Day of Wrath

By Wayne Vansant (Caliber)
ISBN: 978-0-98363-077-7

Comics creators have a strong history of treating war stories right, and none more so that those who’ve actually served in combat. Wayne Vansant was born in Atlanta, Georgia on July 13th 1949, making him an ideal age to fight in the Vietnam War. After leaving the US Navy he attended Atlanta College of Art, graduating in 1975.

He followed Michael Golden as illustrator on Marvel’s landmark 8-year miniseries The ‘Nam (notching up over 50 issues), and – with a few notable exceptions – has spent his career writing and drawing war comics and historical books about combat for companies as varied as Eclipse, Byron Preiss, Caliber, Dark Horse and Penguin. His canon includes New Two-Fisted Tales, Real War Stories, Shiloh, The Vietnam War: A Graphic History, Semper Fi (Tales of the Marine Corps) and Witches’ Caldron, as well as Foreign Legion epic Battron and Knights of the Skull.

His Heritage Collection: Civil War and World War II are superb and incisive commemorations of those conflicts and he’s also adapted Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage.

In the early 1990s he worked with Apple Comics, on a black and white miniseries detailing the early days of America’s Pacific war, immediately following Japan’s shameful attack on Pearl Harbor on the morning of Sunday December 7th 1941. It was collected as a trade paperback by Caliber in 2012 (still readily available) and is also out there in a number of eBook formats.

Seen through the eyes of a multi-generational and far-flung Texas family, the saga follows events and concerns affecting the Cahill clan and, by extension, every American from that horrific sneak attack to the critical turning point when they finally started winning battles against a seemingly inhuman and apparently unbeatable foe.

With a tremendous amount of detail easily delivered by a range of characters of every stripe and persuasion, the tale begins with a birthday party in Texas and an appalling war crime in Hawaii on the ‘Day of Infamy’, rapidly fleshed out by the immediate aftermath in ‘At Dawn We Slept, At Dusk We Wept’. Here the view is widened to encompass the multiple and simultaneous unannounced assaults on military and civilians in the Philippines…

The onslaught expands in ‘After Pearl Harbor – Japanese Juggernaut’ as British, French and Dutch colonies from Malaysia to Bangkok, Luzon to Burma, Borneo to Wake Island to Hong Kong fall to the Empire and Allied shipping and planes prove helpless against Japanese ordnance and tactics.

When General Douglas MacArthur abandons his responsibilities – and the population of Manilla – he leaves a token American force and many Philippine troops to a ‘Last Stand on Bataan!’ packed with revolting and amazing vignettes of personal courage before the all-conquering Nippon forces compel the survivors to endure the infamous atrocity of the ‘Bataan Death March!’

The unfolding saga and the trials of Assorted Cahills eventually bring us to May 30th 1942 and the narrow victory that changed everything as Admiral Chester Nimitz and the US Pacific Fleet and Japanese forces all converge on a fortified and still fighting island to see fate and destiny play out in final chapter ‘The Battle of Midway!’

Of course, what we regard as victory and turning point is still open to wide interpretation…

Supplementing the pictorial drama are numerous prose-&-pic extra features, including ‘Learning the Legacy of World War II’, ‘A date which will live in infamy…’ – the text of President Roosevelt’s request to Congress for a Declaration of War – plus ‘It will not only be a long war, it will be a hard war’ and ‘We are going to win the war, and… the peace that follows’ (his radio “Fireside Chat” to the nation on December 9th).

Adding context is The Cahill Family Tree, a map and history of ‘The Philippines’ plus ‘Angels of Mercy’ – a feature on the American nurses who attended the defenders and what happened to them.

Not only solidly authentic but overwhelming in its sense of veracity and initial hopelessness, this dramatized history lesson is potent and powerful, easily blending military data with human interest and interactions, giving a time of true terror and dry statistics a shockingly human face. Despite never pulling any punches, Days of Darkness is not gratuitous in its treatment of the characters, white, black or Asian, male or female, and remains one of the most accessible treatments of the events in any medium. If you crave knowledge and understanding or just love great comics, this is a book you must see.
© 1992 Wayne Vansant. All Rights Reserved.

Combat Zone: True Tales of GIs in Iraq

By Karl Zinsmeister, Dan Jurgens & Sandu Florea (Marvel Comics)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-1516-8

It’s always good to see a publisher venture outside its self-constructed ghetto of Proprietary Characters, rather than endlessly re-hash the names it’s already trademarked, and doubly so when it is to venture into genres that it has previously abandoned.

Sadly, in some cases the question then becomes one of seeking new markets as opposed to simply looking for fresh dramatic resources to exploit. Comics have a long and chequered history when it comes to militarism, ideological witch-hunting and band-wagon hopping. Despite that being said, there aren’t enough carefully-considered war comics around these days and this 2005 offering was then and remains now one of the few the genre had to offer.

Combat Zone features “real-life accounts” of US combatants in the 2003-2004 Iraq War, although “some incidents have been combined to make for a more condensed read”, and of course names have been changed to protect, etc. etc. …

Writer Zinsmeister was an embedded reporter during the conflict so I’m sure the events are as true as he saw them, but the overall feeling after first reading the book is one of curious detachment.

Maybe the modern military life does consist of immense boredom, talking to buddies and telling everyone how cool your ordnance is, interlaced with the occasional skirmish, but if such is the case it shouldn’t be in a drama-oriented comic-book.

