In a market dominated by superheroes, it’s easy to forget that, once upon a time, there were a plethora of other genres that enjoyed great popularity. One of these was the war comic genre. Though they originated in the 1930s, the war comics genre exploded in the wake of World War II. Tales of impossibly brave soldiers, tragic battles, and unspeakable human suffering graced the pages of countless comic books. Many great comic book writers and artists got their start in this genre. I have selected ten great war comic books, in chronological order of their first release. Though the genre has largely decreased in popularity, these titles are a testament to the power of the war comic.
10. Two-Fisted Tales (1950-1955)
To start off, let’s begin with a comic edited by the legendary Harvey Kurtzman: Two-Fisted Tales. Meticulously researched, Two-Fisted Tales was a bi-monthly comic anthology published by EC Comics, that ran for 24 issues. Though Kurtzman would write the majority of the stories, the series would feature the art of several of the industry’s greatest talents. These included Alex Toth (who designed such classic characters as Birdman and Space Ghost) and John Severin (one of the founding cartoonists of Mad Magazine.)
One of the most striking features of Two-Fisted Tales was its anti-war tone. War comics, at that point, were unrealistic and frequently jingoistic. They glorified combat, and downplayed its psychological, physical, and emotional costs. Along with Kurtzman’s other war comic series, Frontline Combat, Two-Fisted Tales took great pains to demonstrate the true horror of warfare, redefining the genre in the process.
9. Our Army At War (1952-1977)
While Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat were being published by Max Gaines’ EC Comics label, their cross-town rivals DC Comics released their own monthly war comic series, entitled Our Army at War. The title debuted two of the most famous war characters from the Golden Age of Comics: Sgt. Rock and Enemy Ace. Created by industry titans Robert Kanigher and Joe Kubert, Sgt. Rock and Enemy Ace would come to dominate Our Army at War. Enemy Ace followed a German fighter pilot who served in both World Wars. Sgt. Rock, meanwhile, was a member of Easy Company, fighting in the European theater.
Sgt. Rock quickly became one of DC’s most iconic characters, and Our Army At War would actually be renamed Sgt. Rock after 301 issues. Sgt. Rock’s popularity would prove to be so great, that one of his descendants would be prominently featured in Men Of War, one of the New 52 titles that accompanied DC Comic’s 2011 relaunch.
8. Commando Comics (1961-present)
One of the most successful and beloved war comics of all time, Commando For Action and Adventure (more commonly known as Commando Comics) is a British series that has lasted over fifty years. Enduring an exhaustive weekly schedule, Commando Comics has become a staple of the British comic industry. Set in time periods as diverse as ancient Rome, the Boer War, World War II, and Vietnam, each issue contains stand-alone stories of valor, courage, and sacrifice.
Unlike its American counterparts, Commando Comics feature black and white artwork and a 7 × 5½ inch, 68 page format. As of last month, Commando Comics boasts over 4,500 issues. Much to the joy of war comic fans everywhere, it doesn’t look like it’ll be going away anytime soon.
7. Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos (1963-1981)
Long before he was played by Samuel L. Jackson and commanded Earth’s Mightiest Heroes on the big screen, Sgt. Nick Fury was the star of one of Marvel’s most famous war comics. Created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, possibly the greatest comic book creator duo of all time, Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos lasted an astounding 167 issues. The title followed the eponymous Fury and his elite special unit, the First Attack Squad, during World War Two. The title was ground-breaking for its time, thanks to its depiction of a racially diverse army unit (something that was actually illegal during World War II.) Though the character of Nick Fury would eventually shift from battlefield heroics to the world of international espionage, his early war comics stand as some of the best ever published.
6. Blazing Combat (1965-66)
Few publications had such a massive impact on the war comic genre as Archie Goodwin’s Blazing Combat. Even more impressive is the fact that it did so with only four issues. Assembling one of the most stunning pools of artistic talent since the heyday of EC Comics, Blazing Combat told brutally honest, and shocking, stories of warfare. The publication sent shock-waves through the industry, with its blatant anti-war stance during the troop-escalation period of the Vietnam War. One of the most famous stories from Blazing Combat was entitled “Landscape,” a tale which depicted the truth behind Vietnamese civilian causalities. The series so infuriated some people, that many outlets outright refused to sell it. The American Legion even began a campaign among comic distributors to prevent it from reaching the streets.
