Posted by Ron Edwards
I completely missed war comics as a kid, and the reason is easy: the covers scared the shit out of me, the few I found in the pile of comics I’d inherited, e.g. Sgt. Rock, no less than those I’d see on the stands when I started buying comics, like Weird War Tales and War is Hell. It was both ideological and visual. I was born very literally into the American social crisis of “why are we in Vietnam,” and my personal take from as young as six or seven was that I would not participate in war even at the most superficial level. As I saw it, if the comic glorified war, then I didn’t want to touch it, and if it defied or protested war, then I didn’t need to be told. I was also a sensitive little wussy-boy and recoiled from all naturalistic imagery of gore and pain.
Then, when I became re-interested in comics history back in the 1980s, I missed the war comics again by not investigating, because I was ignorant of their significance. Therefore this is, in many ways, the anti-blogger post – no expertise, no personal experience, no promised insight or opinion for you to repeat. I’m writing about my present-day realization that not to know war comics is not to know comics. They’ve never ended. Forget superheroes, war is the baseline for American comics, what they always have delivered.
I won’t summarize the comics during WWII, only mention that all the companies well-known to comics fans published them, and to nod toward Timely/Atlas’ bucket of titles and the characters The Human Torch, Captain America, and Namor the Sub-Mariner, for whom creators like Bill Everett and Jack Kirby need little mention to current readers, as well as toward writers like Mickey Spillane. I’m mainly talking those with relatively naturalistic content that continued as war comics.
For example, Blackhawk, probably the comics progenitor of the multi-national “ace” team which is rooted in Doc Savage and would become codified for most current readers in the 1980s G.I. Joe. It began at Quality Comics as a contemporary WWII concept in 1941, appearing first in Military Comics and Uncle Sam Quarterly, becoming a title series in 1944, featuring Will Eisner and Reed Crandall, its primary artist. It was acquired by DC in 1951, ran from that point until 1956, and has intermittently appeared through the present day: e.g. folding them into superhero continuity in a new title in 1967, canceled in 1968; it was resumed in 1976 as part of the DC Explosion, casting the team as contemporary mercenaries, canceled in 1977; revived by Len Wein in 1982, set in WWII again, and canceled in 1984. Most of the titles and characters I’m writing about have similarly on-and-off, multiple-revival, this-war-no-that-war histories, but I stress they were not confined to the WWII origin + 1950s-only presence, far from it.
I don’t know how the 1950s versions related to the thousands of manly-mag covers and stories, which were still very present through the mid-70s and were such obvious posturing that I had to laugh even as a kid, as well as the only-slightly more sober gung-ho military tales you found in Reader’s Digest or any number of other everyman-styled venues. I do know that to whatever extent newsstand comics corresponded to that kind of material, a bunch of them or a bunch of content within them did not. There’s a comics-principle for you, I guess: by the time you can see that comics confirm something identifiable as cultural content and values, it’s a sure bet that some other comic is already defying it. And in 1951-1954, where else but at EC, and who else but the inimitable Harvey Kurtzman, with Two-Fisted Tales, 1950-1955, and Frontline Combat, 1951-1954.
It may seem as if there’s pro-war over here and anti-war over there, easily recognized as such, on-message as such, wholly internally consistent. The Hooded Utilitarian critiques Blazing Combat from that perspective, but mine is different: rather than seek a comic which meets a gold standard of utterly anti-war, I look for bits and pieces across stories, often incoherent or mismatched to surrounding material, which throw doubt or generally subvert the ostensible or “obvious” message. The key is whether such things show up regularly rather than merely being isolated rarities.
That’s the perspective I’d bring to educating myself about the other major titles begun in the 1950s and some of which, unlike the EC titles (killed by the Comics Code Authority), thrived and continued into the late 70s or early 80s:
- War Comics (Timely/Newsstand Publications): begun in 1950, probably the first revival of the genre after the war’s end and tightly keyed to propaganda regarding the Korean War (1950-1953), swiftly followed by many similar titles; its advent and the military content are paralleled by macho-adventure titles like Man Comics and Spy Fighters, as well as the long-running Stag magazine.
- Other titles by Timely/Atlas included Battle (1951-1960), Battlefield (1952), and Combat Kelly (1951), notable for its violence and featuring Al Hartley, two phrases I had not previously encountered in the same sentence. See the link at the bottom for tons more, especially documenting the shift in content after the Comics Code Authority struck in 1955.
- Some names you’ll recognize across the comics include Stan Lee, Al Hartley, John Buscema, Syd Shores, Jack Kirby, Joe Sinnott, Don Heck, John Severin, Russ Heath, Joe Orlando, Bob Brown, Dick Ayers, Dave Berg, John Romita, Gene Colan, Jerry Robinson, and George Tuska.
