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