It was 1966, in the midst of the Vietnam War. President Johnson was escalating his lies to Congress and the public that prolonged this horrific and unwinnable South Asian conflict. And in that year, America suffered 6,350 fatal military casualties, well over triple the number of deaths in 1965. And a war comic titled Blazing Combat was banned by the armed forces.
No Glorious Enterprise
Blazing Combat, along with Creepy and Eerie, two other black-and-white, magazine-sized pulp paper comics from Warren Publications, established the reputation of Archie Goodwin as one of the most important and well-respected writer/editors in the comic book industry.
Inspired by authors emerging after WWII such as Norman Mailer and James Jones, Goodwin wrote practically every one of the magazine’s 29 stories during its four-issue run. His refusal to glorify war and his empathy with combatants on all sides demonstrate the major influence of Frontline Combat and Two-Fisted Tales, the Harvey Kurtzman EC comic books which began in the early 1950s.
As Goodwin declares in the interview at the back of Fantagraphics’s new Blazing Combat hardcover collection, “If Kurtzman had never done his war comics, there’s no way I would have even known how to do any of the Blazing Combat material.” And indeed, anyone familiar with those original, landmark, legendary comics can hear its echoes loud and clear in Goodwin’s scenarios.
Goodwin drew from a slew of top-tier artistic talents who’d contributed to those Kurtzman war comics: Wally Wood, John Severin, Alex Toth, Reed Crandall, George Evans, Gene Colan, and Russ Heath. And while their illustrations don’t have the energy and fluidity that they did under Kurtzman’s art direction, their visual narrative execution is still strong and solid. Although the covers for each issue, testosterone-fueled, adolescent male power fantasies painted by EC sci-fi comics alum Frank Frazetta, barely related to the subtlety and sensitivity of the contents, they do have their own grotesque merit.
World of War
Each of the seven or so Blazing Combat depicted a variety of clashes from the battle of Thermopalye through the American Revolution to the Korean conflict, with one always set in present-day Vietnam. “Conflict,” with art by Colan, is a compelling examination of discrimination against Asians and blacks. The others were drawn by Joe Orlando, who’d worked on EC’s science fiction and horror titles and eventually rose to become Vice President of DC Comics. His “Viet Cong,” the lead story in the very first issue, depicted barbarous atrocities being committed by the South Vietnamese army, who were our allies. Sales of that issue were decent, but some began to resent what they perceived as the comic’s dangerously incendiary anti-American attitudes.
Orlando’s “Landscape,” issue two’s opening story, was a scathing indictment of the cold-blooded brutality and ultimate futility of war as seen through the eyes of an elderly Vietnamese peasant. Wholesalers objected to the degree that they refused to ship thousands of copies to newsstands and began to return unopened cases for refunds. Consequently, many readers never even saw the magazine and sales began to decline. And in a move that recalls General Patton’s threat to ban Stars and Stripes, a military paper that published Herblock cartoons, the U.S. Army banned Blazing Combat from the PXs of its military bases. In another interview from the new book, publisher James Warren considers that “Landscape” may have motivated the then-influential American Legion to pressure distributors to drop the magazine. And after issue four, he could no longer afford to continue the title.
Blazing Combat‘s Legacy
Blazing Combat was short-lived, yet it was a vitally significant milestone at a time when anti-war demonstrations and underground comix were only starting to get mainstream attention. And now, five decades later, its message is once again politically relevant, as it seems as though our next global conflict is just a Presidential tweet away. The stories may be dark, but they’re never without caring and compassion.
Handsomely presented with sharp detail on quality paper, Fantagraphics’s Blazing Combat is an ideal choice for Banned Book Week or any other time.