Derek Mainhart: One of the things about the current comics landscape that we here at I&N are really excited about is the sheer variety of material being produced: comedy, drama, memoir, romance, crime, horror, etc. I’ve said it before: if you can’t find something that appeals to you, it’s because you aren’t looking. Having said that, given the reality of the world since 2001, it’s perhaps surprising that there’s been a relative dearth of one particular genre: war comics. So, as we celebrate the birth of our nation, we thought it appropriate to revisit this neglected corner of the comics store.
The heyday of war comics naturally began with WWII. Captain America famously punched Hitler in the face. The heroic exploits of our men in uniform filled the pages of titles like Fightin’ Marines and Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos (that’s right; long before Samuel Jackson’s ultra-cool portrayal of the man at the helm of flying CGI aircraft carrier, Nick Fury was a regular-army fightin’ grunt.) Through the ’50s and ’60s newsstands were replete with tales of grit, patriotism and sacrifice. Their popularity waned however to the point that in the ’70s the most notable war book was almost unrecognizable as such: Weird War Tales (emphasis on the Weird). It was perhaps inevitable that the genre should fade under the shadow of Vietnam. It is somewhat ironic then that the one significant war comic of the ’80s was The ‘Nam. Doug Murray’s fictionalized account of the Vietnam War, drawn partially from his own experiences, was remarkable both for the way it tackled its difficult subject matter as well as for being published by a mainstream publisher like Marvel, of all places. Lately, as we’ve previously noted, Garth Ennis seems to be single-handedly reviving the genre with his superlative Battlefields series, as well as his surprising Fury: My War Gone By, in which he brings the aforementioned Nick Fury back to his combat roots and then proceeds to make him witness and participant to the litany of American military misdeeds following “the good war”.
Well, happily, if this week’s books are any indication, Ennis has some company in the trenches:
We begin, not surprisingly, in WWII, our most eulogized of conflicts, where the lines of good and evil were, it seems, so clearly delineated. This contrast is literally, beautifully rendered in black and white in Breath of Bones: A Tale of the Golem #1 (Dark Horse) by Steve Niles and Dave Wachter.
Breath of Bones: A Tale of the Golem #1
Scott Carney: Yeah, the storytelling here is a cut above. The aforementioned pair–and it’s a magical pair, indeed–harvests horror and hope in an temperately-paced issue that plays out as a promise: evil will get its comeuppance. Noah and his grandfather–generational bookends–are another magical pair, one that personifies the perpetual struggle between wonder and wisdom, which plays out tenderly–affected by the soft lines Wachter employs throughout, especially to craft the grandfather’s expressive countenance–during the debate over what to do with the downed RAF pilot and as the grandfather entrusts the means to salvation to his grandson with an aphorism that teaches the boy a grim reality: “sometimes it takes monsters to stop monsters.”
DM: Niles, best known for clever, over-the-top horror fare such as 30 Days of Night and Criminal Macabre, here displays a more heartfelt touch, especially, as you mention, in the boy’s relationship with his grandfather, but also in his stoic denial, and then acceptance, of his father’s fate. This is echoed by the quiet dread of a village that fears it is doomed by the encroaching forces of war – a fear that, sadly, always has currency, somewhere in the world. And Wacher’s truly remarkable art recalls not only the great Will Eisner’s later work, but even work from further afield – dare I mention Noel Sickles?
SC: While The Manhattan Projects (Image) delivers a tender turn in issue #11, in #12 masterminds Jonathan Hickman and Nick Pitarra return tender to sender and unleash the monster–the one that has been exploiting Enrico Fermi’s identity all this time in order observe humanity–particularly to discover its capabilities as it pertains to some “out of this world things.”
