Monday, June 1, 2015

Star Spangled DC War Stories Part 54: November 1963

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

Joe Kubert
Our Army at War 136

"Make Me a Hero!"
Story by Robert Kanigher
Art by Joe Kubert

"I, the Bazooka!"
Story by Hank Chapman
Art by Jack Abel

Jack: Sgt. Rock nicknames the new recruit Glory Boy because he keeps asking Rock to "Make Me a Hero!" to fulfill a promise to his girl back home. Rock tells a couple of stories of how other combat-happy Joes got medals and then the sergeant shows some heroics himself by testing out a frozen lake and fighting a Nazi ambush on the other side. Glory Boy is sent out alone on patrol and captured by Nazis; he leads them back to Easy Co. but refuses to give the code word, causing himself and the Nazis to be wiped out by gunfire. As he dies, Rock assures him that he is a hero.

The tale of Glory Boy starts out slow and at first seem like some others we've read, but by the time it starts snowing and Rock has to cross the frozen lake, Kubert's magnificent artwork ensures that this story is a winner. The climax, where Glory Boy finds out the hard way what makes a hero, is tense and satisfying.

Peter: We've hit a lull in the Sgt. Rock series, in my opinion. If not really bad, the last three or four stories have been weak. This one's no exception. The flashbacks are pretty schmaltzy and "Glory Boy"'s unending drone of "make me a hero, sarge" had me rolling my eyes. I will say there were a couple of highlights here: the sequence where Rock takes a swim in the icy water is chilling (see what I did there?); Kubert almost makes you feel as if you're the one who took a spill into the drink. Glory Boy's eventual sacrifice (hope his girl is happy!) almost undoes all the maudlin bits that come before it but Kanigher can't help but give the kid some final words (ugh!). As I say, it ain't terrible, but it sure isn't the class material we've become accustomed to.

Load him! Load him!
Jack: When a new bazooka is delivered to Charlie Company, the men assigned to use it don't trust it until they see it fire on its own and destroy two Nazi tanks. "I, the bazooka" is one of those stories where inanimate objects tell us their thoughts through word balloons. "Please give me a chance!" cries the bazooka. At one point, a Tommy gun asks, "Aren't you good for anything?" This is not Hank Chapman's best work.

Peter: I love how, in just about every panel, these dorky soldiers are saying things that would hurt the feelings of a hunk of metal. Why would two rational people carry on a diatribe about a weapon in such a way? Of course, I'm complaining about the stilted dialog in a story narrated by a bazooka! We've had tanks that talk, revolvers that talk and now a bazooka. Can't wait for the obvious follow-up--"I Am Your Latrine!"

Jerry Grandenetti &
Jack Adler
G.I. Combat 102

"Battle Window!"
Story by Robert Kanigher
Art by Joe Kubert

"The Ace With Two Faces!"
Story by Bob Haney
Art by Jerry Grandenetti

Peter: Jeb Stuart (the ghost) delivers yet another warning to Jeb Stuart (his descendant) about imminent danger to the Jeb Stuart (the tank): the lives of the men will be decided by a single shot. What could that mean, ponders the young Jeb. After a series of mishaps, including a Panzer that gets a heave-ho into the ocean by the Haunted Tank, the men wheel into a small French village. Unbeknownst to our heroes, the village is being held by yet another Panzer unit, masterminded by a cold-as-ice tank commander just itching to put Yankee soldiers in the ground. The Nazi's plans are thwarted by a French war vet who sits rocking in his chair, taking it all in. The old man alerts the Jeb Stuart to the imminent danger and then takes out the assassin roosting in a church bell tower with a single shot! Jeb and his men destroy the Panzer unit and ponder the identity of their savior. Start to finish, one of the best Haunted Tank adventures yet. The action never lets up, there're no dopey catch phrases or mawkish kitten rescues to weigh this one down, just one solid action epic. It's nice to see a bit more of General Stuart than we're used to and I'm hoping we get to see even more in the future. "Battle Window" is about as close to perfect as this series has been in its sixteen installments. I do miss Heath (curiously absent since March 1963), but if you have to have a back up artist on a war series, who better than Kubert? Joe's work here is stunning, especially the several "point of view" panels scattered here and there. Barring an upset in the next few weeks, this is my pick for Best Story of 1963.

