Sunday, 18 September 2016

Don't mess with the logo!

MANY YEARS AGO, when I earned my living in the publishing industry, there was a line of thought that you didn't mess with a magazine's logo - except for once a year when you were allowed, if you were lucky, to add snow.

British comics have long had a tradition of adding snow to the masthead for seasonal issues. In fact, it's something of a cliche. The Dandy is dated 1938, but is by means the earliest example I've ever seem. The Smash is 1967, when British comics were still in their heyday. The TV Comic is from 1970, but looks much more old-fashioned than the Smash, don't you think? (Click on the images to enlarge.)
From a marketing point of view, I suppose, this makes sense. A product's branding is its unique identifier in the marketplace and so should always be immediately recognisable, right? But the problem with this marketing philosophy is that it assumes the customers are stupid, and it probably shouldn't be applied to magazine logos, anyway. I mean, even if you change a magazine logo a lot, it's safe to say that magazine readers can, by definition, read, and so can probably still recognise a magazine, even if you transform the cover logo drastically.

The other exception is the related, but slightly different situation, of changing a magazine's logo as part of a deliberate re-branding exercise. This you would do if you thought the masthead was looking a little tired, or you wanted to signal to readers that something about the magazine (and of course I'm actually talking about comics here) had changed. In past years that was a course that wasn't undertaken lightly, as the marketers - we called them circulation people back then - still saw this as "messing with the logo", but that seems to happen much more often now than it used to. I've been seeing more and more examples of both "messing with the logo" and evolving the logo for marketing purposes in recent years, some of them for good, some of them for ill. 

Probably the earliest, and most extreme, example was on Will Eisner's newspaper comic strip, The Spirit.

When The Spirit first started in 1940, the first page was designed like a standard Sunday page of comics, with a standard consistent logo. But after his service in WWII, Eisner returned to the strip newly-energised and the regular logo was jettisoned, becoming more radically creative with each issue.
However, The Spirit was exempt from the usual marketing objections because it wasn't a comic that used its cover to sell itself to customer. It was given away free with newspapers, so Eisner didn't haven't anyone looking over his shoulder, second-guessing his creative decisions. Which was probably why The Spirit was so ... creative. Nothing will stifle creativity quicker than a bunch of administrative people telling you why you can't do stuff.


"GREAT NEW LOOK!"

The earliest example I was aware of as a kid reading Marvel Comics was when Stan decided, for whatever reason, to revamp the logo of his fantasy anthology title, Strange Tales, with issue 80 (Jan 1961). I'm guessing this was because he thought the old logo, which had been around since Strange Tales 1 (Jun 1951), was looking a bit "old", or maybe he didn't think it fit the house style being established by Artie Simek and Sam Rosen.

This seemed a bit odd at the time, as there was no attempt to give the masthead of Journey into Mystery a makeover, and that had been around almost as long as the original Strange Tales logo. The first version of the Strange Tales logo would have been by an anonymous Atlas staffer, but the revamped logo, introduced with issue 80 (Jan 1960), with its wavy outline, is almost certainly the work of Artie Simek.

I can see Stan's point. The old Strange Tales logo looks quite different to both the newer logo that replaced it and the Journey into Mystery masthead. It's very likely that the old Strange Tales logo was created by someone much less talented than Artie Simek or Sam Rosen.
The wavy Strange Tales logo was very effective and would enjoy a long run on the title's masthead. Even when The Human Torch was replaced in Strange Tales 135 (Aug 1966) with Nick Fury Agent of SHIELD, the full size Strange Tales logo persisted. The Tales of Suspense and Tales to Astonish logos of the same period were revamped to incorporate the stars' names on the masthead. This wouldn't happen on Strange Tales for another year when, on issue 150 (Nov 1966) Doctor Strange was finally incorporated into the title's cover logo and, in a nice touch, the lettering style for the character reflected the magazine's roots by using a similar, wavy outline style.

When Stan did get around to looking at the logo of the Journey into Mystery title, as the Thor feature grew in popularity and finally took over the book, he turned to established Marvel letterer Simek.

Even though Journey into Mystery 1 was published six or seven years before Artie Simek officially worked for Marvel, the logo does have the look of his work. The line spacing was increased in mid-1963 to fit better with the new corner box. Note how similar the lettering of "Thor" is to the Strange Tales logo. And the "Thor" on JiM 99 is a foretelling of the later Thor masthead.
The logo that appeared on Journey into Mystery 1 (Jun 1952) remained pretty much unchanged right through to when Thor first started appearing in the title, in 1962. There was a slight tweak when the Marvel Corner Box was introduced with JiM 91 (Apr 1963) where the gap between "Journey into" and "Mystery" was increased to line up with the foot of the corner box. It was probably deemed too much trouble to redrawn the logo to be more condensed (taller and skinnier).

What I find most interesting about the masthead is that it looks for all the world like the work of Artie Simek. The ragged ends to the letters are very much a Simek trademark, but according to Wikipedia, he didn't start working at Marvel until the late 1950s.

The "Thor" on the cover of JiM 103 was a return to the wavy outline, then JiM 104 introduced the classic "The Mighty Thor" logo which would last until Thor 336 (Oct 1983). With issue 126 (Mar 1966), "Journey into Mystery" was dropped from the masthead and the title became Thor.
As the logo evolved, though, the hand of Simek was more and more evident. The earliest renders of the word "Thor" were almost all by Simek, with his favourite wavy outline, similar in some ways to the revamped Strange Tales logo. The "Thor" on the cover of JiM 99 (Dec 1963) actually prefigures the later Thor logo that would be introduced on JiM 104 (May 1964). That Thor logo, which would persist for the next seventeen years, was almost certainly the work of Simek, with its ragged ends and the signature chunk out of the "O".


WHO THE DON HECK IS ARTIE SIMEK?

Arthur Simek (born 6 Jan 1916) was one of the premiere letterers of the Marvel Silver Age comics, but began as a freelancer for Marvel's predecessor Timely Comics some time around 1947. The earliest Timely credit I could find for Simek was for the cover for Kid Colt Outlaw 9 (May 1950), though he would have been one among many, as Timely output was large. 

An Interview with writer Leon Lazarus in Alter Ego 90 (Dec 2009) does shed some light on Simek's standing in the Timely offices of the late 1940s. "We were on the 14th floor of the Empire State Building," explained Lazarus. "The letterers were gathered in the production room, away from the artists. In that room with me were many people, most of whom I don’t remember now. Mario Aquaviva was in charge of the letterers, but Artie Simek was over him. Artie was a tall, skinny guy, very nice and quiet, with a big Adam’s apple. He never pushed anyone around. He didn’t letter stories; he did logos."

It's likely that Artie Simek, who supervised the letterers at Timely, would have been designing logos and having them finished by staffers or freelancers. But the cover blurbs on the Kid Colt Outlaw do look like Simek's work.
So, despite the account on Wikipedia, it seems likely that Simek continued to letter for Marvel, either as a staffer or a freelancer, right through into the 1950s. Further, Simek seemed to survive the Great Atlas Implosion of 1957, but not before exploring work possibilities at DC, lettering World's Finest 91 (Dec 1957) and Batman 112 (Dec 1957). Perhaps he found the culture at DC not to his liking because he was back at Marvel very soon afterwards and was quickly the main letterer for the eight titles a month the fledgling Marvel Comics was publishing. 

