The Broons and Oor Wullie 1939-1945: The Lighter Side of World War II


By R.D. Low & Dudley D. Watkins & various (DC Thomson)
ISBN: 978-0-85116-651-3

The Broons and Oor Wullie are, singly or in eternal conjunction, one of the longest running newspaper cartoon features in British history, having appeared continuously in Scotland’s The Sunday Post since their debut in the March 8th 1936 edition.

Both boisterous wee boy and eccentrically engaging working class clan were co-created by journalist, writer and Editor Robert Duncan Low and DC Thomson’s greatest artist Dudley D. Watkins. Once their addictively engaging strips began to be collected in reprint editions as Seasonal Annuals – with solo books or each star-feature appearing in alternate years, right up to the present day – the Broons and Oor Wullie became an international milestone, beloved by Scots far from home and all devotees of cartooning mastery.

Low (1895-1980) began at DC Thomson as a journalist, rising to the post of Managing Editor of Children’s Publication and launching, between 1921 and 1933, the company’s “Big Five” story papers for boys: Adventure, The Rover, The Wizard, The Skipper and The Hotspur.

In 1936 his next brilliant notion was the Fun Section: an 8-page comic-strip supplement to the publishing giant’s most popular national newspaper. This illustrated accessory launched on 8th March and from the outset The Broons and Oor Wullie were its standout stars…

Low’s shrewdest notion was devising both strips as domestic comedies played out in the charismatic Scottish idiom and vernacular. Supported by features such as Auchentogle by Chic Gordon, Allan Morley’s Nero and Zero, Nosey Parker amongst others, they laid the groundwork for the company’s next great leap. In December 1937 Low launched the very first DC Thomson weekly comic. The Dandy was cautiously followed by The Beano in 1938 and an early-reading title entitled The Magic Comic a year later.

War-time paper shortages and post-war rationing strictures curtailed this budding strip periodical revolution, and it was 1953 before the next wave of groundbreaking picture paper releases. The Topper started the ball rolling again (with Oor Wullie in the logo and masthead but not part of the magazine’s regular roster) and in that same year Low and Ken Reid created Roger the Dodger for The Beano

Low’s greatest weapon in those early days was his prolific illustrator Dudley Dexter Watkins, whose style shaped the look of DC Thompson’s comics output until the bombastic arrival of Leo Baxendale shook things up in the mid-1950s.

Watkins (1907-1969) had started life in Manchester and Nottingham as a genuine artistic prodigy before entering Glasgow College of Art in 1924. It wasn’t long before he was advised to get a job at burgeoning, Dundee-based DCT, where a 6-month trial illustrating boys’ stories led to comic strip specials and some original cartoon creations.

Percy Vere and His Trying Tricks and Wandering Willie, The Wily Explorer made him a the only choice for both lead strips in the new Fun Section and, without missing a beat, in 1937 Watkins added Dandy’s Desperate Dan to his weekly workload and Beano’s placidly outrageous Lord Snooty seven months later.

Watkins soldiered on in unassailable magnificence for decades, drawing some of the most lavishly lifelike and winningly hilarious strips in comics history. He died at his drawing board on August 20th 1969.

For all that time he had unflaggingly crafted a full captivating page each for Oor Wullie and The Broons every week as well as his many comics pages. His loss was a colossal blow to the company. DC Thomson reprinted old episodes of both strips in the newspaper and Annuals for seven years before a replacement was settled upon, whilst The Dandy reran Watkins’ Desperate Dan stories for twice that length of time.

A rock-solid facet of Scottish popular culture from the start, the first Broons Annual (technically Bi-Annual) had appeared in 1939, re-presenting the best of the Sunday strips; followed and replaced with Oor Wullie the next Christmas. However, as wartime paper restrictions increasingly began to bite, no annuals were published between 1943 and 1946.

Here you have a chance to scrutinise the rare strips of the war years in a sublime collection of pages tracking the cartoon icons’ experiences as typical folk getting by in the worst of all possible times…

Need a Mission Briefing?

Most of the multigenerational Brown family inhabit a tenement flat at 10 Glebe Street, in the timelessly metafictional Scottish industrial everytown of Auchentogle (sometimes alternatively dubbed Auchenshoogle and based on working-class Glasgow district of Auchenshuggle). It was and still is an ideal setting in which to tell gags, comment on events, spoof trends and fossilise the deepest and most reassuring cultural archetypes for sentimental Scots, wherever in the world they might actually be residing.

As is always the case, the adamant, unswerving keystone of any family feature is long-suffering, understanding Maw, who puts up with cantankerous, cheap, know-it-all Paw, and their battalion of stay-at-home kids – comprising in descending order of age and military preparedness – hunky, husky Joe, freakishly tall and thin Hen (Henry), sturdy Daphne, pretty Maggie, brainy Horace, mischievous twins Eck and the unnamed “ither ane” and a wee toddler referred to only as “The Bairn”.

Not officially billeted there but always hanging around is gruff patriarchal buffoon Granpaw – a comedic gadfly who spends more time at Glebe Street than his own cottage, constantly striving to impart decades of hard-earned if outdated experience to the kids…

Offering regular breaks from inner city turmoil and another chance to simultaneously sentimentalise, spoof and memorialise more traditional times, the family often repair to their But ‘n’ Ben (a dilapidated rustic cottage in the Highlands), always falling afoul of the weather, the countryside and all its denizens: fish, fowl, farm-grown and farm-folk…

In these wartime strips that formula was naturally disrupted as the entire family found different ways to contribute to the war-effort.

As able-bodied patriots, Joe and Hen instantly joined up but frequently found time to pop back to share tantalising tastes of the army game. Paw became an ARP (Air Raid Precautions) Warden – as did Granpaw – revealing exhausting nights on fire watch and days working at the ship yards, Maw worked with the Red Cross whilst the older girls joined the V.A.D. (Volunteer Aid Detachment). Was it merely joshing when their siblings reckoned it was just to meet more men in uniform…?

Even the fractious and boisterous young ‘uns found ways to “contribute”…

Oor Wullie also soldiered on, giving a splendidly childlike boost to morale with his own version of “chin up and carry on, regardless”. His basic set-up has always been sublimely simply and eternally evergreen: the lad is just an overly-imaginative, good-hearted scamp with a talent for finding trouble and no hope of ever avoiding parental retribution when it becomes appropriate…

Wullie – AKA William MacCallum – is an archetypal rascal with time on his hands. He can usually be found ruminatively sitting on an upturned tin bucket at the start and finish of his page-a-week exploits.

His regular cast includes Ma and Pa, local copper P.C. Murdoch, assorted embattled teachers, relatives and other interfering adults who lavish gifts or inflict opprobrium upon the little pest and his pals Fat Bob, Soapy Joe Soutar, Wee Eck et al.

During this period Wullie’s world was heavily populated with adults always ready to apply some corporal punishment and thuggish bullies equally eager to prove their physical superiority – a fact repeatedly explained away and apologised for by the embarrassed and more-evolved editors of our more civilised age…

The Lighter Side of World War II was released in 1997: part of a concerted drive to keep the earlier material available to fans. This lavish and sturdy hardback compilation (still readily available through internet vendors) offers a captivating selection of strips from April 30th 1939, with the conflict still brewing far away, and includes the entire war era before concluding in December 1945 as servicemen all over the Empire – including Hen and Joe – readied themselves for demobilisation and life on Civvie Street.

These mostly monochrome memos of mirth-under-fire begin with – and are periodically punctuated by – full-colour cover adaptations of early Annual frontispieces. In attendance are atmospheric and informative year-by-year photo-features, period editorial cartoons, fact pages and excerpted headlines from The Sunday Post and other newspapers of the time, all combining to create a chronological chronicle of the Second World War through warm, funny and indomitably defiant eyes…

The endless escapades begin in 1939 with a few pre-Hostilities traditional teasers starring Oor Wullie before The Broons kick off the “Big Show” with a strip from October 1st reflecting everyone’s sudden concern over food supplies and the draconian discipline of The Blackout. The situation soon becomes a new normal and the cartoon stars slip back into familiar gag territory enlivened by recurring themes such as Hen and Joe coming a cropper after getting the lasses to launder their uniforms…

Bonus feature ‘Oor Wullie’s War Effort’ offers a colourful perspective on the wee lad’s morale-boosting capers (with plenty of superbly cruel caricaturing of Axis leaders Hitler and Mussolini) and is followed by fact-filled asides revealing how a major publishing house accommodated the public drive to cut paper use and recycle whilst still plugging sales for Dandy, Beano and the rest…

Many Wullie strips dealt with the boisterous boy’s attempts to dodge school and join any branch of the Services who would take him, whilst, not to be outdone, Paw Broon became obsessed with spies, suspiciously bulging bags and foreign accents…

The New Year dawned with a comedy poem from the Oor Wullie 1940 Annual plus a photo-feature explaining how the conflict had progressed, after which the usual subject-matter – gleeful goofs, family frolics and slapstick tomfoolery – are augmented by gas-mask gags, bomb shelter shenanigans and childish war-games involving young and old alike, as well as strips addressing the perennial problem of how to throw parties under government restrictions. Moreover, you can’t spit (or polish) without hitting some posh officer in need of taking down a peg and all involved are constantly collecting scrap to Hurt the Hun…

A similar eccentric ode – ‘The Broons’ Hoose’ – culled from their 1941 Annual with attendant news-based picture-feature leads into that tumultuous year as an aura of artistic anarchy returned, with tales of good-natured poaching, calamitous make-do-and-mend moments, brief encounters with spivs, conmen and black marketeers as well as increased emphasis on making your own entertainment and growing your own food.

Every so often, however, the strips became a vehicle for public information as when Maw Broon uses her Co-Op “Divvy” to buy Government Savings Certificates. Every war brings out blowhards and know-it-alls, but the ones here always regret their windy pontificating whether the unwilling audiences contain Wullie or the Broon clan…

A selection of headlines, full-colour reproductions of the painted covers for 1941’s Broons and 1942’s Oor Wullie Annuals (the last ones until 1946) and the by-now traditional photo-piece precede a range of strips from the key year of the conflict, with rationing and privation now an accepted part of daily life.

It only made the strips more imaginative and funny as Watkins’s style matured into a mesmerising melding of smooth caricature with slickly realistic slapstick as morale-boosting sporting fixtures and brief forays into the countryside countered the grim or gloomy news in the rest of The Sunday Post. The year concludes with ‘At the Barber’s’: a Wullie strip from 1944 deconstructing the artist’s skill with line and form…

The 1943 photo-feature deals with good news from North Africa and Southern Italy and leads directly into yet more graphic goonery; but although specific events are never mentioned it’s clear that growing optimism is infecting all the cartoon characters. Many Wullie strips in particular could be happening before or after the conflict and no one would be any the wiser.

Men in uniform are far more common in the Broons segments, but here too they’re having fun, playing pranks and chasing lassies again…

‘Domestic Bliss’ is another deconstructed exploration of Dudley Watkins’ astounding facility with comedy staging and characterisation and precedes the 1944 photo-feature which concentrates naturally enough on D-Day.

What follows is a splendid succession of classic gag outings, with sweets back in stock, eggs aplenty, holiday outings, hospital visits and parties taking the attention away from the real world. Proper Toffs are regularly embarrassed again, officious policemen outraged and teachers are once more hard-pressed to keep control as Wullie returns to japes, misguided helpfulness and get rich-quick schemes, whilst the Glebe Street irregulars go back to teasing Daphne and Maggie over thwarted romances, finding new definitions for Paw’s cussedness, embarrassing Maw in front of guests and indulging in all sorts of uproarious bad behaviour…

After a selection of Sunday Post headlines from 1943-1945, the accompanying history photo concentrates on V.E. Day 1945 showing renewed exuberance, focusing on servicemen and loved ones coming home and funny business very much back getting back to normal.

