Monday, March 20, 2017

Star Spangled DC War Stories Special 100th Issue!: June/July 1968

The DC War Comics
by Corporals Enfantino and Seabrook

Celebrating Our 100th Issue!

 Our Army at War 194

"A Time for Vengeance!"
Story and Art by Joe Kubert

"Second-Best Means Dead!"
Story by Howard Liss
Art by Jack Abel

Jack: In the early days of the Allied invasion of France, Sgt. Rock is given a special assignment by Army intelligence. The Nazis have developed new buzz-bombs that, if used successfully, could change the course of the war. Rock parachutes in alone, behind enemy lines, and hooks up with the boys of Unit 3 to try to derail the train carrying the bombs as it passes through the village where the boys' families were killed.

Nazi Col. Kaltbludt runs the village now and Rock and Unit 3 engage in Operation Diversion. Rock walks right up to the Colonel's headquarters and fights like a tiger before being taken captive. After being tortured, he tells the Colonel that Unit 3 plans to blow up the Nazi ammunition building. The Nazi forces are diverted there, allowing Unit 3 to derail the train carrying the buzz-bombs. Rock and Unit 3, aided by a group of freed villagers wielding pitchforks, know that it's "A Time for Vengeance!" and wipe out the Nazi presence in the village. Rock bids adieu to Unit 3, suspecting he'll see them again soon.

"A Time for Vengeance!"
Taking over the writing chores from Bob Kanigher, Joe Kubert turns in an exciting story with stunning art on every page. I wonder if the secret agent/spy craze of the mid-1960s is reflected here, since Sgt. Rock is operating solo and acting more like a super-spy than an Army sergeant. The lads of Unit 3 are featured prominently on the cover and the splash page, where they are given individual names, so I expect they will be regular characters for the near future.

Peter: I must say that "A Time for Vengeance" took me by surprise. I was just complaining last issue about little kids with lollipops and machine guns and here Joe Kubert, in his first solo effort, manages to work up the pathos and the excitement. I actually cared about these little crumb crunchers this time out. I must also say that, having seen the "Next Issue" blurb on the final page touting the return of Unit 3 yet again, I'm pretty sure the novelty is going to wear out quickly.

Jack: In Germany in 1913, the great pilot Hans Hesse trained an American named Tom Watkins and a German named Rudy Krauss how to fly biplanes. When war breaks out, Hans becomes a squadron commander and Rudy soon becomes an Ace. As the war continues, Tom also becomes an Ace, and Rudy sends him a message, challenging him to an aerial dogfight. When their planes meet over No-Man's Land, a pitched battle results in a victory for the American, but this is followed by a new challenge: Hesse wants to fight Watkins. Knowing that "Second-Best Means Dead!" Tom takes the challenge, and another dogfight in the air concludes with Tom surviving a crash landing. He does not realize that his skills result in a crash landing for Hesse as well.

"Second-Best Means Dead!"
Jack Abel often rises to the challenge of a good script, and this is a good one. The cliche of friends in peacetime being forced to fight in wartime has been over used, but Liss and Abel make the air battles exciting and the conclusion satisfying.

Peter:"Second-Best Means Dead!" looks like a reprint but it's actually a fairly effective variation on the old "German buddy/American buddy meet on opposite sides of the war" chestnut. I had to look at that final panel a few times before it dawned on me just what had happened. Very "Enemy Ace"-esque.

With the war comics dated June 1968, Robert Kanigher handed over the editorial reins to Joe Kubert. In an interview that appeared in The Comics Journal #172 (Nov. 1994), Kubert explained that, though he didn't think Bob Kanigher's scripts glorified war, his new policy was that he "wanted the readers to understand that (Kubert) wasn’t doing war books for the purpose of glorifying war or killing." Very soon after taking the job, Kubert initiated a policy of running a "Make War No More" logo on every story in the war titles. Joe goes on to explain to interviewer Gary Groth that then-DC publisher and editorial director Carmine Infantino offered the job to Kubert because Kanigher was having a nervous breakdown, ostensibly due to his tremendous workload. Joe would retain the title of editor until 1977.