Jack: For once, we are completely in agreement. This is one of the best DC war stories we've read. Looking back on comics history from the vantage point of 2015, it's hard to know just how much access artists of 1963 had to the great work that had come before and how much it influenced them, but as I read this story I got the feeling that Kubert was showing a real Eisner influence. In the late '40s, Eisner's Spirit sections in the Sunday papers pioneered the use of sound effects and close ups to build suspense. Here, Kubert makes great use of the noise of the bell and the noise of the tanks to tell his story. The panel reproduced here, where we see the bell tower, the tank, and the old soldier's eye in extreme close up, is pure Eisner. This story is a perfect meld of Kanigher's battle knowledge, Kubert's draftsmanship, and Eisneresque cinematic storytelling technique.

Peter: When Ronny is killed in battle with the notorious Baron Luft, his brother Mike swears revenge on the captain who was supposed to be protecting little Ronny. When Mike tangles with Luft, the two pilots must make emergency landings. The Baron gets the better of Mike and steals his Spad in an effort to mow down the rest of Mike's squadron but "The Ace With Two Faces" bounces back and quickly dispatches the German ace. When he lands, Mike tells the captain he knows the man has no blood on his hands and the two embrace. What a load of hooie; a complicated script made even muddier by Jerry's awful artwork. So Mike makes a vow to kill the captain but then all is forgiven once the Baron steals his plane? Talk about unbelievable swings of emotions; I guess they didn't have medication for that sort of thing at the turn of the century.

Jack: Above-average Grandenetti for 1963 is still not great, but I thought that the twist of having the Allied and German planes swiped and piloted by each other's enemy was clever and it helped explain what at first appeared to be a strange opening. Jerry G. was good at drawing planes and could depict dynamic poses of the human body; it's his faces that always seem to disappoint.

Jerry Grandenetti
Our Fighting Forces 80

"Don't Come Back!"
Story by Robert Kanigher
Art by Jerry Grandenetti

"Second Best!"
Story by Hank Chapman
Art by Jack Abel

Jack: Out on patrol once again, Gunner, Sarge and Pooch are surprised by an enemy ambush. While they are out cold on the ground, the Japanese steal their guns and Pooch's dog tag. Waking up to find themselves alive but weaponless, our heroes know that the rule is "Don't Come Back!" without your guns, so they track the Japanese and end up prisoners of Col. Hakawa at his HQ, where he has proudly displayed their arms on a display board. When battle ensues, the guys are sprung, and G, S & P triumph over the hapless enemy before heading back to base. It's really a toss up which is worse--this series or the War That Time Forgot. I'll give the edge in likability to the dinosaurs just because they're dinosaurs.

Peter: This story's title perfectly captures my feelings about this series. When I finish another episode, I pray it will be the last. Unfortunately, since we're Monday morning quarterbacks, I know this mess will dribble on for another 14 installments (October 1965 can't get here fast enough!) and, being the trooper and completist I am, I'll slog through every single one of those stories. Sad thing is, based on the 36 Gunner and Sarge tales we've endured so far, I think I can sum them all up right now without reading them. I think we're witnessing here the ground zero where "Jerry Grandenetti, the sometimes-decent artist" became "Jerry Grandenetti, the always-awful artist." His scribbling here and in "Ace with Two Faces" is about as bad as we've seen him in the 1960s. Fortunately (for us, at least), Jerry's first run on the war books is soon coming to an end as he'll turn to working for Charlton, Warren and, later on, the DC mystery line.

Jack: Ever since high school, Lew Lacy has always come out "Second Best!" to his rival, Ace Atkins. Ace was selected as an All-American in football, and when both men join the air force in WWII, Ace again comes out on top and becomes an ace pilot while Lew quietly does a good job of protecting the other fliers. Along comes the Korean War, and Lew and Ace are in the skies again, this time flying jets. Ace excels until the day when he needs help and Lew blows five MiGs out of the sky to save his rival's life. Most troubling for me in this story was the scene with Lew and his high-school girlfriend, Dotty, who tells him: You've got to be better than second best--to be first with me, Lew!" If these poor guys in the '40s weren't being dumped on by their war-hero Dads, they were getting verbally skewered by their girlfriends. No wonder they headed off to war!