Along with his contemporary, Sam Rosen, Artie Simek would go on the letter all the key Marvel titles through out the 1960s. He died 20 February 1975, aged just 59.


WHO THE SAM HILL IS SAM ROSEN?

Sam Rosen, the other letterer of the Marvel Silver Age, began in the comics industry in 1940, lettering Will Eisner's Spirit newspaper strip. His association with Eisner led to lettering work for Quality Comics and he also contributed his calligraphy to the comics published by Victor Fox. His earliest Marvel work I could find was on an interior strip for Timely's War Comics 1 (Dec 1950), though he continued lettering for Quality throughout the 1950s, as well as Harvey Comics and Prize.

Sam Rosen began as a letterer on Will Eisner's Spirit newspaper giveaway, on both the lead strip and the back-up, Lady Luck. As part of the Eisner team, he also lettered for Quality Comics over the next fifteen years.
By the beginning of the 1960s, Rosen had joined Artie Simek and between them, they lettered what Stan called "The Marvel Age of Comics". The earliest Marvel credit I could find for Rosen was on the story "Goliath - The Monster that Walked Like a Man!" in Journey into Mystery 63 (Dec 1960). From there he became a regular contributor, adding Incredible Hulk and Iron Man in Tales of Suspense to his regular assignments.

By 1964, Rosen was lettering The Avengers, Amazing Spider-Man and Fantastic Four, though he would sometimes switch titles with Artie Simek.

Once Sam Rosen got his feet under the table at Marvel, he was off and running, though Artie Simek was still lettering the covers at this point.
I've not been able to discover Sam Rosen's date of birth, but I can report that he died in 1992.


... AND BACK TO THE LOGOS

Not long after the Strange Tales logo revamp, Stan ordered a new masthead for Tales of Suspense. The identity of the letterer on the first version of the Suspense logo is lost in the mists of history, but could well be the work of Sol Brodsky. On Tod Klein's excellent blog, he mentions that Brodsky would often do the basic designs for late 1950s/early 1960s logos and other hands, often Artie Simek's, would do the final render. However, the redrawn version looks a lot like the work of Sam Rosen.

When Tales of Suspense launched in January 1959, Artie Simek was lettering for Marvel, though the logo doesn't look anything like his work. By the time the masthead was revamped, in November 1962, Sam Rosen was lettering for Stan and I suspect this logo is his work. Later in May 1964, the Suspense masthead was once again transformed to allow for title star Iron Man to have more prominence.
This would have been one of the first things Rosen did for Stan, and may even have been set as a test. Compare the blocky, drop-shadowed letters of "Suspense" with Rosen's lettering on the splash page of Amazing Spider-Man 17 (Oct 1964).

Sam Rosen's lettering is distinguished by its squat, rounded characters and the trademark drop-shadow. The title lettering here is very similar to the revamped Tales of Suspense masthead on 1962.
Then, as the Iron Man strip grew in popularity, Stan decided to reduce the size of the comic's actual title and emphasise the book's cover star. "Tales of Suspense" was brought down drastically in size and ranged on to a single line and "Iron Man" became the main lettering in the logo, looking not a million miles away from the type style used on the very first issues of Suspense

Tales of Suspense 59 (Nov 1964) added Captain America to the masthead, and just five months later was rendered in the colours of the American flag. As the new solo titles for Iron Man and Captain America hoved into view in 1968, the last few issues of Suspense alternated the the emphasis on the two characters.
When Captain America joined the book as co-star, "Iron Man" was downsized to allow his co-star equal cover-billing, which was likely done by Sam Rosen, as reported on Grand Comic Book Database by Nick Caputo. Then just a few issues later, on Tales of Suspense 64 (Apr 1965), the "Captain America" lettering was rendered in red, white and blue. Some have criticised this design as being difficult to read, but as a kid, I loved it. The covers continued like this right through to Tales of Suspense 90 (Apr 1967), when the positions of "Iron Man" and "Captain America" were reversed for the first time - which made sense as Cap was the cover-star of that issue. The next change was when Stan realised he was going to have Cap take over Suspense and spin Iron Man off into his own title ... so he began featuring each character's name bigger on alternating covers, beginning with Suspense 97 (Jan 1968).

The difference between the logos on Tales of Suspense 98 and Captain America 100 isn't huge. But with Captain America 110, incoming artist Jim Steranko completely overhauled the comic's masthead.
In 1968, with Marvel no longer constrained by the draconian conditions imposed on them by the DC-owned Independent News Distribution, they suddenly went from just 14 titles, five of which were bi-monthly, to a massive 21 comics. Iron Man, Sub-Mariner and Nick Fury Agent of SHIELD all got their own titles, along with Silver Surfer, Captain Savage (a Sgt Fury spin-off) and Captain Marvel. Spider-Man got a magazine-size comic, Spectacular Spider-Man, and Doctor Strange, Captain America and The Hulk took over Strange Tales, Tales of Suspense and Tales to Astonish respectively. It was turbulent time for title logos.

As Suspense transitioned to Captain America, there wasn't really a seismic shift in logo styles. More of a minor tremor. The logo lettering became a bit more condensed, to fill the space left from dropping "Tales of Suspense" and "and Iron Man". At first, the red-white-blue kept it from looking too dull, but that was dropped with issue 102, and any pizzazz went with it, leaving a really lifeless masthead. It would be left to Jim Steranko in 1969, to do a bit of a radical overhaul of the logo, with issue 110 (Feb 1969). He too avoided the red, white and blue colour scheme and gave Cap a more dynamic masthead, slightly reminiscent of the Superman logo. However, it seemed that no one could make up their mind what Cap's logo should be, and over subsequent issues the masthead swung between old and new versions and all stops in between.

Captain America 118 sported the same style logo as had appeared on the first ten issues of the title. Issue 134 had a weird squashed version of the same logo which was quickly dumped in favour of the return of the Jim Steranko version with Captain America 139 (Jul 1971).
With Captain America 118 (Oct 1969), the masthead went back to the original style, sometimes with the red-white-blue, sometimes just the one colour. But it didn't last long. Captain America 134 (Feb 1970) introduced a new style which last just five issues before changing back to the Steranko version again.

Three different cover designs in the space of a year is the sort of thing that gives marketers nightmares. The lack of consistency is confusing for readers, they reason. In this case, I'm not altogether sure they're wrong.
Then, just when you thought things had settled down, issue 143 (Nov 1971) had a completely revamped logo design, which last a mere three issues before going back to pretty much the version we saw on Captain America 134. The editorial certainty had gone, due most probably to the fact that Stan had stepped back from being the editor of the line, leaving these kinds of decisions to others.

Suspense's sister publication, Tales to Astonish went through a similar evolution. The title started with a very geometrical logo, which was stylistically similar to the Suspense logo and was likely designed by Sol Brodsky. But inside a year, on issue 12 (Oct 1960), the masthead was worked over by, I'd say, Artie Simek. Those ragged ends to the letters are a Simek characteristic. Then the logo remained unchanged all through the Ant-Man and Giant-Man years - with no attempt to accommodate the character's name into the masthead.

