« All studies of propaganda tell what a powerful weapon it is; that since armies fight as people think, it is essential to control that thought. This means some form of managing the news, and the only question is the degree to which the news should be managed openly and the degree to which it should be managed subtly. » ― The First Casualty: The War Correspondent as Hero, Propagandist, and Myth-maker from the Crimea to Vietnam
In most collectors’ lives, there’s a degree of more casual, automatic accumulation. Things you pick up for a song, just because the opportunity arises, and that you file away, planning half-heartedly to look them over when you find the time. As a devoted Jerry Grandenetti fan, I always pick up his work… but I favour some genres over others. Mr. G has crafted, for instance, a lot of war comics for DC over the years (1952-1984!), most of which I haven’t seen. For me, it’s always been about his horror/mystery work. So… I had picked up, somewhere along the line, a consecutive pair of issues of DC’s Men of War (26 issues, 1977-80), numbers 9 and 10, featuring the first two parts of a Dateline: Frontline backup sequence, « Bathtub Blues » and « Glory Soldier ». I was very, very impressed.
Now, most of DC’s war books were scripted by a small cadre of authors, namely the indefatigable Robert Kanigher, as well as Bob Haney, Ed Herron, Jack Miller… but mostly Kanigher. In the Seventies, things changed a bit, with solid help and variety coming from Frank Robbins and David Michelinie on The Unknown Soldier, for instance. I had encountered Cary Burkett’s name here and there, being a regular reader of Batman titles The Brave and the Bold and Detective Comics, where he scripted backups (Nemesis, Batgirl) and the occasional lead feature. But this was… different. Hard-hitting, quite free from convention, and damn well buried in the back of a second-tier war book.
I hunted down the rest of the D:F series, and my initial impression did not fade… quite the contrary, indeed. The third serial (MoW 21-23), set on the Russian front, actually brought some tears to my eyes. Why was this feature so little-known? Oh, I know… the usual reasons. But I wanted to find out more, and the next logical step was to reach out to the series’ surviving author, who was happy to oblige, to my delight. And so here we are. The stage is yours, Mr. Burkett.
Dateline: Frontline recollections, by Cary Burkett
« Paul Levitz was editor of a new war comic called ‘Men of War‘ featuring a character called ‘Gravedigger’. He wanted to have backup stories in each issue, and he came up with the title ‘Dateline: Frontline‘ and the idea that it would feature a war correspondent as the main character. I was working as his assistant at the time (1976), and he asked me to do a series of 3 six-page stories.
He pointed me toward a book called ‘The First Casualty‘ by Philip Knightley. The title was inspired by a famous quote ‘The first casualty when war comes, is truth‘. The book was a history of war correspondents from early days of reporting through the Vietnam War. It became a basis for the new comic series in terms of setting up the inner dilemma of the main character, which was how to report ‘the truth’ in time of war.
I chose to set the series in World War II and named the main character Wayne Clifford. My idea was that he would begin his career as a war correspondent being very idealistic and naïve. Over the series of stories, he would come face to face with wartime situations which challenged his assumptions about news reporting, war, ‘truth’ and about himself.
That, in a nutshell, was the core of the series. I chose to set the narration in first person, which I guess is pretty much the standard in comics now, but was not common then.
After the first 3 stories, Paul asked me to continue the series. But we kept the idea that the series would be done in groups of 3 related stories.
I did a lot of research to depict true, historic wartime settings which I hoped would show more aspects of war than to just have the hero ‘fight the enemy’ and stop the Führer’s latest grand plan.
Paul had gotten Jerry Grandenetti to be the artist on the series from the very beginning. I admit, when I first heard this, it didn’t thrill me. I was not that familiar with Grandenetti’s work, but I had seen a few stories he had done and had been put off a bit by his strange, exaggerated style.
But when I saw his art for my first DF story, I realized why he was such a respected artist. His expressionistic kind of style emphasized certain qualities that gave a distinctive mood to the story.
But what I felt the most strongly was that Grandenetti understood how to make the story flow. If you could let yourself be drawn into the visual universe he created, it would come alive. The sequences of images he created would merge into one storytelling stream.
I didn’t know at the time that Grandenetti had worked on The Spirit with Will Eisner, but that strong storytelling aspect of his art was what I responded to most when I saw Jerry’s work on my stories.
