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.
© 1971, 1972, 1973, 2012 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Sven Hassel’s Wheels of Terror: the Graphic Novel


By Sven Hassel, illustrated by Jordy Diago (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-878-6

Although his true history remains controversial and hotly contested in his home country, Børge Willy Redsted Pedersen AKA Sven Hazel AKA Sven Hassel is indisputably one of the most influential authors of the late 20th century. The fourteen novels bearing his nom de guerre/plume, based on his war-time experiences as a decorated soldier in the German army (and latterly as a POW), have sold 53 million copies worldwide, published in more than 50 countries, and a fair few of those were to readers who went on to create many of the last forty-five years’ worth of great war comics.

He was born in 1917 and, after turbulent times in the post-war years following his return to his fatherland, left forever his native Denmark in 1964 for Barcelona. He stayed put and peacefully passed away in there in 2012. Now, with his canon once more lined up for screen adaptations, his stories have finally begun the transition to the genre he so particularly inspired: graphic novels.

Published in 1953, Legion of the Damned was a colossal hit, delineating his entire time in the Army of the Reich, including prompt desertion, recapture, confinement and sentencing to a Penal Battalion on the Eastern Front.

The remaining thirteen books are elaborations of that book and period, offering greater depth and many more unforgettable moments of horror and camaraderie, which is presumably why these adaptations – by son Michael and granddaughter Mireia, illustrated with subdued yet expressionistic verve by Spanish artist and photographer Jordy Diago (Fix und Foxi, El Cuervo, the Disney Company) – begin with the second novel.

Wheels of Terror was first released in 1958 and is regarded by many as the ultimate anti-war novel; each chapter a gut wrenching, thought-provoking, seemingly pointless exploit in a never-ending succession of brushes with near-death, human brutality and the appalling consequences of total war as experienced by the diffident narrator and his comrades. Those include charismatic thief Joseph Porta, hulking Tiny, former Foreign Legionnaire Alfred Kalb, elderly Troop Sergeant “The Old ‘Un”, somehow still-religious Möller, aging Bauer, big, steadfast Pluto and the rest…

This oversized (296 x 208 mm) full-colour paperback opens with no preamble or fanfare with ‘Nox Diaboli’ as the old lags are driven into Hamburg during an Allied firebombing raid and used as a clean-up crew during the still on-going devastation. The worst part was probably the children’s home…

‘Furioso’ then pauses to introduce the cast as they return to the Eastern Front, but still lumbered with shifting corpses, “aided” by Russian POWs with whom they have far more in common than any German officer. ‘A Shot in the Night’ then describes an uneventful night in the barracks at the Sennelager Training Grounds involving a near-fatal confrontation with a martinet Sergeant-Major who has no time for convicts and unconventional Commandant Colonel Von Weisshagen. As usual, Porta’s nervy, anarchic impromptu antics turn potential catastrophe into a war-story worth retelling many times over…

Penal battalions get all the choice jobs and ‘State Murder’ describes what happens when the squad are ordered to execute prisoners – even young women – after which ‘Porta as Pope’ finds the still-distraught men gathered to drink and play cards whilst the indefatigable fixer regales his chums with the time he accidentally became padre to the barbarous counterattacking “Ivans” before Sven sneaks away to enjoy an unlikely ‘Love Scene’ with a woman living in the bombed-out ruins…

The account kicks into grim high gear with ‘Return to the Eastern Front’ as the dirty business of trench-fighting resumes in earnest, punctuated with moments of inactivity spiced up by Porta’s ribald stories and songs, but soon the gregarious scene-stealer is risking his life with our narrator at a forward listening post mere metres from the Russians where he learns that ‘At 11.30 AM the Germans Will be Blown Sky High’.

The subsequent devastating clash between advancing Ivans and a doughty crew of German flamethrower operators is appalling to witness and the pointless action soon leads to ‘Close Combat in Tanks’ with the reprobates stuck inside a malfunctioning Tiger, narrowly avoiding being butchered by the advancing enemy before having to fight for their lives in freezing close quarters at apocalyptic atrocity-site ‘Cherkassy’

A relative moment of calm only gives the squad time to brood and indulge in torture masquerading as interrogation before ‘The Sneaking Death’ sees another firefight erupt, killing a third of the company…

In the bright day of a forest reconnaissance, loquacious Porta describes his favourite meal of ‘Mashed Potatoes with Diced Pork’ to the ones who made it, leading to a shockingly bloodless and almost comic confrontation with a Russki patrol before ‘The Partisan’ sees the scruffy survivors trying to help a girl rescue her already-arrested father from execution. Nazi fanatic Julius Heide then learns to his cost that the scum hate him as much as he despises them…

When the quartermaster asks the starving troops in all seriousness ‘What Do You Want to Eat?’ following an upcoming attack, the wary warriors realise the hell they’re about to enter, resulting in the loss of yet another cast regular, after which a frenzied retreat in tanks is interrupted by more murderous Soviets and a crazy interlude wherein Kalb risks everything to help a Russian woman in the final stages of ‘Childbirth’

This story doesn’t end; the reader just finds a place to stop watching and that occurs here with ‘Long Live Death’ as the ravaged survivors hide in a trench with Ivans inexorably advancing. The grim moments pass as the convict soldiers observe how proper German officers die before finding two Soviet women soldiers who would rather stay with them than be returned to their male Russian comrades. And then the shooting starts again and your narrator is hit. Fade to black…

Grim, bleak, blackly funny and still ferociously forceful, this pictorial interpretation is a splendid first outing from all involved, deftly negotiating the minefield of how to keep the necessarily horrendous visual aspect from overpowering the events. Purists who love the prose novels might, however, feel cheated that some of the more racy (by today’s standards that might as well read as sexually exploitative) content has been toned down or expurgated, but all in all this is a book to satisfy old fans and make a legion of new ones.
© MHAbooks aps 2015. All rights reserved.

