The Mammoth Book of Best War Comics

Ed: David Kendall
Constable & Robinson Ltd.

518jL-gIbdL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Except for a haunting piece about Iraq by Mark Chadbourn and Nathan Massengill (Sand – 2005), this uneven compendium is a strangely 20th Century affair that overwhelmingly features the Yanks. While a broader view of war through the ages would have made a more intriguing collection of comics, the last century at least has the distinction of ushering in two critical turning points in the history of human aggression. World War Two was the first truly global conflict, setting the mould for all subsequent wars in taking a greater toll of non-combatants than combatants. It was also the battleground that nurtured weapons of mass destruction and state superpowers. Long before VE Day, the Land of the Free had decided it was Uncle Sam’s destiny to police the world, setting itself up to become the most aggressive, self-serving, invasive military force history has seen.

With that in mind, the first story hits you painfully below the solar plexus. I Saw It! (1982) is Keiji Nakazawa’s personal account of the Hiroshima holocaust. Six years old and in the school playground, Keiji is shielded from the blast by a wall. Back home, his mother can do nothing to save his dad and two siblings from their burning house. How the two survive those early days in a decimated city littered with charred corpses and walking ghouls with dripping flesh forms the chilling core of a remarkable story of civilians caught up in the madness of politics by violent means. Later expanded into the graphic novel Barefoot Gen, Nakazawa’s short story is infinitely more powerful for its portrayal of the sacrifices his mother makes so that Keiji can become a cartoonist. It is a homage to the memory of his father, a lacquer work artist, who taught Nakazawa to draw.

Unfortunately it is down hill all the way from there, which is to say the editor has set himself an impossible act to follow, which is to say these stories are best read in reverse order. In sequence, there are a handful of classics to come, but there is also a wedge of ho-hum material made weaker by Nakazawa’s masterpiece and the knowledge of what might have been. The second story, for example, is Raymond Brigg’s searing satire on the Falklands War, a conflict largely ignored by the mainstream. The problem is that The Tin Pot General and The Old Iron Lady isn’t a comic. It’s a picture book, and a gloriously colourful one at that. Reproducing it in dull greys adds insult to injury. There were underground and agitprop comics about the Falklands worth including, but they would have needed rooting out.

Mammoth1And that is half the problem with this compilation – David Kendall all but admits in the introduction that he has largely gone for his favorites rather than digging deeper to broaden his and our horizons. Full marks to him for including examples of agitprop, underground and didactic comic work, but whether the chosen few are the ‘best’ is questionable. Tom Veitch’s The Legion of Charlies (1971) draws disturbing parallels between Charles Manson in California and Uncle Sam in Vietnam. Thanks to the anarchic artwork of Greg Irons, this rabidly insane blood-fest nails the nihilism of the 1970s underground, but it makes one crave a chance to revisit more sober anti-war material, like from Real War Stories or better still, Alan Moore’s seminal Brought to Light from a decade later.

There are no stories from Africa here, the war zone of the century, or from Yugoslavia, Cambodia, China or the Middle East, all of which have been chronicled in comic form. There is nothing about death camps, prisoners of war, refugees or asylum seekers. Representing terrorism is a curious piece by Scandinavian Fabian Goranson (Slaughterhouse Safari – 2003) chronicling his naivety when, as a student reporter, he spent time blasting off machine guns in a FARC-EP guerrilla training camp in the Columbian jungle, but the opportunity to explore the seeds of the 21st Century’s greatest bête noir has been lost. Instead we have lots of stock narratives from the gung-ho pages of Blazing Combat, Battle Action and Combat. When I was a kid, this is what war was but, for a modern readership, would one hold up Sink the Bismark as the yardstick for ‘best war movies’?

Mammoth3Some of these stories stand up to re-examination, but too many are unengaging documentaries of actual or typical events, like The Landings in Sicily (1969) chronicling the Allies’ co-option of jailed mobster ‘Lucky Luciano’ to create a mafia ‘resistance’ in Italy. Okay, it was the style of the period, and one largely dictated by the pocket-sized format of the comic, but what this compendium does offer is a chance to compare and contrast how the comic format handled docu-drama in the 20th Century. Despite a pedestrian narrative, Pearl Harbour (1962) is a cracking example of spot-colour work by the great Sam Glanzman. A double-spread that exploits the motif of the Japanese flag for a symbolic sunrise adds a powerful menace to the build up.

For all my criticisms, Kendall does include a handful of stories that will delight the avid war comic fan. The Archie Goodwin piece (Landscape – 1966), told from the point of view of a rice farmer, finds Joe Orlando working his socks off to achieve credible Vietnamese characters and meaningful battleground sound effects. From the pages of Negative Burn, two stories by the partnership of Darko Macan (script) and Edvin Biukovic (art) illustrate how a standard genre can be exploited to undermine narrative conventions to good effect, and the first episode of Pat Mills’ Charley’s War (1979) provides a taste of the brilliance that comics can achieve when thorough research, inspired story-telling and superb artwork (by the great Joe Colquhoun) seamlessly merge.

But the last word goes to the peerless Will Eisner, whose imaginative ‘silent’ story (The Casualty – 2000) of a GI on R&R recalling how he came to be a war casualty provides both redemption and hope. Despite being blown up by a hooker sympathetic to the Vietcong, he can’t resist the approaches of a second working girl. Sex drive and the need to procreate are stronger in human beings than the urge to make war.

Summing Up:
6 – A mixed bag with a few tasty morsels.

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