Friday, August 28, 2015

Total War!

One of the more fascinating series to come out of the 60's is Gold Key's distinctive Total War (later titled M.A.R.S. Patrol - Total War). The series started in 1965 and was originally drawn by Wally Wood and his studio.

The premise of this sleek effort is that the world of 1965, complicated as it was with international intrigue, is suddenly under attack by mysterious invaders who appear in armed mass and fight under the insignia of a stylized crab. Where they come from is never confirmed, though outer space is a distinct possibility. These mysterious forces attack across the world, causing for the first time for the nations of the planet to fight in alignment against a common foe. The series has a slightly futuristic feel, not unlike the ultra-modern settings of spy dramas of the day.

Striker, Stacey, Adams, and Hiro
 The heroes of this saga are four specially trained men who form an elite squad. They are collectively known as M.A.R.S. (Marine Attack Rescue Service) and appear to be under the aegis of the United States military. The leader is the ace jet pilot named Lt.Cy Adams, the scuba-diving Asian-American Sgt.Ken Hiro, the African-America paratrooper and bomb expert Sgt. Joe Striker, and the weapons specialist Corporal Russ Stacey. Typically in the field they each wear a uniform suited to their skills and distinctive in color. Adams wears yellow, Hiro wears green, Striker wears orange, and Stacey wears blue.

The stories are rugged and full of violence with death being a constant, even the deaths of bystanders. Collateral damage is confronted in the very first battle when a bombing results in the inadvertent death of a gas station employee. It is this notion that innocents will die which gives the series its title of "Total War".

The enemy
 The debut story is titled "Target: America" and begins in the middle of the action as suddenly the unknown military force appears on the shores of Atlantic City on 4th of July weekend. The M.A.R.S. team is on leave, but quickly innovate ways to battle the force and return to their commander, one General Kipps to get their orders. The battle in teams and alone leading other men as they try to turn back the forces who appear everywhere at once. Small towns are ravaged, cities are devastated, iconic bridges are destroyed as the enemy is eventually turned back, dying to the man leaving their source of origin and motives unknown.

The next quarterly issue has two stories of the Total War. The first titled "Sneak Attack" chronicles how mystery soldiers slip into the area around Niagra Falls and drawn into the battle are both American and Canadian troops. Sgt.Hiro is thought lost for a time during the action, but turns up and just in time to use his frogman skills to stymie the enemy approach. In the second story titled "Breakthrough" the team is required to use guerilla tactics to fend off an enemy who has infiltrated missile sites and later a small town which is ransacked for supplies as the M.A.R.S. team shows up for a bit of leave. They have to lead the surviving townsfolk in a counterattack to finally end the enemy threat for the time being.

The third and final issue of the series by Wally Wood and his assistants Tony Coleman and Dan Adkins finds the members of M.A.R.S. getting showcased quite nicely as each member gets a specfic mission which highlights his particular talents. The story titled "Operation Copperhead" begins with Hiro trying to save a high-tech atomic sub from falling into enemy hands; liikewise Stacey must protect an advanced prototype laser tank. Striker must locate and rescue a team testing a new type of communications device; and Adams flies his own jet to take on a stolen V-Tol style plane. Each member succeeds but again the enemy though defeated is either killed or escapes, their origins and motives remaining an enigma to the team and to the reader.

The series written by Leo Dorman is remarkable for the multi-ethnic make up of the M.A.R.S. team, mostly since no particular mention is made of it. The only regrettable aspect along those lines is that Ken Hiro talks in a Charlie Chan fashion in later issues despite the fact he is specifically rebuked by his commander Lt. Adams in the first issue for engaging in such a display. Otherwise, the series is to be commended for the way it handles this aspect of the storytelling. 

The series lasted seven more issues up to 1969 and it is revealed that the invaders are indeed from outer space. The artwork after Wally Wood leaves is handled by the likes of Jack Sparling and Dan Spiegle. Wood for his part started his most famous work for Tower Comics, the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents simultaneously as his work for  Gold Key. Many of the themes of paranoia and of a united force required to repel a mysterious enemy are developed in the early issues of that series, but with a superhero spin. I find I rather like it here with mere men battling against the threat. That the story ends with no answer gives is a juice it might not have otherwise, the ends are not neatly tied up, but rather like life left open and the mysteries are just that.

The series did put me in mind of the British TV show Thunderbirds for two reason, the color-coded uniforms and the fact that "rescue" is in the acronym for the team name. Given the production dates of both, it's highly unlikely one influenced the other, but likely that both are just similar in that they grow out of the espionage craze of the time. I read this trio of taught tales in the Dark Horse reprint from over a decade ago. It would be nice if the complete series were collected at some point, but barring that this one will do quite nicely.

Rip Off


  1. Never heard of this one before, Rip. Some nice art there.

    1. Seen as a warm up of sorts for THUNDER Agents, it is especially sweet, a bridge stylistically between his superhero stuff and his more gritty stuff like Cannon.

      Rip Off


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