Nanjing: the Burning City


By Ethan Young (Dark Horse)
ISBN: 978-1-61655-752-2

Ethan Young comes from New York City, born the youngest of three boys to Chinese immigrant parents. Following studies at the School of Visual Arts he began work as a commercial illustrator, supplementing that with his debut graphic novel Tails: Life in Progress which won Best Graphic Novel award at the 2007 Independent Publisher Book Awards.

It lives on as a webcomic, as does his other ongoing all-ages project A Piggy’s Tale: the Adventures of a 3-Legged Super-Pup (created and written by Tod Emko). His latest work however, is a far cry from those themes. Nanjing: the Burning City is a stunning and excoriating anti-war parable, detailing one incomprehensibly dark night of horror in a war most of the world has conveniently forgotten about.

Whilst many Japanese – such as Keiji Nakazawa (author of the astounding Barefoot Gen and a tireless anti-war campaigner for most of his life) – are fully prepared and able to acknowledge and “own” Japan’s horrific excesses throughout World War II (and the colonial expansion into China – noncommittally dubbed The Second Sino-Japanese War – which preceded it), far too many survivors of the original conflicts and, more disturbingly, modern apologists and revisionists find it easier and more comfortable to excuse, obfuscate or even deny Japan’s role.

Sadly, I suspect today’s China is just as keen to systematically refute the excesses of the Maoist years and beyond…

Every nation that’s fought a war has committed atrocities, but no country or government has the right to dodge shame or excise blame by conveniently rewriting history for expediency or political gain; not Britain, not the USA, not Russia and never, ever those barbaric “Axis Powers” who tormented mankind between 1933 and 1945.

Delivered in stark, stunning yet understated black-&-white in a sturdy hardback edition, Young’s tale reveals the callous brutality – without resorting to “us-and-them”, “good guys vs. bad guys” polemic, by simply focusing on one night and three very different military men caught up in the ghastly events.

The Second Sino-Japanese War began on July 7th 1937 when the aggressively expansionist Empire of Japan invaded Shanghai. The well-equipped force moved swiftly inland towards Nanking, capital of Kuomintang Generalissimo Chang Kai-Shek’s newly established Republic of China.

The unstoppably modernised Imperial army reached the city on December 12th whereupon Nanking’s military and civil leaders fled in panic, leaving hundreds of thousands of Chinese soldiery and citizens to bear the brunt of a savage, bestial assault described by author Iris Chang as The Rape of Nanking.

The Republican officers didn’t even issue orders for the soldiers they abandoned to retreat…

Over the next six weeks more than 300,000 died in a campaign of organised torture and massacre. Uncountable numbers of women and children were raped and brutalised. Before the Japanese military chiefs surrendered in 1945, they had all records of the taking of Nanking destroyed. The never-to-be-properly-accounted dead are rightly known as the Forgotten Ones…

An event almost completely overlooked for decades by western – and Japanese – historians, the torment began with a night of appalling, unparallelled atrocity with Young concentrating his tale on the efforts of a nameless Captain and his sole surviving subordinate as they make their way through the shredded remnants of the metropolis. The betrayed, beaten warriors harbour a fanciful hope of sanctuary in the enclave occupied by European diplomats, businessmen, missionaries and their servants: the sacrosanct “Safety Zone” where white people go about their business largely untouched by strictly Asian “local politics”…

It’s only a few kilometres to salvation and the Zone indeed houses many sympathetic foreign souls who will risk their lives for humanitarian reasons, but to get to them the soldiers must avoid the hordes of prowling, drunken, blood-crazed conquerors and deny their own burning desire to strike back at the invaders – even if it costs their lives…

As they slowly scramble through the hellish ruins they are doggedly pursued by a Japanese colonel who apparently has no stomach for the gleeful bloody debaucheries of his soldiers but rather carries out his duties with a specialised zeal and for a different kind of reward…

Whilst the weary Kuomintang survivors make their way to the Safety Zone however a far more deadly hazard constantly arises: crushed, beaten, desperate fellow Chinese begging them to stop and help…

This is a gripping story with no happy ending and is supplemented by a large Sketchbook and Commentary section by Young, offering character, studies, developmental insights and rejected cover roughs, as well as a formidable Bibliography for further reading…

Nanjing: the Burning City is a beautiful, haunting book designed to make you angry and curious and in that it succeeds with staggering effect. It’s not intended as a history lesson but rather a signpost for the unaware, offering directions to further research and greater knowledge, if not understanding; a provocative lesson from history we should all see and learn from.
© 2015 Ethan Young. All rights reserved.

Baltimore, or, the Steadfast Tin Soldier & the Vampire


By Mike Mignola & Christopher Golden (Dark Horse)
ISBN: 978-1-61655-803-1

As well as being involved with some of the very best superhero yarns of the late 20th century, Legendary fantasist and comics-creator Mike Mignola has carved himself a splendid and memorable niche in the industry’s history by revitalising the sub-genre of horror-heroes via such macabre mayhem-mavens as Hellboy, B.P.R.D. and Lobster Johnson, creating his own very special dark place where thrill-starved fans can wallow in all things dire and dreadful…

Clearly he has far more ideas than he can successfully manage in one lifetime. As well all those sequential art endeavours he has expressed a deep and abiding love for the classical supernatural-thriller medium through illustrated prose novels such as Joe Golem and the Drowning City (co-crafted with long-time writing associate Christopher Golden) and this potent tribute to the writings of pioneers of the dread and uncanny H. P. Lovecraft, August Derleth and Clark Ashton Smith, with perhaps just a touch of Jack London…

Baltimore, or, the Steadfast Tin Soldier & the Vampire was first released as a luxurious Random House hardback 2007 and the captivatingly dark, doom-drenched blend of martial steampunk and classic vampire horror-yarn subsequently led to Mignola & Golden sporadically concocting further exploits of the titular hero in comics form from 2010 onwards, beginning with 5-issue miniseries Baltimore: The Plague Ships, illustrated by Ben Stenbeck.