5. Battle Picture Weekly (1975-1988)
The second British comic to grace this list, Battle Picture Weekly was a highly influential war comic that ran for 673 issues. The title was created by Pat Mills (who would later go on to create 2000 AD) and John Wagner (co-creator of Judge Dredd.) Battle Picture Weekly would prove instrumental in the revitalization of British comics during the 1970′s. Though it would devolve into a vehicle for comics based on the Palitoy action figure line Action Force, Battle Picture Weekly originally featured stories that were usually set in the World Wars. These included the famous ongoing comic strip Charley’s War, which followed an underage British soldier fighting in the Battle of the Somme. One of Battle Picture Weekly’s most famous features was its letters page, where readers sent in real life stories of their relatives’ experiences in both World Wars.
4. G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero (1982-1994)
Despite being more famous as a Saturday morning cartoon, G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero is more than worthy of a place on this list. The original comic series by Larry Hama is responsible for making the G.I. Joe franchise a pop-culture phenomenon. Even though the series, which ran for 155 issues, was based on the Hasbro toy line, Hama managed to make it both compelling and unforgettable.
The series followed the G.I. Joe Team, an elite covert special mission unit, as they fought against the terrorist organization Cobra Command. Borrowing on his own personal experiences of serving in the United States Army during the Vietnam War, Hama made the series feature authentic military tactics and procedures. Hama also closely developed each character’s back-stories so that they would seem real. So even though the series might not have focused on a real war, G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero remains one of the great war comic series.
3. The ‘Nam (1986-93)
Doug Murray’s The ‘Nam was one of the most fascinating experiments of the war comics genre. The series followed the exploits of Private First Class Edward Marks, as he fought in the Vietnam War. But what set The ‘Nam apart from other war comics was the fact that it took place in “real time.” Each monthly issue represented a month of time in the actual comic. The comic was first published in 1986 and was set in 1966. By the time The ‘Nam ended in 1993, the comic was taking place in 1972. This allowed The ‘Nam to feature many of the most important events of the Vietnam War, such as the Tet Offensive of 1968, with the same cast of characters.
The ‘Nam quickly became a favorite of both fans and critics, who praised it for its realistic tone and excellent storytelling. While the comic did occasionally guest star Frank Castle (aka The Punisher, himself a Vietnam vet,) The ‘Nam is mainly remembered for its stunning and gripping authenticity.
2. Enemy Ace: War Idyll (1990)
German fighter pilot Hans von Hammer, aka Enemy Ace, was one of DC’s most popular war characters from the Golden Age. But like Sgt. Rock, Hammer has been revived a few times in the last couple of decades. One of the most important revivals was in the graphic novel Enemy Ace: War Idyll. Written by George Pratt, the story takes place in 1969, where it is revealed that Hammer is still alive after his service in World War I. As Hammer slowly fades away in a German sanitarium, he recounts his memoirs to a Vietnam War veteran, who now makes a living as a journalist. A haunting, emotional work, Enemy Ace: War Idyll is a tribute to soldiers who struggle to rebuild their lives after they leave the battlefield for the last time.
1. Battlefields (2008)
Even though the war comic genre has suffered in recent years, there are a handful of artists and writers who fight to keep it alive. One of the most famous and talented personalities working in modern war comics is Garth Ennis. Although most famous for his run on Marvel’s Punisher franchise and his Vertigo series entitled Preacher, Ennis is responsible for some of the best war comics in recent history. One of his greatest achievements in the genre is Battlefields, a metaseries of three smaller mini-series which are all set in World War II. The first follows an all-female Soviet bomber regiment, the second a British nurse serving in Singapore, and the third an inexperienced British tank crew fighting in the Battle of Normandy. Battlefields is a must-read for any fan of historical fiction.