Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Dying One by One

When people remember the EC comics of the 1950s, their thoughts seem to most often jump to Tales from the Crypt and the other horror books. This is really too bad, since looking back over a half-century, the horror books are somewhat overrated, while EC's other comics were always good and often excellent. From science fiction to adventure to suspense to aviation stories--EC offered some of the best non-superhero stories ever produced. Their stable of artists included Wally Wood, John Severin, Reed Crandall and other greats of the era.

Two-Fisted Tales concentrated on adventure stories. It featured four 8-page stories each issue, compactly and effectively telling stories with settings that ran the gamut from ancient Rome to pirates to spies to the Old West. These stories were short, but they had a coherent beginning, middle and ending, and usually included some really nice bits of characterizations.

For much of its 24-issue run, TFT (along with another EC book, Frontline Combat) concentrated on war stories, usually set in the then-contemporary Korean conflict. "Ambush" (In issue #21; May-June 1951) is one of these stories, following a squad of American soldiers as they are ambushed and pinned down by North Korean troops.

If you examine just the plot, you find a well-constructed but fairly basic last-stand story. The Americans are gradually whittled down as they defend themselves against a superior force. One of them tries to go for help, but doesn't make it. Several others fall one-by-one. Finally, the last two men must take a desperate gamble in order to survive. There's an ironic twist in the last panel involving one of the soldier's good luck charm. (Editors Harvey Kurtzman and William Gaines were hopelessly in love with ironic twists.)

What lifts this story above the merely good is Jack Davis’ art work. Davis is now best remembered for his many years on Mad Magazine, but he had a good eye for adventure stories as well. He begins the story with a panel taking up two-thirds of the page--an establishing shot that show the American jeeps driving towards enemy troops occupying the high-ground along the side of the road. Immediately, we understand the tactical situation, which creates a sense of real danger.

After a couple of panels to allow one soldier to explain his good luck charm (thus setting up the twist at the end), the ambush begins. Pages 2 and 3 are non-stop, with both jeeps damaged and three of the eight men killed. This sequence includes another long shot, updating the overall tactical situation for the reader. We understand that these men are in it deep, pinned down with no practical way of fighting back.

Pages 4, 5 and 6 each end with the death of one more soldier; each page is essentially a mini-story within the larger one. It's a neat little trick that gives the story an effective sense of pacing. It keeps the suspense high as everything builds to the conclusion.

The last two pages cover the action-packed finale and includes the twist about the good luck charm. Once
again, Davis expertly choreographs the fight scenes, giving us a sense of desperation while still providing us with the information we need to follow the action logically. It's fast-moving without seeming as if it's suffering from ADD--everything we need to know is there. The EC comics of the 1950s were models of the short-story format for comic books, with "Ambush" being one of many good examples of this.

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