This sturdy oversized paperback edition from Dark Horse re-presents that initial textual sortie into the outer reaches of imagination whilst also offering a brace of chilling comicstrip shockers by Mignola, Golden and Stenbeck culled from the 2013 one-shot Baltimore: The Widow and the Tank.

With constant and effective allusion to Hans Christian Andersen’s heartbreaking fairytale The Steadfast Tin Soldier, the eerie epic relates the transformative tale of dutiful if unimaginative Scion of Albion Lord Henry Baltimore who answered England’s call to arms in 1914 only to be severely wounded during the battles in Ardennes.

When he fell history took a horrific turn which began when the terrified officer awoke amongst a crater full of dead men being fed on by ghastly bat-like vampires who had for centuries abandoned their predator roles for the safer niche of clandestine carrion-feeders. When the appalled aristocrat lashed out, taking an eye from the leech prematurely consuming his life’s blood, it roused the creature and its disgusting brethren to a fury of vengeance-taking which cost Baltimore his entire family, unleashed a plague which decimated all humanity and roused a demonic force intent on reclaiming the Earth after contentedly quiescent millennia…

The one thing the obsessed Nosferatu’s sustained campaign of cruelty did not do was break Baltimore. Instead it honed the once-effete and ineffectual product of civilisation into an unstoppable hammer to smash the reawakened vampiric forces wherever they could be found – although not before the world was reduced to a pitiful, disjointed and primitive killing field on the edge of utter obliteration…

For most of the novel Baltimore is an enigmatic, unknown force far from the spotlight, given shape and form by three strangers who meet in a befouled hostelry in broken city at the behest of a man they have all benefited from knowing…

As the day passes, former Army Surgeon Dr. Lemuel Rose, merchant seaman Demetrius Aischros and Baltimore’s childhood companion Thomas Childress Jr. compare notes on the currently missing monster-hunter and share their own horrendous intimate brushes with various agencies of diabolism that have left all three maimed, wary but resolutely prepared for the worst the magical realms can throw at them. Or so they think…

Constructed like a portmanteau novel as a series of linked short stories and told in the manner of Victorian after-dinner raconteurs, the drama and tension build slowly but inexorably towards the inevitable appearance of the transformed and unwavering vampire-killer and a confrontation years in the making and steeped in the blood of millions…

Ponderous, inexorable, moodily despondent and completely captivating, this aggregation of singular horrors experienced alone and perpetual perils shared is complemented by two short comics vignettes illustrated with cool understatement by Ben Stenbeck.

‘The Widow’ harks back to the days after the plague brought The Great War to a unofficial halt when Baltimore returned to England in search of a new breed of gore-drinker hiding amidst the mortal populace, whilst the second episode sees the implacable hunter ally temporarily with a bloodsucker to escape even worse paranormal predators lurking around ‘The Tank’.

Moreover the scintillating saga contained within this supremely satisfyingly tome is graced with 146 grittily monochrome full, half, third and quarter-page illustrations by Mignola to complete a joyous homage to the necromantic good old days.

Miss it at your peril, fright fans…
© 2007, 2015 Mike Mignola and Christopher Golden. All rights reserved.

Showcase Presents the Unknown Soldier volume 2


By David Michelinie, Bob Haney, Robert Kanigher Gerry Conway, Gerry Talaoc, Dick Ayers, Joe Kubert, Romeo Tanghal & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-4081-3

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 Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman 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…

That stellar and challenging creative period came to an end as all strip trends do, but a few of the more impressive and popular features (Sgt. Rock, Haunted Tank, The Losers) survived well into the second superhero revival. One of the most engaging wartime wonders was a notional espionage thriller starring a faceless, nameless hero perpetually in the right place at the right time, ready, willing and so very able to turn the tide one battle at a time…

This second moody monochrome compendium collects the lead feature from issues #189-204 (July 1975-March 1977) of the truly venerable Star-Spangled War Stories anthology and thereafter #205-226 (May 1977-April 1979) of the abruptly re-titled Unknown Soldier from when the “Immortal G.I.” finally took over the book in name as well as fact.

One of the very best concepts ever devised for a war comic, The Unknown Soldier was actually a spin-off – having first appeared as a walk-on in a Sgt Rock story from Our Army at War #168 (June 1966, by Robert Kanigher & Joe Kubert).

By 1970 the illustrator had become editor of DC’s war titles and was looking for a new cover/lead character to follow the critically acclaimed Enemy Ace who had been summarily bounced to the back of the book after issue #150.

The series featured a faceless super-spy and master-of-disguise whose forebears had proudly fought and died in every American conflict since the birth of the nation…

The strip grew to be one of DC’s most popular and long-lived: Star-Spangled became Unknown Soldier in 1977 with #205 and the comic only folded in 1982 with issue #268 when sales of traditional comicbooks were in harsh decline.

Since then the character has resurfaced a number of times (12 issue miniseries in 1988-9, a 4-part Vertigo tale in 1997 followed by a rebooted ongoing series in 2009), each iteration moving further and further way from the originating concept.

One intriguing factor of the original tales is that there is very little internal chronology: for most of the run individual adventures take place anytime and anywhere between the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the surrenders of Germany and later Japan. This picaresque approach adds a powerful sense of both timelessness and infallible, unflinching continuity. The Unknown Soldier has always and will always be where he is needed most…

As seen in the previous Showcase volume, his full origin was revealed in Star-Spangled War Stories #154’s ‘I’ll Never Die!’ recounting how two inseparable brothers joined up in the days before America was attacked and were posted together to the Philippines just as the Japanese began their seemingly unstoppable Pacific Campaign.

Overwhelmed by a tidal wave of enemy soldiers one night the brothers held their jungle posts to the last and when relief came only one had survived, his face a tattered mess of raw flesh and bone…

As US forces retreated from the islands the indomitable survivor was evacuated to a state-side hospital. Refusing medals, honours or retirement, the recuperating warrior dedicated his remaining years to his lost brother Harry and determinedly retrained as a one man-army intelligence unit.

