Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Nurses At War: Our Army At War 78 - "Battle Nurse"

While nurses can pop up in all kinds of comics besides those in the romance genre, they are relatively frequent characters in war comics. This isn't surprising - the nursing profession as we know it began with Florence Nightingale tending soldiers in the Crimean War, and Clara Barton and other Civil War nurses in the USA. Those "ministering angels" gave nursing one of its most powerful images, but the proximity to battle also led to them being seen as heroic. World War I involved massive recruitment campaigns for nurses that utilized these two images of nurses. The earliest (that I know of) nurse lead character in comics was the very adventurous Myra North, Special Nurse - a syndicated newspaper comic strip that ran from 1936 through 1941. Nurse Myra also appeared in what are now very rare and expensive comic strip compilation comic books published by Dell in the late 1930s. While always available when needed, Myra's nursing skills took a back seat to her penchant for international intrigue and detective work, which often placed her in a war zone.

War comics tend to stick to the need for nurses to tend the wounded, which may land them in a backup role assisting the hero, hence the same combo of ministering angel and heroic nurse. This seems to be the case with "Battle Nurse" in OOAW 78 (DC, January 1959), although the story is essentially a romance in a war setting. The cover art is credited to Irv Novick in the Grand Comics Database. The juxtaposition of the hero, the nurse, and the wounded soldier is the military equivalent of the doctor - nurse - patient relationship that has its origins as an analogy of the respectable Victorian middle class family. Beautiful cover - very dramatic. The story is written by Bob Kanigher, who also occasionally wrote love stories, with art by the duo of Ross Andru and Mike Esposito. A fine example of their work.
Stan and Jennie are lovers, but it's WWII and Stan is a G.I. leaving for the front line. Jennie insists she'll be seeing him, but To Stan that means she's always there in his thoughts, even when the going gets really rough. Eventually he's in London on leave, standing on a street corner remarkably like the one near where my grandmother grew up! It's there that he thinks he sees Jenny, but it's someone else (Wonder Woman in disguise I think!).
So Stan has a hard time believing his eyes when he does actually encounter Jennie in Piccadilly Circus. An obligatory London bobby holds up the traffic while the two lovers embrace - she was true to her word - she wasn't going to let an ocean separate them. But then there's an air raid - the "buzz bomb" is a V1 rocket - the engine cuts out then you wait to see if you survive - my mother experienced these on a daily basis during the Blitz when she was a girl. The air raid nearly finishes our two resilient lovers, but they come out of it okay, and then Stan is off to the Pacific, shipped out so quickly he can't get confirmation that Jennie survived.

Stan is island hopping in the Pacific and is eventually confronted by a charging squad of Japanese soldiers. He stands his ground and is just about able to deal with the enemy before he loses consciousness. When he comes round, he thinks he's hallucinating Jennie's image but that gal has followed him round the world and he's on an ambulance plane with her taking care of him. After all that enemy action, it's ironic that natural forces down their aircraft and the two find themselves hugging a wing, with another wounded soldier in tow whom they just managed to get off the plane before it started to break up.

Well things couldn't get worse than being at the mercy of the waves in the middle of the Pacific - or could they? Of course they could! There happens to be an opportunist Japanese fighter pilot in the area who sees the chance to finish off the Americans. Stan is left with only one option: use the other soldier's machine gun to try and bring down the plane. As the enemy fighter strafes the American trio, Jennie (as nurses are often depicted in war stories) puts the safety of her patient before herself, and shields him with her own body. Stan gives it all he's got, but it looks like it's all over when he runs out of ammo and the fighter is still in the air. But it's a dead fighter, and it just passes overhead (nice panel) and dumps in the sea at a distance.

That's one stubborn lady, who won't let anything keep her from her man! Classic ending! Comic book nurses often seem to be red-heads (I'd say at a higher percentage than red-heads exist in the general Caucasian population) and I'm thinking there might be a bit of a stereotype there, something to do with Irish women becoming nurses historically, maybe. Stubborn (in a nice way) + red-head + nurse = my youngest daughter!


  1. KB: Oh, hell yes! Very cool, and I am really very covetous of this comic! The artwork is absolutely beautiful. It's a tough call, but DC war comics from the silver age may be my favorites of all the genre, and this post is a good example of why. Fine writing by Kanigher, and the art! That page where the plane lands in the ocean is just so fine.

    I enjoyed your commentary as well. More war romances, please. -- Mykal

  2. Mykal: When you look at the covers from the big DC war series through the 50s and early 60s it's a case of one sensational piece of art after another. Those toffs who look down upon comic books as 'low art' just have no idea!

  3. I'm a Nurse Practitioner and a red head and of Scots descent. Scots have the highest proportion of redheads in the world (11%) followed by Irish (10%), then Russians and Poles. I woonder just what the proportion of redheads is among those populations and those of us descended from them? Love your page. I've been doing research for an article on nursing images, how they have changed and possible influences on that change. I think it's easier to do graphics of the traditional roles, and the stories may appear better. "Bodice rippers" and romances of all ilk still sell very well - just ask Harlequin, et al. Anyway...keep up the fine work. And thank you.

    1. Dear Nurse Practitioner - thanks for the great comment. If you're interested, my wife and I had a chapter on nurse images in comics published in what became an award-winning book on 'Comics and the Cold War':


      I'd be very interested to read your article when its done.