Storytelling Engines: The War That Time Forgot
(or "Ya Gotta Have Faith")
The central concept that drives the storytelling engine of "The War That Time Forgot" (a perennial back-up feature in 'Star-Spangled War Stories') has to be one of the best ideas in comic-book history. There's a mysterious island in the Pacific during World War II, perpetually shrouded in mist. US soldiers scout the island, believing it to be held by the Japanese, but it turns out that the island is actually overrun with dinosaurs. So it's World War II soldiers versus dinosaurs. 'Saving Private Ryan' meets 'Jurassic Park'. If there's anything more high-concept, I've never heard it.
But writer Bob Kanigher (a long-time stalwart of DC's war comics) seems to worry that the idea isn't enough on its own to catch his audience's interest. He certainly never develops the premise--the island is "discovered" some dozen or so times in different stories, each time recounted as though nobody had ever heard of it before. (This is as much a function of the series' back-up status as anything else; the tales were never meant to be the main attraction of the book, and given the general belief at DC at the time of high reader turnover, they weren't about to spend time burdening the series with an abundance of continuity.) There's no attempt to develop any real story beyond "Soldiers wind up on the island, find out there are dinosaurs, try to get back off."
And it seems hard to avoid the conclusion that Kanigher didn't think the dinosaurs were enough to get the reader excited; he spends an awful lot of time developing "exciting" backgrounds for the soldiers who discover the island. And by "exciting" I mean "ludicrous"; it's discovered by amateur paleontologists, circus acrobats who've enlisted as a unit, a soldier testing out his robot sidekick, giant albino gorillas, stunt skiers, and a tobogganist and the brother of the man he accidentally killed in a sledding accident. Admittedly, this does keep the story from getting dull, but at the same time, you do wind up wishing that the focus could be a bit less on the angry tobogganist and more on the giant dinosaurs.
Did this harm "The War That Time Forgot"? Probably not; it was, after all, a popular back-up for the better part of a decade, and is still well-remembered enough to this day that DC released a 'Showcase Presents' volume for it. But it's hard not to feel that it would have wound up being a better series if it had surrounded the one unbelievable premise, the dinosaurs, with a host of very believable human soldiers to lend it verisimilitude. When your writer is ignoring the giant dinosaurs to focus on the disgraced cop and his gangster brother, you can tell he doesn't have a whole lot of faith in the premise of his series.