His unsalvageable face swathed in bandages, the nameless fighter learned the arts of make-up, disguise and mimicry, perfected a broad arsenal of fighting skills and offered himself to the State Department as an expendable resource who could go anywhere and do anything…

After a long run of spectacular stories by numerous stellar creators, shifting fashions eventually provoked a shift in emphasis. Relative neophytes David Michelinie & Gerry Talaoc came aboard with Star-Spangled War Stories #183, resulting in an evocative change of direction.

The horror boom in comics was at its peak in 1974 and new editor Joe Orlando capitalised on that fascination with a few startling modifications – the most controversial being to reveal the Soldier’s grotesque, scar-ravaged face – presumably to draw in monster-hungry fear fans…

The military/macabre mood resumes here with Michelinie & Talaoc on fine form and well dug-in as the Unknown Soldier is despatched to discover the secret of the ‘The Cadaver Gap Massacres’ (SSWS #189).

What he finds as Nazi officer Major Wollheim is a death camp where prisoners are mere guinea pigs for making monsters and experimental atrocity weapons, and before long he falls foul of a repentant, guilt-riddled scientist whose loyalties ultimately are only to money. The ghastly discoveries of ‘Project: Omega’ lead to a cataclysmic clash with uncontrollable beast-men and the salvation of the only true innocent in the entire death-camp…

Issue #191 offered a ‘Decision at Volstadt’ as the fleeing superspy encounters rabid resistance fighters, merciless Hitler Youth zealots and fanatical Lt. Strada, who has already lost far too much to the Immortal G.I. Captured by his Italian nemesis, the rival soldiers’ ‘Vendetta’ ends the only way it could in SSWS #192…

Gerry Conway scripted ‘Save the Children!’ in #193, detailing how a mission to blow up a train carrying generals directing the war on the Eastern Front goes horribly wrong after the phantom fighter finds his targets’ families have come along for the ride, after which Michelinie returns to explore ‘The Survival Syndrome’ wherein the penetration of a high-tech Nazi communications complex hidden in a French village shows the wary warrior the true cost of a having a quisling in the family…

Star-Spangled War Stories #195 introduced ‘The Deathmasters’ as the Unknown Soldier infiltrates a Nazi assassination school and find himself assigned to murder one of the Allies’ greatest assets in war-torn Odessa in #196’s ‘Target Red’.

Conning everyone into thinking he’s succeeded, he then returns to Germany to scotch a scheme to replace key Allied personnel with Nazi doppelgangers: all it costs to quash the project is the life of an innocent girl and a little bit more of his soul…

The war in North Africa is almost over in #197 but the master of disguise is nevertheless dispatched to destroy German anti-tank airplane prototypes in ‘The Henschel Gambit’. Typically however he is intercepted by Arab raiders led by a US Senator’s maverick daughter and again forced to choose between his mission and innocent lives…

Thereafter, thanks to Nazi counter-intelligence manoeuvrings, the Immortal G.I. is tricked into killing the Allies’ top strategist in ‘Traitor!’ Court Martialled and sentenced to death, he is forced to escape and retrace his steps, seeking a witness to his innocence in #199’s ‘The Crime of Sgt. Schepke’.

En route he encounters Maquis legend Mlle Marie but events spiral completely out of control and he has no choice but to sacrifice her entire resistance unit to destroy a new super-weapon in the concluding ‘Deathride’

Although Marie honours her promise and clears his name, she also swears to kill him for expending her comrades like pawns…

The scene switches to New York City in SSWS #201 as the Soldier engages in ‘The Back-Alley War’ by infiltrating a gang of German-American anti-war isolationists in search of saboteurs and spies and to Italy in #202 where an outbreak of typhus is holding up the war.

His task is to find a downed US plane carrying an experimental counter serum but his penetration of a Nazi hospital seems to indicate that neither side has found ‘The Cure’

Issue #203 finds the master-spy reduced to teaching arrogant, unstable English aristocrat (with royal connections) Richard Ebbington all the tricks of his deadly craft, only to be subsequently ordered by the top brass to stop him fulfilling his first murder mission.

Somebody up top forgot to tell somebody in the middle that Ebbington’s target is a German general planning to assassinate Hitler, so the Unknown Soldier is forced to stop his protégé’s ‘Curtain Call’

After 36 years of varied publication Star-Spangled War Stories ended with #204 as prior scripter Bob Haney and veteran war artist Dick Ayers joined Talaoc for ‘The Unknown Soldier Must Die!’ wherein old ally Chat Noir (an African-American sergeant who got fed up of institutionalised racism and deserted the US Army to join the French Resistance) is captured by the Nazis and brainwashed into becoming their secret weapon to kill the Immortal G.I.…

Cover-dated May 1977 the first Unknown Soldier (#205) places history’s lynchpin at the Battle of the Bulge in winter 1944. Whilst expanding on his origins ‘Legends Never Die!’ also proves once more that the right man in the right place at the right time can change the course of destiny…

‘Glory Gambit!’ begins an extended campaign as Adolf Hitler himself unleashes the Wehrmacht’s answer to the Unknown Soldier. Black Knight is Count Klaus von Stauffen, the chess-obsessed SS officer who captured and conditioned Chat Noir and is now making his way into the heart of England with but one mission…

The hunt for the merciless master of disguise and doom continues throughout London in #207’s ‘Kill the King!’, before the scene again shifts, dumping the Soldier in North Africa in 1942 to rehabilitate a trio of deserters in ‘Coward, Take my Hand!’

US #209 takes us to the Pacific in 1945 and a personal duel with a Japanese prison camp torturer whose attempts to break the scarred superspy result in defeat, death and ‘Tattered Glory!’ on blood-drenched rock called Iwo Jima…

In #210 the Man of Many Faces invades a Nazi fortress impersonating a specialist interrogator to rescue or kill America’s most important agent in ‘Sparrows Can’t Sing!’ after which issue #211 reprints a classic Haney & Kubert tale from Star-Spangled War Stories #159 where George S. Patton became the thinly-veiled basis for ‘Man of War’ with the Unknown Soldier dispatched to investigate a charismatic general who had pushed his own troops to the brink of mutiny…

An experimental surgical operation traps the G.I. behind the wrong face on the wrong side of the German lines in #212, where he encounters Hitler’s fanatical schoolboy “Werewolf” killer-elite and becomes in turn ‘The Traitor in Wolf’s Clothing!’

