Quality Comics was one of the best publishers during the Golden Age of Comics, and true to their name, the quality level of all of their titles was high. In part, this was due to the fact that Will Eisner did editorial work for the early Quality line and helped to innovate a number of the line’s key features. In MILITARY COMICS, launched in 1941 just as war was on the horizon for the United States, Eisner along with Chuck Cuidera and Bob Powell introduced one of the seminal adventure series of teh era; Blackhawk! But that’s not what we’re talking about today.
At the same time, in the back pages of MILITARY COMICS #1, creator Jack Cole would introduce his bizarre spin on the Blackhawks concept, a series called Death Patrol. There is, in fact, some anecdotal evidence to suggest that Death Patrol was conceived first and that Blackhawk was a more serious-minded copy of it–but there isn’t really any tangible evidence of that. Like Blackhawk, Death Patrol involved a band of adventurers battling the Axis powers and later other international threats. The difference was in Jack Cole’s sense of humor–and one other factor that he built into the series.
You see, apart from teh group’s leader, Del Van Dyne, all of the rest of them were convicted criminals. And Cole wasn’t precious with them–so on the regular, members of the Death Patrol would operate true to their name and wind up dead. This was in sharp contrast to Blackhawk where, once the line-up of the Dark Knights had solidified, its members were absolutely bulletproof in the manner of most other comic book characters. Not so the Death Patrol, who racked up a staggering number of casualties throughout their adventures. As the group lost members, it would pick up additional recruits–some of whom themselves would meet their end in the adventures to come.
So it was one of the most nihilistic strips in the marketplace, despite the fact that it was also positioned as a comedy, a slapstick take on Blackhawk. This meant that the stakes in any Death Patrol adventure were a lot more real than what was being faced by the heroes of other series. It was far more likely, and even almost inevitable, that whoever your favorite character was, they’d eventually meet their end at some point, their number having come up.
Cole was also one of the most graphically imaginative cartoonists of the age, and so his pages are filled with storytelling flourishes and experiments in page and panel design. Ultimately, though, the success of his strip Plastic Man over in Quality’s POLICE COMICS meant that something had to give, an that something was Death Patrol. Cole left the strip after only three installments (though he’d return for an occasional story in teh postwar period) leaving it in the hands of first Dave Berg and later Al Stahl. Berg’s version of Death patrol was said to have been a major influence on Wally Wood as he was coming up.
Death Patrol survived the end of the war and the transition of MILITARY COMICS into the postwar MODERN COMICS–but not by much. They saw their final adventure in MODERN COMICS #52 in 1946.
Even in this first story, the hapless Peewee gets shot in the back and killed on the final page, setting the tone for the series.
3 thoughts on “Forgotten Masterpiece: MILITARY COMICS #1 and the Death Patrol”
I haven’t heard of Death Patrol. Are these stories now in the public domain or is this one of the properties that DC Comics later purchased?
It’s a new one to me too, but I love it! Cartoon-character pilots, and one of them dies every month? It’s unique!
I saw the story in DC’s Millennium reprint of Military #1. Cole had a flair for mixing horror and black humor into Plastic Man so the tone doesn’t surprise me. And god, his art was amazing.