The first Tales to Astonish logo was every bit as bland as the Tales of Suspense one, but by issue 12, Stan had Artie Simek redraw the lettering, adding his trademark ragged ends to the characters. However, when Giant-Man became the title star, Stan didn't have his name rendered larger, as he'd done with Iron Man in Tales of Suspense, so I've done it here for him, so you can see what it might've looked like.
I've suggested before that Stan seemed bewildered that Ant/Giant-Man wasn't more of a success with the readers. But at the same time, I wonder why he didn't have Simek or Brodsky revamp the Astonish logo to include Giant-Man's name as he did with Iron Man over on Tales of Suspense. Surely, if he'd made the branding for Giant-Man more prominent on the Astonish covers, that might've gone some way to making the character seem more important in the minds of readers? But then again, as noted in an earlier post, the character was struggling without a strong "rogues gallery" to play off ...

With issue 61, Tales to Astonish built the logos of the co-stars into the main masthead. The Giant-Man lettering would be gone inside a few issues. The Hulk graphic would last for a while, disappear, then resurface when The Hulk took over the title as the main star. The Sub-Mariner logo would arrive with issue 70, transform then revert back to the original over the next year or two.
It wouldn't be until Tales to Astonish 61 (Nov 1964) that Giant-Man would be incorporated into the logo, at the same time as The Incredible Hulk was - for Giant-Man, this was too little too late. Within four issues he'd be gone, banished temporarily to super-hero limbo, his place in the title usurped by Fantastic Four villain, The Sub-Mariner, beginning with Astonish 70 (Aug 1966).

The logo for the Sub-Mariner was a slightly odd, triangular affair, configured to allow space for "The Incredible" ... as long as The Hulk was on the right. Much later on in the run, beginning with Tales to Astonish 91 (May 1967), Marvel took to alternating the position of "Sub-Mariner" and "Hulk", much as they did over on Tales of Suspense. The problem was that as soon as they did that, the shape of the Sub-Mariner lettering didn't fit the space properly, so it was again revamped, closely resembling the masthead of the Golden Age Sub-Mariner comics - a decision I'm guessing acknowledged Golden Age fan Roy Thomas would have had something to do with. On issue 91, it looks slightly odd, as the lettering is rotated slightly clock-wise. Compare to the original below.

The Sub-Mariner logo that appeared on Tales to Astonish 91 and would be used later in the run of Silver Age Sub-Mariners, had its roots in the Golden Age Sub-Mariner logo. A kind of cross between issue 1's logo (Spring 1941) and issue 2's (Summer 1941).
Then, just a few issues later, the masthead was re-jigged again - as with Tales of Suspense - to allow the two co-stars turns in dominating the cover logo. Because "Hulk" is such a short word, the letters had to be extended (short and wide) to take the right amount of space, though I think the lettering looks much better condensed as it was on earlier issues.

First Hulk had the feature role on Tales to Astonish 99, then Sub-Mariner the following issue. When the big green guy took over the title, his logo was re-rendered once again, with less-than exciting results.
Tales to Astonish 99 (Jan 1968) was the first to favour The Hulk and issue 100 (Feb 1968) gave Sub-Mariner the top spot, but once again the lettering had been given a makeover, similar to the 1966 version but this time rectangular rather than triangular.

When The Hulk took over the title with issue 102 (Apr 1968), there was more than enough space to render "Hulk" in the more condensed style I preferred, though once again, it had gotten a little dull, reminiscent of the first version of the Astonish logo. 

The first issue of Subby's own book retained the lettering style of his logo on Tales to Astonish. After three years, a pastiche of the Golden Age logo was introduced. Two years later, the masthead had reverted to the 1968 version, with one unimportant addition.
Meanwhile, The Sub-Mariner spun off into his own title, Prince Namor, The Sub-Mariner 1 (May 1968), retaining the logo style the Bullpen had set up for him on the cover of Tales to Astonish 100. This would last three years until, probably once more due to the influence of Roy Thomas, the masthead was revamped to resemble the Golden Age version more closely. Then, with sales floundering a little, the original Silver Age logo was reinstated on Sub-Mariner 65 (Sep 1973), with the addition of "Savage", which didn't help as the title was cancelled with issue 72 (Sep 1974).

The original logo for The Incredible hulk was thick and blocky - just like the character. The first run of the Silver Age title sported a slender and elegant logo, not really in keeping with the big green rage monster it represented. I liked the graphical approach of the later 1960s logo, but weirdly, the masthead went back to an elegant look at the beginning of the 1970s.
The Hulk logo persisted for a short time, then on The Incredible Hulk 110 (Dec 1968), the masthead was given a complete makeover, and the title lettering was rendered as though constructed from massive blocks of stone - way better than what had come before. There were echoes of the original logo from Incredible Hulk 1 (May 1962) - the heft of the letters and the 3D perspective shadow diminishing away into the distance. This was my favourite Hulk logo of the era. Yet it lasted just 25 issues before Stan had it redrawn into the style that was to last from Incredible Hulk 129 (Jul 1970) to 313 (Nov 1985), with only minor tweaks ... over fifteen years. Why I'm not sure, but perhaps Stan found the rock-hewn version too fiddly to colour effectively.

I could go on like this with every Marvel title of the Silver Age, which would be a lot of fun for me, but I wouldn't want to test your patience any further than I already have. Perhaps if anyone's interested I could take a look at titles like Daredevil and X-Men which also went through some intriguing transformations over the 1960s and 1970s.

Next time, I'll look at some of the logos that were altered just for dramatic effect, rather than for evolutionary reasons. Until then ...

Next: I said, Don't mess with the logo!


Sunday, 28 August 2016

United Colours of Commando-dom

BACK IN THE 1960s, I had begun reading American comics by first discovering DC editor Julius Schwartz's re-tooled versions of The Flash and Green Lantern, and the ultra-smooth Michelangelo-inspired art of Carmine Infantino. In pretty short order I discovered Justice League and the other superhero titles. Superman and Batman I'd already been familiar with via the black and white annuals that were available in the UK around the time.

Of course, like all comics of the time, the company's other titles were heavily cross-promoted in the books I picked up. Mostly the superhero titles advertised other superhero titles but, occasionally, an ad for a science fiction comic or a war book would show up in the comics I bought.

As attractive as the DC house ads were, with their terrific Ira Schnapp design, I wasn't in the slightest interested in war comics, so I wouldn't experience the grandeur of Joe Kubert and Russ Heath art until much later.
However I wasn't interested in war comics. After all, we had plenty of war stories in our own home-grown comics I could read if I wanted to. So the work of writer/editor Robert Kanigher and artist Joe Kubert went pretty much unnoticed by me.

Then, by the time I got to 1965, I was avidly devouring Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's Marvel Comics. Captain America was my favourite and I thoroughly enjoyed his adventures in both Tales to Astonish and The Avengers. But seeing the cover of Sgt Fury 13 - either in a house ad or in a shop, I can't recall which now - I knew I had to have it. In that story, as related in my earlier post, Captain America was just a guest star and so Fury and his Howlers had the lion's share of the action. But that was enough to pique my interest. Here was a war story that played out more like a superhero tale. The Howlers were each individuals and had particular talents that came handy in just about any situation. And the combination of Lee's deft, bantering dialogue and Kirby's over-the-top action sequences was enough to make me forgive the title for being a war comic. And the Marvel completist that I was turning into had to track down the earlier issues I'd missed.

WAR - MARVEL STYLE!

By the time the first Sgt Fury comic came out, Lee and Kirby were already beginning to refine the Marvel style of comic-building. Bearing in mind that at this stage Marvel publisher Martin Goodman was still restricted to just eight titles a month under the terms of his distribution contract with the DC-owned Independent News - just sixteen bi-monthly titles in all - it looks like Sgt Fury and His Howling Commandos was a replacement for the cancelled Incredible Hulk, the last issue of which had appeared two months prior.

