Monday, September 10, 2018

Star Spangled DC War Stories Issue 138: June 1973

The DC War Comics
by Corporals Enfantino and Seabrook

Luis Dominguez
Weird War Tales 14

"Dream of Disaster"
"A Phantom for a Co-Pilot"
"Too Late for the Death March!"
"The Ghost of McBride's Woman"
Story by Sheldon Mayer
Art by Tony DeZuniga and Alfredo Alcala

Peter: December 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor. Army Sgt. Mike McBride has a "Dream of Disaster" about a Japanese invasion but then awakens to a fateful meeting with a spectre, who informs Mike that he didn't have a dream. It was a clairvoyant vision. Mike then remembers back to the night before when he came home to find that his Japanese wife, Tsuko, had been kidnapped by her father, the powerful exporter, Kukomura. Mike heads to his father-in-law's warehouse, where he discovers some interesting documents on Kukomura's desk, papers that tell of the upcoming Pearl Harbor invasion. Kukomura arrives and informs Mike that he has sent his daughter back to Japan and now he will kill Mike before setting off himself. A tussle ensues, shots are fired, and Mike is brought back from his memory to discover the invasion in full swing and two dead bodies at his feet: Kukomura and Mike himself.

Four days later, Tsuko awakens aboard her father's yacht, which has been converted into a mini-anti-aircraft ship, and is told of the deaths of her father and husband. Considering herself an American citizen, Tsuko quashes the shooting down of an American bomber and pays for her bravery with her life. The bomber pilot, aware that the woman saved his life, is wary of dropping his payload in case Tsuko clings to life, but her ghost appears to him, urging him to sink the ship. As the bomber glides away from the sinking wreckage, Tsuko vows that she and her husband will be reunited somehow.

Five months later, on Corregidor, two soldiers have found themselves the lone survivors of an ambush and desperately fight to stay alive. It's their lucky day, though, since Sgt. Mike McBride's ghost is still wandering through limbo, looking for his wife, Tsuko. McBride's specter leads the pair of G.I.s through the jungles until they connect with a band of Filipino guerrillas. Later that night, the two discuss the hospitality of McBride's ghost.

Three years later, most of the Philippines have been recaptured by the Allies but G.I.s are still being dropped onto Luzon. It's there that a pair of G.I.s, Hank and Dave, accidentally become separated from the rest of their battalion and must rely on the kindness of a ghostly Japanese woman named Tsuko to find shelter and avoid death by Japanese bayonet. Once her good deed is complete, Tsuko is magically reunited with her husband after more than three years in limbo.

A connected quartet of stories (which are actually subtitled chapters 1-4), this issue is one very large, and way too long, lukewarm ghost story, courtesy of DC hack Sheldon Mayer. All through the 23-page "epic," we're treated to the narration of a rotting corpse in G.I. gear (ostensibly "Death") but our host never bothers telling us why Tsuko and Mike are hand-picked to be guardian angels (or, for that matter, why the five Americans are picked to be saved by these spirits). Mayer falls back on cliches of the ghost story, offering up nothing new to the genre. Oddly enough, we follow the loving spooks on their path to reunion but the actual occasion happens off-panel! I give editor Joe Orlando points for trying something different (again) but, like the last time he turned the entire zine over to Shelly (the "Trenches" novel back in #11), the results are weak. Can't find fault with the art, though, which is vintage Alcala/DeZuniga. Absolutely gorgeous. The full-novel experiment will get an Act III in issue #19 but, since the scripting chores will be handed to Arnold Drake, I'm preparing myself for another nicely-illustrated disappointment.

