Monday, January 21, 2013

Opening Contact - Blazing Combat #2

Copyright ©2012 J. Michael Catron
Copyright ©2012 J. Michael Catron
For my sophomore effort I decided to take a leaf out of Ryan’s book and go with something close to my own heart. War comics. I grew up reading a great British institution called Commando before graduating onto things like Eagle, Johnny Red before moving on to work like Garth Ennis’ War Stories, Battlefield, etc. I then went back and discovered titles like E.C’s Two Fisted Tales, Frontline Combat and my personal favourite, Blazing Combat from Warren Publishing.

This weeks panel is taken from the controversial story Landscape! from Issue #2 of Blazing Combat, with words by Archie Goodwin, art by Joe Orlando and letters by Ben Oda

This panel not only did something different in regards to its point of view, but also played a part in sinking the title after only four issues.

Find out how after the jump!

To begin with I’d like to talk about the panel itself before getting into the some of the more historical reasons why this panel resonates with me. 

As we can see, the panel is at ground level looking slightly up towards the sky. The panel is dominated by the opening text piece, the title and the American jet-bombers speeding from left to right. 

Copyright ©2012 J. Michael Catron
At the bottom left of the panel we can see an old man working a rice field. The landscape, the old man’s clothing and the jet-bombers appearance all suggest we’re in Vietnam. As mentioned, the view is tilting up towards the sky as if looking up from the rice field itself. The way the shot is positioned invites us to associate with those on the ground, the old man and the other inhabitants of the settlements dotted across the Vietnamese countryside. 

In this way we're forced to see things from his/their point of view, something that was unheard of at the time (which I’ll get into later). When first looking at the page our eye is immediately drawn to the large title font and the jets directly beneath it. It’s only on a second look perhaps that we notice the old man. If that wasn’t enough the text piece also pushes our attention there, highlighting the fact that we, the reader, like the pilots above may have missed him.

“They do not notice the rice field below or the old man working in it…to them, both are just part of the…landscape!”

The man’s stance suggests he has a similar point of view. He hasn’t dropped his scythe, he isn’t watching in amazement as these jet powered weapons of war fly over his livelihood. It suggests that as long as they keep heading north, as long as the war doesn’t come to HIM that they too are nothing more than momentary distractions, a small kink in his everyday existence. 

Copyright ©2012 J. Michael Catron
Extrapolating slightly from the opening panel, the story follows the old man (refreshingly devoid of ideology) in his efforts to stay clear of the war as it rages ever closer to him. In the end it proves impossible to avoid and the old mans world is brought crashing down in a very sudden manner. In this regard the opening panel also serves as a twin to its counterpart at the end of the story, lending the latter of the two panels a poignancy and emotional kick that perhaps might have been absent if the mirroring wasn’t there. 

I’d like to get into a bit of historical context as well here as it will only increase appreciation of the opening panel and the story as a whole. Following the fantastic success of their horror comics magazine, Creepy, Warren Publishing were looking for their next hit. Creepy itself had been inspired by the horror line from E.C Comics. Noticing the popularity of E.C's war titles such as Two Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat, James Warren saw fit to attempt to try something similar and thus Blazing Combat was born. 

The editor of those E.C war titles, Harvey Kurtzman**, would act as a special consultant on the new title but the majority of the heavy lifting would be down to editor Archie Goodwin. Goodwin was involved in the writing in all but one of the twenty nine stories Blazing Combat featured in its short four issue run. 

The first issue featured stories set in Vietnam (dealing with the difficult relationship between U.S forces and their South Vietnamese allies), World War One, World War Two, the American Civil War and the American Revolutionary War. Sales were solid enough on this initial issue, enough for Warren to think the title had legs and could sustain itself. 

The story above, Landscape!, was the first story in the second issue and would play a huge part in the ultimate fate of the title. When this story was published in January 1966, Anti-Vietnam sentiment was yet to take root in America with 190’000 combat troops in the country and President Lyndon Johnson pledging that they wouldn’t be leaving until Communist aggression was stamped out. 

As word of Landscape’s distinctly anti-war stance spread, the American Legion began a campaign urging distributors to make sure copies of the magazine were not sent out to wholesalers, but instead left to gather dust. The popularity of comics within the military still existed from its World War Two days, with many titles being carried in PX’s and military bases across the country. Once word got out about the title, the American military also refused to carry the title, ensuring that Warren would be losing $4000 per issue instead of his projected $2000. Not only were copies being returned to Warren unopened but they would often be accompanied by nasty letters and the threat by distributors to refuse to carry ANY Warren title, not just Blazing Combat. The decision was made that issue four of Blazing Combat would be its last.

Copyright ©2012 J. Michael Catron
The opening panel of Landscape then is not only the beginning of a heart wrenching anti-war story but the beginning of the end for Blazing Combat as a title. At a time when an anti-war stance was tantamount to being a traitor to your country, it was also the beginning of comics beginning to tackle the uglier aspects of war, telling us exactly ‘how it is’. It showed us that comics could discuss and show issues more related to the real world than capes, tights and outlandish fantasy. It could even be argued that such work was the precursor to the journalistic comics work of people like Joe Sacco, Josh Neufeld and Ted Rall.  

The panel also marked a beginning of sorts for an anti-war stance that was just beginning to find a foothold, a sentiment that would only grow as the years progressed and U.S combat casualties got higher and higher. Sadly though, the story, the comic it was part of and Archie Goodwin’s writing were ahead of their time. 

“Archie was a prophet in his own time. He knew. He didn’t have to wait until 1973 to find out that the war was a mistake. So, you’ve got to give Archie a hell of a lot of credit.” 

(James Warren in a 1993 interview with Michael Catron)

Warren continued his controversial stance despite the death of Blazing Combat, creating and publishing impactful anti-war adverts on the back of other Warren Publishing titles well into the early 70’s. 

Copyright ©2012 J. Michael Catron
Copyright ©2012 J. Michael Catron
To me those three bomber-jets flying over an old man and his rice field are the beginning of comics showing us that at their best they can engage us like no other medium, forcing us to consider other points of view and putting us in terrain we hope we never have to walk.

Are there any other examples of this that spring to mind? Are mainstream comics as connected to the headlines now as they used to be? And why aren't there more war comics? 

**Update: As Michael Catron points out in the comments it would appear that Kurtzman had nothing to do with Blazing Combat. Thanks to Michael for pointing that out.

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Michael Catron said...

Quite a good look at Blazing Combat and this particular story (one of my favorites, too).

One factual correction. I did ask Archie if Kurtzman had anything to do with Blazing Combat and he told me no. That interview was published in Blazing Combat, Fantagraphics, 2009.

By the way, the very panel you describe was used in this cool trailer for the Brazilian edition:!

(You don't have to speak Portuguese to enjoy it.)

-- Mike Catron

P.S. Would mind adding my copyright notice to the images in this post? Then you have my official permission. Copyright ©2012 J. Michael Catron.

Dan Hill said...

Hi Mike,

Thanks for commenting on the article. Blazing Combat has been hugely influential for me personally and I adore the collected edition you guys put out.

I've added the factual correction to the bottom of the post, cheers for pointing that out.

I loved the trailer and choice of music and panels.

I've added a copyright notice to a caption on the images that are centred. For those that are justified left or right I've added a copyright notice to the image properties. That way if someone hovers over the images a copyright notice will pop up (if I'd put them underneath like the centred images it would have broken the formatting of the post).

I hope that's okay :)

Thanks so much for reading and taking the time to comment.


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