It’s hard not to compare this series with the excellent Real War Stories produced in the late 1980s by Eclipse or even such personal visions as Sam Glanzman’s A Sailor’s Story and Don Lomax’s gruelling, compelling and, informative Viet Nam Journal, perhaps because all of those take the part, and the authorial voice, of the ordinary man not the war’s sponsors. Moreover, there was an implicit understanding that, though necessary, the job at hand was neither easy nor fun.

Even Robert Kanigher’s declamatory Sgt. Rock tales boast metafictional verisimilitude but that’s not what’s on offer here.

In Combat Zone when a character dies, the response is so anodyne that we know nobody really cares. There is more than the hint of the Press Release about it. Often it feels like the entire comic has passed through the same Pentagon ‘fact-checker’ that news reports do. A far cry, then, from Real War Stories #1, which the US government attempted to suppress. Alternatively, maybe that’s the way Uncle Sam manages conflicts these days…

On a narrative level, the problem here is one of heroic stature. When two desperate guys with nothing more than an old pick-up truck and a machine gun, give their lives in a dramatic, doomed attempt to stop an onslaught of high-tech juggernauts from crushing their homeland, those ought to be the heroes, not the “bad guys”!

There’s also a bit too much platitudinous speechifying in character’s mouths: presumably here to show the reader how justified the war might be, and no mention of the disastrous early days of allied blunders or numerous friendly fire incidents.

“Those didn’t happen where I might see them” is not an excuse in a documentary which has been subjectively edited “to make for a more condensed read”. You don’t get to pick and choose between Dramatic Authenticity and Journalistic Veracity at will, and not expect a few hits for it.

Illustrated by comic super-star Dan Jurgens – downplaying his usual bombastic Fights ‘n’ Tights styling – this collection didn’t sit well with me at first. My initial response was disappointment, but a careful rereading and 13 years of further constantly evolving conflict made me rethink. Maybe this really was telling it like it is. Maybe war has moved beyond comics fare and this is what feels like to serve today?

I can’t decide. What about you?
© 2005 Marvel Characters Inc. All rights reserved.

The Best of Battle

By Pat Mills, John Wagner, Tom Tully, Steve McManus, Eric & Alan Hebden, Mark Andrew, Gerry Finley-Day, Mike Western, Joe Colquhoun, Eric Bradbury, Carlos Ezquerra, Geoff Campion, Cam Kennedy, Colin Page, Pat Wright, Giralt, Jim Watson, Mike Dorey, John Cooper & various (Titan Books)
ISBN: 978-1-84856-025-3 (PB)

For most of the medium’s history, British comics have been renowned for the ability to tell a big story in satisfying little instalments and this, coupled with superior creators and the anthological nature of our publications, has ensured hundreds of memorable characters and series have seared themselves into the little boy’s psyche inside most British adult males.

One of the last great weekly anthology comics was the all-combat Battle, which started service as Battle Picture Weekly – launched on 8th March 1975.

Through absorption, merger and re-branding (becoming in swift succession Battle Picture Weekly & Valiant, Battle Action, Battle, Battle Action Force and Battle Storm Force) it was eventually subsumed into the revived, faltering but too-prestigious-to-fail Eagle on January 23rd 1988. For 673 blood-soaked, testosterone-drenched issues, it had fought its way into the bloodthirsty hearts of a generation, consequently producing some of the best and most influential war stories ever told.

This action-packed compendium features the opening salvos of some of the very best from those 13-odd years produced by a winning blend of Young Turk writers – Pat Mills, John Wagner, Steve McManus, Mark Andrew and Gerry Finley-Day – and stalwarts of the old guard – Tom Tully, Eric and Alan Hebden. The art comes from Colin Page, Pat Wright, Giralt, Carlos Ezquerra, Geoff Campion, Jim Watson, Mike Western, Joe Colquhoun, Eric Bradbury, Mike Dorey, John Cooper and Cam Kennedy.

The strips featured are D-Day Dawson (a sergeant with only a year to live and nothing to lose) by Gerry Finley-Day, Ron Carpenter & Colin Page, spy serial Day of the Eagle (by ex-SOE agent Eric Hebden and artist Pat Wright), The Bootneck Boy (a little lad who lives his dream by becoming a Marine), by Finley-Day, Ian McDonald & Giralt, and the legendary Dirty Dozen-inspired Rat Pack, by Finley-Day and featuring some of the much-missed Carlos Ezquerra’s earliest UK artwork.

Ezquerra also shone on Alan Hebden’s anti-establishment masterpiece Major Eazy, whilst Fighter from the Sky is the first of the comic’s groundbreaking serials telling World War II stories from a German viewpoint. Written by Finley-Day and drawn by the superb Geoff Campion, it tells of a disgraced paratrooper fighting for his country, even if they hated him for it…

Hold Hill 109 by Steve McManus & Jim Watson was a bold experiment: basically a limited series as a group of Eighth Army soldiers have to hold back the Afrika Korps for seven days, with each day comprising one weekly episode. Unbelievably, only the first three days are collected here, though, as apparently there wasn’t room for the complete saga!

Darkie’s Mob (John Wagner & Mike Western) is another phenomenally well-regarded classic wherein a mysterious British (?) maniac takes over a lost and demoralised squad of soldiers in the Burma jungles, intent on using them to punish the Japanese in ways no man could imagine.

Then Finley-Day & Campion’s Panzer G-Man tells of a German tank commander demoted and forced to endure all the dirty jobs foisted on the infantry that follow behind the steel monsters, before Johnny Red – by Tom Tully and the great Joe Colquhoun – follows a discharged RAF pilot who joins the Russian air force to fight in the bloody skies over the Soviet Union.