G.I. Combat 130

"Battle of the Generals!"
Story by Robert Kanigher
Art by Russ Heath

"Landing Postponed!"
Story Uncredited
Art by Ross Andru and Mike Esposito
(Reprinted from Our Army at War #49, August 1956)

Peter: After a brutal tank battle ends in a victory for the good guys, General Jeb Stuart pops up to warn his descendant, tank commander Jeb Stuart, that both Jebs will be fighting a battle to the death today and the outcome of both battles is dependent on each other. The General turns and is greeted with the hard steel of Attila the Hun. The two specters clash while, below their feet, Jeb Stuart watches in awe the "Battle of the Generals!" Jeb's lunch break is cut short, however, when the Haunted Tank is attacked from above; a Nazi fighter plane with an Attila emblem strafes the men and then flies away.

The men of the Stuart are given the command by their C.O. that they are to "hold Vecy bridge open at all costs" until their comrades can arrive to cross. The job becomes extra tough when the Attila-tagged plane comes back for more, this time intent on blowing up the bridge as well. The Jeb destroys the buzzard just as the General delivers a nasty sword slash, sending Attila the Hun back to hell. Russ Heath's art makes even the worst of scripts palatable; "Generals" isn't even close to horrible but it could have used a few more pages. As it is, the promised "Battle of the Generals" gets so little coverage, it might have been closer to the truth for Bob to have christened this "The Slight Skirmish of the Generals." It is refreshing, though, that the co-star of the strip gets more than just his requisite two panels and actually participates in the action.

Jack: We've seen Attila's ghost before in this series but it's been a long time. I think the real Attila would've made short work of Jeb Stuart. Peter would know better than I, but can a ghost be killed? If so, where do they go next? The story's not half bad; there are no surprises but it's good to see the ghost get more panel time.

Peter: In the reprint, a young man finds civilian life taxing since he can never seem to get anywhere on time; there's always a delay on his train, plane, or boat. So, it's with great happiness that he joins the war effort in anticipation of getting to his destination in a timely manner. That's not how war works though, is it? And our poor young friend finds that out very quickly. "Landing Postponed!" is a dopey, badly-drawn waste of time that will surely give any reader a headache after its twentieth reminder that this kid is not going to be delayed! And what's with that odd splash page that almost hints at some kind of supernatural or extraterrestrial presence? On the letters page, Joe Kubert introduces himself as new editor (see reprinting far below) and then answers an excited reader's plea to know who writes the Rock stories. "The Sgt. Rock stories has (sic)  been and will continue to be written by Robert Kanigher," writes Joe, the same month that he kicks off writing some of the Rock stories himself!

Jack: These early DC War stories are more straightforward battle tales with less characterization than we'd see develop in the '60s. Andru and Esposito's art is better here than it would be later on, when they got into some bad habits with bulging eyes. There's one particularly nice, large panel of a ship getting torpedoed.

 Star Spangled War Stories 139

"Death Whispers--Death Screams!"
Story by Robert Kanigher
Art by Joe Kubert

Peter: While involved in an air battle, Hans von Hammer thinks back to his childhood, when his father planted in him the seed that would produce the Enemy Ace! Living in a castle with his father, Hans has become accustomed to a grand life but the elder von Hammer reminds his son that the castle has withstood many invasions, thanks to the "honor" of the von Hammers. Hans begins mastering the art of killing through fencing and firearms, training that will come in handy years later. The Hammer is jolted back into the present by the sight of the French ace, the Hangman, perhaps the only pilot in World War I who could shoot down the infamous Hammer. During the dogfight, Hans's Fokker becomes damaged and he has to crash land, forcing the Enemy Ace to watch as the Hangman heads after one of Hans's new recruits, Ludwig. With his plane in flames and heading Earthward, Ludwig steps out of his cockpit and salutes the man who has just killed him; von Hammer can only watch in horror. The Hangman drops his rival a note, promising to meet with him over Crecy in five days for their inevitable face-off.

