War has been a popular comic-book genre since the birth of the uniquely American artform in the mid-1930s. Early efforts commonly featured costume-clad heroes taking on the Axis powers during World War II, with Captain America leading the way by dramatically punching Adolf Hitler on the nose on the cover of his premiere issue in March 1941.
Fictional stories featuring average (G.I.) Joes were extremely popular from the 1940s on, with Sgt. Rock, published by DC Comics, arguably the genre’s best-known poster boy. In recent years, however, fiction has given way to military fact via a growing new outlet: historically accurate graphic novels.
Dead Reckoning, the graphic novel imprint of the Naval Institute Press, is one of the leading publishers of historically accurate military-themed graphic novels, with more than two dozen titles that address combat from World War I (“The Stretcher Bearers,” “Trench Dogs”) through the war in Afghanistan (“The ‘Stan,” “Machete Squad”).
Artist and writer Wayne Vansant is one of the most prolific creators of military-themed graphic novels. He started by illustrating the Marvel Comics series “The ‘Nam,” and later wrote and/or illustrated numerous war-focused graphic novels, including “Grant vs Lee,” “The Battle of the Bulge,” “Normandy: A Graphic Novel of D-Day” and “Bombing Nazi Germany,” all for Zenith Press.
For Dead Reckoning, Vansant wrote and illustrated an adaptation of Erich Marie Remarque’s “All Quiet on the Western Front” and “Katusha: Girl Soldier of the Great Patriotic War,” a fictional story based on fact about a Ukrainian girl who joins a Soviet tank unit during World War II.
Vansant does extensive research to guarantee the authenticity of his books, and Katusha was no exception.
“I’ve always had an interest in the Russian Front and its many points of view,” Vansant told Military Families Magazine. “I went to Ukraine in 1998 and once I heard the famous song ‘Katusha,’ I was hooked. Although I had already read a lot about the Eastern Front, I began reading everything I could get my hands on, historically, militarily and culturally.”
Vansant returned to Ukraine in 2005 and 2012, where he talked to numerous WWII veterans. They were eager to share their stories, and showed him the locations where certain events took place. In Ukraine, he also found books about the region, often with photographs, which helped inform his story and ensure that everything was accurate, from the color of the ground to uniforms and weapons.
“I was able to show buildings that are no longer standing, and a town just as the Red Army tanks saw it when they entered it in the early winter of 1944.” Vansant said.
Vansant said he focuses on past conflicts in his work.
“I don’t like to get too close to modern times,” he said. “I think I understand the past better than I have the present. I’ve dealt with the Civil War, World War I, World War II, Korea and Vietnam. But by far the most interesting to me is World War II. There is no end to something new to learn, or points of view to explore.”
Garth Ennis, who fell in love with comic books as a child in Northern Ireland, is another writer dedicated to telling stories as factually as he can. His “War Stories” series for Vertigo, an imprint of DC Comics, and his “Battlefields” series for Dynamite Entertainment both explore important real-life events during wartime, though the characters themselves are often fictional.
“The Night Witches,” illustrated by Russ Braun, heralds the bravery of a squadron of female Soviet pilots who terrorized German troops by dropping bombs on them in the middle of the night from rickety biplanes.
In 2020, Ennis published “The Stringbags,” illustrated by P.J. Holden, through Dead Reckoning. Another David vs. Goliath tale, it tells the harrowing story of British Royal Navy squadrons forced to engage far more powerful German jets with Fairey Swordfish, an obsolete biplane torpedo bomber from an earlier era.
Vansant is a fan, noting, “Ennis’s stories grind down to the marrow of the person in the story, and are obviously perfectly researched.”
Many books touch on events little remembered, such as “The Photographer of Mauthausen” (Dead Reckoning) by Salva Rubio, Pedro J. Colombo and Aintzane Landa. It profiles Spanish press photographer Francisco Boix, who was sent to the Mauthausen Concentration Camp during World War II. Selected to work alongside an SS officer who is documenting prisoner deaths, Boix steals and attempts to smuggle out of the camp a selection of photographic negatives that prove Nazi war crimes.
Events that are ancient history to some are often important life experiences to others, as Vansant has found when approached by service members at comic book conventions and other events.
“The response I’ve had has been mostly positive,” he said. “They appreciate that I get the equipment right, or at least I try to. But for some veterans, my approach is a little alien to them. I gave a copy of my ‘Battle of the Bulge’ book to a veteran of the 99th Division, and realized that the book he was holding and his personal experiences did not match up. He didn’t remember the story, only the terror.”