The shocking theme was further explored in #213 as Unknown Soldier has to extract from the Fatherland the son of a scientist vital to the war effort. Sadly ‘The Ten-Year-Old Secret Weapon!’ has embraced every facet of life in the Hitler Youth and fights his would-be rescuer every step of the way…

Kanigher wrote and Romeo Tanghal inked the Ayers illustrated ‘Deadly Reunion!’ in #214 as of the Soldier – in the guise of an elderly Jew – allows himself to be taken to a death camp to spring Mlle. Marie. She isn’t at all grateful…

Haney, Ayers &Talaoc reunited in #215 as the faceless fury replaced a sailor in the merchant marine to expose a traitor selling out convoy freighters to U-boats haunting ‘The Savage Sea!’ after which ‘Taps at Arlington!’ (art by Ayers & Tanghal) sees Chat Noir confront American racism whilst the Soldier exposes a spy painting a bullseye on the backs of troops in Italy…

In #217 the Man Without a Face becomes Hermann Goering’s chief supplier of stolen paintings in ‘Dictators Never Sleep!’ The plan is to give the infamous art lover a Rembrandt primed to explode when Hitler is in front of it… and it would have worked if Klaus von Stauffen hadn’t been present…

With the Black Knight hot on his heels the frustrated phantom is harried across Europe in ‘The Unknown Soldier Must Die!’, only stopping briefly to destroy a V2 base and have another shot at the Fuehrer before experiencing ‘Slaughter in Hell!’ (inked by Tanghal) when von Stauffen turns the tables by impersonating his arch enemy in a bid to murder Winston Churchill and General Eisenhower.

He would have succeeded if not for the Immortal G.I.’s strategic cunning…

Issue #220 by Haney, Ayers &Talaoc saw the Soldier organise a band of maverick warriors from many Nazi-conquered countries into a daring-but-doomed foreign legion dubbed ‘The Rubber Band Heroes’ after which ‘Sunset for a Samurai!’ finds him on a suicide mission to the heart of Japan to save an undercover agent crucial to the American forces…

Unknown Soldier #222 promised ‘No Exit from Stalag 19!’ when the unsung hero was ordered to rescue a military boffin from the heart of Fortress Europa (in a wry and trenchant riff on the plot of The Bridge on the River Kwai) whilst in #223, ‘Mission: Incredible!’ (Ayers &Tanghal) details the convoluted course of a plan to destroy a Heavy Water plant in the snow-capped mountains of Norway.

The Soldier and Chat Noir reunited in #224 to investigate a dead zone where Allied bombers simply vanish without trace, only to find barbaric military madness running wild in ‘Welcome to Valhalla!’ after which the Immortal G.I. is forced to arrest a charismatic general for treason in ‘Four Stars to Armageddon!’ (Ayers &Talaoc) before uncovering the astounding truth behind his supposed betrayals.

The military madness lurches to a bloody halt with #226 as Chat Noir and his faceless comrade do what entire flotillas of Navy vessels could not: using guile and subterfuge to board the Nazi’s unbeatable dreadnaught and ‘Sink the Kronhorst!’

Dark, powerful, moving and overwhelmingly ingenious, The Unknown Soldier is a magnificent addition to the ranks of extraordinary mortal warriors in an industry far too heavy with implausible and incredible heroes. These tales will appeal to not just comics readers but all fans of adventure fiction.
© 1975-1979, 2014 DC Comics. All rights reserved.

The Light and Darkness War


By Tom Veitch & Cam Kennedy (Titan Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-78276-180-8

During the 1980s the American comics scene enjoyed an astounding proliferation of new titles and companies in the wake of the creation of the Direct Sales Market. With publishers able to firm-sale straight to retail outlets rather than overprint and accept returned copies from non-specialised vendors, the industry was able to support less generic titles and creators could experiment without losing their shirts.

In response Marvel Comics developed a line of creator-owned properties at the height of the subsequent publishing explosion, launching a number of idiosyncratic, impressive series in a variety of formats under the watchful, canny eye of Editor Archie Goodwin. The delightfully disparate line was dubbed Epic Comics and the results reshaped the industry.

One of the most evocative releases was a darkly compelling war/fantasy/science fiction serial with a beautifully simple core concept: Valhalla is real and forever…

Conceived and created by author, poet and comics scribe Tom Veitch (Legion of Charlies, Antlers in the Treetops, Animal Man, Star Wars: Dark Empire) and Cam Kennedy (Fighting Mann, Judge Dredd, Batman, Star Wars: Dark Empire) The Light and Darkness War originally ran from October 1988 to September 1989, just as that period of exuberant creative freedom was giving way to a marketplace dominated by reductive exploitation led by speculators.

Because of that downturn, this fantastic saga of martial pride and redemption through valiant service in the Great Beyond never really got the popular acclaim it deserved, hopefully something this glorious hardback retrospective compilation from Titan Comics will belatedly address…

Following heartfelt reminiscences and an appreciation in the ‘Foreword by Commander Mike Beidler, USN, Retired’ the astounding fable introduces paraplegic Vietnam war veteran Lazarus Jones, a broken, troubled warrior for whom the fighting never ended.

Home when he should have died with his inseparable friends, plagued with red-hot memories of beloved comrades lost when their Huey went down, by 1978 the wheelchair-bound wreck of a man is in a most parlous state.

Shattered by what will one day be designated Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Laz cannot help making life hell for his devoted wife Chris. His miserable existence takes an even darker turn when Jones begins seeing visions of long-gone Huff, Slaw and Engle all calling him to join them.

