Showcase Presents Blackhawk volume 1


By uncredited, Dick Dillin & Chuck Cuidera (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-1983-3 (TPB)

The early days of the American comic book industry were awash with both opportunity and talent, and these factors coincided with a vast population hungry for cheap entertainment. Comics had no acknowledged fans or collectors; only a large, transient clientele open to all varied aspects of yarn-spinning and tale-telling – a situation which persisted right up to the middle of the 1960s.

Thus, even though loudly isolationist and more than six months away from active inclusion in World War II, creators like Will Eisner and publishers like Everett M. (“Busy”) Arnold felt Americans were ready for the themed anthology title Military Comics.

Nobody was ready for Blackhawk.

Military Comics #1 launched on May 30th 1941 (with an August cover-date) and included in its gritty, two-fisted line-up Jack Cole’s Death Patrol, Miss America, Fred Guardineer’s Blue Tracer, X of the Underground, The Yankee Eagle, Q-Boat, Shot and Shell, Archie Atkins and Loops and Banks by “Bud Ernest” (actually aviation-nut and unsung comics genius Bob Powell).

None of the strips, not even Cole’s surreal and suicidal team of hell-bent fliers, had the instant cachet and sheer appeal of Eisner and Powell’s “Foreign Legion of the Air” led by the charismatic Dark Knight of the airways known only as Blackhawk.

Chuck Cuidera, already famed for creating the original Blue Beetle for Fox, drew ‘The Origin of Blackhawk’ for the first issue, wherein a lone pilot fighting the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939 was shot down by Nazi Ace Von Tepp, only to rise bloody and unbowed from his plane’s wreckage to form the World’s greatest team of airborne fighting men…

This mysterious paramilitary squadron of unbeatable fliers, dedicated to crushing injustice and smashing the Axis war-machine, battled on all fronts during the war and stayed together to crush Communism, international crime, Communism and every threat to democracy from alien invaders to supernatural monsters – and more Communism – becoming one of the true milestones of the US industry.

Eisner wrote the first four Blackhawk episodes before moving on while Cuidera stayed until issue #11 – although he triumphantly returned in later years.

There were many melodramatic touches that made the Blackhawks so memorable in the eyes of a wide-eyed populace of thrill-hungry kids. There were the cool, black leather uniforms and peaked caps. The unique, outrageous – but authentic – Grumman F5F-1 Skyrocket planes they flew from their secret island base, and of course, their eerie battle-cry “Hawkaaaaa!”

But perhaps the oddest idiosyncrasy to modern readers was that they had their own song (would you be more comfortable if we started calling it an international anthem?) which Blackhawk, André, Stanislaus, Olaf, Chuck, Hendrickson and (I am so sorry here!) Chop-Chop would sing as they plummeted into battle (to see the music and lyrics, you might check out the Blackhawk Archives edition); just remember this number was written for seven really tough leather-clad guys to sing while dodging bullets…

Quality Comics adapted well to peacetime demands: Plastic Man and Doll Man lasted far longer than most Golden Age superhero titles, whilst the rest of the line adapted into tough-guy crime, war, western, horror and racy comedy titles. The Blackhawks soared to even greater heights, starring in their own movie serial in 1952. However, the hostility of the marketplace to mature-targeted titles after the adoption of the self-censorious Comics Code was a clear sign of the times. In 1956 Arnold sold most of his comics properties and titles to National Publishing Periodicals (AKA DC) and set up as a general magazine publisher.

Many of the purchases were a huge boost to National’s portfolio, with titles such as GI Combat, Heart Throbs and Blackhawk running uninterrupted well into the 1970s (GI Combat survived until in 1987), whilst the unceasing draw and potential of characters such as Uncle Sam, the assorted Freedom Fighters costumed pantheon, Kid Eternity

Plastic Man have paid dividends ever since.

Despite the company largely turning its back on the “magnificent Seven” in recent years, these are terrific timeless tales as this commodious monochrome collection still proves. It covers the first National-emblazoned issue (#108, January 1957) through #127 (August 1958) which saw the Air Aces hit the ground running in a monthly title (at a time when Superman and Batman were only published eight times a year): almost instantly establishing themselves as a valuable draw in DC’s firmament.

Regrettably many of the records are lost so scripter-credits are not available (potential candidates include Ed “France” Herron, Arnold Drake, George Kashdan, Jack Miller, Bill Woolfolk, Jack Schiff and/or Dave Wood) but the art remained in the capable hands of veteran illustrators Dick Dillin & Cuidera: a team who meshed so seamlessly that they often traded roles with few any the wiser…

Moreover, although broadly formulaic, the gritty cachet of crime, B-movie Sci Fi underpinnings and international jurisdiction of the team always allowed great internal variety within the tales, so with three complete adventures per issue, this is a joyous celebration and compelling reminder of simpler yet more intriguing times.

The action begins with ‘The Threat from the Abyss’, an old-school “Commie-Stomper” yarn wherein the Magnificent Seven put paid to a sinister subsea Soviet rocket base, after which ‘Killer Shark’s Secret Weapon’ sustained the watery theme as the Blackhawks’ greatest foe returns with another outrageous mechanical masterpiece to aid his piratical schemes. Issue #108 concludes with ‘The Mutiny of the Red Sailors’, wherein a mass-defection of Russian mariners in Hong Kong proves to be a cunning scheme to destroy the then still-British colony.

‘The Avalanche King’ details the struggle against Red infiltrators in South America, ‘Blackhawk the Sorcerer!’ sees the team discover a lost outpost of Norman knights who missed the invasion of England in 1066 and ‘The Raid on Blackhawk Island’ pits the squad against their own trophies as an intruder invades their secret base, turning a host of captured super-weapons against them.

Blackhawk #110 opened with ‘The Mystery of Tigress Island’ as the doughty lads battle an all-girl team of rival international aviators; ‘The Prophet of Disaster’ proves to be no seer but simply a middle Eastern conman and ‘Duel of Giants’ sets the squad against a deranged scientist who can enlarge his body to blockbuster proportions.

‘The Menace of the Machines’ finds our heroes battling the incredible gimmicks of a Hollywood special effects wizard turned to crime, ‘The Perils of Blackie, the Wonder Bird’ features the team’s incredible feathered mascot – who cunningly turns the tables on a spy-ring which captures him – whilst ‘Trigger Craig’s Magic Carpet’ proves once again that Crime Does Not Pay, but also even ancient sorcery is no match for bold hearts and heavy machine-guns…

‘The Doomed Dogfight’ opened #112 as a Nazi ace schemes to rerun his WWII aerial duel against Blackhawk; criminal counterpart squadron ‘The Crimson Vultures’ prove no match for the Dark Knights and ‘The Eighth Blackhawk’ is shown as nothing more than a dirty traitor… or is he?

‘The Volunteers of Doom’ sees the team uncover sabotage whilst testing dangerous super-weapons for the US Government and ‘The Saboteur of Blackhawk Island’ only appears to be one of the valiant crew before ‘The Cellblock in the Sky’ has the heroes imprisoned by a disenchanted genius in floating cages – but not for long…

‘The Gladiators of Blackhawk Island’ depicts a training exercise co-opted by criminals with deadly consequences, whilst costumed criminal the Mole almost enslaves ‘20,000 Leagues Beneath the Earth’ and Blackie mutates into a ravening, uncontrollable menace in ‘The Winged Goliath’.

In ‘The Tyrant’s Return’, Nazi war criminals rally sympathisers around a new Hitler, ‘Blackie Goes Wild’ sees the gifted raptor revert to savagery but still thwart a South American revolution whilst ‘The Creature of Blackhawk Island’ reveals an extra-dimensional monster foolishly smashing through to our reality… onto the most heavily fortified military base on Earth…

As The Prisoners of the Black Palace’, the old comrades crush a criminal scheme to quartermaster the entire international underworld, before Blackhawk becomes ‘The Human Torpedo’ to eradicate a sea-going gangster but ends up in contention with a race of mermen, whilst old Hendrickson is ‘The Outcast Blackhawk’ after failing his annual requalification exams…

Blackhawk #117 began with the team tackling an apparent lost tribe of Vikings in ‘The Menace of the Dragon Boat’ before becoming targets of a ruthless mastermind in ‘The Seven Little Blackhawks’ and battling a chilling criminal maniac in ‘The Fantastic Mr. Freeze’ (no relation to the later Bat foe).

