THROUGHOUT THE GOLDEN Age of comics and up to the dawn of comics’ self-proclaimed “Modern” age,
comic books about war were, in general, profitable little bastions of propaganda. In the pre-computer, pre-
television age of the 1940s, where news and information were not nearly as accessible as they are today
(though I’m not entirely sure that that was necessarily a bad thing given the proliferation of biased news
agencies in today’s digital age), comic books were a means of conveying (or influencing) a social conscience.
There was no government-appointed “code” dictating what could and could not be published. There were, of
course, limitations with regard to what was deemed immoral or perverse, but insofar as depicting the enemies
of freedom were concerned, the gloves were off.

Prior to and throughout World War II, the depiction of U.S. super-heroes or G.I.s beating up on the enemy was
all part of a well-balanced comic book diet, and it seemed the more extravagant the meal, the greater the
crowd. Political correctness be damned. This was war. I can recall one Golden age cover that vividly showed
the Human Torch melting an enemy soldier’s arm. The debut issue of CAPTAIN AMERICA COMICS depicted
the red, white, and blue Avenger punching Adolf Hitler in the jaw (and this issue was published BEFORE the U.
S. had officially entered the war). Attitudes differed vastly in the 1940s, of course. Being “politically correct”
meant that you backed the USA and hated the “Japs” and the “Ratzis.” Comics were an effective means of
showing the youth of America exactly who our enemies were. Virtually every comic book publisher, including
Dell, National, Atlas, Harvey, Ace, E.C., and others, capitalized upon the war comic craze by either portraying
super-heroes entering into the war foray or writing about the U.S. armed forces and their struggle against

Like the world in which we lived, the face of war comics changed somewhat in the decades that followed, and
while some creators were clearly writing and drawing about their personal experiences in World War II or the
Korean War, other writers and artists seemed to draw inspiration from films such as THE DIRTY DOZEN, THE
BRIDGE OVER THE RIVER KWAI, VON RYAN’S EXPRESS, and others. Regardless of the inspiration, the
basic messages in most war comics was “us against them” and “ain’t nothing gonna stop the US military.”
Some of the stories were quite well done; others were just silly. An issue of Marvel’s late 1960s CAPTAIN
SAVAGE AND HIS LEATHERNECK RAIDERS actually depicted the U.S. Marine Corps invading the beaches of
Japan on surfboards! Despite the tales within the glossy covers, war comics were an accompaniment for kids
who were already being conditioned to play “war” with toy guns and knives, plastic soldiers, and board games.
For the publishers, war comics were a reliable source of revenue. The adage that “war sells” was evident
even in the four-color world of “funnybooks.” And while I don’t believe these comics were being toted to
advocate war (DC’s war stories, for example, often ended with a stylized icon that advised readers to “Make
War No More”), there was certainly profit to be had from the depictions of war-time combat tales, be they fact-
based or fictitious.

By the early 1970s, with a revised Comics Code in effect (one that permitted horror themes in comics), a new
type of war comic emerged. This alternative breed of war story was actually a fusion of two genres: war and
horror. DC Comics launched WEIRD WAR TALES, an offbeat series that featured short, illustrated tales of
ghosts, specters, and TWILIGHT ZONE-inspired twist endings all set in the backdrop of various wars (from the
very ancient to the modern). The series was quite successful, with 124 issues of WEIRD WAR TALES being
produced before the series was cancelled in 1983. WEIRD WAR was, essentially, an ongoing anthology; as
such, the quality of the stories and art varied from story to story and issue to issue. Another drawback to the
anthology format of the series was that it lacked a central character (although the end run of the series did
sport the ongoing Creature Commandos feature(a crack team of army apes) [though one could easily file this
feature under “What were they thinking?”]). There were, of course, frequent gems within the series, and
perhaps one day the DC powers that be will consider a “best of” compilation.

I think it’s safe to say that, insofar as war comics are concerned, DC was the master and Marvel the pupil. DC’
s success record for this genre seems to far exceed the competition, with titles such as OUR ARMY AT WAR,
STAR SPANGLED WAR STORIES, WEIRD WAR TALES, and others enjoying lengthy publication runs. Marvel’
s war comic success is more or less limited to SGT. FURY AND HIS HOWLING COMMANDOS (which spawned
167 issues and 7 annuals) and a few unsuccessful efforts such as the aforementioned CAPTAIN SAVAGE as
well as a short-lived series entitled WAR IS HELL. Interestingly, WAR IS HELL began simply as a reprint comic.
However, with issue 9 the series underwent a radical change--a change that resulted in a short albeit brilliant
run of stories, which brings us to the following review:

                                          War Is Hell no. 9 (October 1974—street date July 1974)
                                          Writers:  Tony Isabella (concept and plot)
                                                          Roy Thomas (assist)
                                                          Chris Claremont (script)
                                          Art: Dick Ayers and Frank Springer
                                          Editor: Roy Thomas

I was nine-years-old when WAR IS HELL 9 hit the stands at the local five and dime store during the summer of
1974. I had only recently begun to notice comics (I’d been immediately infatuated with Marvel’s horror titles, in
particular, TOMB OF DRACULA. The cover of WAR IS HELL 9 did exactly what Marvel’s art department did
best during this era. It pulled in a new reader like a magnet. I immediately plunked down 25 cents, adding it to
my then fledgling collection of about 6 or 8 other comic books. I read the story probably a half dozen times
that week alone and with my pals before tossing it aside and moving on to other summertime distractions. End
of story, right? Well, not quite.

