Death is everywhere in the first seven of Robert Kanigher's scripts for "The War That Time Forgot", and it's not the kind of death that you'd expect from a series which DC Comics began publishing just six years after the company had signed up to the dictates of the Comics Code Authority. For despite the fact that these thin stories of hapless GI's facing down very large dinosaurs indeed are in so many ways as nonsensical and absurd as any massed-ranks superhero tale from 2010, Mr Kanigher was obviously quite disinterested in providing his youthful readers with sanitised and war-glorifying pablum. Instead, these tales present a quite brutal and unforgiving world where virtue and innocence in no way protects his characters from harm, where men regularly suffer from the fear, and even trauma, that real-world combat inevitably brings, and where survival is as much a matter of luck as it ever is the result of competence and bravery. And if Mr Kanigher never goes anywhere near the idea that war of itself is a bad thing, he's always quick to point out that it's often futile, that its victories are regularly illusionary if not pyrrhic, and he seems exceptionally keen to continually re-reveal the truth that mass-combat brings with it mass casualties.
It's the strangest form of realism that I've ever seen in a comic book, because on the surface of these stories, we're presented with plastic-looking dinosaurs, standard-issue comic-book war narratives, and the least fidelity to any believable depiction of combat that might be imagined. In the very first of these tales, for example, a great dinosaur emerges head and claws above a crevice and a GI immediately declares that "The earthquake must have opened the underground tomb these monsters were in for millions of years -- maybe in a state of suspended animation -- brought them back to life." (90:5:5), an utterly unimaginable example of battle-field speculation for a grunt on a WWII field mission. But this is, of course, a child's story, and in children's stories adults can spontaneously spout pseudo-scientific clap-trap at the opening of a dinosaur's jaws without the fact generating any grounds for complaint. And if the historical details are also woefully askew, with tanks being anachronistically parachuted out of planes with a brief and almost-guilty accompanying word balloon declaring that "A tank's not standard equipment for a job! But -- This isn't a standard kind of job!" (90:2:6) , well, Mr Kanigher obviously knew this was all quite silly, and yet he couldn't help himself. It's a kid's comic book, it's simply entertainment, and, given all those daft rubbery dinosaurs running around, why worry about a parachuting tank or two?
And yet, under this knowingly ludicrous surface, the same basic rules that characterise real conflict can often be sensed, if not always seen, to be at work. In "The Sub-Cruiser" (SSWS 97), for example, the GI protagonists survive a host of prehistoric challenges before every single one of them except for their unnamed Skipper are wiped out by a torpedo dropped on them by a great flying dinosaur. "It's spotted us! River's too narrow for evasive action! Full speed ahead!" (97:14:3) orders the Skipper, and the reader can't help but shrug and assume that the situation is being made as desperate as possible before one last brave and fortunate manouvre sees the crew safely escaped out to sea. And surely that'll happen, for why else would the reader have been put through successive assaults upon the everyman heroes by a great sea-monster, a Tyrannosaurus Rex-type creature, a close cousin of King Kong, and two 50 foot-long river serpents?
But, no, the Skipper's cry to "Abandon ship!" (97:14:40) comes too late, and he himself of all his men only survives by clinging to "no 1 torpedo" and being swept out onto the ocean. Obviously, being a good person in these stories will not of itself secure survival, being brave will not guarantee victory, and death itself is an unavoidable fact of the business of going to war, rather than an excuse for sentimentality and glorification. And so, underpinning the fripperies of the surface of the first few episodes of "The War That Time Forgot", is a far more cruel and potentially disturbing world-view at work, one which was typically absent from a great deal of the era's depictions of war in any medium, and which in turn would sadly swiftly disappear from this strip before the following year was out.
It was the appearance of "Hank Howard -- The toughest trooper we ever knew" (95:2:5-7) in the third tale in this collection that first made me wonder whether everything I was reading was quite as conventional as it appeared. For Howard in "Guinea Pig Patrol" has been missing for thirty-three days and whatever he's experienced has driven him completely and catatonically mad. Yet he's not presented as a man, or a soldier, who's shown weakness or a lack of courage in the face of adversity. In fact, though he's clearly exhausted and driven past the limits of his own endurance, there's nothing of the excesses of hand-waving and doom-ladened prophecies which might be expected from the only broken survivor of a catastrophically-unsuccesful mission. Indeed, Holland's colleagues are remarkably respectful of him, and his state brings neither the pity or excesses of sympathy which a modern version of this tale might bring. He's ill, yes, and they've clothed him in a blanket for some warmth, and the stares of his colleagues reflect no negative judgement of him at all. In fact, those gazes seem far more concerned with their own fears, for they're obviously shaken and wondering whether they can survive that which has taken the brave Holland's sanity from him.