Joe Two Beans by Wagner & Eric Bradbury traces an inscrutable Blackfoot Indian through the Hellish US Pacific campaign, The Sarge (Finley-Day& Mike Western) reveals the trials of a WWI veteran as he leads Dunkirk stragglers back to England and then on to North Africa, and Hellman of Hammer Force (Finley-Day, Western, Mike Dorey & Jim Watson) follows a charismatic and decent German tank commander as he fights Germany’s enemies and the SS who want him dead.

Alan Hebden and Eric Bradbury’s Crazy Keller is an US Army maverick who steals, cheats and breaks all the rules. He was also the most effective Nazi-killer in the invasion of Italy, whilst The General Dies at Dawn sees Finley-Day and John Cooper repeat the miniseries experiment of Hold Hill 109 (this time in 11 instalments, each representing one hour – pre-dating Jack Bauer by two decades) as Nazi General and war hero Otto von Margen tells his jailor how he came to be sentenced to the firing squad by his own comrades even as Berlin falls to the allied forces.

I don’t really approve of Charley’s War being in this book. Despite it being the very best war story ever written or drawn, uncompromising and powerfully haunting, as well as Pat Mills & Joe Colquhoun’s best-ever work, it’s already available in beautiful hardback collector volumes and economical paperback editions so the 15 pages here could have been better used to complete Hold Hill 109 or even reprint some of the wonderful complete-in-one-part war tales the comic often carried.

Enough barracking: Fighting Mann, by Alan Hebden & Cam Kennedy, was the first British strip set in Viet Nam, and follows the hunt of retired US Marine Walter Mann who goes “in-country” in 1967 to track down his son, a navy pilot listed as a deserter. This terrific tome (still unavailable in any digital format, as far as I can tell) then concludes with Death Squad!: A kind of German Rat Pack full of Wehrmacht criminals sent as a punishment squad to die for the Fatherland in the icy hell of the Eastern Front. Written by Mark Andrew and illustrated by the incomparable Eric Bradbury, this is one of the grittiest and most darkly comedic of Battle’s martial pantheon.

This spectacular blend of action, tension and drama, with a heaping helping of sardonic grim wit from both sides of World War II – and beyond – offers a unique take on the profession of soldier, and hasn’t paled in the intervening years. These black-&-white gems are as powerful and engrossing now as they’ve ever been.

Fair warning though: Many of the tales here do not conclude. For that you’ll have to campaign for a second volume…
© 2009 Egmont UK Ltd. All rights reserved.

My War

By Szegedi Szüts (Dover)
ISBN: 978-0-486-79925-4 (PB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Profound and Compelling Commemoration… 9/10

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

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

Comics have brought the past to life since they began but they were never the only means of pictorial narrative and emotional communication.

Here is another superb and welcome re-release from Dover Comics & Graphic Novels – available in paperback and digital formats – reviving a lost masterpiece of the art form, first published in in 1932 by William Morrow & Company, New York.

The 206 stark and stunning images rendered by István Szegedi Szüts were his way of processing his participation in the Great War, but they were a narrative designed as a gallery show: telling a personal story much in the manor of a Catholic church’s Stations of the Cross.

The show debuted at London’s Gieves Gallery in 1929, and was only collected into book form in 1931, after being seen by a perspicacious publisher. These compelling sequences were perfect material for the brief Depression-era flowering of silent art narratives known as woodcut novels or linocut books.

Other memorable proto-graphic novels of that era include Frans Masereel’s 25 Images of a Man’s Passion, Lynd Ward’s God’s Man and White Collar by Giacomo Patri.

Szegedi Szüts was born in Budapest on December 7th 1893, a Hungarian painter and illustrator who naturally served when his country went to war in 1914. His experiences are rendered here into potent examination of patriotism and folly that are more akin to visual poetry than anything else: sparse, spartan, debilitatingly expressionistic and summed up by a precision-point epigram/title for each single image page.

The seven chapters reel from evocative triggers such as ‘The Little Hussar wakes up’, ‘Expectance’, ‘Approaching storm’, ‘Hide your face, mother!’ and ‘…who command us to kill?’ and the end result is a wave of shocking revelation and inescapable regret…

After the London show, Szegedi Szüts moved to Caunce Head, Cornwall, married artist Gwynedd Jones Parry and lived as part of the creative colony there until his death in 1959.

This splendid and moving monochrome reconstruction includes ‘Our War: a Foreword by Peter Kuper’ (Third World War, Spy vs Spy), the original Introduction by R.H. Mottram and clipped reviews of ‘Szegedi Szüts as an artist’ from The Times, The Daily Mail and PG Konody in The Observer

It’s not often we comics folk can 100% guarantee that we’ve produced capital A Art and it’s really not that relevant. What you should take away here is that My War is a timeless, resonant testimony to the War to End All Wars from someone who was there, came back and said something about his experiences that all successive generations should take heed of.
Foreword © 2015, Peter Kuper. All rights reserved.

Black Max volume 1

By Frank S. Pepper, Ken Mennell, Eric Bradbury, Alfonso Font & various (Rebellion Studios)
ISBN: 978-1-78108-655-1

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Astounding Air Ace Action… 9/10

It’s time for another sortie down memory lane for us oldsters and, hopefully a new, untrodden path for fans of the fantastic in search of a typically quirky British comics experience.

This stunning paperback (and eBook) package is another stunning nostalgia-punch from Rebellion’s superb and ever-expanding Treasury of British Comics, collecting all episodes of seminal shocker Black Max.

The strip debuted in the first issue of Thunder and ran the distance – spanning October 17th 1970 – 13th March 1971. It then survived cancelation and merger, continuing in Lion & Thunder until that magazine finally died.

