Monday, August 12, 2013

Star-Spangled DC War Stories Part 8: January 1960

By Corporals Enfantino and Seabrook

Our Army at War 90

"3 Stripes Hill!"
Story by Robert Kanigher
Art by Joe Kubert

"A Jet Called Ace!"
Story by Hank Chapman
Art by Jerry Grandenetti

Story by Bob Haney
Art by Bob Forgione and Jack Abel

PE: "3 Stripes Hill" is the first real look we've had at the making of Sergeant Rock. Early in World War II, we find Buck Private Rock in the newly formed Easy Company, heading off disaster after disaster and rising up as the higher ranking officers are killed off. One by one, he earns his three stripes the hard way, by watching comrades fall and facing death around every corner. Before long he's the only surviving member of Easy until reinforcements arrive just in the nick of time. A really well done "origin" (or at least a piece of a large puzzle) story, with Joe Kubert back where he belongs. In some panels there's an obvious resemblance in Rock to Robert Mitchum. I wonder if Mitchum was the initial inspiration for the character or if it's just an angle. Jack's point about a regular supporting cast is a good one and I would assume Kanigher will be filling in that background before too long. It only makes sense to add more pieces to that big puzzle.

Rock? Or Mitchum?
JS: There is a lot of death in this flashback, and it makes for a powerful story. Kubert's art seems a little uneven in spots, but he does something interesting with the flashback that takes up most of the story: the backgrounds in many of the panels are white, giving the comic a very modern look. One thing that bothers me is the timing of Rock's development. According to this story, he was a buck private at some point in WWII. Now, the US started fighting in Europe in the summer of 1943 with the invasion of Sicily. Fighting with the Nazis was over by spring 1945, less than two years later. Unless Easy Co. was fighting Nazis in North Africa--and these stories don't look like they occur there to me--Rock went from green kid to experienced Sergeant in very short order.

PE: It sure doesn't look like Jerry Grandenetti's art on "A Jet Called Ace" but then I've pretty much given up trying to tag the guy. He's like an elevator and this time he's heading up. Hank Chapman contributes three-quarters of an excellent script here, the story of arrogant World War II pilot, Lt. Farr, who left the "Big Bang-Bang Two" one kill shy of being an ace (you need to destroy five enemy aircraft to become an "ace"). Now that he's joined the Korean War, all that's on his mind is getting that last big score. Never mind the cost or the danger, all that Farr knows is that his pilot buddies all made ace in WWII and he didn't. When he can't get that last notch on the gun, he begins blaming his jet and is told, time and again, by his commanding officer to relax and let it come to him. While making a run in "mig alley" an enemy jet manages to pierce Farr's cockpit and discombobulate his controls. His guns start blazing on their own and Farr has to bail. His jet continues blasting away and eventually brings down the enemy. Farr's jet becomes the ace! We've not met a more unlikable "hero" than Lt. Farr in our journey so far. Here's a selfish bastard who'll do anything to bask in the glory, regardless of whom he hurts. The only downside to the story is Farr's epiphany at the climax, which doesn't sit well with his behavior previously. Chapman should have left the character an S.O.B. but, like the rest of the writers in 1960 comic books, Hank probably had his hands tied. A good read nonetheless.

JS: Farr is a jerk and the climax of this story is ridiculous. I did not buy for one minute that the plane started shooting on its own and managed to shoot down the Chinese jet after the pilot had been ejected. At least this is a story about the Korean War for a change. I'd like to see more of those.

PE: There's no mistaking the generic art of Bob Forgione and Jack Abel on "Rearguard", a story about the most feared placement in a fighting company. The story is educational enough but doesn't have the room to tell a proper yarn. The art is abysmal. Forgione/Abel fall back on the cliches that have filled the work we've see so far: lots of "sky" backgrounds (so as not to necessitate a lot of complicated drawing stuff), lots of panels of the main character looking over his shoulder at "the audience," and a final panel that has our hero in the foreground and his comrades in the back. It's almost as though the artists had a diagram on the wall of their studio, showing them how to get from point A to point B.

