Monday, May 31, 2010

Some Memorial Day reading

It’s Memorial Day in the United States, the day when we particularly pay respect to those who have given their lives in military service to our country. I’ve never served myself, but my grandfather was a medic and my uncle is also a vet, plus I’ve got several friends and acquaintances still in the military today. Like so many, I’m eternally grateful for what they do to preserve our safety and way of life and try to display my appreciation every chance I get.

Speaking of doing just that, a Memorial Day reading list of comics that honor or highlight military service is a pretty paltry offering in the grand scheme, but hey, you stick with what you know.

(Speaking of what I don’t know, I’ve never gone back and familiarized myself with the war comics of yore, but if anybody feels like recommending some in the comments section, I’d be curious to know which ones were the cream of the crop in your mind)

I tend to think of the origin of Steve Rogers, the original and iconic Captain America, as being the best and most quintessential story about what it means to serve your country and possess that drive to be a part of something more than yourself (and again, I myself have never been in the military, so please take statements I make like that one with your preferred helping of salt). It’s a tale of a young man possessing inadequate physical capabilities to be a hero, but a relentless heart and spirit that would not quit and propelled him all the way to being not only America’s greatest symbol for liberty, but the most inspirational hero within the Marvel Universe. Though it’s a story that has been told many times by many great creative teams over the past seven decades, I don’t believe any two folks captured the majesty of Cap’s humble beginnings better than the quintessential team of Roger Stern and John Byrne in this special 40th anniversary issue.

In 1999 as DC prepared to re-launch the Justice Society franchise with JSA, they tested the waters first with the “Justice Society Returns!” event, set in the Golden Age and showcasing the old school heroes in a series of one-shots bookended by two chapters. It was a pretty awesome and underrated little event that I need to get more in-depth into another time, but the gist was that a bunch of Nazis during World War II use Doctor Occult to summon a mystical baddie named Stalker who the JSA battles in Washington DC, but then he splits his power all over the globe, leading the team to pair off in classic fashion to go after the bad guys. Some of the one-shots were of a higher quality than others, of course, but I include it here because among my favorite chapters were those set in the theater of war with the military playing a strong supporting role, in particular National Comics #1 where Mark Waid and Aaron Lopresti place The Flash and Mister Terrific behind enemy lines as well as Smash Comics #1 where Doctor Mid-Nite tries to put up with Hourman against a similar backdrop in a story by Tom Peyer and Steve Sadowski.

Another oft-overlooked gem (yeah, I should get to this one too), it’s a mix of straight-up action with some spiritual overtones and pretty heavy metaphysical questions as a crew of WWII grunts end up with an angel in their ranks and get propelled into a quest to protect a heavenly artifact from falling into demonic hands who happen to have allied from the Nazis. On the one hand, it’s not exactly light reading from writer Peter Tomasi as I alluded to above, but on the other, the themes of brotherhood, commitment, and why soldiers do what they do are really the driving stuff behind this story; the angels and the flaming swords and the unkillable Nazis are just window dressing. This really is a story about the willpower of the human spirit, particularly in those who serve in the military, with jaw-dropping art by Peter Snejbjerg lighting the way.

A still-recent story that we’ll have to see whether or not it stands the test of time, but I was genuinely moved by Marc Guggenheim and Barry Kitson’s account of Peter Parker’s tormentor-turned-friend Flash Thompson’s time in Iraq and I don’t think there’s much question he’s perhaps a more interesting character now than he has been in years as a result of this story and the glimpses that have followed. In part it’s a story about how Spider-Man inspired Flash to try and be a hero, but really it’s more about how that heroic drive resides in normal people who can’t fly or lift cars, and how they exist in the real world. I’ve heard and seen praise of this issue by actual military folks and their families, which of course is a far greater stamp of approval than I could ever give it.

Happy Memorial Day and to those men and women serving my country, thank you so much for what you do.


Anonymous said...

Best war comic ever was Frontline Combat, written by Harvey Kurtzman. Two-Fisted Tales, also from Kurtzman but not always about war, and Blazing Combat, a Frontline Combat homage written by Archie Goodwin, tie for second.

Anonymous said...

I just did an interview/conversation with Larry Hama, who was the editor of THE NAM for Marvel and served prior to that. I've read it before, but my talk with him makes me want to read it again.

Ben Morse said...

We've got a Nam collection around the office I've been thinking about checking out. Worth it?