Most individual years are especially celebrated with their specific memorable and joy-inducing Christmas/Hogmanay strips and the collection concludes with Wullie’s May 13th celebration of the European war’s ending whilst The Broons episode for December 2nd 1945 shows Joe and Hen still in uniform but unable to tell the difference between home chores when On Leave and Jankers when back in Camp…

Crammed with all-ages fun, rambunctious hilarity and comfortably domestic warmth, these inspirational examples of enviable disgrace and wit under fire celebrate a mythic lost life and time are a sure cure for post-modern glums… and you can’t say fairer than that, can you?
© D.C. Thomson & Co., Ltd. 1997.

Garth Ennis’ Complete Battlefields volume 2


By Garth Ennis, P. J. Holden, Russ Braun, Carlos Ezquerra, Hector Ezquerra & various (Dynamite Entertainment)
ISBN: 978-1-60690-222-6

Garth Ennis is a devout aficionado of the British combat comics he grew up reading. He’s also a writer with a distinct voice and two discrete senses of humour.

In Battlefields the cruel, surreal ultra-violent gross-out stuff that made Hitman and The Boys such guilty pleasures are generally sidelined to make room for the far more blackly sardonic ironies of Preacher and True Faith.

Ennis practically resurrected the combat genre in US comics through a sequence of superb War Stories co-created with the industry’s top illustrative talent for DC’s mature reader Vertigo imprint, and later crafted more of the same for Dynamite Entertainment through the themed-anthology series Battlefields, beginning in November 2008. Here he continued blending a unique viewpoint (pro-warrior but savagely anti-war) with his love of those British comics strips, and this second Complete Edition gathers three more triptychs set in World War II, all digging deep beyond big-screen glamour glitz to expose the grimy guts of life during wartime in self-contained arenas most of us never gave a second thought to…

Illustrated by P. J. Holden, the horrific madness resumes in 1942 as ‘Happy Valley’, highlights the outrageous behaviour and doomed camaraderie of airmen ‘From a Land Down Under’.

When not pulling stupid pranks or rowdily carousing, the Australians of 444 Squadron spend their nights pounding the German industrial heartland of the Ruhr Valley in their Vickers Wellington bombers…affectionately known as “Wimpys”.

However, one particular crew is more than a bit upset when their top-notch pilot is replaced by fresh-faced Ken Harding; a kid straight out of flight school. However, after the first mission the frequent fliers have cause to reassess the weird little sprog and his raw skill or incredible luck.

The magic happens again after dull times and enforced grounding ‘In Pomgolia’ leads to more nights of sheer terror and exhilaration before the inevitable finally happen in the breathtaking conclusion ‘Who’ll Come on Ops in a Wimpy With Me?’

In volume one Ennis and his venerable old collaborator Carlos Ezquerra (artistically aided, abetted and inked by his son Hector) introduced a work-shy, callow crew of Londoners manning a Churchill Tank who had to adapt to a new commander in the short squat shape of a foul-mouthed Geordie, who babbled orders in his bizarre northern jibber-jabber no normal bloke could understand…

Now Sergeant Stiles returns in ‘The Firefly and His Majesty’. It’s February 1945, and, riding a brand new Sherman Firefly, he’s part of a push deep into enemy territory. Sadly, a fanatical old adversary piloting Germany’s last super-weapon is ready to offer the invaders a lethal ‘Welcome to the Fatherland’

Stiles is now part of the Fourth Royal Tank Regiment, having fought his way from Africa all the way up into Italy and fully intends on killing a few more smug “Jormans” before he’s done.

Soon he and his new squad come upon the remains of an American tank column that has been obliterated by two King Panzers. As Stiles tracks one of them he thanks his lucky stars the monster tanks weren’t around until the war was almost won. Still, his Firefly isn’t exactly standard issue either…

As they cautiously hunt for the enemy, the crew share the story of why Stiles hates Tigers so much and why he’s looking for one German tank commander in particular. ‘Soldiers of the Reich’ then sees the over-eager sergeant finally make a mistake which – he judges – makes him no better than the scum he’s hunting…

Filled with righteous fury, Stiles at last confronts his hated enemy in the ruins of a bombed-out cathedral, but after all modern innovations of butchery are exhausted the final terrible battle in the ‘Kingdom of Dust’ is fought and won with the most primitive of weapons…

The final tale in this turbulent tome also features a returning character.

‘Motherland’ is drawn by Russ Braun and returns to the Soviet theatre of war to chart the further exploits of female flyer Anna Borisnova Kharkova. She began defending her country as a night bomber harassing the German invaders as one of the all-woman squadrons dubbed Nachthexen or Night Witches…

Now a Captain, she is part of a vast Flight of fighter pilots harassing the enemy as they retreat from Stalingrad, pushed back by the sheer volume if not quality of the massed Russian war machine. The Soviets are now building up to a mass attack to liberate Kursk, but female pilots still struggle to earn the respect of their arrogant male comrades.

Although she has an ally in Commander Colonel Golovyachev and a friend in her timid mechanic Private Meriutsa (AKA “Mouse”) she has also picked up a ruthless enemy in Political Officer Major Merkulov of the NKVD, whom she caught in a moment  of arrant cowardice under fire…

Anna contents herself with killing Germans whenever she can and is astounded after a spectacularly disastrous sortie to be made a Hero of the Soviet Union for her efforts. The award results in her being removed from combat missions and ordered to school more hopelessly ineffective girls in the intricacies of aerial warfare, but her attempts to protect them are wasted once new Political Officer Captain Bobrov orders the untrained novices into combat…

Rushing after her defenceless charges Anna suddenly finds herself in the greatest and most important battle of her life…

Packed with blistering action, horrific human experiences and breathtaking gallows humour, these amazing tales of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances come with a fascinating and informative Afterword from the author, script excerpts, recommended further reading, covers by Garry Leach, plus extensive sketchbook sections featuring character designs, layouts, pencils and finished art from Braun, Holden and the Ezquerras.

These are not stories for children. Due to Ennis’s immense skill the carefully constructed moments of tension, terror and relief strike home and strike hard; whether he is aiming for stress-releasing belly laughs,, lambasting the Powers That Be always ready to send fodder to slaughter or, as seen most frequently here, examining in excoriating detail how the acts of war makes mortals into monsters.

These hyper-authentic yarns reek of grim veracity and are a tribute to the spirit of people at their very best and worst. This is war as I fear it actually is, and it makes bloody good reading.
© 2010, 2011 Spitfire Productions, Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

GI Zombie volume 1: A Star Spangled War Story


By Justin Grey, Jimmy Palmiotti, Scott Hampton & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-5487-2

When DC controversially rebooted their entire continuity with the New 52 in 2011, most reader and critical attention was focussed on big-name costumed stars, but the move also allowed creators to revisit older genre titles from those eras when superheroes were not the only fruit.

A number of venerable war titles and stars were revisited and re-imagined – even the iconic and presumed sacrosanct Sgt. Rock – and some novel ideas and treatments were realised… although largely ignored by the audiences they were intended for.

One of the most appealing and well-realised appeared in a revitalised Star Spangled War Stories, outrageously blending the global war on terror, current socio-political disaffection and Earth’s ongoing fascination with the walking dead to produce a spectacular, tongue-in-cheek blockbuster romp tailor-made for TV or movies.

Perhaps that was the point all along…

Written by Justin Grey & Jimmy Palmiotti with art from Scott Hampton, the serialised saga from SSWS volume 2 #1-8 (spanning September 2014-May 2015) has been collected in one riotous read, augmented by a smart little epilogue that graced Star Spangled War Stories: Future’s End #1.

The premise is deliciously simple and sublimely subversive. Soldier Jared Kabe has been the Republic’s most secret weapon for decades: an unkillable agent infallibly serving the nation in secret through most of its wars and so many of its unpublicised black-ops counter-strikes against America’s implacable enemies.

And just so we’re on the same page here, he’s unkillable because he’s already dead…

When not battling on numerous officially sanctioned war fronts, this perfect operative has tackled pervasive social ills such as drug cartels and human traffickers, and it’s just this kind of simple mission which leads to an unlife-changing moment as his commanding officer – Codename: Gravedigger – pairs him with maverick – but still breathing – agent Carmen King.

They were only supposed to infiltrate a biker gang militia, but the case takes on a life of its own when the smelly redneck nut-jobs buy medium-range missiles and a deadly bio-agent to use on Washington DC.

After an astounding amount of cathartic bloodshed, Carmen is soon deep undercover, playing house with a slick madman running a clandestine organisation of would-be world conquerors whilst Jared strives to prevent the strike on the government. He succeeds by bringing the missile down in unlucky Sutterville, Tennessee, only to discover to his horror that he has a personal connection to the payload and must face a horrific ‘Small Town Welcome’

As Jared and Special Forces struggle to contain a spreading contagion, Carmen is deep underground in a sybaritic paradise housing an enclave of wealthy fanatics in Utah, all eager to remake the world to their specifications. Even whilst playing along with the head loon she has one eye on the citadel’s labs and armoury and the other on her ‘Exit Strategy’

Southern crisis largely contained, Kabe rushes to rendezvous with King and selects a uniquely undead methodology to enter the subterranean fortress; one that offers ‘Door-to-Door Delivery’, but the head paranoid panics and chooses to abandon his base and acolytes in the ‘The Living Desert’. Taking Carmen and a few select, trusted individuals, he flees to San Francisco after first employing his private nuclear option…

‘Two the Hard Way’ sees Jared survive the detonation and another bio-bomb outbreak before heading for the coast where Carmen’s cover has been blown and she is attempting to blast her way out.

With the disclosure of Kabe’s past connections to the madmen in charge, ‘The Final Countdown’ begins with the GI Zombie, Carmen and a dedicated cadre of special agents invading a locked-down fortress determined to prevent the “City by the Bay” becoming another glowing toxic crater…

The main event magnificently completed, there’s a little extra treat for readers: ‘United States of the Dead’ appeared in Star Spangled War Stories: Future’s End #1, set “five years from now” and reveals how a zombie bio-agent has been used to infect Gotham City and how Kabe and Co. must stop the rot to save the world…

With cover and variants by Dave Johnson, Howard Porter and the late, great and already much-missed Darwyn Cooke, this is a fabulous high-velocity action adventure: fast paced, devastatingly action packed and simply dripping with sharp and mordant black comedy moments. This is the kind of graphic extravaganza you use to convert folks who hate comics…
© 2014, 2015 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

U.S.S. Stevens – The Collected Stories


By Sam Glanzman (Dover Comics & Graphic Novels)
ISBN: 978-0-486-80158-2

To the shame and detriment of the entire comics industry, for most of his career Sam Glanzman was one of the least-regarded creators in American comicbooks. Despite having one of the longest careers, most unique illustration styles and the respect of his creative peers, he just never got the public acclaim his work deserved.

Thankfully that’s all changed in recent years and more happily still, unlike many unsung cartooning geniuses, he’s still alive to enjoy the belated spotlight.

Glanzman has been drawing and writing comics since the Golden Age, most commonly in classic genres ranging from war to mystery to fantasy, where his work is – as always – raw, powerful, subtly engaging and irresistibly compelling.

On titles such as Kona, Monarch of Monster Island, Voyage to the Deep, Combat, Jungle Tales of Tarzan, Hercules, Haunted Tank, The Green Berets, cult classic The Private War of Willie Schultz, and especially his 1980s graphic novels (A Sailor’s Story and Wind, Dreams and Dragons – which you should buy in the recent single volume edition from Dover), Glanzman produced magnificent action-adventure tales which fired the imagination and stirred the blood. His stuff always sold and at least won him a legion of fans amongst fellow artists, if not from the small, insular and over-vocal fan-press.

