Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Comics At War: The Viking Commando

Hello, Readers Mine, and welcome to what I hope will become a regular feature here at Solomon Mao's: "Comics At War." For the past three years I have been reading and researching war comics as part of my academic work in popular culture, and also because of a deep and abiding love of the genre. What I want to do with "Comics At War" is let my fan-scholar flag fly and mix some critical examinations of these works with some good, old-fashioned, fan-boy love for the genre.

And what better way to start than with DC's The Viking Commando!

All-Out War 1 (1979), featuring the Viking Commando. Cover art by Joe Kubert.
Photo from my collection.

Stay with me here. Valoric was a Viking warrior who heroically rescued his king and the royal princess from the clutches of the Huns in the 12th century. In order to allow the royals to escape, Valoric and his men formed a forlorn hope in which all were heroically killed, thereby guaranteeing their places in the Hall of Heroes in Valhalla. At least, so it appeared. In Valoric's case the undying love of the Valkyrie Maid Fey caused her to try and take him before he was actually dead, resulting in a kind of temporal storm which threw them centuries into the future and into the middle of World War II.

He's a Viking, who fights Nazis. I'll let the sheer awesomeness of that sink in for a moment.

All-Out War ran for all of six issues in 1979-80, when I was eight years old, and I thought Valoric was the most incredible thing on paper. Seriously, the guy carried a tommy-gun, grenades, and a freakin' axe! An axe which he used to take down a Focke-Wulf Fw190 by throwing it into the diving plane's prop and engine! This, Readers Mine, is the stuff that eight year-old boys' dreams are made of. Now, does any of that make any sense? Does the historical timeline add up? For that matter, how can Valoric suddenly speak and understand 20th century English, French, and German? How does something like this even work?

Because Robert Kanigher. That's why.

One of the most prolific, sometimes brilliant, sometimes frustratingly formulaic, and sometimes completely, wonderfully, insane writers in American comics history, Kanigher wrote and created the Viking Commando. (and Sgt. Rock, and the Haunted Tank, and Mlle. Marie, and The War That Time Forgot, and that's just in DC's war line.) In fact, Valoric was something of an update of an even earlier Kanigher creation, the Viking Prince, who dates back all the way to The Brave and the Bold 1 (1955). Kanigher and artist Joe Kubert (who had originally drawn the Viking Prince), would bring him back in Our Army at War 162-63, when Sgt. Rock discovered him frozen in ice, and the Prince too would fight Nazis. The Prince also had a semi-corporeal Valkyrie lover, only, unlike Valoric, the Prince was eager to meet his heroic death to be with her. Valoric, on the other hand, tended to prefer the charms of the various beautiful and, you know, living women who crossed his path, secure in the knowledge that his busty Valkyrie would be there, waiting.

Love triangles with one part temporally displaced bearded hunk, one part spunky girl war-reporter, and one part mythical, incorporeal Norse demi-goddess? Gotta be Kanigher. No one, and I mean no one, does high melodrama mixed with high explosives like Kanigher. Unlike much of his stellar war genre work in the late 1960s and early 1970s, though, there is little nuance or subtlety in the Commando tales. Everyone speaks in exclamations! While shouting out their motivations, their interior monologues becoming exterior! But then the Nazi's show up and Valoric takes on a Tiger tank with an axe and a hand-grenade and who the hell cares how he's talking?!? I'll be writing a lot more about Kanigher here in the future, believe me.

Plus, you get George Evans. Yes, that's right, the Viking Commando stories in All-Out War were all drawn and inked by George Evans, who was part of the incredible EC Comics stable in the early 1950s (including  Frontline Combat and Two-Fisted Tales), drew for Archie Goodwin's ground-breaking Vietnam era comic Blazing Combat, and was a regular for National Lampoon and Marvel's mystery-horror lines.

All-Out War 5, page 7. Art by George Evans, Script by Robert Kanigher.
Photo from my collection. 

Evans combined a minute attention to detail with an incredibly flexible line that could range from photo-realism to exaggerated cartoonishness, particularly when it came to the appearance of the Nazi officers who generally served as the villains of the Commando's stories. Exaggerated chins, noses, ears, and beady-eyes always set apart the ugly "Huns" from our handsome, bearded hero and the all-American boys and men he served with.
Gruppenfuhrer Heinrich Scholz
All-Out War 6, art by Evans, Script by Kanigher.
Photo from my collection.
Sometimes Evans' roots in the war, crime, and horror comics of the 1950s are cringe-inducingly obvious, as with his rendering of Gruppenfuhrer Heinrich Scholz ("The War Without a Name,"All-Out War 6) whose face is not merely a masterpiece of the grotesque, but also deliberately invokes the worst racist Asian stereotypes of the war genre, because the story winds up with Scholz's decedent leading a band of "Mongomutants" in a post-apocalyptic America (goddamn Kanigher, man!) that have more than a little of the Mongol Hordes about them - if the Mongol Hordes had also absorbed Nazi racial theory, that is.

Still, Evans was always masterful with mood, and used deep blacks and impressionistic backgrounds to evoke the feel of the battlefield and of combat while still staying within the constraints of the Comics Code. Evans' life-long love of aeroplanes is evident in every scene which involves an aircraft, from German fighters and gliders to American B-17s and light scout aircraft, every line, gun-port and antenna is accurate. Unfortunately, Evans is not as comfortable with combining a realistic line with effective movement. In panels where mist, fog, or smoke allows him a looser line, Evans machines and characters are fluid and leap across the panel. In panels where Evans is using a detailed line, his figures here are often stiff and posed.

So there's the Viking Commando (seriously: Viking, axe, Nazis - how can you go wrong? WHY IS VALORIC NOT IN THE NEW  52?!!?). He is one of the first comic book characters that I remember, one of the first that captured my boy's heart and foredoomed me to a sometimes heartbreaking, nearly always frustrating, but never-ending love affair with comics. There were others, and they all came from DC's war line. It would be a few more years before the capes and spandex crowd caught my interest. How could they even begin to compete with a Viking Commando, a Haunted Tank, an Unknown Soldier, the beautiful Mademoiselle Marie, or, most of all, with Sgt. Rock and Easy Company? Thirty-five years after All-Out War 1 hit the stands, I'm still entranced by these stories, and I have no doubt that they form a vital part of my enduring fascination with World War II and pop culture. From such beginnings spring advanced degrees in history.

Also - dude, he's a Viking who fights Nazis with an axe!!!

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