War and all its aspects are fertile ground for stories of the human condition, whether creators choose to focus on positive examples of heroism and sacrifice, explore baser aspects such as hatred and bigotry, or show how the noble and the profane are intertwined.
War comics as a genre date back to the Golden Age, with several patriotic titles popping up with the waging of World War II, like the famous first issue of “Captain America Comics” showing the star-spangled Avenger socking Adolf Hitler in the jaw a full year before the United States took part. Below is a list of 16 other top war comics, showcasing soldiers and sailors, spies and commandos, pilots and civilians; everyone dealing with the personal dilemma and terror that war can bring.
16. Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos
In 1963, Marvel was riding high with its brash approach to comics, the bombastic writing of Stan Lee and the eye-popping art from innovators Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko. Publisher Martin Goodman, however, disagreed with Lee about the key ingredients of that success. Lee bet him that he could make a winner out of a low-selling genre — the war comic — even if it had the worst title imaginable. Thus, “Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos” was born.
“Sgt. Fury” lived up to its billing as “the war mag for people who hate war mags.” No grim musings here about how men are bent and broken by combat; under Kirby’s pencil, this book was all-out action. Fury and his cohorts romped and wisecracked their way through one adventure after another, doing impossible deeds of derring do — such as Dum-Dum Dugan taking out a plane with a hand grenade. Along the way, Junior Juniper and Fury’s girlfriend, Pamela Hawley, were killed off, giving the strip a tinge of seriousness. Kirby was followed by Dick Ayers, but the art got an upgrade when legendary war comics artist John Severin became inker and then solo artist.
15. Adventures in the Rifle Brigade
Garth Ennis and Carlos Ezquerra’s “Adventures in the Rifle Brigade” took the action and the silliness of “Sgt. Fury” up to eleven. This 1990 three-issue miniseries from Vertigo introduced us to the sextet of the title. Each member of the team is a broadly drawn caricature of war-fightin’ men. The unit is led by Capt. Hugo “Khyber” Darcy, who is so British, he is unaware the United States is an independent nation, and refuses to believe it when told.
Also along for the ride are the cigar-chomping, token American, Hank the Yank, who never says anything but “Gawd Dammit!”; the burly, almost mindless Sergeant Crumb, said to be the largest man in the British armed services; Corporal Geezer, assigned to the Brigade instead of prison for 413 murders; and The Piper, a proper Scot whose primary weapon is his bagpipe, made from human flesh, the playing of which has driven listeners to suicide. Last but not least is Second Lt. Cecil “Doubtful” Milk, as fey as everyone else is macho. The second miniseries, “Operation: Bollock,” has the Brigade in a race to recapture a sensitive part of Adolf Hitler’s anatomy ahead of rivals from the Americans, the Third Reich and fellow Brits. Both series were drawn by Carlos Esquerra.
14. Weird War Tales
The Comics Code, imposed in 1954, was the set of standards comics publishers pledged to adhere to when their stories were being written and drawn. It initially forbade a wide swath of content, including just about all the elements of horror stories. The Code was relaxed for the first time in 1971, allowing for stories of werewolves, vampires and other monsters. DC quickly took advantage of that new freedom to introduce “Weird War Tales” later that year. “Weird War Tales” was a blend of two genres: war comics and horror comics, with science-fiction, fantasy and mystery also thrown into the mix.
Each issue had a framing page featuring Death as a skeletal figure wearing a soldier’s garb from a different era. The stories were written and drawn by a rotating crew of creators. Many were drawn by artists who lived in the Philippines, including Alfredo P. Acala, Nestor Redondo, Frank Redondo, Alex Nino, E.R. Cruz and Tony DeZuniga. There was a four-issue Vertigo series in 1997 and one-shot specials in 2000 and in 2010 with art by Darwyn Cooke.
13. Last Day in Vietnam
In 2000, comics legend Will Eisner produced “Last Day in Vietnam,” a graphic novel anthology that was a mix of autobiographical tale, observation and retelling of the kind of slice-of-life stories that are so nonsensical, they have to be true. Eisner, who served in the Army during World War II, edited a magazine on vehicle maintenance until 1971. His contacts with soldiers and his own experiences inform the six tales in “Last Day,” which take place during World War II, Korea and Vietnam.
