Let's Talk Comics

 
 
Let's Talk Comics
With Rob Lamberti
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 Majesty’s Navy sinking the Nazi behemoth.
 
I would later learn it was Dell’s Combat #1. In time, I discovered and read Marvel’s 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 Kurtzman’s 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 solving problems.
 
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 Kurtzman’s style brought realism to war books a few generations in the future, such as Warren’s 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 DC’s Enemy Ace, which examined First World War aerial combat from a German ace’s 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 Baron’s inaugural appearance in Showcase, Number 57, he was challenged by Canadian ace The Hunter in a story entitled No-Man’s Land.
 
It would be The Hunter’s only appearance in comics.
 
Next column: Promotional 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.
 
You can reach Rob at lamberti@cogeco.ca
 
 
 
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