Kendra Steiner Editions (Bill Shute)

June 9, 2020

BATTLEFIELD ACTION #75 (June 1982, Charlton Comics)

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BATTLEFIELD ACTION #75 (June 1982, Charlton Comics)

BATTLEFIELD ACTION began at Charlton in November 1957 (“Rip-snorting Combat Tales,” the cover of that issue read) with issue #16—-prior to that, the numbering sequence had been used for FOREIGN INTRIGUE, and before that JOHNNY DYNAMITE. It went on hiatus in 1966 with issue 63 and was revived again in 1980 with issue 64 as a home for war-comic reprints from earlier Charlton publications. Charlton fans knew that if you did not see the ALL-NEW designation at the top of a Charlton comic in the late-period, it was a reprint. This reprint series of BA continued until issue 89 in November 1984, as Charlton was desperately trying to change its business model. Issue 89 was the only one sold at a cover price of 75 cents (previously, it had been 60, but Charlton decided to use higher quality paper and thus took a gamble by raising prices), and it turned out to be the final issue.

Followers of Charlton Comics who were around in the early 80’s will tell you that Charlton product became much harder to find with each passing year. Living in Oklahoma in 1982, when BA 75 was issued, I’m not sure I knew any outlet that sold Charlton comics new off the rack. I would find them maybe 6 months or a year after the cover date in the cheap pile at a comic shop in Tulsa or OKC, or at flea markets/junk shops in the area of Northern OK where I lived, usually for a quarter or so. When I moved to Virginia in 1985, it was much the same situation, although Charlton had pretty much gone under by then. Charltons were not hard to find, but only in the secondary market. Comic shops rarely bagged and boarded them (unless they had some 1950’s item that was considered collectable)—they’d be in the “loose” sections. Even today, in 2020, one can find a relatively good VG copy of many 70’s and 80’s Charltons for a dollar or two, even less when dealers decide to cut back on old stock and you’re willing to buy a quantity. Back in the 80’s, I had a small notebook (small enough to fit in a shirt pocket) with Charlton titles alphabetized and with the numbers I owned of each title listed on that particular page, and I’d bring that with me so as not to buy duplicates….because after all, the particular issues of these western and war comics I specialized in kind of blurred together. This was my pre-computer, pre-internet way of organizing the collection. I still use a similar method, actually, a hard copy, not something in a computer file.

When I was in high school, I remember some fellow students who wanted to join the military when they graduated, and some of them read war comics. Others were the kind of people who read military-oriented fiction and enjoyed B-war movies. I also used to travel by bus (Continental Trailways, usually) in the 70’s and early 80’s when travelling through the Midwest/Southwest, and there were a number of poorly-paid recent recruits on those buses, travelling back home to visit their wives or girlfriends after finishing their basic training, and I remember seeing some of those E1 and E2 soldiers reading war comic books while travelling by bus. My guess is that after a few years in the real military, they stopped reading BATTLEFIELD ACTION or WAR or FIGHTIN’ MARINES.

This issue contains three stories, and as the text among the indicia at the bottom of page on states, “all editorial material herein contained was originally published in, and is reprinted from, publications copyright 1972 by Charlton Publications Inc.” Thanks to the essential Comics.org website (as 1972 content is not PD, this material would be found at Comicbookplus.com), I can see where these piece come from:

SOMEONE HAS TO DIE comes from ATTACK #6 (July 1972), A MARINE IS ONLY ONE MAN comes from ATTACK #5 (May 1972), and THE LAST KILL comes from ATTACK #6 (July 1972).

Checking my records, I don’t have either of those issues among the 14 issues of ATTACK in my collection, although they have the familiar quality of a good B-movie. If you don’t like that, you’d call it cliche-ridden; if you do like it, you’d call it “archetypal” or “using common tropes of the genre.”

One quality I always appreciated about Charlton Comics was the grungy inexact Warhol-esque appearance of the actual product. As with a record from a small label where the label is applied off-center or there is a typo in the credits or an artless splice is audible to even the casual listener, these qualities (to me) give Charlton a “real” and non-slick quality….and you don’t even have to open my copy of this book to get that. The cover image here is from online–I don’t presently have a scanner, so I can’t scan my own copy–but the top 25% of the Charlton logo and the soldier’s face  are cut off on my copy (see pic for what my copy DOESN’T look like). Then when you open the book, the pages are awkwardly cut with some pages being about 1/2 shorter than others, and other pages have the printing running a bit high or low….or off-center. Actually, the lining-up of the color with the lines of the images is relatively good, by Charlton standards, throughout, though not on the level of a DC or Marvel (thankfully!). For me back then, it was like going to the drive-in and seeing an Al Adamson film that had been shot in 16mm and blown up to 35mm. It was proudly a non-corporate product, and that slight taste of outsider flavor made all the difference.

No story has an art or writing credit (although there are informed online speculations)–no auteurs here! We’ve got World War II (the most popular war in comic books) covered in the first story, Korea in the second story, and a novel merger of WWI and WWII in the third story. SOMEONE HAS TO DIE has the well-worn story of a young father in Europe fighting the Nazis who has not yet seen his newly born daughter (who incidentally was named after the unit’s tank!) and the trials he goes through in merging his duties as a soldier with his role as a father figure, both in the present and in the big picture of future influence; A MARINE IS ONLY A MAN has a somewhat confusing narrative of a WWII GI who was injured in the War, went to college after the war, and became a journalist who is then embedded with a Marine unit in Korea–it’s one of those stories that hangs on a seemingly clever play on words that’s later given an ironic re-wording; THE LAST KILL (clearly the work, on some level, of San Antonio’s own Pat Boyette) is a story of the links between the people fighting the war on both sides and has an ending I’d call a twist if it were not telegraphed so clearly throughout, and it neatly combines WWI and WWII (and by extension, the post-WWII era on the homefront in its final scenes). In their own way, each story is somewhat thoughtful and not the usual “kill as many Krauts and/or Commies as we can” found in other war comics, but then the talent providing the stories for these comics was from the generation that fought in WWII and/or Korea, so even if they themselves were not veterans, they knew many of them, and thus had, even if second-hand, the painful wisdom of those who’ve been at war.

Advertisements tell a lot about the assumed readership of the specific comic book. During the Vietnam era, many war comics would have ads for affordable engagement rings which could be bought on time-payment plans by anyone in the military for that special gal back home. In 1982, with Vietnam long over, the ads suggest a sad kind of unhappy/unsatisfied (whether he knew it or not) reader with a “world I never made” kind of vibe. 6 of the 8 full-page ads (not counting the obligatory “Sea Monkeys” ad on the back cover) are for products that are aimed at bringing someone luck or changing one’s streak of bad luck or changing one from a weakling to a winner. Ads cost money, so someone must have been responding to these ads for the companies to keep running them (they are seen in western comics too, though not this high of a percentage). Someone with credentials in psychiatry and a specialization in the post-Vietnam comic-book-reading male psyche could no doubt provide us with an insightful commentary on what’s being signified here, but honestly, it does not take a genius to see what qualities are being played upon here. It’s a kind of primitive comic-book-level variation on the same audience-baiting, playing on fears and supposed inadequacies one sees in classier form in ads for erectile dysfunction and baldness-cure advertising.

It might be just a throwaway 80’s reprint comic from a bargain-basement publisher to some, but it’s actually much more, a kind of smeared-newsprint message in a bottle from a world long gone while at the same time keeping its value as pulp entertainment.

As the slogan used to say, CHARLTON COMICS GIVE YOU MORE!

 

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