War comics can be an acquired taste, mostly because the traditional model plays around with some formula of tortured soldier, brutal combat, victimized civilians, heavy pathos. Rinse. Repeat. If these elements don't appeal to you, odds are high the comic–even a good one, such as The Other Side–won't either.
That's not to say there aren't war comics out there that approach their subject matter in unique ways. Take Unknown Soldier and Garth Ennis' Battlefields. Although they both illustrate battles and spotlight the combatants, these series tackle their backdrops–Ugandan civil war in Unknown Soldier and World War II in Battlefields–in more unconventional styles.
Maybe that's why both series are ending this week. (Battlefields, which is in its second volume of three-issue miniseries, might return for a third, but I haven't heard any confirmation of that.)
Thankfully, these comics aren't the only ones out there that bring a fresh perspective to one of civilization's most appalling tendencies. If war stories aren't your thing, check out these five comics that prove that tales about armed conflict can be more than jargon-filled orgies of bloodshed.
Along with the work of Jonathan Hickman, DMZ is something I've lauded incessantly without ever writing anything very substantial about it. That streak ends here. What makes Brian Wood's tale of a New York City that becomes a demilitarized zone in the midst of a U.S. civil war so unique is its street-level POV that focuses on the toll the combat takes on the lives of photojournalist Matty Roth and the rest of the citizenry. But Wood doesn't paint his characters as victims or even as triumphant heroes. They're just people in a brutally fucked up situation acting like people, faults and all.
2. The Fixer: A Story From Sarajevo
Joe Sacco has made an illustrious career of spending time in war zones, chronicling the conflicts and the people caught in the middle. His most celebrated documentary works are Palestine, a look at the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the early 1990s, and Safe Area Goradze, which focuses on Sacco's time in Bosnia between 1994 and 1995. My favorite Sacco work, though, is the more intimate The Fixer, which focuses on Neven, a “fixer” who helps journalists find stories, information and just about anything else. But as Sacco learns more about Neven, the reader sees how these armed conflicts infect people's lives, twisting and corrupting them without them even knowing it.
3. Pride of Baghdad
Allegories are tricky things, especially when they involve talking animals. Using the true story of zoo animals being inadvertently released after the U.S. bombing raid of Baghdad in 2003 as a jumping off point, writer Brian K. Vaughn and artist Niko Henrichon tell the story of a family of lions exploring their newfound freedom and the perils involved with it. Vaughn's story is a bit too precious, but the concept and Henrichon's fantastic, lush art make it worth the read.
4. Special Forces
Kyle Baker knows how to make moder-day war funny. And not in a Hawkeye and dead babies way (no, not that Hawkeye). Special Forces is a dark, over-the-top satire of war that continually makes you chuckle until you realize what you're laughing isn't as funny as you thought because you realize it's a little too true and a little too horrific. Baker's not at the top of his game illustratively, but his storytelling is razor sharp and as dangerous as the ideas he lobs out like hand grenades.
5. New Gods #7
A cosmic, quasi-superhero comic from the early 1970s on this list? How quaint, you say? Hold it right there, Snobby McSnobber. On the surface, this issue, titled “The Pact,” of Jack Kirby's space gods epic just looks like another mainstream comic (albeit drawn by Jack Fucking Kirby). And that's what makes it so awesome. In 22 pages, Kirby builds a powerful metaphoric telling of battlefield combat, the atomic bomb and Cold War politics, constructed from his own experiences in World War II, and dresses it up as an engaging, unpretentious fantasy comic. Plus, Kirby draws the shit out of it. It's quite possibly a perfect comic.
HONORABLE MENTION: Harvey Kurtzman's war stories in EC Comics
In good conscience, I didn't think I could these comics to the list because, although well done, they're cut from the traditional soliders-and-fighting mold. But in good conscience, I couldn't go without mentioning Harvey Kurtzman's haunting short stories that appeared in EC Comics titles such ast Frontline Combat and Two-Fisted Tales throughout the 1950s.They're by far the best of that breed of comic out there. Hell, they're the best of any breed of comic book, tightly told in short page counts with Kurtzman's fluid lines and unsentimental stories meshing wonderfully. These were powerful stories at the time–still are–that were being created while America was involved in the Korean War, and Kurtzman showed little restraint when it came to showing the ugly human cost of war.
STILL WAITING: The Shooting War
This book has been sitting on my nightstand, and I haven't read it yet, which is why it didn't make the list. However, I've heard nothing but praise for this tale by writer Anthony Lappe and artist Dan Goldman of a video-blogger who heads to Iraq to cover the war. If I'm going to read it, you guys should, too.
Other comics to check out this week
- Batman #702 Grant Morrison and Tony Daniel conclude their two-part flashback story that answers the question: What the hell was Batman doing between the time he died in that helicopter crash in Batman R.I.P. and the time Darkseid killed him in Final Crisis?
- Punisher: Happy Ending #1 This one-shot actually has to do with massage parlors, hence the title. I'm hoping writer Peter Milligan actually lets Frank Castle get one. Dude needs to release some tension.
- Rock 'N' Roll Comics: Joan Jett and the Runaways #1 Back in the day, this well-received series published unauthorized bios on musical acts as diverse as Guns N' Roses and Kids on the Block. The series returns under a new publisher, the same one responsible for the recent Lady Gaga comic. Dear Lord, help us.