This book carries those stories, beginning with March 20th up to May 8th 1971 and the period perils are rounded out with a brace of longer yarns taken from Lion & Thunder Holiday Special 1971 and Thunder Annual 1972. These eerie enthralments are preceded by a warmly reminiscent Introduction from Font that adds a very human dimension to the freaky flying thrills.

The series is typical of the manner in which weekly periodicals functioned back then: devised by screenwriter, veteran Editor and ubiquitous scripter Ken Mennell (Cursitor Doom, Steel Claw, The Spider and so many more) with the first episode limned by the company’s star turn for mood and mystery Eric Bradbury (Invasion, The Black Crow, Cursitor Doom, Hookjaw, House of Dolman and dozens more). Then the whole kit and kaboodle was handed off to another team to sink or swim with, which they did until 1974: a most respectable run for a British comic

The attrition rate of British comic strips bore remarkable similarities to casualty figures…

This particular serial was well-starred: the developing writer was the legendary Frank S. Pepper. He’d begun his professional comics career in 1926 and by 1970 had clocked up a few major successes such as Dan Dare, Rockfist Rogan, Captain Condor, Jet-Ace Logan and Roy of the Rovers to name but a very, very few.

Even the series illustrator Alfonso Font – a relative newcomer – was a ten-year veteran, albeit mostly for European publications. Based in Spain, he worked not just for Odhams/Fleetway but on strips for US outfits Warren and Skywald and on continental classics such as Historias Negras (Dark Stories), Jon Rohner, Carmen Bond, Bri D’Alban, Tex Willer, Dylan Dog and more…

Because of the episodic nature of the material, generally delivered in sharp, spartan 3-page bursts, I’m foregoing my usual self-indulgent and laborious waffle and leaving you with a précis of the theme… and what a cracker it is…

In 1917 the Great War is slowly being lost by Germany and her allies and in the Bavarian schloss of Baron Maximilien von Klorr, the grotesque but brilliant scientist and fighter ace has devised a horrific way to tip the scales back in favour of his homeland…

His ancient family have long had an affinity with bats and the mad man has bred a giant version that will fly beside him to terrify and slaughter the hated English…

The only problem is that his beloved monsters are vulnerable to gunfire so he must keep that as a most secret weapon…

That scheme is imperilled on a weekly basis by thoroughly decent young Brit Tim Wilson. A former performer in a peacetime flying circus, the doughty lad is possibly the best acrobatic flyer on the Western Front and narrowly escapes his encounter with the colossal chiropteran…

Of course, he cannot convince his superiors of the fearsome bio-weapon’s existence, but the Baron knows he’s out there and devotes an astonishing amount of time and effort to killing the lad – when not butchering Allied fliers and ground troops in vast numbers.

As the cat-&-mouse game escalates, both men suffer losses and achieve victories but the odds seem to shift after von Klorr finally manages to mass-produce his monsters, supplemented by ever more incredible inventions like his flying castle…

Most strikingly, some of Tim’s most fervent support comes from the ordinary German soldiers enslaved to the Baron’s vile program…

As previously stated, this initial collection also includes two longer, complete stories from seasonal specials. The first comes from Lion & Thunder Holiday Special 1971: an extra-sized summer treat which revealed how crashed English aviator Captain Johnny Craig experienced a night of extreme terror in the bio-horror filled home of Black Max, whilst Thunder Annual 1972 revealed how Captain Rick Newland of the Royal Flying Corps sought bloody revenge for the brutal bat-winged butchery of his comrades…

These strip shockers are amongst the most memorable and enjoyable exploits in British comics: smart, scary and beautifully rendered. This a superb example of war horror that deserves to be revived and revered.
© 1970, 1971, 1972, 1973 & 2018 Rebellion Publishing Ltd. Black Max and all related characters, their distinctive likenesses and related elements are ™ Rebellion Publishing Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

The Other Side

By Jason Aaron, Cameron Stewart with Dave McCaig & various (Image: Vertigo)
ISBN: 978-1-53430-222-8 (Image HB)                     978-1-4012-1350-3 (Vertigo PB)

The Viet Nam conflict scarred the American psyche the way no other war has – not even the still somehow-technically-ongoing debacle in Iran, Afghanistan and all points pointless.

Depending on your politics you will either agree or disagree with that statement. These days there are no shady areas or topics of nuance to debate.

What is indisputable is the effect Viet Nam still has on the American consumer. So, it was intriguing to see an attempt to portray that earlier conflict less in term of “Us and Them” and more as “You and Me”.

This superb and deeply memorable tale contrasts the journey from happy home to bloody combat of surly average teen Billy Everette, his counterpart, farmer’s son Vo Binh Dai, and their predestined clash at the Battle of Khe Sanh.

Drafted from his Alabama home, Everette is a reluctant screw-up turned into an average Marine by the sheer hell of Boot Camp, where even the terrifying and very real hallucinations and delusions he suffers from can’t keep him from that dreaded Tour of Duty.

In contrast, patriotic, dutiful Vo Dai enlists in the People’s Army of Vietnam and endures starvation and disease on his long march south, determined to sell his life dearly to free his country from oppression. He too is plagued both by doubts of his worth, and terrifying hallucinations…

This simple tale, powerfully told and subversively drawn, is a sensitive, darkly magical, horrific parable about war, politics and insanity, if indeed they aren’t all the same thing in the end.