Von Hammer heads back to the base, where he tries to relax by heading into the woods to meet up with his lupine companion for a bite to eat, and then travels to the Austrian Alps for a bit of skiing. The rest seems to do him good and, five days later, he keeps his appointment with destiny. The two aces circle each other and the Hammer gets the drop on the Hangman, forcing the Frenchman to land on the river below. The Enemy Ace flies away, promising the two assassins will meet again. On the way back to his Jagdstaffel, von Hammer comes upon a British dirigible out for a bombing run and dives down toward his next kill.

Behind what will probably be my pick for Best Cover of the Year lies what will, no doubt, be my pick for Best Story of the Year (unless the next installment knocks it down a peg). To say that both Kanigher and Kubert are at the top of their games with this series is an understatement. The meetings between the two aces make for compelling, edge-of-your-seat reading. We're fairly certain the Hammer will survive since this series is only just beginning but what of the Frenchman? Hopefully, Joe and Bob keep him hanging around for quite a while.

Art highlights: the atmospheric splash; the two-page dogfight that opens the story; the Hammer's walk to the woods while his men talk behind his back; and perhaps the most gripping image we've ever seen in the DC war comics: Ludwig stepping out of his flaming cockpit, falling calmly to his death, while saluting the Hangman. Absolutely top-notch story-telling. And, to think, just a couple months ago, we were trying to come up with new adjectives to describe the dino-stories. This issue also features the debut of a new "Battle Album" centerfold, presenting the blueprints for the Spad and the Fokker.

Jack: Peter, I agree with you completely. This issue blew me away and will be hard to top for Best of 1968. The splash page reminds me of something Jerry Robinson would have done in a Golden Age Batman, with the giant figure of death holding the Enemy Ace in his hand above a chessboard. The sight of Ludwig falling to his death made me click over to Wikipedia to see if German pilots had parachutes in WWI. It seems they did not, at least not yet and not handy. They weighed too much, took up too much space, and didn't work all that well. This is a GREAT comic book, and it doesn't hurt that one of the house ads shows what I recall was the first comic I ever read!

Our Fighting Forces 113

Story by Howard Liss
Art by Jack Abel

"Tanks Are More Than Steel"
Story by Howard Liss
Art by Jack Sparling

Jack: Once again, the Hellcats are sent behind enemy lines, this time to blow up a Nazi factory where a new secret weapon is being made. The initial plan, which involves swimming through pipes to get inside the factory, fails when an alarm is tripped and Nazi gunmen open fire. The backup plan, to destroy a nearby dam and flood the factory, goes more smoothly. Now the fun begins as the Hellcats will stay behind enemy lines for the duration of the war. Can they survive?

It doesn't seem fair to have to compare these Hellcats stories to the work of Joe Kubert and Russ Heath, who draw between them the other four issues we read this time around. The art is Abel at his worst and the stories all seem the same. At least we don't have any offensive Asian stereotypes.

Is this physically possible?

The soldier's face on
the left expresses our
opinion of this story
("Tanks Are More Than
Peter: Howard Liss introduces an interesting concept, one that might actually make for good reading--someday, but not this issue. The concept of the Hellcats staying behind enemy lines and living off the fat of the land can't help but inject some pizazz but this issue's action is just more of the same. The art is bad Jack Abel (with a lot of panels showing a big fist and a Nazi head flung back at the reader) and the dialogue is atrocious (in particular, Brute's faux-New Yawk accent). I sure miss Pooch.

Jack: Two new tanks roll off the assembly line and are itching for combat; they refer to themselves as Hot Shot and Tin Can. They see action in the North African desert and are ordered to hold a pass near an oasis. Damaged in battle, they make a last stand until their crews decide to scavenge parts from one to get the other moving. Tin Can and its wounded crew are left to fight to the death as Hot Shot rolls off to fight another day. The sentient tanks are awful and Sparling's art is worse. It's hard to believe Howard Liss, who could write some very good stories, could also follow some of Bob Kanigher's worst traits.

