30th Century Comics
 

Weird War Tales

 
 

During the early seventies, when it was still known as National Periodicals Publications, DC Comics was a place of experimentation. The influence of artists such as Neal Adams and writers like Denny O'Neil had taken the decades-old boundaries of comics just a bit further, making more room for new ideas. This was further encouraged by publisher Carmine Infantino, who had been an artist for many years before he became an editor. In turn, he placed many veteran artists in the seats of editors, a novelty at DC.

One of the other old-time, long established, unwritten rules that National had adhered to for a long time, was the strict separation of genres. Sure, superheroes could have their fair share of horror-inspired villains, or a humorous story once and again, but on the whole the genres were strictly separated.

Roughly speaking there were: Humour (such as Sugar & Spike or The Adventures of Jerry Lewis), Superheroes (you know who!), Horror (virtually diminished due to the Comics Code in 1954), Science-Fiction (anything to do with space and strange worlds, such as Tales Of The Unexpected or House of Mystery, although they occasionally sported superheroes such as J'onn J'onzz the Martian Manhunter), Teen (every rip-off of Archie and his pals you can think of), Romance (a dying breed, since girls and women did not seem to buy them anymore for some reason), War (still going strong at National with numerous titles, with Sgt Rock and his men at Easy Company as the best known representatives), Western (cowboys and indians, such as Johnny Thunder and Nighthawk in All-Star Western) and Adventure (basically everything with a lot of action, but no superheroics - a fine line indeed, since this included Tarzan and The Phantom, but not Batman or Flash Gordon!).

These had been there practically since the beginning of the industry, and no one had really tried to break beyond those formats. Until 1971, that is.

With a cover-date of September-October 1971, DC published two new titles that were to depart from the fixed genres and go their own way. I will go into Dark Mansion of Forbidden Love some other time, since the title of this column is "Weird War Tales".

Editor and artist Joe Kubert assembled a group of writers and artists to create a series combining the genres of War (one Kubert had worked in for as long as most people could remember) and Horror. Well, perhaps Horror is putting it a bit sharply. Don't expect dripping axes or electric chairs in a DC title anno 1971. Rather, a mild derivative that some people call Mystery and others Suspense. You could basically expect to see a lot of ghosts. (A series called Ghosts was started exactly the same time as Weird War Tales and Dark Mansion, but there is no mixing of genres in this title, so I'll leave that one for another time). Not very scary by todays standards, nor by early 1950's tastes. The real attraction to this title does not lie in its story content, although you will find an occasional gem here and there. No, the real treasure lies in the plethora of high quality artists whose work you will find in this title.

I'll try and illustrate this by citing a few examples:

[comic cover] #4 (March-April 1972) starts off with a great Joe Kubert cover (as did most DC War titles at that time), in which a GI-Joe is on his knees looking up at a female figure pouring out the sand of an hourglass. The Joe's reaction: "Wh-who are you? WHAT-have you done to me? I've grown OLD!" Nice starter, right? Kubert continues this story on the first three pages of the issue, in a framing sequence. A framing sequence is a storytelling-technique that was often used in anthology titles. It basically leads the reader into the first story and wraps up the issue at the very end. This was quite easy to do during the period that DC expanded its comics to 52 pages (as in this issue; 48 pages plus a cover) and that was replaced by a central host when they returned to 36 pages shortly after.

The first real story is nameless. That is, it is nameless here. It is a reprint, which has had its title removed. The original title was "Ghost Ship Of Two Wars" and it was originally published in All-American Men Of War #81 (September-October 1960) twelve years earlier. As were a lot of the DC war stories, it is scripted by editor/writer Robert Kanigher, with art by the under-appreciated artist Irv Novick, who later became best known for his work on The Flash.

The second story is "Time Warp" by Kanigher and Gene Colan. It is again a reprint, this time from Star-Spangled War Stories #123 (October-November 1965). It is an installment from the series The War That Time Forgot, in which servicemen were pitted against prehistoric beasts, mostly dinosaurs. The feature had been introduced in #90 of Star-Spangled, cover-dated April-May 1960). This one has a Navy SEAL take it up with a sea monster that likes to chew on metal! No wonder the original title was "The Dinosaur Who Ate Torpedoes"!

The next story is my favourite. This five-page yarn by an unknown writer (at least to me!) and artist Mort Meskin is titled "The Unknown Soldier". It depicts two G.I.'s, Joe and Eddie, who try to survive manoeuvres during midst of winter. Hunger and cold get the better of them, until they are given a hand - an incorporeal hand that is!

Rounding off the issue is an installment of another well-known DC War feature... U.S.S. Stevens, by Sam Glanzman. Glanzman did script and art on a lot of his U.S.S. Stevens episodes, and this one is a fine example of his mastery. As far as I was able to ascertain, this story has not been printed before.

Although containing great art and stories, this issue was not all that interesting to long time DC War readers, since it only sports a few pages of new art, being mostly reprints. The series was starting to look more like just another DC War title, even showing the legendary "Make War No More" vignette at the end of each story. It was clear that DC would have to pull harder to maintain reader interest.

#42 (October 1975) is a very big step in the right direction. The emphasis has clearly shifted away from War and towards Horror (or Mystery, or Suspense, whichever you prefer), since we see two World War One pilots. Well, at least their bones! It's still by Kubert, as were a lot of the covers on this title.