My Dateline:Frontline stories were done ‘full-script’, meaning I wrote out full panel-by-panel breakdowns for the artist to follow. And I could see how Jerry would take my panel descriptions and make them flow into each other. If I was going for a specific kind of pace or mood with a sequence, Jerry immediately knew what I was after, and knew how to emphasize it visually.
I worked with very few artists who had Jerry’s instinctive grasp of this and his skill for executing it. »
Each Dateline: Frontline episode was conceived to stand on its own, but be part of a larger trilogy. This London entry, the series’ introduction, appeared in Men of War No. 4 (Jan. 1978). In part two of our talk with Cary Burkett, we’ll feature the second London chapter, « Human Interest Story » and our guest will generously answer some of WOT’s questions.
Incidentally, but not coincidentally, one hundred years ago today, on the 11th of November, 1918, the Armistice of Compiègne was signed, formally ending the First World War. The event is commemorated each November 11 as Armistice Day or Remembrance Day.
Continue to Part 2 of the Cary Burkett interview.
I love Jerry Grandenetti’s work, so this was of great interest. Thank you.
You’re welcome, Chris. Thanks so much for your feedback. Mr. Grandenetti is a lifelong favourite of mine, and WOT’s certainly not through showcasing his work… We’ve got some fine, fine obscurities in store. As for Mr. Burkett, I can’t praise his generosity and insight enough to do them justice.
Yes, Mr. Burkett certainly comes across as one of life’s good guys.
I look forward to seeing those Grandenetti obscurities you mention. Like you, I love his mystery comics work, but am also one of the seeming few who are big fans of Prez, Champion Sports, Green Team and the (original) Outsiders! Delightfully off the wall comics that made a pleasing change of pace among the angst-ridden 1970s titles.
Ah, a fellow true-blue Grandenetti freak. 😉 You’re right, we are very few in our appreciation of the Simon/Grandenetti projects, but we’re not *quite* alone: http://www.hilobrow.com/2019/04/04/best-ya-yya-lit-1973-4-2/
Most comics fans just don’t get off-the-wall, light-hearted and unpretentious. Their loss… but it makes for some unfairly short runs for us connaisseurs. 😦
My introduction to Dateline: Frontline was identical to yours. Long ago, I bought issues 9 and 10 of Men of War. The Gravedigger stories were all right, but the Dateline: Frontline stories were unforgettable, partly because of Grandenetti’s art. Glory Soldier is just heartbreaking. The last panel is extremely moving as Cpl. Barr kneels next to the woman he’s just killed as Wayne Clifford holds the baby and writes.
About ten years ago, when I was buying comics again, I came across a trove of MoW books and picked them up. I now have most of the Dateline stories including I think the Russia ones. Having just re-read some of them (which led to me finding your site), I have to say that even though Gravedigger was ahead of its time, the stories are somewhat thin. The real classics of MoW are Dateline and the Enemy Ace stories, with art by Howard Chaykin of all people.
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Wow, you’re not kidding when you say ‘identical’!
While gathering the Dateline stories, I at first assumed that the series had lived and died in Men of War, but a friend pointed out that there were entries in later issues The Unknown Soldier, though they’re illustrated by Ric Estrada, a fine choice if you can’t get Grandenetti. Wally Wood hated inking both of them. 😉
As for the classics… I’m not convinced that anyone but Joe Kubert could fully do justice to Enemy Ace on the visual front, but Chaykin did give it his best shot. And ‘Rosa Master-Spy’, while looking great, was hobbled by run-of-the-mill scripting.
Thanks so much for dropping by and for chiming in, Mitch!
Dateline Frontline certainly deserves to be collected. The scripting was mature and thoughtful, the plots powerful, and the art by both Grandenetti and Estrada (two brilliant artists who are shockingly neglected by fandom) was wonderfully distinctive and heartfelt.
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Hi Christian! Thanks for your interest!
It does seem as though Dateline: Frontline could benefit from a collected reprinting. At 90 pages, there’s just enough material, and though we’ve lost Grandenetti and Estrada, messrs. Burkett and Levitz are still with us, and they could surely contribute some insightful added value to the package. As the late 70s were no highlight, production and printing-wise, a tasteful new colouring and printing might work wonders in properly reintroducing the opus. Hopefully this little pocket of interest we’ve generated will strike a spark.