In later years Glanzman worked with Tim Truman’s 4Winds company on high-profile projects like The Lone Ranger, Jonah Hex and barbarian fantasy Attu. Moreover, as the sublime work gathered here attests, he was also one of the earliest pioneers of graphic autobiography; translating his WWII experiences as a sailor in the Pacific into one of the very best things to come out of DC’s 1970s war comics line…

U.S.S. Stevens, DD479 was a peripatetic filler-feature which bobbed about between Our Army at War, Our Fighting Forces, G.I. Combat, Star Spangled War Stories and other anthological battle books; backing-up the cover-hogging, star-attraction glory-boys. It provided wry, witty, shocking, informative and immensely human vignettes of shipboard life, starring the fictionalised crew of the destroyer Glanzman had served on. It was, in most ways, a love story and tribute to the vessel which had been their only home and refuge under fire.

In four- or sometimes five-page episodes, Glanzman recaptured and shared the life of comradeship we peace-timers can only imagine and, despite the pulse-pounding drama of the lead features, we fans all knew these little snippets were what really happened when the Boys went “over there”…

A maritime epic to rank with Melville or Forester – and with stunning pictures too – every episode of this astounding unsung masterpiece is now housed in one stunning hardback compilation and if you love the medium of comics, or history, or just a damn fine tale well-told you must have it…

That’s really all you need to know, but if you’re one of the regular crowd needful of more of my bombastic blather, a much fuller description now follows…

As I’ve already stated, Glanzman has recently been enjoying some much-deserved attention and this massive tome starts by sharing Presidential Letters from Barack Obama and George Herbert Walker Bush for his service and achievements. Then follows a Foreword from Ivan Brandon and a copious and informative Introduction by Jon B. Cooke detailing ‘A Sailor’s History: The Life and Art of Sam J. Glanzman’.

Next comes a brace of prototypical treats; the first comicbook appearance of U.S.S. Stevens from Dell Comics’ Combat #16 (April-June 1965) and the first cover featuring the valiant vessel from Combat #24, April 1967…

The first official U.S.S. Stevens, DD479 appeared after Glanzman approached Joe Kubert, who had recently become Group Editor for DC’s war titles. He commissioned ‘Frightened Boys… or Fighting Men’, which appeared in Our Army at War #218 (April 1970), depicting a moment in 1942 when boredom and tension were replaced by frantic action as a suicide plane targeted the ship…

A semi-regular cast was introduced slowly throughout 1970; fictionalised incarnations of old shipmates including skipper Commander T. A. Rakov, who ominously pondered his Task Force’s dispersal, moments before a pot-luck attack known as ‘The Browning Shot’ (Our Fighting Forces #125, May/June) proved his fears justified…

Glanzman’s pocket-sized tales always delivered a mountain of information, mood and impact and ‘The Idiot!’ (OAaW #220, June) is one of his most effective, detailing in four mesmerising pages not only the variety of suicidal flying bombs the Allies faced but also how appalled American sailors reacted to them.

Sudden death seemed to be everywhere. ‘1-2-3’ (OFF #126, July/August) detailed how quick action and intuitive thinking saved the ship from a hidden gun emplacement whilst ‘Black Smoke’ (Our Army at War #222, from the same month) revealed how a know-it-all engineer caused the sinking of the Stevens’ sister-ship by not believing an old salt’s frequent, frantic warnings…

All aboard ship were regularly shaken by the variety of Japanese aircraft and skill of the pilots. ‘Dragonfly’ (OFF #127, September/October) shows exactly why, whilst an insightful glimpse of the enemy’s psychological other-ness is graphically, tragically depicted in the tale of ‘The Kunkō Warrior’ (OAaW #223, September)…

A strange encounter with a WWI wooden vessel forced a ‘Double Rescue!’ (Star Spangled War Stories #153, October/November) after which ‘How Many Fathoms?’ (OFF #128, November/December) again counted the human cost of bravery with devastating, understated impact before ‘Buckethead’ (OAaW #225, November) related one swabbie’s unique reaction to constant bombardment.

‘Missing: 320 Men!’ (G.I. Combat #145, December 1970-January 1971) introduced Glanzman-analogue Jerry Boyle who whiled away helpless moments during a shattering battle by sketching cartoons of his astonished shipmates. ‘Death of a Ship!’ (OAaW #227, from January 1971) then dealt with classic war fodder as submarine and ship hunt each other in a deadly duel…

A military maritime mystery is solved by Commander Rakov in ‘Cause and Cure!’ (Our Army at War #230, March) whilst the next issue posed a different conundrum as the ship lost all power and landed ‘In the Frying Pan!’ (April 1971).

The vignettes were always less about warfare than its effects – immediate or cumulative – on ordinary guys. ‘Buck Taylor, You Can’t Fool Me!’ (OAaW #232) catalogued his increasingly aberrant behaviour but posited some less likely reasons, after which old school hero Bos’n Egloff saved the day during the worst typhoon of the war in ‘Cabbages and Kings’ (OFF #131, July/August) whilst ‘Kamikaze’ (OAaW #235 August) boldly and provocatively told a poignant life-story from the point of view of the pilot inside a flying bomb…

An informative peek at the crew of a torpedo launch station in ‘Hip Shot’ (G.I. Combat #150 October/November) segues seamlessly into the dangers of shore leave ‘In Tsingtao’ (OFF #134, November/December) whilst ‘XDD479’ (Our Army at War #238 November) reveals a lost landmark of military history.

The real DD479 was one of three destroyers test-trialling ship-mounted spotter planes and this little gem explains why that experiment was dropped…

Buck popped back in ‘Red Ribbon’ (G.I.C #151 December 1971-January 1972), sharing a personal coping mechanism to make shipboard chores less “exhilarating”, whilst ‘Vela Lavella’ (OAaW #240 January 1972) captures the closed-in horror of night time naval engagement and ‘Dreams’ (G.I.C #152 February/March) peeps inside various heads to see what the ship’s company would rather be doing, before ‘Batmen’ (OAaW #241 February) uses a lecture on radar to recount one of the most astounding exploits of the war…

Every U.S.S. Stevens episode was packed with fascinating fact and detail, culled from the artist’s letters home and service-time sketchbooks, but those invaluable memento belligeri also served double duty as the basis for a secondary feature.

The first ‘Sam Glanzman’s War Diary’ appeared in Our Army at War #242 (March 1972); a compendium of pictorial snapshots sharing quieter moments such as the first passage through the Panama Canal, sleeping arrangements or K.P. duties peeling spuds, and is followed here by an hilarious record of the freshmen sailors’ endurance of an ancient naval hazing tradition inflicted upon every “pollywog” crossing the equator for the first time in ‘Imperivm Neptivm Regis’ (OFF #136 (March/April 1972).

A second ‘Sam Glanzman’s War Diary’ (OAaW #244, April) reveals the mixed joys of “Liberty in the Philippines” after which a suitably foreboding ‘Prelude’ from Weird War Tales (#4 March/April 1972) captures the passive-panicked tension of daily routine whilst a potentially morale-shattering close shave is shared during an all-too-infrequent ‘Mail Call!’ (G.I. Combat #155, April/May)…

A thoughtful man of keen empathy and insight, Glanzman often offered readers a look at the real victims. ‘What Do They Know About War?’ (OAaW #244, April) sees peasant islanders trying to eke out a living, only to discover too many similarities between Occupiers and Liberators, whilst the next issue focussed on the sailors’ jangling nerves and stomachs. ‘A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the War!’ (#245, May) revealed what happened when DD479 was mistakenly declared destroyed and, thanks to an administrative iron curtain, found it impossible to refuel or take on food stores…

Cartoonist Jerry Boyle resurfaced with a ‘Comic Strip’ in Our Fighting Forces #138 (July/August) after which Glanzman produced one of the most powerful social statements in an era of tumultuous change.

Our Army at War #247 (July 1972) featured a tale based on decorated Pearl Harbor hero Doner Miller who saved lives, killed the enemy and won medals, but was not allowed to progress beyond the rank of shipboard domestic because of his skin. ‘Color Me Brave!’ was an excoriating attack on the U.S. Navy’s segregation policies and is as breathtaking and rousing now as it was then…

‘Ride the Baka’ (OAaW #248 August) revisits those constant near-miss moments sparked by suicide pilots after which our author shares broken sleep in ‘A Nightmare from the Beginning’ (OFF #139 September/October) whilst ‘Another Kunkō Warrior’ (OFF #140 November/December) sees marines taking an island and encountering warfare beyond their comprehension.

1973 began with a death-dipped nursery rhyme detailing ‘This is the Ship that War Built!’ (G.I.C #157 December 1972-January 1973) before an impromptu lecture on maritime military history is delivered by ‘Buck Taylor’ (OFF #141 January/February) whilst Glanzman struck an impassioned note for war-brides and lonely ships passing in the night with ‘The Islands Were Meant for Love!’ (Star Spangled War Stories #167 February)…

Terror turns to wonder when sailors encounter the ‘Portuguese Man of War’ (OAaW #256 August), a shore leave mugging is thwarted thanks to ‘Tailor-Mades’ (OFF #143 June/July) and letters home are necessarily self-censored in ‘The Sea is Calm… The Sky is Bright…’ (OAaW #257 June), but shipboard relationships remain complex and bewildering, as proved in ‘Who to Believe!’ (SSWS #171, July).

The strife of constant struggle comes to the fore in ‘The Kiyi’ (OAaW #258 July) and is seen from both sides when souvenir hunters try to take ‘The Thousand-Stitch-Belt’ (SSWS #172 August), but, as always, it’s the non-combatants who truly pay the price, just like the native fishermen in ‘Accident…’ (OAaW #259, August).

Even the quietest, happiest moments can turn instantly fatal as the good-natured pilferers swiping fruit at a refuelling station discover in ‘King of the Hill’ (SSWS #174, October).

An unlikely tale of a kamikaze who survived his final flight but not his final fate, ‘Today is Tomorrow’ (OAaW #261, October) is followed by a strident, wordless plea for understanding in ‘Where…?’ (OAaW #262 November 1973) before the sombre mood is briefly lifted with a tale of selfishness and sacrifice in ‘Rocco’s Roost’ from Our Army at War #265, February 1974.

The following issue provide both a gentle ‘Sam Glanzman’s War Diary’ covering down-time in “The Islands” and a brutal tale of mentorship and torches passed in ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’, after which a truly disturbing tale of what we now call gender identity and post-traumatic stress disorder is recounted in the tragedy of ‘Toro’ from the April/May Our Fighting Forces #148…

‘Moonglow’ from OAaW #267 (April 1974) reveals how quickly placid contemplation can turn to blazing conflagration, whilst – after a chilling, evocative ‘Sam Glanzman’s War Diary’ (OAaW #269 June) – ‘Lucky… Save Me!’ (OAaW #275, December 1974) shows how memories of unconditional love can offset the cruellest of injuries…

‘Heads I Win, Tails You Lose!’ (OAaW #281, June 1975) explores how both friend and foe alike can be addicted to risk, after which ‘I Am Old Glory…’ (Our Army at War #282 July) sardonically transposes a thoughtful veneration with the actualities of combat before ‘A Glance into Glanzman’ by Allan Asherman (Our Army at War #284, September 1975) takes a look at the author’s creative process.

Then it’s back to those sketchbooks and another peep ‘Between the Pages’ (OAaW #293, June 1976) before ‘Not Granted!’ (OAaW #298, November 1976) discloses every seaman’s most fervent wish…

The stories were coming further and further apart at this time and it was clear that – editorially at least – the company was moving on to fresher fields. Glanzman however had saved his best till last as a stomach-churning visual essay displayed the force of tension sustained over months in ‘…And Fear Crippled Andy Payne’ (Sgt. Rock #304, May 1977) before an elegy to bravery and stupidity asked ‘Why?’ in Sgt. Rock #308 from September 1977.