Courage and mental disorder are not in any way portrayed as being incompatible qualities here. In fact, it's strongly implied that it's Holland's bravery that has carried him through, and it's that mixture of compassion and respect for the victims of war in these stories that sits so very oddly in what is, after all, nothing more than a story of men with guns taking on large lizards with claws and pointy teeth.
It's an attitude to the unavoidable mental consequences of combat and soldiering in general which runs right through these early tales. Soldiers are constantly being shown in terror, quietly suffering through their fear with sweet-beaded brows and miserable expressions. Just two pages after Howard's first appearance, for example, his fellows headed in the direction of whatever ruined him are shown lonely and fear-sickened as they fly outwards, the caption reading; "Silence is so thick -- You
can cut it with it with a knife .. " (95:4:1) And it's not just the anticipation of conflict which so upsets these clearly-laudable men. In "The Frogman And The Dinosaur" (SSWS 94), an experienced aquanaut finds himself unable to summon up an answer to the question "Was it rough out there?" (94:3:2), instead looking down and away from the stares of his colleagues with a look ".. that reduced (them) to tadpole size ... " (94:3:3). And what's so atypical about this is that the reader is clearly expected to empathise with and show respect to these brave men despite their nervousness, fear, exhaustion and, in Holland's case, mental disorder. It marks a complete absence of machismo in the text, a significant lack of any depiction of war as fun and playful, which, to the modern reader relatively ignorant of the DC War books of the period, is both shocking and cheering. After all, this was a book about killer dinosaurs popping up during America's island-hopping campaign of World War II. What's there to be anything other than gleeful about?
And it's that respect for the characters he's describing here which identifies Mr Kanigher as such a remarkable writer, a fact which I fully accept I knew before, but which I didn't entirely grasp to the degree that I should have. Because here we have a host of quite frankly silly stories, but they're grounded in a form of psychology and a recognition of the capriciousness of fate which makes them as moving as they are absurd. It's a skill that can be seen in the scene of the nervous sub-mariners in "Last Battle Of The Dinosaur Age" (92:3:3, above), where the unease of everyone in the scenes of the crew by Ross Andru is obvious and yet never demeaning.
If fear is something which every character in the first seven tales here bears as well as they can, then death is a similar commonplace, and who lives and who dies is determined by factors quite seperate from individual virtue. Of course, that doesn't mean that the first few chapters of "The War That Time Forgot" are presented as a bloody and nihilistic text. In truth, on a first reading, there's nothing that's too radical to mark those initial tales out from the later ones, or at least, there isn't until the reader notices that hardly anyone at all gets killed after issue 98, or that all that fear has been replaced by wise-crackery, and that the counter-intuitively serious tone's been swamped by a style that swings dangerously close at times to camp.
Not that a parent would have likely skimmed the pages of "Star Spangled War Stories" in '61 and the first half of '62 and seen anything that was explicitly disturbing. Quite the contrary, in fact. The terrible killing of Leo in "Guinea Pig Patrol", for example, is so subtly presented that the careless reader can actually miss that it's actually occurred. I certainly did, until I started to get the slightest hint of what Mr Kanigher was doing. For he's not bowdlerised the business of war here so much as hidden it in plain sight. So, Leo's death scene begins as his shadowed form breaks the surface of the water with him holding a Bazooka above his head (94:8:5, above), and there's no obvious jeopardy and it seems that he'll rejoin his surviving comrades on their raft after an attack by underwater dinosaurs. Then he's shown looking shocked and passing his weapon to "Marve" on the life-raft, declaring "Grab the Bazooka -- quick!". (94:9:1) And then we're shown two confused and fearful young faces under a caption declaring "He didn't answer -- He just disappeared -- " (94:9:2) And it's actually quite easy to miss the fact that Leo's been taken beneath the water and slaughtered, and that Leo knew he was going to die and die horribly, that he felt those great teeth fastened onto his legs or around his middle, and that all he could do was hold on just a few seconds longer in order to help his mates.
It's not that death is absent in this story, it's just that our eyes and our attention is always turned away, hurried onwards and elsewhere, before the teeth puncture flesh, the water floods the lungs, the body gets torn into two. But all those things happen, and it grounds the daft stories in a quietly shocking sense of horror.
