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‘Atlas at War!’ (review)

Edited by Dr. Michael J. Vassallo
Restoration by Allan Harvey
Featuring art by Russ Heath, John Severin,
Bernie Krigstein, Joe Maneely, Don Heck,
Jerry Robinson, Steve Ditko, Jack Kirby

Published by Naval Institute Press


“War is not healthy for children and other living things.”

That famous ‘60s slogan was created by women who had grown up with the Korean War and World War II and weren’t at all happy that young men were dying yet again in Vietnam.

Nonetheless, there’s something almost mythical about a well-told war story, whether it’s realistic or over-the-top jingoism.

A good war story can be a cautionary tale or serve as propaganda. A good war story can even be an anti-war story. A good war story can run you through a gamut of feelings and emotions from patriotism to fatalism. A good war story can make you angry, make you cry, make you feel sympathy, pride, horror, and/or hatred for the enemy or even for your own government.

In other words, a good WAR story is just a good story.

In the 1950s, there were a LOT of good war stories in comics.

As comic books had been so much a part of the war effort in WWII, it was inevitable that they would boom again as the Korean conflict began. Alongside horror, westerns, and romances, war comics became a major trend in the 1950s. While the best war comics were indisputably Harvey Kurtzman’s meticulously researched stories out of EC, the MOST were just as predictably from Atlas, the company now known as Marvel. And they were pretty darn good ones.

One look at an Atlas war comic and one can tell Stan Lee or Martin Goodman was purposely wanting them to look like Kurtzman’s EC Comics, sometimes more than others. The splash pages, the lettering, sometimes even the same artists!

Without Harvey’s touch, however, the Atlas war stories have a wholly different feel.

Also, while EC had exactly two war comics, Atlas, as would be a tradition for the company, tried to corner the market with a score or more. All this is covered in great depth in Dr. Michael Vassallo’s long, learned, and informative Introduction to the new collection, Atlas at War, from the Naval Institute Press (the fine folks who also did the recent Don Winslow of the Navy book I worked on).

The biggest complaint I have regarding Atlas at War is that the artists are credited only on the Contents pages. Since not all of the styles are immediately recognizable nor the splashes signed, it would have been nice to see what credits were known on the stories themselves. A minor inconvenience, though, that doesn’t really detract.

What I like most about the book is the art.

When EC folded, many of their best artists ended up across town at Atlas—Russ Heath, Jack Davis, Bernie Krigstein, John Severin, Reed Crandall, Al Williamson. Atlas’s own star illustrator Joe Maneely is here, of course, clearly channeling Kurtzman in one story! Other Atlas regulars including Syd Shores, Bill Everett, Paul Reinman, Don Heck, Dick Ayers, Gene Colan, and Joe Sinnott pop up throughout, and since the book is in chronological order, even Ditko and Kirby turn up before the end, both on the same story in one instance!

It’s surprising that the Navy is not better represented here since Atlas had a number of Navy titles and this book IS from the Naval Institute Press.

Another observation is that none of the company’s regular characters are present. Both Combat Casey, and Combat Kelly, for example, had long-running series. And let’s not forget Battle Brady or Sailor Sweeney!

But then, Doc Vassallo does note in his Intro that there’s enough material for 60 more volumes!

Bottom line—I think we can all agree that war has never been a good thing, but for comics fans, this book of war stories IS a good thing.

Volume two, please?

Booksteve recommends.


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