‘The Bandit with 1,000 Nets’ was yet another audacious thief with a novel gimmick, whereas the Pacific Ocean is the real enemy when an accident maroons ‘The Blackhawk Robinson Crusoes’ as they hunt the nefarious Sting Ray, after which ‘The Human Clay Pigeons’ sees the team helpless targets of international assassin and spymaster the Sniper.

A time-travel accident propels the aviators back to the old West in ‘Blackhawk vs Chief Black Hawk’, and on their return Frenchman Andre inherits a fortune to become ‘The Playboy Blackhawk’, before being kicked off the team. However, he’s happily reinstated for all-out dinosaur action in ‘The Valley of the Monsters’

‘The Challenge of the Wizard’ leads in #120, with the crew tackling an ingenious stage magician whilst a well-meaning kid makes plenty of trouble for them when he elects himself ‘The Junior Blackhawk!’. Then the sinister Professor tricks the heroes into re-enacting ‘The Perils of Ulysses’ with deadly robotic monsters.

‘Secret Weapon of the Archer’ pits the lads against a fantastic attention-seeking costumed menace, before ‘The Jinxed Blackhawk’ sees the team struggling against bad luck, superstition and a cunning criminal and ‘Siege in the Sahara’ findsthem re-enacting Beau Geste whilst rescuing hijacked atomic weapons from bandit chieftain the Tiger

‘The Movie that Backfired’ starts out as a biopic but develops into a deadly mystery when criminals make murderous alterations to the script, ‘The Sky Kites’ finds the heroes battling aerial pirate squadron The Ravens after which ‘The Day the Blackhawks Died’ sees the deadly Cobra laying a lethal trap, blithely unaware that he is the prey, not the predator…

Killer Shark resurfaces to unsuccessfully assault ‘The Underseas Gold Fort’, more leftover Nazis strive to solve a ‘Mystery on Top of the World’ involving the location of the Reich’s stolen gold and Blackhawk is ‘The Human Rocket’when thwarting an alien invasion.

In issue #124, figures from history rob at will and even the Blackhawks are implicated before the ‘Thieves with a Thousand Faces’ proved to be far from supernatural. Thereafter, ‘The Beauty and the Blackhawks’ sees shy Chuck apparently bamboozled by a sultry siren whilst ‘The Mechanical Spies from Space’ attempt to establish an Earthly beachhead but are soundly defeated by the Magnificent Seven’s unique blend of human heroism and heavy ordnance.

‘The Secrets of the Blackhawk Time Capsule’ proves an irresistible temptation for scientific super-criminal the Schemerwhilst ‘The Sunken Island!’ hides a lost Mongol civilisation in the throes of civil war and ‘The Super Blackhawk’ has an atomic accident transform the veteran leader into an all-powerful metahuman… unfortunately doing the same for the Mole and his gang too…

‘The Secret of the Glass Fort’ revisits the idea when the entire team briefly gain superpowers to battle alien invaders. The Prisoner of Zenda provides plot for ‘Hendrickson, King for a Day’, with the venerable Dutchman doubling for a missing monarch before ‘The Man Who Collected Blackhawks’ quickly learns to regret using a shrinking ray on the toughest crime-fighters in the World…

This stupendous selection climaxes with issue #127: starting with ‘Blackie – the Winged Sky Fighter’ wherein the formidable bird rescues his human comrades from an impossible death-trap, after which strongman Olaf takes centre-stage as ‘The Show-Off Blackhawk’ when a showbiz career diverts his attention from the most important things in life. The manly monochrome marvels conclude as a criminal infiltrates the squad disguised as American member Chuck: seemingly succeeds in killing the legendary leader in ‘The Ghost of Blackhawk’.

These stories were produced at a pivotal moment in comics history: the last great outpouring of broadly human-scaled action-heroes in a marketplace increasingly filling up with gaudily clad wondermen and superwomen. The iconic blend of weary sophistication and glorious, juvenile bravado where a few good men with wits, firearms and a trusty animal companion could overcome all odds was fading in the light of spectacular scenarios and ubiquitous alien encounters.

For this precious moment, though, these rousing tales of the miracles that (extra)ordinary guys can accomplish are some of the early Silver Age’s finest moments. Terrific traditional all-ages entertainment and some of the best comics stories of their time, these tales are forgotten gems of their genre and I sincerely hope DC finds the time and money to continue the magic in further collections and digital rereleases.

And so will you…
© 1957, 1958, 2008 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

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 (Album PB)

Buck Danny premiered in Le Journal de Spirou in January 1947 and continues soaring across the Wild Blue Yonder to this day. The strip describes the improbably long, 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 globally syndicated Buck Danny, beginning with 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. Gil Formosa replaced Winis in 2015, and the full tally thus far is 58 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 by Frédéric Bergése). It deftly blends 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 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. 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 locate 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 on 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 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 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, 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 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 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 of all ages.
© Dupuis, 1996 by Bergése. English translation © 2012 Cinebook Ltd. All rights reserved.

The Bluecoats volute 5: Rumberley


By Willy Lambil & Raoul Cauvin, translated by Erica Jeffrey (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-1-84918-108-2 (Album PB)

The myths and legends of the cinematic American West have fascinated Europeans virtually since the actual days of stagecoaches and gunslingers. Hergé and Moebius were passionate devotees and the wealth of stand-out Continental comics series ranges from Italy’s Tex Willer to such Franco-Belgian classics as Blueberry and tangential all-ages classics such as Yakari. Even colonial dramas such as Pioneers of the New World and Milo Manara & Hugo Pratt’s Indian Summer fit the broad-brimmed bill.

As devised by Louis “Salvé” Salvérius & Raoul Cauvin – who has scripted the first 64 best-selling volumes until his retirement in 2020 – Les Tuniques Bleues (The Bluecoats) debuted at the end of the 1960s, specifically created to replace Lucky Luke when the laconic maverick defected from weekly anthology Le Journal de Spirou to rival publication Pilote.

The substitute swiftly became one of the most popular bande dessinée series in Europe.

Salvé was a cartoonist of the Gallic big-foot/big-nose humour school, and when he died suddenly in 1972 his replacement, Willy “Lambil” Lambillotte slowly introduced a more realistic – but still overtly comedic – illustrative tone and manner. Lambil is Belgian, born in 1936 and, after studying Fine Art in college, joined publishing giant Dupuis in 1952 as a letterer.

Born in 1938, scripter Cauvin is also Belgian and before entering Dupuis’ animation department in 1960 studied Lithography. He soon discovered his true calling – comedy writing – and began a glittering and prolific career at Spirou. In addition to Bluecoats he scripted dozens of long-running, award winning series including Cédric, Les Femmes en Blanc and Agent 212: more than 240 separate albums. The Bluecoats alone has sold more than 15 million copies of its 65 (and counting) album sequence.

Our sorry, long-suffering protagonists are Sergeant Cornelius Chesterfield and Corporal Blutch; a pair of worthy fools in the manner of Laurel & Hardy: hapless, ill-starred US cavalrymen posted to the wild frontier and various key points of fabled America during the War Between the States.

The original format featured single-page gags set around an Indian-plagued Wild West fort, but from the second volume Du Nord au Sud, the sad-sack soldiers went back East to fight in the American Civil War (a tale was rewritten as 18thalbum Blue retro to describe how the chumps were drafted during the war). Every subsequent adventure, although often ranging far beyond America and taking in a lot of thoroughly researched history, is set within the timeframe of the Secession conflict.

Blutch is your run-of-the-mill, whinging little-man-in-the street: work-shy, mouthy, devious and especially critical of the army and its inept commanders. Ducking, diving, even deserting whenever he can, he’s you or me – except sometimes he’s quite smart and heroic if no other (easier) option is available.

