Monday, April 29, 2019

Star Spangled DC War Stories Issue 154: November 1974

The DC War Comics
by Corporals Enfantino and Seabrook

Our Army at War 274

"Home is the Hero!"
Story by Robert Kanigher
Art by George Evans

"Last Mission"
Story by Robert Kanigher
Art by Ric Estrada

Jack: After 29 days of fighting in Italy, Easy Co. finally gets a break and Sgt. Rock decides to go for a motorcycle ride to clear his head. Of course, he immediately encounters a German attack on a U.S. jeep. Rock quickly dispatches the enemy soldiers and finds what's left of the jeep, along with an American M.P. who is still handcuffed to the corpse of a prisoner he was transporting.

Tony Lewis, the prisoner, had sworn to Jerry Baker, his captor, that he would never be taken alive back to the States to stand trial for murder. Rock and Baker head off through the woods and Baker guns down some Nazis they meet along the way. The duo come upon the town of Trescia, where Baker's parents still live, and he and Rock surprise the old folks with a visit. Rock quickly realizes that his companion is really Tony, the murderer, not Baker, the M.P., but decides to keep quiet until the parental visit ends. Tony disappears outside while Rock is inside with the parents, but the killer quickly returns to announce that a Nazi tank is approaching the town.

Rock and Tony meet the Nazi tank outside of town and Tony loses his life after successfully destroying the machine with a grenade. Rock carries Tony's body back to town, promising to tell the military brass of the dead man's heroism.

"Home is the Hero!"
There's nothing particularly surprising in "Home is the Hero!" and the art by Evans is sub-par, but the story is exciting and the end satisfying. I've said before that it's unusual for the story to outshine the art, but that's the case with this entry in the Sgt. Rock series.

American planes are bombing Berlin in October 1944, and the flak being shot from below is heavy, but one particular plane's crew knows that their pilot will get them back from this mission, as he has done 23 times before. The "California Cowboys," as they have been nicknamed, make it back to base in England safely; they are apprehensive about their 25th and "Last Mission," yet confident that their skipper will see to it that they return home to California. The flight gets underway and they successfully bomb their Berlin target, but flak from below is again heavy as they turn to head back to base. The plane avoids flak and German planes, but the entire crew is killed and the plane disappears in the English Channel. Exactly thirty years later, in 1974, the plane is found in a remote area of California, its crew still at their posts!

Is this supposed to be a Weird War Tale? It was going along well until that wacky last panel. Estrada's art is, well, Estrada's art, though this was a reasonably exciting story and he did his best with it. Still, how did a plane that crashed in the English Channel end up in California thirty years later? I searched online and found no story even close to this, so what it really needs at the end is a skeleton in a pilot's uniform telling us that it was inexplicable.

"Last Mission"
Peter: I wasn't keen on either adventure this issue. "Home is the Hero!" highlights a cliche I've frankly had enough of: the murderer/racist/thug/hippy who seems lost to good judgment and being a decent person, then meets Sgt. Rock and becomes an upstanding citizen (albeit usually a dead upstanding citizen) and the hero of WWII. "Last Mission" is more of a vignette designed to deliver a shocking final panel. Problem is, the last look isn't that shocking and Estrada's art only makes me think of Hanna-Barbera cartoons. Not that I'm complaining, but where did Glanzman's USS Stevens series get to?

Weird War Tales 31

"Death Waits Twice"
Story by Robert Kanigher
Art by Franc Reyes

"The Story of a Real Dogface!"
Story by Arnold Drake
Art by Bill Draut

Story by David Vern
Art by Alex Niño

Peter: When Sgt. Scully hears Duni read his tarot cards and predict death at dawn for both of them, the Sarge scoffs but, come sun-up, Scully fakes drowning to avoid boarding a landing craft with Duni. Sure enough, the craft is blown sky high and Duni is killed. Suddenly, the Sarge believes he'll die at dawn... but which dawn? The next few days become a living nightmare for Scully as he avoids any engagement at dawn. In the end, fate finally catches up with the doomed man when he least expects it. I liked Franc Reyes's art (it reminds me a lot of Frank Brunner's work), but the script for "Death Waits Twice" is padded and lacking any suspense whatsoever. We know this rat is going to get his eventually, so why drag it out? I find it odd that the story's host, Death, uses the derogatory "Japs," in his opening monologue. Does Big Bob mean to infer that Death is racist as well?

"Death Waits Twice"

December 1976 can't get here fast enough
("The Story of a Real Dogface!")
Sgt. Crawford loved being a dog instructor and treated the canines with love and respect. He hoped that, when he died, he would be reincarnated as either a dog, a butterfly, or an Osmond Brother. One soldier who did not share the Sarge's love for animals was the sadistic Snell, who believed a good kicking was what dogs and dames needed to keep them in line. The two clash repeatedly and then, one night, Snell "accidentally" shoots Crawford on patrol, killing him. Snell becomes Sergeant and inherits Crawford's duties as K-9 instructor. One of the dogs has puppies and the runt of the litter is nicknamed "Sarge" (no way! could it be?) and grows up to be a fierce G.I. dog. When Snell beats the animal, it tears out his throat and flees. Knowing the dog will be put to death, the kindly Corporal Mann finds him and shoots him. At that very moment, a cocoon falls from a tree into Mann's hand and he remembers what Sgt. Crawford once told him.

