Somewhat neglected among the mountains and mountains of Avengers hype and Free Comic Book Day excitement, DC released six new titles this week. One of them, G.I. Combat, is remarkable as a representative of a rare genre, one worthy of further study. Call it “war fantasy.”
Fantasy war is considerably more common. Joss Whedon has described the current Avengers film as a “war movie,” and the Lord of the Rings is one of the best-known allegories of World War II. But the war genre begins with a real-life war, not an allegory (think Patton or Apocalypse Now), and war fantasy maintains at least a strong connection with that war.
DC has several war fantasy properties, just kind of lying there and getting pulled out of storage every so often, seemingly more out of sentimentality than marketability. The Haunted Tank, the Unknown Soldier, the War that Time Forgot. The Creature Commandos, G.I. Robot. You could make a case for Sgt. Rock, which dabbled in fantasy every so often. Rock met a ghost or something. G.I. Combat has a long history, actually going back before DC Comics’ ownership of the title: Quality Comics launched it in 1952. Even as World War II receded in people’s memory, the title maintained relevance to its readership by maintaining its 1940s setting and invoking the Korean and Vietnam wars.
But it didn’t really get around to Iraq. Like all war comics from the “Big Two” publishers, it was discontinued in the late 1980s. Today’s market hasn’t seemed hungry for comics anthologies from major publishers, either: Marvel Comics Presents was discontinued in 1995, and nothing from the Big Two has stuck since then… not counting the limited series Wednesday Comics, which succeeded mostly through an unusual format. Dark Horse Presents is doing very well indeed, but that’s due to its central position within Dark Horse’s publishing plan.
If the stories are good, G.I. Combat may succeed on its own terms. The commercial success of Brian Azzarello and Joe Kubert’s Sgt. Rock: Between Hell and a Hard Place showed there was still some interest in old “war” characters… helped along, surely, by the popularity of the creators. And i>Inglorious Bastards, a relatively recent film (2009), indicates that today’s audiences might still be engaged enough with World War II to treat it as a jumping-off point for a stylish fantasy.
Still, neither inspired a legion of imitators. The experience of war remains remote to the majority of Americans today, and has ever since we stopped the draft. As the generation that lived through the Vietnam War raised kids, “soldier” became a much less popular game to play. G.I. Combat deserves a little creative respect as an exercise in “not superheroes,” but it doesn’t look like the kind of experiment that will matter much to DC’s long-term creative strategy. Not like the vampire epic might.