Chesterfield is a big burly professional fighting man; a career soldier who has passionately bought into all the patriotism and esprit-de-corps of the Military. He is brave, never shirks his duty and wants to be a hero. He also loves his cynical little troll of a pal. They quarrel like a married couple, fight like brothers and simply cannot agree on the point and purpose of the horrendous war they are trapped in…

Rumberley was the fifth translated Cinebook album (chronologically the 15th European volume) and a far darker affair than usual. After a horrific battle, Union and Confederate forces are spent and exhausted, although the Blues have advanced far into the South as a result of the sustained slaughter. However, with dwindling food and little ammunition, the Generals opt to fall back and re-supply with fresh troops and munitions. The only problem is what to do with the wounded. After all, bringing them back to safety would only slow down the rearward advance. Then one bright, over-privileged spark has the notion of just billeting the unusable Union soldiers on the nearest – albeit enemy – town…

Amongst the dead and dying are grievously injured Chesterfield and war-crazy Captain Stark. Even Blutch is there, but his leg wound might be minor, self-inflicted or possibly utterly bogus…

Their reception by the women, children, aged and infirm of Rumberley is hostile to say the least, but the Union dregs have no place else to go and no strength left to leave anyway. Forcibly appropriating the livery stable as a field hospital, Blutch and Chesterfield aid the exhausted doctors and surgeons as best they can, but the simmering tensions and occasional assaults by the townsfolk indicates there is real trouble brewing and this kettle is about to boil over very soon…

And then the townsfolk start drifting away. Rumours spread that a Confederate force is approaching Rumberley. The doctors try to move their charges out, and Blutch finds himself in the uncanny position of staying behind as rearguard when Chesterfield decides to buy them time to get away…

When it comes, the battle is a bizarre affair. The Rebels are fit but have little ammunition so the Bluecoats give a good accounting of themselves, but are almost done for when Stark unexpectedly leads a life-saving cavalry charge of the Union wounded to save them. During the insane clash, town buildings are set afire and the citizens of Rumberley rush back to save their home and possessions.

And then something strange happens: the killing stops and Blues, Greys and civilians work together to save rather than destroy…

This is a hugely amusing anti-war saga targeting younger, less world-weary audiences. Historically authentic, and always in good taste despite an uncompromising portrayal of violence, the attitudes expressed by our down-to-earth pair never make battle anything but arrant folly and, like the hilarious yet insanely tragic war-memoirs of Spike Milligan, these are comedic tales whose very humour makes the occasional moments of shocking verity doubly powerful and hard-hitting.

Funny, thrilling, beautifully realised and eminently readable, Bluecoats is the sort of war-story and Western which appeals to the best, not worst, of the human spirit.
© Dupuis 1979 by Lambil & Cauvin. English translation © 2011 Cinebook Ltd. All rights reserved.

Johnny Red: Falcon’s First Flight


By Tom Tulley & Joe Colquhoun (Titan Books)
ISBN: 978-1-84856-033-8 (HB)

Britons have been enamoured of fighting aviators since the earliest days of popular fiction, but wonderful and thrilling as Biggles, Paddy Payne, I Flew with Braddock or Battler Britton might have been, the true hellish horror of war in the air didn’t really hit home for comics readers until strip veterans Tom Tully & Joe Colquhoun began crafting the epic career of a troublesome working-class maverick pilot.

Kicked out of the RAF at our time of greatest need, he eventually carved a bloody legend for himself in the blistering skies of the Eastern Front. Johnny Red debuted in January 1977, in issue #100 of increasingly radical war comic Battle Picture Weekly and Valiant. He rapidly became a firm fixture, appearing for the next 500-odd issues, before finally calling it a day in 1987. Even then, the strip continued as a reprint feature in Best of Battle until Fleetway stopped publishing comics.

Presented in a sturdily lavish and reliable hardback archival tome (but not sadly in digital formats yet), Falcon’s First Flight collects chapters 1-37 of the aerial epic in the original stark monochrome and includes an effusive introduction from starry-eyed fan Garth Ennis, plus a fascinating historical essay from Jeremy Briggs.

Genesis of a Hero provides some intriguing perspective as well as revealing the incredible story of the pilot who was the real-life inspiration for Johnny Red…

The racing breakneck action (utterly unavoidable since almost all Battle instalments were between 3-4 pages long) opens on September 1941 as young Liverpool oik Johnny Redburn helplessly watches Stukas and Junkas strafe and bomb the merchant ship he’s working on. The Empire Cape is part of a relief convoy en route to Murmansk with supplies for Britain’s hard-pressed Russian allies.

Scared and helpless, Redburn recalls the incident which got him cashiered from RAF training and banned from flying – originally striking an officer, but later retconned into accidentally killing an instructor. He doesn’t miss the snobs and stupid rules, but Johnny was a natural flier and is still hungry for the skies…

Unable to provide fighter escorts or aircraft carriers, the Navy at this time outfitted some freighters with a catapult-launched plane. The Cape has one of these insane contraptions: a single Hurricane which would be launched into enemy-filled skies with a few hours’ fuel and a pilot expected to do whatever he could until German bullets or the seas claimed him. Convoy ships had no landing facility and if the flier survived the dogfights he was expected to ditch in the sea or crash…

When the assigned aviator is killed on the way to launch, Johnny takes his place and against all odds shoots down enough attackers to allow the crew of the Cape to successfully abandon ship. Now he faces a unique dilemma. He is an illegal pilot in a stolen plane he can’t land. Having no faith in British military justice or the cold cruel waters below, Redburn decides to try for the Russian mainland and a proper landing field…

Typically, it’s a case of out of the frying pan and into the freezer as lethal weather conditions close in. Miraculously escaping fog, storm and ice, Johnny lands at a hidden base, only to be mistaken for a German by the starving and desperate air fighters of the 5th Soviet Air Brigade… the “Falcons”.

These are patriotic but damned men, ordered to resist to the last in creaky biplanes against the overwhelming forces of the Luftwaffe. As the embattled communists close on Johnny, the Germans attack and a unique bond of comradeship is formed as his skill and modern Hurricane wreaks havoc amongst the complacent Nazis. With nowhere else to go Johnny joins the squadron of the doomed, galvanising them into a competent squadron of rule-breaking, triumphant aerial killers risking everything to save their beleaguered homeland.

Ill-supplied and written off by their own leaders, the Soviet airmen are convinced by “Johnny Red” to steal whatever food, replacements and weapons they need from their own retreating forces, quickly becoming a cohesive and credible threat to the once unstoppable Germans.

The warrior’s spectacular revival causes its own problems. Johnny is hiding from all contact with the British, convinced only jail or the gallows await him, whilst beyond the close brotherhood of his fellow Falcons, successive Soviet military bureaucrats such as demented political officer Major Alexie Kraskin – a martinet who loves executing his own troops if they won’t obey suicidal orders – or cowardly, carpet-bagging Comrade Colonel Grigor Yaraslov, politically appointed to lead the resurgent squadron, all seem far too eager to get rid of the humiliatingly competent foreign interloper…

In sortie after sortie, “Johnny Red” tackles privation, exhaustion and the enmity of his superiors whilst clearing Russian skies of fascist predators, but as this first volume closes he faces his greatest challenges.

With the Falcons posted to the frozen hell of Leningrad during the worst part of the German siege, Johnny is increasingly plagued by the recurring effects of an old head-wound causing sporadic fits of blindness. Simultaneously, a kill-crazy psychopathic replacement to the Falcons is determined to murder the Englishman, for stopping the strafing of Germans after they have surrendered…

These gritty, evocative tales are packed with historical detail, breathtaking passion and a staggering aura of authenticity. The classic theme of a misfit making good under incredible adversity has never been better depicted and Tom (Kelly’s Eye, Roy of the Rovers, Steel Claw, Raven on the Wing, Harlem Heroes, Mean Arena) Tully’s visceral scripts are perfectly realised by miracle worker Joe Colquhoun. The artist quit writing and drawing Roy of the Rovers to perfect his mastery of aviation war-stories on the long-running but more traditional Paddy Payne in Lion (from 1959 until the feature was retired) before co-creating Johnny Red in late 1976.

He illustrated 100 episodes before moving on to his greatest work Charley’s War.

This premiere collection is a grand moment in the transition of comics from boy’s own bravado in a Toff’s World to mature, mercurial yet moving adventures starring ordinary working-class heroes. Johnny Red was at the forefront of this invasion of extraordinary commoners during a war that almost abolished the class system forever.

However, whatever your dogma or preferred arena of struggle, there’s no question that these magnificent war-stories are among the Few: the cream of British comics well worth your avid time and attention, especially in these perilous times when today’s toffs continually seek to appropriate the language and actions of real wartime heroism for their own shameful, self-serving purposes.
Johnny Red © 2010 Egmont UK Ltd. All Rights Reserved. Introduction © 2010 Garth Ennis. Genesis of a Hero © 2010 Jeremy Briggs.

