With titles like “Bunker!,” “Atom Bomb!,” “Lost Battalion!,” and “Memphis!,” Two-Fisted Tales Volume 3 contains enough bullets, bombs, and exclamation points to win the war on boredom. In these and other collected stories, beefy heroes smash desperate circumstances square in the face, without the slightest regard for personal safety, while desperate wives and mothers sit at home, eager to receive what could only have been poorly written letters from abroad.
Yet, while there are many exciting moments in these narratives, it is also the case that they often convey extremely dated stereotypes about a wide range of minority groups. Consider the opening salvo, “Bunker!,” a tale of racially segregated soldiers racing to capture a Chinese-held fortified position. Their terrifying scramble toward victory covers more than just ground: it also covers — and without a hint of irony — a number of upsetting Jim Crow-era social conventions, which are made all the worse in the closing action when the organizing (and very white) hand of the U.S. Military reminds the soldiers that they are separate and “equal” in the eyes of the armed forces. While moments like these prevent me from giving a full-throated endorsement to the collection, it is also true that they speak to an ugly undercurrent in American culture that cannot simply be ignored or wished away. Consequently, what I can say is that the collection stands as a document to the nation’s troubled history of racial inequality, and should be regarded as such.
Through this lens, stories like “Atom Bomb!” take on special poignancy. With a classic EC plot twist, this story illustrates the challenges prisoners of war faced in Russia at the end of World War II. Replete with reminders of the massive devastation of the first and second atomic bombings, the story concludes with a Pollyannaish view of the post-bombing life for the Japanese, complete with dancing children and blooming (and assumedly not radiated) flowers. It is at these and other moments that the reader is made most aware of the limitations of the authors and their perspective on the social and cultural realities of warfare, or at least the challenges those authors faced in trying to relay those realities to their readership. Everywhere in these tales, the horror of war is the horror of the moment. Very little attention is paid to the lingering significance of collateral damage done to the involved and their homelands.
However, it is also true that the collection’s very dated and alienating mid-century social aesthetic is in and of itself a reason for its consideration, if not outright purchase. Readers interested in war, propaganda, and pulp fiction in all its forms will find a treasure trove of experiences — if not entertainments — in this work. It is also true that many of the more outlandish moments in the text are used to convey an anti-war message or theme, and it is sometimes the case that these conveyances land without the racial implications that ruin so many other parts of the archive. For example, “Memphis!” succeeds in illustrating the difference between adult and juvenile understandings of war, death, and honor, in a way that brings dignity to all of the major characters. These moments and others may very well be the Calvary for Two-Fisted Tales, a series that at the beginning of the twenty-first century is surrounded by its own ignorance . . . and fading fast.