Monday, February 20, 2017

Star Spangled DC War Stories Part 98: February/March 1968

The DC War Comics
by Corporals Enfantino and Seabrook

 Our Army at War 189

"The Mission Was Murder!"
Story by Robert Kanigher
Art by Joe Kubert and Jack Abel

"Tag for a Tail-Gunner!"
Story by France Herron
Art by Arthur Peddy
(Reprinted from Our Fighting Forces #1, October-November 1954)

"You Can't Bust a Sergeant!"
Story by Howard Liss
Art by Jack Sparling

Jack: When Rock and five key members of Easy Co. are dropped off by a submarine and paddle an inflatable raft ashore to meet French underground fighters known as Unit 3, they don't expect to be met by a half-dozen teenage boys with rifles. The lads' fathers were killed by Nazis so they take responsibility for leading Rock and his men to a radar station that needs to be blown up. A German patrol attacks and, while Easy Co. prevails with fisticuffs, they find themselves targeted by more Nazis with guns.

Too much Abel, not enough Kubert
Just then, the boys of Unit 3 emerge from the woods and shoot all of the enemy soldiers where they stand before leading Rock and Co. through the woods toward the radar station. They happen upon a Nazi truck filled with villagers being drafted for slave labor camps, so Rock and Co. make short work of the Nazis and save the civilians. After defeating a tankful of the enemy, Rock, Easy Co., and the boys of Unit 3 reach the radar station and attack. Another battle to the death ensues and Rock comes out on top before bidding adieu to the young men and heading back to the submarine.

I hope we've reached the bottom of the barrel with the Sgt. Rock series, because "The Mission Was Murder!" is not a good story. Kanigher's attempt to appeal to young readers is transparent and the Kubert/Abel art looks much more like Abel than Kubert, except in the occasional close-up of a soldier's face. A house ad in this issue tells us that Enemy Ace is coming back, so perhaps Kubert's time in the syndicated comic world is coming to an end and he can return to his DC War Comics work full time. Sgt. Rock without Kubert just isn't the same, even when it's drawn by Russ Heath.

Peter: I've got some good news and I've got some bad news for ya, Jack. You want the good first? Joe Kubert will indeed be stepping away from the "Green Beret" syndicated strip and will be taking over editor's reins from Bob Kanigher very soon (more on that in four weeks). Bad news? The Unit 3 stories have just begun. There will be at least three more adventures with the pint-sized G.I.s coming in the next few months. As for this initial offering in the Unit 3 saga, I'd have to say it's another case of "Wash. Rinse. Repeat." The diapered rebels of Unit 3 make our veteran heroes look like buffoons over and over again. And, Jack, you are spot on with your condemnation of the art, which looks like 90% Abel and 10% Joe.

Jack: Sgt. Joe Flannigan, an experienced tail gunner, is disappointed when the rest of his crew is sent home and he has to fly one more mission. It gets worse when he learns that he has been assigned to share a bomber plane with a brand new crew as a "Tag for a Tail Gunner!" Once they are in the air and battling Nazis, however, the green crew shows that they have plenty of heart and helps to save the day. Joe is so impressed that he refuses to go home and says he has more bombing to do with his new pals.

"Tag for a Tail Gunner!"

Kanigher reaches all the way back to the first issue of Our Fighting Forces from 1954 for this entertaining little tale of air action. Veteran comic writer Herron provides an exciting script and DC stalwart Peddy chimes in with solid visuals.

Peter: It's a simple script but I loved Peddy's visuals, much better than that of Kubert/Abel and Sparling. Peddy contributed to 52 stories in the DC war titles between 1952 and 1957. He also did work for other publishers (including Combat!, Marvel's entry in the newsstand blitz of war titles in the early 1950s) before turning to a career in advertising.