The Definitive Charley’s War volume 1: Boy Soldier


By Pat Mills & Joe Colquhoun & various (Rebellion)
ISBN: 978-1-78108-619-3 (TPB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Because Some Things Must Never Be Forgotten… 10/10

When Pat Mills & Joe Colquhoun began their tale of an impressionable lad who joins up just in time to fight in the disastrous Somme campaign, I suspect they had, as usual, the best of authorial intentions but no real idea that this time they were creating comics history. The landmark feature was originally published in British war anthology Battle (AKA Battle Picture Weekly, Battle Action, etc.). A surprise hit, the serial proper launched in issue #200, running from January 1979 until October of 1986.

It recounted, usually in heartrending and harrowing detail and with astounding passion for a Boys’ Periodical, the life of an East-End kid who lies about his age to enlist with the British Army reinforcements setting out to fight the Hun in 1916.

The stunning strip contingent contained within this superb trade paperback and digital edition – 86 weekly episodes in all, spanning January 6th 1979-25 October 1980 – form one of the most powerful and influential characterisations of the oh-so-ironic “war to end all wars”. The lovingly researched, lavishly limned and staggeringly authentic saga touches upon many diverse aspects of the conflict and even the effects on the Home Front, all delivered with a devastatingly understated dry sense of horror and cruel injustice, frequently leavened with gallows humour as trenchant as that legendarily “enjoyed” by the poor trench-bound “Tommies” of the time.

This magnificent (mostly) monochrome mega-compilation opens with a 4-page instalment (for much of the middle run the series came in 3-page episodes) ‘Charley’s War – the Story of a Soldier in World War One’, following 16-year-old London Bus Company worker Charley Bourne as he eagerly enlists and so-quickly graduates to the unending, enduring horrors of the muddy, blood-soaked battlefield of The Somme.

Military life was notoriously hard and unremittingly dull… except for those brief bursts of manic aggression and strategic stupidity which ended so many lives. Closely following the recorded course of the war, Mills & Colquhoun put young Charley in the Westshire Regiment and show a rapidly changing cast being constantly whittled away by various modes of combat attrition.

The weekly hellscapes showed lesser-known, far from glorious sides of the conflict that readers in the 1970s and 1980s had never seen in any other war comic. Each strip was cunningly punctuated and elucidated by the telling narrative device of the simple lad’s letters to his family in “Blighty” and also cleverly utilised reproductions of cartoons and postcards from the period.

With Boer War veteran Ole Bill Tozer as his mentor, Charley narrowly survives shelling, mudslides, digging details, gas attacks, the trench cat, snipers, the callous stupidity of his own commanding officers – although there are examples of good officers too – and the far too often insane absurdity of a modern soldier’s life.

Slowly but irrevocably the callow, naïve boy became a solid, dependable warrior – albeit one with a nose for trouble and a blessed gift for lucky escapes.

When Tozer leads a party across No-Man’s Land to capture prisoners for interrogation new pal Ginger sustains a frankly hilarious wound in his nether regions. As a result, however, and despite the sortie establishing the inadvisability of an attack, the Allied generals continue their plans for a “Big Push”. Thus, Charlie is confronted with an agonising moral dilemma when he catches a comrade trying to wound himself and get sent home before the balloon goes up.

This time, grim fate intervenes before the boy soldier can make a terrible choice…

The unit’s troubles increase exponentially when arrogant, ruthless aristocrat Lieutenant Snell arrives; constantly undermining if not actively sabotaging every effort by sympathetic officer Lieutenant Thomas to make the riffraff cannon fodder’s lives tolerable. The self-serving toff takes a personal dislike to Charley after the lad drops the huge picnic hamper belonging to the rich twat in the trench mud…

On July 1st 1916 The Battle of the Somme began and, like so many other unfortunates, Charley and his comrades are ordered “over the top”: expected to walk steadily into the mortars and machine gun fire of the entrenched German defenders. Thomas, unable to stand the stupidity, cracks and commands them to charge at a run. It saves his squad but lands his men in a fully-manned German dug-out…

After ferocious fighting the lads gain a brief respite but the retreating Huns have left insidious booby-traps to entice and destroy them. Many beloved characters die before Charley, Ginger and poor shell-shocked Lonely are finally captured by “the Boche”.

As they await their fate, the traumatised veteran of 1914 reveals to Ginger and Charley the horrific events of the previous Christmas and why he so wants to die. Moreover, the sole cause of that appalling atrocity was the same Snell who now commands their own unit…

Through Charley’s dumb luck they escape, only to blunder into a gas attack and British Cavalry. The mounted men gallop off to meet stiff German resistance (resulting in some of the most baroque and disturbing scenes ever depicted in kids’ comics) whilst Bourne and the lads. are miraculously reunited with their comrades.

The combat carnage has not ceased however. Waiting for the order to attack, Lt. Thomas and his hard-pressed men are suddenly subjected to a terrific barrage. With horror the officer realises they are being shelled by their own big guns and dispatches a runner to Snell who has a functioning line to Allied HQ.

The role of messenger was the most dangerous in the army but, with no other means of communication except written orders and requests, failure to get through was never acceptable. By the time Charley volunteers a dozen men have failed. With British shells still butchering British troops, Bourne is determined to pushing his luck as the “Thirteenth Runner”…

As previously stated, Charley’s War closely follows key events of the war, using them as a road map or skeleton to hang specific incidents upon, but this was not the strip’s only innovation. The highly detailed research concentrated more on characters than the fighting – although there was still plenty of heartrending action – and declared to the readership (which at the time of original publication were categorically assumed to be boys between ages 9-13) that “our side” could be as monstrous as the “bad guys”.

Mills also fully exercised his own political and creative agendas on the series and was constantly amazed at what he got away with and what seeming trivialities his editors pulled him up on (more fully expanded upon in the author’s informative ‘Strip Commentary’ which concludes this edition)…

With the Thirteenth Runner storyline, likable everyman Charley Bourne slowly began his descent from fresh-faced innocent to weary, battle-scarred veteran as the war reached beyond the cataclysmic opening moves of the Somme Campaign and into the conflict’s most bloody events.

Frantically making his way to the rear positions, Charley successfully passes the fallen twelve runners but only encounters more officer arrogance and Professional Soldier stupidity before the battle ends. Snell refuses to even read the message until he has finished his tea…

Helpless before the aristocrat’s indifference Charley angrily returns to the Front. Finding everybody apparently dead, he snaps: reduced to a killing rage he is only dragged back to normal when Ginger, Smith Seventy and the Sarge emerge from a shattered support trench.

The lad’s joy is short-lived. Thomas is arrested for showing cowardice in the face of the enemy, and with him gone Snell now commands the unit of despised disposable commoners…

Removed to the Rear to have their wounds treated, Charley and his chums meet Weeper Watkins. The former ventriloquist cries permanently. His eyes have been ruined by exposure to poison gas but he is still considered fit for duty. All too soon they fall foul of sadistic military policeman Sergeant Bacon who has earned his nickname as “the Beast” over and over again…

With a chance to blow off steam – such as a hilarious volunteer Concert Party show – Charley and Weeper are soon in the Beast’s bad books. However, his first attempt to beat and break Bourne goes badly awry when a couple of rowdy Australian soldiers join the fray and utterly humiliate the Red Cap.

Bullies are notoriously patient and Bacon’s turn comes at last when Lt. Thomas is found guilty. Charley and Weeper refuse to be part of the firing squad which executes him and are punished by a military tribunal, leaving them at the Beast’s non-existent mercy. Enduring savage battlefield punishments which include a uniquely cruel form of crucifixion, their suffering only ends when the base is strafed by German aircraft…

With sentence served and Bacon gone, Charley is soon back in the trenches, just in time for the introduction of Tank Warfare to change the world forever.

A fascinating aspect of the battle is highlighted here as the strip concentrates heavily upon the German reaction to the military innovation. The Central Powers considered the tank an atrocity weapon in just the same way modern soldiers do chemical and biological ones.

In the build-up to the Big Push, Charley is singled out by a new replacement. Unctuous Oliver Crawleigh is a cowardly spiv and petty criminal, but he’s also married to Charley’s sister Dolly. The chancer ignobly attaches himself to the young veteran like a leech, offering to pay Charley to either protect him or wound him some minor way which will get “Oiley” safely back to Britain…

The next day the Empire’s new landships make their terrifying debut with army infantry in close support and the effect on the Germans is astounding. In a ferociously gripping extended sequence, Mills & Colquhoun take the readers inside the hellish iron leviathans as outraged Huns devote their manic utmost efforts into eradicating the titanic terrors.

