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Friday, 16 March 2012

Weird War Tales

Along with Sports and Westerns, War stories accounted for much of the content of boys adventure comics published in Britain while I was growing up during the 1950s and 1960s. Unfortunately I had little or no interest in any of these genres, and tales about World War 2 left me particularly cold.

It's not as though I was a born pacifist - more that I associated such tales with my parents' generation, and with the older members of the post-war baby boom who seemed to revel in boringly prosaic activities such as trainspotting, Meccano and collecting 'cutaway drawings' from the Eagle. For me, in those days, the Second World War represented the recent past, and its lingering traces could still be seen all over the landscape in the form of drab Nissan Huts, or disused airfields and pillboxes that were becoming ever more overgrown with each passing year. Along with a growing number of my immediate contemporaries I found myself increasingly attracted to the future instead of the past, and to the unearthly rather than the down-to-earth.

As a consequence the only war stories likely to attract my attention were those that included some kind of 'fantastic' element, so it was fortunate that round about the time I started to take an interest in comics a number of publishers began to explore the curious sub-genre of 'Weird War Stories'!

With memories of the 'doodlebugs' and 'buzz-bombs' that had terrified the southern counties of England during the latter stages of the War it's hardly surprising that one of the first types of Weird War Story to emerge involved the idea of Nazi Secret Weapons. These included everything from death rays to robots and flying saucers, allowing writers and artists to explore science fiction themes which made such comics appeal to me in a way that the more routine tales of blood and glory never did.

Whereas secret weapons were employed almost exclusively by Germans (generally portrayed as a nation of oafish brutes or brilliant madmen), however, the next category of weirdness was capable of causing combatants from both sides of the conflict to form temporary alliances against a far more terrible enemy - dinosaurs!!!

Supposedly classified and removed from all official accounts of WW2 this parallel battlefront was finally revealed to the public by legendary DC editor/writer Bob Kanigher who christened it the 'War That Time Forgot'. The combination of Nazis and Dinosaurs (possibly inspired by Edgar Rice Boroughs' WW1 story 'The Land that Time Forgot') proved to be an instant success and the series was soon promoted to the lead feature of 'Star Spangled War Stories'. Since then this winning formula has been revived on numerous occasions, and I've no doubt that it will continue to resurface in one form or another for many years to come.

Kanigher also played an important part in the third significant wave of 'Weird War Tales' that caught my attention during that period - this being the curious notion of 'Ghosts at War'.

Of course, the way in which comics on both sides of the Atlantic depicted supernatural themes had been radically affected by the mid-1950s campaign against 'Horror Comics', so that creatures such as Vampires, Wolfmen, Zombies and Frankenstein-type monsters had been specifically banned; the American 'Comics Code Authority' even deemed the very words 'Horror' and 'Weird' to be inherently unsavoury and outlawed their use on comic book covers. Fortunately ghosts - especially 'friendly' one's like Harvey's famous Casper - managed to slip through the net, and this left the field open for the appearance of a brand new genre of comics that replaced horror with a curiously benign eschatology that owed far more to Jimmy Stewart's 'Wonderful Life' than 'Dracula' or 'Frankenstein'.

Under the editorship of Richard Hughes the American Comics Group produced a whole line of titles based on the existence of a quasi-religious, heavenly realm that he called simply 'The Unknown'. While ACG's ghosts made regular appearances in historical war zones, however, it was DC's Bob Kanigher who came up with the idea of an ongoing series in which the crew of a WW2 tank were watched over by the ghost of a Confederate General (albeit one who could only be seen by the tank commander!).

'The Haunted Tank' made its debut in G.I.Combat no.87 (April/May 1961) - exactly one year after the dinosaurs had taken up residence in Star Spangled War Stories. Thus I was able to rely on a steady supply of American comics to satisfy my taste for Weird War; what's more, I found that more and more home-grown, British comics were also beginning to feature ghostly storylines.

In the face of all these glamorous tales of monsters and marvels, who needed to bother with my father's mundane accounts of the flesh-and-blood enemies he'd encountered on his bloody trail from North Africa to the borders of Austria during those years before I was born? It wasn't until the 1970s, when growing pressure within the comics industry caused the Comics Code Authority to relax their rules, that I began to realize my mistake.

All at once the vampires, werewolves and zombies were back! Meanwhile, in the pages of DC's war comics it became possible to sideline the fanciful ghosts, dinosaurs and robots in order to re-establish an essential link between war and sheer, existential horror. As soon as I saw the skeletal german soldier lunging out of the cover of Weird War Tales no.1 in late 1971 I knew that things could never be the same again: this was a new kind of weirdness that felt, paradoxically, real ...in addition to which it stirred a faint memory I'd all-but forgotten!

...Suddenly, I was just four or five years old again - watching wide-eyed in the curtained gloom of my parents' bedroom as my father lifted mementos of his war service, one by one, out of a drawer.

Old ration books and his call-up papers.

Photographs of himself in uniform, standing alongside comrades who didn't all survive.

A German dagger in its sheath, emblazoned with the swastika.

A belt, bearing the motto 'GOTT MITT UNS'.

...And, lastly, a couple of yellowing leaflets that had once fallen like rain in the valley of the River Po.

In the event my father remembered crossing the Po against minimal opposition, but the graphic 'warnings' - a product of Herr Goebbels' Ministry of Propaganda - had clearly impressed him enough to warrant his carrying them for the rest of the war. For me, however, those dreadful illustrations were the stuff of nightmares: small wonder that I somehow managed to blot out their memory until Joe Kubert's cover for the first issue of Weird War finally brought them crowding back.

In retrospect, I guess it's hardly surprising that I preferred the dinosaurs...!

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