- Star Spangled War Stories (DC): begun in 1952 initially retitling Star Spangled Comics, running through 1977; editor Robert Kanigher
- G.I. Combat: first published by Quality Comics, 1952-1956, acquired by DC to run 1957-1987; Robert Kanigher and Joe Kashdan are the primary writers
- Our Army at War (DC): 1952-1977, by Robert Kanigher and Joe Kubert. Sgt. Rock is introduced in 1959, initially as a WWII veteran serving at NCO.
- Our Fighting Forces: DC, 1954-1978, although I don’t know how continuous it was. Robert Kanigher was the editor and primary writer.
- Fightin’ Army / Air Force / Navy / Marines (Charlton): four titles begun approximately in 1954 allowing for title changes and another publisher, running through 1977 with hiatus and reprints through 1984.
- All-American Men of War (DC): 1956-1966 (this one’s confusing, it seems to have run for longer but I don’t know when)
I went into this detail, minimal by comics scholars’ standards, for three reasons: (1) how prevalent the titles are, zooming and booming straight through what comics fans and scholars think of as the dramatic destruction of American comics in the late 1950s (yes, volume did decrease; the thing is how the number of war titles didn’t, and although the content altered, it didn’t vanish); (2) the specificity of the creators, showing how dominated the genre was by Kanigher, Kubert, and a few others, and on a related note, how many of the future greats made their bones and developed their creative relationships on these titles; and (3) the strong tendency to focus on WWII rather than Korea and (later) Vietnam, which sometimes included criticizing current war policy in a safer fictional space.
On to the titles I know a little bit more about that began in the 1960s, which as you can see from the dates above should be understood as added to and included in most of the above titles and concepts, rather than replacing them. No surprise really that dissent is more explicit, with the most obvious example in an effective revival of the EC titles from a decade-plus earlier, Blazing Combat magazine from Warren Publishing (see … To see something really scary?). It appeared in only four issues during 1965-1966, featuring 29 stories set in a wide variety of war settings, including “Landscape” in #2, from the North Vietnamese POV. It was unabashedly violent horror and explicitly anti-war. Archie Goodwin wrote it all, Harvey Kurtzman was an active consultant, and it featured the usual Warren all-star artists.
There’s also a visible shift in the newsstand comics, which I saw some of in the pile of comics I inherited from my siblings. Given my brief exposure, the content seems consonant with my points in G.I. Who. Some of it might be tied to the editor change-up at DC starting in 1968, with Carmine Infantino bringing Kubert and Kanigher up to editor status, as well as Goodwin and Dick Ayers on frequent writing duty, and Jack Kirby too, so it’s no surprise the content became more reflective and if not anti-war, questioning in a non-ambiguous way, including the the Enemy Ace (early, 1965), the Haunted Tank, the Losers, and some Vietnam stories in Our Army at War; in 1970 it would start featuring Sam Glanzman’s autobiographical stories. The same title introduced the Unknown Soldier in 1966, who’d go on to become the main character in Star Spangled War Stories in 1970, to replace the series title name in 1977, and to last until 1982. Our Army at War changed its title to Sgt. Rock in 1977 and ran until 1988.
The same thing happened at Marvel, throughout the 1963-1981 run of Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos, beginning with the multi-ethnic noncom squad during WWII by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, then evolving through Roy Thomas and Mike Friedrich (the main writer). As with DC, you can see the 1950s war-pros rising to the occasion: e.g., Ayers who did 95 issues of Sgt. Fury often inked by John Severin. Friedrich and Ayers also did two edgy Marvel WWII series: Captain Savage and his Leatherneck Raiders (1968-1970) and Combat Kelly and the Deadly Dozen (1972-1973).
Now for what really scared and repelled me when I first went to the spinner racks with my two quarters and assortment of smaller change. First, Weird War Tales from DC, 1971-1983, edited by – no surprise allowed – Joe Orlando, his EC and scary-war-shit from the 1950s on full display. Get this: the series is hosted by Death, full of explicit horror and occult elements, including post-apocalyptic stories like “The Day After Doomsday.” Its terrifying twin was Marvel’s War is Hell, 1973-1975, which began with reprints of old war comics, then shifted into nightmare territory, in which Death is the main character, forcing a doomed soldier to die countless lives in war theaters across history. Really, these two are just one big shared title, considering the shared pool of writers between them and their venue for creators’ break-ins, similar to Warren Publishing. WWT featured the first comics work by Walt Simonson and the first collaboration between Roger McKenzie and Frank Miller; WIH featured early Chris Claremont and Steve Gerber.
