Facing the Enemy
Take the an elite Nazi fighting unit, thirty-two pages of black and white art, and a few fascinating stories and you’ll have yourself an issue of Waffen SS, a new war comic published by New England Comics Press’s “Dark” line. Unlike the more comical Tick that NEC publishes, Waffen SS is intended for mature readers because of its realistic and gruesome accounts of war. Rod Ledwell, the artist and author of the title, offers the reader a brief history of the Waffen SS on the inside cover of each issue. In a nutshell, the group was the “arm of the SS organization assigned to the battlefield.” Even their enemies recognized them as outstanding soldiers. However, “their soldiery merits will be forever tainted by the battlefield atrocities committed by some of them as well as by the horrible crimes committed by the SS organization as part of the Nazi state police.” Each comic consists of two or three stories that center on various members of the Waffen SS.
Featuring common Nazi soldiers is a remarkable choice because of the fact that the starring characters are indeed both “Nazi” and “common.” The modern connotation of “Nazi” is a damning one. Why would Ledwell decide to choose this group as the protagonists of his stories? There is no way he can glorify the actions of the Waffen SS, because to do so would label him a racist hate-monger. In my opinion, the reason that more comics do not focus on the exploits of enemy armies is because Western audiences would have a difficult time rooting for them, especially if the comic depicts the enemy killing American soldiers. Since we aren’t suppose to cheer for the Germans, Waffen SS must star common soldiers instead of a particular hero in contrast to other war comics such as Sgt. Rock or Nick Fury and His Howling Commandos do. Heroes almost always win, heroes never die, and heroes demand glorification. Waffen SS cannot be afforded these traits.
Fortunately for Waffen SS, Ledwell’s goal is not to glorify the German army. Ledwell writes bleak and dark stories starring common soldiers that reveal the horrors and universality of war (much like the comics of Harvey Kurtzman, considered by many to be one of the most significant creators in the business). According to “Cold War Comics” by Leonard Rifas, Kurtzman’s reputation as being an anti-war comic artist is largely due to his characterization of enemy soldiers being as human as American soldiers. Ledwell refuses to depict the Germans as vermin or to use stereotypes in his characterization, providing a mix of brave and honorable amongst the cowardly and despicable.
Ledwell’s anti-war sentiment can be found in the exploits of these soldiers. The story “Replacements” in issue #2 follows Hans, a German Scharfurher (the equivalent of sergeant) and his men. After suffering heavy casualties, the division receives replacements that are described as “kinder students” (kindergarten students) in reference to their very young age. A series of attacks leaves Hans and a young soldier as the only survivors. Heroically, Hans gets them to safety. However, the SS military field police believe them to be deserters and decide that they should be shot. Like most of the stories in Waffen SS, the soldiers end up dead, showing the futility and wastefulness of war. Even as one German soldier boldly stands his ground against a Russian machine-gunner attacking the company, his comrades fall, bullets piercing their flesh. This bleak and fatalist motif permeates the most of the stories.
Ledwell does a great job at conveying that enemy soldiers are not evil. Rather, every soldier has a job, and that job has to get done. “Tank Killers” is a prime example of a soldier’s duty. After a squad of German tanks destroys several American tanks killing the soldiers inside Ledwell offers this narrative: “The destroyed column of Sherman M-4 tanks, now burning hulks, spew smoke and flame as their ammunition cooks off. The tank killers have done a superb job.” Gone are any of the racist or nationalistic attitudes that depict enemy soldiers as evil or subhuman degenerates. Waffen SS makes the effort to give respect and reverence to the men that America has faced in battle.
Don’t read Waffen SS if you are looking for badass, no-holds-barred, kill-everything sentiment that moves heroes. They simply don’t exist in these stories. Friedrich, an SS tank commander in the story “Partisans” from issue #3, is more then norm - a character that realizes the horrors of war. Despite winning a ghastly battle, he cannot feel satisfied, because he believes the war will never end. After being asked if they would be fighting in Katmandu someday, he replies, “Sure we will. But first we’ll have to fight the battle for the Arctic Circle first . . . I tell you we’ll be fighting forever!” There will always be more battles for Friedrich and his crew to fight Soldiers are the tools of those men in power who do not have to face death, mutilation, or the other horrors of war.
Instead, read Waffen SS for the stories that each issue provides. The goal of this comic is not to depict detailed battle scenes or action sequences. In fact, Ledwell takes a minimalist approach to his artwork and often leave the characters alone in the panel without any background elements this aids in focusing completely on the characters and their emotions. Waffen SS will open the eyes of its readers and allow them to see war from the perspective of a generally humane enemy, refreshingly similar to our own American soldiers.