“Censorship of the Worst Kind”: The Suppression of Blazing Combat During the Vietnam War
by Brian M. Puaca
In the summer of 1965, the United States was escalating its involvement in Vietnam in order to prevent the Communist North from conquering the non-Communist South. Casting doubt on America’s involvement and support of South Vietnam in the early years of the war was a controversial move. Gallup public opinion data reveals that, until the Tet Offensive in 1968, more than 60 percent of Americans consistently supported U.S. involvement in Vietnam. While most comics used the war as a backdrop for heroic exploits or avoided any mention of it, Warren Publishing’s Blazing Combat tackled the conflict head-on from the start in a critical fashion. The short-lived series challenged romanticized depictions of combat and forced readers to confront the realistic suffering, death, and destruction experienced by everyone affected by war. Even though Blazing Combat was exempt from the Comics Code Authority (by virtue of being a magazine) the series still found itself subjected to censorship that ended its run and nearly bankrupted the publisher. But despite its abbreviated lifespan, Blazing Combat reminded readers and creators alike of the power of comics as a voice of social and political critique.
Hitting newsstands in the summer of 1965, Warren’s Blazing Combat featured a variety of war stories authored by Archie Goodwin and drawn by such talented artists as Wally Wood, Joe Orlando, Alex Toth, and Gene Colan. Inspired by the work of Harvey Kurtzman’s Frontline Combat and Two-Fisted Tales at EC Comics in the early 1950s, Blazing Combat included tales of military conflicts stretching as far back as the American Revolution. It was, however, the Vietnam stories (one of which appeared in each of the four issues) that would prove to be most incendiary. These stories suggested that the South Vietnamese army — America’s ally — was just as brutal as the Viet Cong (issue 1) and highlighted the mental and physical traumas endured by American soldiers (issue 3). An extremely powerful story entitled “Conflict” exposes the racism of some GIs as it focuses on the experiences of a brave young African-American medic (issue 4). It was, however, the story “Landscape” (issue 2) illustrating the futility of war, the meaninglessness of “liberation,” and the horrors of the civilian experience that angered many supporters of the war effort. This story suggested an equivalence of the violence and brutality used by the U.S., its allies, and its enemies. It also showed all of the various armies passing through the little village featured in the story to have little regard for the safety and wellbeing of the civilians they encountered.
Appearing quarterly on the newsstand, Blazing Combat did not undergo the same review process as comic books published at the time, nor was it required to display the Comics Code Authority seal of approval on its cover. The title did, however, require the support of its distributor and wholesalers as it traveled down the supply chain from publisher to newsstand. At the time it appeared, Jim Warren was a small publisher whose only other comics title was Creepy. He relied on the goodwill of his business partners to support and promote his publications, and this would be especially true of a magazine like Blazing Combat that he knew “was going to be risky.” Supportive of the first issue, which produced good sales figures, many of his wholesalers turned on him upon reading the second issue. It was the opening story focused on Vietnam, “Landscape,” that many of his critics seized on as being unpatriotic and anti-American.
The second issue of Blazing Combat bore a January 1966 cover date and was scheduled to reach newsstands in October 1965. Warren realized quickly, however, that something was amiss when he began receiving ten-day incremental reports on sales. Sales were down dramatically on the second issue, and Warren began to realize that some wholesalers refused to deliver copies of the publication to newsstands. Willing to lose some money on publishing Blazing Combat, Warren pressed on with the third issue hoping for things to cool off. Yet criticism of the series did not abate and his national distributor did not want to address the growing controversy. While no one confronted Warren directly about the series, he heard stories of wholesalers — many of whom he knew to be members of the American Legion — returning unopened cases of the magazine for refunds. This de facto censorship of Blazing Combat prevented many readers from even seeing the final issues of the series.
Unfortunately for Warren, sales for Blazing Combat worsened. Resistance to the publication increased significantly as the U.S. Army refused to carry the book in PXs. When Warren saw official documentation that showed the army had ordered zero copies of issue four, he realized that even the sales of Creepy and the Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine could not subsidize this venture indefinitely. Hearing from his national distributor that Blazing Combat’s antiwar stance could endanger the rest of his line of publications, Warren finally pulled the plug after the fourth issue. As Warren stated in a 1999 interview, “They didn’t like the message, so they killed the messenger. It was censorship of the worst kind.”
BlazingCombat may have disappeared from newsstands in 1966, but it served as a powerful reminder of the power of comics to express political and social criticism. It may well have also inspired others to express their antiwar views in the comics medium in the years ahead. One of the earliest such examples is the work of Julian Bond, who published his Vietnam: An Antiwar Comic Book in 1967. Many underground comix creators, who did not face the same commercial considerations as Warren, used their publications to express their anti-war views beginning in the late 1960s too. Mainstream publishers began to comment more directly on the war at the start of the 1970s when there was a reduced risk to sales. Regular readers of DC’s Our Army At War may remember that Joe Kubert commented on the Vietnam conflict through his stories set in World War II (such as the well-known 1971 “Alimy” story, which is an anagram of My Lai). Perhaps more notably, Kubert added the slogan “Make War No More” at the end of his stories at this time as well. Mild criticisms of the war and a more nuanced picture of the parties involved also began to appear in the pages of Marvel titles such as Amazing Spider-Man and Iron Man at the start of the 1970s.
Warren, it should be noted, lived to fight another day and continued to express resistance to the Vietnam War in other ways. Readers in the early 1970s encountered full page anti-war advertisements on the back of Warren magazines that targeted fathers who might soon have to send their sons off to war. By this time, public opinion had shifted and the ads caused less controversy. For his part, Jim Warren remained extremely proud of Blazing Combat and his antiwar stance for the rest of his life. Asked about Blazing Combat in an interview in the early 1990s, he said “it was time. The general public was coming around to see that we were right. America knew then that something was wrong. […] They were right that we were taking a negative attitude. But they didn’t understand what we were saying. What we were saying is that war is hell, whether it’s a just war or an unjust war. War is hell. And that’s what Archie [Goodwin] was saying. And it is. It’s true.”
Bond, Julian. Vietnam: An Antiwar Comic Book. 1967. http://www2.iath.virginia.edu/sixties/HTML_docs/Exhibits/Bond/Bond.html
Cooke, John B. “Someone Has to Make it Happen: Interview with James Warren.” Comic Book Artist 4 (Spring 1999): 14-43. http://twomorrows.com/comicbookartist/articles/04warren.html
Goodwin, Archie, et. al. Blazing Combat. Seattle, WA: Fantagraphics, 2018.
Kubert, Joe. “The Joe Kubert Interview.” Interview by Gary Groth. The Comics Journal 172, November 1994. http://www.tcj.com/the-joe-kubert-interview/
Mintz, S., & McNeil, S. (2018). Public Opinion and the Vietnam War. Digital History. Retrieved August 3, 2018 from http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/active_learning/explorations/vietnam/vietnam_pubopinion.cfm
Wells, John. American Comic Book Chronicles: 1965-69. Raleigh, NC: TwoMorrows, 2014.
Wright, Bradford W. Comic Book Nation: The Transformation of Youth Culture in America. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.
Brian M. Puaca is an associate professor of history at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Virginia, where he teaches a course on the history of comic books and American society. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org