It was a warm day as I rode my bicycle on the street I lived
on in what was then the Borough of York and I spotted a comic
book lying in the street.
A voracious reader of almost anything in comic book form,
I stopped and picked up the coverless four-colour book. It was
the story of the search, nay, of the hunt for the Nazi flagship
Bismarck. She was scuttled after being severely damaged in battle
with the British. Even today, I try to rhyme off at least some
of the names of the British ships involved: Ark Royal, Victorious,
Prince of Wales and, of course, the Hood.
Enthralled, I rushed home, read it once, twice and many times
more. I remember the joy of reading it more than 45 years later.
I wish I still had that coverless comic that someone else chucked.
It got dumped in the garbage by my parents.
I never knew who published it, as I didn't care then. It
was a wonderful tale of His Majestys Navy sinking the Nazi
I would later learn it was Dells Combat #1. In time,
I discovered and read Marvels Sgt. Fury and his Howling
Commandos, among other war comics.
But there was an underlying theme in the war comics I read
then, that war was glorious, patriotic and our boys (and only
boys then) were brave in the face of battle, while our enemies
were hapless in our onslaught.
But the history of war comics, like war, is a little more
complicated than that.
The Golden Age books were gung-ho pro-Allies. We missed the
boat with Franco, but it was a fight to the finish with the Axis
powers as our mythical beings joined our military to take on
Tojo, Hitler and Mussolini.
When the Korean War erupted 15 years later and the UN sort
of went to war - officially it was a police action - against
the Kim regime and Mao, comics were divided. Atlas, the precursor
to Marvel, followed other companies in churning out pro-UN forces
stories against the evil commies, as did DC and Charlton. But
because it wasn't an all-or-nothing conflict like the Second
World War, support wasn't unanimous.
Some artists dared to draw soldiers with fear in their eyes,
to show the horrors of war, to challenge the concept of we are
winners and they are losers, we are good and they are bad. Life
isn't that simple.
The lightning rod
for dissent in the 1950s was EC Comics with Frontline Combat
and Two-Fisted Tales. Writer, artist and editor Harvey Kurtzman
led a stable of outstanding artists, including John Severin,
Jack Davis, Wally Wood, Will Elder and George Evans. Many, but
not all, of Kurtzmans stories had an anti-war bent, a far
cry from the blind jingoism usually seen in other comics.
Kurtzman, born in Brooklyn in 1924, would eventually be known
most for his humour and parody as a driving force behind Mad,
both the comic book and the magazine. But his résumé
also included helping the art staff at The Daily Worker and a
New York art school.
Drafted during the Second World War, he walked into EC Comics
in 1949. As the Korean conflict erupted, EC boss Bill Gaines
launched his New Trend comics and handed Kurtzman
Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat.
Kurtzman wrote 115 stories for the two titles' 29 issues.
He didn't settle for the usual story that never challenged, never
questioned and never spoke out. He wrote stories that showed
war at its ugliest and hoped people would find other ways of
He told Comics Journal he wanted precision, accuracy and
authenticity in his war stories and his research was extensive.
He achieved them as the books were banned from military bases.
Nevertheless, Kurtzman the American patriot didn't shun duty
to nation when it was necessary and he reflected that message
in some of the stories. People from both sides of the conflict
populated his tales.
When the Korean ceasefire was set in 1953, sales dropped
and the two titles were also dropped. It could be argued that
Kurtzmans style brought realism to war books a few generations
in the future, such as Warrens Blazing Combat, considered
by some as the finest war comic ever printed, and The Nam
by Marvel, a book devised by veterans.
Another great story
line is DCs Enemy Ace, which examined First World War aerial
combat from a German aces point of view. Drawn by legendary
artist Joe Kubert, the character Baron Hans von Hammer first
appeared in Our Army at War 151.
The German character, a skilled pilot with his deadly tri-plane
Fokker DR1, was haunted by the stench and death associated to
war. Loosely based on the true-to-life ace fighter pilot The
Red Baron, The Enemy Ace quickly gained popularity and was moved
to DC Showcase.
In the Barons inaugural appearance in Showcase, Number
57, he was challenged by Canadian ace The Hunter in a story entitled
It would be The Hunters only appearance in comics.
Let's Talk Comics with Rob Lamberti, who started collecting
comics when the going price was 12 cents an issue and Peter Parker
really was a teenager. He dabbled in the comic convention circuit
in the Toronto area for a while, but stopped to concentrate on
his career as a not-so-mild- mannered crime reporter for a great
metropolitan newspaper, where he hoped he managed to record a
little bit of history the past three decades.