Debt of Honor: The Complex Reality of 1980s War Comics

Mike Apichella / May 26, 2020

Detail from the cover of The ‘Nam #24, November, 1988

The Reagan-worshiping, Polo-drenched patriotism of the 1980s couldn’t hide the scars left by the Vietnam War. An entire generation grew up with nightly news reports sporting brutal images of guerilla warfare and violent political demonstrations. The confusion left by Vietnam caused moral perceptions of American wars and soldiers to become complicated and uncertain. Cultural ephemera in the ‘80s reflected this ambiguity across all media. More than a decade to meditate on Vietnam through books (Born on the Fourth of July, The Best and the Brightest), film (Coming Home, Apocalypse Now), and both mainstream and underground journalism led to the conclusion that there were no longer concise justifications for large scale armed conflicts. Even garden variety action fare like the Rambo films and the A-Team TV series had protagonists embodying the “crazy Vietnam vet” stereotype.

Objective definitions of right and wrong attached to previous “popular wars”—especially World War II, which gave rise to the first war comics and mass-produced war toys—no longer applied. Trusted storytelling tropes faded away as war’s questionable nature became a muse for artists seeking to portray the reality of battle minus vainglorious machismo and nationalism.

‘80s comic books were no different than any other medium. Marvel Comics’ The ‘Nam, DC’s G.I. Combat and Weird War Tales, and Charlton’s Battlefield Action eschewed “feel good” war stories in order to focus on the far-reaching consequences of physical violence, the shifty political motives of the Cold War, and the universal philosophies that define military service. With the exception of The ‘Nam, most mainstream ’80s war comics were created by artists who were WWII veterans and aging members of the “Greatest Generation.” Even though they never made overt anti-war propaganda, Sam Glanzman, Robert Kanigher, Joe Simon, Jack Kirby, Joe Kubert, and many others went out of their way to present war as a negative element of society. There’s nothing cold and heartless about their work, but there is always a sense that something is being held back. While The ‘Nam was biting anti-war criticism, the rest of these books gave voice to the confused masses who had yet to take a side in the struggle for peace.

The quintessential ‘80s war comic is the 255th issue of DC’s anthology title G.I. Combat. The series began publication in the ’50s as a conventional war book with a clear pro-war stance. During its final years it developed a much more nuanced perspective. The Joe Kubert cover art for #255 shows a grisly flaming skeleton dressed in a soldier’s uniform standing in the turret of a tank as two helpless infantry men look on, consumed by horror and fear. Before you even open to the first page it’s clear that American military might will not be this issue’s dominant theme. The burned up corpse comes from the book’s final story, “Dead Letter Office,” by Robert Kanigher and Sam Glanzman. By the time of the issue’s winter 1983 publication, Kanigher and Glanzman had become sequential art’s premier war story team, with careers that spanned more than 40 years in mainstream comics.

“Dead Letter Office” is a seven page tale about Army Captain J.J. Jamison, a World War II officer assigned the thankless, heartbreaking job of composing letters to combat fatalities’ next of kin. It depicts the CO’s angst as he futilely attempts to keep emotional distance from the job while the death toll symbolically piles up in his office (nicknamed the dead letter office). Day after day stacks of casualty reports spill on to Jamison‘s desk,  overflowing with all the warm sentiment of a corporate paper trail.

When a young soldier and his comrades are killed during a fierce tank battle, Captain Jamison suffers a moral crisis while attempting to write a letter that gives the soldiers’ story a heroic spin. It feels like Kanigher and Glanzman are describing themselves when they reveal the captain’s plight as a messenger who must document gory death in patriotic language that’s socially acceptable—or bear the burden that comes with an uncensored account of war’s power to twist bodies and minds beyond recognition.

Many of the latter G.I. Combat stories are poetic and heartbreaking, but none more so than “Debt Of Honor,” another Kanigher/Glanzman piece and the opening tale in G.I. Combat #255. Spoilers abound in any attempt to sum it up, but it’s safe to say that the hardest hitting element is the story’s ability to convey tragedy without visuals, a breathtaking feat for a medium driven by illustration. In “Debt Of Honor,” the reader’s own preconceived notions of violence, evil, love, reverie, and loss serve the same purpose as a pen, a pencil, or a typewriter. The story’s tragic elements are as old as war itself, and they remain as relevant now as they have always been.