A little later when Chris’ car crashes, Laz is severely hurt and left in a coma he might never awake from…

Elsewhere on the other side of Eternity, a shadowy shape speaks to Lazarus offering a choice: he can go back or he can join his long-departed brothers …

And thus begins a fantastic adventure as the half-man is restored to perfect health and reunited with those who know him best. The catch is that this afterlife is like nothing any holy book ever promised. It’s a vast cosmos of painful, unrelenting physicality where strange alien species commingle and Earth’s dead continue much as they had before.

Pilots steer gunships – albeit flying ones made of stone and levitated by little blue aliens called “menteps” – Leonardo da Vinci carries on inventing weapons for powerful lords and soldiers from every era have one more chance to serve and die…

Miraculously and joyously restored, Laz eagerly rejoins Engle, Slaw and Huff in the only thing he was ever good at. Manning a flying boat armed with light-powered weapons he becomes part of a vast force perpetually defying an unimaginable wave of invading evil from the Outer Darkness.

It’s a war with no overall plan or envisaged endgame, just eternal conflict, but recently a dark lord named Na has risen to the foremost rank of the “Deadsiders” and the legions of night seem to be gaining an advantage in the never-ending conflict fought on a million planets and a billion fronts…

For five hundred years however the genius da Vinci has created weapons that have checked the rapid advance and held the invaders to a tenuous stalemate, but Deadsiders are tirelessly patient and resort to inexorably taking worlds one at a time.

But now a novel event has taken place. Although Lazarus has happily enlisted in the army of Light comprised of those who died in battle on Earth, on the other side of the sky his body is still alive…

Stationed on besieged world Black Gate, Laz and the “Light Gang” are unable to prevent libidinous Lord Na from infiltrating and overcoming the planetary defences, but at least they save Governor Nethon’s daughter Lasha from becoming the conqueror’s latest power-supplying plaything.

Although gradually winning the war for the dark, Na is impatient for a faster outcome. To achieve that end he had his necromancers rediscover an ancient, long-forgotten way to contact the Earth realm and dupes millionaire arms-dealer and devout Satanist Niles Odom into creating a device to physically bridge the dimensions.

Na’s wishes are simple; he wants earthly particle weapons, rail guns, atom bombs…

The unwitting dupe building Odom’s bridge is Nicky Tesla, a brilliant physicist whose intellect rivals that of his dead uncle Nikola, the wizard of electricity who once astounded the world.

With his clairvoyant girlfriend Delpha little Nicky has used his uncle’s old researches to complete an inter-realm gate for crazy-rich Odom, but when an army of zombies come through it and abduct him and Delpha nobody is prepared for what follows.

As the scientists are dragged across into an impossible world where Uncle Nikola is alive again, Laz and the Light Gang – following in Na’s wake – explosively head the other way…

They soon find themselves trapped on their birth-world, just as whole and hale as the day they died… and where Jones still languishes somewhere in a hospital bed.

With all the Afterworlds at stake they have no choice but to fight their way back to the War again…

Also included in this gloriously fulsome chronicle is a sketch-&-developmental art ‘Background Briefing’ by Veitch & Kennedy, discussing the Underground Comic origins and antecedents of the story as well as the history, physics and metaphysics of the Light and Darkness War and a potent overview and personal recollection from Stephen R. Bissette, ‘Endless War: The Life, Loss and Afterlife of Lazarus Jones’.

Fast paced, suspenseful, astonishingly imaginative and utterly beautiful to behold, the complex tale of Laz’s team and their struggle, how two generations of Tesla reshape a war that has been waged forever, and how in the end only love and devotion can battle overwhelming evil is a masterpiece of graphic endeavour and one no lover of fantasy fiction should miss.
The Light and Darkness War is ™ and © 2015 Tom Veitch & Cam Kennedy. All rights reserved.

Civil War Adventure


By Chuck Dixon & Gary Kwapisz, with Esteve Polls, Enrique Villagran, Silvestre & Erik Burnham (Dover Comics & Graphic Novels)
ISBN: 978-0-486-79509-6

From its earliest inception, cartooning and graphic narrative has been used to inform. In newspapers, magazines and especially comicbooks the sheer power of pictorial storytelling – with its ability to distil technical recreations of time, place and personage whilst creating deep emotional affinities to past or imagined events – has been used to forge unforgettable images and characters within us. When those stories affect the lives of generations of readers, the force that they can apply in a commercial, social, political or especially educational arena is almost irresistible…

Thus the compelling power of graphic narrative to efficiently, potently and evocatively disseminate vast amounts of information and seductively advocate complex issues with great conviction through layered levels has always been most effectively used in works with a political, social or historical component.

Comics have brought the past to life since they began. Superb examples of a broad view include such triumphs as Jack Jaxon’s Los Tejanos and Comanche Moon or more recently The Loxleys and the War of 1812 and Fight The Power – a Visual History of Protest Among the English Speaking Peoples, but the medium is equally adept in crafting more personal biographs such as Terry Eisele & Jonathon Riddle’s With Only Five Plums or Wilfred Santiago’s “21”: the Story of Roberto Clemente.

And that brings us to another superb and welcome re-release from Dover Comics & Graphic Novels intended to bring “The War Between the States” to life for younger readers.

Originally published by History Graphics Press in 2009 as Civil War Adventure 1: Real History Stories of the War that Divided America, this marvellous monochrome tome – crafted primarily by gritty fantasy comics veterans Chuck Dixon and Gary Kwapisz – alternates actual historical events, maps, diagrams and found writings with a fictionalised thread of tales depicting how the conflict affected one poor Southern family.

