Star-Bulletin Features

Sunday, October 14, 2001

Comic book

Comics can hold
eerie mirror to
life of war

'War Story' tells a dark tale
via an unlikely medium


By Burl Burlingame

WAR COMICS are a classic genre. Comics went to war in World War II, with superheroes battling the Axis powers, and just after the war -- mirroring what was happening in Hollywood -- started to create more realistic storylines featuring regular soldiers. During the '60s, war comics got weird, with Marines battling dinosaurs and riding in haunted tanks. They became personality-driven and soap-operatic, like TV series, with regular "characters" like Sgt. Rock of Easy Company and Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos. Occasionally, there were insightfully created titles like "Enemy Ace," but these were rare, and almost always DC.

The writers ruled. Many of the smartly created war comics had dreadful art, although artists who were both veterans and historians -- like John Severin, Joe Kubert and Russ Heath -- made an attempt. Because the military is so specifically technological, getting the details wrong made the whole comic suspect. The world is full of nerdy rivet-counters who can tell the difference between a P-51B and a P-51C -- OK, I'm one -- and had little patience with sloppily researched and quickly drawn comics.

It didn't matter, because war comics pretty much disappeared by the '70s and stayed away for a couple of decades. There's a real chasm between being able to tell a realistic and brutal war story and a medium that is perceived as being aimed at kids. The medium rejected the message.

But now it's a new century. Comics have become Balkanized and are aimed at target instead of general audiences, and are printed with longer lead times. And the average reader is an adult male. There have been some fumbling attempts at realistic war comics, but the time has come for the medium to come of age after a 60-year adolescence.

Which brings us to "War Story." This is a four-part limited series under DC's "adult" Vertigo label, with grim stories written by Garth Ennis. It's double the usual comics size at 64 pages and costs $4.95 an issue.

The first story is "Johann's Tiger," drawn by Ennis' frequent collaborator Chris Weston and inked by Gary Erskine in a very Russ-Heathish style. Reminiscent of the "Gunner Asche" novels, it's the story of a German "Tiger" tank commander and his discouraged crew in the final days of World War II. Johann's determined to save his mates from sure death at the hands of the Russians and desperately tries to get the gigantic tank to the American lines. But the anarchy of the collapsing front, the poisoned delusions of Nazi collaborators and Johann's guilty conscience make things impossible.

The mood is grim, and the language is definately adult, and some of the scenes are nightmarishly horrible. The action is awkwardly staged, particularly in an early engagement between the Tiger and Russian T-34s assaulting at point-blank range, but the rest is appropriately moody.

In the next three issues, Ennis collaborates with artists Dave Gibbons in "War Story: Screaming Eagles," John Higgins in " War Story: D-Day Dodgers" and finally David Lloyd in " War Story: Nightingale." All are in the can.

The war comic has come of age. But in the new reality since the 9-1-1 attack, are we able to accept war as it is?

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