Peter: Just when you think it can't get worse, Howard reaches back into the ol' Kanigher bag of tricks and pulls out the "thinking weapon" plot. Toss in a typically sketchy, amateurish Jack Sparling art job and you've got a contender for Worst Overall Story of the Year. Yeccccch!

Our Army at War 195

"Dead Town!"
Story by Robert Kanigher
Art by Joe Kubert

"A Promise to Joe!"
(Reprinted from G.I. Combat #97, January 1963)

"Nobody's Friend!"
Story by Howard Liss
Art by Frank Springer

Jack: Sgt. Rock is back with the boys of Unit 3 in occupied France. Henri, one of the boys, is convinced that his pretty cousin Mignon will keep her appointment to be married that day in a country village, but when Rock and the lads get there they find it to be a "Dead Town!" with Nazis hiding in the remnants of the buildings that remain. After defeating the enemy fighters, Rock and Unit 3 locate the wedding party, hiding behind a waterfall in the nearby woods. But wait--the groom was among the young men from the village taken by the Nazis for slave labor! Rock and Unit 3 intercept the Nazi trucks transporting the laborers and, after a quick fight, the groom is rescued and the wedding goes ahead as planned.

"Dead Town!"
This pose recalls the very first Sgt. Rock story,
as he stands in the middle of the road like a wall.
Last issue, it made sense that Rock was dropped behind enemy lines to work with Unit 3 on a specific mission. This time, he just happens to be hanging out with Unit 3, wandering around occupied France. It can't be a continued story from last issue, because we went from snow to nice weather, and Rock said goodbye at the end of the previous adventure. Also, Kanigher wrote this one and Kubert wrote the last one. Perhaps they just liked the idea of Unit 3 and decided they didn't need to explain.

Peter: Though nowhere near as good as last issue's Sgt. Rock/Unit 3 team-up, "Dead Town!" is enjoyable enough, but I'm wondering what the thought process was behind these "Rock and the Little Rocks" installments. "Dead Town!" is certainly lightweight material (Rock and the boys saving a groom and getting him back to the altar before the vows are spoken is about as lightweight as an enlisted mule) and ignores (for the most part) the gritty "War is Hell" message we've come to count on from Bob and Joe. The Unit 3 lads will take a little time off, though, and next issue we'll see one of the most celebrated Rock stories of all time.

"Nobody's Friend!"
Jack: When new recruit Rick Blair arrives in Europe to fight in WWII, he tries to make friends with everybody, but gruff Sgt. Yablecki doesn't have time to be his buddy. Rick's gun jams during a fight and his sergeant is killed; Rick soon becomes jaded and no longer looks to make friends with his fellow soldiers, who are likely to die on him. Promoted to sergeant, he is as gruff as Yablecki until the war ends, when he suddenly reverts to his old, friendly self. It's unusual that the story is better than the art in a DC War comic, but this is one of those times. Blair's puppy dog-like efforts to make friends are ground down over time through bitter experience, but Frank Springer's art just can't keep up with the changing emotions in Liss's script, and the last page is particularly unfortunate.

Peter: I didn't like this one at all, script or art (Springer and Starling are just as bad here as they were over at the DC mystery comics). Liss is getting way too comfortable with the catch phrases that added to Hank Chapman's eventual downfall.

Next Week
We welcome the New Kid on the EC Block!


turafish said...

Great 100th cake pic! I LOL'd myself!

I had a handful of war comics as a young private, although my list is long gone so I don't know what they were. That Army At War cover looks awful familiar though...

Entertaining post as always, and congrats on 100!

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks, Joe! Peter looks older in real life than he does in that photo.

AndyDecker said...

Congrats on the 100! I envy your perseverance. For every great Kubert or Heath you have to actually read tons of sub-par stories to do the synopsis. This is hard work.

Jack Seabrook said...

"Hard work" may be an exaggeration--after all, we're reading comics! Still, I know what you mean.

Unknown said...

Good job, gents!

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks, Mark! And good work wrapping up MU!