Now, a great measure of this restraint where the depiction of death and suffering was concerned was undoubtedly down to the influence of the Comics Code Authority, which, as its administrator Leonard Darvin said in 1966, refused to " ... allow a close-up of a person who's obviously dead, like with the mouth open, the eyes staring. We think that's horrendous." (*1) But where most comics from 1955 onwards simply stopped showing characters in situations where death occurred at all, Mr Kanigher was in "The War That Time Forgot" showing death occurring on a considerable scale and with no moral principles informing it. That's something quite different from providing children with stories that are saturated with all of the paraphernalia of war, and all the thrilling playground-esque gun battles associated with it by kids, without any of the real-life consequences being on display at all. And if Mr Kanigher was hardly trying to present a pacifist treatise on the matter of what war does to human beings, he wasn't either producing a mindless celebration of the business of being a real man with a gun and an invulnerability to anything beyond the most cosmetic of duelling scratches.
Or, at least, he wasn't for these first few months of the strip until the summer of 1962, when a far more innocent version of "The War That Time Forgot" was presented to the market, and prospered for another six years.
*1:- Quoted on page 127 of Bill Schelly's splendid "Man Of Rock:A Biography Of Joe Kubert", which I expected little of and which has yet proven unexpectedly to be a marvellously informative as well as a thoroughly enjoyable read. It's a lovely unpretentious social history as much as narrative of life in the comics industry from 1940 onwards, and I really think you'd likely enjoy it.
Good people die all the time without warning in "The War That Time Forgot". The entire submarine crew that the reader has spent six pages with in "Last Battle Of The Dinosaur Age" is taken to their sea-floor deaths by a giant sea serpent, and that despite the fact that they've seemingly rescued the tales protagonists and are taking them in the direction of the safety of home. In fact, submarines in these stories are places to avoid if Dinosaur Island is anywhere in the vicinity. The submarine in "Mission X" is carried far into the sky by a giant Pterodactyl and then blasted loose by friendly fire, resulting not in the expected rescue but in a tragic destruction; ".. the sub wasn't meant to fly .. It plummeted through the air like a great rocket ... until it splashed into the sea with explosive force ... " (96:8:3-4)
It's as if the stories have been designed not to show how goodness or decency or fighting well will protect the soldier in wartime, but to illustrate the role of chance. For there's little if anything at all that differentiates the survivors from the victims, and so the stories focus on those who make it to the last panel on the last page simply because they're the characters who survive. In "The Sub-Crusher", Petey's brother Nick dies simply because he's in another one of those tasty-to-dinosaur'submarines (97:3:4), and not because he's a worse man than Nick or because Nick has a lesson or two to learn. And the nameless tank driver in "The Island Of Thunder" (98:7:all panels) is killed by a rampaging Triceratops without having done anything more compromising than being in the wrong place in the wrong time, because life in wartime is just like that.
And if luck plays the major part where survival on what will come to be known as Dinosaur Island is concerned, then we're shown that it's best complimented not by a devil-may-care attitude, or even bravado, but by competence. These aren't stories where bravery per se saves the day. In fact, it's made obvious from the very first appearance of a dinosaur in SSWT (90:3:4) that courage on its own will carry very little weight in a punch-up with any of these five-storey beasts. The inexperienced and at-first inept divers Zack and Phil in "The Frogmen And The Dinosaur" (SSWS 94) make it through to the end of their story because they learn to listen to their Lieutenant, who inspires them through a mixture of good practise and some old fashioned workplace bullying. As a consequence, they manage to avoid any repeat of the kind of daydreaming while being attacked by gigantic monsters which has previously threatened to be quite literally the end of them. It'd be an unfashionably prosaic stance to take in our far more infantilised culture, to suggest that survival is a question not of character but education, but it's a principle that's hard to take issue with. For though expertise doesn't save more a few of Marve's parachute brigade in "Guinea Pig Patrol" (SSWS 95), to take another example, it does allow the few survivors to fight together and hold whatever ground they've got until rescue arrives.
There's a noticeable change of emphasis in both the tone and content of Mr Kanigher's scripts for "The War That Time Forgot" beginning with the eighth tale in "Star Spangled War Stories" # 98, and that change is maintained and intensified over the coming months, leaving us with little choice but to conclude that it was deliberate. Perhaps the book wasn't selling as it might, or perhaps it was thought to be far too bleak in tone. (Indeed, the two matters might well have been correlated.) But whatever the explanation, the stories became far more conventional and far less satisfying from that point onwards. In "Dinosaur Sub-Catcher" (SSWS 112), for example, the workings of fate have been so modified that a submarine being chewed up by a monster high above the Antarctic ice is not only shocked free, but by chance hits the freezing ground at a friendly angle and skids right back into the safety of the water. (112:13:5/14:1-4) This is surely the world turned upside-down. And the next issue sees a crippled US bomber landing conveniently on the outstretched " ... wing of a flying dinosaur!" (113:6:1) which handily stays extended and flat until all involved can parachute to safety. It's a very different kind
of story which is told from then onwards, and death becomes so rare that the likes of Manny's rather unconvincing sacrifice in "The Killer Of Dinosaur Alley" (SSWS:121) stands out as a considerable, and a sadly cloyingly sentimental, exception rather than the rule that marked the first run of stories. For whereas the previously recidivistic Manny is portrayed dying and being buried with all the full woeful paraphernalia of weeping, sorrow, sacrifice and an all-flags-flying redemptive funeral, the deaths of whole submarine crews were previously portrayed as being simply part of the ugly and to-be-expected consequence of the business of being under arms while flying under flags.