And that was it for nearly a decade. Glanzman – a consummate professional – moved on to other ventures. He would, however, be asked about U.S.S. Stevens all the time and eventually, nearly a decade later, returned to his spiritual stomping grounds in expanded tales of DD479: both in his graphic novel memoirs and comic strips.

The latter appeared in anthological black-&-white Marvel magazine Savage Tales (#6-8, spanning August to December 1986) under the umbrella title ‘Of War and Peace – Tales by Mas’. First up was ‘The Trinity’ which blended present with past to detail a shocking incident of a good man’s breaking point whilst a lighter tone informed ‘In a Gentlemanly Way’ as Glanzman recalled the different means by which officers and swabbies showed their pride for their ships. ‘Rescued by Luck’ than concentrated on a saga of island survival for sailors whose ship had sunk…

Next comes the hauntingly powerful black-&-white tale of then and now entitled ‘Even Dead Birds Have Wings’ (created for the Dover Edition of A Sailor’s Story from 2015) after which a chronologically adrift yarn (from Sgt. Rock Special #1, October 1992) incites potently elegiac feelings as it describes an uncanny act of valiant gallantry under fire and the ultimate fate of old heroes in ‘Home of the Brave’

A few years ago, by popular – and editorial – demand Glanzman returned to the U.S.S. Stevens for an old friend’s swan song series; providing new tales for each issue of DC’s anthological 6-issue miniseries Joe Kubert Presents (December 2012- May 2013).

More scattershot reminiscences than structured stories, ‘I REMEMBER: Dreams’ and ‘I REMEMBER: Squish Squash’ recapitulate unforgettable moments seen through eyes at the sunset end of life; recalling giant storms and lost friends, imagining how distant families endured war and absence but, as always, balancing the funny memories with the tragic, like that time when the stiff-necked new commander…

‘Snapshots’ continues the reverie, blending old war stories with cherished times as a kid on the farm whilst ‘The Figurehead’ delves deeper into the character of Buck Taylor and his esoteric quest for seaborne nirvana…

Closing that last hurrah were ‘Back and Forth 1941-1944’ and ‘Back and Forth 1941-1945’: an encapsulating catalogue of war service as experienced by the creator, mixing facts, figures, memories and reactions to form a quiet tribute to all who served and all who never returned…

With the stories mostly told, the ‘Afterword’ by Allan Asherman details those heady days when he worked at DC Editorial and Glanzman would unfailing light up the offices by delivering his latest strips after which this monolithic milestone offers a vast and stunningly detailed appendix of ‘Story Annotations’ by Jon B. Cooke.

This book is a magnificent collection of comic stories based on real life and what is more fitting than to end it with ‘U.S.S. Stevens DD479’ (coloured by Frank M. Cuonzo & lettered by Thomas Mauer); one final, lyrical farewell from Glanzman to his comrades and the ship which still holds his heart after all these years…?

This is an extraordinary work. In unobtrusive little snippets, Glanzman challenged myths, prejudices and stereotypes – of morality, manhood, race, sexuality and gender – decades before anybody else in comics even tried.

He also brought an aura of authenticity to war stories which has never been equalled: eschewing melodrama, faux heroism, trumped-up angst and eye-catching glory-hounding but instead explaining how “brothers in arms” really felt and acted and suffered and died.

Shockingly funny, painfully realistic and visually captivating, U.S.S. Stevens is phenomenal and magnificent: a masterpiece by one of the very best of “The Greatest Generation”. I waited forty years for this and I couldn’t be happier: a sublimely insightful, affecting and rewarding graphic memoir every home, school and library should have.
Artwork and text © 2015 Sam Glanzman. All other material © 2015 its respective creators.

U.S.S. Stevens – The Collected Stories will be released on July 20th 2016 and is available for pre-order now. Check out Dover Publications and your internet retailer or comic shop of choice.

Garth Ennis’ Complete Battlefields volume 1


By Garth Ennis, Russ Braun, Peter Snejbjerg, Carlos Ezquerra, Hector Ezquerra & various (Dynamite Entertainment)
ISBN: 978-1-60690-255-4

Garth Ennis is the best writer of war comics in America today. In fact, if you disregard the marvellous Commando Picture Library series published by DC Thomson (which you shouldn’t – but no one admits to reading them in my circle), he may well be the only creator regularly contributing to the genre in the entire English language.

After crafting an occasional sequence of superb War Stories with the industry’s top illustrative talent for DC’s mature reader Vertigo imprint, he then moved on to craft more of the same for Dynamite Entertainment through themed-anthology series Battlefields, which began publication in November 2008.

Here he continued to blend his unique viewpoint with his love of the British comics combat strips he read as a lad. This first Complete Edition (available in both hardback and softcover editions as well as a digital release) gathers the first nine issues – comprising three separate triptychs set in World War II – which all delve below the standardised Hollywood glitz of a conflict we all think we have a passing familiarity with to reveal the grimy guts of combat in self-contained arenas most of us never knew existed…

Illustrated by Russell Braun, the first offering is a tale told from two opposing viewpoints, with both inexorably destined to ultimately and finally clash. Kurt Graf is a young German soldier on the Eastern Front; clinging to life and increasingly appalled by the behaviour of his comrades as they strive to crush the dogged resistance of the Soviets defending their homeland.

Elsewhere, the Russians are about to unleash their latest counter-weapon… women pilots…

Despite being despised by their male counterparts and generally saddled with the worst equipment, these dedicated warriors – especially the night-bomber squadron to which diminutive Lieutenant Anna Kharkova belongs – quickly begin to take a toll on the war-weary invaders, earning the name Nachthexen‘The Night Witches’

As the months pass we follow both narrators deeper into hell, where all passions are temporary but overwhelmingly ferocious. And then, as the continually mounting toll of atrocities seems more than any could possibly bear, the protagonists at last meet under the most inauspicious conditions and the inevitable happens…

The pulse-quickening pitched cinematic battles of the Russian Front are replaced with more sedate but no less sinister and horrifying scenes in ‘Dear Billy’ – limned by Peter Snejbjerg – which beguilingly examines other repercussions of love in wartime. Carrie Sutton is a British nurse who barely survived the wanton slaughter and worse which the Japanese inflicted following their conquering Singapore.

After a frankly miraculous escape Carrie is taken to hospital in Calcutta where, after her body has recuperated, she is pressed into service on the wards. Here, even if she cannot forget what was done to her, she can strike back by helping heal the soldiers, sailors and airmen who will eradicate the inhuman enemy.

Her dreary half-life changes after meeting pilot William Wedgewood. Despite the appalling injuries inflicted upon him by the oriental devils he remains upbeat, and upon recovery is eager to get back in the air and punish the enemy. Meanwhile, Carrie too has found an occasional yet deeply personal way to get back at the foe…

The torrid relationship lasts the length of the war; with each prosecuting the conflict in their own way, but when Hiroshima and Nagasaki end hostilities and it’s time to put away weapons and make friends again, one traumatised soul realises the vengeance-taking can never end…

Spectacularly uproarious and doused with Ennis’s signature coal-black humour, ‘The Tankies’ is drawn by venerable old collaborator Carlos Ezquerra and inked by his son Hector. Set in the days immediately after the Normandy Landings in June 1944, the saga follows the crew of a British Churchill Tank after their upper class commander is killed in a most grotesque manner.

The work-shy, callow Londoners are at a bit of an impasse until taken in hand by a battle-hardened tank-man Non-Com who has fought his way from Africa all the way up into Italy and now intends to kill a few more foes here.

If only he wasn’t a bloody Geordie, babbling his bizarre northern jibber-jabber wot no normal bloke could understand…

Still, with Corporal Stiles in charge, the unlikely lads are soon rumbling forward to support the rapidly-diminishing ranks of British and Canadian infantry. Everything will be fine just as long as they don’t meet any Panzers or Tiger Tanks…

Emphatically highlighting with gory attention to detail the idiocy of command and incredible bravery of the under-trained allied soldiers inexorably forcing back the entrenched German veterans, this is prime Ennis: ghastly, hilarious and unforgettable…

Also included are a fascinating and informative Afterword from the author, recommended further reading, covers and variants by John Cassaday & Garry Leach, plus extensive sketchbook sections featuring character designs, layouts, pencils and finished art from Braun, Snejbjerg and the Ezquerras.

These are not stories for children. Due to Ennis’s immense skill as a scripter and his innate understanding of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, the carefully constructed moments of tension, terror and relief strike home and strike hard; whether he is aiming for gallows humour, lambasting the Powers That Be always ready to send fodder to slaughter or, as seen most frequently here, examining in excoriating detail how the acts of war makes mortals into monsters.

These hyper-authentic yarns reek of grim veracity and are a tribute to the spirit of people at their very best and worst. This is war as I fear it actually is, and it makes bloody good reading.
© 2009, 2011 Spitfire Productions, Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

Red Baron volume 2: Rain of Blood


By Pierre Veys & Carlos Puerta, translated by Mark Bence (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-1-84918-211-9

The sublimely illustrated, chillingly conceived fictionalised re-imagination of legendary German Air Ace Manfred von Richthofen continues in stunningly scary form with this second no-nonsense instalment from Pierre Veys & Carlos Puerta. Baron rouge: Pluie de sang debuted Continentally in 2013 and here resumes its fascinating, faux-autobiographic course as notionally described by the titular flier…

Scripted with great style and Spartan simplicity by prolific bande dessinée writer Pierre Veys (Achille Talon, Adamson, Baker Street, Boule et Bill, les Chevaliers du Fiel), the drama is stunningly illustrated by advertising artist and veteran comics painter Carlos Puerta (Los Archivos de Hazel Loch, Aeróstatas, Tierra de Nadie, Eustaquio, Les Contes de la Perdition) in a staggeringly potent photo-realistic style.

In the first volume we saw how young military student Manfred discovered he had an uncanny psychic gift: when endangered he could read his opponents intentions and counteract every attack. Immediate peril seemed to trigger his gift and he subsequently tested the theory by heading for the worst part of town to provoke the peasants and rabble. He never questioned how or why the savage exercise of brutal violence – especially killing – made him feel indescribably happy…

As a cavalry officer when the Great War began, Manfred found further proof of his talent when he casually acted on a vague impulse and avoided a lethal shelling from a threat he could neither see nor anticipate…

He could never convince his only friend Willy of this strange gift, even after he transferred to the Fliegertruppen (Imperial German Flying Corps) as gunner in a two-man reconnaissance craft …

The saga recommences here as Von Richthofen barely survives his first taste of sky-borne dogfighting and instantly resolves to learn how to fly. Never again will he trust his life to someone else’s piloting skills…

Sadly he is far from a natural pilot and only hard work and persistence allow him to qualify as a flier. Even after his first kill, he still can’t stop his elite comrades laughing at his pitiful landings…

Things begin to change after he modifies his two-man Albatross C.111 so that he can fire in the direction of his flight rather than just behind or to the sides. Now a self-propelled machine-gun, Von Richthofen takes to the skies and scores a delicious hit on a hapless British pilot…

Days later his joy increases when Willy is assigned to his squadron.

Sharing the spoils of occupation life, Von Richthofen relates his earliest war exploits as a cavalryman pushing east into Russia. A grisly escapade with a single Uhlan against a company of Cossacks is again greeted with tolerant disbelief and Willy is only mildly surprised by the callous indifference Manfred displays when recalling how he hanged some monks whilst moving through Belgium to the Western Front.

The affronted boaster is determined to prove his powers are real. The opportunity comes when they come across enlisted men indulging in a boxing match. Lieutenant Von Richthofen orders them to let him join in: facing down hulking brute Stoph, who was German national champion before hostilities started.

