Monday, June 6, 2016

Star Spangled DC War Stories Part 80: January 1966

The DC War Comics
by Corporals Enfantino and Seabrook

Andru, Esposito & Kubert
Star Spangled War Stories 124

"My Buddy--the Dinosaur!"
Story by Robert Kanigher
Art by Joe Kubert

"Hillbilly with a Heater!"
Story by Hank Chapman
Art by Jack Abel

Peter: GI buddies Art and Vic are aboard a transport ship when it's attacked by a nightmare from the dinosaur age! Only a handful of soldiers survive the attack and the ship is dragged by the monster to a nearby island. Once the boys get a tank rolling onto the island, they are bombarded by prehistoric creatures. Vic has always been a nut for vampire and werewolf stories and makes Art promise him that, should such a change ever transform him into a monster, his friend will mow him down before he can take an innocent life (why this exchange should take place is evident only after reading the whole story!). After a particularly strenuous day, the boys drift off to sleep but Art is rocked by a nightmare: he's imagined that Vic has become a T. Rex and Art is on the late night snack menu. Art wakes to find Vic standing over him, confessing that he was changing into a dinosaur! The next morning, Vic is gone and the only clues are dino footprints. The men head off in search of Vic but, while crossing a rickety bridge, they are attacked by a T. Rex; Art quickly learns that the lizard is "My Buddy--the Dinosaur!" and has no choice but to blow the monster back into the stone age. Afterwards, the creature reverts back to Vic and Art is sent to a medi-vac for stress-related evaluation. Was it battle fatigue or did Vic really sprout fangs and teensy arms?

There are two ways to take "My Buddy - The Dinosaur!": it's either a poignant tale of a mentally unstable GI who blows away his buddy in an hallucinatory fog or it's the most ludicrous war story we've yet come across (topping even the asinine Gunner, Sarge and Pooch series). Since we're never given any sort of expository as to how Vic earned his new prehistoric status, I'm tending to favor the former explanation if for no other reason than to give Bob Kanigher points for writing skills. If you look at it that way, the tale is a cautionary one; even the strongest man can lose his grip on reality if pushed to the limit. But if Bob was actually going for the latter, what was going through his head? If nothing else, "My Buddy . . ." gives us a look at Joe Kubert dinosaurs for the first time (though Joe did a bang-up job on the dinosaur-oriented Tor back in the 1950s) and I'll take a head-scratching script over just another "Flying Munchkin Brothers Visit Dinosaur Island " yawn-fest any day. "Hillbilly with a Heater!" is just as gawdawful as you'd suspect; a Hank Chapman script with a cornpone protagonist who can't keep his boots on ("All that fussin' and fumblin' over wearin' shoes!") and drops farm analogies faster than the Kardashians drop their britches ("The sarge's tank was like a mother-hen hooked on a chicken coop fence . . ."). Pure drudgery from start to finish.

Jack: It's official--Joe Kubert can do anything! Imagine this script in the hands of Ross Andru and Mike Esposito. We'd see Art lying in bed, eyes bugging out, beads of sweat on his forehead--and not in a good way! Instead, Kubert takes a questionable script and makes it riveting, except for the inevitable parade of dino attacks in the middle. I love that the ending is left ambiguous! This is far beyond anything else we've seen in the War That Time Forgot series. In other news, the letters column in this issue is of particular interest. For a few months now, Kanigher has been filling the letters pages with missives from readers praising Enemy Ace to the high heavens. Why? The series fell off the face of the Earth for a couple of years! The constant barrage of letters doesn't seem to have helped sales figures. I was starting to wonder if the letters were fakes (like all of those ones about what size gun you should use to shoot a tank) until I came upon one from Bob Rozakis, who I know was a real person. According to Wikipedia, Bob was all of thirteen years old when this issue came out. Also worth noting is that this may be the first time that DC took notice of Marvel in print. Kanigher refers to them as "CC Comics" (presumably, for "carbon copy") and mocks them for copying everything DC did first. That may have been true as of 1966, but soon the worm would turn.

 Our Fighting Forces 97

"Invitation to a Firing Squad!"
Story by Robert Kanigher
Art by Irv Novick

"Piggy-Back Pilot!"
Story by Hank Chapman
Art by Ross Andru and Mike Esposito

Jack: Why does Lt. Larry Rock tell the sergeant he doesn't deserve the medal being pinned on him? He recalls having been on patrol alone in the jungle when he was saved from an attacking Japanese soldier by an Angel in a Sarong--a beautiful native girl who was handy with a gun.