A few months after G.I. Combat #255 hit the newsstands, Charlton Comics published the 83rd and 84th issues of their war anthology Battlefield Action. The two comics were entirely comprised of true stories written and drawn by veterans of World War II and the Korean conflict. These originally appeared in the pages of an innovative but obscure 1950s comic book called Foxhole, whose primary creators were none other than comics legends Jack Kirby and Joe Simon. In the ‘80s, Charlton was the biggest little indie publisher in the business, barely staying afloat financially and mainly reprinting material from their halcyon days. Even within a glut of reprint books, these Foxhole stories were exceptional. First and foremost, prior to the publication of Battlefield Action issues #83 and #84, the company had never made a focused effort to reprint material from one specific war series. Charlton’s creative core at the time included editors George Wildman (a veteran of both WWII and the Korean War) and Bill Pearson, a multimedia artist who got his start as a fanzine contributor for the Wally Wood publication witzend.

Battlefield Action #84, December, 1983

It’s anyone’s guess as to why Wildman and Pearson felt these books deserved a retrospective, but there’s no doubt that Foxhole didn’t get a fair shake in its original run. Early issues of the title appeared in 1954 and were published by Mainline, one of the many comic book companies whose sales were crushed by the censorship and witch-hunt tactics of child psychologist Frederic Wertham and his infamous anti-comic book rant Seduction Of The Innocent (1954). When Mainline went under, Charlton swooped in to scavenge the copyrights of their unpublished comics, which in the case of Foxhole applied to the last three issues of the series. Like The ‘Nam, Foxhole presented a distinctly unglamorous vision of war. Because it centered around WWII and the early days of the Cold War, the title had no acidic streak of anti-war sentiment, but nonetheless its stories expressed pain and tragedy in a way that was much more palpable than anything in either The ‘Nam or G.I. Combat. These true anecdotes were illuminated by informality and confessional intimacy. Despite rarely breaking seven or eight pages, they overflowed with character development and nuance.

Foxhole avoided any over-the-top reverence for the American military. It depicted war with stark realism and little else. Consequently, it only lasted for seven issues. Thought provoking stories like Jack Kirby’s “Listen To The Boidie” and Art Gates’ “Kamikaze Joe” struck a chord with fans in the post-Vietnam era, but they were freakish upon arrival in the mid-’50s, a period when G-rated pablum dominated comics as a result of Seduction Of The Innocent.

At the opposite end of the spectrum was Weird War Tales. Like G.I. Combat, this was a long running DC publication. The eccentric comic’s name says it all. The book featured supernatural fantasies set in war time (narrated by The Grim Reaper dressed in army fatigues) and serialized genre mashups starring G.I. Robot and The Creature Commandos. “The Day After Doomsday” was another serialized feature in WWT. Its post-apocalyptic narrative took place during the first days of The Great Disaster (a catastrophe made famous by Kirby in his dystopian DC title Kamandi: The Last Boy On Earth). Throughout its run, “The Day After Doomsday” possessed an emotional complexity identical to that of many ‘80s war comics, even though its first installments were published in the early ‘70s.

Issue #124 (June 1983) was the final issue of Weird War Tales, and it included a lengthy work called “Old Enemies Never Die,” Robert Kanigher’s abstract take on the origins of war and violence. This mythic saga follows the endless rivalry of two warriors who experience cyclic death and reincarnation beginning in the days of Attila The Hun and ending in the distant future. Its filled with dreamy images created by the young art team of Topper Helmers and Gary Martin; their approach owed less to the hard-boiled impressionism of Kubert and Glanzman than it did to the sword and sorcery works of Wendy Pini, Tom Mandrake, and Ernie Colon. “Old Enemies Never Die” was also unique for its cryptic references to some of combat’s root causes: machismo, competition, greed, and the monetary system. Violence spirals out of control through time and space at the turn of each page. An Edenic paradise makes a cameo in the story’s final moments, but there’s no concrete ending. Kanigher viewed war’s destruction as an omnipotent force. “Old Enemies Never Die” may not have been the first effort to seamlessly connect war, mysticism, and social anthropology, but it is one of the most politically subversive comic stories to focus on that strange trinity.

The ‘Nam #3, February, 1987

In 1986, Marvel debuted The ‘Nam, an extraordinary piece of historical fiction, one of the most critically acclaimed comics of the ‘80s, and one of the first mainstream series to portray the Vietnam conflict in a negative light. Before The ‘Nam began publication, its principal artist, Michael Golden, had been working on a variety of superhero and fantasy titles, most famously on the sometimes Swiftian Micronauts series, which he co-created in the late ‘70s. The ‘Nam‘s writer was newcomer Doug Murray, an American army veteran who had been a non-commissioned officer in Vietnam. After the war he worked writing articles in fanzines and the short-lived film publication The Monster Times. In 1984, a friend who was an editor at Marvel convinced Murray to collaborate with Golden on a series of Vietnam-themed short stories for the anthology comic Savage Tales. Titled “5th To The 1st,” this series would eventually transform into The ‘Nam.

