War Birds was a short-lived, three-issue air combat series from mainstay Golden Age comic book publisher Fiction House. The debut issue has no date month but was on the stands at the same time as August 1952 cover-dated Fiction House titles, and its Library of Congress copyright date places its release around July 7, 1952. A seemingly obscure, forgotten title from the waning days of the Golden Age, War Birds #1 gives us a fascinating hook into some likewise nearly-forgotten history and a program called Operation Vagabond. There's a fine-condition copy of War Birds #1 at auction today in the 2020 December 27-28 Sunday & Monday Comics, Animation, Video Games & Art Weekly Online Auction from Heritage.
We think of the early 1950s American comic book industry as being dominated by crime and horror comic books, and there were plenty of those to be sure, but that's only part of the story. War comics were a major part of the industry's output during this period as well. In fact, in July 1952 when War Birds #1 was released, there were about 286 new comic book issues released on American newsstands. Of those, war comics accounted for the largest share of the market at 16% (which was incidentally nearly 4x the number of super-hero comics on that stands that month). Further, eight of the 30 new series launches on the stands that month were war titles. These included Quality Comics (and eventual DC Comics title) G.I. Combat, as well as DC Comics' reboot of Star Spangled Comics to Star Spangled War Stories. Another long-running DC Comics mainstay, Our Army at War, (the title that eventually launched Sgt Rock) had launched the month prior.
Why the war comics boom? There are a few related reasons. Most obviously, the Korean War had started two years prior and was still in full swing in early 1952 when War Birds #1 would've been written. But more to the point, a now-declassified National Security Council memo called NSC 68 described what became the parameters of the Cold War by laying out a script of sorts that would drive home the necessity of a rapid expansion of America's military capability to keep the Communist world in check by using both domestic and foreign propaganda.
NSC 68 helps explain the boom in war and related comics (such as invasion and "doomsday" based science fiction) and other media, and in the case of War Birds #1 the memo also helps explain some of its contents. The issue includes a story called "Op-X", short for Operation X. In the story, a ship called The Courier came under military attack while transmitting anti-Communist Voice of America broadcasting. There was such a ship called The Courier (or more specifically USCGC Courier (WAGR-410)), outfitted with exceptionally powerful broadcast capabilities, for a Voice of America mission called Operation Vagabond. The mission was widely publicized when it was launched in 1951.
All of this makes War Birds #1 a unique artifact of the early Cold War, as well as a fascinating representation of the comics of its era. There's a fine-condition copy of War Birds #1 at auction today in the 2020 December 27-28 Sunday & Monday Comics, Animation, Video Games & Art Weekly Online Auction from Heritage.