Monday, September 16, 2019

Star Spangled DC War Stories Issue 164: September 1975

The DC War Comics
by Corporals Enfantino and Seabrook

Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez
& Luis Dominguez (?)
Weird War Tales 41

"The Dead Draftees of Regiment Six!"
Story by Michael Fleisher & Russell Carley
Art by Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez

Peter: When Congress passes the Conscription Act of 1863, which allows anyone with $300 to avoid the draft, the rich buy their way out of fighting and the poor are sent to the front line. Those with devious minds manage to keep themselves out of harm's way and/or make a dishonest buck off the carnage; they would include registrar Bartholomew Sims, who solicits bribes and then sends the briber to war anyway, and abolitionist Jonathan French, who talks a good talk but cheats and lies his way out of the draft.

When the victims of this odious pair are slaughtered by an overwhelming Rebel force, their ghosts rise from the grave for vengeance and unwittingly touch off the Draft Riots of 1863.

Previous to "The Dead Draftees of Regiment Six!" (an all-too obvious and stupid title), the only reason I'd get excited about these "Full-length Weird War Tales Epics!" is the fact that I'd only have to write out one synopsis and a paragraph about how lousy the thing was. Enter Michael Fleisher, one of the most polarizing and (not coincidentally) one of my favorite comic book writers of the mid-1970s. Fleisher is, of course, legendary for his macabre and whacked-out reboot of the Spectre for Adventure Comics, but he also managed to pump out some legitimate classics for the mystery line as well (I picked MF stories as the best of both 1973 and 1974). He lends his... unique... style to Weird War and I say "Thank Goodness for that!"

The script is a meandering, semi-preachy stew that begins as a compelling and, at times, infuriating diatribe against the evils of the rich during the Civil War then devolves into the usual "vengeance of the ghosts" halfway through the running time. But leave it to Fleisher to take the preconceived notions we have about this utterly boring title and tweak them, very much the way Quentin Tarantino screws with our expectations in the cinema. These spirits don't simply haunt their "murderers" or scare them to death, they line them up in front of cannons or burn them to death (did Fleisher divine the slasher craze of a decade later?), only to discover they've tripped a land mine that harms the innocent (one of the ghosts sees his sister hanged for being an abolitionist). It's a very potent finale to what is surely one of the best Weird War Tales ever.

Jack: An interesting history lesson mixed with some ghosts and violence, "The Dead Draftees of Regiment Six!" is not a great comic but it's the best we've seen out of this title in a while. I prefer the book-length stories to the shorter ones and Garcia Lopez has a style that recalls classic DC art. An interesting note in the letters column from the editor compares three of the main DC War Comics writers: "Bob Kanigher builds his stories around character relationships, or a catchy gimmick, whereas David Michelinie suggests a moral starting point. Michael Fleisher is well known for his occupational series of mysteries." I don't know what that last sentence means, but the comments on Kanigher and Michelinie seem accurate.

G.I. Combat 182

"Combat Clock"
Story by Robert Kanigher
Art by Sam Glanzman

"Invasion? Where's Everyone?"
Story by Robert Kanigher
Art by Ric Estrada

Peter: When a magnesium bomb leaves the crew of the Jeb blinded, they must rely on the eyes of a little girl they rescued from a bombed-out farmhouse. Despite numerous diversions and terrible odds, the boys manage to make it to salvation. Top to bottom, this is one big, stinky fish. I hesitate to use stale material like "Big Bob must have been blind when he typed up this nonsense" but then Kanigher himself had no problem floating this one out there. The script for "Combat Clock" is muy tonto and borrows a hook from a bygone Sgt. Rock adventure but, this time, hangs its hat on the maudlin (poor orphan leads Jeb and blind boys to victory!). It's like that long-lost Flying Nun episode where Sister Bertrille goes back through time and helps Pancho Villa defeat the German army. But, sadly, it's what we've come to expect from the Haunted Tank for a long time now. The ghost only makes a brief cameo, adding zero to the excitement.

"Combat Clock"

"Invasion? Where's Everyone?"
When a direct hit capsizes the LCI he's riding in, a soldier must make his way to the beach on D-Day without being cut to ribbons by the ammo flying through the air. When he makes it ashore, he realizes he's the sole survivor and has to figure a way to clear a path for the other troops soon to hit the beach. "Invasion? Where's Everyone?" succeeds in conveying the panic this G.I. feels, but his superhuman abilities in defeating what seems to be the entire Nazi army strain credibility. It's got the feel of one of Big Bob's 1950s scripts, sans the Mort Drucker art and (mercifully) the tag line.

Jack: Both stories are pure Kanigher cheese! The situation in the Haunted Tank story is absurd and, while Joe Kubert might have made it bearable, Sam Glanzman's not up to the task. We've seen the blind gimmick before and I knew what was in store right from the cover. We've also seen plenty of D-Day stories in the past and Ric Estrada's art is not gritty enough to convey the danger and violence of the invasion.

Our Army at War 284

Story by Robert Kanigher
Art by Doug Wildey

"Medal of Honor"
Story and Art by Norman Maurer

Jack: Sgt. Rock tells the kids of San Gullio to go home but they refuse, explaining that the Fascists herded their parents into caves and killed them. A Nazi tank rolls into town and, as Rock readies himself for battle, he wonders how the men he assigned to help the convoy are making out.

Jackie Johnson, Wildman, and Zack help the convoy break through a Nazi roadblock and head off to "Linkup!" with Rock at San Gullio. As Rock pours bullets into the Nazi tank, Bulldozer and Ice Cream Soldier help engineers by blowing away some more Nazi attackers.

Back in San Gullio, the kids help Rock set fire to the tank. Elsewhere, Little Sure Shot and Four Eyes destroy a Nazi plane and protect the tanks they were guarding. The Nazis outside San Gullio decide to send flamethrowers into the town to wipe out any resistance. Bulldozer and Ice Cream Soldier show up just in time with some TNT and, after the last of the Nazis have been defeated, Rock introduces the reunited men of Easy Co. to his new pals--the Bambinos of San Gullio.

I had hoped that a two-part Sgt. Rock story would be better than this, but Doug Wildey does not succeed in rendering the various members of Easy Co. clearly enough to make their separate adventures interesting. Basically, Rock fights with the kids while the other sub-groups blow up Nazis, then they all get back together. Kanigher's attempt to write something long-form this time is a failure.

Captain Henry Talmage Elrod performed heroically in the days following the attack on Pearl Harbor by using his plane to down two Japanese bombers over Wake Island, destroying an enemy warship by bombing it from above, and fighting close-up as Japanese invaded the island. He was finally shot and killed by an enemy soldier.

"Medal of Honor"
Norman Maurer's art looks like a vestige from the Golden Age and is acceptable in that light, but this is hardly an exciting story, despite the true heroics on display.

Peter: Another month and another disappointing Rock saga; this one even comes equipped with a catch phrase Bob runs into the ground ("'Wonder how Rock's doin'?'") and Wildey art that looks suspiciously like Kubert in a lot of spots. These adventures that cast the spotlight on delightful war kids are a slog.

"Medal of Honor," while shining the light on a man who was unquestionably a war hero, is nothing more than an Encyclopedia Britannica entry, lacking any emotional depth whatsoever. "Medal of Honor" is cut from the same cloth as "Invasion? Where's Everyone?" but the latter manages to be interesting and involving while the former is way too dry.

Kirby & Berry
Our Fighting Forces 159

"'Mile-a-Minute' Jones!"
Story by Jack Kirby
Art by Jack Kirby & Mike Royer

Jack: The only survivor of a truck accident is an African-American soldier known as "'Mile-a-Minute' Jones," and he demonstrates why he's called that when he runs for his life from Nazis with guns. To his surprise, one of the Nazis is almost as fleet-footed as he and turns out to be Bruno Borman, a paratrooper who raced against Jones in the Berlin Olympics and nearly beat him.

Meanwhile, the Losers have been assigned the task of capturing General Kessel before those same Nazi paratroopers can get to him. The Losers rescue Jones and proceed to the villa where Kessel awaits. Jones locks Borman up with other Nazis who were guarding Kessel but neglects to search Borman, who quickly escapes by cutting his bonds with a hidden razor blade.

The Losers march off with Kessel but Borman soon catches up to them and races off to warn a nearby squad of Nazi soldiers. Jones gives chase! The race is on and, while Jones fails to catch Borman before the swift Nazi can reunite with his fellow paratroopers, those same men rush into battle and are blown up by a mine field--the same mine field Jones had just raced across unknowingly. The Losers rescue him and reinforcements arrive to end the Nazi threat--for now.