The graphic re-enactments are preceded by a ‘Map of the United States’ detailing the division of the States in 1860 and a ‘Civil War Timeline’ which marks key moments and battles (sensibly linking them directly to the stories which follow) after which ‘Choice of Targets’ by Dixon and Esteve Polls features a text vignette explaining the development of snipers and sharpshooters before offering a pithy moment during the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863 when opposing marksmen found themselves in a life-or-death duel…

‘Berdan’s Sharpshooters’ is a short cartoon lesson on the innovative Union soldier who invented the concept of snipers, promptly followed by a chilling and heartrending incident of battlefield misfortune in Dixon & Kwapisz’s ‘Home Again’ after which an illustrated info and glossary page reproduces an actual letter from a Confederate lad the night before he fell…

‘Mosby Bags a General’ – an all Kwapisz affair – combines a potted history of the South’s most successful raider with a compelling strip revealing how bold Lieutenant John Mosby infiltrated far behind Union lines to capture 58 horses , thirty prisoners and their captain plus sleeping General Stoughton, all in one night…

‘Tempered in Blood’ (Dixon & Kwapisz) then introduces the narrative strand as the simple Campbell clan are torn apart when, after heated family discussion, both father and first son Tybalt sneak off from the farm to enlist in the Spring of 1861.

Each confidently assures themselves that all the shooting will all be over long before harvest and they unknowingly individually abandon Mrs. Campbell and the little sisters to link up with the overconfident volunteers massing for what everybody believes will be one fast knockout blow…

After barely surviving the brutal training that turns hunters, croppers and ploughmen into real soldiers, the Southern heroes finally learn what warfare means at Bull Run…

More contemporary terms, factual data and historical insight is offered in ‘The War is Joined!’ before ‘The Devil’s Due’ (Kwapisz) delves into the atrocity of total warfare as a Bluecoat patrol diligently follows its bald orders to “turn the South into a wasteland”…

A fact-feature page on ‘John Singleton Mosby’ leads to a feature on rising star and flamboyant self-aggrandiser George Armstrong Custer whose rash adventuring leads ‘The Boy General’ (Dixon & Enrique Villagran) into desperate straits against overwhelming rebel opposition… resulting in Custer’s First Stand…

Information pages on the devastating ‘Sharps Rifle’ and the double-pronged naval blockade of the Mississippi River spins off into an account of the duel between ironclad vessels and the brilliant countermeasure devised by Colonel Charles Ellet in ‘Ram Squadron’ (Dixon & Silvestre), capped off with a Kwapisz segment detailing ‘Hell on the Mississippi’ as a Union flotilla horrifically fails to sneak past the naval guns established above Vicksburg…

‘Tempered in Blood II’ returns to the troubled Campbell Clan as Ty wakes in the bloody aftermath of battle to discover his best friend Seth has had enough and absconded. By the time he has found and brought back Seth, however, he discovers his own father has similarly fled.

The elder is not running from bloody death but heading home to save his farm from ruin and family from fever, but that won’t make any difference if he’s picked up by ruthless and remorseless Confederate Picquets…

The tragic true tale of ‘Colonel Cocke’ and his unseemly death gives way to the ribald eccentricity of ‘Darnel Dingus is a…’ which reveals the insane and impecunious ends to which some States descended to ensure their manpower obligations were met. The tale is couched in the story of famous war artist Winslow Homer and a practical joking jackass who learned the hard way that war isn’t funny, and is appended by an grim examination of ‘The Ultimate Punishment’ for desertion under fire and other – even worse – infringements…

The strip section then closes with a sobering and ironic tale of comeuppance in ‘The Letter’ by Erik Burnham & Kwapisz wherein a burned-out sawbones steals a missive from one of his less lucky patients and chases a dream to a woman he has fallen for based solely on her handwriting and prose…

Following one last Kwapisz-illustrated info page – on ‘Battle Field Surgery’ – this stunning introduction to the birth of modern warfare ends with a comparative list of

‘Further Reading’ and a moving notification of how to learn more in ‘If the Valley Was Lost’.

Similar in tone and style to the best of Harvey Kurtzman’s triumphant anti-war classics from Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat, this is a rousing, evocative and potently instructive collection which melds history and horrific entertainment – and not a little grim wit and actual belly-laughs – to bring a pivotal time to vivid life.

© 2009 Chuck Dixon &Gary Kwapisz. All other material © 2015 its respective creators.

Civil War Adventure will be in stores from May 20th 2015 and is available for pre-order now. Check out www.doverpublications.com or your internet retailer or comic shop of choice.

The Adventures of Buck Danny volume 3: Ghost Squadron


By Francis Bergése, colours by Frédéric Bergése translated by Jerome Saincantin (Cinebooks)
ISBN: 987-1-905460-85-4

Buck Danny premiered in Spirou in January 1947 and continues soaring across the Wild Blue Yonder to this day. The strip describes the improbably long yet historically significant career of the eponymous Navy pilot and his wing-men Sonny Tuckson and Jerry Tumbler. It is one of the world’s last aviation strips and a series which has always closely wedded itself to current affairs, from the Korean War to Afghanistan.

The US Naval Aviator was created by Georges Troisfontaines whilst he was director of Belgian publisher World Press Agency and initially depicted by Victor Hubinon before being handed to the multi-talented Jean-Michel Charlier, who was then working as a junior artist.

Charlier’s fascination with human-scale drama and rugged realism had been seen in such “true-war” strips as L’Agonie du Bismark (‘The Agony of the Bismark’– published in Spirou in 1946).

Charlier and René Goscinny were co-editors of Pistolin magazine from 1955 to 1958 and created Pilote in 1959. When they, with fellow creative legend Albert Uderzo, formed the Édifrance Agency to promote the specialised communication benefits of comic strips, he continued to script Buck Danny and did so until his death.

Thereafter his artistic collaborator Francis Bergése (who had replaced Hubinon in 1978) took complete charge of the adventures of the All-American Air Ace, on occasion working with other creators such as Jacques de Douhet.

Like so many artists involved in stories about flight, Bergése (born in 1941) started young with both drawing and flying. He qualified as a pilot whilst still a teenager, enlisted in the French Army and was a reconnaissance flyer by his twenties. Aged 23 he began selling strips to L’Étoile and JT Jeunes (1963-1966), after which he produced his first aviation strip Jacques Renne for Zorro. This was soon followed by Amigo, Ajax, Cap 7, Les 3 Cascadeurs, Les 3 A, Michel dans la Course and many more.