The gal is named Lohina and, since she can "talky-talk U.S.A.," she and the Fighting Devil Dog hit it off right away. They escape through the jungle, pursued by enemy soldiers, and she manages to kiss Larry every chance she gets. When she finally swims off alone to draw fire away from her "Larr-ee," he thinks she gave her life to save him and thus doesn't think he deserves a medal for bravery.

Send all complaints to:
"Fighting Devil Dog"
c/o D.C.'s Fighting Forces
545 Lexington Ave.
New York 10022, NY
But wait! Lohina has not gone to the Happy Island in the Sky just yet. Lt. Rock sees that she accepted an "Invitation to a Firing Squad!" and is tied to a post with Japanese soldiers (led by one who sure looks like that Imperial Practical Joker, Colonel Hakawa) who demand that she tell them Larr-ee's whereabouts. Well, pardners, Lt. Larry Rock sees red and goes in swinging, knocking out the enemy battalion and rescuing Lohina. She tells him "I've got something for you, Larr-ee" but, this being a DC comic, that sarong stays put as they walk off into the jungle together, Lohina pledging to stick to Larr-ee like glue from now on.

Poor Lt. Rock--his stint in Our Fighting Forces ends with the next issue, and none too soon, if you ask me. Irv Novick can do good work and he can do mediocre work, and it seems clear to me that he was not inspired by this Marine's saga. Lohina is straight out of South Pacific and I expected Larry to break into "Younger Than Springtime" at any moment.

Peter: This issue is full of uninteresting and unbelievable characters, from the gimmicky Fighting Devil Dog and his new squeeze (whose elocution seems to veer from barely readable to just fine from panel to panel) to the whiny "Piggy-Back Pilot!" Well, this was always the weakest title of the five War books and a change in lead series obviously hasn't helped pull it out of the cellar.  I smell a fake fan letter on the "Readers--Sound Off" page from Carl Fensten of Chicago, who spills the beans on Rock's team-up with The Viking Prince in this month's Our Army at War: "I have been dreaming for years, along with a lot of friends of mine, of seeing that sword-slinging Viking of Brave and Bold come back in the kind of adventures that made Errol Flynn of the movies so great." Since this letter had to have been written at least three to four months before the issue dropped on the stands, either Carl was an insider or Bob was moonlighting as one of his own fans. I think the latter.

Our Army at War 162

"The Prince and the Sergeant!"
Story by Robert Kanigher
Art by Joe Kubert

"Dirty Little War!"
Story by Hank Chapman
Art by Gene Colan

Jack: As the men of Easy Co. cross the water aboard an English ship on a suicide mission to find and destroy a secret base of Nazi terror drones, Little Sure Shot entertains his fellow soldiers by reading tales from a book about Vikings. An attack by enemy planes forces the men of Easy Co. to abandon ship and soon they find themselves on a fjord, trying to avoid Nazi troops marching their way. Rock peels off alone to draw the enemy's attention and takes cover in a cave, where an explosion frees a sword-wielding Viking Prince from long-term captivity in a sheet of ice.

The Viking fights off the Nazis and then tells Rock his story. It seems that, long ago, he was seemingly killed in battle and taken by a Valkyrior maiden to Valhalla, but when Odin found him there and realized he was not dead yet, he was banished back to Earth and encased in ice until one day he could die in battle and return to the land of dead heroes. He shows Rock his strength and skill by downing a Nazi plane with just his sword, and "The Prince and the Sergeant!" agree to pursue Rock's suicide mission, the Viking Prince hopeful that it will end in his glorious death.

Kubert's art is brilliant and the story--which seems like a bit of magical realism--is different enough that it earns a place of honor in the Sgt. Rock series. And, just to annoy Peter, I'll comment that Lee & Kirby probably got the idea for the Mighty Thor from Kubert's Viking Prince. In this issue's letters column, Kanigher refers to "King Kubert," a nickname that did not stick.

In the second story, "Dirty Little War!," Gene Colan does a nice job of bringing to life Hank Chapman's pedestrian tale, which is important because it's the first time in a DC War comic that we've had a story involving combat in Vietnam.

Peter: Two landmarks come down the pike this issue. Though Bob Kanigher has dabbled in the supernatural/fantastic in his war titles before (see The Haunted Tank and The War That Time Forgot), Sgt. Rock has escaped any genre-busting thus far. That drought ends with "The Prince and the Sergeant," a really long bit of fluff (28 pages in total) whose opening half does not impress. As with so many of these stories lately, the gimmicky hook is predicted in the opening panels (here, with Little Sure Shot coincidentally--but predictably --reading to the boys about the Viking Prince) and the rest of the action seems to be an afterthought. Rock's broken ankle is cured by the touch of the Viking's sword, an act that doesn't even draw a gasp from our grizzled Sarge, but Rock is reluctant to let the Prince follow him into battle.

