Saturday, May 22, 2010

War and Weathercraft

I've got two funnybooks with actual bindings for you today, though otherwise they couldn't be more different...

Blazing Combat
by Archie Goodwin and The Best Funnybook Artists of the 1960s

Blazing Combat is often said to be among the two or three best war comics ever published, and after reading this collection of the short-lived series' four issues, I find that assessment difficult to argue with. Originally issued in 1965 by Warren, Blazing Combat was a black-and-white magazine-format comic that took a critical view of warfare, with stories set in every American conflict from the Revolutionary War to the then-current Vietnam. It was the latter material that got them in trouble. The army reviewed the series and banned its sale on military bases, which prompted the American Legion to put pressure on distributors to stop carrying the series entirely. Sales took a sharp decline from the second issue onward, with very few (if any) copies of issue four even reaching newsstands, and Warren was forced to cease publication on it.

The story that landed them in hot water was "Landscape," about an aged Vietnamese farmer who slowly but surely loses everything to the war, until finally he's killed by a Viet Cong sniper that's taken cover in his beloved rice paddies, which are then set ablaze by American troops to smoke out the enemy. This story was seen by the military establishment as an indictment of American military action in Vietnam, an early form of the "baby-killer" accusations that were to follow a couple of years later.

In reality, the story is nothing of the sort. It's war itself that's the villain in "Landscape," as it is in most of the stories in Blazing Combat. All these stories (save one) were written by comics legend Archie Goodwin, and Goodwin's sympathies uniformly lie with the little guy. The common man who gets caught up in the madness of war. The stories are seldom critical of the soldiers fighting the wars, and never in a way that's a blanket indictment of the military. Goodwin's soldiers are always individuals. Some of them are foolish, some of them are crushed by the horrors of war, and some of them are outright bad. But I never for an instant feel like Goodwin is anything but sympathetic to the grunts.

It seems bizarre to me that these stories caused such a ruckus. I didn't read many war comics growing up in the 70s, but the ones I did read expressed the same sorts of attitudes on display in Blazing Combat. DC had a series called "War is Hell," for god's sake! But those comics (like my entire childhood) came after the cultural revolution of the late 60s, and that makes all the difference.

Aside from the series' historical significance, though, the stories are just damn good. They're simple things, understand, written for what I would guess was a teenage audience. They run in the 7-8 page range, and don't have time to do anything too fancy from a narrative perspective. With all that in mind, I was pretty impressed with them. They're great examples of storytelling efficiency, with few of them feel rushed or cramped, and they have a level of moral complexity I wasn't expecting. And in spite of the series' overall dim view of war, many of the stories also function as ripping yarns, thrilling action stories that don't often flinch from the ugly results of violence. I was particularly taken with some of the arial combat stuff, but I'm a particular fan of that sort of thing, so take that opinion with an even larger grain of salt than usual.

And of course, the artwork is just bloody stunning. The covers were done by Frank Frazetta, and the list of artists on the interiors features many of the greats of 1960s comics art: Alex Toth, Wally Wood, John Severin, Russ Heath, Joe Orlando, Grey Morrow, Gene Colan, George Evans, Angelo Torres, etc. It's all gorgeous stuff, and adds to the overall reading experience immensely. Even the lesser artistic performances here aren't bad, and all the artists bring Goodwin's scripts to vivid life in a way you too seldom see.

It's all so good, in fact, that it's hard to pick real stand-outs. Toth is probably my favorite of the artists at work here, and his work on a grim post-apocalypse tale called "Survival" is the probably my favorite in the book. Other stand-out performances include a Russ Heath story from the fourth issue with lighting effects I've seldom seen matched in pen-and-ink work, Gene Colan's use of ink wash, the hard faces and cold eyes of Joe Orlando's soliders from a story called "Special Forces," an Angelo Torres/Al Williamson collaboration, and Torres' gorgeous and moody painted inks from the final story in the series, "Night Drop."

I was also personally taken with John Severin's work throughout the series. I was primarily familiar with Severin's humor work prior to this, and was taken aback by the effectiveness of his line-work on these more realistic pages. His cross-hatched shading on a gruesome little WWII story called "Souvenirs" evokes more mood than I thought him capable of, and he even gets in some nice ink wash on a darkly comic WWI story called "The Trench."

Blazing Combat is just nice work in general, though. It wasn't the first anti-war war comic (Goodwin freely acknowledged that he was just copying Harvey Kurtzman's 1950s [i]Frontline Combat[/i] series from EC), and its contents are hardly life-changing reading. But it's great work from a group of legendary comics professionals at the tops of their games. Anyone who's remotely interested in comics history, or anyone who likes good stories well-told, would be well-served by reading it. I'm glad it's finally been collected.

Grade: A

by Jim Woodring

From the other end of the comics spectrum entirely comes the new book from Jim Woodring. If you're not familiar with Woodring's work, he's a talented cartoonist with possibly the most bizarre style comics have ever seen. Woodring is heavily influenced by Indian art and culture, but he's also fascinated by various forms of bizarre plant and sea life. He draws strange creatures with bulbous shells, tentacles, weird vagina-mouths, and pistil-like protrusions all over. It's weirdly beautiful (and vaguely disturbing) work that I dig quite a bit.

Most of his comics work has been in the form of his [i]Frank[/i] series, a set of stories that take place in a strange cartoon world that's full of dangers, cruelty, and manifestations of the purely spiritual in physical form. Frank himself is an old-school Disney-style cartoon character. He's a basically innocent, but easily-lead, little guy. He's in Weathercraft, but it's really the story of a character I've always found rather disturbing: Man-Hog. Essentially, he's the embodiment of everything lazy, stupid, and mean-spirited in human nature. He's a disgusting creep, willing to lie, steal or kill to get what he wants. The fact that his behaviour is usually rewarded with nothing but misery is the only thing that makes him bearable at all.

At the beginning of Weathercraft, he's up to his usual crap, trying to steal Frank's picnic basket. But at the end of his latest failure at leading his petty life, he undergoes a truly epic series of calamities. Battered and beaten by nature, tortured by the devil-creature Whim, and at his lowest point ever (which is really saying something). Man-Hog rips his own wrongness out by the roots and destroys it, thus achieving enlightenment. And, this being Woodring, that's literally what happens: Man-Hog yanks some horrible thing out of his throat and smashes it with a rock.

But, just as he's about to ascend into a higher state (by stepping through a big floating mirror that appears to him after an evening spent on the mountain-top), he's reminded of Whim. Earlier in the story, Man-Hog killed Whim, but his soul bounced out of his head into a plant, which suddenly germinated into some kind of crazy Plant-Whim with a terrible power over reality. Feeling responsible, Man-Hog turns his back on ascension to save the world from the evil he unleashed.

I'm over-simplifying things here, of course. As always with Woodring, there are multiple strange visions that, while interesting to look at, may ultimately make sense only to the author. And, from just my first raw reading of the book, I'm not entirely sure what the two hags who shepherd Man-Hog along the path to enlightenment are really up to, or why they do what they do. Some of that will become more clear on a re-reading (if Woodring's past work is any indication), but some of it will never entirely make sense. And I'm okay with that. The larger themes of the book make sense to me, and it was never anything less than entertaining reading. So what more can I ask of it?

Grade: A

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