Saturday, January 29, 2011

Social History in Comics: New Heroic Comics 81 - "Hill 528"

The significance of New Heroic Comics 81 (March 1953), published by Famous Funnies, is that it contains a short true story about the bravery of Corporal Fred McGee in the Korean War. Corporal McGee is still alive today, and is a decorated veteran of the Korean War. In this two page story depicting the events on Hill 528 for which Corporal McGee received his honors, McGee is not shown as an African American, even though that is his identity. Personally I think it is unlikely that this omission was deliberate on the part of the comic book creators. It is more likely that it was simply assumed that McGee was white, because in the early 1950s, institutional racism, if nothing else, tended to make society blind to the contributions of African Americans. It was as if a whole section of the population didn't exist, and you can see this by the absence of African American characters in comics throughout the 1950s especially. The error made on this comic is reminiscent of that made by the Marvel colorists on the cover of Sgt. Fury 1 in the early 60s - they simply assumed that all the characters were white, unaware of Lee and Kirby's intention to introduce diversity into the Marvel universe. Here then is "Hill 528". I wish that somebody who is a comic book creator would re-do this short story with McGee correctly depicted as an African American, and publish it somewhere while McGee is still alive.

As a special treat, here's the inside back cover of the comic, which features a Boy Scouts of America National Jamboree ad drawn by none other than Frank Frazetta!

Also, just to complete this short post, here's the cover of Sgt. Fury 1, showing the incorrectly colored Gabriel Jones:

Gabriel Jones is the famous African American horn-blowing member of the Howling Commandos.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Social History in Comics: G. I. Combat 141 - "Let Me Live... Let Me Die!"

Joe Kubert's cover of G. I. Combat 141, like many DC covers from the late 60s or very early 70s, is somewhat misleading. Taken at face value, and it's the word balloons that do it, the cover suggests to readers that in the story the Haunted Tank is going to be destroyed, and that somehow it will be the fault of an African American man. Quite why DC would want to create the latter impression is curious, because Robert Kanigher's story reads with an integrationist, anti-racist message. The story begins with the Haunted Tank crew re-stocking with ammunition from a supply depot manned by a segregated African American unit, much as would have often been the case in WWII.

The action takes it's leave of the supply depot, and the crew of the Haunted Tank meet up with Sgt. Rock and Easy Co.! So this is a crossover issue.

On this next page Kanigher highlights not only the hell dished out by a tank with it's machine gun when fully loaded, but the hell experienced by the gunners when that ammo runs out. The point seems to be, without those men supplying the ammo, war is hell for those expected to fight. Rock and Easy will hold the position while the Tank goes back for more ammunition. But what they find when they arrive back at the supply camp is sickening indeed.

At the ammo dump there's one lone survivor. After loading up, and hearing the survivor's story and of his frustration at being in the war but without the opportunity to actually fight, Jeb insists the un-named African American soldier ride with them. Just as well, because when the Tank is attacked by a fighter plane their new crew member saves the day (note the contrast between what actually happens in the story and the impression given by the cover).

Back on the front line, the un-named African American soldier mans the machine gun in a fierce fight with the Nazis, and just as victory is achieved, he takes what turns out to be a fatal bullet. This one had some signs that it was going to end tragically, and sure enough it does.

Superb art by Russ Heath really compliments Kanigher's script. We're left at the end with another Kanigher message of transcending those racial categorizations that divide us as human beings. His anti-racism messages were rare but clearly important to him, as over the years he didn't let up. He wasn't a lone voice in the comic industry, but he said the most out of the few who wrote in this way. Just like the African American heroes of WWII to whom he was drawing attention in this story, Kanigher's status as a great comic book writer, one with possibly the most important message ever delivered by the medium,  is not fully recognized. Huge numbers of African Americans fought in WWII but few had direct, front line combat roles. Those that did often distinguished themselves but didn't receive the recognition they deserved. Nor was the importance of those vast numbers relegated to supplying the combat troops fully recognized. Gradually, and while it's still possible to do so, people here and there work to correct the tale history tells of those events, like in an article I came across recently. But here in this 1970 DC comic, Kanigher and Heath were doing that 40 years ago, probably almost un-noticed at the time, except by regular readers of The Haunted Tank! And certainly the more I read of Kanigher's work, the more I feel I want to highlight his contribution not only to my favorite art form, but also to eradicating racism.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Social History in Comics: Blazing Combat 4 - "Conflict!"