Sgt Fury 1 placed this odd "Meet the Howling Commandos" double-page spread right after the title splash ... very unusual for a Marvel Comic of this period.
What was different about Marvel's war comic was that the squad was made up of an ethnically diverse crew. Both Lee and Kirby would have been aware that, for example, black and white soldiers would have been segregated into different platoons during WWII, but they didn't care about that. Right from the get-go, the pair set out to create a comic that, though set in the world of two decades earlier, addressed what they saw as real concerns in 1963's United States.

Though I have no way of knowing for sure, I'm convinced this was Stan Lee's doing. In his autobiography Excelsior!, Stan wrote, "I told [Goodman] I felt we were succeeding because, unlike with most other comics, we were concentrating on characterisation and realistic dialogue, which had helped make the fantasy angles seem more believable. Also, I had tried to inject humour, humour that comes out of character and situation rather than simple gags. I referred to our entire approach as the Marvel Style. I told him that it was that style that made the difference.

"Martin replied, 'That's too subtle, Stan. Kids don't appreciate that. You know what I think? I think they're just good titles, that's what. Spider-Man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man; they're great names.'

"I knew they were, but that wasn't the point. That's when I decided to bet that I could prove he was wrong. Remember, it was the Sixties and readers were sick of war and anything that had to do with war. So I said, 'I'll do a war book with the worst title I can come up with, but if it's done in the Marvel Style, I'll bet it'll sell.'

"He said, 'Not a chance. Once and for all, this'll prove you're wrong, Stan. Go ahead and try it.'

"Well, it wasn't easy coming up with the worst name possible but I tried. I wracked my weary little brain hour after hour until I finally zeroed in on the most unlikely title I could think of - Sgt Fury and His Howling Commandos.

"The fact that it was a war theme alone should have been its death knell, but the title was admittedly too long and much too cumbersome. We could barely squeeze it on the masthead. Then, to make my task even tougher, I gave our hero, Sgt Nick Fury, the most ethnically mixed platoon I could dream up. It consisted of Jewish Izzy Cohen, Italian Dino Manelli, Irish Dum-Dum Dugan, Gabriel Jones, a black man - well, you get the idea. There was even a gay platoon member named Percival Pinkerton."

That last bit, about Pvt Pinkerton, I'm really not sure about. At the time, I'd always taken the portrayal of Pinky to be just the way Americans see the British - slightly fey, tea-drinking, umbrella-carrying prigs. It never occurred to me, until reading that quote in Stan's book, that Pinky was anything other than Stan's view of a typical British soldier. And I still don't. I'm fairly sure that this is all just retro-fitting history to make Stan seem more astute than he actually was.

This first issue of Sgt Fury didn't seem to know what it wanted to be. Especially out of place is the goofy third panel in the page above and the DC-like "Weapons of War" feature page that might have been at home
in
GI Combat, but seems oddly out-of-place here.
The story in Sgt Fury 1 (May 1963) isn't actually that great or ground-breaking. The plot has Fury and his team parachute behind enemy lines to free a captured resistance fighter before he can be forced to reveal the dates of the Normandy landings to the Nazis. And though in later years Jack Kirby would insist he always did his best work so he could "make sales", I really don't think this is anything like Jack's best work.

The splash page is truly horrible. The composition is jumbled and Nick Fury doesn't look anything like Nick Fury. It's possible that other hands messed with this before it went to press, but examples of Kirby phoning it in are seen all through the book. Is it possible Jack didn't agree with Stan about putting his energies in to a war book? After all, the newsstands were awash with WWII comics. More importantly, are they "Commandoes"? I thought they were "Commandos".

The structure of the comic is odd, as well. There's a six page "origin", which shows us The Howlers in training with Dum-Dum Dugan presiding, then the team parachuting in to France, during which Dugan takes out a Messerschmitt with a hand grenade. The art looks rushed and crude, almost like this prologue was actually an afterthought, and the inking by Dick Ayers is not up to the standard that we'd been used to in the Marvel monster tales in the preceding years.

The second chapter, which runs to 15 pages, seems better drawn, with a full page splash at the beginning, and starts off in the middle of the action with The Howlers already on the ground, infiltrating a French town.

Is it possible that the original story was just these fifteen pages, which were planned for a generic war book (Commando Action?), along with a shorter back-up tale, in the same way the first few Spider-Man stories were just 14 pages? I guess we'll never know, but it doesn't seem an unreasonable explanation.

But those minor carps aside, Lee and Kirby established the feel of the book and the characters right out the gate. All the components that would separate Sgt Fury from its DC counterparts were all there - the informal and slang-laden dialogue, Fury as a tough but fiercely loyal leader, the wisecracks in the face of danger, and the liberal undercurrent, using the Nazis as a stand-in for what Lee saw as intolerant attitudes in contemporary American society.

Sgt Fury 2 had the first portrayal of a Nazi concentration camp in comics. There's also a sequence near the end where Dum-Dum destroys a V2 rocket in its launching pad.
Sgt Fury and His Howling Commandos 2 (Jul 1963), did start out in the middle of a mission with The Howlers infiltrating a French town. But their mission just lasts five pages, by page 6 Fury's back in the UK, being chewed out by CO "Happy" Sam Sawyer and being given a new mission - put a stop to the Nazis' heavy water experiments.

The Howlers deliberately get themselves captured and sent to a concentration camp where the nuclear research is going on. Though Lee and Kirby don't dwell on it, they make it pretty plain that human beings just don't do this kind of thing to each other and that's the reason they're fighting this war.

The issue also featured another "Weapons of War" page and a bonus feature page showing an annotated drawing of a Nazi infantryman.

With this third issue, the Commandos are better defined. Stan also ties the book into mainstream Marvel continuity by having Fury meet Reed Richards, later leader of the Fantastic Four. Indeed a few months later, an older Fury would show up as a guest star in FF 21 (Dec 1963).
Sgt Fury 3 (Sep 1963) developed the characters further, establishing Fury's crew as a bunch of roughnecks you'd never want to get on the wrong side of. After a brawl in a bar, it takes an entire platoon of MPs, backed by a tank, to put Fury and the guys in the guardhouse. But they don't stay long, as Capt Sawyer has a mission for them in Italy. There they meet and agree to help Maj Reed Richards of the OSS, the US's wartime equivalent of Britain's MI6 and a forerunner of the C.I.A. Fury and the team deliver the vital information from Richards to the battalion trapped behind enemy lines, enabling the US forces to escape without casualties.

I quite like the line uttered by Richards on page 11, pictured above (click on the image to expand). "No time for long speeches, Fury!" Over in Fantastic Four, set twenty years later, Reed Richards was characterised by his long speeches, as often commented-on by Ben Grimm. Blink and you miss it, but I think this was just Stan Lee amusing himself.

In Sgt Fury 3 the character of The Howlers is by now even more firmly stablished and while the stories aren't to be taken too seriously and there're more comedy sequences, Stan and Jack never lose sight of the fact that war's a serious business. Nowhere is that more plain than in the next issue.