The paperback book also contains sketches and artist Cameron Stewart’s photo diary of his research trip to modern Viet Nam – a compelling bonus greatly amplified in the 2017 deluxe hardcover edition from Image comics as well as the various digital editions – and hopefully those gentle counterpoints to history’s blunders from a later if no less wise era can offer a shred of hope to soldiers and families currently reliving the traumas of another age.
© 2007 Jason Aaron & Cameron Stewart. All Rights Reserved.

Showcase Presents The War that Time Forgot

By Robert Kanigher, Ross Andru & Mike Esposito, Russ Heath, Gene Colan, Joe Kubert & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-1253-7

The War That Time Forgot debuted in Star Spangled War Stories #90 and ran until #137 (May 1968) skipping only three issues: #91, 93 and #126 (the last of which starred the United States Marine Corps simian Sergeant Gorilla – look it up: I’m neither kidding nor being metaphorical…).

At present this stunningly bizarre black-&-white compendium is the only comprehensive collection: gathering together all the monstrously madcap material from SSWS #90, 92, 94-125 and 127-128 spanning April-May 1960 to August 1966.

Simply too good a concept to leave alone, this seamless, shameless blend of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Lost World and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Caprona stories (known alternatively as the Caspak Trilogy or “The Land That Time Forgot”) provided everything baby-boomer boys – and probably girls too, if truth be told – could dream of: giant lizards, humongous insects, fantastic adventures and two-fisted heroes with lots of guns…

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, Horror stories, Romance, superhero titles such as Wonder Woman, Lois Lane, Teen Titans, Hawkman, Metal Men, Batman and other genres too numerous to cover here.

He scripted ‘Mystery of the Human Thunderbolt’ – the first story of the Silver Age which introduced Barry Allen AKA the Flash to the hero-hungry kids of the World in 1956.

Kanigher 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 scripted the Golden Age iterations of Flash and Hawkman, created Black Canary, Dr. Pat and Lady Cop, plus memorable villainesses Harlequin and Rose and Thorn. This last he reconstructed, during the relevancy era of the early 1970s, into a schizophrenic crime-busting super-heroine.

When mystery-men faded out at the end of the 1940s, Kanigher moved into westerns and war stories, becoming in 1952 writer/editor of the company’s combat titles: All-American War Stories, Star Spangled War Stories and Our Amy at War.

He launched Our Fighting Forces in 1954 and added G.I. Combat to his burgeoning portfolio when Quality Comics sold their line of titles to DC in 1956, all the while working on Wonder Woman, Johnny Thunder, Rex the Wonder Dog, Silent Knight, Sea Devils, Viking Prince and a host of others.

Among his many epochal war series were Sgt. Rock, Enemy Ace, the Haunted Tank and The Losers as well as the visually addictive, irresistibly astonishing “Dogfaces and Dinosaurs” dramas depicted here.

Kanigher was a restlessly creative writer and I suspect that he used this uncanny but formulaic adventure arena as a personal try-out venue for his many series concepts. The Flying Boots, G.I. Robot, Suicide Squad and many other teams and characters first appeared in this lush Pacific hellhole with wall-to-wall danger. Indisputably the big beasts were the stars, but occasionally ordinary G.I. Joes made enough of an impression to secure return engagements, too…

The wonderment commenced in Star Spangled War Stories #90 as paratroopers and tanks of “Question Mark Patrol” are dropped on Mystery Island from whence no American soldiers have ever returned. The crack warriors discover why when the operation is plagued by Pterosaurs, Tyrannosaurs and worse on the ‘Island of Armoured Giants!’, all superbly rendered by veteran art team Ross Andru & Mike Esposito.

Larry and Charlie, the sole survivors of that first foray, returned to the lost world in #92’s ‘Last Battle of the Dinosaur Age!’ when aquatic beasts attacked their rescue submarine forcing them back to the lethal landmass…

‘The Frogman and the Dinosaur!’ take up most of SSWS #94 as a squad of second-rate Underwater Demolitions Team divers are trapped on the island, encountering the usual bevy of blockbuster brutes and a colossal crab as well.

What starts out as Paratroopers versus Pterodactyls in #95 turns into a deadly turf-war in ‘Guinea Pig Patrol!’ whilst ‘Mission X!’ introduces the Task Force X/Suicide Squad in a terse infiltration story with the increasing eager US military striving to set up a base on the strategically crucial monster island.

The Navy took the lead in #97’s ‘The Sub-Crusher!’ with equally dire results as a giant gorilla joins the regular roster of horrors, after which a frustrated palaeontologist is blown off course and into his wildest nightmare in ‘The Island of Thunder’. The rest of his airborne platoon aren’t nearly as excited at the discovery…

The Flying Franks were a trapeze family before the war, but as “The Flying Boots” Henny, Tommy and Steve won fame as paratroopers. In #99’s ‘The Circus of Monsters!’ they face the greatest challenge of their lives after washing up on Mystery Island and narrowly escape death by dinosaur. They aren’t too happy on being sent back next issue to track down a Japanese secret weapon in ‘The Volcano of Monsters!’

‘The Robot and the Dinosaur!’ in #101 ramped up the fantasy quotient as reluctant Ranger Mac is dispatched to the monstrous preserve to field-test the Army’s latest weapon: a fully automatic, artificial G.I. Joe, who promptly saves the day and returned to fight a ‘Punchboard War!’ in the next issue; tackling immense killer fish, assorted saurians and a giant Japanese war-robot that even dwarfs the dinosaurs.

The mecha-epic carried over and concluded in #103’s ‘Doom at Dinosaur Island!’, after which the Flying Boots returned in Star Spangled #104’s ‘The Tree of Terror!’ when a far-ranging pterodactyl drags the brothers back to the isle of no return for another explosive engagement.