Jack: Peter, I disagree with you! "Dream of Disaster" is an excellent, creepy tale that is well-executed even though the premise is familiar. "A Phantom for a Co-Pilot" is a very good ghost story with the unusual twist of a Japanese woman who became a U.S. citizen turning and fighting against the Japanese forces. The mix of DeZuniga and Alcala is particularly interesting in "Too Late for the Death March!" and I love the thread of story that weaves its way through the incidents that make up this issue. By the end of the comic, I was unsure how to interpret the credit that says art by DeZuniga and Alcala. The GCD attributes pencils to Tony and inks to Alfredo, but I don't think it's that simple since some panels look to be all DeZuniga while others look to be straight Alcala. I looked up the two artists and was interested to learn that Tony was the first Filipino artist to be accepted here and that Orlando and Infantino went to the Philippines in 1971 to scout talent. Alcala seems to have emerged third, after Nestor Redondo. The Filipino artists certainly had a huge effect on DC comics in the '70s. I wonder if they were inspired by some of these stories, since the Japanese forces invaded the Philippines during WWII.

Our Army at War 257

"The Castaway"
Story by Robert Kanigher
Art by Russ Heath

"The Sea is Calm . . . The Sky is Bright . . ."
Story and Art by Sam Glanzman

Jack: Picking up from where we left off at the end of last issue (if you can believe that), Rock flies off in the plane that is supposed to take him back to Easy Co. after he's finished training sergeants. But wait! Anti-aircraft fire takes down his plane and he has to jump out with a parachute. He is the only survivor and dutifully buries the others who were on board. Attacked by a Japanese soldier, Rock battles the man in hand to hand combat and knocks him off the edge of a cliff to his death.

Sgt. Rock then fashions a hang glider from spare parts of the wrecked plane and his parachute and glides down from the cliff, avoiding fire from the same Japanese anti-aircraft gunners who brought down the plane. He manages to knock out the gun and men and ends up in the drink himself, hanging on to what's left of his glider and wondering how he'll ever get home.

"The Castaway"
As I write this, Russ Heath has just died less than a week ago and I have to marvel at his artwork in "The Castaway." This story continues the positive trend of Kanigher backing off from writing so many detailed (TNT-filled?) captions and letting Heath tell the story mostly through pictures. Page three is a terrific, full-page shot of Rock falling from the plane, and the rest of this 14-page stunner features more creative work by the artist, using different panel arrangements and sometimes spreading out into neighboring panels to create a masterful effect. Heath's talent will be missed!

A sailor on the U.S.S. Stevens wonders how to write a letter to his mother. Of course, he can't write about the horrors he witnesses, so he simply writes: "The Sea is Calm . . . The Sky is Bright . . ." Okay, Sam, we get it. War is Hell. You can't very well write that to the folks back home. Once again, the "story" is not a story at all.

"The Sea is Calm . . ."
Peter: Even though "The Castaway" is pretty darn far-fetched (Rock might as well be Bruce Willis in one of the Die Hard flicks for all the firepower he evades and the on-target TNT pineapples he drops from far above), I loved every gorgeous panel of it. Thank the DC war Gods that Archie Goodwin showed up on the scene and banished the long-held belief that continuing stories kill sales (Joe Kubert is still listed as editor of OAAW and Allan Asherman as "Editorial Assistant," but I suspect Archie put in his two cents here as well). Like the multi-chapter "Captain Storm" epic over in Our Fighting Forces, this "Rock's Journey to Easy" story line is bearing tasty fruit.

Star Spangled War Stories 170

"Legends Don't Die!"
Story by Archie Goodwin
Art by Jack Sparling

Story by Gerry Boudreau
Art by Walt Simonson

Peter: The Unknown Soldier may be facing his most challenging mission yet (yes, I know I said that about last issue's mission, but I really mean it this time) when his CO sends him to the Solomon Islands to impersonate the legendary Major Edge, a one-man wrecking crew who's gone missing and is presumed dead. Without Edge's bravado, his men might just give up and turn tail rather than continue their endless fighting. US manages to infiltrate Edge's platoon and gain their trust, guiding them up into the Hornet's Nest, a tactical hill swarming inside with Japanese ants.

Oh, my.

But halfway up the hill, the Unknown  Soldier is in for a big surprise: Japanese Commander Akito Shimura has captured Edge and is holding him on the ledge of the Hornet's Nest for all his men to see. This naturally raises some questions but, thank war stress and lousy k-rations, the men are easily swayed into believing US's story of a ruse. They march up into and take control of the Nest but the real Edge is killed. Sometimes, "Legends Do Die!"