Lee and Kirby bring a new dimension to the Silver Age war comic by having a major character killed in combat. And staying dead.
Sgt Fury 4 (Nov 1963) once again has Fury and the Howlers behind enemy lines, this time to capture and return with British propagandist, Percy Hawley, aka Lord Ha-Ha. Trouble is, the traitor is the brother of Pamela Hawley, a comely Red Cross worker that Fury met while on leave in London. As the mission unfolds, it turns out that Lord Ha-Ha is a willing collaborator, not the tortured prisoner his family believes. The situation is compounded when Fury's youngest Howler, Junior Juniper, takes a fatal Nazi bullet. Fury must overcome his own anger and report back to the Hawley family that their son died bravely.

The Lord Ha-Ha character is based on a real-life, American-born traitor, William Joyce aka "Lord Haw-Haw", who broadcast Nazi propaganda over the radio airwaves during the Second World War. Joyce was captured in 1945, tried, found guilty of treason and executed by hanging at Wandsworth prison in January 1946.

I didn't think that new inker George "Bell" Roussos was any better or worse than Dick Ayers, who'd inked the first three issues. In some ways the art looks a little sharper here. However, I think the story is much stronger here than it has been in the issues so far. The introduction of a love interest for Fury separates it from other contemporary war comics and using that relationship to set up a moral conflict for Fury when the girl's brother turns out to the the villain of the piece makes for strong and emotionally resonant storytelling.

There's also another "Weapons of War" feature page and an house ad for Avengers 3, which contains a deliberate mistake ... can you spot it, readers?

One of my favourite issues of Avengers, number 3 (on sale beginning of Oct)  is advertised in Sgt Fury 4 (on sale 3 Sept) ... but Stan realised that few readers would know who the red-and-yellow armoured guy was, so showed Iron Man in his old yellow armour. Iron Man's revised Ditko armour first appeared in Tales of Suspense 48 (on sale 10 Sep).
Issue 5 (Jan 1964) continued to cement Sgt Fury and His Howling Commandos as a different kind of war comic. This tale introduced the nefarious Baron Strucker, who would become major villain both to Nick Fury and to other Marvel heroes. The story has Fury challenged to a one-on-one fight by high-ranking Nazi Strucker. Though expressly forbidden by his commanding officer, Fury disobeys and sneaks into occupied France by night to answer the challenge. But the wily Nazi pulls the old "drugged toast" routine and Fury, not realising that "the flagon with the dragon has the brew that is true", succumbs to the drugged wine and passes out in the middle of the fight. The Nazis film the whole shameful incident and dump the unconscious Fury back in Britain via parachute.

Sgt Fury 5 had a great story from Stan Lee, great storytelling and art from Jack Kirby, but is let down slightly by the rushed inks of George Roussos.
For his disobedience, Fury is busted down to private, but the Howlers, far from being gleeful, are sympathetic and supportive, something Fury finds worse than being razzed by them. Nevertheless, Fury manages to secure a return match and, warned by Dino, gives the Micky Finn a miss and kicks Strucker's Teutonic ass. Fury's rank is restored and all is right with the world once more.

As strong as I thought the story was, I didn't think Roussos' inks in this issue were up to the standard he'd set for himself in issue 4. There are many reasons why a piece of work might look rushed - perhaps it was rushed, or perhaps others interfered uncredited - but the result is still the same.

Interestingly, with this issue, Lee took to crediting himself and Kirby as "Ex-Sergeant Stan Lee, U.S. Army" and "Ex-Infantryman Jack Kirby, U.S. Army". It's likely that this was intended to lend a bit of authenticity to the stories, but the writing is so stylised that it couldn't possibly be mistaken for a documentary.

On the surface, Sgt Fury 6 is about the Commandos taking on Rommel in the North Africa campaign, but in the end, there's not very much Rommel in this parable about racism in the U.S. and its parallels in Nazi Germany.
Sgt Fury 6 (Mar 1964) opens with Fury single-handedly capturing three Nazi infiltrators, before his date with Lady Pamela Hawley, the British Red Cross worker. Then Fury and his team are dispatched to North Africa to take on Rommel and his Panzer Tank Divisions. But with Dino injured during training, the Howlers are assigned a temporary replacement, George Stonewell. First off, Stonewell refuses to shake Dino's hand because he's Italian. At first, Fury gives the new man the benefit of the doubt, but when Stonewell is rude to Izzy Cohen, Fury gets suspicious. Finally, when Stonewell says he's not going to sleep in the same barracks as Gabe Jones, Fury gets, well, furious, and tells Stonewell, "You're a genuine, 14-carat, dyed-in-the-wool, low-down bigot!", then warns him, "You so much as look crosseyed at Izzy, or Gabe, or anyone because of his race or colour and I'll make you wish you were never born!"

And if Stan hasn't yet made his position clear, he has Fury go on to say, "Rats like him aren't on any side. They just crawl outta the mud long enough to poison whatever they touch!"

Tellingly, there's a scene in the middle of the story where Stonewell is required to interrogate a captured Nazi officer, who suggests that Stonewell has much in common with the Nazi ideology and that if he switches sides, he'd be well rewarded by Rommel. Stonewell rebuffs this saying, "You're barking up the wrong tree, Fritz. I've got use for Nazis, either ..."

The pay-off to all this is when Stonewell is injured under enemy fire and Izzy hoists the unconscious man onto his shoulders and carries him to safety. A German doctor treats Stonewell's wounds but it's left to Gabe to supply the essential rare type AB blood that Stonewell needs to survive. Stonewell comes round long enough to remark, "No! Not your blood! It -- It wasn't from you??!!"

Stan wisely leaves it to the reader to decide whether Stonewell is redeemed at the end of the story, and Fury gets to make a summing up: "The seeds of prejudice, which take a lifetime to grow, can't be stamped out overnight -- but if we keep trying -- keep fighting -- perhaps a day will come when 'Love thy brother' will be more than an expression we hear in church". It may be out of character for Fury to talk that way, but just putting that sentiment in a kids' comic is a pretty bold step for the early 1960s.

STAN LEE WAS MY FATHER

Back in the early 1960s, we kids lived in a divided world. On the one hand, we would watch the dramatic events unfolding in the United States, as African-Americans (we didn't call them that, then) battled the authorities in their struggle to keep civil liberties and equality in the public eye. Then in the UK, our immigrant citizens were largely integrated into the wider population, working and learning alongside the indigenous British population.

South-East London, where I grew up, was a largely white area at the time. In 1962, I was eight years old and the only black kids I knew were the children of a white couple who managed the tall flats across the road from where I lived in Woolwich.

This block was right across the road from the flats where I grew up. The caretakers and their adopted kids lived in the ground floor corner flat in this picture.
One day, while we were all playing together in the street, we asked them why it was that they were black and their parents were white. They explained that they had been adopted but really were brother and sister. No offence was intended or taken and, mystery solved, we all got back to the important business of playing, and the subject never came up again.

Yet at the same time, we kids were surrounded by casual racism. More than once I'd hear an adult remark that a black family's house was very clean, as if they didn't have hygiene in the Caribbean. Racist jokes were commonplace and we naive kids would even repeat them. But as I got older, more and more my values were shaped by what I read in Stan Lee's Marvel Comics. Not by how my mum behaved, but by how the characters in Stan Lee's stories behaved, and by the liberal - if slightly simplistic - views that Stan professed in his writing.