‘The War on Dinosaur Island!’ sees the circus boys leading a small-scale invasion, but even tanks and the latest ordnance prove little use against the pernicious and eternally hungry reptiles, after which ‘The Nightmare War!’ reveals a dino-phobic museum janitor trapped in his worst nightmare. At least he has his best buddies and a goodly supply of bullets and bombs with him…

The action shifts to the oceans surrounding the island for sub-sea shocker ‘Battle of the Dinosaur Aquarium!’ with plesiosaurs, titanic turtles, colossal crabs and crocodilians on the menu, before hitting the beaches in #108 for ‘Dinosaur D-Day!’ as the monsters take up residence in the Navy’s landing craft.

‘The Last Soldiers’ pits determined tank-men against a string of scaly perils on land, sea and air, after which a new Suicide Squad debut in #110 to investigate a ‘Tunnel of Terror’ into the lost land of giant monsters: this time though, the giant gorilla is on their side…

That huge hairy beast is the star of ‘Return of the Dinosaur Killer!’ as the harried Squad leader and a wily boffin (visually based on Kanigher’s office associate Julie Schwartz) struggle to survive on the tropically reptilian atoll, whilst ‘Dinosaur Sub-Catcher!’ shifts the locale to freezing ice floes as a pack of lost sea dinosaurs attack a polar submarine and US weather station.

Star Spangled War Stories #113 returned to the blue Pacific for ‘Dinosaur Bait!’ and a pilot tasked with hunting down the cause for so many lost subs after which ‘Doom Came at Noon!’ once more returns to snowy climes as dinosaurs inexplicably rampage through alpine territory, making temporary allies out of old enemies dispatched to destroy hidden Nazi submarine pens.

Issue #115’s ‘Battle Dinner for Dinosaurs!’ has a helicopter pilot marooned on Mystery Island and drawn into a spectacular aerial dogfight, after which a duo of dedicated soldiers faced ice-bound beasts in ‘The Suicide Squad!’

The big difference being that here Morgan and Mace are more determined to kill each other than accomplish their mission…

‘Medal for a Dinosaur!’ bowed to the inevitable and introduced a (relatively) friendly baby pterodactyl to balance out Mace and Morgan’s scarcely-suppressed animosity, whilst ‘The Plane-Eater!’ finds the army odd couple adrift in the Pacific and in deep danger until the leather-winged little guy turns up once more…

The Suicide Squad were getting equal billing by the time of #119’s ‘Gun Duel on Dinosaur Hill!’, as yet another group of men-without-hope battle saurian horrors and each other to the death, after which the apparently un-killable Morgan and Mace return with Dino, the flying baby dinosaur.

They make a new ally and companion in handy hominid Caveboy before the whole unlikely ensemble struggle to survive against increasingly outlandish creatures in ‘The Tank Eater!’

Issue #121 presented another diving drama as a UDT frogman gains his Suicide Squad berth and proves to be a formidable fighter and ultimately, ‘The Killer of Dinosaur Alley!’

Increasingly now, G.I. hardware and ordnance began to gain the upper hand over bulk, fang and claw…

Much-missed representational maestro Russ Heath added an edge of hyper-realism to ‘The Divers of Death’ in Star Spangled War Stories #122 wherein two Frogman brothers battle incredible underwater insect monsters but are still unable to gain the respect of their land-lubber older siblings, whilst Gene Colan illustrated the aquatic adventure of ‘The Dinosaur who Ate Torpedoes!’ before Andru & Esposito returned to depict ‘Terror in a Bottle!’. This was the second short saurian saga to grace issue #123 and another outing for that giant ape who loved to pummel pterosaurs and larrup lizards.

Undisputed master of gritty fantasy art Joe Kubert added his pencil-and-brush magic to a tense and manic thriller ‘My Buddy the Dinosaur!’ in #124 and stuck around to illumine the return of the G.I. Robot in the stunning battle bonanza ‘Titbit For a Tyrannosaurus!’ in #125, after which Andru & Esposito covered another Suicide Squad sea saga ‘The Monster Who Sank a Navy!’ in #127.

The last tale in this volume (#128) then sees Colan resurface to illuminate a masterfully moving human drama which is actually improved by the inclusion of ravening reptiles in ‘The Million Dollar Medal!’.

Throughout this eclectic collection of dark dilemmas, light-hearted romps and spectacular battle blockbusters the emphasis is always on human fallibility; with soldiers unable to put aside long-held grudges, swallow pride or forgive trespasses even amidst the strangest and most terrifying moments of their lives, and this edgy humanity informs and elevates even the daftest of these wonderfully imaginative adventure yarns.

Classy, intense, insanely addictive and Just Plain Fun, The War that Time Forgot is a deliciously guilty pleasure and I for one hope the remaining stories from Star Spangled War Stories, Weird War Tales, G. I. Combat and especially the magnificent Tim Truman Guns of the Dragon miniseries all end up in sequel compilations before too much more time has passed.

Now Read This book and you will too…
© 1960-1966, 2007 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Pioneers of the New World, Book 1: The Pillory and Book 2: The Great Upheaval

By J. F. Charles (Michel Deligne Co)
ISBN: 2-87135-020-5 and 2-87135-021-3

European comics are different. Despite the notable exceptions of Tintin and Asterix, a huge number of classy and wonderful strips and characters have flown over the heads of the English-speaking public and foundered.

