Saturday, 6 August 2016

WAR: What Is It Good For?

WHEN I WAS in primary school, back in the early 1960s, I was surrounded by tangible evidence of the Second World War. In South East London, where I was growing up, much of the area we ranged across in our youthful travels was still decimated by the efforts of the Luftwaffe. Bombsites were everywhere and offered a wealth of adventure to fearless eight-year-olds who had no concept of the dangers of these precarious structures. Most of our leisure time was spent on the streets, playing-acting conflict (cops and robbers, cowboys and indians and, of course, war games) and imagination was our answer to the dearth of actual toys.

Bombed out buildings like this formed  playgrounds for us kids during the early 1960s. Every neighbourhood bore the scars of WWII and no one seemed to have the money to tear these accidents-waiting-to-happen down.
Some of us were lucky enough to own capguns, mostly in the six-shooter western style. The truly fortunate might have a rifle. Most of us just used sticks.

I had one of these capgun Lugers around 1962, though mine was in much better condition than this one. Having the gun was one thing, but affording to buy caps for it was quite another proposition.
One game I remember well I first came across while visiting my grandparents in Glasgow, probably around 1963 or so. The game involved a designated shooter who would lie in wait at the foot of a grassy bank. The other kids would all charge the shooter's position, whooping and yelling. The shooter would then shoot them down, one by one. The one who "died" in the most spectacular way would be chosen to be the shooter for the next round.

This was the grassy bank outside my grandparents' flat where we'd play the shooting game. It really doesn't seem to have changed much since the early 1960s.
I enjoyed that game so much that I brought it back to South-East London with me, where it became just as popular amongst the other kids on my estate.

When we weren't playing at war, we were reading about it in our British weekly adventure comics, watching it on television or seeing war movies at our local cinema, whether it was at a feature in the evening with our parents or with our mates at Saturday Morning Pictures.

Combat! was a long-running television show that focussed on the US military, and featured many top-name Hollywood actors, like Lee Marvin. Hogan's Heroes, on the other hand, saw the funny side of the Nazi POW camps.
Aside from history shows like All Our Yesterdays, the Second World War was also represented by fictional shows, both dramatic and comedic. Probably one of the best war shows was Combat! which ran from 1962 to 1967. But the one I remember best is Hogan's Heroes, which made the Nazi military holding American and Allied soldiers prisoners of war figures of fun. It wasn't a show I followed, but it did seem to be on the tv all the time during the 1960s.

The Longest Day featured an all-star cast and was one of the biggest box-office hits of 1962. John Wayne and Robert Mitchum represent the US forces, Sean Connery and Richard Burton showing the flag for the UK. Gert Frobe played a small role as a German NCO.
Hollywood film studios considered WWII something of a cash cow. Just between 1962 and 1964 there were over thirty English-language war movies released, funny and serious, including The Longest Day (1962), PT109 (1963) and Father Goose (1964).

There were quite a few comics from UK publishers that made the Second World War their chief topic. And many adventure and sports comics would also feature a variety of war stories. The tradition continues up to the present day, with 2000AD also featuring war stories like Rogue Trooper and Bad Company, both talking their inspiration from earlier earthbound conflicts.
And of course comics, both home-grown and US imports, were stuffed full of war stories. Some comics, like Victor, were dedicated to the genre, but war stories even turned up in sports comics like Tiger. And in the states, WWII had been a major subject for comics publishers pretty much from VE Day onwards.

Captain Hurricane in the Valiant wasn't my cup of tea, though I would occasionally read a friend's copy. Art in the main was by R. Charles Roylace, though the above example may well be by a fill-in artist. Pretty much all the war stories in the comics of the 1960s followed this format, some with more, some with less comedy content.
In British comics, the genre was pretty much defined during the 1960s by Captain Hurricane, who appeared in Valiant. Like most other WWII stories in the comics of the time, Captain Hurricane was full of comedic Germans, who shouted, "Gott in Himmel" and "Englisher schweinhund!" a lot. Every speech balloon, in fact. Mostly, no one was killed, just roughed up a bit. Stories would often end with Hurricane walking away from a pile of German soldiers, all with black eyes and cauliflower ears, dusting off his hands and congratulating himself on a job well done. These stories were not of great interest to me, and I must have only read a handful of Valiants all through my childhood.

Though they weren't publishing war comics, Timely books featured a lot of war in them. Unlike DC, Timely's heroes took on the Axis forces head-on.
I wasn't greatly taken with the war stories from the other side of the Atlantic either. For the most part it was the superheroes that caught my attention. Had I been aware of the earliest Marvel Comics, I would have understood that the first exploits of the Marvel Comics characters I would come to obsess over had their roots firmly in the events of World War II.