As Willy watches his slightly-built school chum easily avoid every lethal blow before slowly and methodically taking his opponent apart, he finally believes. He also begins to fear…

To Be Concluded…

A sharp mix of shocking beauty and distressingly visceral violence, Rain of Blood blends epic combat action with grimly beguiling suspense. The idea of the semi-mythical knight of the clouds as a psychic psycho-killer is not one many purists will be happy with, but the exercise is executed with mesmerising veracity and Puerta’s illustration is both astoundingly authentic and gloriously enthralling.

A decidedly different combat concoction: one jaded war lovers should definitely try.
Original edition © Zephyr Editions 2012 by Veys & Puerta. All rights reserved. English translation 2014 © Cinebook Ltd.

Red Baron volume 1: The Machine Gunner’s Ball


By Pierre Veys & Carlos Puerta, translated by Mark Bence (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-1-84918-203-4

There have been some astounding comic strips stories about the Great War. Pat Mills & Joe Colquhoun’s Charley’s War still tops the list for me – with Tardi’s It Was the War of the Trenches! and Goddamn This War! – closely following on, but the centennial conflict has generated plenty more thought-provoking sagas for us all to savour.

One particularly beautiful and strangely intriguing fictionalised fantasy – which began as Baron rouge: Le Bal des Mitrailleuses in 2012 – takes a fascinating step into the bizarre with a loosely inspired tale in faux-autobiographic mien described by air ace and military legend Manfred Von Richthofen.

Scripted with great style and Spartan simplicity by prolific bande dessinée writer Pierre Veys (Achille Talon, Adamson, Baker Street, Boule et Bill, les Chevaliers du Fiel), the drama is stunningly illustrated by advertising artist and veteran comics painter Carlos Puerta (Los Archivos de Hazel Loch, Aeróstatas, Tierra de Nadie, Eustaquio, Les Contes de la Perdition) in a staggeringly potent photo-realistic style.

The action begins with ‘Chivalry’ as the infamous Red Baron pursues his latest target through the lavish countryside and historical landmarks of the Front. Driving the British Spad to the fields below, the handsome Hun is in time to see the light fade from his foe’s eyes forever.

The sight gives him ineffable pleasure…

As he returns to the skies Von Richthofen’s mind drifts back a decade to his time in Berlin’s Military Academy and how his expertise in the gymnasium made him a target of the rich Junker scions who clustered around spoiled, vicious Prince Friedrich. Already despised, the proud and cocky young man embarrassed the Prince and walked into the changing rooms expecting a beating…

Then, for the first time, his “power” manifested. Able to somehow read the minds of his attackers, Manfred viciously trounced them all and provoked a fear in his would-be tormentors that carried him safely to graduation…

Talking the strange event over with his pal Willy, Von Richthofen deduced it was the taste of actual danger which triggered his gift and tested the theory by heading for the worst part of town to provoke the peasants and rabble.

He never questioned how or why the savage exercise of brutal violence made him feel indescribably happy…

When the war began, former cavalry officer Manfred had further proof of his talent when he casually acted on a vague impulse and avoided a lethal shelling from a threat he could neither see nor anticipate…

Soon after, he joined the Fliegertruppen (Imperial German Flying Corps) as gunner in a two-man reconnaissance craft and learned that to the men in the trenches below, one nation’s planes were as dangerous as the other’s… and they all needed to be shot at…

Thanks to a whirling propeller, he also painfully realised that he was not beyond harm: a fact that was reiterated when he and pilot Georg were suddenly attacked by a French aircraft and he found himself in his first dogfight over the scenic Belgian landscape…

A shocking blend of staggering beauty and phenomenally visceral violence, The Machine Gunner’s Ball is a strange brew of classic war story and eerie horror yarn. The concept of the semi-mythical knight of the clouds as a psychic psycho-killer is not one that many purists will be happy with, but the conceit is executed with superb conviction and the illustration is both potently authentic and gloriously lovely.

A decidedly different combat concoction and one jaded war lovers should definitely try
Original edition © Zephyr Editions 2012 by Veys & Puerta. All rights reserved. English translation 2014 © Cinebook Ltd.

Showcase Presents Sgt. Rock volume 3


By Robert Kanigher, Joe Kubert, Russ Heath & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-2771-5

In America after the demise of EC Comics in the mid-1950’s and prior to the game-changing Blazing Combat, the only certain place to find controversial, challenging and entertaining American war comics was DC.

In fact, even whilst Archie Goodwin’s stunning but tragically mis-marketed quartet of classics were waking up a generation, the home of Flash, Green Arrow and the Justice League of America was a veritable cornucopia of gritty, intriguing and beautifully illustrated battle tales presenting combat on a variety of fronts and from many differing points of view.

Whilst the Vietnam War escalated, 1960s America increasingly endured a Homefront death-struggle pitting deeply-ingrained Establishment social attitudes against a youth-oriented generation with a radical new sensibility. In response DC’s (or rather National Periodical Publishing, as it then was) military-themed comicbooks became even more bold and innovative…

Sgt. Rock and the “combat-happy Joes” of Easy Company are one of the great and enduring creations of the American comic-book industry. The gritty meta-realism of Robert Kanigher’s ordinary guys in a constant welter of life-or-death situations captured the imaginations of generations of readers, young and old.

So pervasive is this icon of comicbook combat that’s it’s hard to grasp that Rock is not an immortal industry prototype like Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman – with us since the earliest moments of the industry – but is in fact a late addition to and child of the Silver Age of Comics: debuting as just another tale in war anthology G.I. Combat (#68, January 1959, by Kanigher & Joe Kubert).

The archetypal and ideal sergeant was an anonymous boxer who wasn’t particularly skilled but simply refused to be beaten, absorbing any and all punishment dealt out to him. When ‘The Rock!’ enlisted, that same Horatian quality attained mythic proportions as he held back an overwhelming Nazi attack by sheer grit and determination, remaining bloody but unbowed on a field littered with dead and broken men. The tale inspired an instant sequel or two before, in Our Army at War #83 (June 1959), the legend really began…

This third monumental military milestone collects in chronological publishing order and stark, stunning monochrome more of the groundbreaking classics which made Rock a comics legend. These grim and gritty, epically poetic war stories are taken from the still-anthological Our Army at War #149-180 (bracketing December 1964 to May 1967), a period when American comics were undergoing a spectacular renaissance in style, theme and quality even as the Vietnam war took over the nation’s consciousness and conscience.

Scripted throughout by Writer/Editor Kanigher and illustrated primarily by Joe Kubert, the terse episodes herein begin with ‘Surrender Ticket!’ as the German High Command randomly pick an American Company to endure unrelenting pressure until they crack, thereby proving Nazi superiority. They really should have picked again after selecting Easy Company…

In ‘Flytrap Hill!’, Rock is forced to request a retreat before instead leading his brutalised men to unlikely victory after they all find fresh inspiration through the example of a messenger who gave his life to reach them whilst ‘War Party!’ sees the Sarge undertaking a trial organised by Little Sure Shot to become an honorary Apache Indian, with the always-advancing Germans inadvertently spoiling his chances at every turn.

OAAW #152 is a full-length yarn in which a shipment of green replacements find themselves frozen under fire until Rock recounts the tales of Ziggy and Hopeless who found courage with their last breaths in ‘Last Man – Last Shot!’ This narrative device of incorporating brief past-action episodes into a baptism of fire scenario played over and over again in Sgt. Rock and never got old.

‘Easy’s Last Stand!’ saw the stony serviceman battling alone in the mistaken belief he was the only one left alive whilst ‘Boobytrap Mascot’ found Easy accompanying boy soldier Andre Lune in search of hidden artillery emplacements as the lad tried to live up to – and die for – the pressure of generations of warrior ancestors who gave their lives for France…

‘No Stripes for Me!’ saw the non-com in the middle of a family feud as a valiant GI continually refuses well-earned battlefield promotions his father – the General – keeps foisting upon him, after which a bumbling medic deemed unfit for combat fatally proves his worth saving Easy as ‘The Human Tank Trap!’

The shell-shocked last survivor of an eradicated relief company goes through hell at Rock’s side as the topkick strives to prove that ‘Nothin’s Ever Lost in War!’ before OAAW #158 introduces some insight into the pre-war world of civilian Frank Rock as well as an antithesis and arch-enemy for Easy’s front man in ‘Iron Major – Rock Sergeant!’

With the non-com captured, tortured and used as bait in a blizzard by a steel-handed master strategist, it takes sheer guts and unflinching to save Easy from a deadly ambush…

Wounded in combat, hunted by a German kill-team and guided by the sister of a nurse he feels responsible for killing, Rock becomes ‘The Blind Gun!’ before recovering his sight and finding a measure of solace in groundbreaking epic ‘What’s the Colour of Your Blood?’

Here black soldier (it’s a comicbook making a point: please ignore the appalling and sordid truth about US Army segregation during WWII) and former boxer Jackie Johnson is forced to bare-knuckle battle the racist Aryan prize-fighter he trounced in the years before the war. Of course if he raises his hands to defend himself in this impromptu rematch, Storm Trooper Uhlan’s comrades will shoot Jackie’s Easy Co. comrades… until the right word from Rock changes all the odds…

An over-eager replacement almost dies to prove he’s not a coward like his court-martialled brother in ‘Dead End for a Dog Face!’ before ‘The Prince and the Sergeant!’ revives an old DC star for a truly bizarre team-up.

When superheroes were in decline during the 1950s, comicbook companies sought different types of action hero. In 1955 Kanigher devised traditional adventure comic The Brave and the Bold which featured historical strips and stalwarts such as Golden Gladiator, Robin Hood and Silent Knight. Already-legendary, Joe Kubert drew the fantastic exploits of a dynamic Norseman dubbed the Viking Prince.

This last feature appeared in nearly every issue, eventually monopolising Brave and the Bold entirely, until the resurgent superhero boom saw the comic retooled as a try-out title with the 25th issue. Before that, however, those fanciful Scandi-sagas were among some of the finest adventure comics of all time (and they’re still too long overdue for a definitive collection of their own).

In Our Army at War #162 Easy Company were sent to Norway on a proverbial suicide mission but subsequently separated under fire. Taking cover in a cave, Rock discovered a warrior frozen in ice moments before an explosion shattered the frigid tomb. Soon the revived Prince Jon was slicing his way through the modern Huns, determined to sell his life dearly.

Before his entombment he had fallen in love with a Valkyrie and had to die gloriously in battle to reunite with her in Valhalla. Of course, offended Odin had stacked the odds and decreed no mortal weapon could now harm him…

Despite his best efforts Jon and Rock kept winning and so the saga continued in the next issue as the doughty comrades completed the suicide mission with the Viking crying ‘Kill Me – Kill Me!’… until a seeming martial miracle occurred…

Our Army at War #164 was an 80-page Giant reprint issue (not included here) and #165 heralded the ‘Return of the Iron Major!’ with the Nazi Superman back from the dead and seeking revenge, only to find Rock kissing his former fiancée Contessa Helga von Hohenschlag-Lowenburg

That resulted in another brutal death-duel after which ‘Half a Sergeant!’ saw the indomitable human force-of-nature suffer a crack-up until an inconsolable loss on the battlefield shocked him back to normal, whilst ‘Kill One – Save One!’ continued the psycho-dramas as Rock shoots a sniper and discovers he’s killed a child. The guilt cripples him so completely he can’t raise a hand against the boy’s even younger comrade who takes the topkick prisoner…

An element of supernatural mystery flavoured ‘I Knew the Unknown Soldier!’ in Our Army at War #168, as Rock proudly recalls an enigmatic GI who repeatedly saved and inspired Easy to overcome impossible odds. This short yarn would be the genesis of future combat superstar The Unknown Soldier

Again blinded in battle, Rock unwittingly trekked across the African desert towards German lines with an American-educated ‘Nazi on My Back!’ in #169 but was back in Europe for ‘No One Comes Down Alive from – Buzzard Bait Hill!’: dealing with a shell-shocked veteran who had been reliving the war since the last time Germans invaded France.

