BEST BETS: "Jessica Jones," "Big Trouble/Escape from New York" & More October 2016 Highlights
Every day this year, I will be examining the first pages of random comics. This month I will be doing theme weeks, with each week devoted to comics from one decade. This week’s decade: the 1960s! Today’s page is from Blazing Combat #3, which was published by Warren Publishing and is cover dated April 1966. The four-issue run of Blazing Combat was collected by Fantagraphics in a superb book in 2009, from which this scan is taken (and, as Michael Catron points out in the comments, the artwork is copyrighted ©2012 Michael Catron). Enjoy!
Blazing Combat lasted only four issues because, as Michael Catron explains in the introduction to this collection, the military and the American Legion deemed it anti-American and helped kill it. It’s too bad, because the war stories in the four issues are very diverse and examine the human side of war very well, but because it wasn’t jingoistic, the conservative elements of American society didn’t like it. You should get the collection, though, because it’s full of good short stories and wonderful artwork.
Take “Survival,” which was written by Archie Goodwin (who wrote most of the stories in the four issues) and Alex Toth, with art and lettering by Toth. Toth is an interesting artist – more cartoony than many of his peers, but because he uses, it seems, fewer lines, his artwork often looks starker than others of his time. This story shows off his strengths very nicely, because it’s one of the bleaker stories in the volume (none of them are happy; I mean “bleak” in that the landscape is stripped of vegetation and is dotted with destroyed building, giving this story its post-Apocalyptic tenor) and Toth does very well with that.
Goodwin and Toth give us a first-person narrator who explains that his war is simply one for survival, and we see that dogs in the story are no longer domesticated. We’re not sure what happened based on this page, but according to the narrator, civilization has collapsed thanks to mankind’s endless wars. The narrator explains that man has only himself, with no one he can depend on – a crucial world-view for this story, as it turns out. So this is a depressing but fairly expository first page.
Of course, Toth’s beautiful artwork makes this story far more intriguing. The first panel gives us Toth’s wonderful, jagged title, almost shrieking its despair, and right underneath, the narrator’s silhouette standing against the threat of the dogs. It’s a well-designed panel – we get the dogs coming over the rise, leading us toward the dark figure of the man, who is haloed by the destroyed building, drawing our attention to the destruction. We also see the long … thing in his hand, which looks like a rifle butt but is actually just a big stick, as we see in Panel 3. This is a harrowing first panel, and it draws us very nicely into the story.
Toth shows the dogs in close-up in Panel 2, emphasizing their wildness as the narrator ruminates on the role dogs have played in human history. Again, we get a terrifying scene – the angry dogs, the slavering mouths, the long, creepy tongue and the gaping maw. Toth has taken a comfort to humans and turned it into something monstrous, which helps the reader accept the narrator’s actions in Panel 3, when he takes the bat to the dog’s head. By placing the dog in Panel 2 and the narrator in Panel 3 on the same side of their own panels, he links the savagery of the dogs with the savagery of the narrator, and we get a sense of how this man has lost some (or all) of his humanity. The way the panel is angled leads us to the final panel, where we see the dead dogs and the man, sickened, looking away. It’s a very dramatic page, full of tension and ferocity, and Toth does a very good job with it. You’ll notice the man is wearing a Russian fur hat (an “ushanka”), which may or may not imply that he’s living in a failed Soviet state (this was 1965, after all). The fact that Goodwin and Toth are implying that Communism has fallen apart didn’t hold much water with the American Legion, I suppose.
Next: The world’s weirdest heroes! The six-year-old God of All Comics read this book and thought, “I can do weirder!” Be sure to check out some weird comics in the archives!
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