Unlike market-leader DC Comics, Timely seemed quite happy to let their superheroes tangle with Nazis and Japanese. Captain America Comics 1 (Mar 1941) famously had the hero socking Hitler on the jaw on the front cover several months before the US entered WWII. And the long run of Alex Schomberg covers on Marvel Mystery Comics featured an unbroken run of The Human Torch and the Sub-Mariner trashing both the German and Japanese forces for the duration.

One of the first, if not the first, identifiable war comic was Wings, from Fiction House. Others who tried war as a subject for an anthology comic failed and it wasn't until the beginning of the 1950s that Martin Goodman's Atlas had a success with War Comics.
Actual war comics, as a stand-alone genre, wouldn't come along for another couple of years, though there were a couple of early niche examples. Wings Comics, debuting at the end of 1940 and running 124 issues through to 1954, concentrated on air combat stories. And U.S. Marines came along in 1943, but only managed four issues, ending the following year. But it was actually Martin Goodman's Atlas Comics, under the editorship of Stan Lee, that really kicked off the war comic genre with, appropriately, War Comics 1 (Dec 1950). Once Goodman saw the sales figures on that book, he had Stan launch a fleet of war comics, including:
  • Battle 1-70 (Mar 1951 - Jun 1960)
  • Men's Adventures 9-20 (Aug 1951 - Apr 1953) continued from drama title Men's Adventures; continued as horror title Men's Adventures
  • Combat Kelly 1-44 (Nov 1951 - Aug 1957)
  • Man Comics 11-28 (Dec 1951 - Sep 1953) continued from drama title Man Comics
  • War Adventures 1-13 (Jan 1952 - Feb 1953)
  • Battle Action 1-30 (Feb 1952 - Aug 1957)
  • War Combat 1-5 (Mar-Nov 1952) continued as Combat Casey 6-34 (Jan 1953 - Jul 1957)
  • Battlefield 1-11 (Apr 1952 - May 1953)
  • War Action 1-4 (Apr 1952 - Jun 1953)
  • Men in Action 1-9 (Apr-Dec 1952) continued as Battle Brady 10-14 (Jan-June 1953)
  • Battlefront 1-48 (Jun 1952 - Aug 1957)
  • Combat 1-11 (Jun 1952 - Apr 1953)
  • 3-D Action 1 (Jan 1954)
  • Marines in Battle 1-25 (Aug 1954 - Sep 1958)
  • Navy Action 1-11 (Aug. 1954 - April 1956) continued as Sailor Sweeney 12-14 (Jun-Nov 1956) continued as once again as Navy Action 15-18 (Jan-Aug 1957)
  • Battle Ground (first four issues "Battle-Ground") 1-20 (Sep 1954 - Sep1957)
  • Marines in Action 1-14 (Jun 1955 - Sep 1957)
  • Navy Combat 1-20 (Jun 1955 - Oct 1958)
  • Devil-Dog Dugan 1-3 (Jul-Nov 1956) continued as Tales of the Marines 4 (Feb 1957) continued as Marines at War 5-7 (Apr-Aug 1957)
  • Navy Tales 1-4 (Jan-Jul 1957)
  • G.I. Tales 4-6 (Feb-Jul 1957), continued from humour title Sergeant Barney Barker
  • Commando Adventures 1-2 (June-Aug 1957)
Right on the heels of Goodman's War Comics 1 came Bill Gaines' Two-Fisted Tales 18 (Dec 1950), carrying on the numbering from EC's first run of Haunt of Fear (15-17), though Gaines' title wasn't a full-on war comic. Gaines would catch up the following year with Frontline Combat, which centred on both WWII and Korean war tales. Both books were edited by Harvey Kurtzman and more than any other comics, set the tone for quality war stories from that point on.

EC's Frontline Combat was the publisher's first war anthology. The earlier Two-Fisted Tales contained war stories but also had pirate tales and other boys' adventure subjects.
It's probably fair to say that the EC books were the inspiration for the DC war comics, mostly edited by Robert Kanigher, and often written by him too. All enjoyed long and successful runs, though again, it wasn't a genre I followed and I was mostly aware of these books through the house ads in the DC superhero comics I was buying.

The DC house ads of the 1960s were always appealing and none more so than the ads for Star Spangled War Stories, with their sensational stories of WWII infantrymen battling dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures in a hostile island environment.
The "golden age" of DC war books from from the early 1950s to the late 1960s, though many of the titles lasted longer:
  • Our Army at War 1-301 (Aug 1952 - Feb 1977)
  • Star Spangled War 3-204 (Nov 1952 - Feb/Mar 1977)
  • All-American Men of War 2-117 (Dec 1952 - Sep/Oct 1966)
  • Our Fighting Forces 1-181 (Oct/Nov 1954 - Sep/Oct 1978)
  • G I Combat 44-288 (Jan 1957 - Mar 1987), acquired from Quality Comics
One of the last of the successful DC war titles was Weird War Tales. Honourable mention should be given to Joe Simon and Jack Kirby's war anthology Foxhole which debuted in the middle of the 1950s war boom.
A later DC war comic that enjoyed a long run was Weird War Tales and I should make mention of Simon & Kirby's war title Foxhole which, while not the first, is certainly one of the highly-regarded war titles of the era.

