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November-December, 1950
Note: This is a reprint of EC's Two-Fisted Tales #18. The original did not include the "Blam! First issue!" caption at the top.

Did you know...
· In Two-Fisted Tales and its companion title, Frontline Combat, Kurtzman went to incredible lengths to ensure that every rifle, helmet, and piece of military equipment was accurately drawn. Once, when artist Jack Davis brought him artwork of an Army corpsman's kit, Kurtzman reportedly said, "No, Jack, the gauze pad goes to the right of the sulfa!"

· Kurtzman had a hard time delegating his workload; he did his own layouts and insisted the artists follow them precisely. Some rebelled, and added tiny details they knew would get Kurtzman's goat.

· Kurtzman's final work was a reprise of Two-Fisted Tales, which was published by Dark Horse Comics in 1993. He died before seeing the first issue published.

Two-Fisted Tales #18

EC COMICS, THE UPSTART COMPANY whose name was synonymous with groundbreaking horror and humour in the 1950s, didn't set out to create the century's greatest war comic. But there's nothing like a real-life war -- in this case, the Korean conflict -- to encourage a little creativity on the homefront.

Prior to Two-Fisted Tales #18 (which was previously titled Haunt of Fear), war comics were simple and jingoistic. Comic readers during the Second World War could look forward to stories about Captain America punching Hitler, or a group of preteen boys pulling pranks behind enemy lines, or a bumbling private up to his usual hijinks in the mess hall. There were plenty of stories that truly tried to capture the horror and senselessness of the battlefield, but comic books were not the place to find them.

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Issue #25 of Two-Fisted Tales shows a typical cover, with ordinary soldiers suffering the insanity of war.

Harvey Kurtzman changed all that. Originally, he wanted to create a book about all types of "he-man" adventures, but the Korean War gave war comics a second life, and he switched formats to take advantage of the renewed interest in war stories. But unlike other magazines of the day, no one could accuse Two-Fisted Tales of being wartime propaganda. On the contrary, the magazine was a brutally honest look at battles and wars throughout history. Kurtzman, who had been drafted in 1942, knew warfare firsthand, and he was outraged by the gung-ho war comics that made war look like a glorious thing. In his stories, there were no heroes -- just soldiers trapped in situations beyond their control. Often, his stories weren't about soldiers at all, focusing instead on the lives of innocent people scarred by war.

These gritty, unsentimental peeks at the pressures that soldiers faced were also incredibly detailed; Kurtzman was legendary for agonizing over every little detail of the stories and double-checking every historical fact. But he didn't suffer for his craft alone -- legends-in-the-making like Jack Davis, Joe Kubert, John Severin, Wally Wood, Will Elder, Reed Crandall and George Evans helped to lighten the load.

Sadly, it wouldn't last long. This was due in part to the amount of work involved in maintaining each issue's quality, but part of the reason also lay in the fact that most Americans weren't ready to accept comic books as a legitimate forum for those types of war stories. The title ended with its 41st issue in 1955, but its influence would later be seen in titles by other publishers that would pick up the torch -- for instance, in the 1960s Warren Publishing's Blazing Combat tried to deal honestly with war at a time when honesty about the Vietnam war was hard to come by. In later years, Sgt. Rock would be DC's answer to the call for realistic war stories.

By the end of the century, war comics that told the truth about war were all but forgotten by most readers, making way for movies like Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, and Saving Private Ryan to show the true face of war. But the spirit with which Kurtzman created some of the most masterful stories of their kind would, like the servicemen they commemorated, not easily be forgotten.

Note: If anyone knows where I can find a scanned copy of the cover from the original Two-Fisted Tales #18, I'd appreciate it.