With the 2011 Black History Month just around the corner, I found myself again a little confused as to why we should still need such an event to ensure that African American history receives the attention it is due. But then today, as I was doing a little background research for a newer and bigger project on minorities in comics that I'm embarking upon with some friends, the answer suddenly slapped me in the face. I was looking online for any material on mid-20th Century newspaper strips featuring black characters, especially written or drawn by black artists. It was a tough slog to find anything at all. Even what I did find about "Dixie to Harlem" and "Heartbeats", featuring Torchy Brown and written and drawn for the Pittsburgh Courier by the first female African American comic artist, Jackie Ormes, about whom a recent book was published, is more or less limited to small features discussing that book. Then I came across a website that made the penny drop. It is a 'work in progress' site by Tim Jackson dedicated to Pioneering Cartoonists of Color, and by the time I'd read to the bottom of the page, then checked on eBay to see if I could find any lots of Pittsburgh Courier comic pages and drawn a blank, my mind was practically yelling, "Where are the published collections of these comic strips?" I can find so many of the ones I'm familiar with compiled and reproduced for anyone to buy and read, but none by those African American artists featuring African American characters from a time when our society was divided. I felt I wanted to do something, whatever possible, to address this deficiency. As a society we need to find and rescue the work of these forgotten artists before it is too late, if it isn't already. But where to start? I for one will add an ongoing search for Pittsburgh Courier comic pages when I'm on eBay, but I've a feeling putting this situation right is just a teeny bit more than I can handle all on my own. What I can do, I then thought, was to do more of what I've already been trying to do. That is, talk about the history of minority characters in mainstream comics, and how they gradually came to be there as American society de-segregated. Because the material written and drawn by black artists for black audiences back in the day is so rare, I don't even know if I'll ever even manage to find or purchase any. So it looks like my efforts will mostly if not wholly be confined to writing about the work of those non-African American writers and artists who took the first steps towards racial integration in mainstream comic books, and hopefully indirectly thereby raising more awareness of that increasingly inaccessible body of work belonging to the African American community of the mid-20th Century.

For this post I'm featuring Warren's Blazing Combat, the anti-war comic in magazine format from the mid-60s. Issue 4 from 1966 features this 7 page story drawn by Gene Colan and written by Archie Goodwin, who wrote most if not all the stories in the short-lived series. Set in Vietnam, I find this story not so much anti-war, although it certainly doesn't shirk from depicting the harsh realities of war, but more of an anti-racist comic along the same lines as the very few similar war stories that EC, DC, and Marvel published during the 50s and early 60s.

When you read about the history of Blazing Combat, you'll find that its brief existence was a result of its content irking the US military because of the anti-war nature of its messages. That link I just put there was to the 2009 reprint book published by Fantagraphics Books and still for sale on Amazon. I highly recommend it. This Goodwin/Colan story, "Conflict!", isn't just about how terrible war is, however. It's also about how terrible racism is. I see in this story echoes of Wally Wood's "Perimeter!" from Frontline Combat 15. Blazing Combat 4 also post-dates Sgt. Fury 6, which has a similar anti-racist storyline and also appears influenced by Wood's mid-50s masterpiece. Blazing Combat as a series is full of exceptional artwork and arguably the best writing in Archie Goodwin's career. Colan's artwork is stunning - his war comic art for me is amongst the best he's ever done, and this is a fine example.

From a social history point of view, what do we have here? We've got a qualified African American medic out on the front line in Vietnam tending to wounded troops. But there's a certain element amongst the GI's that doesn't welcome his presence, because of the color of this skin. Whereas Lee and Kirby could get away with a full-on confrontation against racism in Sgt. Fury 6 early in 1965, because they used the fabricated scenario of an integrated unit fighting in World War II, Blazing Combat hits home with a very un-PC for 1966 double-whammy located in the contemporary theater of conflict - Vietnam. The first punch in the one-two, of course, is the horror of the Vietnam War itself. The second is the troubling truth of racial conflict within the ranks of the US military. By the mid-60s the military had been fully integrated for a decade, yet there was persistent racial tension. Although the military were far more advanced in terms of desegregation than was civilian society, that doesn't mean that there were no problems.

What else we see is the African American medic having to soak up racist abuse. In his case he appears to achieve his maintenance of equilibrium in the face of this abuse by focusing on his job of tending the wounded, regardless of their race. We see him concerned for an injured Viet Cong soldier, as well as the white soldier whose racist tirade would elicit a different, far less tolerant response from most. I think a man would truly have to be situated on a platform where he saw all people as human beings, not belonging to categories based on race, in order to be that tolerant. People like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Next to someone like that, the racist person appears degraded, uncultured, uncivilized, and I think the creative team wanted to bring that out with this story, just as did Wood in "Perimeter!" So enjoy this story, and buy the book if you haven't already got it. It needs to be on every comic book lover's shelf - I think so anyway!

