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.

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