10 February 2015

'The Activity' Comes to a Close, While War Rages On

After a few decades away from the practice—I had stopped patrolling 7-Eleven spinner racks by the late-1980s—I recently returned to reading comic books because of two things:
1. My grade-school warrior-princess was asking me why there weren't any girl heroes. 
2. At a Military Experience & the Arts conference, I heard some comics creators and veterans discuss the art form as a means of exploring military histories, personal wartime experiences, and even emerging trends and technologies.
In 2011 and 2012, Image Comics' "The Activity," and DC Comics' "Men at War," and Top Cow's "Think Tank" were my beachheads into the genre of 21st century war comics.

Notably, "Men at War" featured a reboot of the iconic World War II-era character Sgt. Rock, who hadn't been featured in his own book since 1988. Each of us had been away too long.

In 2012, Marvel Comics launched Fury MAX: My War Gone By a second volume of Fury MAX, in which writer Garth Ennis returned to tell an blood-spattered story that followed Nick Fury through Cuba, Vietnam, and Nicaragua. Not my wars, but certain the backdrops of my childhood and adolescence.

The "Men at War" series lasted only seven issues. DC Comics tried again with a dinosaur-filled "G.I. Combat" series and, more recently, with "Star Spangled War Stories, featuring G.I. Zombie."

Now, I'm not a purist. War comics make for some strange bedfellows. I'm happy to include elements of horror, alternate history, historical fantasy, super powers, and even sentient chimpanzees in my personal definition of of the genre. For me, the larger question is whether or not they contribute to readers' understanding of the costs, individual and collective, of going to war.

I'm not usually attracted to undead story lines, for example, but I think Mark Sable's "Graveyard of Empires" (2011-2012) is mostly successful in its gritty depiction of counterinsurgency, defense contracting, and nation-building in Afghanistan. If the presence of zombies in the story helps expose readers to questions regarding U.S./NATO involvement there, so much the better.

War comics, bottom line, should be a big G.I. tent.

As a middle-aged journalist and historian focused on modern-day conflicts, however, I find myself motivated more by projects that are more founded in reality. War is strange and beautiful and nasty enough, without adding literal demons.

Take, for example, Ennis's history-infused "War Stories" (DC Vertigo); "Battlefields" (Dynamite Entertainment), and the current ongoing "War Stories" (Avatar Press).

And the work of artist-veterans, such as Will Eisner's "Last Day In Vietnam" (2000) and Joe Kubert's Dong Xoai, Vietnam 1965 (2011).

I'm also drawn to comics journalism about war and the edges of conflict, such as David Axe's War is Boring" and Joe Sacco's collection "Journalism".

All this pull-list pedigree leads me back to "The Activity"—written by Nathan Edmondson, drawn by Mitch Gerads—which started me on this comics journey, and which apparently has concluded as a series with a double-sized issue No. 15. Given the creative team's commitments to a couple of Marvel NOW titles, readers of "The Activity" had to wait 14 months between issue Nos. 15 and 16. It was worth it, and I appreciated the creators bringing home a bit of closure.

If it's not completely over, the series is at least reportedly on an extended hiatus. Or, as soldiers might call such a thing, a "tactical pause."

If you're not into collecting monthly "floppies," the third volume of the series is now available in trade paperback. The first trade paperback is here. The second is here.

Throughout the series, Edmondson and Gerads got an awful lot right. The primary thread followed Team Omaha, a 5-member special forces team from the military's Intelligence Support Activity. The tone was realistic and plausible, without sacrificing drama and story. Think of it as a tactical-vested "Mission: Impossible." In keeping with the series' tagline, "warfare without warning," Team Omaha hid both in the shadows and in the great wide opens. Then, it decisively brought the hurt.

In one notable story, Team Omaha even deployed to American soil. In issue No. 11, the team has to track down a bomb hidden in Minneapolis. That story hit close to home, and explored briefly the realities of our post-9/11 world, without feeling alarmist, jingoist, or pessimistic.

There were lots of names in "The Activity." Lots of teams. Lots of agencies. You needed a playbook to figure out who was doing what to whom, who was on the injured list, and who was still in the game. Helpfully, each issue provided a network diagram depicting the status of each character. Those pages reminded me of tracking charts I'd used in the military, working in Tactical Operations Centers.

The dialogue was right. There were jokes. There were things left unsaid. There was quiet understanding of where you'd been, and where you were going. This was how soldiers and veterans talk with each other, and relate with each other. In life, and in death.

The weaponry, vehicles, and military equipment were correct, too. Anyone who's familiar with Gerads' depictions of Marvel's The Punisher, and with Edmondson's writing in both the current Punisher and Black Widow series, will recognize the realism they bring to their craft. This is how gear looks. This is how gear is used.

After all, nothing breaks down the Fourth Wall for a veteran faster than a badly drawn tank.

Throughout the series, the colors on page were practically jazz—part of the mood, providing the movement from scene to scene, and the visual fireworks of splash and bang-bang. Essentially, the application of color was its own character in "The Activity." It became part of the book's terrain, the weather, the environment. (I was continually reminded that Army briefs such factors under the heading of "enemy situation.") Those responsible included colorists Andy W. Clift, Jon Scrivens, Joseph Frazzetta.

And, finally, I should call out at least one of the characters. I have a soft spot for Leslie Ryan (Callsign: "Fiddler"), a red-haired Army sergeant that is part of Team Omaha. She's a strong, capable, and, most of all, realistic female protagonist. I'd be proud to have her on my team, or to be on hers. When I was in uniform, I encountered plenty of such soldiers, male and female.

So, if my daughter ever asks about my war comics—when she's much, much older, of course—I'll happily share with her "The Activity." I hope that it will ignite a conversation.

A conversation about how war is hell, and how we should try to avoid it.

And about the human stories that happen, when we don't.

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