The carnage is unspeakable but before long Charley, Oiley and Smith Seventy are inside one of the lumbering behemoths, reluctantly replacing the dead crew of clearly deranged tank man Wild Eyes as the modern-day Captain Ahab drags them along for the ride: seeking a madman’s redemption for the loss of his comrades, the slaughter of a town and destruction of a church…

In the quiet of the weary aftermath, Oiley deliberately puts his foot under a tank to “get a Blighty” (a wound sufficiently serous to be sent home to England) and attempts to bribe Charley into silence. The disgusted, exhausted teenager responds in typically cathartic manner…

During this lull in the fighting, events on the German side see despised commoner and Eastern Front veteran Colonel Zeiss spurn his aristocratic Junker colleagues’ outdated notions before devising a new kind of Total Warfare to punish the British for their use of mechanised murder machines…

Charley meanwhile is wounded and his comrades celebrate the fact that he will soon be home safely. Naturally, things are never that simple and the callous indifference of the British army’s medical contingent – especially the notorious “Doctor No”, who never lets a man escape his duty – means that any soldier still able to pull a trigger is sent back into battle.

Bourne returns to the trenches just in time to meet the first wave of Zeiss’ merciless “Judgement Troops”, who storm the British lines, slaughtering everyone – including German soldiers who get in the way – in a savage, no-holds-barred assault, whose “Blitzkrieg tactics” overwhelm everything in their path.

Charley and his mates experience fresh horrors: battlefield executions, new and experimental forms of poison gas, flamethrowers, strafing by steel javelins and brutal, uncompromising hand-to-hand combat in their own overrun trenches before the bloody battle peters out indecisively…

Zeiss is subsequently cashiered by his own appalled superiors, but knows that one day his concepts of Blitzkrieg and Total War will become the norm…

Exhausted, battle-weary Charley is again injured, losing his identification in the process and returned eventually to England as a shell-shocked temporary amnesiac. His mother undergoes slow torture as she receives telegrams declaring her son, missing, dead, found wounded and lost again…

Mills & Colquhoun now begin a masterful sequence that breaks all the rules of war comic fiction; switching the emphasis to the Home Front where Charley’s family are mourning his apparent death and working in the war industries, just as the German Zeppelin raids on British cities are beginning.

Mills’ acerbic social criticism makes powerful use of history as the recovering hero experiences the trials of submarine warfare, when the troop ship carrying him and Bill Tozer back to Blighty is torpedoed…

When their perilous North Sea odyssey at last brings Charley back to Silvertown in London’s West Ham, it is in the wake of a catastrophic disaster in which 50 tons of TNT detonate at a munitions factory, killing more than 70 workers and injuring a further 400…

No longer comfortable around civilians and with no stomach for the jingoistic nonsense of the stay-at-homes or the covert criminal endeavours of boastful “war-hero” (and secret looter) Oiley, Charley hangs out in pubs with the Sarge and thereby reconnects with old soak and Crimean War survivor Blind Bob

London is a city under constant threat, not just from greedy munitions magnates who care more for profit than the safety of their workers or even the victory of their homeland, but also increasingly common aerial bombing raids which provoke mindless panic and destruction at the very heart of the British Empire.

Focus here divides as Charley’s days are contrasted with the zealous mission of devoted family man Kapitan Heinrich von Bergmann who leads his squadron of Zeppelins in a carefully calculated night sortie against the hated English…

When Blind Bill is evicted from his rooms, Charley invites him to stay with the Bournes and the beggar’s incredible hearing (coupled with the area’s quaint air-raid listening devices) provides enough warning to seal Bergmann’s doom, but not before the airman has rained tons of explosive death on the capital…

During the bombing Charley discovers his mum is still toiling in the local munitions works. The exploitative owner has decided not to sound his air raid evacuation alarm as he has his profits and contracts to consider. Charley is not happy and dashes to get her out…

This stunning collection ends with a sharp jab at the dubious practices of British recruitment officers (who got bonuses for very volunteer they signed up) as Charley stops his extremely little brother Wilf from making the same mistake he did, and teaches the unscrupulous recruiter a much-deserved lesson

To Be Continued…

Charley’s War is a highpoint in the narrative examination of the Great War through any artistic medium and exists as shining example of how good “Children’s Comics” can be. It is also one of the most powerful pieces of fiction ever produced for readers of any age.

I know of no anti-war story that is as gripping, as engaging and as engrossing, no strip that so successfully transcends its mass-market, popular culture roots to become a landmark of fictive brilliance. We can only thank our lucky stars that no Hollywood hack has made it a blockbuster which would inescapably undercut the tangibility of the “heroes” whilst debasing the message. There is nothing quite like it and you are diminished by not reading it.

Included in this volume are a full cover gallery and restored colour sections (reproduced in monochrome for earlier collections but vibrantly hued here to vivid effect) and writer Mills’ wonderfully informative chapter notes and commentary on the episodes. Not just a great war comic, Charley’s War is a highpoint in the narrative examination of the Great War through any artistic medium. I won’t belabour plot, script or even the riveting authentic artistic depictions. I won’t praise the wonderful quality. I simply state if you read this you will get it, and if you don’t, you won’t.

Let’s all make ensure that it’s NOT all over by Christmas!
© 1979, 1980, 1981, 1982, 1983, 1984, 1985 & 2018 Rebellion Publishing Ltd. All rights reserved. Charley’s War is ™ & © Rebellion Publishing Ltd. All rights reserved.

Showcase Presents Enemy Ace


By Robert Kanigher, Joe Kubert, Dennis O’Neil, John Severin, Howard Chaykin, Frank Thorne, Ed Davis, Russ Heath, Neal Adams & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-1721-1 (TPB)

Same old story here. Brilliant, groundbreaking, unmissable, not available in any modern format or digitally. We never learn…

Enemy Ace first appeared as a back-up in DC’s flagship war comic Our Army at War: home of the instantly legendary Sergeant Rock. The tales, loosely based on “Red Baron” Manfred von Richthofen, were a magnificent and thought-provoking examination of and tribute to the profession of soldiering, whilst simultaneously condemning the madness of war. They were produced by the dream team of Robert Kanigher & Joe Kubert during a period when the ongoing Vietnam conflict was beginning to tear American society apart.

An immediate if seminal hit, the series told bitter tales of valour and honour from the point of view of German WWI fighter pilot Hans von Hammer: a hidebound but noble warrior fighting for his country in a conflict that was swiftly excising all trace of such outmoded concepts from the business of government sanctioned mass-killing.

Robert Kanigher (1915-2002) was one of the most distinctive authorial voices in American comics, blending rugged realism with fantastic fantasy in his signature war comics, as well as in horror stories, westerns and superhero titles such as Wonder Woman, Teen Titans, Hawkman, Metal Men, Batman plus other genres too numerous to cover here. A restlessly creative writer, he frequently used his uncanny but formulaic adventure arenas as a testing ground for future series concepts. Among the many epochal war features he created were Sgt. Rock, The War that Time Forgot, The Haunted Tank, The Losers and the controversial star of this stupendously compelling war-journal.

He sold his first stories and poetry in 1932, wrote for the theatre, film and radio, and joined the Fox Features shop where he created The Bouncer, Steel Sterling and The Web, whilst providing scripts for Blue Beetle and the original Captain Marvel.

In 1945 he settled at All-American Comics as both writer and editor, staying on when the company amalgamated with National Comics to become the forerunner of today’s DC. He wrote Flash and Hawkman, created Black Canary and many sexily memorable villainesses such as Harlequin and Rose and the Thorn. This last turbulent temptress he redesigned during the relevancy era of the early 1970s into a schizophrenic crime-busting vigilante who haunted the back of Superman’s Girlfriend Lois Lane, which Kanigher also scripted.

When the taste for mystery-men had faded at the end of the 1940s, Kanigher moved seamlessly into adventure yarns, westerns and war: becoming in 1952 writer/editor of the company’s combat titles.

As well as scripting for All-American War Stories, Star Spangled War Stories and Our Army at War, he created Our Fighting Forces in 1954 before adding G.I. Combat to his burgeoning portfolio when Quality Comics sold their line of titles to DC in 1956. This was whilst still working on Wonder Woman, Johnny Thunder, Rex the Wonder Dog, Silent Knight, Viking Prince and a host of others.