Jack Sparling--ugly but energetic
Jack: Sgt. Grady seems to care about his men and they respect him right back, so a new lieutenant busts him down to private for showing too much compassion. Grady then proceeds to lead the lieutenant on a battle by battle fight through the woods, causing the lieutenant to promote him step by step until he's back to being a sergeant. The lieutenant admits in the end that "You Can't Bust a Sergeant!" Howard Liss's script is exciting and features a good message and veteran Sparling's art, while it can be ugly at times, has a dynamic feeling to it and propels the story forward. This is a rare issue of Our Army at War where the backup stories are better than the lead.

Peter: I absolutely hated this story, script and art. It's so muddled and confusing (I thought the lost G.I.s were the band of Nazi scum who attack Grady's Guerrillas in the forest until I went back and re-read it) and just seems to go on forever but never tells us an interesting story. Grady is indestructible and manages to get the best of the entire lunk-headed German army.

 G.I. Combat 128

"The Ghost of the Haunted Tank!"
(Reprinted from G.I. Combat #95, September 1962)

"The Haunted Tank vs. Killer Tank!"
(Reprinted from G.I. Combat #94, July 1962)

Peter: An all-reprint issue for only twelve cents? What a bargain! And in the same month we get an all-reprint issue of Our Army at War! We're in heaven!

Jack: A full issue of Russ Heath is nothing to sneeze at, even if it's all reprints. Besides, the house ads are great!

 Our Army at War 190

"What Makes a Sergeant Run?"
(Reprinted from Our Army at War #97, August 1960)

"Tank Raiders"
(Reprinted from G.I. Combat #90, November 1961)

"Death Dive!"
(Reprinted from All-American Men of War #84, April 1961)

"Jumping Jeep!"
Story by Robert Kanigher
Art by Joe Kubert
(Reprinted from All-American Men of War #38, October 1956)

"Trail of the Terror Rockets!"
(Reprinted from Star Spangled War Stories #89, March 1960)

"Underwater Gunner!"
(Reprinted from Our Fighting Forces #51, November 1959)

"Foxhole Pilot!"
Story by Robert Kanigher
Art by Irv Novick
(Reprinted from G.I. Combat #50, July 1957)

Jack: Ever since he was a kid, Andy Jones hated to get his feet wet. Now he's all grown up and in the Marines, where he keeps having to trudge through water! Even when crossing a river, his conveyance turns into a "Jumping Jeep!" when it hits a mine and dumps him in the drink. A quick little filler from 1957, this features some pre-Sgt. Rock war comics art by Kubert.

"Jumping Jeep!"

Peter: It's startling to see how different Kubert's art was from decade to decade; he definitely improved from the sketchy and rough penciling he displayed in "Jumping Jeep!" to the stylized and exciting work he would do for Enemy Ace and Sgt. Rock ten years later.

"Foxhole Pilot!"
Jack: Pressured by his fellow pilots to bring back a souvenir for the wall in the rec hall, Nick flies one mission and then another, finally landing on the ground and becoming a "Foxhole Pilot." His third mission ends with a Nazi plane crashing through the rec hall roof, providing an unexpectedly large souvenir to add to the collection. The most interesting thing about this 1957 flying story is how smooth Novick's art looks--not very much like the rut he would fall into later on.

Peter: What we get with "Foxhole Pilot" is seven-and-a-half pages of silly build-up and relentless (and totally unbelievable) prattle about bringing souvenirs back to the rec room (never mind survival) but that final panel makes it all worth it. A huge smile replaced the yawn. What's most interesting in the "Readers--Sound Off!" column reprinted below is that Bob is staying mum on the return of Enemy Ace to Star-Spangled War Stories. That's odd as you'd think he'd want to get the word out there ASAP and the story appeared only two months later. Surely, the return was planned well in advance.

Jack: I love DC's 80-page giants! This issue has a superb Kubert cover and features reprints of stories with Sgt. Rock, the Haunted Tank, Johnny Cloud, Mlle. Marie, and Gunner and Sarge. All of the stories are written by Kanigher and three are drawn by Kubert, with another by Heath and another by Drucker. The table of contents page is cool but erroneously attributes the Gunner and Sarge story to Grandenetti, when it's really drawn (and signed) by Kubert.

