Jun 08

Comics: A Beginner’s Guide: War Comics

The Brown Wedge6 comments • 1,270 views

War is not among my favourite genres, but it has been the subject matter for some great comics over the years. It’s also been the genre for probably the most successful British comics over the years, the apparently endless Commando series, which have had some good stories here and there (the world-great Hugo Pratt drew at least one of these), but I’ve never really been interested in them.


EC was best known for the horror titles which led to the big crackdown on comics in the mid-50s, and for starting Mad magazine, but the originator of the latter, the wonderful Harvey Kurtzman, was also behind a couple of great war comics, Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat. Kurtzman wrote and laid out just about everything, for an exceptional crew of artists to finish. This includes one of my favourite short stories ever, artistically, in which the great Alex Toth (my favourite comic artist ever) shows the difficulty of jet pilots in even knowing which way up they are while flying through clouds – the g-force of the engines overcomes the feeling of gravity. There are a fair number of dull, worthy stories here, especially ones based on real history, but everything is excuted with immense skill, and there are lots of winners too.

There are great hardback collections of these, but I’m not sure whether there are cheap ways of sampling this, unless your library has something.


DC tended more towards heroic adventure in their war titles, especially the series with continuing characters, so these are mostly not terribly realistic. There are exceptions to that, including another magnificent short gem with art by Toth, written by Robert Kanigher, called White Devil, Yellow Devil. Kanigher wrote most of the stories in this line: he was a superb craftsman, with an unusual grasp of literary ideas such as motif for a traditional comics writer. Sgt Rock is the big lead character, an ultra-tough veteran soldier (there are some Kirby Sgt Furys at Marvel, which are even less realistic, and not yet cheaply reprinted, though I have hopes). The stories drawn by Joe Kubert are often great – Kubert is one of the best comics artists ever, his work full of vigour and a roughness well suited to this material. Possibly even better is the same pair’s Enemy Ace, about a German WWI pilot. The earlier stories, before some repetition sets in, are particularly powerful, and include some of the very best art DC has ever had. (My review of an Enemy Ace collection.)

If your war story tastes (if you have any) lean more towards documentary realism, DC also hosted a lengthy autobiographical series of shorts written and drawn by Sam Glanzman, named U.S.S. Stevens, about his experiences on a ship in WWII. His work is similar enough in look to Kubert’s to suffer by the comparison, but he’s a fine artist in his own right, and has some interesting stories to tell.

DC have put out a collection each of Sgt Rock and Enemy Ace in their cheap B&W Showcase Presents series, over 500 pages for about £11 (probably less via Amazon).

Warning: there is some dull and rubbish DC war material too, as available as the best, including the very stupid The War That Time Forgot, which is soldiers vs dinosaurs to far less effect than you might think.


  1. 1
    Al Ewing on 11 Jun 2008 #

    Where do you stand on HAUNTED TANK?

    I found it fun in places, confounding in others – the panel where one of Jeb’s crew says that he’s talking to himself again and the other one says that it’s because he’s been on a bullseye too long, that gets repeated verbatim in every single story, for example. Or the endless tales of Jeb having to prove himself to a Southerner because he’s a GOD-DAMNED YANKEE – bizarrely, Jeb’s response is always ‘I am too as good as a Southerner despite my inferior birthplace’ rather than ‘New York City, motherfucker’.

    Very interesting that according to the reworked origin story in Vol. 2, Jeb starts seeing The General after he’s received massive head trauma from all three of his tank crew. (For being a filthy Northerner.) It’s often a story point that people think Jeb’s a nutter, but it’s never suggested that he actually is and his delusions are what makes him a master strategist, which is a shame as it’d add an extra frisson to things…

  2. 2
    Martin Skidmore on 11 Jun 2008 #

    I didn’t buy the second volume, because I don’t care about the artists on any of the stories (much as I like the Kubert covers), and I always found the setup tedious. Clearly the ghost is real – there is far too much that makes craziness an insufficient explanation – and for me the magical help removes too much of the tension and challenge.

    A lot of people really like Russ Heath, the main Haunted Tank artist. Serious fans of the genre, because he apparently puts every rivet in the right place, and some comic fans because his line is very nice. I find him dull – he so rarely bothers to try hard on anything like body language and facial expression.

    And yes, all that ‘South is best’ stuff always bugs me, in all media. I can take it from Granny in the Beverly Hillbillies because she is a mad old bat, but it’s far too pervasive, and often smacks of a nostalgia for the horrors of the South, or at least a willingness to ignore them.

  3. 3
    aldo on 12 Jun 2008 #

    I wasn’t going to buy Vol 2 but the comic shop ordered it specifically for me so I felt a bit beholden. But , actually, I’m really quite enjoying it. As Al says, it does suffer from repetition (there’s one story where the same line is repeated in two consecutive panels even – something like “Slim, you need to thread the needle on this one!” followed by “You did it Slim, you threaded the needle on that one!”) but read them in the original manner or in clusters of two or three (maybe 50 pages at a time) and it flows really well. There’s even a Russ Heath three panel opening page (from the ‘Losers’ origin story that also features Johnny Cloud, Captain Storm and Gunner & Sarge) that is maybe my favourite in any DC war book, especially the bottom panel.

    I’m unsure whether you’re missing out on Commando or not. There’s some truly astonishing stuff there (inluding early work from lots of IPC greats like John Ridgway) but there’s a lot of dross. It did teach me a fair bit of German when I was in primary school though, even if it was only “hande hoch”, “achtung schweinhund” and “AIIEEEEEEEE!”. Garth Ennis’ serious books like War Story are a great continuation of the Commando tradition.

    The cheapest way to get the EC war books is probably through the Gemstone reprints? You can generally get the full set for about the cost of one volume of the hardcover.

  4. 4
    DV on 12 Jun 2008 #

    I’m not really convinced by Commando. The art tends to be pretty rubbish, and the stories are very much of the “that showed the krauts/japs/gimps” sort.

    The British war comics I recommend are:

    1. Charley’s War, for all that I am becoming a bit tired of how reverential everyone is towards this grim first world war story.

    2. Darkie’s Mob – hard to get hold of tale of doomed unit fighting insane commander’s private war against the Jap (er, the Japanese… these were different times)

    3. Johnny Red- Russian front air strip which managed to achieve a certain epic quality that countered its otherwise “that showed the krauts!” approach.

    4. Some off the as yet unreprinted Battle Picture Library strips by That Artist Whose Name I Don’t Know. He is way better at drawing tanks and soldiers than the people whose work they keep reprinting.

    5. An exception to my Commando hate are some recent stories about a British soldier who finds himself fighting for the Paris Commune and against the Boxer Rebellion.

    And so on.

  5. 5
    DV on 12 Jun 2008 #

    The Garth Ennis war comics of recent years – while people have been billing them as updated versions of the Commando stories, they are much grimmer. The good ones, I mean. I reckon this is why Commando refused to print them.

  6. 6
    DV on 15 Dec 2010 #

    re. Haunted Tank – the fundamental problem with this strip is that the tank in question is a Stuart, which was basically a peashooter-quipped lawnmower covered in tinfoil, a motorised coffin for its crew should they come up against any of the proper tanks the Germans fielded. So I cannot really credit anything like the recent issue of this title where said haunted tank was able to destroy a Panther or Tiger.

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