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Vietnam war in balloons and panels

Hank Kennedy explores the depictions of the Vietnam War in popular comics from the 1960s.

The purpose of this piece is to review an often overlooked medium and its depiction of the Vietnam War. I will focus on those mainstream publishers that chose to address the war inside their pages. I will avoid discussing examples like comics legend Will Eisner’s strip for the military that explained how to use the M-16 rifle, Tom Vietch’s underground satire of the My Lai Massacre, or Julian Bond’s 1967 comic laying out the anti-war movements’ reasons for opposing the war. Interesting though these works were , I will instead look at how mainstream publishers such as Marvel, DC, and a few other now defunct publishers from this time period depicted the war during the war years and how this portrayal changed with the fortunes of the war and the anti-war movement.

Marvel’s involvement in the war began with the origin story of Iron Man, one of their most popular characters in recent years. Iron Man, for those unaware, began as Tony Stark, a weapons manufacturer for the United States government. In his first appearance, Tales of Suspense 39(March 1963), Stark is in South Vietnam demonstrating his “micro-transistor” powered weaponry that allows mortars to be reduced in size and shape comparable to a flashlight. While in Vietnam, Stark is ambushed and mortally wounded by the “red guerilla tyrant” Wong-Chu and forced to build weapons for him. Instead Tony Stark uses the materials to build an iron suit that will not only keep his wounded heart beating but also give him the strength to escape, which he does after defeating Wong-Chu in a wrestling match.

Iron Man’s next trip to Vietnam came “In the Vastness of Vietnam” published in Tales of Suspense 92, (May 1967). Sample dialogue includes “Boy, will this give ‘em something to talk about when they get together at their next peace through strength rally!” as Tony Stark battles communist mad scientist Half Face on behalf of the U.S. Army. Bizarrely, “peace through strength” was never a slogan of the Vietnamese guerillas but it was a slogan of 1964 Republican Presidential candidate Barry Goldwater.

One would expect Captain America, being the premiere patriotic superhero to have been the most involved in Vietnam, but this is untrue. Cap made precisely two visits to Vietnam, and a comparison between the two reveals how attitudes towards the war changed over the years. In Tales of Suspense 61 (January1965) the Star-Spangled Avenger went on a lone mission to Vietnam to rescue a pilot who was shot down. The Vietnam War is depicted as being very similar to World War II with the South Vietnamese National Liberation Front (NLF) militias wearing German WWII uniforms and wielding German weapons while their leader, General Wo, is depicted as being a sumo wrestler, something more associated with Japan, another Axis Power. Captain America mocks his foes saying “Is the Communist Fighting Man so weak, so unsure of himself that he fears one lone American?? Is THIS the much-vaunted power of the Viet Cong??”

The second Captain America story in Vietnam came in Captain America 125 (May 1970) in which eminent peacemaker Dr. Roberts is kidnapped with both North and South Vietnam blaming the other for his disappearance. Marvel’s house ads for the issue seemed to have forgotten about the earlier story since they announced “Our red-white-and-blue Avenger finally battles in Viet Nam—but not the way you expect! And watch for the surprise villain!” Cap embarks on his mission figuring that both sides will use the Doctor’s disappearance to forestall peace talks. It turns out that Iron Man’s foe the Mandarin has captured Hoskins who wishes to see the war continue until both sides are destroyed and he can rule over Southeast Asia. Of course, Captain America emerges victorious in this story that is incredibly different from the earlier “us” vs “them” tone of the story in Tales of Suspense 61.

Superman joins the Army in the Soldier of Steel. Source DC Database

Despite being a Norse god, the Mighty Thor also took time to fight communism in Vietnam. In Journey into Mystery 117 (June 1965) the Thunder God is shot down by NLF anti-air weapons and comes to the aid of the peasantry being oppressed by the “evil” guerillas who, like in the first Captain America story, wear Nazi-style uniforms and carry German WWII weapons. After the lead guerrilla accidentally executes his own family he commits suicide proclaiming melodramatically “It was communism that made me what I am—that shaped me into a brutal, unthinking instrument of destruction! To communism, then—may it vanish from the face of the earth and the memory of mankind!”