An error in art credit

An interesting exchange between a reader and the editor

 Our Fighting Forces 111

"Train of Terror!"
Story by Howard Liss
Art by Jack Abel

"No Movies in a Foxhole!"
Story by Howard Liss
Art by Jack Sparling

Peter: Hunter's Hellcats are assigned an almost impossible task: to rescue French Freedom-Fighting Frau Mademoiselle Toni Devereux (a/k/a Alouette), who is being held by the Krauts on a "Train of Terror!" Hunter has history with both the lovely Toni and the Nazi scumbag who's holding her prisoner, college Hitler-rally youth Karl Brenner, now a highly-ranked German officer. The reunion goes about how the trio figured it would when Hunter's miscreants manage to take control of the train and dodge several deadly obstacles on their way to delivering Toni to her comrades.

Any "Hunter" entry automatically has two strikes against it because of its ludicrous nature (in one scene, the Hellcats survive a jump from a speeding train into a river far below and come up fists a' blazin' with nary a scratch) and the awful dialogue Big Bob fills his word balloons with. Fortunately, Big Bob took the issue off and laid the burden on another writer. While not always avoiding the bad-lingo land mines ("That's flippin' the ol' pineapples, juggler-boy!"), at least Howard invests some excitement in the script and creates a story that would be a worthy (low-budget) follow-up to The Dirty Dozen. Yes, I know, it's quite a stretch that Toni, Hunter, and Karl are all reunited in one spot during a really big war but I'll excuse that old plot device just this once. If he tries it again, though . . .

Jack: The snapshot of Toni Devereux that is shown to Lt. Hunter gives her huge eyes that make her look like a Disney princess. I always enjoy action on a speeding train, but this story is by the numbers predictable and features mediocre art by Jack Abel that (unfortunately) recalls the work of Jerry Grandenetti in spots, especially the overused technique of drawing shadows around soldiers' eyes that makes it look like they're wearing domino masks. It's an anti-climax when the two college rivals finally meet on the battlefield, as the fight lasts only one panel.

Peter: Corporal Hatton receives a special gift from his wife in the mail: home movies of his new-born son. Unfortunately, Hatton's wife thought her husband would be safe in an office somewhere, with access to a projector but, alas, the G.I. is out on the front and everyone knows there are "No Movies in a Foxhole!" Hatton's mission is simultaneously to kill as many Krauts as he can and find himself a movie projector. He manages to find the Holy Grail at a farmhouse held by Nazis but getting it through enemy fire becomes an arduous and, yes, tedious affair. The lens is broken but Hatton is set on finding a replacement. After the G.I. is wounded while saving a group of British soldiers, one of the  Brits offers up his monocle as a lens for the projector and the entire squad is entertained by Hatton's bundle of joy. Not an awful story (although Hatton's repeated mantra joins all the other boring catch phrases we've had to endure through this journey) and Jack Sparling's art is actually well put-together in spots (his final panel has a Frazetta-esque vibe to it). Love how the Brits get the same stereotypical treatment the Asians do in these DC war stories. Bad teeth and "blimeys." All that's missing is the Captain who demands tea on the battlefield.

Jack Sparling does Frazetta

Jack: The premise of a soldier trying to hold on to a movie projector on a battlefield is ridiculous. Sparling draws some very acrobatic poses that verge on the impossible in the midst of all the ugly faces. I guess Sparling will be a regular contributor to the DC War books now. I'm not sure that's a good thing.

 Our Army at War 191

"Death Flies High!"
Story by Robert Kanigher
Art by Joe Kubert

"Phantom Fliers!"
Story by Dave Wood
Art by Jack Abel

Jack: After Sgt. Rock and Easy Co. turn the tables on a group of Nazis hiding behind a hedgerow and bushwhack the ambushers, Rock looks up and sees an American flying fort being attacked by two enemy fighters. It looks like "Death Flies High!" until another U.S. plane joins the fight. Rock recognizes Johnny Cloud's Mustang and watches as the Navajo fighter pilot sends his own plane into the Nazi fighter, Kamikaze-style, to prevent it from destroying the flying fort. Cloud and the Nazi pilot parachute out and exchange gunfire, but only Cloud reaches the ground alive.

