War is Hell #9
Issue(s): War is hell!
The series, War Is Hell, began publication in 1974 and was originally conceived as a reprint title, focused on Atlas era war comics with series titles like Battle, Battle Action, and Battlefront. Issues #7 and #8 switched gears somewhat and reprinted issues of Sgt. Fury and the Howling Commandos. Then beginning with this issue it began new material stories, still set in the World War II era but now with an added supernatural element. The credits for issue #9 say "Series conceived and plotted by Tony Isabella, with the welcome aid of Roy Thomas"...
...and (according to Wikipedia) the lettercol for issue #12 adds Steve Gerber to the writing credits. But the issue is scripted by Chris Claremont, and after next issue (which is co-written by Tony Isabella), Claremont becomes the sole writer. Depending on how you look at it, this may be considered Chris Claremont's first regular writing assignment; it's definitely prior to his Iron Fist run.
I, however, only have the first issue of the series at this time. The rest of the run, which goes to issue #15, is out of my price range (at least relative to the importance of the series), but this first issue of new material was reprinted in an odd Marvel Ghost Stories digest format trade along with some other unusual selections, like the first appearance of the Flying Dutchman Ghost from Silver Surfer #8-9 and the story where Mockingbird confronts the ghost of her rapist, the Phantom Rider, in West Coast Avengers #41.
But whatever the reasoning behind the trade, i'm happy to have this story. The main character John Kowalski will later appear in Chris Claremont's Man-Thing series and also in an issue of Solo Avengers, so it's nice to at least have his first appearance.
Kowalski was an American soldier that, in 1937, was found guilty of espionage and treason by a military court. He was stripped of his citizenship and he went to live in Poland.
That part is told in flashback and it's all the detail we get this issue. The story actually starts in 1939, directly after the Nazi invasion of Poland. Kowalski is one of the few survivors, and we learn that he didn't get involved in warning the authorities that Germany was about to invade.
After wandering the remains of the town for a while and getting into a fight with a guy that calls himself The Scavenger...
...he encounters Death.
A fairy standard ghost story twist follows.
And then at the end we learn that "a coward dies a thousand times before his death", setting up the premise for this series.
But since this is the only issue i own for now, we'll have to content ourselves with that. The idea is that Kowalski will be forced to occupy various bodies of people that are about to die during World War II, and change things before his death. And by the time he shows up later in the 1980s Man-Thing series, he has become an aspect of Death.
To give you a little sense of the time period that this story was published in, here's the intro essay that occupies the lettercol space for this issue.
Quality Rating: C
Chronological Placement Considerations: The reason i have to place this so early in my project is because it takes place on September 1st, 1939 during the Nazi invasion of Poland which is generally considered to be the start of World War II. Marvel Comics #1 was published on that day (and therefore might be considered to take place a little earlier) but this should be among the earliest World War II era Marvel comics.
Continuity Insert? Y
My Reprint: Marvel Ghost Stories digest TPB
Weird that Kowalski was knocked out by the spy- you'd think they'd want to keep the Americans from finding out they stole what they did. But then again, Nazi and Soviet espionage was vastly different in the Marvel Universe than in real life.
Posted by: Michael | December 8, 2014 8:21 PM
People sure had a healthier attitude towards war back at the time...
Posted by: Luis Dantas | January 29, 2015 7:25 PM
The peace time armed forces seem a little lax on traitors.
Posted by: Mizark | May 9, 2017 8:08 PM
The premise of this series is intriguing, but the execution is a mess. I don't think the circumstances of Kowalski's supposed treason are ever revealed. It's not clear whether his spirit survives because of Osterman's curse, or because Death has some sort of plan for him, or what that plan really is. Also, his supposed cowardice is simply that he didn't believe Osterman when he told him about the impending invasion. Not his finest hour, but not such a great sin. Didn't Osterman have contacts of his own? This issue says Kowalski is a naturalized citizen, but it's later said he was born in Pennsylvania. Also, Kowalksi didn't occupy people just prior to their deaths; he took possession at the instant of their deaths, having only as much control over the body or even memory of his previous life as was convenient to the plot. The relative high point of the series is issue 12, a sort of riff on Madame Butterfly in which Kowalski encounters a long-lost Chinese love while stuck in the body of her captor, a Japanese colonel. It has all the tics Claremont will become famous for: a bar fight, a fascination with the underside of Asian culture, near rape, his usual odd dialog ("And I you," "With all my heart", etc.), and most interesting (to me, anyway) is a throw-away character named Rossi, well before Michael Rossi shows up the X-Men.
Posted by: Andrew | June 18, 2017 11:21 AM
Marvel's attempted answer to DC's Deadman?
Posted by: OverMaster | June 19, 2017 9:59 PM
Yeah, that analogy occurred to me too, but there are really more differences than similarities: Kowalski doesn't have complete control over the bodies he inhabits, he can't control where he goes, he's not trying to find his killer, and he has no grounding like Deadman did with Nanda Parbat and the League of Assassins. Also, no Neil Adams.
Posted by: Andrew | June 20, 2017 1:14 PM
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