In any medium of entertainment, there are certain pieces that inexplicably draw us back again and again.
Whether it’s a piece of music, a novel or short story, a television series or movie, or a comic book, I think most
of us at times feel a need to reexperience them from time to time, either for the enjoyment or perhaps
nostalgia that accompanies the experience. I suspect most avid readers of comics have their personal
favorites. A sampling of my list (since you asked) would include the bulk of Jim Starlin’s work at Marvel during
the 1970s, Lee and Kirby’s famed Galactus trilogy in FANTASTIC FOUR 48-50, Bill Mantlo and Michael
Golden’s first 11 issues of MICRONAUTS, and the much underrated WAR IS HELL 9-15.

What separates WAR IS HELL from its direct competitor, WEIRD WAR TALES, is the basic foundation
developed for WAR IS HELL by writer Tony Isabella. In his editorial, Isabella writes, “Armies exist for one
reason when you cut away all the external bull. Armies exist to kill other armies. Unfortunately…people get
caught in the middle. People get killed. People like you and me. WAR IS HELL is about those people.”

The personification of “death” has often been a part of comics, literature, film, and other mediums. Horror
comics often employ a death-like figure who serves as a bridge, linking one story to the next, or who functions
as the reader’s guide (ala TALES FROM THE CRYPT’S Crypt Keeper). DC’s WEIRD WAR incorporated this
type of format. In WAR IS HELL, Tony Isabella, always an innovator, brought the concept to a new level,
placing Death into the story to interact with the book’s lead character, John Kawolski. In a “What If…?”
scenario that predates by several years Marvel’s own “What If…?” series, the crux of Isabella’s WAR is based
on a simple question—What if you knew Hitler was planning to invade Poland on September 1, 1939? What if
you knew this and had the opportunity to warn your countrymen?

John Kawolski, a former U.S. Marine who is dishonorably discharged from service for espionage and treason
against the U.S., is given such an opportunity. His citizenship revoked, Kawolski is deported to Poland, his
country of origin. While enroute to Krakow he meets Dr. Eric Ostergan, a member of the German Anti-Hitler
Underground. Ostergan reveals that the underground has learned about Hitler’s forthcoming invasion of
Poland; he asks Kowalski for help in warning the town. But Kowalski scoffs at the older man, gets drunk, and
sleeps beneath the stars

The following morning, Kowalski hears the roar of Germany’s air fleet descending upon Poland. Kowalski runs
toward the center of town, arriving just in time to witness the slaughter. He finds Ostergan. The man is
wounded and dying. He tells Kowalski, “…the fools in Warsaw refused to listen. Everyone laughed…and this is
the result. But if you had helped…They knew you in this town, trusted you. We might have helped them at
least. I spit on you! You are a coward, American. May you be damned forever for your cowardice. I curse you,
Kowalski. With my…dying breath…I…curse…you…”

Now, like most of the damned, the concept that he’s just been cursed doesn’t quite sink in right away. Soon,
amidst the rubble and decay in the wake of the Nazi bombardment of the city, Kowalski finds himself locked in
mortal combat against a crazed murderer who is willing to kill a child for a loaf of bread. And it appears that
Kowalski, too, will fall prey to the murderer when, without warning, the two combatants are crushed beneath
the weight of a huge, collapsing chimney wall. The specter of death appears, and begins to explain that John
Kowalski died a coward and, as such, must die a thousand times before his death. And that becomes Kowalski’
s mission. He’s literally a dead man walking. Dead and damned, it’s Kowalski’s burden to somehow try to help
others in his war-torn land. It’s a brilliant concept and one that, unfortunately, never quite found an audience
to sustain it.

I’ve spoiled enough of the plot but trust me, I left out a few elements that really make this a gut-wrenching tale.
And it is gut wrenching. Isabella writes, “Maybe [the story] doesn’t end until the last ‘us’ has slain the last
‘them.’ And vice versa.” Perhaps so. The military spending in the U.S. is higher now than ever before. It seems
as though we’re well on our way to fulfilling this idiom.

Today’s war comics are few and far between. Most go for the “grim and gritty” ala PLATOON and SAVING
PRIVATE RYAN, so they’re chock full of exploding bodies, explicit language, graphic sex, and all the elements
that work in tandem to appeal to jaded audiences seeking all things “real” and “edgy.” In contrast, the 1974
series WAR IS HELL relied on solid storytelling and art and did so without the in-your-face-slam-dunk-fest that
today’s entertainers deem necessary to produce quality tales. Isabella is, in this series, a masterful storyteller
at the top of his game. So I recommend you try it. One caveat: A few years back, when Marvel relaunched its
horror line, speculators (you bastards) began buying up virtually any and all horror titles of the Marvel Bronze
age. Finding these back issues outside of a convention or e-bay may be difficult, but they’re definitely worth
tracking down.

Incidentally, the art for issue 9 is by Dick Ayers (an amazing talent who needs no introduction) and Frank
Springer (ditto). Ayers and Springer perfectly capture the characters, costumes, props, and backgrounds.
Claremont’s script wonderfully accentuates Isabella’s plot; an intentional sense of desperation pervades the
story from beginning to end. Kowalski is the war-time equivalent of Dickens’ Jacob Marley who, in death, must
suffer for how he lived his life. Unlike Marley, who is doomed to walk only in the world of shadow, Kowalski
must walk in the world of man, living a man’s life and dying a man’s death, over and over again. As a concept,
it is in every sense of the word, dramatic. All this, and not an “F” word to be found. Eat your heart out Stephen
W a r   I s   H e l l   9  (O c t o b e r   1 9 7 4)
d a v i d    y u r k o v i c h