Sunday, December 18, 2011

Comics Review: Blazing Combat, Archie Goodwin, et al.

This review was originally published on The Comics Journal's website on March 15, 2010. It was first republished on Pol Culture.

A major goal of publisher James Warren’s 1960s comics was to recreate the glory of the 1950s E. C. line for a new generation. Blazing Combat was his answer to the Harvey Kurtzman-edited Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat. These war comics that were E. C.’s most highly regarded titles after Kurtzman’s MAD. The series’ writer/editor, Archie Goodwin, followed Kurtzman’s approach very closely. The stories were set in various wars throughout history, and they emphasized human drama over jingoism and sensationalism. Goodwin even corralled several of Kurtzman’s illustrators, including John Severin and Wallace Wood, to contribute work. The series only lasted four issues, but it is among the high points of 1960s comics. This handsome collection is one of the more welcome reprint volumes of the last few years.

The glory of Blazing Combat is its art. Goodwin’s stories, while they remain thoughtful, well-crafted reads, have dated a bit. None come close to the high points of the Kurtzman books, specifically stories like “The Big If” or “Corpse on the Imjin,” which Kurtzman wrote and illustrated himself. But Severin and Wood surpass their efforts on the Kurtzman titles, and they and the other illustrators Goodwin assembled were perhaps the finest collection of draftsmen in the history of commercial comics. Almost all of them--including Joe Orlando, Angelo Torres, Gray Morrow, George Evans, Al McWilliams, and Gene Colan--were at the height of their powers. The standouts are Russ Heath, whose expert use of mechanical tones makes the story “Give and Take” gleam on the page, and Alex Toth, whose three stories showcase his peerless command of every aspect of comics illustration. Reed Crandall also deserves special mention; the elegant hatch rendering in his contributions recalls the work of such master pen-and-ink artists as Charles Dana Gibson.

The series' only significant flaw was Frank Frazetta’s dreadful cover paintings. Frazetta specialized in violent tableaux, but his sensibility was Romantic. He had no talent for gritty realism, and his efforts here in that mode are ugly to the verge of nauseating. One wonders if the covers were the real reason the series flopped commercially. According to Warren (interviews with him and Goodwin are featured in the collection), sales fell precipitously with the second issue. The issue’s lead story, “Landscape,” climaxed with an elderly Vietnamese peasant being shot to death by U.S. soldiers, and Warren speculates that it led to the American Legion pressuring distributors to drop the title. However, Warren acknowledges that he’s only guessing. There’s no evidence to support his hypothesis. A more likely explanation is that vendors balked at Frazetta’s cover for the issue. The image is nothing short of ghastly. It depicts a soldier impaling an enemy on a rifle bayonet, and in the foreground, another soldier bleeds out through a gunshot wound to the head. A magazine with this cover would have problems with vendors today.

Frazetta’s covers were the source of some trouble with this reprint project as well, but the problem wasn’t that they were printed, it’s that they weren’t printed large enough. The hardcover edition used them to illustrate Goodwin’s interview, and they were featured at quarter-page size. Reader outcry prompted Fantagraphics Books to print them as full pages in the paperback edition. It doesn’t do the book any favors aesthetically, but from an archival standpoint, it was the right call. Blazing Combat showed comics readers the gritty downside of war, as well as the limits of Frank Frazetta’s artistic range. Its subsequent publishers have an obligation to respect both accomplishments, no matter how dubious the latter.

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