Today was Veteran’s Day, and here on the Dork Forty we thought it might be nice to mark the occasion with a brief gallery of funnybook veterans. First up is Joe Kubert, who (though I’m not sure if he ever fought in the war himself) was best-known in the middle years of his career for drawing the hell out of World War II. His work on DC’s wide range of war comics in the 1970s is often considered the best of his career, and below is a Kubert pencil piece from 1986, prominently featuring the character he was most often associated with, Sgt. Rock.
Arrayed in the background are most of DC’s other major war characters, including Captain Storm, the crew of the Haunted Tank, and the men of Rock’s own Easy Company. Also included is my personal favorite war comics hero, Baron Hans von Hammer. A rare World War I character, “The Hammer of Hell” is also notable for another reason: he’s a noble German fighter pilot whose series was called Enemy Ace.
As you can no doubt tell from the above illustration, DC’s war comics tended toward the somber. “War is Hell!” their covers would often proclaim, and the senselessness of death in battle was a constant theme. So leave it to Stan Lee to take the opposite tack:
Popular funnybook rumor has it that Lee only created Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos to prove to his publisher that he could make a hit out of anything, no matter how bad the title. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but he certainly gave the book his all, delivering some of his most boisterous writing, and assigning art chores on the series to Jack Kirby. An actual World War II veteran who was shaped by his experiences in that conflict, Kirby brought the same barrel-chested, hell-bent-for-leather approach to funnybook war that he did to funnybook super heroes. Sgt. Fury, for instance, was aptly named: he fought so hard that his clothes couldn’t stand the strain, making him quite possibly the only man to have fought World War II shirtless.
Kirby’s best war comics work, though, probably came in his wildly creative stint at DC Comics in the 1970s. He was given the series Our Fighting Forces, which starred four characters who’d lost their own features (Captain Storm, Johnny Cloud, and the Marine duo Gunner & Sarge) and been tossed together into a special forces unit known as The Losers.
Never one for the downbeat themes that defined DC’s war line, Kirby took The Losers and made them… winners, focusing on the bombastic action and massive scenes of combat that were his trademark.
It wasn’t terribly popular with the book’s established, more serious-minded readership, but it was the sort of damn fine adventure comics the King was known for.
The war comics, a staple of the industry from World War II straight on through their 1970s heyday, died out in the 1980s. The reasons were many (poor distribution and changing tastes among them), but I have to wonder if maybe the over-reliance on the World War II setting didn’t hurt the genre in the long run. The funnybooks had been reliving that war for 40 years, and as it faded from memory, so did they. But today, at least, we remember them.