Spider-Man himself may have never gone to Vietnam, but one of his supporting characters did. In Amazing Spider-Man 43 (December1966), the Web-Spinner’s friend Flash Thompson is drafted into the Army and in Amazing Spider-Man 47(April 1967) a going-away party is held for Flash. All throughout, Flash’s service is depicted in an apolitical, supportive manner. However, by the time Flash returns on leave in Amazing Spider-Man 83 (April 1970) the titular character laments that his friend is fighting “a war that nobody wants…against an enemy that you don’t even hate.”

Marvel’s war comics from the decade stayed out of Vietnam, since they were universally set during World War II with one glaring exception: Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos Annual 3 (August 1967). The plot features the crack commando unit from World War II being called in for the cliche “one last mission” to sabotage the recently developed North Vietnamese hydrogen bomb. The issue ends with the commandos making a daring escape after detonating the bomb in the city of Haiphong and probably killing hundreds of thousands of people in an atomic holocaust.

Reader reaction to Marvel’s stories was mixed, to say the least. A 1966 editorial from the New Guard, the journal of the right-wing Young Americans, written by future Libertarian Party co-founder David Nolan, praised Marvel for “the fact that the heroes run to being such capitalistic types as arms manufacturers (Tony Stark, whose alter ego is Iron Man), while the villains are often communists (and plainly labeled as such, in less than complimentary terms).” However, by 1970, when the anti-war movement had assumed a mass character, readers wrote letters calling Iron Man “an enemy of the people” and a “profiteering, capitalist, war-mongering pig.” The letter columns of Captain America were not much different. Bradford W. Wright in Comic Book Nation writes that “Stan Lee affirmed that the majority of readers polled by Marvel wanted the hero to stay out of Vietnam”. The anti-war sentiment of Marvel readers is unsurprising when we remember that a 1965 Esquire poll found that Spider-Man and the Hulk ranked alongside Che Guevara and Malcolm X in their iconic status among student radicals.

DC, by comparison, was more cautious about sending its characters into Vietnam. Superman made a sole appearance in the war, in Superman 216 (May 1969). The story was prompted by letters from service members overseas who wanted to know why Superman was not participating in their war as he had in World War II. The result was “the Soldier of Steel”, in which Superman battles a giant on the side of the North Vietnamese called, in a groan-worthy pun, King Cong. This incredibly simplistic story would have fit with depictions of the war earlier in the decade, but now seemed out of touch with the popular opinion by 1969, after the Tet Offensive and the resulting shift in popular opinion. Batman, on the other hand, made a singularly strange visit to Vietnam in Batman 231 (May 1971). One truly weird member of the Dark Knight’s rogues gallery, the Ten-Eyed Man, was a Vietnam veteran who has eyes at the tips of his fingers that compensate for the sight he lost in the war. While the story’s visit to Vietnam serves mostly as a dramatic device to place Batman in an unfamiliar environment, the story should get credit for addressing the horrors of landmines as well as PTSD in returning veterans within a superhero book.

DC’s stable of war comics also made just one story set during the war, Captain Hunter who first appeared in Our Fighting Forces 99 (April 1966). Hunter is a former Green Beret on a quest for his POW twin brother as he battled through Southeast Asia with corny one-liners like ”Good Night, Charlie!”, “Peek a boo, Charlie!” and “It’s sleepy time, Charlie!” for six issues before the feature was canceled due to low sales and lack of reader interest. After six months, Captain Hunter never found his brother and was replaced as the lead character by his own father, who is fighting in the less controversial World War II. The political climate changed so much over the course of the decade that by the end of the 1960s most DC war comics ended with the phrase “Make war no more!”