Here's links to last year's Out of This World posts that featured racial integration and anti-racism in war comics:

World's Finest 17 [Spring 1945]
Frontline Combat 9 [Nov/Dec 1952]
Frontline Combat 15 [Jan 1954]
Our Army At War 113 [Dec 1961]
Sgt. Fury 6 [March 1964]
Tales of Suspense 61 [Jan 1965]
Our Army At War 160 [Nov 1965]

And although not a war comic, there's one issue that cannot be left out of this discussion:

Weird Fantasy 18 [Mar/Apr 1953]

So over the coming weeks I'm going to be adding posts to this theme of racial integration in war comics, as well as looking at some of the earliest mainstream black superheroes. If anyone out there knows of war comics earlier than the 1970s that feature African Americans, please tell me about them! If you have big collections of Atlas or Charlton war comics, maybe there's something I've not seen.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

British Girls' Comics: Girl Annual 1965

Here's a selection of stories and features from one of the later Girl annuals, as the title was struggling to adapt to the swiftly changing fashions and culture generally of the 1960s. One of the few comic strips left from Girl's 1950s heyday was a single page of John Ryan's Lettice Leefe, now simply called 'Lettice'.

The handy thing about Girl was that it credited writers and artists. This 1965 annual featured art by Pat Tourret in this 4-page story "Out of the Blue". Her distinctive style looks familiar, and perhaps some of the stories in the Diana annuals from the 1970s are by her. Have to take a closer look. This story here is about a young woman struggling to find her niche in the world. Quite by accident she stumbles into her future, when her glider crashes into a quarry and she meets a professional paleontologist! Love it!

"Lazy Holiday", another 4-pager, and in color, is drawn by Gwen Tourret, another of the three Tourret sisters, all of whom were comic artists! Gwen went onto a career writing and especially illustrating children's books. "Lazy Holiday" is another of those independent middle class young adult female vacation sagas set in a European destination. Typically, the unsuspecting sunbathers end up with far more adventure than they anticipated.

"Model in America" is again drawn by Gwen Tourret and is an unlikely, if charming tale of a New York fashion model and her photographer saving the day as an old Southern family faces ruin from corporate ruthlessness. In the early 60s and before anti-Vietnam War sentiment tarnished the Brits' love affair with the USA, America remained an alluring, if distant, ideal for the young. I'm only surprised that so few stories in these girls' comics I've been looking at feature events set in the USA.

One of the non-story (I say that with tongue in cheek because these Beatles anecdotes are clearly posed and contrived for the fans) features in the book is about the Fab Four!

By now I can tell at a glance that the next story, "Beth Goes on TV", is drawn by Pat Tourret. A fourteen year old girl's dream comes true when she gets to sing backup with her favorite band. But is she ready to abandon her existing life for stardom on the road?

This next story, "The Red Pennant", is drawn by Leo Davy, an artist about whom I am unable to find any information. That surprises me, given the quality of his artwork in this story. In some ways it's almost reminiscent of Neal Adams' work, only several years before Adams achieved fame. Appropriately so for a British girls' comic, a gutsy young lady beats a champion sailor to save her family home.

This last example from a packed Girl annual is by a Spanish artist credited only as Ortiz. Exactly which Ortiz I can't determine for sure. It looks to me like it could be an early example of the work of José Ortiz Moya, who worked on Eagle and 2000 A.D., two British weekly comics in the 1980s. What makes me think this story is by José Ortiz is the similarity between this artwork and that of Ortiz's early 1960s strip Caroline Baker, Barrister at Law in the British newspaper The Daily Express. José Ortiz was also a significant contributor to Warren titles in the 70s and 80s in America.

"Cindy's Night Out" is a nice nurse romance that incorporates that favorite romance comic device, the masquerade party. Cindy decides to skip the party to study, but ends up running outside to aid a young doctor in trouble on his way to the very same event that our nurse protagonist has skipped out on. He charms her into going dressed as a nurse, and of course, in true romance comic fashion, she passes her exams anyway, and he reveals his true identity to her. We can imagine a life of wedded bliss in store for the two as the fourth page ends.

This 1965 Girl annual has presented some interesting stories and art. Being more of a magazine format in terms of content, there's a lot I've not represented with this selection - the various features, illustrated text stories, and so on. I've focused on the sequential art, and I think you'll agree that, on the basis of it, Girl is a publication well worth investigation.