War’s insanity was a recurring theme and in ‘The Sergeant Must Die!’ Easy had to steal a relic of huge symbolic importance from a mediaeval castle defended by a deranged Nazi who believed himself the reincarnation of legendary Hun Barbarosa. A perilous stalemate was only broken by vicious single combat; a situation echoed in ‘A Slug for a Sergeant!’ as Russ Heath slowly began to take over illuminating Rock’s sorties.

German Sgt. Schlum was every inch Rock’s equal and when the hostage American chose to duel his counterpart rather than betray Easy into ambush, the outcome was anything but certain…

Our Army at War #173 was another reprint – also omitted here – and Kubert returned in #174 as ‘One Kill Too Many!’ sees the Sarge suffer another breakdown after reliving the moment he shot that child-sniper and freezing under fire. His inaction leads to Easy’s medic being killed and the broken soldier giving up fighting to take his place… until the wounded men he treats show Rock where he truly belongs…

Heath was back in #175 to deliver the ‘T.N.T. Letter!’ from Rock’s stateside sweetheart Mary which left him broken and suicidal until he met a battlefield gamin who restored his perspective, and Kubert limned the strange saga of Crusher Cole, a beefy replacement who wanted the sergeant’s job and kept crying ‘Give Me Your Stripes!’

Following another 80-Page Giant in #177, ‘Only One Medal for Easy’ (Heath, #178) returned to the series’ picaresque, portmanteau traditions as Rock is given one gong and a Pass to dispense to Easy’s most outstanding combatant. Of course, the medal is passed around the entire company as every time the enemy attacks, a different hero saves the day…

Kubert was back reprising that landmark tale of bigotry and tolerance in OAAW #179 as white supremacist Sharkey joined Easy and made things tough for the unit’s only black soldier. Even Rock couldn’t change his attitudes but the trials of war and the patience of a truly noble man finally change the racist views of the soldier who wouldn’t give ‘A Penny for Jackie Johnson!’

Russ Heath ends this cataclysmic comics campaign with another stunning moral quandary as Rock captures a German officer and has to endure unbearable provocation as he escorts his prisoner to base; coming within an inch of breaking all the rules as the cunning monster brags ‘You Can’t Kill a General!’

Robert Kanigher at his worst was a declarative, heavy-handed and formulaic writer, but when writing his best stuff – as here – his work was imaginative, evocative, iconoclastic and heart-rending. He was a unique reporter and observer of the warrior’s way and the unchanging condition of the dedicated and so very human ordinary foot-slogging G.I. He was also a strident and early advocate of equality and integration.

With superb combat covers from Kubert fronting each episode, this battle-book is a visually vital compendium and a certain delight for any jaded comics fan looking for something more than flash and dazzle.

A perfect example of true Shock and Awe; these are stories every comics fan and combat collector should see.
© 1964-1967, 2010 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

The Boy Commandos volume 1


By Joe Simon & Jack Kirby (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Ideal for fanboys, superhero purists and lovers of sheer comic exuberance… 9/10

Just as the Golden Age of comics was kicking off two young men with big hopes met up and began a decades-long association that was always intensely creative, immensely productive and spectacularly in tune with popular tastes.

Joe Simon was a sharp-minded, talented gentleman with five years experience in “real” publishing, working from the bottom up to art director on a succession of small newspapers such as the Rochester Journal American, Syracuse Herald and Syracuse Journal American before moving to New York City and a life of freelancing as an art/photo retoucher and illustrator. Recommended by his boss, Simon joined Lloyd Jacquet’s pioneering Funnies Inc., a comics production “shop” generating strips and characters for a number of publishing houses eager to cash in on the success of Action Comics and its stellar attraction Superman.

Within days Simon created The Fiery Mask for Martin Goodman of Timely (now Marvel) Comics and met young Jacob Kurtzberg, a cartoonist and animator just hitting his imaginative stride with the Blue Beetle for the Fox Feature Syndicate.

Together Simon and Kurtzberg (who went through a battalion of pen-names before settling on Jack Kirby) enjoyed stunning creative empathy and synergy which galvanized an already electric neo-industry with a vast catalogue of features and even genres.

At rocket-pace they produced the influential Blue Bolt, Captain Marvel Adventures #1 and, after Martin Goodman appointed Simon editor at Timely, a host of iconic characters such as Red Raven, Marvel Boy, Hurricane, The Vision, The Young Allies and a guy named Captain America.

When Goodman failed to make good on his financial obligations, Simon & Kirby jumped ship to National/DC, who welcomed them with open arms and an open chequebook. Initially an uncomfortable fit, bursting with ideas the company were not comfortable with, the pair were soon handed two failing strips to play with until they found their creative feet.

Soon after establishing themselves with The Sandman and Manhunter they were left to their own devices and promptly created comicbooks’ “Kid Gang” genre with a unique juvenile Foreign Legion entitled The Boy Commandos – who soon shared the spotlight with Batman in flagship publication Detective Comics and whose solo title was frequently amongst the company’s top three sellers.

Boy Commandos was such a success – often cited as the biggest-selling American comicbook in the world at that time – that the editors, knowing The Draft was lurking, green-lighted the completion of a wealth of extra material to lay away for when their star creators were called up. S&K and their team produced so much four-colour magic in a phenomenally short time that Publisher Jack Liebowitz eventually suggested they retool some of it into adventures of a second kid gang… and thus was born The Newsboy Legion (and their super-heroic mentor The Guardian)…

Those guys we’ll get to some other time but today let’s applaud this splendidly sturdy full-colour hardback compilation re-presenting the first ten months of the courageous child soldiers (June 1942-March 1943) as seen in Detective Comics #64-72, World’s Finest Comics #8-9, Boy Commandos #1-2 (spanning June 1942 to March 1943): a barrage of bombastic blockbusters that were at once fervently patriotic morale-boosters, rousing action-adventures and potent satirical swipes and jibes by creators who were never afraid to show that good and evil was never simply just “us & them”…

Following a scholarly Introduction from respected academic Paul Buhle, the vintage thrills and spills commence with a spectacular introduction to the team as only S & K could craft it: a masterpiece of patriotic fervour which eschewed lengthy explanations or origins in favour of immediate action as ‘The Commandos are Coming!’ cleverly followed the path of a French Nazi collaborator who found the courage to fight against his country’s conquerors after meeting the bombastic military unit.

We never knew how American Captain Rip Carter got to command a British Commando unit nor why he was allowed to bring a quartet of war-orphans with him on a succession of deadly sorties into “Festung Europa”, North Africa, the Pacific or Indo-Chinese theatres of war. All we had to do was realise that cockney urchin Alfy Twidgett, French lad Pierre – later unobtrusively renamed Andre – Chavard, little Dutch boy Jan Haasen and rough, tough little lout Brooklyn were fighting the battles we would if we only had the chance…

From the start the yarns were strangely exotic and bizarrely multi-layered, adding a stratum of myth making and fantasy to the grim and grisly backdrop of a war fought from the underdog’s position. Detective Comics #66 (which featured a stunning art-jam cover by Jerry Robinson, Simon & Kirby with Batman and Robin welcoming the team to their new home) saw the exploits of the juvenile warriors related by a seer to feudal Queen Catherine of France in ‘Nostrodamus Predicts’.

She saw and drew comfort from Carter’s attempt to place the kids in a posh boarding school only uncovered a traitor in educator’s clothing and led to a shattering raid right in the heart of the occupier’s defences…

The locale shifted to Africa and time itself got bent when ‘The Sphinx Speaks’, revealing how a reporter in the year 3045 AD interviewed a mummy with a Brooklyn accent. The seeming madness had materialised after the Commando “mascots” arrived in Egypt in 1942 to liberate a strategically crucial village and discovered a Nazi radio post inside an ancient edifice. Whilst they were causing their usual corrective carnage one of the lads had a strange meeting with the rocky pile’s oldest inhabitant…

Another esoteric human interest tale began back in Manhattan where hoods Horseshoes Corona and his best pal Buttsy Baynes barely avoided a police dragnet and ‘Escape to Disaster!’ by heading out into the open ocean and straight into the sights of a U-boat. The sight of the gloating Nazis laughing as his friend perished had a marked effect on one heartless gangster.

When badly wounded Horseshoes was later picked up by Carter’s crew he immediately had a negative influence on impressionable, homesick Brooklyn but turned around his life in its final moments when the Allied ship attacked an apparently impregnable German sea base…

Detective #68 exposed ‘The Treachery of Osuki!’ as a dogfight dumped the boys and a Japanese pilot in the same life-raft. Once they hit land the obsequious flier soon began grooming the simple island natives who saved them, but ultimately couldn’t mask his fanatical urge to conquer and kill after which an epic of East-West cooperation saw the underage warriors battling Nazis beside desperate Russian villagers at ‘The Siege of Krovka!’ determined to make the invaders pay for every frozen inch of Soviet soil in a blockbusting tale of heroism and sacrifice.

Another odd episode found contentious, argument-addicted New York cabbie Hack Hogan drafted and – protesting all the way – slowly transformed into a lethal force of nature sticking it to the Nazis in the heart of their homeland with the kids reduced to awestruck observers in ‘Fury Rides a Taxicab!’

An astounding hit, the kids also became a fixture in premier all-star anthology World’s Finest Comics with #8’s (Winter 1942-1943) ‘The Luck of the Lepparts’ wherein a cad and bounder battled to beat a curse which had destroyed three previous generations of his family of traitors. Was it fate, ill fortune or the arrival of the Boy Commandos in the Burmese stronghold he planned to sell out that sealed his fate?

That same month saw the inevitable launch of Boy Commandos #1 which explosively opened with ‘The Town that Couldn’t be Conquered!’, wherein Rip leads the lads back to Jan’s home village to terrify the rapacious occupiers and start a resistance movement, after which ‘Heroes Never Die’ fancifully finds the team in China where they meet a dying monk.

This aged sage remembers his childhood when a white pirate and four foreign boys led a bandit army against imperial oppression and has waited for their prophesised return ever since the Japanese invaded…

This period of furious productivity resulted in some of Simon & Kirby’s most passionate yet largely unappreciated material. As previously stated, Boy Commandos regularly outsold Superman and Batman during WWII, and the moody ‘Satan Wears a Swastika’ clearly shows why, blending patriotic fervour with astonishing characterisation and a plot of incredible sophistication.

When news comes of the team’s death, official scribes Joe and Jack convene with the Sandman and Newsboy Legion on how to handle the morale-crushing crisis. As the Homefront heroes debate, across the ocean the answers unravel. The confusing contretemps had begun when a quartet of wealthy little people decided that despite their medical deficiencies they would not be cheated of their chance to fight fascism. Accompanied by their tall, rangy butler, they set up as a private combat unit and plunged into the bowels of Berlin even as the real commandos were currently being run ragged by the Germans’ most deadly operative Agent Axis

That epochal initial issue ended with a weird war story as the boys kept meeting French soldier Francois Girard who shared snippets of useful intel as they prepared for their most audacious mission: kidnapping Hitler…

Even though the sortie eventually came up short the blow to the enemy’s morale and prestige was enormous but on returning home the codenamed ‘Ghost Raiders’ shockingly learned that for one of their number, the title was not metaphorical…

Back in Detective #71 (January 1943) ‘A Break for Santa’ offered a stellar change of pace as the boys organised a treat for orphans and opted – even if they were cashiered for it – to rescue one lad’s dad from a concentration camp for Christmas…

The next issue saw them uncover a devilish espionage/sabotage ring operating out of a florists shop in ‘Petals of Peril’ whilst #73 revealed ‘The Saga of the Little Tin Box’ as Rip dragged the kids through hellish African jungles ahead of a cunning and supremely competent Nazi huntsman; watching them slowly psychologically unravel as they became increasing obsessed with a pointless trinket…

That mystery successfully solved, the action switched to Europe for World’s Finest Comics #9 as the kids went undercover as circus performers cautiously recruiting a cadre of operatives to strike against the oppressors from within, culminating in ‘The Battle of the Big Top!’