"Death Flies
The flying fort manages to land safely, but Rock and Cloud discover that the only living man aboard is the pilot. With his dying breath, he begs them to complete his mission and destroy a Nazi rocket base hidden in a windmill, since it hides long-range rockets that are due to be fired at the U.S. in two hours! Cloud pilots the flying fort with Easy Co. as his crew and Rock as his co-pilot and, after some thrilling air battles, everyone parachutes out and the flying fort crashes into the Nazi rocket base, destroying it before the rockets can be fired.

Landing in the woods, Rock, Easy Co. and Johnny Cloud are met by the teenage underground fighters of Unit 3, who promise to help the Americans get back through enemy lines to safety.

Will this be a rare continued story? I sure hope so, because it's the best Rock tale we've seen in some time. Joe Kubert is back to full strength, providing a superb cover and inking his own pencils once again. Kanigher's story is thrilling and, for once, the team up with another DC Battle Star does not seem forced.

Peter: I totally agree, Jack; this is the best Rock we've had in months thanks to both a stirring script and dazzling visuals. A rare cliff-hanger puts the bow on the package but, of course, that final panel brings us back to Earth as well. Next issue, the baby G.I.s are back and that can't be good. I always wonder, in stories like this where the men are led down a different path than they started on, if real G.I.s would have been in big trouble for abandoning their assignments on a whim (at least I assume Rock and Cloud head off on an unauthorized adventure since there is no scene of communication with their C.O.s). The other thing that I ponder (when I'm in the pondering mood) is why it seems like Easy is always somewhere completely different than in the previous installment. That could be down to me, though.

"Phantom Fliers!"
Jack: In the skies over Europe during WWI, an American and a German flier face off in a deadly game of chicken that ends in both of their deaths. On the ground, their ghosts vow to pick two new pilots to influence in order to continue their duel. They guide the new pilots in a tough battle but, when it looks like the result will be the same as before, they pull away, allowing the replacements to live to fly another day.

Jack Abel must have had some help on the inks with this story, because it has some very strong panels. I like the ghostly element to the tale and it reminds me of good old Jeb Stuart over in the Haunted Tank series, except these spectral pilots actually do something rather than just spout confusing riddles. This is an all-around terrific issue of Our Army at War, made even better by the house ads, which show covers that I can remember from early childhood.

Peter: It looks like all-Abel all the time to me, Jack. He could be great and he could be . . . not so great, but here he's all (pun intended) Aces. A very enjoyable Weird War Tale this one but, again, my mind wanders when we come across scenes like the one where the two pilots are killed and their ghosts fire their guns at each other. How can they be shooting those weapons? Are they ghost pistols? I would bet money that this is a "shelf" story since this is the first glimpse of writer Dave Wood we've had since beginning this journey. Wood (who was a regular in the pages of Detective Comics and helped co-create--with Jack Kirby--the syndicated strip, "Sky Masters of the Space Force") supplied several scripts to the pre-1959 DC war titles but "Phantom Fliers!" would be his sole credit post-1960.

More Kubert!