Those views permeated all the stories Stan wrote, and obviously drip-fed into my consciousness over the years. By the time I was a teenager, Stan had taken to editorialising his stance in the Soapbox column on the Marvel BullPen Bulletins page. The earliest one I could find was in the October 1968 column where Stan says, "We believe that Man has a divine destiny, and an awesome responsibility - the responsibility of treating all who share this wondrous world of ours with tolerance and respect - judging each fellow human on his own merit, regardless of race, creed or colour. That we agree on - and we'll never rest until it becomes fact, rather than just a cherished dream." Which is pretty much what Fury said at the end of Sgt Fury 6, four years earlier.

Stan editorialised - quite strongly- against racism in his Oct 1968 Soapbox. Just a couple of months later, he pulled out all the stops and lambasted those who "condemn an entire race, despise an entire nation or vilify an entire religion." (Click to expand the image)
My mum and stepfather never taught me those values when I was a kid. It was left to Stan Lee to give me my moral compass in life.


BACK TO SGT FURY

Issue 7 of Sgt Fury and His Howling Commandos (May 1964) was a change of pace, putting Fury on trial for disobeying a direct order under fire and striking a superior officer, an act punishable by firing squad.

Sgt Fury 7 is much less a war action epic and more a courtroom drama, along the lines of The Caine Mutiny (1954). Nick Fury is on trial for his life, with no memory of the events that have led to his situation.
The plot introduces Lt Spencer Parker, a childhood acquaintance of Fury. Under Parker's command, Fury and the team are to raid an enemy ammunition dump. But at the last moment, Fury tries to prevent the raid and when Parker won't listen, belts him on the jaw. Critically, the ammo dump explodes, knocking Fury unconscious. When he comes round Fury finds that he's on a charge of insubordination under fire. But Fury has no memory of the events and now has to find a way to prove his innocence in court.

Finally, Fury's memory returns and he's able to prove through the testimony of a captured German soldier that he had prior knowledge that the ammo dump was a trap, rigged to explode to kill the invading commandos. Fury's swift action saved not only Lt Parker's life but those of the Howlers, as well.

Though I have no basis for this, I did wonder if Stan had some idea of having Spencer Parker turn out to be some relative of Peter Parker. In the 1968 Amazing Spider-Man Annual 5, Stan would reveal that Peter's parents were Richard and Mary Parker, who were CIA operatives, recruited to the organisation by Nick Fury, so it's not too much of a stretch.

Issue 7 would be last Sgt Fury drawn by Jack Kirby, except for issue 13 which I covered in my blog entry about Captain America's wartime exploits. And this is where I planned to end this entry. However Sgt Fury 8 (Jul 1964) introduced new Howler Percival Pinkerton to the readers, so I'll cover that issue too.

Sgt Fury 8 was the first in a long run drawn by Dick Ayers and introduced new Howler Percival Pinkerton to the team. The main plot about Dr Zemo's death ray seemed almost incidental.
The story opens with the appearance of the eccentrically-dressed, umbrella-wielding Pvt Pinkerton at Fury's base. Reb and Dum-Dum remark that he's the "cutest-lookin' soldier ya ever did see" though Dino warns that "those British guys are tougher than they look." When a couple of other soldiers fetch up and start mocking Pinkerton's appearance and name, he sets about them with his umbrella, immediately endearing himself to the watching Howlers.

But is he an intentionally gay character? I can't see any evidence of it here. As I said at the beginning of this piece I think, at the time, Stan just wanted to portray an English soldier pretty much as he thought his readers would expect an English soldier to appear. Anything else is just retrofitting.

The rest of the issue involves the Howlers tracking down Nazi scientist Dr Zemo to destroy his death ray weapon. Dick Ayers' art is very serviceable, though he's no Jack Kirby. Right after this, Sgt Fury and His Howling Commandos went to a monthly schedule so, clearly, Marvel readers had taken the comic to their hearts.

What stands out for me is that Stan had to use a relatively obscure title like Sgt Fury to begin furthering his laudable liberal agenda. He didn't use premiere Marvel characters like Fantastic Four or Spider-Man. Maybe that would have been just a step too daring for 1963, but once he realised that the readers were with him, then he made no attempt to disguise what he thought about the equality issue. Later, Stan would use the anti-mutant sentiments in The X-Men to draw a parallel with racism in the US, but that was done in an allegorical way. In Sgt Fury, it was all out in the open for anyone to see.

Despite its position as one of  Marvel's more low-key titles, Sgt Fury and His Howling Commandos went on to have a long and successful run with Ayers as the penciller. I especially like the issues inked by John Severin, and later writers like Roy Thomas and notably Gary Friedrich had their own successes with the title.

And of course, Nick Fury became a major player in the Marvel Universe of the present day as well, as director of SHIELD. But that, too, is a story for another day.

Next: Don't mess with the logo


Saturday, 6 August 2016

WAR: What Is It Good For?

WHEN I WAS in primary school, back in the early 1960s, I was surrounded by tangible evidence of the Second World War. In South East London, where I was growing up, much of the area we ranged across in our youthful travels was still decimated by the efforts of the Luftwaffe. Bombsites were everywhere and offered a wealth of adventure to fearless eight-year-olds who had no concept of the dangers of these precarious structures. Most of our leisure time was spent on the streets, playing-acting conflict (cops and robbers, cowboys and indians and, of course, war games) and imagination was our answer to the dearth of actual toys.

Bombed out buildings like this formed  playgrounds for us kids during the early 1960s. Every neighbourhood bore the scars of WWII and no one seemed to have the money to tear these accidents-waiting-to-happen down.
Some of us were lucky enough to own capguns, mostly in the six-shooter western style. The truly fortunate might have a rifle. Most of us just used sticks.

I had one of these capgun Lugers around 1962, though mine was in much better condition than this one. Having the gun was one thing, but affording to buy caps for it was quite another proposition.
One game I remember well I first came across while visiting my grandparents in Glasgow, probably around 1963 or so. The game involved a designated shooter who would lie in wait at the foot of a grassy bank. The other kids would all charge the shooter's position, whooping and yelling. The shooter would then shoot them down, one by one. The one who "died" in the most spectacular way would be chosen to be the shooter for the next round.

This was the grassy bank outside my grandparents' flat where we'd play the shooting game. It really doesn't seem to have changed much since the early 1960s.
I enjoyed that game so much that I brought it back to South-East London with me, where it became just as popular amongst the other kids on my estate.

When we weren't playing at war, we were reading about it in our British weekly adventure comics, watching it on television or seeing war movies at our local cinema, whether it was at a feature in the evening with our parents or with our mates at Saturday Morning Pictures.

Combat! was a long-running television show that focussed on the US military, and featured many top-name Hollywood actors, like Lee Marvin. Hogan's Heroes, on the other hand, saw the funny side of the Nazi POW camps.
Aside from history shows like All Our Yesterdays, the Second World War was also represented by fictional shows, both dramatic and comedic. Probably one of the best war shows was Combat! which ran from 1962 to 1967. But the one I remember best is Hogan's Heroes, which made the Nazi military holding American and Allied soldiers prisoners of war figures of fun. It wasn't a show I followed, but it did seem to be on the tv all the time during the 1960s.


The Longest Day featured an all-star cast and was one of the biggest box-office hits of 1962. John Wayne and Robert Mitchum represent the US forces, Sean Connery and Richard Burton showing the flag for the UK. Gert Frobe played a small role as a German NCO.
Hollywood film studios considered WWII something of a cash cow. Just between 1962 and 1964 there were over thirty English-language war movies released, funny and serious, including The Longest Day (1962), PT109 (1963) and Father Goose (1964).

