When James Warren and Archie Goodwin started Blazing Combat in 1965, they made a war comic that might, in Warren’s Words, love guns but hate bullets (195), depicting war as sometimes necessary but always hateful and horrific. Blazing Combat was fully automatic for four issues
Blazing Combat (Fantagraphics, 2009) collects the entire run in a beautiful, incredibly well-bound
hardcover book. It was originally published by Warren Publishing, which also published Famous Monsters of Filmland (more here), Creepy and Vampirella. The collection includes some history from editor/curator Michael Catron, a fan letter from Milton Caniff, who had (his own trouble in depicting the Second Sino-Japanese War) and interviews with publisher James Warren and Archie Goodwin, who wrote or co-wrote everything but one story, “The Battle of Britain!” written by Wallace Wood. Yes, Wally Wood.
The book was a comic anthology, each issue containing short stories set during the American Revolution,
The Civil War, the 1885 Apache War, the Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, Thermopylae re-told in WWII Greece, Vietnam, Korea and even the aftermath of a future nuclear war. The stories’ tone is very 1960s, ironic with a cynicism stemming from brokenhearted humanism. They’re reminiscent of Rod Serling or EC horror narratives, which makes sense, since Goodwin was a fan of Howard Kurtzman and Warren Publishing was paralleling EC Comics. Artists like John Severin, Alex Toth, Eugene Colan and Wallace Wood provide the black and white art. I particularly like Angelo Torres’ inks.
While World War I produced poetry like Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est” and World War II produced Barefoot Gen and Godzilla, it seems fitting that Vietnam would produce Blazing Combat along with all the movies disappointed in humanity. Unfortunately, the U.S. military “censored Blazing Combat by banning it from sale on military bases. The American Legion objected and some magazine wholesalers halted further sales of the title….When wholesalers turned on it, Blazing Combat was doomed” (188-9). The comic’s anti-war stance was seen as anti-American at a time when Americans were fighting in Vietnam.
But there’s something I thought about more than the suppression of an anti-war comic or any of the many other ponderable things in Blazing Combat. I kept thinking about a passage from Anthony Swofford’s 2003 Gulf War memoir, Jarhead:
There is talk that many Vietnam films are antiwar, that the message is war is inhumane and look what happens when you train young American men to fight and kill, they turn their fighting and killing everywhere, they ignore their targets and desecrate the entire country, shooting fully automatic, forgetting they were trained to aim. But actually, Vietnam films are all pro-war, no matter what the supposed message, what Kubrick or Coppola or Stone intended. Mr. and Mrs. Johnson in Omaha or San Francisco or Manhattan will watch the films and weep and decide once and for all that war is inhumane and terrible, and they will tell their friends at church and their family this, but Corporal Johnson at Camp Pendleton and Sergeant Johnson at Travis Air Force Base and Seaman Johson at Coronado Naval Station and Spec 4 Johnson at Fort Bragg and Lance Corporal Swofford at Twentynine Palms Marine Corps Base watch the same films and are excited by them, because the magic brutality of the films celebrates the terrible and despicable beauty of their fighting skills. Fight, rape, war, pillage, burn. Filmic images of death and carnage are pornography for the military man; with film you are stroking his cock, tickling his balls with the pink feathers of history, getting him ready for his real First Fuck. It doesn’t matter how many Mr. and Mrs. Johnsons are antiwar—the actual killers who know how to use the weapons are not (6-7).
So if Vietnam War movies are all pro-war, I have a simple, but probably unanswerable question: Can a war comic be anti-war? Blazing Combat tried to depict war viscerally. But are comics less visceral than films? And if so, does that make the reality of war more distant or less attractive? Was the cancellation of Blazing Combat a matter of the Man noticing a new threat in comics, a skeezy underworld where impressionable youth are led into anti-social behavior by drawings of flesh-eating zombies and ladies bound by their own golden lassoes or into resisting the draft when their number comes up?
I don’t know. Seems like there never is a neat answer. It is probably enough that the American Legion, the wholesalers and the U.S. military saw Blazing Combat as anti-military rather than anti-war. After all, it was Blazing Combat‘s depiction of a farmer’s life during the Vietnam War in “Landscape!” that caused the book’s demise. And it is probably enough that Warren and Goodwin believed in what they were doing artistically and morally. And it seems likely that the truth is that readers and viewers already see things how they’re going to see them and ignore what they don’t like, whether it’s the gun, the bullets or both.