War Comics 101
So it’s Memorial Day. Time to reflect on past wars…and past war comics. But since all the continuing war comics ceased publication over a generation ago, I figured a few of you might need a little primer on the war comics of yester-year….
With the American comics industry really kicking into full gear in 1938-39, it’s understandable that WWII would pervade the consciousness of the medium. Captain America, Daredevil (no relation), and the multi-cultural pilot ensemble The Blackhawks were kicking Hitler’s butt even before we had soldiers in Europe. Unfortunately, even though these books are considered classics, I suspect they might disappoint a modern reader, other than as pieces of historical interest. If you’re curious check out Blackhawk Archives Vol.1 from DC, featuring early work by Will Eisner and Bob Powell, and Marvel Masterworks: Golden-Age Captain America Vol. 1 by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby.
Then in the early-1950s (i.e. during the Korean War) EC Comics (best known for Tales from the Crypt and Mad) began publishing some of the best war comics ever. Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat featured a slew of amazing artists (including Wally Wood, Jack Davis, John Severin, and Alex Toth), and were written and edited by Harvey Kurtzman, who set out to make the most realistic war comics that he could within the limits of 8-page stories. Of course by being realistic, the stories came off as somewhat anti-war (go figure). There is currently one volume of Two-Fisted Tales available in archive form, with more to come.
Starting in the late 1950s, DC Comics took the baton and ran with it. Writer Bob Kanigher, and artists Joe Kubert and Russ Heath developed a roster of memorable WWII characters, including Sgt. Rock of Easy Company, The Unknown Soldier, and The Haunted Tank; and one classic WWI character, Enemy Ace. All are in print, Enemy Ace (2 vols.) and Sgt. Rock (3 vols.) as DC Archive editions, and Haunted Tank and Unknown Soldier as DC Showcase (b&w) editions.
Marvel’s one big Silver Age entry was Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos. Jack Kirby‘s 8 issues (#1-7, #13) of Sgt. Fury suffer from Dick Ayers’ and Geo. Bell’s inks, and from Stan Lee’s goofy writing, but #13 guest-starring Captain America is almost worth the whole $50 for the Marvel Masterworks edition!
These Silver Age titles continued in one form or another into the 1980s, but failed to make the transition from newsstand sales to direct market (i.e. comic shop) sales. But since then there have been a few notable entries in the war comics category.
Marvel’s The Nam was written by Larry Hama, and originally drawn by Michael Golden. It featured a rotating cast of characters, as the series was set in “real time”, so new soldiers and characters rotated in and out of Vietnam. Unfortunately Golden only managed 11 issues (with Russ Heath “ghosting” #12), and although the series ran for a long time after, none of the following artists managed the same chemistry with Hama. (Hey Marvel, how about a reprint of The Nam #1-12 in a single book?)
Sgt. Rock has been revisited a couple of times recently with beautiful art by Joe Kubert (he may be 80, but he can still draw like crazy). But neither the Brian Azzarello script for Sgt. Rock: Between Hell & A Hard Place nor Kubert’s own script for Sgt. Rock: The Prophecy really did it for me.
Enemy Ace has been re-done twice, once in a brilliant graphic novel by George Pratt, and more recently in a good-but-not amazing mini-series scripted by Garth Ennis. In general, I think Ennis is much better as a WWII writer. His takes on Unknown Soldier and Sgt. Fury (that would be Fury: Peacemaker. Not to be confused with plain old Fury which was alleged to be so offensive that George Clooney decided not to take the film role) were great. I also enjoyed the heck out of his humorous run on The Demon (Hey DC, how about a Showcase volume of these?) which brought the Haunted Tank back, as well as his deadly serious War Stories comics for Vertigo. Most recently he penned Battler Britton for Wildstorm, based on the old British comics character.
So go grab yourself a good war comic and get reading. And I think I’ll take my own advice. Might just be time to re-read some good old Two-Fisted Tales….