VFW Magazine — November 2017
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Comics Go To War
Don Vaughan

From the Civil War through the Iraq War, comic book writers and illustrators have used war as fodder for their works.

Most comic books deal in fantasy, but many have tried to get it right when it comes to facts of war.

The comic book as it is known today debuted in the mid-1930s with reprints of the era’s best-loved newspaper strips. But the instantly popular new medium soon demanded original material, and like the pulp magazines of the ’20s and ’30s, war stories quickly became a reader favorite.

Dashing aviators were among the first to be featured, followed by other brave members of the armed services. Costumed superheroes also joined the fray, battling the Axis menace long before the United States declared war on Germany and Japan.

Among the most notable was Captain America, whose premiere issue (March 1941) featured a cover illustration of Cap punching Hitler square in the jaw.

Most war comics of the 1940s contained generic action stories that had little to do with the realities of combat. However, some titles strived for a degree of realism.

Among them was War Comics, published by Dell, which launched in 1940 and lasted four issues. It would take another decade before historic and technical realism found a regular place on comic book spinner racks.

War-themed comic books experienced a decline at the end of WWII, only to be resurrected in huge numbers at the start of the Korean War in 1950.

Atlas Comics, which later became Marvel Comics, was among the leaders, producing 512 individual issues across 30 war and adventure titles from 1950 to 1960, according to comic book historian Michael J. Vassallo.

One notable article in the Atlas lineup was “Atrocity Story,” published in Battlefield #2 (June 1952). Written by Hank Chapman, a WWII vet, and illustrated by Paul Reinman, it details several horrific acts committed by the Chinese and North Koreans during the Korean War, as well as by the Nazis during WWII.

“Atrocity Story reads like a newsreel,” Vassallo said. “I think it’s the most powerful war story Atlas produced.”

In 1950, EC Comics, later known for publishing MAD magazine, entered the field with Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat. Written and edited by Harvey Kurtzman, who served in the Army stateside during WWII, both issues were notable for their subtle anti-war stance and devotion to realism.

Kurtzman was infamous for piling his artists with reference material and demanding accuracy right down to bullets and buttons. Many artists chafed under Kurtzman’s editorial demands.

Kurtzman’s heavily researched war stories covered history from ancient Rome to the Korean War. He was especially enamored with the Civil War, producing several historically accurate stories about specific individuals, battles and campaigns.

Kurtzman focused on ordinary soldiers to tell a broader story. A profile of Robert E. Lee in Two-Fisted Tales, for example, is told from the perspective of the soldiers under Lee’s command.

War-themed comic books continued to sell well through the 1960s and ’70s, with DC Comics in particular enjoying great success with titles featuring the exploits of Sgt. Rock and other fictional characters.

These were generic stories with little attempt at accuracy — unlike Dell’s Combat, which almost read like a history book. The Combat series debuted in late 1961 and lasted 40 issues, with stories ranging from the Battle of Tarawa to the sinking of the Bismarck to the Bataan Death March.

The majority of the stories were illustrated by Sam Glanzman, who served in the Pacific aboard the destroyer USS Stevens during WWII. Glanzman would go on to write and illustrate stories for several publishers about the ship’s actual wartime service.

Glanzman is in his 90s now, and his memory has diminished, but in a 2003 interview, he said, “The Stevens meant so much to me. I’m in love with that ship. In a sense, that’s the only reason I went into comic books — I wanted to honor my ship and the men who served on her.”

Glanzman kept a journal during his service. He jotted down anecdotes and sketches of the ship’s engagements — all of which informed the comic book stories he later created.

Whereas WWII and the Korean War have been widely featured in comic books over the decades, the same cannot be said for the Vietnam War.

It wasn’t until the 1980s that comic books truly entered Vietnam with The ’Nam, published by Marvel Comics, and Vietnam Journal, published by Apple Comics (see p. 19 of the August 2017 issue of VFW magazine for more on the Vietnam Journal creator, Don Lomax).

Though both series revolve around fictional characters, each attempt a realistic portrayal of the war and its effects on the men and women involved in it.

