Thursday, October 11, 2012

War Stories: How do we handle war in entertainment?

            War comics used to be a big part of overall comics titles. Blackhawk, Sergeant Rock, and Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos (which should sound pretty familiar given Nick Fury’s resurgence and the Howling Commandos’ appearance in the Captain America movie) were all popular titles, yet they have fallen by the wayside in modern comics. Curious about this, I went on Marvel and DC’s websites but I couldn’t find any war comics. DC had brought back titles like Men of War, Blackhawk, and G.I. Combat but all of them have already been cancelled.
            Of course, most of these comics had already gone away around the same time in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Audiences weren’t engaged with them anymore. Blackhawk was revamped in possibly the worst reboot of all time. Most of these comics faded away with the new prevalence of TV reporting in Vietnam showing Americans the real face of war every night. War comics fell by the wayside.

Seriously. Look at this nonsense.

            That said, I’m not sure why DC brought back these titles in the New 52, but I have a pretty good idea why these comics were cancelled (again).When comics are cancelled it’s simply because they aren’t selling. Serious comics about war are hard to sell to comics target market. A serious and mature war comic like Blazing Combat that had “stories [that] were both gritty and realistic ... showing the true horror of war" isn’t going to sell to your average Call of Duty player, and a comic that attempts to ape the juvenile adolescence of most modern shooters to attract that market is going to be offensively simplistic.

            Comics and gaming are relatively easy to talk about together because they share a target market and as such thought of as juvenile, and given the vast majority of what is published by mainstream titles it’s easy to see why. When you treat war the way Call of Duty and Battlefield do, it really demeans the entire concept. Other games do it better, of course. Medal of Honor has always presented war in a more serious light. I still remember playing MoH: Frontline’s level set in Arnhem and being incredibly moved by it.

            An interesting thing to note is that the older war comics were usually about World War II, as were most shooters in the early 2000’s. Now, most shooters are set in the modern era, and maybe the fact that there isn’t as much of a set narrative in a hypothetical war with Russia. There isn’t a lot of pathos there. The War on Terror has its share of it. I’ve read some pretty great stuff with the War in Iraq. Joel Turnipseed’s (A name that may be familiar with some of you) Baghdad Express or Brian K. Vaughn’s Pride of Baghdad are both incredible works, but this kind of depth rarely makes it into war games.

            It’s hard to really write war without trivializing it if you fail to show the actual personal consequences of it. While researching this article, I was amazing to find this sentence on the Wikipedia page for Medal of Honor: Warfighter that said, “The game's plot reveals Tier 1 operator Preacher returning home to find his family torn apart from years of deployment.” That’s pretty impressive to include in a modern war game. Spec Ops: The Line is based on Heart of Darkness, which means it is a brutal exploration of the human psyche.

            Of course, this raises a pressing question. Can a realistic war game be entertaining while at the same time giving due decency to the subject matter? Should realistic war games be fun at all? Of course, even the idea of a realistic war game is a bit bizarre, given as if you get shot in Call of Duty you duck behind a bit of wall for 5 seconds and wait for the red to go away, and in real life you spend three months at Walter Reed adjusting to a C-Leg. I guess that wouldn’t be fun though.

            And I guess that’s the problem with war entertainment (if that concept enough doesn't strike a bad chord). If it’s fun it doesn’t give the subject the respect it deserves, and if it’s serious it isn’t fun. Comparatively few people will play a haunting game that forces them to plumb the depths of their very soul, and even fewer will buy a comic that makes them more and more depressed with every issue.

            I guess the only thing to do at this point is to accept that perhaps war comics from mainstream published are a thing of the past. Maybe that’s a good thing, considering how DC has been writing of late. I think it’s time we look at what we write and what we play a bit more seriously, and ask ourselves just how it portrays serious topics. If we want the mediums we care about to gain acceptance as art, we need to challenge mainstream publishers to produce content that challenges readers and presents itself as honest with actual depth.


            Something I’m going to start doing whenever I write something broad like this is to give some recommended reading for anyone who might be interested.

            Blazing Combat: A controversial but incredible anti-war graphic novel about Vietnam from the 70’s.
            Last Day in Vietnam: This is by Wil Eisner, who is an incredible writer and artist, presents his take on war. It’s pretty amazing to say the least. It’s probably available in your college library (I know it’s at UNCG, that’s where I read it).

            Pride of Baghdad: I’ve mentioned this a few times before, but it’s about lions and the Iraq war. It’s powerful and incredibly sad but offers a wonderful message. I read it at Edward McKay’s a while back, and I had to leave the store before anyone noticed I was about to openly weep.

           The Long Road Home and The War Within: Taken from Gary Trudeau's Doonesbury, these are two short books about a solider losing his leg in Iraq and readjusting to life in the States afterwards. 

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