Star Spangled War Stories 137

"Fight to the Last!!"
Story by Howard Liss
Art by Joe Kubert

"Mud Soldier!"
Story by Howard Liss
Art by Jack Sparling

"Human Booby Trap!"
Story by Robert Kanigher
Art by Jerry Grandenetti
(Reprinted from Our Fighting Forces #1, November 1954)

Peter: Sub commander Lt. Tim Scott picks up a raft full of commandos in the middle of the Pacific; the men had just infiltrated a Japanese-held island and are bringing back the 411 to their bosses. Scott helps the commando commander aboard and—Holy Coincidence!—it’s his boyhood gang rival, Frankie Clary! Tempers immediately flare and Frankie warns Tim that he’ll be looking for the right moment to even a score (way back when, Tim beat Frankie to a pulp and Frankie has held the grudge ever since), World War II and service be damned. Before Tim has a chance to react, the sub is attacked by a sea monster and beached on a convenient island (just moments before, the sub was deep beneath the waves so how this piece of land appeared is anyone’s—or Howard Liss’s—guess). Tim and Scott must lead their men across the island of deadly prehistoric monsters of the primeval stone age and somehow find a way off to share their important intelligence. After a Stegosaurus Rex almost eats Frankie, the belligerent buffoon finally decides to put aside his grudge and, in a last second escape attempt, even saves Tim’s life. The two men become life-long friends forever after. The End. 

"Fight to the Last!!"
After eight years and forty-seven installments, the curtain falls on The War That Time Forgot (or maybe it should have been The Time That War Forgot seeing how many times these guys landed on the same island and had no clue) and not a day too soon. Sure, I’ll miss its goofiness and the artists’ variations on the classic prehistoric monsters (one of the creatures in this story has eyeballs on stalks, clearly a diversion from my Encyclopedia of Real Dinosaurs) but I’ve run out of different ways to say “ludicrous” and not make it seem as if I sleepwalk through these things. “Fight to the Last!!” is a great example: we have the, by now, cliched set-up of the boyhood enemies who finally meet on the battlefield and continue their beef despite the great odds thrown at them and the obvious advantages to joining up and fighting a common enemy. The hatred continues until an epiphany comes (usually in the penultimate panel) and suddenly these guys are bosom buddies. Oh, and then there’s the dino-pinball action. I’m sure Bob and Howard were just as tired of the formula as we were but they were slaves to good sales. Perhaps the avalanche of mail begging for the return of the Enemy Ace gave Bob the incentive to dump the dinos. In any event, I can pretty much assure you we’ll be better off when the four-year run of Hans von Hammer begins next issue.

"Mud Soldier!"
A G.I. who grew up on a hog farm and learned how to “grab a greased pig” in a sty becomes the ultimate “Mud Soldier!” when he has to fight a Nazi in a deluge of rain. His special talent allows him to capture the German for interrogation. Now this is the Jack Sparling I know and loathe; ugly, almost unintelligible scribbles and characters with animal faces and silly grins. Yecchhhh. 

From the battle-blazing pages of the premiere issue of Our Fighting Forces comes “Human Booby Trap!,” a decent short about Sgt. Baker of Easy Company, who questions every scenario he comes across, the better to keep himself alive. As we’ve seen in the past, Jerry Grandenetti could pump out some decent work before he became impressionistic (or whatever you’d call the fate that befell Jerry) and “Human Booby Trap!” is nicely rendered.

"Human Booby Trap!"
Jack: I saw that the last story featured art from Jerry G. from 1954 and I was expecting better. So much for my narrative that had him doing pretty nice work in the '50s and going steadily downhill in the '60s and '70s. The Sparling story has some hideous art and it's the third time we've seen him in this post, so chances are we'll have to suffer through plenty more of his drawings before we're through. Thank goodness for Joe Kubert, whose art on the final War That Time Forgot story is classic. Liss does about as well as can be expected this time out, while hitting all of the usual points in one of these stories. After 47 of them, a change is most welcome.

Coming Next Week!
16 All-New Tales of Suspense!
It's An Entertaining Comic!



Anonymous said...

While his layouts could be interesting, I've never understood the appeal Jack Sparling's art carried among DC's editors during the late 1960s. No matter the genre, his style frequently induces headaches, especially whenever his characters squint or leave their mouths open. It's as if every Sparling character suffers from a disfiguring disease. Was he a speedy guy who could produce work on a deadline?

Jack Seabrook said...

Good question. Much of the time his characters are pretty ugly.