Well, the Unknown Soldier has a real quandary on his hands: Major Edge is dead (after displaying very un-macho behavior due to "battle fatigue") and US is left holding the saber. Eventually, the Major's men are going to have to be told that their Rock is dead (that is, unless the title of this series becomes "The Unknown Soldier is the Edge!") when our hero up and disappears, off to his next adventure. Archie's doing what he can with the limited resources but there's not a lot of originality going on here. What began as an exciting concept has degenerated into the World War II version of Man of a Thousand Faces. No need to discuss Jack Sparling's art as it hasn't gotten any better, nor will it.

In the far future, spaceship technician Stacy Taylor must face the Ultimate Fighting Machine ("UFM"), a gizmo created to keep peace on Earth, but he doesn't stand a chance. As with a lot of these 1970s' science fiction comic book tales, "UFM" completely loses me about a third of the way through the complicated sf jargon (it's a sorta-kinda Beneath the Planet of the Apes, is what I came away with), but who cares about the script when you've got Walt Simonson's visuals to absorb? Editor Archie, on the letters page, explains that "UFM" is only Walt's second pro sale (the first being "Cyrano's Army" in Weird War #10) but that it impressed him mightily. It did me as well. The panel layout is very similar to what Rich Buckler would do with Deathlok the Demolisher a year later for Marvel. Lots of tiny or oblong boxes break up the usual monotony of eight or twelve squares. Archie also questions us regular folk as to whether Star Spangled should feature sf tales or if they should be confined to Weird War. I don't have a problem as long as it's a well-told tale. On the aforementioned letters page, Archie challenges the audience to find Simonson's (by-now) instantly-recognizable signature and, since I'm a nice guy, I've reprinted that page below for you to find the "Easter egg."

Jack: I thought the premise of "Legends Don't Die!" was a good one, with the Unknown Soldier having to replace the legendary major in order to inspire the troops to keep fighting. The image of the mask being partly blown off to reveal the bandages beneath is cool and I really think Sparling is rising to the occasion with better than average art. I was thrilled to see the early work by Simonson in the second story, and I also thought of Deathlok as well as Charlton's Doomsday + 1, which would come along a couple of years later and give a start to John Byrne. I was 10 when this issue of Star Spangled came out and, though I hadn't yet started buying Unknown Soldier comics, I would've been impressed with the package.

G.I. Combat 161

"The Day of the Goth!"
Story by Archie Goodwin
Art by Sam Glanzman

"Push-Button War"
Story by Gerry Boudreau
Art by Dan Green

Peter: General JEB Stuart confides in his descendant, tank commander Jeb Stuart, that they'll both be facing down a ghost today and the results will shape both their fates. Meanwhile, in a remote Austrian castle, Colonel Wolf von Todstrom has just received news that his brother, Major von Todstrom (seen last issue), has been killed in battle by the men of the Haunted Tank. Forsaking his vow never to fight in combat again, von Todstrom vows to dismantle the Haunted Tank and sell its parts to the highest bidder in Hell! Though the threat may sound hollow, he's got some high-powered back-up in the form of an ancient barbarian giant named Alaric the Goth, who's itching to fight General Stuart and send him to purgatory. Von Todstrom doffs his smoking jacket to reveal his old Nazi uniform and commissions a tank to hunt down the Jeb. All parties meet on a precarious cliff and the bad guys earn the upper hand by blasting a chunk out of the side of the mountain, burying the Haunted Tank and its crew. Can the General defeat the mighty Alaric and, perhaps, save his Earthly wards?

