Thursday, February 25, 2010

Anti-Racism in 1950s Comics: Frontline Combat 15 - "Perimeter!"

I've had to revise my whole presentation on desegregation in comic books, based on my discovery of this 8-page Wally Wood story (written, drawn, and inked) from EC's Frontline Combat 15 (Jan 1954). I'd seen the cover before, and upon seeing it again re-noticed the African American soldier there depicted. So I gave it a read. "Perimeter" is set in the Korean War and features a 'mixed unit' of Americans plus their South Korean allies outnumbered by a combination of Chinese and North Korean troops. What makes this story stand WAY out is it's overt anti-racist stance and it's use of a character with racist attitudes in order to get the point across. Lots of 40s and 50s comics use disparaging terms and stereotypes to belittle the nation's enemies, but characters in those stories uttering racially abusive labels are made to look like that's an acceptable norm. Not so with this masterpiece. In this story the main target of racist abuse is an African American soldier, Matthews, who stands up for his South Korean allies when one of the other soldiers, a Yankee it seems, named Miller, refers to Koreans as 'gooks'. The sergeant in charge of the unit is a Southerner, from Texas apparently, and in this way Wood carefully avoids the stereotype that it's only Southerners that are racists, while clearly acknowledging that non-racist individuals also existed in that population. The sergeant remains silent on the issue of racism, presumably because of the racist contingent in his unit and the need to retain the respect and loyalty of all his men in combat. His silence is, however, interpreted by Miller as simply a cover for prejudice on the part of the sergeant, although he has no evidence to support his assumption, only that the sergeant is from the South, a belief which is revealing in and of itself.
Wood places the seed of his powerful punchline near the beginning of the story - Matthews carries and reads his Bible as a source of strength. After surviving a massive onslaught from the enemy, it's Miller who starts cracking up, convinced they're all going to die, and Matthews who offers him support, an offer which is met with scorn. The sergeant steps in and breaks up a potential conflict, and Miller reminds us that back home segregation is in full force. So here's an example of how the military was ahead of everyone else in terms of integration. Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces, President Harry S. Truman, had signed Executive Order 9981 in 1948, after three years of build-up towards desegregation of the military. There was significant establishment of integration during the Korean War, but Vietnam is known for being the first fully integrated war. The military were years ahead of the Civil Rights Movement, and the G. I. Bill, which helped some returning African American soldiers carve out lives they would otherwise have been denied, was also an important factor in moving towards ending segregation at home.

Back to the story and the enemy mounts a new assault, and this time the Americans and their allies are forced to retreat, with the exception of the sergeant, armed with a Browning Automatic. Hearing a wounded American soldier nearby, in the rain and in the dark, he risks his life to pull him back to his foxhole, despite the soldier's insistence that he save himself and leave him to die. The soldier passes something, that we don't see, to the sergeant, asking him to give it to his family. The sergeant holds off one enemy attack after another, exhausting the B.A.R.'s ammo, and then his carbine's, until he's fending off North Koreans in hand to hand combat. Eventually day breaks and the worst is over. While waiting for reinforcements, the sergeant sits reading Matthews' Bible. Among those Americans who move back up to the sergeant's position is Miller, who scathingly derides the sergeant for risking his life for an African American (Miller obviously uses racist terminology, which Wood significantly turns into a deleted expletive). Matthews is hurt bad, but still alive thanks to his sergeant, who hands the Bible to Miller, commenting that he (Miller) is the one most in need of it. In classic EC fashion the last panel delivers the punch, or in this case the heftiest kick in the bal@& of racism imaginable - the Bible, by which many racists allegedly lived, is open, and we can just read the verse: Malachi 2.10 - "Have we not all one Father? Hath not one God created us?"

Being the industry leader, at least from an artistic point of view, in the early 50s, EC had a major impact on the style of writers and artists of many other companies. Had the witch hunts and the Comics Code not destroyed the gains EC had achieved with the medium, including their willingness to go out on a limb and broach subjects like this, maybe integration in comic books would have moved faster than it did. As it was, it looks like there's almost an 8 year gap between Frontline Combat 15 and DC's Our Army At War 113 featuring Jackie Johnson. Also of note is that DC don't actually bring the race issue out into the open until OAAW 160 a few years later, when Jackie fights the Nazi boxer, and then it's only an indirect reference to racism in the USA. You have to make the leap between racist Nazis of WWII and contemporary racists in 1960s America. So to say again that EC were ahead of their time is a real understatement. The storytelling and the art in "Perimeter" are just astounding. Wood does those night-time panels exquisitely, and Marie Severin did a totally amazing job of capturing the right atmosphere with the colors. So this one also has my vote for inclusion in the as yet non-existent comic book story hall of fame.

Note: my gratitude goes out to Joshua Thirteen for these scans.


  1. KB: This story was beautiful. Not just artistically, although this is some of Wood's most amazing work, but also as a story. It's great to see the EC formula of ironic twist-ending used to illustrate a contemporary social issue. I think you are right, the fall of EC set back the American comics industry several years. And while I love the Silver Age for its bizarre, quirky stories and characters, those imaginative, ludicrous situations I blog about are a direct result of the restrictions placed on comics writers after the Keefauver Hearings. In essence, the fall of EC meant the rise of Bat-Mite.

  2. KB: I have been quite literally amazed by this strip. When the Chinese Army appeared in the last panel of page 3, I actually muttered "Oh my God", a phrase I discount as hyperbole whenever comic book writers put it into the mouths of their characters. (My uncle fought in Korea: it's not dead history to me, I guess.)