JS: This one's pretty dull and the art is not worth commenting on.

Star Spangled War Stories 88

"The Steel Trap!"
Story by Robert Kanigher
Art by Mort Drucker

"The Glass Hill!"
Story by Bob Haney
Art by Jack Abel

"The Sergeant is a Monkey!"
Story by Hank Chapman
Art by Russ Heath

PE: Well, smarty pants Jack was right and Commandant Von Ekt escaped that train explosion last issue and quickly got back to the nasty business of quashing the revolt of Mademoiselle Marie. The Commandant's fool-proof plan this time involves a double agent (versed in the ways of Satchmo and "chicks") disguised as an American flying in to aid the freedom fighters. A staged plane crash seems to convince Marie of the agent's loyalty but our Mademoiselle is just too smart for the Ratzis and the stinkin' double agent ends up machine gun fodder for his own men. "The Steel Trap," the fifth installment of  Marie and her merry band of Frenchies, is the best so far but I want to see the excised panels from last issue that show Von Ekt dropping through the trap door of his carriage car to safety just like Doctor Octopus would have done. Kanigher's done something I didn't think possible--made me enjoy an episode of this silly soap opera. If DC and Marvel characters had crossing family trees, I'd say Natasha (The Black Widow) would be kin to Marie, whose dive from an exploding bridge this issue proves she could have donned the spandex and fought more outlandish villains after zee war ended.

JS: I had a feeling that Lt. Messer's quick temper did not bode well for his undercover mission as "Lt. Harry West," and sure enough he blew it! I am quickly getting used to Mort Drucker's art on this strip and I agree that this was the best one yet in the series. In fact, this was an excellent story all around. The business of calling it a "two-parter" is nonsense, but I seem to recall that the early Justice League issues--which started to come out later in 1960--also broke the stories into multiple parts, so perhaps it was just what DC was doing to try to jazz things up.

PE: "The Glass Hill" concerns a G.I. whose Corporal keeps telling him (over and over) that the hill they're about to climb is a "glass hill" because everyone who goes up can see himself as a boy or a man. It's as tedious as a one-line joke that just keeps going on and on. Just as tedious would be my critical commentary on Jack Abel's "art" but you could literally write a dozen stories around his panels as they look exactly like the last story he did.

JS: Is Abel your least favorite DC war artist so far (yep-Peter)? This is a run of the mill story but there are some decent panels, such as the one where the soldier's face is blown sideways by a blast and the one at the end where we finally see him as a man.

PE: "The Sergeant is a Monkey" is a very silly tale about a monkey who charms the grenades right out of a gruff sarge. Yeah, it's a change of pace, not the kind of story I'd like to see very much in a "gritty" war comic, but it does feature Russ Heath in a rare non-aircraft story. Russ shows he's just as much an award-winner in the jungle as in the sky.

JS: Leave it to DC to find a way to work a monkey into a war story! The monkey turns out to be a life-saver when he imitates everything the Sarge does, down to tossing a grenade into a nearly impregnable pillbox. This was a surprisingly good issue of SSWS, from the outstanding cover to the end!

Grandenetti & Adler
G.I. Combat 79

"Big Gun--Little Gun!"
Story by Robert Kanigher
Art by Russ Heath

"No Test for a Mustang!"
Story by Bob Haney
Art by Joe Kubert

"Flying Jeep"
Story by Hank Chapman
Art by Jack Abel

PE: "Big Gun--Little Gun" gives us a behind-the-scenes view of World War II we haven't seen previously in our study of DC war comics--the men that man the Howitzer 155. Basically a cannon towed around and fired from a mile away at enemy positions, the weapon requires 9 men to load and fire it (and yes, I did have to look up that info on Wikipedia!) and can be a mighty pain in the ass. The men assigned to the 155 are sitting ducks most of the time and rarely know if they've actually hit their target until radioed. Our G.I. protagonist, Al, spends most of his day complaining about all that and he's getting on his buddy Nick's nerves. We witness several battles and incidents (the cannon becomes dislodged from its trailer and rolls down a hill, necessitating a push back up) until, finally, the 155 is destroyed in a fiery attack by two Nazi tanks. Both informative and harrowing, "Big Gun--" is the perfect marriage of great writer and artist. When the 155 is blasted by one of the Nazi tanks, Nick takes the brunt of the explosion and Al describes his buddy as "a ragged scarecrow that looked a little like Nick..." This is what I imagined DC war comics could be had they not had a CCA noose wrapped around their necks but Kanigher and Heath manage to subtly tell/show us what's going on (all we see of Nick is his outstretched arm) without the graphic.

"Big Gun--Little Gun"
JS: This is a powerful story that has an especially exciting ending, but I don't think it's Heath at his best. Still, middling Russ Heath is worth a look, and Kanigher's writing is solid.

PE: "Fancy Dan" is a test pilot who demonstrates new jets for fighter pilots and has never seen action. Dan believes the "real pilots" hold him in disregard for that shortcoming until one day, while performing for a batch of pilots, Dan must hold off a squadron of enemy planes while his audience suits up for battle. Just as it was odd to see Russ Heath penciling a jungle tale (in Star-Spangled), it seems out of whack to read a fighter pilot strip ("No Test for a Mustang") by Joe Kubert. I've not seen anything but GI grunts out of Kubert's pencil but he proves (just as Heath did) that he's a man of all battles.

JS: If I didn't have the GCD to rely on, not to mention Kubert's signature on the first page, I'd have said that Mort Drucker was involved in the art on this story, especially the faces in the splash page's first panel. The story is fine for a six-pager, but the final air battle really got me--Kubert draws a very nice horizontal panel that shows the key maneuvers.

PE: The aerial battle between a tank and a MIG in "Flying Jeep" is a bit far-fetched (how could our hero, PFC Handley, keep a jet in his crosshairs while his parachuted jeep is heading for the ground, buffeted by the wind?) but at least it's a short read. Jack Abel's GI template comes with freckles this time out.

JS: Don't all of Jack Abel's characters sport freckles? This story strained credibility. The PFC keeps calling his jeep "Baby." To quote Franz Liebkind, "Why does he say this Baby?"

An Aside:

War titles were just as prevalent in the 1950s as westerns and horror (and vastly outnumbering hero titles, which were on the wane) and, since Jack and I are studying the DC war books, I thought it might be a good idea to sample some of the titles offered up by the other companies. Now and then I'll weigh in with my findings.  Atlas had no fewer than a half dozen war books in 1952 and one of the best was Battlefield. Unlike Our Army at War or GI Combat, the majority of the stories took place during the then-current Korean War. One of the benefits the artists and writers of Battlefield enjoyed that later eluded Robert Kanigher and Bob Haney was the freedom to tell a story set in a conflict without worrying about the watering-down inherent with the CCA. How do you tell a story filled, by necessity, with violence without showing any of the after-effects of that violence? “That’s an Order” (from #2) concerns Captain Murdock, good air force man who follows all orders until his two sons are killed on Heartbreak Ridge and he suddenly becomes a one-man assassin, disobeying orders and seeking out enemy trains to destroy. His superiors are hesitant to ground Murdock for various reasons (how does a military man deal with his grief otherwise?) but he is stripped of his command and forced to take orders from another captain. The finale sees Murdock splitting away from his mission and pulling a kamikaze on another train, screaming “This one’s for Eddie and Bob!” as his plane explodes. The Comics Code would never have approved the suicidal final mission of Captain Murdock. Soldiers under the CCA always tended to be gung-ho and, if not peppy, at least imbued with a sense of patriotism. Though patriotism and anti-Communism oozes out of every story in the pages of Battlefield, its soldiers are worn out and psychologically wounded. Death is displayed rather than hinted at or ignored altogether.    -Peter Enfantino

A bit outlandish? You be the judge!

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