Column: Retronomicon: Weird War Tales

By J. Keith Haney

Alonso, Axel, ed. Weird War Tales #1; Weird War Tales #2 ; Weird War Tales #3; Weird War Tales #4. DC/Vertigo Comics, June-September 1997.

Once again, we return to the Vertigo well for something a little different. Of course, as I’ve said, the 1990s output of the Vertigo imprint frequently delivered on its promise of something different on a near-monthly basis. You may recognise the title of this week’s subject as a classic DC comic title and wonder what this has to do with Vertigo. The simple answer is that Vertigo made a regular practice of taking some of its older titles, and/or lesser-known characters, and giving them their own one-shots or miniseries. So it was with Weird War Tales, a remarkably strong anthology that manages to crawl under a reader’s skin and squeeze…with one exception. Rest assured I will get to that directly.

In spite of the title, some of these stories are straight tales with no supernatural elements needed to illustrate their horror. Consider Peter Kuper’s “Mightier”, a dialogue-free chiller that shows how a single stroke of a pen can condemn thousands of people to death. Looking at that story now, I flashback to Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, in his before-and-after sequence of the bombing of Baghdad during the U.S. invasion. Paul Jenkins and George Pratt’s “Run” takes us to the trenches of the First World War, where a young officer finds himself unable to say one word and leads his men to their deaths. The worst part about this tale is that it is an historically accurate depiction of the conduct of officers and their troops during that war, leading to millions of needless casualties. Joel Rose and Eric Cherry’s “Sniper’s Alley” follows an anti-sniper through the devastated streets of 1994 Sarajevo, as he runs face-to-face into what the wanton killing has cost him personally. That is one war that tends to get forgotten in the U.S. and I commend Mr. Rose and Mr. Cherry for using that as their subject matter.

Of course, there are more than enough supernatural stories to live up to the title of “Weird”. Simon Revelstroke and Richard Corben’s “The Survivor” seems to take the best parts of Lovecraft’s “The Temple”, “Dagon”, and “The Call of Cthulhu” to craft this tale of an arrogant U-Boat commander who dismisses the ramblings of a British prisoner, only to become exactly like that man, himself. You’re forgiven if you get flashbacks to “Cthulhu” at the end. Joe R. Lansdale and Sam Glanzman’s “The Elopement” watches a hidden romance between a captured Union officer and a woman masquerading as a drummer boy in the infamous Andersonville prison camp during the Civil War. The way that relationship ends is the stuff of both nightmares and true pathos. Gordon Rennie and Randy Duburke’s “Tunnel Rats” is essentially a session of a Vietnam veteran with his psychiatrist as he recounts the story of what he found under the ground of the Cu Chi District in 1967. Rennie’s script is so good that it could be adapted into a short story with very little work.

But not all battlefields need a war. Ian Edington and Eric Shanower’s “The Willow Warriors” tells an almost-legendary story of feudal Japan. To break a stalemate, two warring lords choose to send their finest champion to settle the matter once and for all. The results bring to mind the films of Akira Kurosawa and tales of the Brothers Grimm in their outcomes. Shanower’s artwork is particularly noteworthy, as each panel has a mirrored layout to underscore the futility of the struggle.

David Lloyd’s “Looking Good, Feeling Great!” tracks the progress of a lone-wolf killer with a fetish for all things military. Acting as ironic (and disconcerting) counterpoint to the slaughter and the frantic hunt to take this killer down is a banal morning exercise program called “Lose It with Lori”. If you get flashes of Charles Starkweather and Timothy McVeigh as you read this story, you’re in good company. Inner city Chicago is the focus of Brian Azzarello and James Romberger’s “Ares”, as a recently released Gangster Disciple runs into something primal and powerful while he attempts to survive a drive-by shooting-gone-wrong. Azzarello’s dialogue and pacing were so sharp here that it later inspired me to later seek out and collect his justly successful crime series, “100 Bullets”.

There are two truly bizarre entries that merit their own special mention. Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s “New Toys” follows the travails of a literal toy soldier whose pleas to his fellows about what is coming to replace them fall on deaf ears. At the end of that story, I was torn between wanting to laugh at the utter absurdity of what I had just read and puke at the disturbing final image of Quitely’s artwork.

Neal Barrett Jr. and Phil Winslade serve up “Bad Day on the Sajo”, where a badly wounded Mongol warrior gets a running, unwelcome commentary from the spirit of his grandfather while being chased down by Hungarian crusaders in 1241. Winslade’s art is easily the best of the collection, suggesting 16th century engravings and sculptures in its rich complexities. Barrett’s script is rich in both historical detail and flat-out absurdity, the latter generated by the spirit’s blind optimism in the face of his grandson’s imminent demise.

Then there are the stories that focus on the survivors. John Ney Rieber and Danijel Zezelj tell the story of “Salvation”, following a tightly wound veteran as he keeps to himself in the Ozarks. Rieber has said that the story was inspired by an actual veteran he had a conversation with and the authenticity shows in the script. The artwork is an acquired taste, very heavy on the blacks to the point of marring it in some places. Finally, there’s my least-favorite story of the collection, “War and Peas” by Peter Milligan and Duncan Fegredo. The premise is decent enough: A British WWII veteran in his 70s is having a harder and harder time coping with surviving his best friend and being married to said best friend’s fiancée. The problem is that the script meanders all over the place like, say, an old man with dementia. It is bad enough when this happens with a novel. It is flat-out inexcusable when you only have eight pages.

Anthologies are always an iffy proposition, be it in book, television, or comic form. This iteration of “Weird War Tales” has the unique achievement of making the fewest missteps of any such anthology I can remember. Highly recommended!