Illustrators depict brutal battles and battered troops in the escalating Vietnam War.
Narratives lamenting war, such as Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 or Mark Twain’s “The War Prayer,” continue a theme older than Lysistrata (or its adaptation into Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq). Yet while military histories and campaign stories fill bookshelves and bestseller charts, few in the uniformed rank and file choose antiwar tales. Nevertheless, both civilians and veterans may welcome this anthology of comic book stories originally released (but barely distributed) between October 1965 and July 1966.
Edited by Archie Goodwin, Blazing Combat includes his work and that of nine other illustrators who depicted brutal battles and battered troops in the escalating Vietnam War. The series began with the story of an Army advisor to a South Vietnamese battalion pitched against the Viet Cong. Protagonist Lieutenant Crew muses after a deadly day, “Funny kind of war. Not like any war U.S. Army ever fought before…you can’t use the book or many of the old rules!” This sardonic, frustrated mood sets the tone for the book’s early segments.
In Joe Orlando’s ”Landscape,” a shirtless old man wearies of having to support his family as warring factions trample his rice paddies, and appears to be killed by an Army flamethrower. When the American Legion got wind of the storyline, they sought to ban sales of the comic on military bases. Publisher James Warren explains to editor Michael Catron that this censorship was devastating. Comics relied on a tight turnaround before unsold copies would be returned by dealers for pulping, and distributors simply refused to let Blazing Combat out of their locked warehouses. For a business on the cultural margins and with little profit, the series could not be sustained under such circumstances, and the brief run ended after four issues.
What remains is a testament to the artist’s skill and to Goodwin’s sensibility; he authored 33 stories, each of which included a “Combat Quiz” to test the knowledge of a discerning audience. Unfortunately, there‘s no indication of where one issue ends and another begins, which would have enhanced this edition’s usefulness. While the four issues have their colorful covers reproduced at the volume’s end, perhaps to save costs, the lack of any division within these pages means that the whole sequence unfolds without a break.
The final four frames of a mini-drama set in Germany a quarter-century later capture what words cannot. A wine bottle’s trajectory eloquently conveys futility and abandonment in a stark cinematic fashion. Pearl Harbor, Thermopylae, Saratoga, MIG Alley, the Kassarine Pass and the Battle of Britain all pass by in small segments, seen from the grunt or pilot’s view. Irony dominates these versions, rather than heroism. A Nazi admits in the last image of one bitter conflict, “I’m only following orders,” which transcends its clichéd repetition in the midst of petty hatreds and existential despair.
The same can be said of the anthology as a whole. Warren muses to Catron that he “loves guns, hates bullets.” This succinct observation is shared by many Blazing Combat contributors who were drafted in the middle of the last century. Whether or not they saw war firsthand, these men made powerful contributions to the literature of war and the cynicism of military leadership.