In 1956 he scripted ‘Mystery of the Human Thunderbolt’ – the first story of the Silver Age which introduced Barry Allenas the new Flash to the hero-hungry kids of the world. Drawn by Carmine Infantino, the risky experiment included multi-talented veteran Joe Kubert as inker for the crucially important debut issue…

Kubert was born in 1926 in rural Southeast Poland (which became Ukraine and might be Outer Russia by the time you read this). At age two his parents took him to America and he grew up in Brooklyn.

His folks encouraged Joe to draw from an early age and the precocious kid began a glittering career at the start of the Golden Age, before he was even a teenager. Working and learning at the Chesler comics packaging “Shop”, MLJ, Holyoke and assorted other outfits, he began his close association with National/DC in 1943, whilst still dividing his time and energies between Fiction House, Avon, Harvey and All-American Comics, where he particularly distinguished himself on The Flash and Hawkman.

In the early 1950s he and old school chum Norman Maurer were the creative force behind publishers St. Johns: creating evergreen caveman Tor and launching the 3D comics craze with Three Dimension Comics.

Joe never stopped freelancing, appearing in EC’s Two-Fisted Tales, Avon’s Strange Worlds, Lev Gleason Publications & Atlas Comics until in 1955 when, with the industry imploding, he took a permanent position at DC, only slightly diluted whilst he illustrated the contentious and controversial newspaper strip Tales of the Green Berets from 1965 to 1968.

An elder statesman of the industry, he was creating new works and passing on knowledge and experience through his world-famous Joe Kubert School until his death in August 2012.

This terrific monochrome tome re-presents the blockbusting exploits of Von Hammer from Our Army at War #151, 153, 155, Showcase #57-58, Star Spangled War Stories #138 -145, 147-150, 152, 158, 181-183, 200, Men of War #1-3, 8-10, 12-14, 19-20, The Unknown Soldier #251-253, 260-261, 265-267 plus an intriguing tribute from Detective Comics#404: a period spanning February 1965 to August 1982. The canon encompasses a period during which superheroes were supplanted by horror stories before bouncing right back again, whereas the genre of combat chronicles soldiered on regardless and largely unbothered by vagaries of reader fashion.

To be brutally frank, the stories are variations on the same theme and, despite being illustrated by many of the greatest artists of two generations, might feel a little samey. If so, just stop every now and then to cogitate a little. This isn’t a book to blaze through; it’s one to savour in sensible portions…

It all kicked off in the back of Our Army at War #151 (cover-dated February 1965), introducing the ‘Enemy Ace’ in a short, sharp shocker set in 1918 wherein celebrated aerial warrior Rittmeister von Hammer was hospitalised after downing a succession of Allied aircraft. The reserved stoic hero was simultaneously admired by comrades and nurses whilst being shunned and feared by them: they all inevitably came to characterise Germany’s greatest hero as cold and a “human killing machine”…

Von Hammer took recuperative solace in hunting the wilds of the Schwartzwald, where he met a solitary black wolf who seemed to understand and share his lonely life of death and honour…

When his wounds were fully healed the dark knight returned to prowl once more “the Killer Skies”…

That 15-page yarn perfectly defined everything that could be said about the character, but the public could not get enough, so Von Hammer returned in #153 as ‘Flaming Bait!’ Dialled back to 1917 now (scripter Kanigher was never slavishly tied to tight or formal continuity), the cautionary tale featured the superstitious Rittmeister’s attempts to offset a wave of deaths which occurred each time a photographer took a pilot’s picture…

Our Army at War #155 (June 1965) featured ‘Fokker Fury!’, wherein the fanatically fair and scrupulous air ace accidentally shoots down an unarmed British fighter. After some excoriating self-castigation, Von Hammer reclaims his honour in a valiant display of mad bravado…

Mere months later, he starred in a brace of full-length thrillers for prestigious try-out vehicle Showcase. Issue #57 (July/August 1965) offered ‘Killer of the Skies!’: recapitulating all that had gone before whilst introducing a potential equal in the form of Canadian ace “The Hunter”.

A new wrinkle had also been added to the mix as Von Hammer now perpetually agonised and bemoaned his inability to save the human conveyor belt of naive, foolish replacement pilots to his Jagdstaffel from killing themselves through enthusiasm, bravado and youthful stupidity…

The following issue (#58, September/October) explored ‘The Hunters – and the Hunted!’, detailing how, after a blazing succession of kills, Von Hammer takes a recreational trip to his beloved Black Forest and renews acquaintance with his lupine companion. Here he has a brief encounter with a beautiful lady whose passion for the celebrity hero dies as she soon as apprehends his cold, seemingly emotionless executioner’s nature…

With all forms of human warmth clearly denied him, the Hammer of Hell reluctantly returns to the aerial killing fields…

Things went quiet after that as Enemy Ace clearly didn’t sell highly enough to garner its own continuing feature. Time passed and anti-war sentiment increasingly gripped the nation. In 1968 bimonthly war-mag Star Spangled War Stories – a title with a reputation for and history of offbeat material (Mlle. Marie, War that Time Forgot) – revived Von Hammer for a spectacular run of mesmerising tales which conclusively proved, time after time, that every War is Hell…

It began in #138 (April/May) with visually intoxicating epic ‘The Slayers and the Slain!’, debuting a French counterpart to the Teutonic Terror in the forbidding form of the masked and hooded, eerily anonymous Hangman.

This sombre sky-warrior flew a sinister coal-black Spad, throwing German pilots into a paralysing psychological funk, yet a conclusive duel with Von Hammer is postponed until the German recovers from yet another bout of wounds won in the Killer Skies…

With room to explore their timeless theme of a good man forced into wicked actions, SSWS #139 flashed back to the boyhood of the Air Ace in ‘Death Whispers… Death Screams!’ Here the austere life of a noble warrior is exposed; the manly pursuits of a Junker in training drummed into young Hans by his severe but loving father.

That grizzled old warrior, from a proud family of patriotic heroes, inculcates in the last of his line an overarching dedication to duty and honour above all other considerations: beliefs which carry him in his present endeavours though the shock of being humiliatingly shot down by the Hangman.

When they met again in the skies it is the Frenchman who crashes to earth, but he too survives to fly another day…

Also included here is a superb Kubert pictorial fact feature Battle Album: Fokker DR-1 and Spad S.13 to add to the already technically overwhelming ambiance…

In #140, the next clash of equals hideously reveals ‘The Face of the Hangman’, resulting in both men being marooned on the French side of the lines and becoming respectful intimates as Hammer heals in his rival’s chateau before the call of country and duty resulted in one final, fateful airborne showdown…

Inked by Frank Giacoia & Joe Giella, Star Spangled War Stories #141 takes a hard look at the men who fly beside Von Hammer. ‘The Bull’ is an ambitious new flier in the Jagdstaffel who endangers and even kills his own comrades in a pitiless quest for fame and glory. Before long, the Rittmeister has to take decisive and fatalistic action…

‘Vengeance is a Harpy!’ sees the impossible return of the Hangman, sowing death and terror amongst the German pilots, and forcing Von Hammer into a battle he does not want with a person he has come to admire, if not love…

In ‘The Devil’s General’ – after more time spent with the wolf in the woods – the brooding Rittmeister returns to duty, harrying ground troops and spectacularly eradicating opposition fliers. His composure is soon blighted by elderly General von Kleit, who forces his son Werner into the Squadron, expecting Von Hammer to keep the boy safe in the pitiless skies.

When the callow youth is shot down and captured, the Hammer of Hell moves Heaven and Earth to bring him back alive…

For #144, Kubert inked hot new penciller Neal Adams on ‘Death Takes No Holiday!’ as another macabre death-dealing French Ace – dressed as a skeleton – terrorises and slaughters the Jagdstaffel’s pilots, forcing the Enemy Ace into insane action to inspire his men and cure a young flier of fear-induced madness…

With Kubert back on solo art duties, SSWS #145 sees Von Hammer plagued by nightmares of his greatest opponent, as he attempts to school a trio of veteran pilots for the inevitable day when one would replace him. However, the actual ‘Return of the Hangman’ shatters those plans forever…

Another baroque opponent surfaces in #147 as an obsessive English lunatic believing himself St. George dons a suit of armour to shoot down far too many of the Rittmeister’s pilots. It’s all part of a scheme to give the infallible Hammer of Hell ‘A Grave in the Sky!’ However, this particular vendetta concludes on the ground with ancient swords drawn…

Kanigher was never above using wrenching melodrama and sheer sentimentality to his advantage. The moving saga in #148 describes how a little puppy becomes a mascot for solitary, isolated Von Hammer, but the cute little tyke’s inescapable horrific ending is just another hammer-blow of heartbreak in ‘Luck is a Puppy named Schatzi!’

