Ensley F. Guffey On… War Comics

Cover of Blazing Combat #3, art by Frank Frazetta
Cover of Blazing Combat #3, art by Frank Frazetta

Each week, one of Biff Bam Pop’s illustrious writers will delve into one of their favorite things.  Perhaps it’s a movie or album they’ve carried with them for years.  Maybe it’s something new that moved them and they think might move you too.  Each week, a new subject, a new voice writing on… something they love.

This week we once again have the pleasure of having Ensley F. Guffey share his love of War Comics, but this time focusing on the Blazing Combat series…

Hello and welcome to another installment of “Ensley F. Guffey on War Comics.” Last time, I used this space to gush about one of my favorite British contributions to the genre, but today I’ll be hopping back across the pond to examine a series that regularly places in the top five of every “Best War Comics” list I’ve ever seen: Blazing Combat. Unlike the other books I’ve written about here, Blazing Combat didn’t come into my life until I was an adult, and beginning to seriously study the genre, but when I discovered it, but it was worth the wait.

There are a total of four issues of Blazing Combat, put out by Warren Publishing in late 1965 through the summer of 1966. Edited by Archie Goodwin, who also wrote or co-wrote every story published, Blazing Combat followed Warren’s famous horror comic Creepy in an end run around the Comics Code Authority by being published in a magazine-sized, black and white format that lay outside the CCA’s preview. Besides Goodwin’s writing, Blazing Combat featured artwork by some of the giants of the genre: Angelo Torres, George Evans, John Severin, Joe Orlando, Alex Toth, Eugene Colan, Wally Wood, Russ Heath, and Reed Crandall. Further, a painting by Frank Frazetta graced each cover.

Panels from "Holding Action," Blazing Combat #2, art by John Severin
Panels from “Holding Action,” Blazing Combat #2, art by John Severin

Just as Warren’s Creepy took its inspiration from EC Comics’ pre-Code horror books, Blazing Combat took its cue from EC’s Korean War era comics Two Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat (and you can expect to hear more about those gems in a future column). Goodwin himself approached his subject with the same humanism shown by EC’s Harvey Kurtzman a decade earlier, and produced some of the most powerful, most moving stories in the history of the war comics genre. Goodwin distained the jingoistic patriotism that was so pervasive in most war comics of the time, focusing instead on the very brutal, very human realities of war: the old Vietnamese peasant in “Landscape!” who sees his village liberated from the French, from Saigon, from the Viet Cong, losing his family, his village, the rice fields themselves, and finally his own life to the war, and all along one man with a gun is no better or worse than another. Or the African American corpsman in “Conflict” who risks his life under enemy fire in Vietnam to get a wounded and unrepentantly racist soldier back to friendly lines and a medivac, to be rewarded by being dubbed an “ignorant nigger” by the man he just saved.

The last page of "Conflict!", Blazing Combat #4; script by Archie Goodwin, art by George Evans.
The last page of “Conflict!”, Blazing Combat #4; script by Archie Goodwin, art by George Evans.

In Blazing Combat grizzled veterans and green boys both break and endure, orders are carried out at horrific cost, the good guys are revealed as murderers and so are the bad guys, and a sense of futility and horror becomes the only real outcome of any war. All of that is not to say that Blazing Combat was in any way unpatriotic, or anti-American. Goodwin was just more concerned with getting as close to the emotional reality of war than he was in anything else. Every story had that kind of depth, and every story had incredible artwork penned by men at the very height of their careers. Unwittingly, Warren had created a space where the work actually transcended the genre, and brought the art to the sequential.

It couldn’t last. The first issue of Blazing Combat hit the stands in October of 1965, just as the number of US Marines deployed in Vietnam was nearing 200,000 following the Johnson Administration’s decision to undertake large-scale ground operations there earlier in the year. The anti-war movement was still in its infancy, and even questioning America’s involvement in Vietnam was still seen as being unpatriotic with a hit of communist sympathy thrown in for good measure. After the publication of “Landscape” in Blazing Combat #2, the US military banned the comic from being sold on any US military bases around the world. This was followed by the American Legion coming out against the book, using their national organization to put pressure on the few dozen regional magazine wholesalers who exercised an effective monopoly on distribution in the US and Canada at the time.

Remember that this was before the days of direct distribution. Until the late 1970s and early 1980s, publishers paid to have their books printed, sold them on consignment to a national distributor, which sold them on consignment to the regional wholesalers, who then consigned them once again to retailers. When the sales period for a given magazine ended, retailers counted up the number of copies sold, took their share, returned the unsold books, paid the wholesalers, who destroyed the unsold copies, took their share and paid the distributors, who took their cut, and, finally, paid the publisher. Profits per issue at each level were marginal, and there was never a guarantee that the publisher would get its printing costs back. With that kind of penny-profit structure, pressure from groups like the military and American Legion could mean serious losses for everyone in the chain. Wholesalers didn’t want a repeat of the anti-comics campaigns of 1952 – 1954 which had resulted in the creation of the CCA, multiple state and municipal laws banning certain types of comics, and a serious loss of sales, so they refused to distribute Blazing Combat any more, and that was that. Warren couldn’t afford to keep paying to print a book that they couldn’t sell, and Blazing Combat #4 ended the run.

Yet, once you get beyond the undeniable corporate censorship, what we are left with are four of the most perfect war comics ever created. The quality of writing and art never deteriorated, Goodwin’s editorial passion never waned, all because none of the creators involved, or their publisher, ever even had the chance to be affected by outside pressures. Blazing Combat’s death was so swift that there was no opportunity for anyone to compromise. These four diamonds faded into collectors’ items and footnotes until 1993, when Michael Catron’s Apple Comics bought the rights to the stories and reprinted them out of their original order. In 2010, Fantagraphics Books published the entire run, in order and in one volume, including color plates of Frazetta’s covers and interviews with both James Warren and Archie Goodwin, finally making Blazing Combat available to a new generation of readers at an affordable price. Goodwin & Co.’s stories stand the test of time, holding up extraordinarily well, and still pack a punch with every read. They’re not kids’ stuff, and not exactly light-hearted reading, but they remain some of the finest war comics ever produced anywhere in the world, and no collection or study of war comics is complete without them.

Cover of Blazing Combat #2, art by Frank Frazetta
Cover of Blazing Combat #2, art by Frank Frazetta
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