the world sees the United States,” Hirsch said. “I think comics are important because for 20 years or so they helped to define what it meant to be American to a global audience.”

Drake said the lecture will be a chance for students to absorb valuable historical knowledge in a less conventional educational setting.

“I think it’s an opportunity to be in a setting outside of the classroom and students don’t have to ask if this is going to be on the exam,” Drake said “History becomes a lot more interesting when you don’t have those worries about it.”