There were quite a few comics from UK publishers that made the Second World War their chief topic. And many adventure and sports comics would also feature a variety of war stories. The tradition continues up to the present day, with 2000AD also featuring war stories like Rogue Trooper and Bad Company, both talking their inspiration from earlier earthbound conflicts.
And of course comics, both home-grown and US imports, were stuffed full of war stories. Some comics, like Victor, were dedicated to the genre, but war stories even turned up in sports comics like Tiger. And in the states, WWII had been a major subject for comics publishers pretty much from VE Day onwards.

Captain Hurricane in the Valiant wasn't my cup of tea, though I would occasionally read a friend's copy. Art in the main was by R. Charles Roylace, though the above example may well be by a fill-in artist. Pretty much all the war stories in the comics of the 1960s followed this format, some with more, some with less comedy content.
In British comics, the genre was pretty much defined during the 1960s by Captain Hurricane, who appeared in Valiant. Like most other WWII stories in the comics of the time, Captain Hurricane was full of comedic Germans, who shouted, "Gott in Himmel" and "Englisher schweinhund!" a lot. Every speech balloon, in fact. Mostly, no one was killed, just roughed up a bit. Stories would often end with Hurricane walking away from a pile of German soldiers, all with black eyes and cauliflower ears, dusting off his hands and congratulating himself on a job well done. These stories were not of great interest to me, and I must have only read a handful of Valiants all through my childhood.

Though they weren't publishing war comics, Timely books featured a lot of war in them. Unlike DC, Timely's heroes took on the Axis forces head-on.
I wasn't greatly taken with the war stories from the other side of the Atlantic either. For the most part it was the superheroes that caught my attention. Had I been aware of the earliest Marvel Comics, I would have understood that the first exploits of the Marvel Comics characters I would come to obsess over had their roots firmly in the events of World War II.

Unlike market-leader DC Comics, Timely seemed quite happy to let their superheroes tangle with Nazis and Japanese. Captain America Comics 1 (Mar 1941) famously had the hero socking Hitler on the jaw on the front cover several months before the US entered WWII. And the long run of Alex Schomberg covers on Marvel Mystery Comics featured an unbroken run of The Human Torch and the Sub-Mariner trashing both the German and Japanese forces for the duration.

One of the first, if not the first, identifiable war comic was Wings, from Fiction House. Others who tried war as a subject for an anthology comic failed and it wasn't until the beginning of the 1950s that Martin Goodman's Atlas had a success with War Comics.
Actual war comics, as a stand-alone genre, wouldn't come along for another couple of years, though there were a couple of early niche examples. Wings Comics, debuting at the end of 1940 and running 124 issues through to 1954, concentrated on air combat stories. And U.S. Marines came along in 1943, but only managed four issues, ending the following year. But it was actually Martin Goodman's Atlas Comics, under the editorship of Stan Lee, that really kicked off the war comic genre with, appropriately, War Comics 1 (Dec 1950). Once Goodman saw the sales figures on that book, he had Stan launch a fleet of war comics, including:
  • Battle 1-70 (Mar 1951 - Jun 1960)
  • Men's Adventures 9-20 (Aug 1951 - Apr 1953) continued from drama title Men's Adventures; continued as horror title Men's Adventures
  • Combat Kelly 1-44 (Nov 1951 - Aug 1957)
  • Man Comics 11-28 (Dec 1951 - Sep 1953) continued from drama title Man Comics
  • War Adventures 1-13 (Jan 1952 - Feb 1953)
  • Battle Action 1-30 (Feb 1952 - Aug 1957)
  • War Combat 1-5 (Mar-Nov 1952) continued as Combat Casey 6-34 (Jan 1953 - Jul 1957)
  • Battlefield 1-11 (Apr 1952 - May 1953)
  • War Action 1-4 (Apr 1952 - Jun 1953)
  • Men in Action 1-9 (Apr-Dec 1952) continued as Battle Brady 10-14 (Jan-June 1953)
  • Battlefront 1-48 (Jun 1952 - Aug 1957)
  • Combat 1-11 (Jun 1952 - Apr 1953)
  • 3-D Action 1 (Jan 1954)
  • Marines in Battle 1-25 (Aug 1954 - Sep 1958)
  • Navy Action 1-11 (Aug. 1954 - April 1956) continued as Sailor Sweeney 12-14 (Jun-Nov 1956) continued as once again as Navy Action 15-18 (Jan-Aug 1957)
  • Battle Ground (first four issues "Battle-Ground") 1-20 (Sep 1954 - Sep1957)
  • Marines in Action 1-14 (Jun 1955 - Sep 1957)
  • Navy Combat 1-20 (Jun 1955 - Oct 1958)
  • Devil-Dog Dugan 1-3 (Jul-Nov 1956) continued as Tales of the Marines 4 (Feb 1957) continued as Marines at War 5-7 (Apr-Aug 1957)
  • Navy Tales 1-4 (Jan-Jul 1957)
  • G.I. Tales 4-6 (Feb-Jul 1957), continued from humour title Sergeant Barney Barker
  • Commando Adventures 1-2 (June-Aug 1957)
Right on the heels of Goodman's War Comics 1 came Bill Gaines' Two-Fisted Tales 18 (Dec 1950), carrying on the numbering from EC's first run of Haunt of Fear (15-17), though Gaines' title wasn't a full-on war comic. Gaines would catch up the following year with Frontline Combat, which centred on both WWII and Korean war tales. Both books were edited by Harvey Kurtzman and more than any other comics, set the tone for quality war stories from that point on.

EC's Frontline Combat was the publisher's first war anthology. The earlier Two-Fisted Tales contained war stories but also had pirate tales and other boys' adventure subjects.
It's probably fair to say that the EC books were the inspiration for the DC war comics, mostly edited by Robert Kanigher, and often written by him too. All enjoyed long and successful runs, though again, it wasn't a genre I followed and I was mostly aware of these books through the house ads in the DC superhero comics I was buying.

The DC house ads of the 1960s were always appealing and none more so than the ads for Star Spangled War Stories, with their sensational stories of WWII infantrymen battling dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures in a hostile island environment.
The "golden age" of DC war books from from the early 1950s to the late 1960s, though many of the titles lasted longer:
  • Our Army at War 1-301 (Aug 1952 - Feb 1977)
  • Star Spangled War 3-204 (Nov 1952 - Feb/Mar 1977)
  • All-American Men of War 2-117 (Dec 1952 - Sep/Oct 1966)
  • Our Fighting Forces 1-181 (Oct/Nov 1954 - Sep/Oct 1978)
  • G I Combat 44-288 (Jan 1957 - Mar 1987), acquired from Quality Comics
One of the last of the successful DC war titles was Weird War Tales. Honourable mention should be given to Joe Simon and Jack Kirby's war anthology Foxhole which debuted in the middle of the 1950s war boom.
A later DC war comic that enjoyed a long run was Weird War Tales and I should make mention of Simon & Kirby's war title Foxhole which, while not the first, is certainly one of the highly-regarded war titles of the era.

Of all the war genre comics available to me during the early 1960s, the only title that even vaguely interested me was the dinosaurs vs G.I.s issues of Star Spangled War Stories. But for some reason I never read any of them as a kid. It wasn't until much later (last year, in fact) that out of curiosity I picked up a copy of the DC Showcase Presents collected volume and gave it a read. And a thankless task it was too.