The first story, "Old Soldiers Never Die" is introduced by a generic host that most Weird War Tales collectors have come to call Death. The story is by Jack Oleck, a very prolific DC war writer, with art by Ernie Chua and Ricardo Villamonte, two very talented Philippine school artists DC had started buying work from some years before.

The same goes for Quico Redondo, the artist of the next story, "Twice Dead", again written by Oleck. Brothers Frank and Nestor Redondo were better known, but Quico also showed his sharp style in many DC titles, both solo and as part of the Redondo Studios. This story is also the cover story, of sorts.

The final story, "The Day After Doomsday" shows the maturity DC had reached since 1971. In it a young man believes himself to be a post-apocalyptic Robin Hood-character relating his adventure to a psychiatrist. The question is whether he was indeed insane or whether he had returned from a dreadful world somehow. The feature returned several times in Weird War Tales.

A funny thing is a LOC on the letters page. Fred Carlson asks: "A final question regarding the mag: do you personally think Weird War Tales will hit the 100 mark?" The answer by Joe Kubert (presumably!): "We hope so, but since that issue would go on sale in May, 1980, we're naturally reluctant to make a definite projection." History in hindsight tells us Joe wasn't that far off the mark: #100 of Weird War Tales was published in June of 1981, meaning that in just under sixty issues the editors had lost over a year!

Joe Kubert once again provides the cover with #72 (February 1979). Times have changed drastically and this means that a dark page from human history can be used in a funny book: the cover depicts a Nazi soldier standing over a concentration camp-victim lying at his feet in the mud. The Nazi is holding a smoldering Luger. The cover copy reads: "Will anyone emerge alive from the... Death Camp?"

After a one-page introduction page by E.R. Cruz (author unknown) we have the cover story "Death Camp" by J.M. DeMatteis (script) and Juan Ortiz (art). The very heavy topic of a German soldier who stands up to his cruel superior is made less effective by the ludicrous host Death. Dressed in a Nazi uniform, Death wears a yellow circle with a swastika in it on his forehead. What was Ortiz thinking?

A two page story, "The Battle Of Morro Castle" by David Michelinie and Walt Simonson takes place in 1917, during the first day of World War One. A nice variation from the usual World War Two stories.

The last story, "The Experiments Of Dr. Krebb" deals with the horrible medical experiments that were performed by the Nazis during WW2, and the retribution paid to the scientist performing them. It is by Michelinie and the recently departed Alfredo Alcala.

All in all, again a much more sophisticated collection of stories. In my opinion, the period from roughly #60 to #90 of Weird War Tales forms the most productive of the 124-issue run. After that, the title quickly changed, and not for the better.

[comic cover] #112 (June 1982) is a fine example of the change. During the early eighties all anthology titles were slowly dying away, driven off the market by dwindling newsstand sales and increasing popularity of the superheroes. To put a halt to this editors tried to draw the attention of superhero readers towards anthology titles by creating recurring characters. Some of these were very good. Others were not. Yet others were meant to be serious but instead became ludicrous. Weird War Tales is unfortunately a fine example. Editors Julie Schwartz and E. Nelson Bridwell inserted various new features. They revived The War That Time Forgot, and G.I.Robot (a mechanical soldier who later was joined by a dog and a cat!!!) and brought in a new creation: the Creature Commandos. They included Velcro, a chemically-created vampire; Griffith, a werewolf; Lucky, a modern day Frankenstein's Monster; and Dr. Medusa, a late addition; all led by Lt. Shrieve, the only normal among them, and yet by far the cruellest!

The story from this issue, "The Medusa Sting!" is a fine example: the Commandos are in Egypt, drink a potion, and all but Dr. Medusa shrink down to doll-size. Even then they manage to take out a vital part of Rommel's Afrika Korps. The story is by veteran Kanigher, but he and artist Dan Spiegle are just not doing the work they do best. Kanigher was far more in his element as a anthology writer, and Spiegle should have continued his work on titles such as Gold Key's Space Family Robinson - Lost In Space.

The second story is hosted by Death and is called "The Head Of The Battalion". With solid writing by Paul S. Newman (Guinness Book of Records holder for most prolific comic book writer) and Philippine school artists José Matucenio and Tor Infante, this is a fine piece from the French Revolution. Take out your guillotines!

The final yarn is from another veteran anthology writer, George Kashdan, with art by Noly Zamora. This one has it all: Nazis, a witch and a black cat to boot.

The new superhero-like features quickly took over the title, making it yet another superhero title and completely taking away its uniqueness among all those many other titles.

In the past, Weird War Tales was a very neglected title for most comic book collectors. Collectors of DC's War titles found the appearance of ghosts, vampires and werewolves too distracting and stuck to their core titles. The same goes for straight horror collectors. They went for titles such as The Unexpected (a continuation of Tales Of The Unexpected), The Witching Hour and House of Secrets, that all came and went during the same period, and only occasionally contained stories set during a time of war.

Slowly collectors are beginning to realize they have been missing out on a great title for many years, and demand for issues of Weird War Tales, especially the earlier and the later parts of the run, is on the increase.

So get them while you can!

© copyright 2001, Ramon Schenk