These tragically hard-to-find (but worth the effort) albums are from 1985, when America briefly looked elsewhere for graphic entertainment and the publisher Editions Michel Deligne rushed a rather poorly translated version of Jean-François Charles’ (AKA Bof) utterly compelling 1982 adventure serial Les Pionniers du Nouveau Monde into production.

Set in America and Canada in 1755, the saga follows the life of Parisian wastrel Benjamin Graindall, a hothead whose predilection for duelling makes France too small and far too hazardous for him. Rapidly despatched to Montreal to make his fortune and keep out of trouble, Banjamin joins his uncle at the New France Company, bitter trading rival of England’s Hudson Bay Company.

War is brewing, and feuding native tribes have allied themselves with each Imperial nation, dividing along ancient tribal lines as bitter and hate-filled as Britain and France’s. Thus, when Graindall and experienced trapper Billy the Nantese go deep inland trading furs, they find that Europe’s cold war has turned hot and bloody in the new World.

Rescuing a number of French settlers – including a beautiful aristocrat’s daughter – they make their way towards Fort Niagara, but are captured by the British whose Ox River Fort lies directly opposite the French bastion at the great falls.

As prisoners, they must ensure that their enemies do not realize that the girl Louise is in fact the daughter of Fort Niagara’s commanding officer…

This is classic adventure and historical drama in the grand tradition: sparking with intensity, brim-full of captivating authenticity and yet still entrancingly readable. Charles is a master of incredible wilderness scenes and breathtaking battle sequences, and the story (written from the 7th album with his wife Maryse), is a broad-scoped and powerful one.

Pioneers of the New World Book 2: The Great Upheaval
Further detailing how the west was won or lost (depending on your geographical standpoint), this translation of Le Grand Dérangement resumes the tempestuous history of the struggle between France and Britain in the 18th century whilst relating the story of bourgeois wastrel Benjamin Graindall, who fled Paris for Canada to make his fortune.

At the close of The Pillory Graindall and other French survivors of a massacre are being held prisoners by the British at Fort Niagara. When French forces attack to rescue Louise, Benjamin’s lover and daughter of a French General, the ensuing following the assault provides an opportunity for rescue – at least for trapper Billy the Nantese and the bewildered, bereft woman. Graindall, though, seems to have been killed by cannon-fire…

The liberated French settlers are evacuated to Montreal and Louise, pregnant with the wastrel’s child, is taken by Billy to her aunt in Greenbay on the St Lawrence River.

The war is unrelenting and by 1756 the pair are overtaken by British forces. Until this time the joint Anglo-French Nova Scotia trading company controlled the resources of the New World region of Acadia, but the British advance allows the English to dispossess the French and keep everything for themselves.

Like the Highland Clearances in Scotland (from 1725 until well into the 19th century), French settlers were forced from their lands between 1755 and 1762, literally driven into the sea. Most Acadians made their way down the coast, eventually settling in Louisiana. Forced together by hardship and circumstance, Louisa and Billy grow closer and closer when their ship is forced into safe-harbour in Boston Bay…

Benjamin survived the attack on Fort Niagara. Wounded in the first attack, he was dragged to safety by the wayward firebrand Mary Shirley. Braving the horrors of New England winters and aided by friendly Indians, they make their torturous way to New York and ultimately Albany where Benjamin is astounded to discover that his lascivious wild-child companion is actually the daughter of a wealthy and extremely powerful family.

He grudgingly becomes Mary’s stud and boy-toy, but chafes under the witless pomp and snobbery of the English gentry. At one of the interminable social soirees he accidentally maims malignant Mr. Crimbel, manager of the Hudson Bay Company, during a drunken brawl and is forced to flee.

Frustrated Mary swears bitter vengeance but Benjamin is already in Boston just as a refugee ship carrying Acadians beaches to avoid a winter storm. On the sands the three companions are finally reunited but Louise is torn as her first love and the father of her child greets his long-lost best friend… her current lover…

This powerful adventure saga of classic adventure is an historical drama in the inimitable Franco-Belgian manner, compelling and entrancing. Charles is a master of his visual craft and here natural beauty is augmented by the veracity of historical grandeur he imparts into renditions of genteel English society.

Pioneers of the New World is a minor masterpiece. Translated here are Le Pilori and Le Grand Dérangement, the merest tip of a spectacular graphic narrative iceberg. There have been 20 albums to date in French – with the latest arriving in 2015 – and I sincerely believe this magnificent adventure is long overdue for some wise publisher to revive. After all, there’s plenty to catch up on…

I’d imagine these books are practically impossible to find nowadays, and to be honest the translation and re-lettering are a little disappointing and distracting. But since so much European material is accessible these days, I’d thought I’d mention this series as being one that is crying out for a decent shot from a considerate and dedicated patron. Cross your fingers, mes braves…
© 1985 Editions Michel Deligne SA and JF Charles. All Rights Reserved.

Pride of Baghdad

By Brian K Vaughan & Niko Henrichon (Vertigo)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-0314-6 (HB)                    978-1-4012-0315-3 (PB)

It would be far beyond crass to suggest that anything good at all ever came out of the monstrous debacle of the Iraq invasion, but trenchant-critique-masquerading-as-parable Pride of Baghdad at least offers a unique perspective on a small, cruel and utterly avoidable moment of that bloody mistake.