This stunning collection concludes with the contents of Boy Commandos #2 (Spring 1943), leading with ‘The Silent People Speak’ as two Danish brothers – one on each side of the conflict – resolve years of jealousy and hatred when the Commandos stage an incursion into their strategically crucial village, after which black comedy resurfaces as wastrel nobleman Lord Tweedbrook is drafted and his butler becomes his drill-sergeant. Happily the young lions are on hand to stop the suffering scion absconding and see the turbulent toff’s transition to fighting tiger in ‘On the Double, M’Lord!’

Another tantalising twice-told tale has Rip and the boys invade fairytale European kingdom Camelon to rescue a sleeping Queen (from magic spells or Nazi drugs?) in ‘The Knights Wore Khaki’, before this first wave of yarns culminates with a gloriously sentimental romp as the kids adopt a battered and bloody bomb crater kitten and smuggle him onto a vital mission. Things looked bad until even little “Dodger” proves he would give ‘Nine Lives for Victory’

Although I’ve concentrated on the named stars it’s important to remember – especially in these more enlightened times still plagued with the genuine horror of children forcibly swept up in war they have no stake in – that the Boy Commandos, even in their ferociously fabulous exploits, were symbols as much as combatants, usually augmented by huge teams of proper soldiers doing most of the actual killing.

It’s not much of a comfort but at least it showed Simon & Kirby were not simply caught up in a Big Idea without considering all the implications…

Bombastic, blockbusting and astoundingly appetising these superb fantasies from the last “Good War” are a spectacular example of comics giants at their most creative. No true believer or dedicated funnybook aficionado should be denied this book.
© 1942, 1943, 2010 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Showcase Presents Weird War Tales volume 1


By Robert Kanigher, Bob Haney, Bill Finger, Sheldon Mayer, Jack Oleck, Len Wein, Marv Wolfman, Joe Kubert, Carmine Infantino, Dennis O’Neil, Russ Heath, Mort Drucker, Frank Thorne, Alex Toth, Reed Crandall, Sam Glanzman, John Severin, Howard Chaykin, Ed Davis, Frank Robbins, Nestor Redondo, George Evans, Alex Niño, Russ Heath, Neal Adams & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-3694-6

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Inventive, Intense and Intoxicating… 9/10

American comicbooks just idled along rather slowly until the invention of Superman provided a flamboyant new genre of heroes and subsequently unleashed a torrent of creative imitation and imaginative generation for a suddenly thriving and voracious new entertainment model.

Implacably vested in World War II, these gaudily-attired mystery men swept all before them until the troops came home, but as the decade closed more traditional themes and heroes began to resurface and eventually supplant the Fights ‘n’ Tights crowd.

Even as a new generation of kids began buying and collecting, many of the first fans who had retained their four-colour habit increasingly sought more mature themes in their pictorial reading matter. The war years and post-war paranoia had irrevocably altered the psychological landscape of the readership and as a more world-weary, cynical young public came to see that all the fighting and dying hadn’t really changed anything, their chosen forms of entertainment (film, theatre and prose as well as comics) increasingly reflected this.

To balance the return of Western, War and Crime and imminent Atomic Armageddon-fuelled Science Fiction comics, celebrity tie-ins, madcap escapist or teen-oriented comedy and anthropomorphic funny animal features sprang up, but gradually another of the cyclical revivals of spiritualism and a public fascination with the arcane led to a wave of impressive, evocative and shockingly addictive horror comics.

There had been grisly, gory and supernatural stars before, including a pantheon of ghosts, monsters and wizards draped in superhero trappings but these had been victims of circumstance: The Unknown as a power source for super-heroics. Now focus shifted to ordinary mortals thrown into a world beyond their ken with the intention of unsettling, not vicariously empowering the reader.

Almost every publisher jumped on an increasingly popular bandwagon, with B & I (which became the magical one-man-band Richard E. Hughes’ American Comics Group) launching the first regularly published horror comic in the Autumn of 1948, although their Adventures Into the Unknown was technically pipped by Avon. The book and comics publisher had released an impressive single issue entitled Eerie in January 1947 but didn’t follow-up with a regular series until 1951.

Classics Illustrated had already secured the literary end of the medium with child-friendly comics adaptations of The Headless Horseman, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (both 1943), The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1944) and Frankenstein (1945) among others.

If we’re keeping score this was also the period in which Joe Simon & Jack Kirby identified another “mature market” gap and invented Romance comics (Young Romance #1, September 1947) but they too saw the sales potential for spooky material, resulting in the seminal Black Magic (launched in 1950) and boldly obscure psychological drama anthology Strange World of Your Dreams (1952).

The company which would become DC Comics bowed to the inevitable and launched a comparatively straight-laced anthology that nevertheless became one of their longest-running and most influential titles with the December 1951/January 1952 launch of The House of Mystery.

After the hysterical censorship debate which led to witch-hunting Senate hearings in the early 1950s was curtailed by the industry adopting a castrating straitjacket of self-regulation, titles produced under the aegis of the Comics Code Authority were sanitised, anodyne affairs in terms of Shock and Gore, but the audience’s appetite for suspense was still high and in 1956 National introduced sister titles Tales of the Unexpected and House of Secrets.

Stories were dialled back from uncanny spooky yarns to always marvellously illustrated, rationalistic fantasy-adventure vehicles and, eventually, straight monster-busting Sci Fi tales which dominated the market into the 1960s. That’s when super-heroes – which had gradually enjoyed their own visionary revival after Julius Schwartz reintroduced the Flash in Showcase #4 – finally overtook them.

Green Lantern, Hawkman, the Atom and a growing coterie of costumed cavorters generated a gaudy global bubble of masked mavens which forced previously staunchly uncompromising anthology suspense titles to transform into super-character books. Even ACG slipped tights and masks onto its spooky stars.

When the caped crusader craziness peaked and popped, superheroes began dropping like Kryptonite-gassed flies. However nothing combats censorship better than falling profits and, at the end of the 1960s with the cape-and-cowl boom over and some of the industry’s most prestigious series circling the drain, the surviving publishers of the field agreed to revise the Comics Code, loosening their self-imposed restraints against crime and horror comics.

Nobody much cared about gangster titles but, as the liberalisation coincided with yet another bump in public interest concerning supernatural themes, the resurrection of scary stories was a foregone conclusion and obvious “no-brainer.”

Even ultra-wholesome Archie Comics re-entered the field with their rather tasty line of Red Circle Chillers…

Thus, with absolutely no fanfare at all horror comics came back and quickly dominated the American funnybook market for more the next half decade. DC led the pack: converting House of Mystery and Tales of the Unexpected into supernatural suspense anthologies in 1968 and resurrecting House of Secrets a year later.

Such was not the case with war comics. Tales of ordinary guys in combat began with the industry itself and although mostly sidelined during the capes-&-cowls war years, quickly began to assert themselves again once the actual fighting stopped.

National/DC were one of the last publishers to get in on the combat act, converting superhero/fantasy adventure anthology Star Spangled Comics into Star Spangled War Stories the same month it launched and Our Army at War (both cover-dated August 1952) and promptly repurposing All-American Comics into All-American Men of War a month later as the “police action” in Korea escalated.

They grew the division slowly but steadily, adding Our Fighting Forces #1 (November 1954) – just as EC’s groundbreaking combat comics were vanishing – and in 1957 added GI Combat to their portfolio when Quality Comics got out of the funnybook business.

As the 1950s closed however the two-fisted anthologies all began to incorporate recurring characters such as Gunner and Sarge – and latterly Pooch – from Our Fighting Forces #45 on, (May 1959), Sgt Rock (Our Army at War #83 (June 1959) and The Haunted Tank (G.I. Combat #87, April/May 1961) and soon all DC war titles had a lead star or feature to hold the fickle readers’ attention. The drive to produce superior material never wavered however, hugely aided by the diligent and meticulous ministrations of writer/editor Robert Kanigher.

In America after the demise of EC Comics in the mid-1950’s and prior to the game-changing Blazing Combat, the only certain place to find controversial, challenging and entertaining American war comics was DC. In fact, even whilst Archie Goodwin’s stunning but tragically mis-marketed quartet of classics were waking up a new generation of readers in the 1960s, the home of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman was a veritable cornucopia of gritty, intriguing and beautifully illustrated battle tales presenting warfare on a variety of fronts and from many differing points of view.

Whilst the Vietnam War escalated, 1960s America increasingly endured a Homefront death-struggle pitting deeply-ingrained Establishment social attitudes against a youth-oriented generation with a radical new sensibility. In response the military-themed comicbooks from National Periodical Publishing, as it then was, became even more bold and innovative…

However the sudden downturn in superheroes at the end of the 1960s led to some serious rethinking here and although the war titles maintained and even built sales they beefed up the anthological elements.

Thus in 1971 a title combining supernatural horror stories with bombastic battle yarns in an anthological setting seemed a forgone conclusion and sure thing to both publishers and readers alike and this economically epic monochrome tome collects the contents of Weird War Stories #1-21 (cover-dated September/October 1971 to January 1974), offering a broad blend of genre mash-ups for readers with a taste for the dark and uncanny to relish.

The series launched in a 52-page format combining new material with adapted reprints featuring a veritable Who’s Who of top flight creative talent – both seasoned veterans and stars in waiting – and #1 saw Editor Joe Kubert writing and illustrating an eerie linking story entitled ‘Let Me Tell You of the Things I’ve Seen’ as a lost GI stumbles into the personification of Death (the title’s long-term narrator in various blood-stained uniforms) who tells him a few stories…

The reaper began with ‘Fort Which Did Not Return!’ by Robert Kanigher & Russ Heath as originally seen in GI Combat #86, detailing how a bomber continued its mission even after the crew bailed out and followed up with all-new ‘The Story behind the Cover’ wherein Kubert revealed how a shunned German soldier carried on his duties after death…

From Star Spangled War Stories #71 (July 1958) Bob Haney & Kubert revealed ‘The End of the Sea Wolf!’ as a sadistic U-Boat captain was sunk by one of his own earlier victims whilst SSWS #116 (August/September 1964) originally saw France Herron & Irv Novick’s ‘Baker’s Dozen’ with a fresh-faced replacement to a super-superstitious platoon battling to prove he’s not their unlucky thirteenth man…

The issue ends with that lost GI realising just who has been telling tales in Kubert’s ‘You Must Go!’

