Review by Frank Plowright
Before Fantagraphics acquired the reprint rights to the classic EC catalogue of the 1950s, they printed this very welcome collection of 1960s war stories inspired by Frontline Combat and Two-Fisted Tales. The template was wholly appropriated. One writer, Archie Goodwin, spread his six to eight page stories around the finest artists working at the time. The material ranged from the contemporary to historical, and there were no recurring characters. The only significant difference was that these stories originally saw print in an oversize black and white magazine format.
Goodwin’s intentions fly in the face of the provocative title, and his agenda is laid out from the opening tale, set in the then contemporary battleground of Vietnam. The anti-Vietnam War movement within the USA was relatively small at the time, so Goodwin’s story of the atrocities committed by the Americans’ South Vietnamese allies to extract information was very much the eye-opener. So much so, in fact, that it was instrumental in the patriotic American Legion doing their level best to strangle the comic at birth.
Their campaign is detailed in interviews with Goodwin and publisher James Warren transcribed in the rear of the book, which also features colour reproductions of Frank Frazetta’s painted covers to the original series.
In the hands of both former EC contributors and newer talents, the artwork is almost all excellent. Reed Crandall, George Evans, Joe Orlando, John Severin and Wally Wood were EC mainstays, while Gene Colan, Russ Heath and Alex Toth also contributed back in the day. The careers of Al McWilliams, Gray Morrow and Angelo Torres began after EC’s glory days, but their standards are no less accomplished. Whether featuring Crandall’s turn of the 20th century illustrative precision or Toth’s spartan, often geometric approach prioritising space, the shade of Torres or the light of Severin, there’s barely even an average page of art to be seen.
Goodwin was equally varied with his storytelling. We accompany patrols, hear the experiences of individual soldiers, zoom through the skies, or follow a medic. Parallels are drawn between a World War II holding action and the battle of Thermypolae, stunningly illustrated by Crandall, and Toth’s work on one man struggling to survive the Russian winter is equally amazing. Goodwin frequently reduces the combat portrayed to one man against another in brutal struggle with their lives at stake.
If there’s a single war comic tale that defines the Vietnam war it’s surely the Orlando-illustrated ‘Landscape’. A Vietnamese farmer endures a succession of ‘liberations’, none of which improve the fertility of his land or the quality of his life, which is reduced by degrees until an inevitable ending.
With the world once again at war, and US patriotism again defined by some in terms of aggression against other nations, Goodwin’s thoughtful brand of polemic is as relevant today as it was when first published fifty years ago. A masterclass.
In 2018 Fantagraphics published a new edition after access to better quality reproduction material. It’s sharper