    One way of measuring how incredibly daring this strip was is to imagine a modern-era, mass-market,newstand publication producing a story of this force with this level of explicit story-telling set in Iraq or Afghanistan, dealing with, say, the abuse of "enemy" prisoners, or the behaviour of corporation "contractors" acting as private police-forces, or of the effect of friendly-fire upon friendly peoples? I say this not to state my opinion on the above, but to bring up some issues which would have today something of the force of this story then.

    And yet, though the 3 contemporary issues I've mentioned above may be contentious enough today, they really have nothing on the scale of the mass impact, the level of popular debate and private response, that Truman's decision to force through the desegregation of the US Army had in 51/2. We're used to thinking that the level of daring and explicitness of debate in the mass media is far higher today than in the past, but that's just not always so, is it?

    Cracking post, cracking post.

    Ghostwhowalks: Thank you for the nudge yesterday towards other EC stories relevant to this theme that KB's following. I really do need to pay more attention to EC & am searching for my 2 unread histories of EC this very afternoon.

  3. Ghost/Aaron: definitely the rise of Bat-Mite, along with Super Horse, Bat Hound, etc. Still, much good stuff in the Silver Age in other ways. For example, one of the most amazing sequences of panels, along with the concepts underlying them, that stick always in my mind is from the origin of Barry Allen, The Flash. When we see the bullet going towards Iris West from Barry's perspective, like it's all happening in slow motion. I'm a big fan of the art in some late 50s/early 60s DC sci-fi & superhero titles - Carmine Infantino, Gil Kane, Murphy Anderson, and then Ditko, Colan, Kirby, Steranko at Marvel in the 60s. That's the stuff I grew up on. I never saw an EC comic until Russ Cochran started putting out the EC Library - there could only have been a minute handful of original EC comics or any Golden Age comics in the UK back in those days.

    colsmi: On your point re: issues emerging from current wars, there was the fairly recent series Army @ Love by DC, that uses a not at all cryptic fictional war with 'Afbaghistan' as its setting. It's set 5 years in the future. I'd be interested to hear anyone's take on that particular title.

  4. KB: I did read the first Army@Love tpb. I had real problems with the book, which was a shame because I thoroughly enjoyed Veitch's work on Swamp Thing & 1963. I felt that Veitch had already decided who was right & who was wrong where recent wars are concerned & aimed the work entirely at those folks who would agree with his judgements before even starting on the book. It felt as if large amounts of possible readers had been excluded from the work from the start. In essence, it was closer to Brecht, who wrote 'knowing' all the answers, than Shaw, who also believed he was always right but at least gave his villains a good case & the best lines. I felt left out of the debate in Army@Love, or rather I couldn't find one. (And I'm actually largely on the dissident side myself.)In retrospect, I fear that I really might have missed the point.

  5. colsmi: I have to confess I too had real problems with that series. Regardless of any political stance - and I feel okay about disregarding politics on this point because in real life it's not whether one side is right or wrong, in my view, that praises or vilifies the soldier, but the way they conduct themselves in carrying out their duty - I felt that the books made ordinary military personnel appear callous, indifferent, cynical, downright irreverent towards life, and singularly lacking in basic morals and values. Maybe there are some who are like that, but I don't believe that is true of the majority, especially since I know vets of our current wars and ex-students who are still enlisted. And yeah it's only a piece of fiction, BUT if the author goes ahead and writes a story that's clearly meant to be a take on a real situation, then there's got to be some accountability there. Maybe I'm just getting too old, but I found it quite distasteful - not because of the adult content per se, or the way that people taking advantage of war for their own benefit were incorporated into the story, but because of the way that all this content was used to bring the reader to a lower view of humanity as if it was actually a cool or desirable direction to go in. Honestly, I expect a lot better from DC. But that's just my opinion. Obviously some people liked it and maybe saw it from an angle that I'm unable to perceive. Anyway, thanks for sharing your thoughts. I was kind of worried that I was the only one who had reservations about that series.

  6. KB: You certainly aren't the only one who had reservations. I thought your points were absolutely on the nose too. I always try to think to myself "What would Orwell say?", and though I'm never going to be able to summon up the great man's thoughts, I suspect he'd be with you - hold the war in contempt if you believe that its right to do so, but not the vast mass of folks fighting it.

    I don't know if you've read it, but Garth Ennis and Gary Erskine's "Dan Dare" was for me the most important book out in many a year to have as its central issue the meaning of duty and honour in the conflicts of the modern world. Once the first episode is out of the way and the scene is set, it becomes obvious that this is a polemic against the way that duty has been subverted by the right and demeaned by the left. It's absolutely respectful of virtues which are so often slandered today, and stands very strongly for the idea of questioning authority without pretending that authority is always wrong and sacrifices never necessary. I think it's a very wise and rather daring book and I think it's a shame it was rarely - ever? - read for its politics as well as its excellent tale of adventuring.

    Thanks for helping me clarify my thinking.

  7. OMG!! I love EC comics and this is why there are also plenty of stories from the Shocksuspense line that deal with this issue very effectively. I mostly have the scary stuff but I'm trying to get more Combat and Two-Fisted Tales. It SUCKS that it ended so early I would have killed to see their take on Vietnam that would've been righteous. Off topic I seem to remember a revival of sorts for Tales the host was a Wolfman Jack lookalike fat guy. I have been looking like crazy for them one was astory about a girl who jumped out of cakes but got into the wrong cake. Please tell me you know what I'm talking about KB.

  8. Anonymous: I'm afraid I haven't seen the books you're referring to. Was this story in an underground or mainstream comic? If the latter, was it one of the Charlton titles?