Of all the war genre comics available to me during the early 1960s, the only title that even vaguely interested me was the dinosaurs vs G.I.s issues of Star Spangled War Stories. But for some reason I never read any of them as a kid. It wasn't until much later (last year, in fact) that out of curiosity I picked up a copy of the DC Showcase Presents collected volume and gave it a read. And a thankless task it was too.

Though I never read any DC war comics during their 1960s heyday, I always had an abiding curiosity about the War That Time Forgot series, and snapped up a hardback copy of the Showcase Presents collection when I saw it on Amazon for £0.80 ... I still haven't finished reading it.
These tales were clearly written with a transient young audience in mind. Scripter Robert Kanigher must have realised that few kids were loyal to any one brand or even title and would just buy comics whenever the covers appealed to them. And the DC circulation guys must have told him that covers with dinosaurs were always good sellers. As a consequence "The War That Time Forgot" is another concept-in-search-of-a-story. Each 13-page story had no continuing characters, workman-like art by DC's star war artists Ross Andru and Mike Esposito and an identical plot: Some US soldiers find themselves on an unnamed Pacific island where dinosaurs have survived. The entire story would be just scene after scene of giant reptiles trashing subs, tanks, jeeps and (mostly Japanese) soldiers. After reading three or four in the collected album I was losing the will to live.


During the last 1950s and early 1960s, Ross Andru (born Rossolav Andruskevitch) and Mike Esposito were DC Comics' go-to team for just about any series that needed to be delivered on time and drawn competently. 

Ross Andru was born into a musical family. His father had played the french horn with the Ballet Russe and the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra. Michael Esposito also was from a musical family - Esposito Sr fronted the band Ralph Perry and his Orchestra. Both had attended the Cartoonists and Illustrators School in New York under Burne Hogarth, after serving in WWII. Hogarth had singled Andru out in 1948 and gave him work assisting on the Sunday Tarzan strips. That lasted a couple of years until Hogarth left the strip.

Andru and Esposito were an editor's dream - hard-working sons of immigrant families
who drew fast and well and never missed a deadline.
It was around that time that the pair teamed up and began providing art for Key Publications' Mister Mystery, Standard's The Unseen and Joe Yank and Hillman's Western Fighters. But by 1951, they fetched up at DC Comics where they got to work on DC's burgeoning war comics, with their debut stories in All-American Men of War 6, Star Spangled War Stories 13 and Our Army at War 14 (all Sep 1953).

The team would be a mainstay on the war books for the next few years, often working over Editor Robert Kanigher's scripts. Then in 1958, a couple of years after DC had successfully reinvented Golden Age super-hero The Flash for a new audience, the company decided a makeover was needed for Wonder Woman and assigned Kanigher to the task. Kanigher turned to his most reliable art team and Andru and Esposito spent the next decade chronicling the adventures of the Amazon superheroine.

Andru and Esposito began drawing Wonder Woman with issue 98 (May 1958), Metal Men with Showcase 37 (Mar 1962) and finally The Flash with issue 175 (Dec 1967, though their first cover was 177, pictured above).
A few short years later, Robert Kanigher pitched an idea for DC's Showcase comic. The Metal Men was accepted and Andru and Esposito were once more drafted in to provide the art. The series was promoted to its own book and ran 29 issues with the same creative team. From there, Andru and Esposito took over The Flash from outgoing artist Carmine Infantino , who had been promoted to the position of DC's Art Director, then editorial director.

Though Mike Esposito regularly moonlighted at Marvel Comics during the 1960s, under the name "Micky Demeo" so as not to upset the notoriously prickly Robert Kanigher, Ross Andru would only turn in one job for Marvel during that decade, a fill-in issue for Amazing Spider-Man when it looked like regular penciller John Romita wasn't going to make deadline. In the end the fill-in wasn't needed and eventually saw print in Marvel Super-Heroes 14 (May 1968). A couple of years later, Ross Andru took over the regular pencilling job on Spider-Man, the majority of them inked by Esposito, and with Gerry Conway, created The Punisher.