A commonality between the two aforementioned publishers was their sympathetic treatment of the anti-war movement at home. In Sub Mariner 57 (January 1973) the title character’s cousin describes anti-war protesters being abused by police as part of a sub-plot thusly “Those kids were just peaceful protesters until your precious ‘authority’ sent those pigs to break their heads!” Earlier, in Justice League of America 95 (December 1971) the team of superheroes go against Black Vietnam veteran Johnny Dune who carries a smoldering anger at the society that sent him to war and couldn’t provide a job for him when he got out. Dune uses his supernaturally compelling voice to lead young militants in a rebellion against the power structure. While Dune’s motivations are depicted as sound, his actions are not, and the story ends with him dedicating himself to achieving peaceful change. While these depictions are admirable from a political perspective, it should be noted that publishers were following the political trends of anti-war activism, not attempting to lead them.

Sgt. Fury goes to Vietnam for “one last mission” to dismantle a hydrogen bomb in Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos. Source: Marvel Database

Marvel and DC were not the only publishers to address the war. Dell Comics, usually more famous for their licensed properties such as Disney or Tarzan, was actually the first to depict the war at all in their series Jungle War Stories (later changed to Guerilla War). The series lasted 14 issues, from 1962-1966. Despite a generally pro-war slant, the series did include a text piece in 1965 titled “A Letter From Vietnam” in which a soldier serving in Vietnam warns others against enlisting, saying “I just don’t want my kid brother to waste his life when it isn’t necessary”. Dell also attempted to run a series based on the pro-war novel Tales of the Green Beret, but this was a flop, lasting only 5 issues. A 1966 Newsweek article said war comic publishers dealt with “the same kind of trouble holding together reader support for their war that the Administration is having rallying support for the real war”.

Charlton Comics, most well known for Blue Beetle or Captain Atom, was easily the most hawkish of the publishers, in a manner that verged on the bloodthirsty. Charlton’s books promoted both physical fitness and regular churchgoing as methods to build up physical and mental fortitude against communism in special inserts. In titles like Fightin’ Army, Fightin’ Marines, Fightin’ Air Force, and Fightin’ Navy, Charlton argued for aggressive action against the spread of communism. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the story “A Tough War” from Fightin’ Army 74 (June 1967). The story ends with the chilling monologue from a GI: “The fools back home who burn draft cards or march in peace demonstrations are helping the Viet Cong. They are his enemies and he knows it now.”

By far the most ridiculous war comic set in Vietnam was 1967’s Super Green Beret, published by the short-lived Lightning Comics. The story (such as it is) revolved around a young boy given a magical green beret by his uncle that, when he wears it, transports him to Vietnam in the body of a Super Green Beret. The story plays out similarly to the original Captain Marvel, complete with crude Asian stereotypes as villains. Mercifully, the title only lasted two issues before being canceled.

Of the war comics published dealing with Vietnam, none was published with as much controversy as Blazing Combat, which lasted four issues between 1965 and 1966 from Warren Publishing. The book was meant to be a companion to the publisher’s other titles like Eerie and Creepy focusing on war stories rather than horror. Each issue contained one story set in Vietnam, for four in total. The Vietnam stories, all written by anti-war liberal Archie Goodwin, showed the South Vietnamese as being as brutal as the north and the racism against Black GIs, but the most controversial was “Landscape”, which featured a Vietnamese peasant killed by American troops in a crossfire with the Viet Cong. The series was banned from being sold on Army bases and for many distributors, who were members of the American Legion and thus pro-war, they refused to handle it. Publisher Jim Warren called it “Censorship of the worst kind”. Warren would continue to speak out against the war, including running an advertisement in 1971 that called for the end of the draft.

Looking at the contents of the comics published during the Vietnam war a few trends become apparent. First, publishers generally began as being very pro-war, only to adopt ambivalent, if not outright anti-war views as the conflict continued. Blazing Combat, which was the only war comic with an anti-war message, faced united opposition from both the Army and pro-war groups. Dell and Charlton, whose war comics generally took a pro-war stance, didn’t face this kind of opposition but also did not reap any rewards for it. We can also see how reader feedback from Marvel served to moderate the company’s earlier pro-war views as it changed its approach to the war later on. While DC on the other hand generally avoided tackling the war altogether, until they were forced to.

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Hank Kennedy View All

Hank Kennedy is a Detroit area socialist, educator, and longtime comic book fan.