Despite immense critical acclaim, the series dwindled in popularity. Star Spangled War Stories 149 (February/March 1970) saw the Viking Prince join the eclectic comic’s line up with Enemy Ace reduced to 15 pages. ‘Reach for the Heavens’ – inked by Sid Greene – finds Von Hammer again meeting hated flying school rival Heinrich Müller: a complex sadistic killer who redeems himself after committing war crimes in a tale tinged with supernatural overtones…

The run truly ended with #150 and ‘3 Graves to Home!’, as the Enemy Ace is shot down over rural France and must fight his way back to his own lines. He encounters a succession of civilians all putting a human face on the war he usually fought so far above them, but his time in the sun was almost over…

With Star Spangled War Stories #151(June/July 1970), a new feature took over the lead spot, running until the magazine changed its name with the 204th (February 1977) issue to reflect the newcomer’s popularity. As The Unknown Soldier, it continued for a further 64 episodes until it too died with #268 (October 1982).

Star Spangled War Stories #152, however, offered one more uncompromising mission from which only the Hammer of Hell returned. ‘Rain Above… Mud Below!’, illustrated by Russ Heath, was supplemented by another informative Kubert Battle Album starring the Lafayette Escadrille

Although gone, the iconic German warrior was far from forgotten. SSWS #158 featured a stunning Kubert ‘Special Pin-up: Enemy Ace – the Hammer of Hell’ whilst issue #181-183 held a compelling 3-part back-up serial by Kanigher & Frank Thorne which pitted the noble intellectual against maverick American Ace Steve Savage – “The Balloon Buster” in ‘Hell’s Angels Part One: The Hammer of Hell!’, ‘Hell’s Angels Part Two: The Maverick Ace!’ and the savage but inconclusive finale ‘Hell’s Angels Part Three: To End in Flames!’(June/July to November/December 1974)…

Von Hammer resurfaced in the anniversary Star Spangled War Stories #200 (June/July 1976). ‘Shooting Star’ was written and drawn by Kubert, as a German innovation in rocket-propelled aircraft catastrophically proves to be an invention whose time had not yet come…

A new anthology comic book debuted in August 1977. Men of War starred Gravedigger, a black American GI in WWII, but had alternating back-ups. Enemy Ace copped the first slot in issues #1-3 (by Kanigher, Ed Davis & Juan Ortiz) as ‘Death is a Wild Beast!’ saw Von Hammer down a devil-themed British pilot who accomplished a miraculous ‘Return from Hell!’ before exhibiting ‘The Three Faces of Death’ in the final instalment. As ever, the real meat of the macabre missions was the toll on the minds and bodies of the merely mortal fliers that died whilst Von Hammer lived on…

Another triptych featured in #8-10. ‘Silent Sky… Screaming Death!!’ – illustrated by Larry Hama & Bob Smith – began a trenchant tale of a family at war before Howard Chaykin took over the illustration with a duel in the sky resulting in an attack by vengeful siblings and the return of Von Hammer’s father in ‘Brother Killers!’, before ending in a fateful ‘Duel at Dawn!’

Men of War #12-14 offered more of the same as ‘Banner of Blood!’ saw the troubled Rittmeister strive to retrieve the Von Hammer family flag from a cunning French air ace who was an ancestral foe of ‘The Last Baron!’ The centuries-long vendetta with the Comtes de Burgundy finally ended in one last honourable ‘Duel!’

Issues #19-20 (August and September 1979) finished another run with one more tale of idiotic honour and wasted young lives as Von Hammer made ‘A Promise to the Dying’ and sought to return a contentious souvenir to its rightful owner in ‘Death Must Wait!’

In the May 1981 Unknown Soldier – #251 – Enemy Ace began an occasional series of adventures illustrated by the phenomenal John Severin.

First was ‘Hell in the Heavens Part One: I, the Executioner’ wherein Von Hammer’s whirlwind romance with Fraulein Ingrid Thiesse hit a bump after he told of the British boy pilot who died in his arms. Having sworn to find his valiant foe’s sister and return an heirloom, Hans soon found himself under attack in #252’s ‘Hell in the Heavens Part Two: The Midnight Spy’, before shocking answers were manifest in the concluding ‘Hell in the Heavens Part Three: Midnight and Murder’…

A far more imaginative yarn unfolded in #260 (February 1982) with ‘I Am My Own Executioner Part One: Stolen Face – Stolen Ace!’ when the German High Command brings in a doppelganger to replace national hero Von Hammer as he recovers from wounds. Sadly, the impostor was not only a sadistic butcher but crazy as a loon and the real deal had to defy his doctors and military superiors before shooting the maniac out of the skies – for the sake of the country and his own besmirched good name – in #261’s ‘I Am My Own Executioner Part Two: Death of a Double!’

The last flight of the war-weary warrior came in Unknown Soldier #265-267 (July through September 1982) as the British Government puts a huge price on Von Hammer’s head in ‘A Very Private Hell Part One: The Bounty Hunters!’

The resultant furore leads to a return engagement for Yankee white trash Steve Savage in ‘A Very Private Hell Part Two: The Substitute Ace’ and the death of a brave but foolhardy fake ace before the drama ends – again inconclusively – in ‘A Very Private Hell Part Three: Debt of Blood’

Although the grim conflicts of the chivalrous cavalry of the clouds conclude here, this epic tome holds one last treat in reserve: an outré but definitively classy tribute to the Hammer of Hell which originally appeared Detective Comics #404 (October 1970). Crafted by Denny O’Neil, Neal Adams & Dick Giordano, ‘Ghost of the Killer Skies!’ sees Batman attempting to solve a series of impossible murders on the set of a film about the German WWI fighter ace.

All evidence seems to prove that the killer can only be a vengeful phantom, but in the killer skies over Central Spain the Dark Detective uncovers almost incontrovertible evidence of a malign human intelligence behind the deaths.

…Almost incontrovertible…

These often bizarre, always moving and utterly unforgettable stories celebrate a true high point in the annals of combat comics: crafted by masters of the art form who never failed to ram home the point that war is not a profession for anybody who enjoys it, and that only the lucky, the mad and the already-doomed have any chance of getting out at all…
© 1965, 1968, 1969, 1970, 1971, 1974, 1976, 1977, 1978, 1979, 1981, 1982, 2008 DC Comics All Rights Reserved.

Cinebook Recounts the Battle of Britain


By Bernard Asso, illustrated by Francis Bergése with colours by Frédéric Bergése: translated by Luke Spear(Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-84918-025-2 (Album PB)

Originally titled Le Bataille d’Angleterre and first seen here as Biggles and The Battle Of Britain, the material in this album sprang out of the continent’s decades-long love affair with the plucky British aviator.

Biggles is huge all over Europe, particularly in Holland, Germany, Belgium and France, which makes it doubly galling that apart from a big run of translations in India, only a short-lived Swedish interpretation of his comicbook exploits (see W.E. Johns’ Biggles and the Golden Bird) and a paltry few from the Franco-Belgian iteration licensed by British outfit Red Fox in the mid-1990s – which included this very volume – have ever made the move back to Blighty…

Hopefully some enterprising publisher will be willing to brave the Intellectual Property rights minefield involved and bring us all more of his superb graphic adventures one day…

Happily, as this tome is more of a documentary than a drama and the Air Ace doesn’t feature, publisher Cinebook have twice released this fine and visually erudite mini epic by historian Bernard Asso and the utterly compelling Francis Bergése.

Like so many artists involved in aviation stories, 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. At age 23 he began selling strips to L’Étoile and JT Jeunes (1963-1966) after which he produced his first air 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 others.

Bergése worked as a jobbing artist on comedies, pastiches and WWII strips until 1983 when he was offered the plum job of illustrating venerable, globally syndicated Buck Danny. In the 1990s the seemingly indefatigable Bergése split his time, producing Danny dramas and Biggles books. He retired in 2008.