Bergése worked as a jobbing artist on comedies, pastiches and WWII strips until 1983 when he took the coveted job of illustrating the globally syndicated Buck Danny beginning with the 41st yarn ‘Apocalypse Mission’. He even found time in the 1990s to produce a few tales for the European interpretation of British icon Biggles before finally retiring in 2008, passing on the reins to illustrators Fabrice Lamy and Francis Winis and scripter Frédéric Zumbiehl.

Thus far the franchise has notched up 53 albums…

This third Cinebook volume is another astonishingly authentic yarn: a tense, rip-roaring and politically-charged contemporary war story originally published in 1996 as Buck Danny #46 (L’escadrille fantôme and coloured as ever by Frédéric Bergése), blending mind-boggling detail and technical veracity with good old fashioned blistering blockbuster derring-do.

It’s 1995 and, above Sarajevo, Tuckson and pioneer female fighter pilot Cindy McPherson are patrolling as part of the UN Protection Force. “UnProFor” is the West’s broad and criminally ineffectual coalition to stop the various factions in the region slaughtering each other.

The flight takes a dark turn when Cindy’s plane is hit by Serb rockets in contravention of the truce rules and incensed Tuckson peels off to open up with machine gun fire without obtaining the proper permissions.

Nursing Cindy’s burning plane back to their carrier in the Baltic, Sonny doesn’t care how much trouble he’s in, but rather than a Court Martial the impetuous lad’s punishment is rather unique…

Called to interview with the Admiral, the pilot expects at the very least to be thrown as food to the skipper’s vile dog O’Connor but instead meets the enigmatic Mr. Tenderman and is seconded to a top secret “Air Force/Navy Coordination” mission.

Buck meanwhile is part of an op to track down a strange radar echo in an area supposed to be neutral and empty…

After wishing Cindy a fond farewell and hinting at his big CIA secret posting, Sonny ships out by helicopter to land at Prevesa Airbase in Greece. Bewilderment is replaced with terror and rage once he unpacks and discovers O’Connor has stowed away in his kit…

Now stuck with the infernal, nastily nipping mutt, Sonny’s screams draw an old friend into his room: maverick test pilot and old partner in peril Slim Holden. The inveterate rule-breaker also has no idea what they’ve been roped into…

The next day the conundrum continues as they and a small group of other pilots with no idea of why they’re here or where they’re going are shipped to a secret base in the mountains. After the military’s usual “hurry up and wait” the wary fliers are greeted by a familiar face…

Buck is introduced as Colonel Y by the grimly competent General X who assigns each of the pilots a number from 1 to 16. All they know is that they have all committed serious breaches of military discipline which will be wiped from their records once the mission is over. Moreover, as long as they’re here they will only refer to each other by their code numbers…

Awaiting them are anonymous, unmarked F-16s without radios. They are to train in the jets in preparation for an unspecified single task under the strictest security conditions, until finally apprised of their specified purpose.

Days of exhausting preparation and pointless speculation are almost disrupted when an unidentified MiG-29 buzzes the base at extremely low altitude. Although Buck rapidly pursues, the quarry eludes him but the chase does reveal that their so-secret base is being covertly observed by a radar station on the Albanian border…

With no viable options Buck returns and the training continues at full pace. Inevitably the regimen results in a fatality. With the warning of more to come before the strafing and low-level bombing runs end, the practicing goes on and rumours mount over what the actual targets of their illicit ground-attack squadron might be…

Back at the official war zone, tensions mount when two US Navy F-18s are shot down over Bosnia – apparently by a flight of unidentified jets – whilst at the hidden base Buck’s security overflights still register radar tracks from an unknown source.

Buck and General X have no idea which of the many warring factions might be operating the MiGs or the mobile radar unit but have no choice except to proceed with their original plan. They might be far more concerned if they realised that one of the downed – official – combatants was Cindy McPherson…

With the situation worsening the word is given to go and the unofficial spectre squadron finally learn what they’re expected to do: take out the armoured concentrations and artillery emplacements relentlessly bombarding Sarajevo.

In the face of increasingly obvious NATO and UN impotence, it has been decided that the Pan-Serbian aggressors need to be taught a hard lesson about keeping their word regarding cease-fires…

The mission is unofficial, with no radio contact and disabled ejector seats. Moreover, they all have permission to respond in kind to any attack – even by American forces…

As the doomed Ghost Squadron roars across the Adriatic to their targets, the Navy mission to rescue or recover their downed reconnaissance pilots proceeds and an ever-vigilant AWACS plane picks up the inexplicable bogeys heading for Sarajevo.

Of course they reach the only conclusion possible…

When Major Tumbler and his Flight are despatched after the mystery jets an inconclusive dogfight leads him to suspect the nature and identities of some of his targets, but after breaking off hostilities the officially sanctioned Navy planes are ambushed by MiGs from a third faction…

Things look grim until NATO support arrives in the form of French Mirages and British Tornados. As the ghosts fly on to complete their punishment run, in the mad scramble behind them Tumbler tracks a MiG that has had enough and exposes a hidden Bosnian hangar housing a phantom flight of their own. Unfortunately they see him too and he is shot down…

The CIA covert mission has been a success and a massive catalyst. In the aftermath, planes from many of the surrounding nations are tearing up the skies and in the confusion Tumbler makes his way from his landing point into the MiG base to discover old enemy and maniac mercenary Lady X running the show. He also learns that a beloved comrade may well be a traitor in her pay but resolves to save his friend and let the chips fall where they may…

This is a stunning slice of old-fashioned razzle-dazzle that enthrals from the first page to the last panel and shows just why this brilliant series has lasted for so long. Complex politics, personal honour and dastardly schemes all seamlessly blend into a breakneck thriller suitable for older kids and “lads” of all ages.
© Dupuis, 1996 by Bergése. English translation © 2012 Cinebook Ltd. All rights reserved.