The title story follows a major who is giddy about finishing his tour of duty, but the base is attacked and he sees more action in those 24 hours than he had in the previous 12 months. “A Purple Heart for George” features a back-of-the-lines soldier who goes on weekly benders and, each week, requests a transfer to a combat unit. Fortunately for him, his buddies, knowing the captain always grants such requests, make sure to destroy the document before the captain sees it. Unfortunately, one weekend they aren’t around, and poor George suffers the consequences. In 80 pages, the six stories span the gamut of human emotion, with Eisner’s expressive art magnifying his brilliant words.
12. War Stories
Where Garth Ennis went for broad comedy in “Adventures in the Rifle Brigade,” skewering the conventions of war comics, he keeps things deadly serious in “War Stories.” This anthology title mostly pulled from different theaters during World War II, although the occasional tale takes place in another conflict, such as an arc focusing on Israeli tank crews during the Yom Kippur War. Ennis takes inspiration from real events, telling stories from the perspective of ground troops, bomber pilots, refugees, sailors and others caught in impossible situations with wrenching moral decisions to make.
There were a variety of artists, including Dave Gibbons, John Higgins, David Lloyd and Carlos Esquerra, Ennis’s partner from “Adventures in the Rifle Brigade.” The first four-issue miniseries was published by Vertigo in 2001, followed by another in 2003. In 2014, Avatar began an ongoing series. Tomas Aira has been the regular artist for most of the run.
11. The Unknown Soldier
One of the most gripping headline features in “Star-Spangled War Stories” was “The Unknown Soldier,” telling the adventures of a U.S. spy during World War II for the forerunner of the CIA. The Soldier first appeared in a Sgt. Rock story in “Our Army at War” in 1966, but was elevated to a headliner in 1970. The Soldier’s face is badly disfigured because of a grenade blast, so he typically appears with his entire head bandaged when not on a mission. He has also been intensively trained in the arts of infiltration, hand-to-hand combat and disguise, using latex masks to adopt different faces.
David Michelinie’s 19-issue run on the book, with art by Gerry Talaoc, put the Soldier in awkward situations where others paid the price for the need to keep his cover while carrying out his missions. One is a tale in which he is disguised as a Nazi officer and ordered to prove his loyalty by shooting a suspected member of the French resistance.
Christopher Priest, then writing as Jim Owsley, did a 12-issue maxiseries in 1988 featuring a new Unknown Soldier who was more cynical and bitter than his predecessor, and nearly immortal to boot. Two other miniseries featuring other men bearing the name were published in 1997 and in 2008.
10. The Haunted Tank (Vertigo series)
“The Haunted Tank” was the main feature in “G.I. Combat” from 1961 to the end of the book’s run in 1987. It followed the adventures of an M3 Stuart tank crew during World War II, commanded by Lt. Jeb Stuart. Stuart is a namesake and descendant of Confederate Gen. Jeb Stuart, whose ghost appears to him and makes cryptic remarks about the missions the tank undertakes, which are clues to how the crew might prevail.
Vertigo revived and updated the concept in 2007, in a five-issue miniseries written by Frank Marraffino and drawn by Henry Flint, but with a twist. Gen. Stuart’s ghost appears to his descendant in the 2003 invasion of Iraq: Jamal Stuart, a Black man who commands an M1A1 Abrams tank and is none too happy to have to deal with the ghost from a racist past. Unlike the original series, all of the crew members — an Asian, a Latino and a White guy from the South — can see and hear the general. The interplay of their perspectives as they cope with their environment makes a fascinating read.
9. War Is Hell
Marvel’s “War Is Hell” began in 1973 as a reprint title, carrying old Atlas Comics tales and then two “Sgt. Fury” stories. With issue #9, it launched an original series blending the war and horror genres to great effect. The lead character was John Kowalski, a U.S. Marine who was deported to Poland after being accused of treason and dishonorably discharged. He learned of a resistance movement’s plan to prevent Poland from being invaded, but refused a request to get help from the Americans. The resistance leader was killed in the invasion, but not before putting a curse on Kowalski. Kowalski himself was killed soon after, but then the curse kicked in. He was revived by Death and forced to possess the body of someone doomed to die.
