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Tuesday, April 6, 2010


Cover art by George Tuska

Today I'm comparing two stories that address the subject of killing during wartime. While the two comics featured were both published during the Korean War, I'm sure the psychology of killing remains the same no matter what the era or conflict.

I found it interesting to compare the way each writer/publisher handled the subject. I have already made it clear in earlier posts that I find EC Comics war titles, as edited by Harvey Kurtzman, to be superior to most every other war comics, past or present, so naturally one of the stories here is a solid representative of those Kurtzman war titles. The other story is taken from Stan Lee and company's Atlas Comics.

Up first is a short story entitled "FIRST BLOOD!" from Atlas' WAR COMBAT #2, 1952 (I know what you're going to say, and no, there is no one named Rambo in this one). It concerns a soldier new to life-or-death combat, and the mental agonies he faces over the prospect of taking another man's life.

The art is by Norman Steinberg. The story is



As we've explored here before, many war comic stories can range from a serious, thoughtful look at the philosophies and ramifacations of war, to the basic patriotic near-propaganda type story. This interesting tale seems to start as one and end as the other. By the end of the story, quite suddenly, our protaganist has dropped any apprehensions he held for the first 99% of the story and adopts the attitude that his Sergeant has been trying to sell him, and as if he were a robot who realizes that his emotions were clouding his judgement, he dismisses his enemies as human beings and transforms them into 'dirty rats'. All of a sudden he becomes a killing machine, eager to find more 'symbols of tyranny' to gut.

To my friends who have served in the military and have faced such threats, I'll say that I can only try to understand how it must be to face a situation like this. From the harrowing true combat stories I've been told, I can understand that facing a deadly enemy who is out to kill you rather necessitates such a simplified outlook. I'm only saying here that this story seems to ignore the larger issues of having to kill a man for the very first time and wraps up the subject into a neat package wrapped in a red, white and blue bow. There are no hints here that he will later have nightmares about this. Hey, I know it's just a comic book, and no one really expects to find a deeper psychological understanding in a comic. Still, the story started out with promise that it just might delve a bit deeper...


...Which brings us to our second tale, and true to form, Kurtzman's writing and layouts do offer a much more complex view on the subject of the 'enemy'. From FRONTLINE COMBAT #1, 1951,  we now look at a story drawn by the amazing Jack Davis. The story isn't focused on the soldiers first kill, but rather takes us to an uncomfortable place where we must face the fact that our enemy is a man, just as we.

Written by Harvey Kurtzman, art by Jack Davis.



To be honest, Kurtzman's story seems to end on the same type of patriotic note of duty over emotion. But it is far more complex than that, as we, through the American soldier's eyes, have learned a lesson that his companions were not aware of. As he turns once more to fire at the tiny figures as if they were no more than ducks in a shooting gallery arcade, we are profoundly aware of the incomprehensible emotional journey he has just made, the gut-wrenching burden that will likely haunt him for the rest of his life. This is an incredibly moving story, delving so much deeper into the subject than the Atlas story chose to explore. By comparison, our first story barely scratched the surface. The second story took us all the way into that dark pit and exposed us to a small glimpse into the true horror of war.

The next time you meet one of our brave soldiers,
don't forget to give them the honor and respect that they deserve.

Frontline Combat #1 cover proof with signature by artist Harvey Kurtzman


  1. I don't think that either story ends as a pro-war propaganda piece.

    Each soldier responds to the situation in a realistic way, one by embracing the notion that the enemy are simply dirty rats who must be killed, the other by accepting that war entails killing men with whom one might, under other circumstances, exchange personal intimacies. In neither case does the world become a happy or just place. Relatively few readers will envy either soldier his mind-set or the rôle he finds himself playing.

    Amongst those soldiers who are pulled into wars about which they have doubts (perhaps because they doubt the legitimacy of any war), a few may actively choose not to participate, and others may be paralyzed by the difficulty of the decision, but most make adjustments like those made by each of these men, and most physically survive the adjustment.

    Given the problem confronting these soldiers, the only other plausible outcomes would be courts martial or severe injury. The implausible outcomes that come first to mind are exactly those of propaganda, pro- or anti-war.

  2. that last story disturbs me. Now THAT'S entertainment!

  3. These are gems of story telling to be sure! That Tuska cover (with the foot about to hit the mine) has more tension than I've seen in a long time. I love Steinberg's scratchy narrow lined art too. Thanks Apo!

  4. I agree with oeconomist, KW, and r/e but would add that JACK DAVIS is an under-rated artist who we will all hopefully be showcasing more of in future blogs. Keep up the fantabulous commentary, Fiery One~!

  5. Daniel,
    After reading your astute observations, I had to re-examine my initial commentary, which leads me to say both stories are certainly equally valid and fairly 'deep' as I had put it. Truly, having never found myself in such traumatic circumstances, I would have to agree that any man (or woman) faced with such a situation would have to justify their behavior (that is, the act of taking another's human beings life)with any rationale that they could, or face the consequences of NOT taking the enemies life, which as you point out, would result in the death of their countrymen, comrades or ultimately and most likely themselves. To that end, I can only lift my hand in a respectful salute to all who have had to face such horrific choices in this life. For so many of us who have not had to make such decisions in their lives, such stories are entertaining fiction, but the fact is that for so many, it may be a realistic portrayal of an experience that has left a permanent mark upon the fabric of their being. To truly contemplate such things should make us realize how supremely blessed we are to exist in a 'peaceful' time, for despite whatever hardships most of us face, most of us have no idea of such terrible things.

    I always appreciate you dropping by and gracing my blogs with your comments! Thanks, o!

    Indeed! That was the incredible gift of Mr. Kurtzman, to express in a simple comic book story such elegant and powerful truths and/or ideas. If we read carefully. The splendor of Davis' art only adds to the power conveyed. Thanks for your comment!

    Thank you, my friend! I blah-blahed so much I neglected to mention the beautiful cover by George Tuska, another magnificent artist who sadly departed from us just a few short months ago. And, I also didn't say how much I liked Mr. Steinberg's art on the story as well. Great stuff. So glad you could stop by! ( I hope to visit you more often as well)
    Thanks, Rog!

    How very true! There isn't enough of Jack Davis' beautiful art being shown on all of the great comics blogs around here...ironic, given the fact that Mr. Davis has been one of the most prolific artists ever to grace a comic page. I hereby vow to post more Davis work in days to come!
    (Now that I think about it, I believe there is a nice Davis story that was posted at SILVER AGE GOLD recently, as well as (of course) a bunch at Pappy's blog, I hafta go and see!)

    Thanks for the great comment!