Browse By

Why War Comics haven’t been selling (and how to fix that)

As of last Wednesday, the last issue of DC comics GI Combat hit the shelves, with DC Comics having announced the cancellation of the title last September. This is a shame, as much like the previous war comic in the New 52, Men of War, GI Combat was a great title – it had a triage of fascinating stories, each modernized takes on classic DC Comics war stories, ranging from an Unknown Soldier retooled to fight terrorism, and a Haunted Tank story that had the original Lt. Jeb Stuart and his grandson on a mission to destroy a War Wheel piloted by Nazi remnants led by the son of General Rommel, even as the General’s catatonic body powers the Wheel’s computer. While utterly fantastic, they were each enjoyable, likeable and were well written with fantastic art, making the cancellation all the worse, especially since this is the second war comic of the New 52 cancelled after just eight issues, despite both GI Combat and Men of War boasting mid-range sales, better than many titles they kept.
Reaction to the cancellation has been subdued, with war comic fans like myself left at a loss, especially since unlike with Men of War’s cancellation, there seems to be no new war comic title to replace GI Combat, and many critics saying this marks the official end of the era when war comics could be considered marketable.

With all due respect to those critics, I couldn’t disagree more.

This comes not from a fan of war comics, but from a man who looks at the world and culture around him. We are in the midst of the greatest boom in war media in literally decades. First-Person-Shooter game franchises like Call of Duty and Battlefield have sold millions of copies, and have given the gaming world multi-million dollar openings on par with blockbuster films. In film, we have seen the return of both soldier protagonists and war films, with notable entries ranging from independent films like Act of Valor to likely Oscar nominees like Zero Dark Thirty making millions and racking up awards. In books, true war stories have started flooding the shelves, as have various genre stories told from the military perspective, ranging from the booming military science fiction field to the more subdued trend of soldiers replacing vampires in a lot of recent erotica. In all almost every field of culture, we are in the beginning of a veritable boom of war media.

The reason for that boom is that simply enough, for the first time since the last World War, we have had an entire generation raised in a time of war, in an age of conflict. In the last decade, we have fought two wars, with a few more looking closer on the horizon with every headline. There are 22 million veterans in the USA, with over 1.6 million of whom having served in combat during the Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, 30% of whom have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and countless more who suffer from other injuries. While a sad figure for society and the world at large, from a marketing standpoint, it is enormous emerging markets that only now are businesses and the media starting to tap into.
In spite of both the trending upswing in war/soldier based media, and the fertile fields of potential customers, there is no major war comics title on the market now, from DC, Marvel, IDW or countless others. While I had hoped that DC would seek to change that with its two attempts at a new war comics line in the New 52, both Men of War and GI Combat, while solid series’ themselves, had no real effort to push the titles from DC Comics, with both titles cancelled eight issues in. Like I mentioned before, while some have tacked this up to either lack of a market for war comics or for any non-Superhero comic, I think it’s not an issue of concept or quality, but one of marketing.

What’s so sad about that, at least to me, is that marketing these titles would be absurdly easy if only DC would do this. As mentioned before, there is a large community of both retired and active members of the military, a virtually untapped market in terms of comics, despite being a market known for both disposable income and near fanatical loyalty to military-themed culture – there is a reason movies like The Hurt Locker or the Red Dawn remake opened in front of USO-sponsored events attended by soldiers. If DC comics had made an effort to sell the titles to those groups or similar groups – and seeing as a good chunk of military bases (including the one I served at) have comic shops, it wouldn’t have taken too much effort on their part.

This is why if DC ever launches another war title, or even restarts Men of War or GI Combat, there is a simple way for them to market the title to make it a hit. Have issues on sale in places like military bases and gun shops, fertile and untapped markets that would provide a serious market for a solid war comic. If you really want to go the extra mile, have a few issues sent to soldiers deployed in Afghanistan every month, both as a sign of support for the soldiers and great PR move, and to build a base of future customers that in likelihood will buy issues themselves in the future. If you really want to push it with little risk on your part, partner with the DOD like a lot of people do to push media that involve the media do – trust me, if the DOD is willing to toss a few million at Battleship or keep Beetle Bailey on the presses for decades, they will happily bankroll a decent war comic. While you may question of there are enough comic readers in uniform, remember these days, selling one-hundred thousand copies of a comic is considered a massive success – with a few million active-duty military personal, the odds you can find around one or two percent of that legion that would regularly buy a solid war comic is a virtual certainty. The whole point behind the New 52 was to find new markets and get comics to more groups than just the comic shops – if marketed properly, war comics can provide one such way to do so, if only DC would try.
In the end, I do hope DC or Marvel takes another swing at a war comic title, and a serious one at that. Not only where Men of War and GI Combat two of my favorite titles in the New 52, but comics themselves boast a rich war mythology that would be a shame not to tap into. DC has the likes of Frank Rock and Easy Company, the Haunted Tank, the Unknown Soldier and countless others, several DC and Marvel icons got their start as war comics, ranging from Steve Trevor and Nick Fury to Captain America himself. It’s been the route to many aspiring artists finding their way into the comic industry, from Joe Kubert to Garth Ennis, and maybe some military veteran from Iraq or Afghanistan given a title to work on can join them. While the superhero may dominate comics today, there is a place for the real ones as well, with countless stories left to tell – all they need to do is tell them to someone who will listen, and if my words here help them do that successful, mission accomplished.

2 thoughts on “Why War Comics haven’t been selling (and how to fix that)”

  1. Greg says:

    Thanks for your thoughts on this topic, Sean. I am a big fan of the war comic genre and I would certainly like to see it flourish. However, I do not share your hope that DC or Marvel takes a swing at another war title.
    I will always have a soft spot in my heart for DC titles. I first got hooked on the genre when I was in my teens in the early ’80s. I read “Sgt. Rock,” “G.I. Combat” and “Weird War Tales.” But now that I am reading war comics again after many years, I don’t think that DC has the best to offer any more.
    I think that war comics have great potential because we can see stories about real people in real situations — exceptional situations where extreme fear and courage can be portrayed. But DC does not seem to be interested in believable stories. They have a haunted tank that can be magically transported to another continent, a super soldier who can take a point-blank bullet to the head with no damage and soldiers battling dinosaurs.
    You say that there are no major war titles currently. They may not be major, but there are Garth Ennis’s “Battlefields: Green Fields Beyond” from Dynamite and “Peter Panzerfaust” from Image Comics. Although it is nice to read ongoing stories with familiar characters, it is not realistic in a war story to know ahead of time that certain characters have no chance of dying in a story. Sgt. Rock, Bulldozer and Little Sure Shot get injured, but never die. With one-off or short-run stories like Garth Ennis’s “Battlefields” and “War Stories” or Jason Aaron’s “The Other Side,” there is a much better chance for great storytelling.
    So I do hope that DC or Marvel continues to offer war titles, it is not where I am looking for great stories.

  2. Pingback: Interview with James O'Barr, creator of The Crow - Korsgaard's Commentary
  3. Trackback: Interview with James O'Barr, creator of The Crow - Korsgaard's Commentary

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *