Monday, February 17, 2014

Star Spangled DC War Stories Part 21: February 1961

The DC War Comics 1959-1976
by Corporals Enfantino and Seabrook

Irv Novick
All-American Men of War 83

"Fighting Blind!"
Story by Robert Kanigher
Art by Irv Novick

"Pencil Pusher Patrol!"
Story by Bob Haney
Art by Jack Abel

"Bazookamen Are Nuts!"
Story by Hank Chapman
Art by Jerry Grandenetti

Peter: Even after convincing his squadron he's more than capable of taking care of himself in an air battle, "Flying Chief" Johnny Cloud must once again deal with racism when the newest recruit, Tex, views the new leader's management skills as suspect. When Tex is shot down, Johnny himself shows doubt but a lucky quirk of fate re-teams him with Tex and the two become life-saving assets to each other even while one is "Flying Blind." I'm hoping the framework of the two Johnny Cloud stories thus far--"Johnny battles bigotry"--will quickly give way to varied plot lines. Much like the French in Mme. Marie's adventures, Johnny only uses "Indian talk" (like powwow and papoose) when it's a word us Americans can understand. Having said all that, the series is certainly better than the yuck-fest known as Gunner and Sarge and I'm just glad that every time Cloud sees a spirit in the sky it's based on his surname rather than his first!

Tonight's homework assignment:
compare Johnny Cloud on the cover
to Johnny Cloud inside
Jack: The second Johnny Cloud story is even better than the first! They toned down the "fish out of water" business but kept Cloud's Indian characteristics, such as seeing his "brother" in the clouds. Having new man Tex not like him until Cloud saves him works well and the final flight, where Cloud is blinded and Tex talks him through it, was harrowing. Interesting how they tone down Cloud's features and skin color for the cover.

Peter: After riding nothing more than a desk during "the Big War," Sgt. Gage gets his first command in Korea. Unfortunately, one of his men turns out to be Vic Barnes, an old comrade during WWII, and Barnes rides the Sgt. with jabs about pencil-pushing and re-loading ink. In the end, Gage proves he's got what it takes to lead the "Pencil Pusher Patrol"... to himself and to Barnes. We all know where this is going from the opening panel so we might as well get comfortable. The scene where Gage scissors Barnes with his legs while they make their way over a ravine is a stretch to say the least. At least we get Jack Abel's fine art to see us through to the other side of this ravine.

For many years after this,
he was known as "Iron Crotch"
Jack: A very impressive tale, both story and art! I'm always happy when these stories move beyond WWII and the concluding peril, where the soldiers avoid being trapped in a trench and gunned down by the enemy, reminded me of an incident on Day 1 at the battle of Gettysburg. I am reading Gettysburg: The Last Invasion, a new book about the Civil War battle, and it's amazing how so much of what happens in war is accidental and unplanned. And by the way, the Sarge must have developed some real muscles while pushing his pencil to be able to go hand by hand across a rope while holding another soldier between his legs!

Peter: Green GI Shaw shows up at Baker Company just as the squad is burying Barney, a bazooka destroyed during combat. Shaw quickly raises the ire of the gunners when he questions the sanity of a soldier who names his equipment (no jokes now!). After being assigned to aid a bazookaman during heavy fire, Shaw comes to appreciate the love for a good piece of firepower. As with the first two stories in this issue, there were no surprises here; we all know there will be a major change in a character's outlook on the warriors around him during the story. Yeah, most of the tales we've read so far on this journey hammer that plot device home but this issue seems to be particularly egregious in its sameness. Anyone wanting to witness the startling pendulum swing known as Jerry Grandenetti need only compare his fine work here with the exaggerated and chaotic art he served up for "One False Step" from Unexpected #130 (covered in last week's blog).

Another Grandenetti pose
Jack: Even this was not a bad little story, despite showing early signs of the bad habits Grandenetti would develop in the next ten years or so. It's not so weird to gave names to inanimate objects. Certain members of my immediate family name their cars, so naming bazookas makes sense.

Peter: Call me a deserter, Corporal Jack, but I thought this issue stunk.

Jack: I think yer tin pot's on too tight.

Russ Heath
Our Army at War 103

"Easy's Had It!"
Story by Robert Kanigher
Art by Joe Kubert

"Who Says You Can't Sink An Island?"
Story by Bob Haney
Art by Jack Abel

Jack: The men of Easy Co. have such high respect for Sgt. Rock that they think that, if he dies in battle, then "Easy's Had It!" This worries the sergeant, who tries to convince his men that no one is expendable. After Rock single-handedly destroys two enemy tanks, his men are even more certain that he is invincible. Only when Easy Co. has to storm a seemingly impenetrable hill fortress and Rock is shot and apparently killed do the men realize that they have what it takes to keep on fighting, even if it's in Rock's name. Happily, Rock lives on and so does Easy Co., perhaps having grown in their confidence in themselves yet still acknowledging the importance of their leader. This has to be one of the classic Sgt. Rock stories! The importance of the scene where Easy Co. thinks Rock is dead is signaled by two consecutive full-page panels, which is unusual for Kubert. Kanigher's writing is in top form and the art is superb.