Murray’s editor friend at Marvel was Larry Hama, a comic pro and fellow Vietnam vet who got his big break in the ‘70s when he was hired by Neal Adams’ Continuity Associates. Hama became a fan favorite as the writer/co-creator of the G.I. Joe series, which was inspired by a popular line of Hasbro action figures. Though G.I. Joe did have strong military themes, the book followed the adventures of an espionage organization that battled terrorists, robots, and super villains, but rarely fought in any real or imaginary wars. This conventional escapism had little in common with the gritty dramas that Murray and Golden were crafting.

The ‘Nam pulled no punches in its hopeless depiction of the Vietnam War as seen through the eyes of The U.S. Army’s 23rd Infantry. Only a handful of characters come even close to being sympathetic. They’re a rough bunch—conniving and power-hungry top brass, disgruntled noncom’s, and square pegs constantly at odds with Army bureaucracy. They aggressively avoid understanding the purpose of America’s bloodiest Cold War police action, sometimes to save their own sanity, other times because they simply don’t care. In each case it’s a strategic apathy born of American exceptionalism, something that infects every plot point. The PANV and Viet Cong, too, are presented as restless generators of violence. In The ‘Nam, war is never honorable; it’s just an irritating chore that ends human beings.

Golden’s artwork owes a lot to Will Eisner, as he often draws in a caricature style that’s more grotesque than funny, a quality that reinforces the overwhelming atmosphere of dehumanization fostered by Murray’s minimal use of dialogue and narration. It may have been cutting edge in the ‘80s, but by today’s standards the series’ harsh tone could be misinterpreted as insensitive and politically incorrect. As an exploration of pragmatism’s role in the war, The ‘Nam never defends any clear definition of right or wrong. Murray and Golden didn’t set out to make a political statement with the title, instead claiming that a desire for heightened realism was their goal. Regardless, the book’s blurred morality only makes war feel ugly and evil.

Mike Apichella has been working in the arts since 1991. He is a writer, multimedia artist, musician, and a founder of Human Host and the archival project Towson-Glen Arm Freakouts. Under his real name and various pseudonyms, his work has been published by Splice Today, Profligate, Human Conduct Press, and several DIY zines. Mike currently lives in the northeast US where he aspires to someday become the “crazy cat man” of his neighborhood.Patreon Button

6 thoughts on “Debt of Honor: The Complex Reality of 1980s War Comics

  1. Thank you for this — having grown up in upstate New York in an era when a lot of kids’ dads had served in Korea or Vietnam, the split between reader bases of GI Joe and The Nam (including folks too young to be reading either) was real.

    I wasn’t really a comic reader in those years, but like football or cars, it was something you learned to make small talk about, and I distinctly remember that divide.

    Would be really curious if you have any thoughts on the difference between The Nam with Vietnam Journal — a grittier, and in most ways uglier work which was passed around slightly older kids as a sort of Vietnam “this is how it was” samizdat.

    • You’re welcome Jim, it was a pleasure to write this. I’ve been a big fan of all kinds of war comics forever, but it was only decades after initially reading the 80’s war comics that i realized how special they were.

      Some of my friends parents did serve in Vietnam but they rarely ever talked about the war. My dad was in WWII stationed at Pearl Harbor when the bombs dropped and he never talked about that war either. These comics gave me more than a good idea about why these war experiences were such taboo subjects

      I never heard of VJ, i’ll have to check it out, thanx again for the compliments and the tip

      – Mike Apichella

  2. An excellent, thoughtful piece! I’m glad you included Charlton Comics in your survey, as they were the only mainstream publisher that actually featured the Vietnam War while it was happening. And one of their writers, Willi Franz, was actually censured by the Military for his anti-war tales… in 1969. A couple of years back, I featured one of his bleakest stories, which you might find it worthwhile:

    As for Wildman and Pearson, they were erudite connaisseurs (particularly Pearson), so it’s hardly surprising that they opted to showcase the ‘Foxhole’ material. They also did a tidy job of gathering John Severin’s great little Billy the Kid stories from the early 1960s.

    • Thanx! Yes, Will Franz is an amazing writer, his work for Charlton is crucial stuff. For awhile now I’ve been looking for a copy of that issue of Attack or the later reprint version of it that features ‘The Organist’ as cover story, it’s definitely intriguing and weird like most of Charltons late 60’s-’80s comics

  3. Pingback: Digital e o nosso Mundo: Capturas na Rede de 6 de Junho

  4. Pingback: The Vietnam War in comics, after the war - Tempest

Please Leave a Responsible Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s