Though I never read any DC war comics during their 1960s heyday, I always had an abiding curiosity about the War That Time Forgot series, and snapped up a hardback copy of the Showcase Presents collection when I saw it on Amazon for £0.80 ... I still haven't finished reading it.
These tales were clearly written with a transient young audience in mind. Scripter Robert Kanigher must have realised that few kids were loyal to any one brand or even title and would just buy comics whenever the covers appealed to them. And the DC circulation guys must have told him that covers with dinosaurs were always good sellers. As a consequence "The War That Time Forgot" is another concept-in-search-of-a-story. Each 13-page story had no continuing characters, workman-like art by DC's star war artists Ross Andru and Mike Esposito and an identical plot: Some US soldiers find themselves on an unnamed Pacific island where dinosaurs have survived. The entire story would be just scene after scene of giant reptiles trashing subs, tanks, jeeps and (mostly Japanese) soldiers. After reading three or four in the collected album I was losing the will to live.

ANDRU & ESPOSITO ... AND KANIGHER

During the last 1950s and early 1960s, Ross Andru (born Rossolav Andruskevitch) and Mike Esposito were DC Comics' go-to team for just about any series that needed to be delivered on time and drawn competently. 

Ross Andru was born into a musical family. His father had played the french horn with the Ballet Russe and the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra. Michael Esposito also was from a musical family - Esposito Sr fronted the band Ralph Perry and his Orchestra. Both had attended the Cartoonists and Illustrators School in New York under Burne Hogarth, after serving in WWII. Hogarth had singled Andru out in 1948 and gave him work assisting on the Sunday Tarzan strips. That last a couple of years until Hogarth left the strip.

Andru and Esposito were an editor's dream - hard-working sons of immigrant families
who drew fast and well and never missed a deadline.
It was around that time that the pair teamed up and began providing art for Key Publications' Mister Mystery, Standard's The Unseen and Joe Yank and Hillman's Western Fighters. But by 1951, they fetched up at DC Comics where they got to work on DC's burgeoning war comics, with their debut stories in All-American Men of War 6, Star Spangled War Stories 13 and Our Army at War 14 (all Sep 1953).

The team would be a mainstay on the war books for the next few years, often working over Editor Robert Kanigher's scripts. Then in 1958, a couple of years after DC had successfully reinvented Golden Age super-hero The Flash for a new audience, the company decided a makeover was needed for Wonder Woman and assigned Kanigher to the task. Kanigher turned to his most reliable art team and Andru and Esposito spent the next decade chronicling the adventures of the Amazon superheroine.

Andru and Esposito began drawing Wonder Woman with issue 98 (May 1958), Metal Men with Showcase 37 (Mar 1962) and finally The Flash with issue 175 (Dec 1967, though their first cover was 177, pictured above).
A few short years later, Robert Kanigher pitched an idea for DC's Showcase comic. The Metal Men was accepted and Andru and Esposito were once more drafted in to provide the art. The series was promoted to its own book and ran 29 issues with the same creative team. From there, Andru and Esposito took over The Flash from outgoing artist Carmine Infantino , who had been promoted to the position of DC's Art Director, then editorial director.

Though Mike Esposito regularly moonlighted at Marvel Comics during the 1960s, under the name "Micky Demeo" so as not to upset the notoriously prickly Robert Kanigher, Ross Andru would only turn in one job for Marvel during that decade, a fill-in issue for Amazing Spider-Man when it looked like regular penciller John Romita wasn't going to make deadline. In the end the fill-in wasn't needed and eventually saw print in Marvel Super-Heroes 14 (May 1968). A couple of years later, Ross Andru took over the regular pencilling job on Spider-Man, the majority of them inked by Esposito, and with Gerry Conway, created The Punisher.

In the 1970s, Ross Andru became Marvel's main Spider-Man artist, even working with Mike Esposito on Marvel Team-Up. Probably the crowning achievement on Andru's Spider-Man tenure was the high-profile DC-Marvel crossover, Superman vs The Amazing Spider-Man in 1976. 
In a 2010 interview, Gerry Conway said, "Ross Andru could place a character anywhere he wanted. He had a terrific sense of spatial relations; he could track a battle easily across rooftops, from panel to panel. He drew some great sequences where he maintained the same stationary background, a rooftop or a street, across an entire page, but move the characters from panel to panel. I know there are artists today who do that, but many of today's artists are figure-oriented. Space and context doesn't seem as important to them, whereas it was extremely important to Ross. He used to go around New York City taking pictures of the buildings so he could be accurate about where he put Spider-Man."

For all that success, I was never a fan of Andru and Esposito's work, finding it lacking in personality. But perhaps that's what endeared them to the DC (and later the Marvel) editors. Maybe their slightly bland style could fit just about any kind of series without them having to change the way they drew. And certainly no editor would even complain about an art team who always turned their work in on time.

Editor-writer Robert Kanigher pictured during the late 1940s.
Andru and Esposito's most frequent editor and scripter Robert Kanigher got into the comics business in 1941, contributing scripts to Fantastic Comics 15 (Feb 1941), Big 3 4 (Jul 1941) and Zip Comics 15 (Apr 1942). The following year he sold a script to Fawcett for Captain Marvel Adventures 29 (Nov 1943). In 1945 he began his association with DC Comics, which was to be his professional home for the next forty years. His first sale was a script for Wonder Woman in Sensation Comics 44 (Aug 1945), and it would be a character he would come to have a long association with, writing for the character from 1947 though to 1968. Kanigher would also write many Flash, Green Lantern and Hawkman scripts during the Golden Age of Comics. In 1956, it was Kanigher who was assigned by Julius Schwartz to write the first re-vamped Flash stories for Showcase, and Kanigher also created The Metal Men, who made their debut in the same title. Kanigher would also edit the main DC war comics up until he retired in 1968, then continue to write for those books for the next 20 years. 

Famously short tempered and overly-protective of his scripts, Kanigher would regularly lambast those he saw as transgressors. John Romita recalled of Kanigher in an interview, "He used to compliment me whenever he'd see me in the bullpen. 'Like the stuff ... like the stuff...' That was about the amount of conversation we had. Then one day we were in the elevator together, and he said, 'Like the stuff.' I, like an innocent fool... I used to do some adjustments to his pages. If he had a heavy-copy panel, I might take a balloon from one panel and put it in the next. Just because I was distributing space. I was so stupid and naive, I said to him, 'It doesn't bother you, does it, that I sometimes switch some of the panels around and move some of the balloons from one panel to another?' He started to chew me out in the elevator! 'Who the hell do you think you are, changing my stuff? Where do you come off changing my stuff? You don't know anything about this business!'"

Ross Andru died 9 November 1993. Mike Esposito passed 24 October 2010. Robert Kanigher died in 2002.

JUST NOT FOR ME ...

As far as war comics were concerned, it wasn't a genre I had much interest is as a ten year old, not until until later in the 1960s, when Stan Lee's makeover of Martin Goodman's comic line became Marvel Comics and Lee & Kirby brought a new character-driven dynamic to the otherwise standard superhero and adventure titles they were publishing. Stan and Jack set out their war stall in competition with DC's mighty five titles and at last got me interested in war stories. But Marvel's war comic wasn't so much a different take on war adventure tales as it was a social manifesto.

And that's what I'll be talking about in my very next blog entry ...

Next: Sgt Fury and his Howling Whatchamacallems!