Attack #3, Fall 1964, Charlton Comics Group
If I learned anything flipping through all of those back issue bins at the Comic Con, I discovered that, if an open-minded reader like me wants to sample comics from a variety of genres, he need not look farther than Charlton Press. In addition to seeking diverse titles and genres to fuel the A Comic A Day challenge, I've been interested in testing as many publishers and companies as possible, as well, if only to explore the medium's vast, century-old tapestry. So, you can imagine my frustration when nearly every definitive genre issue I pulled boasted the Charlton logo. From B-list superheroes, to teenaged love stories, to gritty war tales, to gun-slinging cowboys, Charlton had it all. It was difficult to know where to start.
Today I settled on Attack, a quarterly war book. I was mentally prepared for the digression. Earlier this evening, I engaged an acquaintance in an in depth conversation about the current state of global politics, and even earlier today, like around 1 a.m., I caught an episode of the A-Team on the Sleuth network. I was ready for the call of duty. Still, that doesn't mean I understand it. War books like Attack must have been extremely popular in the '50s and '60s, as they were produced in abundance, but with World War II still fresh in the nation's consciousness and the Vietnam conflict right around the corner, comics about war don't seem like much of an escape for time. Following Sgt. Rock or another iconic, consistent character through wartime is one thing, but these brief, episodic adventures of anonymous soldiers seem less fictional, and more like a bitter reminder of the world's dangerous climate. Perhaps therein lies the appeal. As much as war comics were reflections of reality, they were still comics, with just enough exaggerated illustration to create a distance or disconnect from any inconvenient truth. For thirty pages, you're in the trenches; when the battle reaches its tidy conclusion, you have the convenience of closing the book.
Attack contains several varied short stories about war, from one-page narratives on firearms to ten page adventures about Chinese Commies. Some of these features are as dry as the deserts our soldiers endure, especially the two-page essay on the history of Civil War machine guns. Others were engaging and insightful, particularly in the context of the early '60s. My favorite tale, "Hot Wire," starred a determined troop ordered to lay a communications cable a few clicks beyond the enemy lines. The unknown artist, either in a hurry to meet a deadline or extremely dynamic in his storytelling technique, pointed his camera on his heroes' hands and toward other obscure angles to keep the expositions interesting to the eye. The only enduring character throughout the issue is an undying spirit of determination – I almost typed "patriotism," but surprisingly, America is rarely if ever actually mentioned as the solders' motives in combat. Simply put, war is their way of life. They seem to know little else. Perhaps that's the point all along.
Books like this wouldn't survive on today's comic stands. The word war seems so imbued with bias nowadays, the genre has suffered from the harshness of its own inspiration. I do miss the format, however. I don't remember if Kurt Busiek or Tom DeFalco said it, but during a writers panel at the Con, someone lamented the loss of these jam books as the training ground for new talent. I assume these bland one-pagers were someone's first work in the field. In this vein, with their diverse range, Charlton must have been like a comic book boot camp. I wonder why they aren't around anymore. Did their diversity ultimately distill their overall impact? Did they spread their forces too thin . . . and lose the war?