The guy's obviously got magic powers. I'm not a fan of this story; I would have left Rock a member of his own battle universe (albeit one that is visited by the other DC battle stars) but the popularity of the character obviously invited guest appearances and team-ups that will continue into the next decade. The Viking Prince was a featured star of The Brave and the Bold (along with other medieval heroes such as Golden Gladiator, Silent Knight, Robin Hood) for the first 24 issues of that title.

The other landmark is questionable: I believe that "Dirty Little War" is the first DC war story set in Vietnam. Hank is up to his old tricks but the story's actually a good one if you can close your eyes now and then to the awful hep cat/ring-ding-daddy-o dialogue that Chapman can't seem to get out of his system. Daredevils out there will correct me but I don't think it's humanly possible for Joe to balance himself on the skid and arm the "demo diapers" and not fall to a horrible death (see panel to the left). But, hell, two good Chapman stories in one month? What are the odds?

G.I. Combat 115

"Medal for Mayhem!"
Story by Robert Kanigher
Art by Russ Heath

"Deep-Freeze Frogs!"
Story by Hank Chapman
Art by Jack Abel

Peter: After they've both been given awards for their bravery, Captain Johnny Cloud and Lt. Jeb Stuart head out in a jeep to enjoy a five-day leave pass. While on the road, they reminisce about the two adventures that landed them their new hardware. While Jeb is visiting at his base, Cloud lets Stuart sit in his cockpit just in time for some Nazi Wulf action. Even though the two are packed in "tighter than a fat woman's girdle," they make the best of it and bring all the fighter pilots down. Soon after, Johnny must make an emergency landing on a haystack, only to discover that beneath the stack lies the Jeb Stuart! Together the downed jet and haunted tank blow away the Nazis trying to cook their geese. As the stories end and both men laugh a lot, the jeep hits a land mine and the men are lucky enough to crawl from the wreckage. Nazi paratroopers armed with TNT sizzle sticks close in but Jeb and Johnny prove a good team for the third time and take the entire German regiment down without breaking a sweat.

Wipe those smiles off your face, boys!
If "Medal for Mayhem!" sounds familiar, that's because we've run across this "fish out of water" plot line a few times already (and this one is about as hum-drum as the others). All three team-up scenarios in "Medal . . ." feature some far-fetched battles and antics but Russ Heath manages to keep the reader turning pages. Our two heroes sharing the cockpit (and Jeb looks, for all the world, likes he's sitting on Cloud's lap!) is a little too "Call Dr. Wertham, fast!" for me. There's also a blink-and-you'll-miss-it cameo by Sgt. Rock (whose panel time is just about equal to the MIA General Jeb), who comes in to evac the heroes to a field hospital. Poor Johnny Cloud, booted off AAMoW and relegated to co-star. Not the best treatment for a proud, Brave Ace.

Two "Deep-Freeze Frogs!" encounter danger every time they pop their heads above the ice. When one of the Frogmen injures his leg, he does his best to keep the handicap a secret from his partner but, in the end, we discover he was working with a bum arm! When was the last time Hank Chapman stole the thunder from Big Bob Kanigher? Long time. It's also been a long time since I was able to hold both my thumbs up for a Hank script but this one delivers the excitement and, thankfully, saves all the dopey one-liners, the "TNT this and that" nonsense, and the monotonous catch-phrase until a future date. Jack Abel does a great job illustrating the claustrophobia inherent in the job these boys do. Don't get me wrong, it's not Enemy Ace, but it's a good adventure and I'll take that. The letters page features a Joe Kubert rave from future funny book writer and colorist Irene Vartanoff.

Jack: I agree with you that the script for the backup story surpassed the script for the lead story and I'll go so far as to say that Abel's art was a bit more inventive than Heath's this time around. Abel uses some creative panel design (the page where the frogmen descend through the air with parachutes and then through the watery depths is divided into five thin, vertical panels) and there's enough action that he doesn't draw too many closeups of faces, which is usually his weak spot. The conclusion, where the frogmen find themselves atop a hidden Nazi rocket base, seems like something out of a Bond movie.

Next Monday!
Madness Indeed!

DC House Ads from January 1966 War Comics:

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