Hardly a Losers story, this succeeds because Kirby keeps the pace rapid and tries hard to depict a noble "Black" character. Clearly based on Jesse Owens, Jones has no distinct personality to speak of but can run very fast. He is at once a stereotypical African-American character who recalls those in 1940s' comics (of the sort Kirby drew) and an attempt to represent something more. Kirby's writing is the worst aspect of his '70s attempts at storytelling (his art was pretty bad, too), but in this story he manages to come close to producing something entertaining and worthwhile.

Peter: Maybe it's because Jack's on a downward slide and hasn't hit a right note in months, but I didn't really mind "'Mile-a-Minute' Jones!," all that much. It beat the hell out of "Panama Fattie," despite having a very familiar ring to it (remember that Rock adventure where one of the members of Easy was a disgraced ex-Olympian?), so I'll give it a passing grade of C+. On the bright side, The King's tenure on "the Losers" is fast coming to an end (he'll be Marvel's problem in just a few months). Stay tuned!

Star Spangled War Stories 191

"Decision at Volstadt"
Story by David Michelinie
Art by Gerry Talaoc

Story by Sid Check
Art by Buddy Gernale

Peter: In the opening pages of the third chapter of the exciting "Volstadt" epic, the Unknown Soldier has left little Gudren alone in the forest while he forages for civilian clothes. When he returns, both Gudren and US's magic make-up case are in the hands of the Ratzis! When he attempts to follow the troop back into Volstadt, he's chased by Nazis and cornered in a dead-end alley. In the nick of time, a basement door flies open and a gorgeous resistance fighter saves US's fat. Our hero quickly explains the situation and then his savior, Joanna, explains that both Gudren and the case are located in the Nazi headquarters owned by a local turncoat named General Von Bittschwann, a swine responsible for turning the local boys into Hitler Youth.

US and his new friends attempt a break-in at the General's only to discover they have stepped into a trap. They manage to overtake the Nazis, swipe Gudren and escape, but Joanna is gunned down in an alley by her own son, Eric... a new Hitler recruit. Back at the base, US grabs a machine gun and heads back to Von Bittschwann's place to grab his gear and ventilate a few Germans. Once again, our hapless protagonist falls into a trap and is cornered by Joanna's brainwashed son. When US tells Eric he's killed his own mother, the kid shoots him and then turns his pistol on Von Bittschwann before being gunned down by soldiers. The Unknown Soldier is taken into custody.

David Michelinie proves that, given a whole lot of space to work with, a genuinely riveting and well-written tale can be presented before DC War fans. "Decision at Volstadt" continues the wall-to-wall action present in the first two chapters and, again, leaves with a surprising cliffhanger. I was completely surprised when Eric was presented with the facts about his mother and then shot US anyway. Talaoc just seems to be getting better and better every issue as if the quality of scripts is egging him on. Bring on the conclusion!

After their "Stuka!" crashes and burns, two Nazi pilots must impersonate French civilians. So, it's only ironic that, hours after their own plane strafed the fleeing civilians, they should be the target of one of their comrades. Maybe not ironic so much as predictable, but some nice art by Buddy Gernale.

Jack: Easily the best comic we read for this post, SSWS 191 is a winner from start to finish. I am really getting to like Talaoc's art, and Michelinie recovers from a weak story last time out. The Unknown Soldier's ability to miss bullets still amazes me, as does the facility of every Nazi soldier with the English language. I was surprised to see US get shot, but I guess it was only a flesh wound. The backup story was great, too, and the final page features some impressive art. On the letters page, the editor remarks that they got about six letters commenting on issue 185. Who knew it was that easy to get a letter published in a comic? I always thought loads of readers were writing in and I'd have no chance. I should have written!

Next Week...
The Dark Age continues...
But Tom Sutton attempts to make it interesting.


Todd Mason said...

As a big fan of the Spectre revival, I'm sorry I missed that issue of WWT. Man, the distribution of comics was atrocious in the early 1970s.

Peter Enfantino said...

You're right. And did it seem like time would fly by? I'd be at 7-11 and pick up Vault of Evil #12 and, seemingly, return in a few weeks and discover I'd missed #13. Of course, we had no way of knowing when a fave title would show up (unless we were lucky enough to subscribe to The Comic Reader) decades before the internet!

Isn't it bad distribution that created a phenomena of Howard the Duck #1?

Jack Seabrook said...

I subscribed to the Comic Reader and it was the greatest! I had to ride my bike to the next town to find Howard the Duck #1, but find it I did, with that gorgeous Brunner cover!