In the 1970s, Ross Andru became Marvel's main Spider-Man artist, even working with Mike Esposito on Marvel Team-Up. Probably the crowning achievement on Andru's Spider-Man tenure was the high-profile DC-Marvel crossover, Superman vs The Amazing Spider-Man in 1976. 
In a 2010 interview, Gerry Conway said, "Ross Andru could place a character anywhere he wanted. He had a terrific sense of spatial relations; he could track a battle easily across rooftops, from panel to panel. He drew some great sequences where he maintained the same stationary background, a rooftop or a street, across an entire page, but move the characters from panel to panel. I know there are artists today who do that, but many of today's artists are figure-oriented. Space and context doesn't seem as important to them, whereas it was extremely important to Ross. He used to go around New York City taking pictures of the buildings so he could be accurate about where he put Spider-Man."

For all that success, I was never a fan of Andru and Esposito's work, finding it lacking in personality. But perhaps that's what endeared them to the DC (and later the Marvel) editors. Maybe their slightly bland style could fit just about any kind of series without them having to change the way they drew. And certainly no editor would even complain about an art team who always turned their work in on time.

Editor-writer Robert Kanigher pictured during the late 1940s.
Andru and Esposito's most frequent editor and scripter Robert Kanigher got into the comics business in 1941, contributing scripts to Fantastic Comics 15 (Feb 1941), Big 3 4 (Jul 1941) and Zip Comics 15 (Apr 1942). The following year he sold a script to Fawcett for Captain Marvel Adventures 29 (Nov 1943). In 1945 he began his association with DC Comics, which was to be his professional home for the next forty years. His first sale was a script for Wonder Woman in Sensation Comics 44 (Aug 1945), and it would be a character he would come to have a long association with, writing for the character from 1947 though to 1968. Kanigher would also write many Flash, Green Lantern and Hawkman scripts during the Golden Age of Comics. In 1956, it was Kanigher who was assigned by Julius Schwartz to write the first re-vamped Flash stories for Showcase, and Kanigher also created The Metal Men, who made their debut in the same title. Kanigher would also edit the main DC war comics up until he retired in 1968, then continue to write for those books for the next 20 years. 

Famously short tempered and overly-protective of his scripts, Kanigher would regularly lambast those he saw as transgressors. John Romita recalled of Kanigher in an interview, "He used to compliment me whenever he'd see me in the bullpen. 'Like the stuff ... like the stuff...' That was about the amount of conversation we had. Then one day we were in the elevator together, and he said, 'Like the stuff.' I, like an innocent fool... I used to do some adjustments to his pages. If he had a heavy-copy panel, I might take a balloon from one panel and put it in the next. Just because I was distributing space. I was so stupid and naive, I said to him, 'It doesn't bother you, does it, that I sometimes switch some of the panels around and move some of the balloons from one panel to another?' He started to chew me out in the elevator! 'Who the hell do you think you are, changing my stuff? Where do you come off changing my stuff? You don't know anything about this business!'"

Ross Andru died 9 November 1993. Mike Esposito passed 24 October 2010. Robert Kanigher died in 2002.


As far as war comics were concerned, it wasn't a genre I had much interest is as a ten year old, not until until later in the 1960s, when Stan Lee's makeover of Martin Goodman's comic line became Marvel Comics and Lee & Kirby brought a new character-driven dynamic to the otherwise standard superhero and adventure titles they were publishing. Stan and Jack set out their war stall in competition with DC's mighty five titles and at last got me interested in war stories. But Marvel's war comic wasn't so much a different take on war adventure tales as it was a social manifesto.

And that's what I'll be talking about in my very next blog entry ...

Next: Sgt Fury and his Howling Whatchamacallems!


  1. The game you so fondly remember, Al, was called 'Best Man Fall', which I played many a time. (As did every kid in my neighbourhood.) Happy memories, eh?

    1. Ah, right ... I didn't know (or didn't recall) that the game had a name. Not surprised you know about that game, as I only ever cam across it in Glasgow. Wonder if any south-based readers ever played this as kids?

  2. War comics were not my cup of tea, either, but I bought comics mostly because of the art when I was a kid. I was pretty impressed with a friend's copy of a Sgt. Rock story called "Eyes of a Blind Gunner" which featured the first black hero I ever saw in comics. I remember drawing my own war story as a back-up in one of my homemade spy comics, all about a black hero, with Sgt. Rock-style narration. When Enemy Ace appeared on the cover of Showcase, it became the one war series I ever collected; it seemed worlds apart from all the others. I was young enough to swallow the hype about DC being so daring in presenting the enemy side of the war. Beautiful storytelling by Kubert; quite a bit of repetition by Kanigher.

    I had a weird insight as a fan of early Warren Magazines. When Blazing Combat came out, I picked it up because it had Archie Goodwin and all the great Creepy artists, including Frazetta on the cover. Because it was virtually the same package I realized that, of course, a War Comic is just a different kind of Horror Comic.

    1. Both Kubert and Blazing Combat I came to appreciate later as a teenager. I have quite a bit of Kubert (including the DC Archives of Sgt Rock) on my shelves, but I still come back the Warren war mags every so often. Thanks, as always, for your insightful comments ...