Peter: The extra pages really allow Kubert to flex his artistic muscles. There are several full- and near-full page pin-ups in this one. The story's a pretty good one as well though I still question the thought process behind shooting at a plane that's heading right at you. I would think the ensuing explosion would have taken out the entire Company but luck was with Our Army at War and a small tree provided enough barrier to save the day. Yes, I'm a stickler.

Jack: Japanese soldiers occupying a Pacific island think they have the upper hand when an Allied aircraft carrier approaches, but "Who Says You Can't Sink an Island?" The zeroes can't put a dent in the ship but repeated attacks by the American planes essentially destroy the island. At five and a half pages, this story is too short to work up any momentum, but Abel's art continues to impress me.

Peter: An interesting concept but as you say, Jack, the story's a tad on the light side. Jack Abel's work, in several spots, is a dead ringer for that of Kubert's. Only one panel, of Japanese Commander Sito in his Zero cockpit (stereotypical buckteeth a-flashin'), reminds the reader just how far Jack Abel has come since we started this journey.

Jack: Two side notes on this issue: one is the nice cover by Russ Heath, which pulls a scene out of the Sgt. Rock story that is not one of the highlights, and the other is the annual sales report, which states that Our Army at War was selling an average of 172,000 copies per month. I wonder why Kubert did not draw the cover for such a strong story? Maybe he was tired after cranking out 18 pages!

Peter: That 172,000 sales statistic is eye-opening. According to the 1960 DC sales figures, only All-Star Western sold less copies than any of the war books (at least of the titles that had to report sales figures) and this was at a time when Superman was selling 810,000 a month. What kept these titles afloat? For the record, other 1960 numbers reported were: GI Combat (182,000), All-American Men at War (176,000), Our Fighting Forces (175,000), and Star-Spangled (169,000).

Jerry Grandenetti
Our Fighting Forces 59

"Pooch--Patrol Leader!"
Story by Robert Kanigher
Art by Jerry Grandenetti

"No Place to Land"
Story by Bob Haney
Art by Russ Heath

"Beach Prize for a Frogman!"
Story by Bob Haney
Art by Jack Abel

Jack: Arf! After Gunner & Sarge destroy a Japanese tank in the pouring rain, their bickering back at camp leads the captain to tell them they are finished as a team. When poor Pooch can't decide which one of them to follow, the captain assigns the hero dog to go out on patrol with Cpl. Stanton and he becomes "Pooch--Patrol Leader!" On his own, Gunner downs an enemy plane but begins to worry about his four-legged pal and follows Cpl. Stanton into the jungle. Not surprisingly, Sarge has had the same idea and takes out an enemy machine gun trap hidden in a tree. Together again, everyone's favorite trio blows up an enemy cannon. Pooch manages to save the day when a grenade gets a little too close, but he is stunned when it goes off and his masters fear for his life. All is well in the end, though, as the canine champ lives to prance again! This story of the terrific trio was not as bad as some others, perhaps because it was not filled with wall to wall goofy banter.

Arf! Arf!
Peter: You're being much too kind, Jack, and your animal rights bent is showing through loud and clear. I, on the other hand, find Pacific Ocean dinosaur islands more believable than a dog who reads minds. That last bit, with Poochie finally wagging again after Gunner and Sarge are reunited, worked much better in the episode of Family Affair when Mister French made peace after Buffy found Mrs. Beasley in Jody's bed.

Jack: When a fighter pilot's aircraft carrier is destroyed he finds that he has "No Place to Land!" as he soars above the ocean with his gas gauge falling dangerously. He finally finds another carrier but sees a rising sun on its deck and knows two things: it's an enemy ship and it's lying in wait for a nearby Allied ship. The pilot aims his plane straight down at the enemy carrier and destroys it, saving the Allied ship and himself in the bargain. Ahh! A nice story with art by Russ Heath. What a relief! Russ, we've missed you.

"No Place to Land!"
Peter: This story tackles a subject I've often wondered about: where does a war plane go when it can't refuel? Just as scary a scenario as the crippled submarine in my book. Of course, we get the requisite happy ending (for just a few moments there, I thought we'd get one of those bleak "lead character dies a hero" finales I love so much but...) but, still, some nice intense scenes illustrated by the finest war artist DC employed at the time.

This one has it all!
Jack: A frogman is assigned the task of clearing enemy traps that surround a Pacific island so that the Allied invasion force can land. He is tempted by a "Beach Prize for a Frogman," a samurai sword placed on the beach as a challenge by a Japanese soldier. Despite obstacles that include enemy fire, a giant squid, and the enemy soldier himself--who is a judo master--the frogman clears the traps and makes off with the sword, clearing a path for invasion. This story was too busy to work, though any tale that manages to get a samurai sword, a judo master, and a giant squid into six pages can't be all bad!

Peter: Ed Wood called. He wants his giant rubber squid back. Jack Abel pauses on his ascent to the upper echelons of DC War Artists long enough to remind us that all Japanese soldiers had buck teeth. Really, Jack's a bit off his game here, very sketchy. As for the story, there are a few too many chutes and ladders for my tastes but it's harmless fun, I guess.

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