Monday, June 8, 2009

Blazing Combat

Fantagraphics Books has reprinted the four-issue run of Warren Publishing's Blazing Combat, some of the best black and white art from some of the finest artists of the 60s and 70s. I barely knew about the run of magazines—though I remember sneaking peeks at Creepy and Eerie when I was a child; Blazing Combat ran from October of 1965 to June of 1966. Included in the new book is every story published by the magazine and two semi-informative interviews with publisher James Warren and writer Archie Goodwin. The interviews are fairly interesting, describing the birth and rapid death of the magazine in the face of protests from patriotic distribution companies who disliked the magazine's apparent anti-war stance as the Vietnam War was kicking into gear. However, the description of the events of the magazine's demise, while compelling, are terribly one-sided and based on conjecture. It's hard to say how much of the story Warren tells is what was actually going on in the minds of the distributors, and the interviewer never really gets a good answer from Goodwin regarding the rationale for the magazine's end.

But truly, you shouldn't be coming to Blazing Combat for the interesting historical sidelight; this book is about some great story-telling. What first captures the eye are the splendid black-and-white panels by such artists as Reed Crandall, Al Williamson, Gene Colan, Grey Morrow, Alex Toth, and many others. The stories scan a wide range of human history, from the battle at Thermopylae to future combat in a post-apocalyptic landscape. Sometimes the art is not terribly historically accurate, but it is always compelling and worth taking some time to examine every page. The reproduction of the art is so fine that in many ways this book could be used as a primer for artists interesting in learning or refining the skill of black-and-white art. And of course, good reproduction doesn't really matter if the reproduced subject matter is bland, but it seems clear that other than those historical inaccuracies, the artists were near the top of their form in every case.

Balanced with the fine art is impressive writing from one of comic's great writers, Archie Goodwin. Given pretty much free reign by publisher Warren, Goodwin wrote masterful stories about the condition of war and how it affects the human spirit. Goodwin holds very little back, noting that even when the "good" side wins, there is a tremendous cost to battle in both people and emotion. War is indeed hell, no matter the circumstances, and the stories and art emphasize the horror at every turn. This is not to say that the book is a gore-fest; in fact, the art seems delicate in that regard—people obviously die, but it is not horrific. It is the settings and scenarios that Goodwin's writing sets out, which the art fulfills, that carry the tone of the book.

The biggest regret I have about the book is that the tremendous covers by Frank Frazetta are pretty much left out. There is only one picture of each, and they are thumbnail size, not enough to being to explore the detail and intricacy of war art by Frazetta. I get the feeling there was some difficulty about being allowed to reproduce the original covers, because it really is a gaping hole in the collection. Otherwise, this is a fantastic piece of comic history, a must-have for anyone interested in the literary capabilities of comics or who just enjoys fine black and white art.

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