Like Sam Beckett of TV’s “Quantum Leap,” Kowalski was charged with making things right for the person he inhabited before they met their end, in a macabre form of penance. Kowalski’s adventures took him to different times and places, possessing combatants in the Allies and the Axis forces, giving him an up-close look at how war makes everyone suffer. Stories were written by Chris Claremont, with art by Herb Trimpe, Don Perlin, George Evans, Dick Ayers and others, with covers by Gil Kane.
8. The War That Time Forgot
Another long-running series in “Star-Spangled War Stories,” spanning from 1960 to 1968, was “The War That Time Forgot.” It had a simple, cool premise: the U.S. Army against dinosaurs!
Mostly a series of one-off tales, the common element was that all stories took place on a mysterious, unnamed island in the South Pacific and that somehow, soldiers, sailors or pilots found themselves there, in battle for their lives against vicious beasts. The concept was cooked up by Robert Kanigher, who wrote most of the stories, and art team Ross Andru and Mike Esposito in “Star-Spangled War Stories” #90, although Neal Adams and Russ Heath worked on a tale or two. After “Star-Spangled” retired the strip in favor of “Enemy Ace,” the island of dinosaurs resurfaced occasionally in other titles. Darwyn Cooke included it in 2004’s “The New Frontier,” and DC gave “The War That Time Forgot” a 12-issue maxi series in 2008, written by Bruce Jones. Most recently, Superman found the island in “Superman” #8.
7. Enemy Ace
Robert Kanigher’s and Joe Kubert’s “Enemy Ace” viewed the horrors of war from a different lens: that of German World War I fighter pilot Hans von Hammer, known as “the Hammer of Hell.” Von Hammer was an aristocrat and a patriot who loathed fighting, but was the top aerial ace in the world, having racked up 80 kills. The character, introduced in a backup story in “Our Army at War” #151, was modeled on real-life pilot Baron Manfred von Richthofen. He soon was elevated to headlining status in “Star-Spangled War Stories.”
Kanigher focused on von Hammer’s devotion to duty and revulsion at what he had to do to fulfill it. Lonely and aloof, Hammer often lamented “the killing skies” and went hunting in the woods with a black wolf, which he thought of as his only friend.
The 2001 two-issue miniseries “Enemy Ace: War in Heaven” revealed von Hammer served in World War II, but grows increasingly disgusted with the Third Reich’s perpetuation of the Holocaust. He leads a mutiny and surrenders to the Allies. “Enemy Ace: War Idyll” from 1990 has von Hammer telling his memoirs to a journalist before dying in 1969.
6. Two-Fisted Tales / Frontline Combat
In the stable of mags produced for EC Comics by the legendary Harvey Kurtzman, “Two-Fisted Tales” and “Frontline Combat” stand out. The two bi-monthly titles were fully the vision of Kurtzman, who carefully researched and wrote the stories, and provided page and panel layouts to the artists. Art was provided by John Severin, Jack Davis, Will Elder, George Evans and Wally Wood from the EC roster, as well as guests such as Russ Heath, Ric Estrada, Alex Toth and Joe Kubert.
Many of the stories were set during the Korean War — in full swing at the time — as well as in World War II, although some took place in other eras such as the Revolutionary War. Kurtzman tackled racism, brutality and war’s dehumanizing effects in stories that were anti-war by stripping the glamor from the episodes. However, sales didn’t allow both titles to survive; “Frontline Combat” was canceled in 1954, with “Two-Fisted Tales” ending a year later.
5. Blazing Combat
A spiritual successor to “Two-Fisted Tales” was Warren Publishing’s short-lived “Blazing Combat,” which ran for four quarterly issues in 1965 and 1966. Publisher James Warren tapped Archie Goodwin to edit the title, and Goodwin wrote all but one of the stories and co-wrote a couple with the artists. The stories were drawn by war comic vets Reed Crandall, George Evans, Wally Wood, Gene Colan, John Severin, Russ Heath, Gray Morrow and others.
As a black-and-white magazine, “Blazing Combat” was not under the Comics Code, and was more free to be hard-hitting, realistic and brutal. However, the title could not escape the wrath of the American Legion, which pressured distributors to turn against Warren over a story in the second issue. “Landscape” told of an elderly rice farmer in Vietnam who wished to be left alone, but is caught between warring forces and meets a fatal end. Army PXs dropped the title, and distributors boycotted the book over its anti-war outlook, which was perceived as unpatriotic. However, after distributors started rejecting other titles in the Warren lineup, the company pulled the plug with the fourth issue, despite its critical acclaim.