We wanted it and we finally got it! A two-parter! But is it worth the wait? Well, sorta. Though Archie Goodwin was one of my favorite funny book writers, "The Day of the Goth!" is a pretty lazy script, with a lot of odd shortcuts, and some of it is downright confusing. The Colonel's flashback to how he discovered Alaric is almost like shorthand, as if we're supposed to be in on the story. Sgt. Grauer, the Nazi who delivers the bad news to von Todstrom, explains that the tank that took down the Colonel's brother appears and vanishes "like . . . a phantom" but does the Jeb really do that? Not quite. Also, we get the obligatory scene where the men discuss Jeb's obvious nutty behavior of talking to a ghost but, this time out, it seems Jeb must have had a talk with his men because they know all about the General and how he's their guardian angel. On the plus side, there's a definite Gothic horror vibe to "The Day of the Goth!" that's very welcome to this war-weary traveler (just take a gander at that castle above!). Archie also tries to work in a couple of the continuing subplots (easing the new guy, Gus Gray, into the stories and dealing with Arch's failing marriage) but there's just not enough room for soap opera here. The action's high-energy and the visuals (for the most part) are top-notch so I'll give this a thumbs-up and look forward to the conclusion.

A private has just been debriefed on the Army's latest toy in the Vietnam War, the Seismic Intrusion Detector, a device that allows the military to detonate mines in enemy territory from the safety of a building a hundred miles away. The moral dilemma, for the major, becomes: what if innocents stray into the SID's area and are accidentally killed? His Captain scoffs at the insinuation that America would kill innocent bystanders and tells the Private to man the board for a bit. Meanwhile, a farmer and his family, who tend their crops at night (when the bombers are inactive), watch as their crops are reduced to ash and then do just what the Private had feared by wandering into a "kill-radius." The innocents appear on the Private's radar screen and the Captain orders him to make the call. The button is pushed as the Private asks for God's forgiveness.

Comic book writers in the early '70s were funny animals; they seriously believed that, like Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, millions of people would listen to (or read) their protests and the war would end. Well, it did, eventually, but I'd bet all my Bob Dylan bootlegs that Richard Nixon never even came near a funny book when making his decision to bring the boys back home. I get it, these guys were right out of college and itching to make their displeasure known . . . so, why do so many of these 1970s' protest tales seem like a little kid whining? Could it be the portrayal of America as the evil conqueror, a military with no regard for human life, or just the fact that most of these moral fables seem to melt together, after reading so many of them, into the same ol' same ol'? I can appreciate a "War is Hell" story just as much as the next guy (Harvey Kurtzman wrote several such scripts that hold up to this day), just not something as one-sided as "Push-Button War." End of rant.

Proof that Glanzman could conjure up atmosphere
Jack: The visuals are top-notch? Peter, have you been smoking Napalm? Glanzman's art on "The Day of the Goth!" is so weak that it takes away from my enjoyment of the story. On the plus side, Gus is a nice addition to the faceless crew of the Stuart tank, though I fear that the coming attraction warning that one of the crew will die could mean curtains for Gus. He's like all those members of Easy Co. who get killed while bullets whiz harmlessly by Ice Cream Soldier and Bulldozer. If Gus does survive, I'd love to see his opinion of General Stuart as mascot! Dan Green's art gives "Push-Button War" a modern look and, while he's a tad better at drawing faces than Glanzman, he's not going to give Neal Adams a run for his money. It's interesting that a story like this could run in a DC War comic in 1973--something so anti-American would not have been welcome not too many years before. The Vietnam War was such a disaster by this point that even comic book editors knew the kids reading their product would understand.

Next Week . . .
As we wind things down,
Johnny Craig gives us a glimpse of EC's future!


andydecker said...

I always wondered, given the popularity of Sergeant Rock, that DC waited so long to change OAAW to Rock. In todays market there would have been a reboot and a new No.1 every second year. These were simpler times.

Still it seemed that an ongoing Rock would have been a good seller, even in 1973.

It is always surprising how much the new artists changed the face of DC and later Marvel. I am a big fan of Alcala, Chan and the rest of the crew. They brought a note of realism to their work which a lot of the regular artist-stable just weren't capable of.

Jack Seabrook said...

Our Army at War may as well have been called Sgt. Rock comics by this point. Just look at the relative size of the title and the character's name on the cover. In those days, it was all about what caught your eye on the newsstand or comic rack. I would bet kids thought it was already called Sgt. Rock comics.