Friday, April 24, 2015

Oh What A Horrible War

I have been looking at the war comics from Timely Atlas in the early fifties. When superheroes (and their easy solutions for complex problems) started losing their appear for the readers that grew up on them, in the late forties and early fifties new genres started to take over. First there were the many crime comics (following on the success of Crime Does Not Pay), then the romance genre was invented by Joe Simon and Simon Kirby and all the while western comics flourished. In the late forties EC introduced horror comics as a viable option, but one of the biggest influences was the coming or the Korean war. I am not sure who started doing war comics, but Martin Goodman's Atlas was quick to flood the market with many new titles. But what's inside them that makes them special.

The new wave of war titles came at the time that the later Marvel had just fired all of it's bullpen. The result of this was, that instead of a company style that was made by many hands, artists were encouraged to all work in their own style. For many years, comic book historians have acted as if this was the invention and sole practice of EC's Bill Gaines. But in fact, there were many more companies who either didn't care what style their artists worked in or encouraged individuality. Atlas editor Stan Lee was especially effective in that way, finding ways to combine inkers and pencillers in such a way to create a unique vision for every story. This can be seen in all of their line, but in the war books it is very visible. Between 1951 and 1953 there were many titles covering the war in Korea and there is not one of them that hasn't at least got one extremely surprising story in it.

This was helped by an editorial via towards the writers and the stories themselves that seemed to follow the same principle. Instead of talking through every story for every with every writer, Stan Lee and his war book editors let the writers do their own thing and there too the results were varied and  often unique. Jerry Robinson and Don Rico were allowed to produce four issues of one book that have continuing stories of the same group of characters, split into six page chapters. And then there was Hank Chapman. I have written about him before and will again in the future, but for here it is enough to say that the form and tone of Hank Chapman's stories was shockingly different from anything produced at the other companies, including the terrific but much more politically correct stories of Harvey Kurtzman for EC. Chapman was a very accomplished storyteller and he used his capability to write deeply disturbing war stories from the viewpoint that war was horrible but necessary. I am trying to make a list of his work (which was uniquely all signed, rare for a writer) but already I can see that in about half of his stories the so called 'heroes' die at the end of the story. It isn't until later in 1953 he discovers a way out of his dilemma when he starts to write characters such as Combat Casey, who turn the other way around and just relish in killing as many Koreans as they can. I am not sure of Chapman (who fought in the war as a parachuteer) had PTSS, but he sure shows all the signs of it.

Anyway, all of that is a long preamble to introduce four Gene Colan stories, two of which were written by Chapman. The unique quality of these stories is the art of Colan. Before this, he had been stuck in a weird sort of realism, often bordering on caricature. Around this time he was encouraged by Stan Lee to let loose. he developed his pencils to the level we know from the work he did later in life. As for the inking, at this point he still struggled to find a way to represent the greys in his pencilling. Later in his career he would say that no one could ink him in that mode and started doing without inking at all. But he did find away himself in the later fifties. But that's another post for another day.

No comments: