Monday, May 9, 2016

Star Spangled DC War Stories Part 78: November 1965

The DC War Comics
by Corporals Enfantino and Seabrook

Russ Heath
Our Fighting Forces 96

"Battle of Fire!"
Story by Robert Kanigher
Art by Irv Novick

"Desert Ambush!"
Story by Hank Chapman
Art by Jack Abel

Jack: A U.S. soldier wanders through the desert, alone after everyone else in his company was wiped out in a "Desert Ambush!" Desperately seeking water, he comes upon a Nazi soldier in the same predicament. A machine gun battle erupts and soon, the American is alone again. He reaches the water hole that both he and the Nazi sought but finds it dry.

A Nazi plane makes an emergency landing; the American blows it up with a grenade but finds the pilot's canteen full of holes and the water drained. The U.S. soldier also defeats a Nazi tank and lets the men inside run to the dry water hole. Another tank and another plane attack the suddenly busy section of desert and, when the plane crashes, it blows open an artesian well. The U.S. soldier lets his Nazi prisoners have a refreshing drink before marching them back to base as POWs.

Chapman and Abel turn in an above-average story, balancing out the terrible first story that features Lt. Larry Rock. The attacking Japanese soldiers who refer to Rock as "Joe" and an "Amelican" almost make me pine for Gunner and Sarge. I said almost.

Peter: An odd choice for Irv Novick to make, illustrating his Sgt. and Lt. as twins. Whenever they’re in the same panel, it’s tough to tell them apart. Two installments in and I have to say I am not warming up to the Fighting Devil Dog one bit. At least with Gunner and Sarge we had something to make fun of; Lt. Larry Rock is no fun at all. Droning on about the time bomb in his skull (and I’d like one of our more medically-knowledgeable readers to pipe up and tell me if the sliver in Larry’s head could actually explode as advertised) and warning his Sergeant repeatedly not to rat on him. Good God, it’s like a double dose of Hank Chapman-itis. Speaking of Hank, the eternal bridesmaid actually comes up with an entertaining story in “Desert Ambush,” despite the repetitive actions of the hero. It’s certainly more readable than the drone of the opener. The letters page actually seems to be evolving into comments on the individual issues and characters rather than comments or statements pertaining to armaments and rank. Several readers rave about Enemy Ace and demand a return performance, if not his own title. Those kids will have to wait a few years for their wish to come true.

Russ Heath
G.I. Combat 114

"Battle Origin of the Haunted Tank!"
Story by Robert Kanigher
Art by Russ Heath

"My Witness--the Enemy!"
Story by Hank Chapman
Art by Jack Abel

Peter: When Jeb Stuart (the tank commander) has a case of the crazies and tells his men they're being watched over by a ghost, the men appeal to their C.O. to get their boss some help. Jeb pleads with Jeb Stuart (the ghost) to tell the men the origin of the Haunted Tank. The spiritual big brother tells his tale: while hanging out with other dead warriors, he's talked into becoming the tank crew's guardian angel by fellow general, Alexander the Great. After watching the crew work, Jeb agrees and history is made. Unfortunately, back in the present, none of the other boys have heard a word and are, naturally, skeptical when Jeb (their commander) relays the message given him by Jeb (the ghost): there's a Tiger on the way! Eventually, the boys agree to listen to their boss and hide the Jeb (the tank) under a waterfall. Twenty minutes later, sure enough, the Tiger shows up and the men blow it to kingdom come. As far as origin stories go, this one's a little sketchy and thin. Within the flashback, we see the boys at work in the hot African desert after losing their initial tank. They're followed and harassed by a Nazi tank; forcing them to walk in the blazing sun until they begin seeing mirages. The first, an oasis, is a mirage but the second, a deserted tank, turns out to be the real McCoy. First, where did this perfectly working tank come from, and second, why does the Nazi tank commander see the same mirages our heroes do? The dead warrior clubhouse (the characters are illustrated like chalk doodles on a blackboard) is a pretty cool idea and "Battle Origin of the Haunted Tank" features another fine art job by Russ Heath.

What's known as an easy payday in funny books!
Jack: I liked the black and white sequence and I liked the fact that the ghost of J.E.B. Stuart played such a significant role for a change. It's about time we had an origin story for the Haunted Tank and I'm thrilled to see Russ Heath return! I can't remember the last time he drew a full-length story in one of the DC war books. It was interesting that Stuart's initial reaction was that he wasn't going to help a bunch of Yankees but after seeing their gumption he changed his kind.

Peter: In Hank Chapman's silly "My Witness--the Enemy," the hapless protagonist wishes dearly to become a frogman but, in order to earn his flippers, another frogman must witness an act of valor. Unfortunately for this guy, he's being followed by the Navy's biggest fumblebum--the guy gets knocked unconscious, gets water in his eyes, is accosted by sea turtles, etc., etc. The only avenue left open to the "polliwog" is to bring up one of occupants of the submarine he destroys. I can't figure this situation out. The "polliwog" blows up a pillbox, bombs a fighter jet, and sinks a patrol boat but can't convince his superior he's done any of this? There's no wreckage left over? I hammer Hank Chapman endlessly but this one really isn't that bad. It's just dumb as dirt.

Jack: Dumber! This reminds me of several stories we've read where fliers shoot down enemy planes but they don't count toward "Ace" status because no one else saw it happen. What ever happened to trust among soldiers?

Joe Kubert
Our Army at War 160

"What's the Color of Your Blood?"
Story by Robert Kanigher
Art by Joe Kubert

"Jackass Volunteer!"
Story by Hank Chapman
Art by Jack Abel

Jack: Jackie Johnson, a black soldier in Easy Co., is taking a brutal beating from a Nazi fighter known as “Storm Trooper” Uhlan, the heavyweight champion of the world. Uhlan taunts Johnson, insisting that he admit that the color of his blood is black, but Johnson remains silent. Sgt. Rock and Wild Man are also being held prisoner by the Nazis, and Rock tells Johnson that he understands that a knockout of Uhlan will result in the three Americans’ being shot by their captors.

Rock and Wild Man try to fight back, but are quickly knocked down by the Nazis’ gun butts. Rock remembers back to a time before the war when Johnson had fought Uhlan in the boxing ring and Uhlan had beaten him. Johnson trained hard for a rematch and, when war broke out, he longed for a chance to meet up with Uhlan, who had made a name for himself as a Nazi paratrooper.

One day, Rock, Wild Man and Johnson are out on patrol and all three are captured in an ambush. Uhlan happens to be among the Nazis and he decides to give Johnson a chance at a rematch in order to show that the blood of the Master Race is superior to the blood of an American black man. The boxing match gets underway and, as Uhlan taunts Johnson with repeated questions of “What’s the Color of Your Blood?” the black fighter finally has had enough and gives it right back to Uhlan, knocking the man to the ground.

The rest of the Nazis are so upset that they decide to execute Uhlan on the spot and start shooting wildly. The other members of Easy Co. finally show up and chase the Nazis away. Rock discovers that Johnson ducked the shots but Uhlan was badly wounded. The only man with the same blood type as Uhlan is Johnson, who immediately offers his arm for a blood transfusion. Uhlan recovers and the scales fall from his eyes as he remarks that Johnson’s blood is as red as his.

There is so much going on in this story that it’s hard to know where to begin. Uhlan is based on Max Schmelling, who knocked out Joe Louis in 1936 and then was knocked out by Louis in 1938. Like Uhlan, Schmelling was a paratrooper with the German Air Force in WWII. Kanigher took these historical facts and wove them into a story that was a perfect fit for the mood of the country in 1965, right in the middle of the Civil Rights movement. Kubert’s art is tremendous, some of the best work I’ve ever seen from him. This is an extremely fine story and easily one of the best of the year, if not the best.

Oddly enough, the story is soft-pedaled on the cover. Even worse, the backup story features the unwelcome return of Sgt. Mule in what is one of the year’s worst stories!

Peter: “What’s the Color of Your Blood” is oft-cited as one of the best DC war stories of all time (it’s included in Michael Uslan’s anthology, America at War: The Best of DC War Comics) and, while I don’t think it’s one of the best, it is stirring and powerful for its time. The usual coincidences (Jackie meeting “Storm Trooper Uhlan” again on the battlefield is one of those “yeah, right”s we just have to put to the side sometimes while reading funny books), and jack-hammered phrases (the title, in this instance) are annoying and take my focus off the flow of the narrative, but they’re not a deal-breaker. It was still controversial, if not chancy in terms of sales in 1965, to feature a black protagonist, but it certainly helped dull the impending outcry to make the villain a stinkin’ Nazi. A good read; certainly Top Ten for the year but among the best of all time? Nope.

As if to remind readers that war wasn’t all grim and nasty stuff, Hank Chapman revisits Sgt Mule, the only ranked donkey in World War II, whom we haven’t seen since Our Army #149. The nicest thing I can say about this nonsense is that it’s a fast read and not too many brain cells were damaged. More interesting is that the letters column this issue is given over to a single missive penned by SP 4 Drury Moroz. Drury makes the case that the DC war story has been elevated to near-EC status with the coming of Enemy Ace: “Von Hammer presents to me both the highest and the lowest levels of mankind, combined in one truly human being. He is a chivalrous, and despite his cold exterior, a deeply sensitive man  . . . (A)t the same time Von Hammer is a killing machine—and one finds it hard to find sympathy for him.” Moroz goes on to make several cogent remarks and observations about Bob’s new baby. Kanigher, for his part, explains that he cut out “the usual accusations about Wonder Woman, which I am growing accustomed to . . ”(you can read about that controversy here) and a few other bits but, otherwise, ran the letter uncut. Again, I applaud Bob for turning the LOC page into discussion about the comics rather than drooling over barrel sizes.

Jack: The new letters column even rates a banner on the cover: "No holds barred! Readers' own page!"

Russ Heath
Star Spangled War Stories 123

"The Dinosaur Who Ate Torpedoes!"
Story by Robert Kanigher
Art by Gene Colan

"Terror in a Bottle!"
Story by Robert Kanigher
Art by Ross Andu and Mike Esposito

"Shooting Foxhole!"
Story by Hank Chapman
Art by Jack Abel

Peter: A double dose of dinosaur dementia this issue! In the opener, Lt. Jordan heads a trio of PT Boats that must locate a sunken "super-bomb sight"somewhere in the Pacific. Each PT is manned by frogmen who have been ordered to reacquire the bombs or destroy them, but two things stand in their way: an enemy sub and the terrors from the ancient prehistoric dinosaur ice age that have suddenly popped up way out here in the ocean. One critter, "The Dinosaur Who Ate Torpedoes," proves to be a pain in the posterior when he chows down on the targeted device without any ill effects. Lt. Jordan is forced to blow up the pesky dino, bombs and all, but at least his mission is complete.

"The Dinosaur Who Ate Torpedoes" is an odd chapter of The War That Time Forgot in that this is the first time (that I can recall) when there's no land mass to ground the dinos. One of the islands we've visited before must be somewhere in the vicinity as it's unlikely a pterodactyl could live without its aerie, right? Gene Colan's work is barely recognizable but the story is still nicely illustrated and, at a mere six and a half pages, it doesn't outlive its welcome. Thumbs up!

Jack: This installment seemed much longer than seven pages and Colan's art looks rushed and sketchier than usual. Why run the shortest story first?

Peter: After a Zero flies headlong into their Helldiver, Smitty and Skipper are forced to parachute from the burning plane and, luckily, land on a deserted Pacific island. Hold on a second, this being the Pacific in World War II, we know the island is far from deserted. In fact, this is the piece of land owned by the Son of the Great White Ape (and his pa before him, last seen in SSWS #111). The boys come across the big galoot while he's fighting a giant prehistoric horror from the stone age and give him a helping hand by firing a flare into the dino's face. Smitty and the Skip then head for high ground but are carted away by a pterodactyl and dropped into its nest. A skirmish between the ptero and a neighboring rival leaves the boys stranded in the high nest but at least in one piece. Along comes the scar-faced dino and he's not only hungry, but mad as well. The big ape returns to save our boys and Skip and Smitty prepare for life as the playthings of a giant simian.

White Ape? Brown Ape? Why do we focus on color anyway?
As for "Terror in a Bottle!" (the title refers to the message the boys send out to sea in hope of rescue), we're back to the nonsensical world of the Pacific islands. The adventures Smitty and Skipper endure this issue are almost a retelling of the events that befell "Professor" and "Skipper" (not the same Skipper as the guy featured in this story--yeah, this is confusing to me as well); so what happened to the other guys? Did they manage to ride their glider to safety? And what will happen to these fellas? Sorry to say, this is the last Great White Ape saga so you'll just have to use your imagination to fill in the blanks. By the way, the DC colorist who worked on this issue obviously didn't get the memo that a Great White Ape should indeed be white and not brown!

Jack: At eight pages, only one page longer than the opening story, but so goofy and childish that it reads quickly. The Son of Kong ripoff is not very good. Kanigher must have written this at breakfast one day when he was running late.

Peter: Since he dug sewers in his civilian life, digging foxholes is a piece of cake to Carney but the G.I. is tired of ending up in a "Shooting Foxhole" and does everything he can to get to ground he doesn't have to dig.

The days of issues packed with three stories returns and  . . . I'm not exactly grateful. Hank Chapman does his best to keep his reputation intact by peppering "Shooting Foxhole" with such realistic and flowing dialogue as "You're the digging expert, Carney! And I'm the gunnery expert! So you excavate while I triggerate!" Carney is one of those G.I.s that whine and smart off so much that you keep hoping against hope he gets his clock cleaned. Doesn't happen.

Jack: At nine pages long, Chapman's tale is the longest in the book and, as usual, the weakest. At least Sgt. Jackass is nowhere to be seen.

In Our Next Issue...
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