Doug Murray, the creator and first writer on The ’Nam, and Lomax, the creator of Vietnam Journal and later a writer on The ’Nam, both served in Vietnam and incorporated aspects of their service into the stories they wrote.

Murray, who was a radar specialist in the Army, was deployed to Vietnam first in 1967 and again in 1971. During his first deployment, the plane taking him to Tan Sun Nhut Air Force Base took enemy fire on its final approach, a frightening experience that Murray incorporated into the first issue of The ’Nam.

Another true story that made its way into the series — about a duck that sparked a panic among nervous soldiers at a remote outpost — was told to Murray by Tom Savini, a Hollywood makeup and special effects artist who served in Vietnam as a combat photographer.

“[Editor] Larry Hama and I both felt it was really important to make The ’Nam as accurate as possible,” Murray said. “We didn’t want to do crazy heroics like the other publishers, where a guy would pull a grenade pin with his teeth and charge the enemy with machine guns blazing and not get touched. We wanted to make it the way war really was.”

Writer and illustrator Wayne Vansant, who served in the Navy from 1969 through 1971 but did not go to Vietnam, relied on a variety of resources to ensure accuracy during his stint on The ’Nam and later projects, including books, model weapons and photographs given to him by veterans who saw in him a kindred spirit.

“In one issue, I drew three GIs on patrol walking past a huge billboard that was a toothpaste ad,” Vansant said. “I had a picture of that, so I drew it just the way it was. Little things like that helped [make the stories more realistic].”

In recent years, Vansant wrote and illustrated a series of heavily researched graphic novels for Zenith Press that include Grant vs. Lee; Normandy: A Graphic History of D-Day; The Battle of the Bulge; and Bombing Nazi Germany.

Vansant also illustrated The Vietnam War: A Graphic History, written by Dwight Jon Zimmerman and published by Hill and Wang. One important source for Bombing Nazi Germany was a woman who had survived both the firebombing of Dresden and the bombing of Berlin — a deeply personal narrative Vansant said helped make the book even more factual.

Vansant also visited the Ardennes to research The Battle of the Bulge.

“The book wouldn’t have been the same if I hadn’t gone,” he said. “It made it clear how that battle was fought.”

In addition to Vansant’s work, notable examples include Chuck Dixon and Gary Kwapisz’s Civil War Adventure (Dover Publications Inc.), which explores the Civil War from the perspective of the men who fought it.

Joe Kubert’s Dong Xoai, Vietnam 1965 (Vertigo) tells the story of U.S. and South Vietnamese soldiers trapped by an overwhelming Viet Cong force. Goddamn This War! examines the horrors of WWI illustrated by Jacques Tardi, who found inspiration in his grandfather’s war stories.

In 2015, Campfire History released World War Two: Under the Shadow of the Swastika and World War Two: Against the Rising Sun. Hill and Wang released Battle Lines: A Graphic History of the Civil War by Jonathan Fetter-Vorm and Ari Kelman.

The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq also have been the subject of graphic novels, such as Marvel Comics’ Combat Zone: True Tales of GIs in Iraq. The 2005 paperback is based on real-life accounts of the experiences of U.S. soldiers in the early days of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

And at least two graphic novels have attempted to address the emotional and psychological impact of these wars on the men and women who fought them: Shooters (Vertigo) by Eric Trautmann, Brandon Jerwa and Steve Lieber, and Walking Wounded: Uncut Stories from Iraq (NBM) by Mael & Olivier Morel.

Even the 2011 Seal Team Six mission to kill Osama bin Laden was the subject of a graphic novel — Code Word: Geronimo (IDW), written by the husband-and-wife team of Dale and Julia Dye, and illustrated by Gerry Kissell and Amin Amat.

Dale Dye tapped contacts within the military for background on the mission and asked yes-or-no questions to ensure that the facts as he reported them were accurate.

“One source called me after the book came out and said, ‘Pretty slick,’ ” Dye said. “That was all he had to say.”

War comics aren’t nearly as popular today as they were 60 years ago, but they still find readers — especially those books focused on the real world. In this way, comic books also have become history books, educating the next generation about conflicts that must never be forgotten.

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Donald Vaughan is a freelance writer based in Raleigh, N.C.