2009 May 07 • Thursday
New from Fantagraphics is Blazing Combat, a reprint of all four issues of the anti-war comic book of the same name, originally published as a quarterly, in magazine format, from October 1965 to July 1966.
All but one of the stories were written by the prolific and celebrated Archie Goodwin, and were illustrated by some of the best artists working at the time, including Alex Toth and Wally Wood. (Toth co-wrote one of the stories with Goodwin and Wood wrote the one story that Goodwin did not.)
The covers of the four issues were painted by Frank Frazetta and were stunning. My only criticism of this collection is that it does not present complete facsimile editions of the original magazines. It would be great to see full-size reproductions of these covers as well as the letters pages—Milton Caniff wrote a letter praising Blazing Combat, which was printed in the second issue, with "Milton" misspelled as "Mitlon"—and other ephemera that surrounded the stories.
Why only four issues? Well, apparently, people in the military and the American Legion realized that the theme of the book was "war is hell" and saw this as a threat to support of the war in Vietnam. The military forbade its sale on military bases while the American Legion put pressure on the wholesalers to kill the title. It was a consignment business in those days, so the wholesalers destroyed all the copies of Blazing Combat and truthfully reported that they were "unsold".
Blazing Combat was published by James Warren's Warren Publishing company, also responsible for Famous Monsters of Filmland, Creepy, Eerie and Vampirella.
The first story in the first issue of Blazing Combat is called "Viet-Cong!" and takes place in Vietnam. Everything you can expect from future stories is here: the beauty of life, the ugliness and pointlessness of war. "What's it all mean?!" wonders an American "advisor" in Vietnam.
Typical of the care that went into these stories is the butterfly near the dead soldier in this panel on the penultimate page:
We see it resting on the same soldier's helmet in the last panel on the last page:
The juxtaposition of the butterfly and the helicopters speaks for itself.
These panels and the others I've uploaded look much better in real life than they do here. I can't scan the pages very well without destroying the book so took lazy snapshots of them instead.
The second story, "Aftermath!", takes place during the American Civil War and is something of a masterpiece of horror. A Confederate soldier opens fire on two Union soldiers and wounds one of them. As the unharmed Union soldier takes cover, his mortally injured partner screams in agony. The two enemies call a truce to minister to the poor soul, but by the time they've overcome their fears of each other, it's too late. The soldier is dead.
Together they bury him so his body won't be eaten by the starving wild hogs that roam the countryside. By the time they're done, they've become friends—but then they begin to argue about who started this war anyway and end up fighting. They kill each other and the wild hogs devour their corpses.
Of the remaining five stories in the first issue, three take place during World War II, one in World War I and one in the American Revolutionary War. The last panel of "Long View!" shows a Marine in tears as he considers how indifferently his fellow soldiers are sacrificed for military objectives. "The whole plan worked, Captain Wayne... Can't you see... Can't you cheer... Can't you take the long view?"
The second issue has another American Revolution story, an extremely ironic one that ends with the American soldiers wishing there more officers like Benedict Arnold. There are also a Spanish American War story, another Vietnam story, two Korean War stories, one WWI story and one WW2 story.
Two of the storytelling techniques struck me as being particularly effective. The first is the telling of the story in the second person.
The other technique involves layout, going from conventional, square and rectangular panels, evenly placed, to jagged, broken, off-kilter panels, thus shattering the formerly sedate page itself in a way that mirrors the chaos of armed conflict.
It seems that the second issue's first story, "Landscape!", about a Vietnamese farmer whose loses everything in this war that he neither understands nor participates in, is what led to the destruction of Blazing Combat. Warren Publishing managed to put out only two more, both at a considerable loss.
The third issue covered new ground with a post-World War III story, in which a survivor of nuclear armageddon has to contend with the unexpected appearance of other survivors, and a story from the American Indian Wars. Vietnam and the American Civil War are re-visited in one story each, and the remaining three stories take place in World War II.
One of these, "Souvenirs!", is especially harsh. Soldiers come across the corpse of a Marine and assume that he died bravely revealing a Japanese ambush. In fact, the man had been sneaking under cover of night to steal gold fillings from the teeth of dead Japanese soldiers and and stumbled into the ambush by accident.
The fourth and final issue has four World War II stories, two World War I stories, one Vietnam story and one Korea story. One of the World War II stories also contains the story of the Spartans at Thermopylae. The last story of the last issue ends with the twentieth century's most infamous and terrifying rationalization.