And so the final panel of "The Sub-Crusher", which shows a huge force of both fighter-bombers and what look like high-flying B-52's carpet-bombing "Lava Island" and causing "an inferno" to "engulf the area", (97:17:2) seems with hindsight to definitively mark the end of that first take of Mr Kanigher's on "The War That Time Forgot". "That finishes them, Nick." declares the sole survivor of all of those who began the tale, sure that the monsters have been flash-fried out of existence, contiuning; "Now we can go on and win the war." And at that, the sense of the book changes, and by "The Circus Of Monsters" (SSWS 99), dinosaurs are being outfought by three carnival trapeze artists while submarines emerge mysteriously undamaged from apparently fatal confrontations with great killing monsters. This children's book with a most unchildish sub-text had become no more and no less than most of the other comiMs on the newstands, and the brief flourish of fusing those silly monsters with that brutal and respectful approach to the business of combat was gone. In the end, Mr Kanigher was producing the likes of SSWS 120, where the fearsomely-named "Suicide Squad" teamed up with "Caveboy" and "Dino, the Flying Baby Dinosaur", at which point my desire to read on and try to make more sense of it all simply evaporated, and only the pedants desire to check his own preconceptions moved me to turn another page.
There will undoubtedly come a time when someone in a scholarly article somewhere will decide that these tales of "The War That Time Forgot" reflect to some degree American thinking about the wider world from the turn of the Sixties onwards. And the usual ill-argued business about how titles can't survive in the marketplace without reflecting the prejudices of its consumers will be presented as a defence for a thesis that argues thaT, to naive and fearful Americans, the whole world beyond the borders of the USA occupied in the 1960's a space labelled "Here be monsters". And if that argument should indeed ever be presented with reference to these tales by Mr Kanigher, a further and apparently more sophisticated twist might be added by noting how the more innocent and optimistic tales of Dinosaur Island and its world-travelling and rather-mighty inhabitants came to be printed as the Kennedy campaign limped past Nixon and into power. The darkness of the Fifties, perhaps, was at first reflected and then eclipsed by the rise of Camelot-on-the-Potomac, and killer sea-beasts replaced by friendly flying baby dinosaurs.
But, of course, any such tosh would all be nothing but tosh and hindsight, just as the apparent foreshadowing of Vietnam which could be perceived in the scene of the firebombing of Lava Island is nothing but hindsight and tosh itself. (98:13:2) "The War That Time Forgot" as a historical source tells us less than some cultural commentators might like to have us believe about the value of artefacts from the popular entertainment of the past, beyond the inarguable fact of how Robert Kanigher and his collaborators kept shaping and re-shaping a product in the hope of selling more comic books. There's some gold to be prospected from those pages where social facts are concerned, but not so much that these issues of "Star Spangled War Stories" on their own will ever justify a healthy research grant. But within the context of what might actually be known rather than airily deduced, I do wish that it were possible to stumble upon some editorial notes somehow removed around April of 1962 from the legandary office Mr Kanigher shared with Julius Schwartz and which, hidden from sight until now, might explain why those first stories in this run were so much bleaker, and atypical, and, from the perpective of today, so very much more interesting than what followed. Because those intitial few tales were a very different kind of story indeed, bleak, with a trace of the almost ammoral, and strangely affecting. They're well worth the reading, for all of their pre-pop art clumsiness, and there's a host of clues there-in for many of today's comic book creators about how to make absurd plot confections carry far more weight than their riduculous componenets might ever seem capable of bearing.
But Caveboy and Dino the flying baby dinosaur? I'll leave the matter of their significance to more qualified commentators.
Well, that's what you get when you set yourself the task of writing something about a war comic from 1961 that you've barely raced through before. What a remarkable and obviously brilliant writer that Robert Kanigher was! I hope I might see you again for the next piece here on TooBusyThinkingAboutMyComics, though as things stand, I've not the faintest what it'll be. I wish you, as always, the most splendid of days, and again recommend to you Mr Schelly's book on Joe Kubert, the cover to which I've scanned into place below. It starts off slowly, you may well for a few pages think you're reading the slowest of Jewish family histories, all fine and necessary-in-itself, and then, without you noticing, it reveals itself to be a time machine to the very earliest days of comic books, and a great many fascinating points beyond.