The reprints included in these early issues were all taken from a time when supernatural themes were proscribed by the Comics Code Authority, but even so they all held fast to eerie aura of sinister uncertainty – the merest hint of the strange and uncanny to leaven the usual blood and thunder of battle books…

In Weird War Tales #2 Kubert reprised his bridging vehicle as ‘Look… and Listen…’ saw a crashed Stuka pilot meeting a ghastly stranger at a battle-torn desert oasis before ‘Reef of No Return’ (by Haney & Mort Drucker from Our Fighting Forces #43, March 1959) detailed a determined frogman’s most dangerous mission and Kanigher & Frank Thorne’s new WWI silent saga ‘The Moon is the Murderer’ proved that overwhelming firepower isn’t everything…

Kubert’s ‘Behind the Cover’ featured a prophetic dream and terrifying telegram after which ‘A Promise to Joe!’ (Kanigher & Novick, G.I. Combat #97 (December 1962-January 1963) sees a dead gunner seemingly save his friend from beyond the grave and the superb ‘Monsieur Gravedigger’ – by Jerry DeFuccio & the legendary Reed Crandall – follows the follies of a sadistic Foreign Legionnaire who pushed his comrades too far…

Cartoonist John Costanza delivers some gag-filled ‘Military Madness’ and Kubert & Sam Glanzman offer a fact-packed ‘Sgt. Rock’s Battle Stations’ about ‘The Grenadier’ before Bill Finger, Ross Andru & Mike Esposito examine a young recruit’s rite of passage and development of ‘The Face of a Fighter’ (Our Fighting Forces #25, September 1957) after which ‘Oasis’ concludes the sorry saga of that downed Aryan airman…

American Naval Aviators ditching at sea were the unwilling audience for Death’s stories as WWT #3 opens with Kubert’s ‘Listen…’

The itinerary starts with ‘Been Here Before!’ (Finger, Andru & Esposito, G.I. Combat #44 January 1957) as a soldier under fire turns his mind back to boyhood games to save the day after which we see an aerial battle and parachute drop from the perspective of ‘The Cloud That Went to War!’ (Our Fighting Forces #17, January 1957 by Dave Wood, Andru & Esposito).

More Costanza comedy from ‘The Kreepy Korps!’ precedes an early tale by relative newcomers Len Wein & Marv Wolfman, ably illustrated by Russ Heath as both cave tribes and modern soldiers battle to possess ‘The Pool’, before the artists earlier collaboration with Bob Haney reveals how ‘Combat Size!’ is all a matter of mental attitude in a tale first seen in Our Army at War #66 (January 1958).

Glanzman’s ‘Battle Album’ explains ‘Flying Guns’ after which a finny friend helps a US submarine sink an aircraft carrier in Finger & Drucker’s ‘Pilot for a Sub!’ (Our Army at War #68, March 1958) before the issue ends as Kubert sends a ‘Lifeboat’ for those tragic aviators…

The fourth issue opens with Kubert’s final linking tale as a ‘Gypsy Girl’ and her family find wounded soldier Tony after his buddy runs off to get a medic. They kindly offer to pass time with him sharing stories such as ‘Ghost Ship of Two Wars’ (Kanigher & Novick from All-American Men of War #81, September 1960) wherein an obsessed WWI pilot seemingly slips into 1944 while pursuing of his unbeatable arch-enemy the Black Ace.

‘Time Warp’ by Kanigher and Gene Colan originally appeared as ‘The Dinosaur who Ate Torpedoes!’’ in Star Spangled War Stories #123 (October/November 1965 and part of the uniquely bizarre War That Time Forgot series), pitting US frogmen against colossal sea-going saurians, after which ‘The Unknown Sentinel’ (by author unknown & Mort Meskin from House of Mystery #55, October 1956) saves the lives of two soldiers lost on manoeuvres on America’s most famous battlefield.

Glanzman then offers one of his magnificently engaging autobiographical USS Stevens vignettes with the all-new elegiac ‘Prelude’ before Kubert wraps up his chilling drama as ‘I Know Them to be True’ sees medics arriving to find Tony a much changed man, leaving Costanza to close things down with a laugh and some ‘Military Madness’

Weird War Tales #5 opens with Haney & Alex Toth providing the book-end tale of ‘The Prisoner’ held by Nazis in Italy. Seeking a way out he recalls tales of escape such as ‘The Toy Jet!’ (Haney & Heath from All-American Men of War #78, March/April 1960), a chilling psychological thriller about an interned pilot in North Korea, and ‘Human Trigger’ (Herron, Andru & Esposito, Star Spangled War Stories #18, February 1954) which shows how a soldier lying on a mine deftly saves his own life…

Herron & Carmine Infantino then reveal how an American spy is forced to ‘Face a Firing Squad!’ (SSWS #14, November 1953) and Norman Maurer instructs with the history of ‘Medal of Honour: Corporal Gerry Kisters’ and Willi Franz & Heath detail the victory of a ‘Slave’ in Roman times before Haney & Toth offer a final release in ‘This Is It!’

Issue #6 saw Weird War drop to a standard 36 page package and take a step into tomorrow with Haney & Toth’s battlefield test of ‘Robots’. Wolfman & Thorne expanded the theme in ‘Pawns’ as humans and mechanoids finally decided who worked for whom whilst ‘Goliath of the Western Front!’ (Herron, Andru & Esposito from SSWS #93 (October/November 1960) featured a giant mechanical Nazi and an American David who finally did for him, before Haney & Toth settled all debate with the conclusive ‘Robot Fightin’ Men’

Wolfman & Kubert combined to provide thematic bookends for issue #7, beginning with ‘Out of Action’ with wounded GIs awaiting the worst and trading tales like William Woolfolk, Jerry Grandenetti & Joe Giella’s ‘Flying Blind’ (Our Army at War #12 July 1953) as a wounded pilot was forced to trust someone else for the first time in his life if he wanted to land his burning jet, whilst Kanigher & Kubert’s ‘The 50-50 War!’ (All-American Men of War #41, January 1957) finds sporting rivals forced to help each other after both suffer injuries on an alpine mission, with Costanza adding more much-needed levity through his ‘Military Hall of Fame’

‘The Three GIs’ (Finger & Heath, SSWS #62, October 1957) riffs smartly on those monkeys who respectively can’t see, hear and speak and the Purple Heart yarns end with Wolfman & Kubert’s chilling ‘I Can’t See’

From #8 editorial control switched to the mystery division under the control of Joe Orlando and with it the reprints were shelved in favour of all-original material as publication frequency graduated from six times a year to monthly.

This all German-focused issue begins with a gruesome ‘Guide to No-Man’s Land’ (probably written by assistant editor E. Nelson Bridwell and illustrated by Tony DeZuniga) before moving on to ‘The Avenging Grave’ by Kanigher & DeZuniga with SS officers learning too late the folly of desecrating the dead of WWI, whilst anonymously scripted ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill!’ – with art by Steve Harper & Neal Adams – sees more gloating Nazis facing a vengeful golem…

Kanigher & DeZuniga then return to reveal the fate of an arrogant 1916 air ace in the skies over No-Man’s Land in ‘Duel of the Dead’ before the artist’s ‘Epilogue’ wraps things up…

Weird War Tales #9 invites us to ‘Enter the Portals of War’ in an introduction drawn by Howard Chaykin, swiftly followed by a trio of Kanigher yarns illustrated by the cream of DC’s Filipino artists.

‘The Promise’ was limned by Alfredo P. Alcala, telling a tale in two eras as both Teutonic knights in 1242 and German tankers seven centuries later fail to cross frozen Lake Chud, whilst Gerry Talaoc renders the disastrous end of deathly, determined ‘Blood Brothers!’ during the American Civil War and the incomparable Alex Niño details ‘The Last Battle’ between East and West before Chaykin pops back to declare ‘Death, the Ultimate Winner’.

Sheldon Mayer & Toth open WWT #10 with a deliciously whimsical ghostly love story in ‘Who is Haunting the Haunted Chateau?’ before Raymond Marais & Quico Redondo change the tone as a Death-Camp commandant returns after the war to salvage his ill-gotten gains from ‘The Room that Remembered’ whilst Wein & Walter Simonson – on the artist’s pro comics debut – reveal how invading Nazis shouldn’t have abused the town idiot and incurred the wrath of ‘Cyrano’s Army’

Always experimental, the creative team of Mayer, DeZuniga, Alcala, Talaoc & Niño tried their hand at a time-twisting complete adventure for issue #11. Occurring on ‘October 30’ over 99 years beginning in 1918, the tale compares the progress of an ambitious German General granted a wish for glory by a treacherous spirit of war with three ghostly Americans determined to fix a long-standing mistake whatever the cost…

DeZuniga draws the introduction to #12, featuring tales of ‘Egypt’ starting with Kanigher & Talaoc’s tale of an ancient warlord who learned to regret spitting on the ‘God of Vengeance’, whilst ‘Hand of Hell’ (Kanigher & DeZuniga) saw Anubis similarly deal with one of Rommel’s least reputable and most sadistic deputies, after which Arnold Drake & Don Perlin switch locales to Roman Britain where a centurion takes an accidental time-trip and ultimately overthrows the Druids in ‘The Warrior and the Witch-Doctors!’

Weird War Tales #13 opens with ‘The Die-Hards’ by Jack Oleck & Nestor Redondo, with Nazis realising there are even worse killers than they haunting their latest conquered village before Drake & Niño determine that ‘Old Samurai Never Die’ when a would-be shogun offends the patron spirit of Bushido and ‘Loser’s Luck’ by Michael J. Pellowski, George Kashdan & DeZuniga details the harsh choices facing the unfortunate winners of the next, last war…

Mayer, DeZuniga & Alcala unite in #14 to tell an eerie tale of doomed love and military injustice from the days before Pearl Harbor which begins with a ‘Dream of Disaster’, incorporates a deadly flight with a ‘Phantom for a Co-Pilot’ and marines who arrive ‘Too Late for the Death March!’ before finally meeting ‘The Ghost of McBride’s Woman’ and vindicating an unsung hero…

A little boy enamoured of war’s glory learns a lesson in WWT # 15 when his dead grandfather takes him back to WWI to see how ‘“Ace” King Just Flew in from Hell’ (Drake & Perlin) after which Oleck & Talaoc reveal the doom of ‘The Survivor’ of a Viking raid which offends a sorceress, and Oleck & Alcala detail the shocking fate of a fanatical crusader who succumbs to ‘The Ultimate Weapon’ of a Saracen wise man…

Drake & Alcala describe transplant science gone mad in #16’s ‘More Dead than Alive!’, whilst the first of a Niño double bill sees him delineate ‘The Conquerors’ (scripted by Oleck) who eradicate humanity – but not the things that predate on them – before Drake’s ‘Evil Eye’ sees a little boy inflict hell’s wrath on both Allies and Axis alike.

In #17 Kanigher & George Evans disclose how a dishonourable French Air Ace is punished by ‘Dead Man’s Hands’ before Pellowski, E. Nelson Bridwell & Ernie Chan show how a murdered soldier is avenged by ‘A Gun Named Marie!

WWT #18 has Drake & DeZuniga sketch the brief career of ‘Captain Dracula!’ as he marauds through (mostly) German forces in Sicily before Mayer & Talaoc reunite for the cautionary tale of a greedy German sergeant in France whose greed makes him easy prey for the ‘Whim of a Phantom!’

Drake & Talaoc started #19 with the full-length story of the agent who infiltrated the Nazi terror weapon known as ‘The Platoon That Wouldn’t Die!’ whilst #20 reverted to short stories with Oleck & Perlin’s ‘Death Watch’ of a doomed coward who should have waited one more day before deserting, Drake & Alcala’s period saga of a witchcraft vendetta in ‘Operation: Voodoo!’ followed by their Battle of Britain chiller wherein a burned out fighter pilot learns ‘Death is a Green Man’

This blockbusting blend of military mayhem, magical melee and martial madness concludes with Weird War Tales #21 and ‘One Hour to Kill!’ by Drake & Frank Robbins wherein an American soldier is ordered to go back in time to assassinate Leonardo Da Vinci and prevent the invention of automatic weapons before Mayer & Bernard Baily show just how a foul-up GI became an unstoppable hero ‘When Death Took a Hand’

Classily chilling, emotionally intense, superbly illustrated, insanely addictive and Just Plain Fun, this is a deliciously guilty pleasure that will astound and delight any lover of fantasy fiction and comics that work on plot invention rather than character compulsion.
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