Scott's Classic Comics Corner: Four Decades of War Comics

First, I'll start with a warning. This is a very brief chat about the changing trends in War Comics. I'll be using sweeping generalizations, so please don't get all technical and 'exception finding' on me. I'm not just brushing with broad strokes; I'm like painting with a roller. After posting that Norman Saunders GI Joe cover last week, I got to thinking about how war comics have changed over the years.

We're all familiar with the great propaganda covers featured in many war-time superhero books. From Captain America #1 onwards, it was clear that patriotism was a big part of what made the industry grow at such amazing levels. But, beyond superheroes - what was happening in actual War Comics? Well, the fact of the matter is that there really weren't any true War Comics, as we'd come to know them, at the time. Sure, there were paramilitary heroes like Blackhawk, Captain Midnight and Air Boy, but nothing like the War comics we'd see in the 50s and 60s. What you were more likely to see on newsstands back in the 40s, were 'True' comic books - a genre that didn't survive the decade. These served almost as newsreels for kids and while they are interesting from an academic viewpoint, but certainly not great comics. They are straightforward, factual and patriotic; a definite testament to the times in which they were produced.

Things shifted ever so slightly during the 1950s. WW2 was over, but not forgotten and a new enemy was at the forefront of the collective consciousness. While many books produced during the decade were still patriotic, such as Fawcett's wonderfully over the top Bill Battle (the original OMAC), readers were exposed to the actual brutality of war. Some titles, like Harvey Kurtzman's Frontline Combat, were explicit in their messages, whereas other titles simply showed the human impact of conflict by focusing more on hand to hand combat and death. I can only imagine that this shift was due to the sheer number of comic book creators with actual wartime experience.

The 1960s represented another shift in War Comics, combining certain aspects from the superhero rebirth with the brutality of battle. Many books (especially DC's Big Five and Marvel's Sgt. Fury) focused on the ongoing adventures of a recurring cast of characters. Long gone were the 'random' stories that were the feature of so many 50s books. This obviously led to a great reduction in the fatality rate in War Comics. Warren's short-lived Blazing Combat, was an exception to that trend, featuring some of the most powerful stories ever produced. While its life was short, it had a great deal of impact as by the mid-60s, DC's war titles took on more of an anti-war feel, and we even saw the 'enemy' (granted, one from 50 years in the past) become a headliner. That sort of thing would have been unthinkable in the 40s, but editors and writers were becoming more open-minded and seeking new avenues for their imaginations.

Speaking of imagination, the 1970s were full of imagination and clearly focused on highlighting the horrors of war. Sure, there were still traditional war stories being told but even older titles such as Our Fighting Forces were changing with features such as the Losers. The Unknown Soldier strip in Star Spangled War Stories (and later in his own title) is one of the strongest of the decade, in any genre. Readers were given a ride through WW2 that combined espionage with moral dilemmas. The Dave Micheline/Gerry Talaoc run has always been a favorite of mine. Things got down right kooky with titles such as Weird War Tales, a hybrid series that invited the reader to look at war from a different perspective. Even Charlton got in on the act, with some strange tales appearing in its otherwise straight war titles like Fightin' Army. By the end of the 70s, War Comics has pretty much run their course and while a few would survive into the 80s, publishers were obviously finding it difficult to keep fresh ideas flowing into a stale genre. From fact-based 4 pagers to werewolf soldiers - War Comics fans had seen just about everything.

For more fun talk about a wide variety of old comics, check out my blog: Seduction of the Indifferent

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