The Manhattan Projects #12
Throughout the book, we’re treated to “drone” Enrico’s backstory, which, outside of how he came to be, clues us into the “other side” of scenes we’ve already encountered; I particularly enjoyed the flashback decked out with a dialogue overlay, which adds a dimension to the drama that unfolded during the scout team’s assault on the Siill, as initially seen in issue #5. (For those keeping score: a similar strategy was recently employed–effectively so–by Brian Michael Bendis in a mini-crossover of sorts between All-New X-Men #10 and Uncanny X-Men #4.) As the tragic tale of Enrico Fermi comes to a close, it’s worth noting that, despite the drone’s programmed prerogative, there remains a hint of humanity in the monster; but all the apologies in the world cannot save it from the monster meant to mete out final justice in this instance: a marvelously maniacal Einstein with a chainsaw cleverly tagged with E=MC^2. My goodness! Has the Cold War ever been any hotter than this?
Thumbprint #1 (IDW), based on Joe Hill’s novella of the same name and brought to the page by Jason Ciaramella and Vic Malhotra, is a well wrought thriller that exploits the more recent and far more politically polarizing Iraq War–specifically the moral suicide that was Abu Ghraib–as a backdrop for one vet’s struggle to reacclimate herself to her far less complicated life in New York, where the problems she’s facing are almost farcical considering what she dealt with and what she did in the infamous prison. Yeah, it’s all par for the course for someone in her situation, really–until she receives by mysterious means a couple of thumbprints: one that triggers a flashback of a routine “soften[ing] up” of a prisoner at Abu Ghriab and another that really seems to soften her up a bit.
DM: Hill, who’s already proven his horror chops in comics (Locke and Key) and prose (Heart Shaped Box) here combines both worlds via an excellent adaptation by Ciaramelia and Malhotra. He’s taken the horror trope of the single, isolated damsel in distress and successfully turned it on its head; readers’ natural predisposition to root for her are tempered, if not wholly undercut, by the knowledge of her wartime actions. She may very well deserve whatever’s coming to her! Talk about “sometimes it takes monsters to stop monsters”!
SC: She responds to this faceless intimidation by carelessly casting threats to the wind–threats that she may very well be able to back up with the gun she’s got; I mean, she handles herself well enough with the all-too-handy John Perry, right? But it’s clear: her bluster belies her vulnerability; it screams she’s scared. Hell, after that last page, I know I am!
SC: But as good as those books are–and they’re really good–not a one can stand up to Six-Gun Gorilla #1 (BOOM!). I’d be lying if I said I expected that to be the case. I pretty much picked it up because of its being a #1 and, well, yeah, that and because of the promise of the title; I mean, let’s be honest, great apes and guns are the Reese’s of comics. Yes, the prospect of some sort of shenanigans starring a side-armed simian guided my first few page turns. But I found myself going bananas over one primate-free panel after another; and in that, it became clear: killa gorilla or no, this book is as fun as a bored-out barrel full of monkeys!
DM: The whirling dervish of a plot, from the mind of Simon Spurrier, involves a soldier, known only as “the Librarian,” who’s volunteered for a suicide mission on a faraway desolate planet. The Deal? He and the other members of his unit have been promised a big pay-out to their loved ones back on earth if and when they die in battle. The Twist? (SPOILER ALERT!) They’re not fighting for freedom, national defense or any other noble cause; the entire enterprise is being broadcast back home as a reality show, with all the demographic pandering and ad revenue that implies. That’s right, they’re dying for ratings. Now that’s a 21st century war! Spurrier’s story, with its multilayered mishmash of wartime violence, science-fiction conceit, and sharp-eyed satire brings to mind some of Kurt Vonnegut’s work. But thanks to Jeff Stokley’s expansive art, it’s Vonnegut as stylistically filtered through Steven Spielberg in army mode (a chaotic early sequence recalling the opening of Saving Private Ryan) and the desolation of Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns. The Result? The most promising sci-fi opening these eyes have seen since Saga. And I haven’t even mentioned that damn, dirty ape…Book of the Week.
Sixth-Gun Gorilla #1
You’ll have to pry this comic out of our cold, dead hands,
Scott & Derek