Thursday, June 25, 2009

Never Again

Friday Comic Book Day.

Today I am showing if not the best Timely/Atlas war story, certainly the most gripping. For many people, the war books of the fifties are all the same, with the work of Harvey Kurzman as a shining beacon of quality among the dreck. This is not true. Robert Kanigher wrote many gripping stories about personal heroism for his DC books, before falling into predictable story traps and repeating himself over and over again. Ross Andru, Alex Toth and Mike Sekowsky drew some remarkable stories at Standard, often with a lot of humor as well. And at Timely/Atlas there were two types of books, the gung-ho go-get-them war books like Combat Kelly and Combat Casey and a more fatalisic type of war-is-hell-but-we-have-to-do-it stories. On the whole you can say, the more introverted stories appeared when the war in Korea was still going on and the gung-ho type stories were produced after the war was won. But there was a time near the end of the war that both types appeared next to each other at te end of the war. The most extreme samles of both types were written by Hank Chapman, a former Sergeant in WWII, abut whom very little is known. He joined Timely somewhere late in the forties and started writing horror storie. Or at least, he started signing horror stories. He may have done other work as well, but he soon was one of the few writers signing their work (Stan Lee on humor comics being the other one at that time). Do Rico apparently wrote a lot of war books as well, but he didn't sign his work as frequently.

After a while Chapman stopped writing horror stories. Stan Lee told an entertaining story about that. He said Chapman asked for other assignments because his horror stories made him have bad dreams. Not entirely unplausible, as most of Chapman's horror stories deal with unnatural fears and threats more than the standard fare of ghosts, ghouls and zombies. But it is also the plot of one of Chapman's later stories (about a writer who dreams about his own stories and is devoured by them, so it is eaqually possible Lee remembered the story and not the actual events.

Anyway, when the Korean war started in the early fifties a lot of book changed their focus to war material. And when that sold, new war books were created. And they had to be filled. Chapman specialized in grim stories taht seemed to underline the harsh realities of war, without questioning them. And he was not the only one. There are whole books where the hero of every story dies. At a certain point he started writing stories that seem to question the war and it's purposes. For this, Chapman developed a caption-heavy documentary style, that seems to have been uniquely his own. There are stories from the viewpoint of a gun and about a mother recieving a letter. Many stories use actual headlines as a starting off point. The best of these is Atrocity Story.

The story starts by quoting and illustrating reports in the news about atrocities done by the Red Koreans to some of it's population and the American soldiers that were there to aid the United Nations forces. After making it personal by showing what it would be like if something like this would happen over here instead of Korea, he then compares these atrocities to those done to the jews in the second world war. After that, the narrator tells us how this ended for the Nazi's and recalls the shock the American public felt when the truth about these war atrocities became known to the. He then repeats the most recent atrocities and asks what would be the best reaction to them. Would it be to throw another atomic bomb? To say it is all propaganda? Or what? He doesn't know.

All in all it makes for such facinating reading becaue it seems the honest searching of a politically conservative veteran, who doesn't know what to think about everything he reads in the papers. He isn't as ready as we would be, to just call it all propaganda. He believes every single report in the papers, even though he is smart enough to take them with a grain of salt. All this is helped by the absolutely fabulous art of Paul Reinman, who has been largely forgotten and whose work in the sixties is mostly of the journeyman variety, but who in the early to mid fifties was a fascinating artist on par with Bernie Krigstein. Like Krigstein, he developed his own style from the Caniff/Sickles roots. Like Krigstein, he liked odd angles and used blacks masterfully to direct the eye of the reader. Like Krigstein, he drew for effect. But unlike Krigstein, he didn't chuck it all in for a career in art later in his life. Maybe the age difference is the clue here. Reinman was already working in the early forties and was doing his most daring work at Atlas in the early fifties. Krigstein started in the late forties and did his best work at EC, a few years after Reinman peaked. When the industry collapsed in the late fifties, Krigstein had the strength and the energy to get out and start a new career. Reinman just buckle under and started doing even worse paying and faster work for the Prize romance titles and ACG's fake horror books. Maybe if he had found a place at DC, he might have blossemed anew. Instead he became an uninspired hack. Which is hard enough, so let's think gently about him. Here at least, we see him at his best. And this is the type of work he should be remembered for. The bottom tier of page five is as good a sequence of sort you could find anywhere in the EC books. The panel on page six, where the movie audience recoil in horror from the pictures of the concentration camps, is designed wonderfully. The way he suggests a row of hanged men with two silhouettes is very clever. Even the seemingly hastily done last panels work very well. It's pushed in the corner, as if the artist and the writer didn't really dare to ask the last questions they ask, but are backed into it. A powelfull story which deserves a place in the Hall of Fame of Comic Book Art.


Human said...

the yanks were using bio-warfare in Korea at the time. No mention to that in the comic? hey! the last one or 2 panels are just too mùuch haha...the generals discussing "no no we cannot put ourselves to their level..this is not civilizated ya know". too cynical or just a bad joke?! And yes, the guy on the right panel is right: PROPAGANDA, that's the wise and only possible reading

Ger Apeldoorn said...

I recently came across a newspaper article from the time where the question weather to use the atom bomb in Korea was seriously discussed. I think the term propaganda is not appropriate here. Propaganda is (dis)information used by authorities to steer the opinion of the public. This is a serious effort by a right wing writer who had lived through the horrors of one war to make sense of another. Of course he was operating within the confines of what was done and not done in the press, but don't forget that other stories by this writer were so bleak that Atlas war comics were forbidden for soldiers - a salient fact I found out recently.