In this double-barrelled dossier delight from 1983, his splendidly understated, matter-of-fact strip illustration is used to cleverly synthesise the events following the defeat at Dunkirk to the Battle of Britain (1940) and the eventual turnaround in May 1941. Combining and counterpointing the works of famous figures like Churchill, Hitler, Douglas Bader and Goering with key tactical players such as Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding, Grand Admiral Erich Raeder, Galland and Mölders and relating actual tales of individual valour in the skies, the fact-packed narrative tracks the actions and experiences of specious winged warriors Leutnant Otto Werner and True Brit Flight Lieutenant James Colby as they struggle to survive in the skies over England.

The saga deals with the early days of terrifying air duels, later Blitz bombings, Albion’s logistical trials and eventual triumphs with factual expertise, but also affords a human face on each side of the conflict…

The latter half of the book then switches time and focus as Asso & Bergése detail The Bombing of Germany (1943-1945)paying especial attention to Air Chief Marshal Harris’ controversial tactic of “Terror Bombing” and its effects on allies and enemies – and innocents.

Here Colby has transferred to Britain’s Bomber Command, trading Hurricanes and Spitfire for Lancasters, Halifaxes and B-17 Flying Fortresses. Major Werner is there too, as the Allies’ campaign slowly destroys the Nazi War Machine and the embattled Ace graduates from prop-powered Fockers and Messerschmitts to the first jet-planes – but too late…

Cunningly converting dry dusty history into stellar entertainment, Asso & Bergése brilliantly transform statistical accounts and solid detail into powerful evocative terms on a human scale that most children will easily understand, whilst never forgetting the war had two sides, but no “us” or “them”…

Whilst perhaps not as diligent or accurate as a school text, Cinebook Recounts: Battle of Britain (part of a graphic history strand that also includes The Falklands War and The Wright Brothers making distant events come alive) offers a captivating and memorable introduction to the events that no parent or teacher can afford to miss, and no kid can fail to enjoy.
© Editions du Lombard (Dargaud- Lombard SA), 2003 by Marazano & Ponzio. English translation © 2007 Cinebook Ltd.

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 (TPB)

American comicbooks just idled along rather slowly until the invention of Superman provided a flamboyant new genre for 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, Crime and imminent Atomic Armageddon-fuelled Science Fiction, comics created new genres. 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 usually 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 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 Our Army at War (both cover-dated August 1952). They repurposed 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 incorporating 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). 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 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 meets the personification of Death (the title’s long-term narrator in various blood-stained uniforms) who tells him a few stories…

The reaper begins with ‘Fort Which Did Not Return!’ by Kanigher & Russ Heath, as originally seen in GI Combat #86, detailing how a bomber continues its mission even after the crew bail out, following up with all-new ‘The Story behind the Cover’ wherein Kubert reveals 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 is sunk by one of his own earlier victims, whilst SSWS #116 (August/September 1964) originally debuted 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…’ sees a crashed Stuka pilot meeting a ghastly stranger at a battle-torn desert oasis before ‘Reef of No Return’ (Haney & Mort Drucker from Our Fighting Forces #43, March 1959) details a determined frogman’s most dangerous mission before Kanigher & Frank Thorne’s new WWI silent saga ‘The Moon is the Murderer’ proves that overwhelming firepower isn’t everything…

Kubert’s ‘Behind the Cover’ features 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 after which the superb ‘Monsieur Gravedigger’ – by Jerry DeFuccio & the legendary Reed Crandall – follows the follies of a sadistic Foreign Legionnaire who pushes 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) before ‘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 roster 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) courtesy of 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 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) and 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 & 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’ while 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 & Frank Thorne expanded the theme in ‘Pawns’ as humans and mechanoids finally decide who works for whom whilst ‘Goliath of the Western Front!’ (Herron, Andru & Esposito from SSWS #93 (October/November 1960) features a giant mechanical Nazi and an American David who finally does for him, before Haney & Toth settle all debate with the conclusive ‘Robot Fightin’ Men’

Wolfman & Kubert combined to provide thematic bookends for issue #7, beginning with ‘Out of Action’ and 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 is forced to trust someone else for the first time in his life if he wants to land his burning jet. 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 welcome 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 DeZuñiga) before moving on to ‘The Avenging Grave’ by Kanigher & DeZuniga with SS officers learning too late the folly of desecrating the dead of WWI. Anonymously scripted ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill!’– with art by Steve Harper & Neal Adams – then sees more gloating Nazis facing a vengeful golem…

Kanigher & DeZuñiga 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 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 why invading Nazis shouldn’t abuse the town idiot, incurring the wrath of ‘Cyrano’s Army’

Always experimental, the creative team of Mayer, DeZuñiga, 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…

DeZuñiga 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) sees Anubis similarly deal with one of Rommel’s least reputable and most sadistic deputies. Arnold Drake & Don Perlin then 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 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. ‘Loser’s Luck’ – by Michael J. Pellowski, George Kashdan & DeZuñiga – details the harsh choices facing the unfortunate winners of the next, last war…

Mayer, DeZuñiga & Alcala reunite 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 meetingThe 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) before 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 reveal how a murdered soldier is avenged by ‘A Gun Named Marie!

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

Drake & Talaoc start #19 with the full-length story of the agent who infiltrates the Nazi terror weapon known as ‘The Platoon That Wouldn’t Die!’, whilst #20 reverts 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!’ and 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. Mayer & Bernard Baily then detail just how a foul-up GI becomes 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.

The Light and Darkness War


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

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.

These days, that font of independence and creativity is threatened by the major publishers’ timidity in the face of COVID19 and just the general costs of doing business. The medium you love is under threat again. If you can support your local comic shop – even through online sales – please do so. If that’s too late, then just buy more stuff in digital form. At least then smaller publishers can keep going and we won’t lose comics as a form altogether…

Now, back to your irregularly scheduled reading recommendation…

One of the most evocative Epic 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 Scottish national treasure 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 or eBook retrospective compilation from Titan Comics can 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 …

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 has 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 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 embellishing 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 plus 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.

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 (TPB)

Whereas the Britain comics scene has never relinquished its fascination with war stories, 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 combat comics was DC.

In fact, even whilst Archie Goodwin’s stunning but tragically mis-marketed quartet of classics were waking up a small section of the current generation, the home of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman was a veritable cornucopia of gritty, intriguing and beautifully illustrated battle tales exploring combat on a variety of fronts and from many differing points of view.

Whilst the Vietnam War escalated, 1960s America increasingly endured a Home Front 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 compelling 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 paperback compendium (still criminally unavailable in digital formats, as are far too many non- superhero, horror or sci fi tales) collects the lead feature from issues #189-204 of the truly venerable Star-Spangled War Stories anthology mag (July 1975-March 1977) 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 yarn from Our Army at War #168 (June 1966, by Robert Kanigher & Joe Kubert).

By 1970, the top flight illustrator had become group 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 new 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…

As previously stated, the strip grew to be one of DC’s most popular and long-lived. With issue #205 in 1977, Star-Spangled became Unknown Soldier and the comic only folded in 1982 (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 2008, and again in 2011 as part of the company’s “New 52” mega reboot): each iteration moving further and further way from the originating concept.

One intriguing factor of the initial 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 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 enlisted 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. 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 before offering 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…

Here the military/macabre mood resumes 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 guinea pigs for making monsters and experimental atrocity weapons. 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 capacious modern hellscape…

Issue #191 offered ‘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 investigate ‘The Survival Syndrome’ wherein 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, the Soldier 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 is 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 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’: infiltrating a gang of German-American anti-war isolationists in search of saboteurs and spies.

He’s in Italy for #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 infiltration of a Nazi hospital seems to indicate that neither side has found ‘The Cure’

Issue #203 sees 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 his unstable pupil from 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 gloriously variegated 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 against 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. His Black Knight is Count Klaus von Stauffen: the chess-obsessed SS officer who captured and brainwashed Chat Noir. The fascist fanatic 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 by impersonating a specialist interrogator. He has been ordered 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 wherein 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 reunite in #215 as the faceless fury replaces 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 Dwight D. Eisenhower.

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

Issue #220 by Haney, Ayers &Talaoc sees 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 is ordered to rescue a military boffin from the heart of Fortress Europa (in a wry and trenchant riff on 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 reunite in #224 to investigate a dead zone where Allied bombers 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.