In celebration of the coming of Halloween, I decided to do a series of posts on my favorite horror comics and movies that will run throughout October.
First up is one of my all-time favorite comics, Weird War Tales 41 (Sept. 1975), featuring a rare "book-length novel," "The Dead Draftees of Regiment Six"--story by Michael Fleisher and Russell Carley, art by the amazing Jose Luis Garcia Lopez.
The story opens in the midst of the American Civil War (or "The War of Northern Aggression" as my neighbors call it), as the Union Congress is about to pass the 1863 Conscription Act, which instituted a draft in the North, but made an exemption for anyone who could pay a $300 fee or provide a substitute, as these two panels explain:
From the get-go, Fleisher is clearly turning this story into an allegory for the Vietnam conflict, where the rich and the priveleged were often exempted from the draft with cushy assignments in the Texas Air National Guard.
For the next few pages, we see the corruption this draft law engenders, as crooked draft registrars take bribes from poor draftees and the rich pay their exemption fees. In an interesting addition, Fleisher introduces us to Jonathan French, a popular abolitionist who encourages participation in the war against slavery. However, French is also a crooked coward who uses donations to the abolition cause to pay off gambling debts. So, the targets of Fleisher's satire are widespread, including the government officials who abuse the system for profit and those who encourage the war (though for a good cause) but are unwilling to fight themselves.
When French is faced with his own draft notice but unable to pay the fee, he quickly develops a plan to coerce young Tom Haynes to serve as his substitute.
Bum leg or no, Tom wakes up, hung over, in a carriage headed for Camp Wainwright, while French remains back home, preparing to seduce Tom's sister.
Tom and the other draftees who were unable to escape conscription are forced to the front lines as "cannon fodder, and they are quickly routed in a battle with Rebel forces.
Because this is Weird War Tales, death is not the end for these soldiers, and their ghosts rise up to take revenge on those who brought this fate on to them.
Their first target: the commanding officer, Colonel Crocker.
The ghosts then make their way back to New York City, where they also kill the crooked draft registrar and burn the armory to the ground. The burning of the armory is soon joined by regular citizens, who all pour kerosene and throw wood on the fire in protest of the draft. This, then, sets off a full-scale riot.
Tom manages to get revenge on French, but, unfortunately, Tom discovers that his own sister has been a victim of the riots.
However, in a great twist, we discover that the ghosts from Regiment Six are the true cause of the 1863 Draft Riots in New York, a fact conveniently left out of history books.
Always remember this important message, kids: comics won't lie to you like your teachers will.
In rereading this story, I was struck by how much it resembles Joe Dante's film Homecoming, which is also a satirical allegory about American soldiers returning from the dead to get revenge on those in the system that wronged them. In the case of Dante's film, the soldiers come back from the dead as zombies to vote against the President in the 2004 election. But it's interesting to note that both Dante and Fleisher shared similar impulses toward satire at different historical moments.
Bonus Content Solely for Chris at The ISB.