4. The ‘Nam
“The ‘Nam” broke the mold for Marvel, ambitiously attempting to tell the story of the Vietnam War from the eyes of the grunts at ground level. The title, launched in 1986, followed two prototype tales of “The 5th to the 1st” in the black-and-white magazine “Savage Tales,” edited by Larry Hama, written by Doug Murray and drawn by Michael Golden in a very detailed yet slightly cartoony style. The team helmed the ongoing series, which at first wasn’t part of the Marvel Universe, and followed real-world continuity; each issue took place about a month after the previous one. The book tackled war profiteering, prisoners of war, soldiers killing superior officers (known as “fragging”) and more. It was meant to rotate in new characters as others finished their tours of duty.
However, Golden left the book after the first year, replaced by Wayne Vansant for most of the run. The conceit of following the war month-by-month was abandoned, as was its isolation from the broader Marvel Universe, with the story “The Punisher Invades The ‘Nam!” Murray also was replaced by Chuck Dixon, who started off strong with the five-part “The Death of Joe Hallen,” about a Marine’s struggles to return to life stateside. Dixon wrapped the book by looking in on the characters who started it.
Many war books look at it from the point of view of those who wage the wars. “Maus” views it from its victims. Writer/artist Art Spiegelman frames the story by having him interview his father, Vladek, about his days in Poland before and during World War II, before he emigrated to the United States.
Vladek married Anja, who suffered postpartum depression after the birth of son Richieu. In the succeeding years, as the Holocaust spreads across Europe, both Vladek and Anja are taken prisoner and placed in separate camps, struggling to survive and reunite. Woven in the tale are Spiegelman’s frustrations over his relationship with his father and the suicide of his mother. Spiegelman chose to depict the Nazis as cats, the Polish Jews as mice, and other Poles and Germans as pigs.
The chapters were serialized in the magazine “Raw” before being collected in the book “Maus: A Survivor’s Tale; My Father Bleeds History.” Critical acclaim followed, as did a sequel, “Maus II: And Here My Troubles Began.”
2. U.S.S. Stevens
The U.S.S. Stevens, DD-479, was a destroyer that was the wartime home for 366 sailors — most notably Sam Glanzman, who served on the Stevens during World War II. Those four years gave Glanzman a lifetime of stories that informed his long career as a comics artist for Dell, Charlton, DC and others.
In 1970, Glanzman began the long-running “U.S.S. Stevens” strip as a backup tale in “Our Army at War” #218. In around 70, four-page episodes, he gave us slices of the sailor’s life that were illuminating, frightening and poignant. Dull routine was interrupted by fierce battle; frightened sailors contemplated self-harm to get out of combat; irritated villagers rail “Soldiers! What do they know of war?”
Stories tackled homosexuality and xenophobia, while Glanzman also provided “U.S.S. Stevens” stories for Marvel’s black-and-white magazine, “Savage Tales,” within 2012’s “Joe Kubert Presents” miniseries. He also wrote and drew two graphic novels for Marvel, “A Sailor’s Story” and “A Sailor’s Story II: Winds, Dreams and Dragons.”
1. Our Army at War / Sgt. Rock
The threat of death always loomed over Sgt. Rock and Easy Company in “Our Army at War,” a title which boasted itself as “the king of the war comic books.” War here is not a grand adventure nor a political statement. No, for the weary foot soldier, it was a long slog from one place to another, fighting and dying to hold a piece of ground.
After a few prototype stories, the Rock we know and love appeared full-form in “The Rock and The Wall!” in “Our Army at War” #83, schooling a new guy about the ways of Easy. There were many new guys, as Easy — being a front-line unit — bore a heavy share of casualties as they wound their way from North Africa to Italy to France to Germany, where they were at war’s end.
Artists Joe Kubert and Russ Heath had long runs on the strip, which lasted nearly 30 years, until 1988, with both writing some stories, too. The bulk of the tales were penned by Robert Kanigher, who imbued Rock with leadership, toughness, sharp judgment, an iron will — and a big heart.
What are some of your favorite war comics of all time? Sound off in the comments!
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