I am baffled that I should have been an avid reader of such novels as The Forever War by Joe Haldeman and stories like “Run for the Stars” by Harlan Ellison, but such a wuss about these. They’re totally of a piece with my seminal influences described in A dangerous vision and Your mama’s apocalypse. As a minor point, I’m interested to know how Weird War Tales crossed the hard line (1975) between Infantino’s editorship and the Jenette Kahn era, and why War is Hell faltered during a period of massive uncritical buildup of Marvel titles.
Anyone reading this blog knows already that I am running, not walking, to read each of these from start to finish, and that I don’t consider anything about my 70s comics writing complete until I do so. I have tons of Joe Kubert material under my belt as a reader and also in collections; like anyone who knows what a comic is, I know that Kubert was one of the giants of modern comics as both creator and mentor. But I am awed by even my first look at his war content, how much of this whole thing was shaped by his life and passion concerning the subject – a passion which was by no means mindless patriotic militarism. Add Kanigher, Goodwin, and Orlando immediately.
After this? You got me there, my experience stops almost cold. I know literally nothing about the latter years of Sgt. Rock and Sgt. Fury or about Men of War (DC’s title change for All-American Men of War, 1977-1980); and as I’ve written about before, I was oblivious to the 1980s version of G.I. Joe. I’ve never seen a physical issue of The ‘Nam (Marvel, 1986-1993). But … am I wrong in thinking that the “war comic” that lasted this long (1950-1980 or so) is mostly gone today? Or that in whatever versions replaced them, that the particular veteran-experience and generally-reflective undertone of so many war comics has vanished? I have quite a bit to say about the alleged end of the Cold War and the illusion that “we’re all peaceful now except, oh no, terrorists” that was promulgated in the 1990s, but about the comics, I’ve only seen a couple examples and need some help framing these questions and addressing them.
I know even less about non-U.S. comics set in actual combat. The easy comparison is that the U.S. population hasn’t experienced a war on its own territory since the 1800s so “we don’t know” and romanticize and idealize more than others do, but I’m not too sure that’s true. It wouldn’t surprise me if the uneasy mix of glory-and-doubt were present in such comics worldwide. I’d also be interested to know whether in-theater war content in comics (as opposed to aftermath-setting) came under legal restrictions, especially in postwar Germany, Italy, or Japan.
A premature generalization? (1) That from 1945-1985 or so, when being in the American military was a matter of conscription and brief one-war enlistment except at the highest ranks, and as U.S. culture grappled with the perceived virtue and perceived mandate of winning wars while insisting we did no such thing, war comics permitted perspective and dissent as part of, rather than specifically opposing, the dramatic and sort-of heroic depiction of historical combat. Don’t be simplistic: before you say “Americans were critical of war in Vietnam and the comics just rode on that,” bear in mind that Nixon won his 1972 presidential campaign in a shocking landslide, on a wave of fervent patriotic “we will win” rhetoric and putting down dissenters as whiners and wimps. (2) That from roughly 1985 and certainly from 1991 to the present, as narratives of war shifted especially for Vietnam, as the image of “the Russians” changed from nigh-insuperable, frightening alien forces into those stupid wimps we beat (and were beating all along), as the Israeli model became idealized and tightly tied to U.S. policy, as the military moved into its first generation of career-model for the non-officer ranks, combat-theater war comics fell right out of the mainstream. No spate of hard and gritty Against the Terrorists and Our Fightin’ Peacekeepers appeared – and this in knowledge of how thoroughly the Pentagon supports and promotes its policies and desired public image via cinema.
But why? Could it be that comics are the opposite of cinema, that although (selon Truffaut) you can’t make an anti-war film set in a war theater because war’s too much fun to watch, you can’t make a genuine pro-war comic set similarly because … of something? (with the proviso that “a” is too simplistic, it’d have to be assessed across a spectrum of titles and stories)
Whether that’s right or wrong or aiming wrong in the first place, I dunno. Time to learn about it.
Links: A history of Timely-Atlas war comics (1950-1960), Joe Kubert dies at 85 (NYT obituary), A tribute to Robert Kanigher (Comics Alliance), Weird War Tales covers (you’re welcome), War is Hell covers (ditto)
Next column: It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s an implosion! (March 19)
About Ron EdwardsGame author and publisher via Adept Press / Biology author and former professor
Posted on March 12, 2017, in Politics dammit, The 70s me and tagged Archie Goodwin, Blazing Combat, Carmine Infantino, Comics Code Authority, Dick Ayers, Entertainment Comics (EC), Frontline Combat, Harvey Kurtzman, Jack Kirby, Joe Kubert, Joe Orlando, Robert Kanigher, Sam Glanzman, Two-Fisted Tales, War is Hell, Weird War Tales. Bookmark the permalink. 30 Comments.