Brian K. Vaughan (Y: The Last Man, Ex Machina, Runaways, Paper Girls) and Niko Henrichon (Barnum!, Fables, Sandman, Spider-Man), combining the narrative tools of Walt Disney and George Orwell, reconstruct an anthropomorphised tale of a family of lions who are unwillingly liberated from the city zoo during the taking of Baghdad, and then left to run loose in the deadly streets until their tragic end. Throughout the entire debacle the beasts are scared, hungry, under attack and convinced that everything will be great now that they are free…

This is not a spoiler. It is a warning. This is a beautiful, uncompromising, powerful, tale with characters who you will swiftly come to love. And they die because of political fecklessness, commercial venality and human frailty. The seductively magical artwork makes the inevitable tragedy a confusing and wondrous experience and Vaughan’s script could make a stone, and perhaps even a Republican, cry.

Derived from a news item which told of the lions roaming the war-torn Baghdad streets, here we are made to see the invasion in terms other than those of commercial news-gatherers and government spin-doctors, and hopefully can use those different opinions to inform our own. This is a lovely, haunting, sad book: a modern masterpiece which shows why words and pictures have such power that they can terrify bigots and tyrants of all types.

Read this book. Maybe not to your kids, or not yet, but read it.
© 2006 Brian K Vaughan & Niko Henrichon. All Rights Reserved.

Hearts and Minds – A Vietnam Love Story

By Doug Murray & Russ Heath (Marvel/Epic Comics)
ISBN: 978-0-87135-699-4

I was deeply saddened to hear of the death of Russ Heath last week, so I’m repurposing an old review today to commemorate his astounding career and achievements. It’s an easy thing to do as his work was always amongst the rarefied top rank of illustrators to grace the American comics scene…

Russell Heath Jr. was born in New York City on September 29th 1926 and was raised in New Jersey. Influenced by cowboy artist Will James and others, Heath was self-taught and fiercely diligent, demanding authenticity of himself in all his work. This helped him break into the comicbook industry while still at High School (episodes of naval strip Hammerhead Hawley for Captain Aero Comics beginning with volume 2, #2 in September 1942).

Eager to serve, Heath left Montclair High School early in 1945 for the Air Force. Whilst in the military he contributed cartoons to the Camp newspaper before shipping out.

When peace broke out, he worked briefly as a gofer at an ad agency until in 1947 he landed a regular job with Timely Comics. Now married he soon started working from home, drawing Kid Colt and Two Gun Kid, offerings for the dwindling superhero market and sundry horror stories and covers.

He hit an early peak in the 1950s, with a wealth of western and horror features as well as co-creating Marvel Boy, working on crime and romance tales, Venus and the Human Torch during the abortive attempt to revive superheroes in 1953.

He branched out to other publishers: trying his hand on EC’s Mad and Frontline Combat, 3D comics for St. John’s and earned a reputation for gritty veracity in his war and adventure stories (such as Robin Hood and Golden Gladiator for DC’s The Brave and the Bold).

He began contributing to DC’s new war line in early 1954, with strips appearing in Our Army at War #23 and Star Spangled War Stories #22.

It was good fit and he spent the next decade and a half working with writer/editor Robert Kanigher, with whom he co-created The Haunted Tank, The Losers and Sea Devils. All along he remained a stalwart of anthological short war stories, guested on and eventually took over full time illustrating on the prestigious Sgt. Rock.

Infamously, many of his panels were co-opted by pop artist Roy Lichtenstein as the basis of his paintings (specifically Whaam!, Blam, Okay Hot-Shot, Okay!, and Brattata). Heath’s other contributions to American pop culture include iconic ads for toy soldiers and a stint on Harvey Kurtzman and Will Elder’s ubiquitous Playboy satire strip Little Annie Fanny.

Eventually he moved into animation and out to the west coast, but remained in contact with his comics roots, providing occasional returns on titles such as Planet of the Vampires, Mister Miracle, Ka-Zar, The Punisher, Shadowmasters, G.I. Joe and. the Immortal Iron Fist among others.

Having been awarded almost every award going, Heath was in semi-retirement when he died on the 23rd August 2018.

At the end of the 1980s Marvel began extending the scope of the Original Graphic Novels line and this potent and uncompromising fable was the impressive result.

Hearts and Minds – A Vietnam Love Story tells of a half-caste French/Vietnamese peasant girl, whose husband is killed by proselytizing Viet Cong Guerrillas, but who finds a kind of love with a green American college drop-out trapped in The Draft and sent to kill Commies for Uncle Sam.

Of course, it doesn’t end well…

1965: Despite himself Lieutenant Jim Brett is fitting in. He has an aptitude for the soldier’s life and has found his One True Love in the Officers’ Brothel. The half-white Nhi is overjoyed to have been purchased by the handsome young Lieutenant and looks forward to her new life in America as Mrs. Brett. But when the Viet Cong stage a successful assault on the city of Hue she discovers that her first husband is still alive and now a fanatical Guerrilla leader. And then the frantic Brett bursts into the house…

The examination of the greater conflict through a doomed romance is both subtle and evocative, and the hyper-precise drawing and bright happy colours of the artwork savagely underpin the oppressive brutality and doomed futility of the tale. Hearts and Minds is an anti-war tale with all the punch and poignancy of an artillery round, favouring no side whilst counting the human cost and yet still managing to balance blazing action with passionate intensity.

Concerned parents should note that if this is a novel for adults with graphic nudity and violence.

Russ Heath is a name that should be household, but is sadly someone who will only probably be missed by those of us fortunate and broadminded enough to have roamed beyond the attention-grabbing superhero comics ghetto. He is also an immortal talent whose work will live on as long as we keep seeking hyper-real, ultra-precise, breathtakingly powerful narrative graphics.

Remember the name and look for it when buying your old comics and albums in future.
© 1990 Doug Murray & Russ Heath. All Rights Reserved.