In both script and art departments, "The Story of a Real Dogface!" is easily the worst story of 1974. Maudlin to the extreme and filled with stock characters, "Dogface"could be one of the most predictable DC war stories we've yet encountered. Bill Draut's art is drab and unexciting, with no style of its own; it's simply there to fill six pages. The finale, "Doomsday!," concerns the planet Xeres and its upcoming apocalypse. The story is a bit confusing and ends with a groaner of a twist, but I can enjoy anything with the eccentric doodlings of Alex Niño. Not sure why author David Vern felt the need to use the pseudonym of Coram Nobis--to distinguish this from his more "serious" work in the pulps? Reed would go on to write a few Batman stories in the late 1970s as well.

Jack: Another weak issue of Weird War Tales. The trend toward more graphic depictions of violence continues in "Death Waits Twice"; I thought the art was mediocre (I don't see a resemblance to Frank Brunner's style, but I haven't seen any of Brunner's work in a long time). We know from the start what's going to happen and have to read to the end to learn how it will take place. I love neither Arnold Drake's writing style nor Bill Draut's art style, so "The Story of a Real Dogface!" did nothing for me, and I agree that it's a terrible narrative with a corny attempt at a "circle of life" conclusion. As for "Doomsday!," I usually like Niño's art but this example seemed very muddled and the art is overly busy to no clear purpose. The twist is as old as they come. If only we could get some Kirby in here!

Our Fighting Forces 151

"Kill Me with Wagner!"
Story by Jack Kirby
Art by Jack Kirby and D. Bruce Berry

Jack: As the Losers await the arrival of the Free French Maquis to help guide them toward the objective of their mission, Nazis search the woods for our heroes but only succeed in capturing Gunner, who is taken to a house where a Nazi called the Major interrupts his reverie of playing Wagner (badly) on the piano to torture Gunner when the American refuses to divulge more than name, rank, and serial number.

The mission of the Losers is to rescue a famous, female concert pianist named Emma Klein and they must also rescue Gunner in the bargain. The Major is also looking for Ms. Klein and knows that finding her must be Gunner's objective. The Nazis don't know what Emma looks like, so the Major lines up a series of women and insists that Gunner reveal whether any of them is the woman they seek. Just as Nazis are about to start shooting the women one by one, the Losers burst in and save the day. As the Major dies, he hears beautiful piano music and sees that Emma Klein is none other than the housemaid who has been cleaning up around him for some time. Allied forces shell the town and flatten it; the Losers escape with the aid of the Free French and Emma Klein thanks them for saving her life.

If we hold our breath and squint real hard,
this kind of looks like '40s-era Kirby...
With this issue, Jack Kirby takes over writing and art duties on the Losers and, like so much of Kirby's mid-'70s work at DC, it's a mixed bag. I like that the story is full-length, as this allows more plot development to occur, but Kirby's writing and, especially, his pencils are hard to take. The inks by D. Bruce Berry, like those of other Kirby inkers of the era, such as Mike Royer, make me wonder whether these artists were so intimidated by the King's reputation that they failed to take the opportunity to improve upon what must have been very sketchy pencils. There are brief echoes of '40s/'50s Kirby in the story, but that's about it--comics like this (which were all too common) make me wonder how Kirby can be considered an all-time great in the comics field. He just did so much bad work!

Peter: As feared, Jack "The King" Kirby has jettisoned everything Big Bob and John Severin accomplished with this series and put his own brand upon it. Gone is the wonderful dialogue (replaced with such scintillating nuggets as "Right now, I'd rather be in charge of a company latrine!" and "Pull in that gun butt!... or I'll clean this place up... with you!"). Gone is the fabulous, detailed art (replaced with Kirby's "everything looks like a square rock" style). Gone are the subplots (not one mention of Ona). Gone is the fun. Ironically, The King puts down on paper exactly what The Losers will be during his tenure. He exclaims that "The losers don't have to speak like Patton or act like film cheapies to put themselves across," a proclamation directly in contrast to our first encounter with Jack's version of The Losers. Kirby's going to be around a while (12 issues) before he jumps ship and destroys Captain America over at Marvel just the same way he killed this once-glorious strip, so settle in and be patient with my grumpiness and we'll see if we can't survive together.

Next Week...
Oh Yeah!!!


Todd Mason said...

Rare bit of nostalgia for me...I didn't have that issue of WEIRD WAR TALES (and apparently no loss) and that was very nearly the only issue of OUR ARMY AT WAR I did have in the '70s (or since), which a friend had given me in a small stack of others he no longer wanted.

Jack Seabrook said...

It's funny how the covers bring it all back to you. Sometimes I see a cover and I can remember getting the comic or reading it in my room at age 11! Thanks for reading and for your comment.