Does anyone else think Jack Abel had a little help
with this panel? Maybe from Irv Novick?

Peter: I think Hank Chapman was in such a hurry to pump out this hunk of garbage that he missed the  most obvious hook--Ace Atkins should have been a Nazi! Can't you see Ace with his swastika-embossed Notre Dame jersey diving out of the sky right into the path of our #2 Best All-American Runner-Up Lacy? Extra points for shallowest characters ever written for a war drama. In my voting for Worst Story of the Year, make no mistake... this will not be "Second Best!"

Ross Andru &
Mike Esposito
Star Spangled War Stories 111

"Return of the Dinosaur Killer!"
Story by Robert Kanigher
Art by Ross Andru and Mike Esposito

"The Brainwashed Jet!"
Story by Bob Haney
Art by Jerry Grandenetti

Peter: Trapped on an island filled with enemy troops, the professor and the skipper (our protagonists from last issue's "Tunnel of Terror") must rely on a hidden glider to make their escape. The good news is: the air force arrives just in time to hook up their glider and rescue them from utter death; bad news: their tow plane is attacked by Zeroes and their line is released, leaving them to the whims of the Pacific. The glider enters a strange (and strangely familiar) white cloud and exits into a land of prehistoric monster creatures from the dinosaur stone age. Once they land, the duo decide to check the river where their giant white friend made his last stand (last issue), just to be sure the ape is dead. A quick dive produces the evidence they were lacking and the Skipper and Professor lament the loss of their savior, moments later, when they are sandwiched on a cliff by carnivores out for a morning snack. Out of the blue, a giant white hand reaches down and save the men from total digestion. The son of big white ape! Our giant Caucasian bodyguard defends the duo time and again and then "tells" them to get into their glider, giving the boys a final shove and wave goodbye. "Return of the Dinosaur Killer" is just as stupid as its predecessor (and just about all of the War That Time Forgot installments, for that matter) but, like "Tunnel of Terror," this ersatz Grandson of Kong has loads of charm and innocence, enough to melt the heart of even an old cynic like me. Another plus is the fact that the Skipper and the Professor manage to retain all the knowledge they had in their first adventure; there's no post-trauma amnesia as in the Circus Brothers adventures we endured several months ago. One question though: will further adventures tell us how the Skipper and Professor hooked up with Gilligan, Mary Ann, and the other castaways?

Jack: The cover caption asks: "Can a million-to-one chance happen twice?" Somehow I knew that, in the War That Time Forgot series, the answer would be yes. Early in the story, our heroes sit in a grounded plane when another plane flies over it and catches it with a towline and hook, lifting it skyward. Is this possible? Can the forces of gravity be overcome so easily, and is there a plane built that could survive being yanked from a standstill on the ground into immediate flight without being pulled apart? Amazing. Do you know what else is amazing? The big white ape has the same Andru and Esposito googly eyes as every human in the story.

A rare thumbs-up for the cartoony
stylings of Groovy Grandenetti
Peter: Major Ben Wade, one of our top aces, is captured by the stinking commie Koreans and brainwashed into believing his own men are the enemy. Before they release him, the bad guys test the Major by having him destroy a captured Sabre. Confident he is in their command, the Koreans allow Wade to return to his base. There he learns that his brother, Billy, has joined the crew but, oddly, spends no time with the young man. On their next mission, Billy watches in horror as brother Ben shoots down one of his own men. The C.O. scoffs and tells Billy to get back to work. The big mission arrives: the squadron must blow up a dam in order to flood an enemy compound but will Ben execute that mission or will he blow his own guys out of the sky? The Koreans are taken aback, to say the least, when their puppet successfully blows the dam to bits and puts to bed the theory that any man can be brainwashed. When Billy gets back to base, the C.O. admits that Wade's brainwashing was an act to fool the enemy and that no pilots were harmed.

What begins as an exciting DC version of The Manchurian Candidate (which had been released the year before) sputters out and crashes in an expository-heavy climax. Yes, I know I was being naive when I thought there might be something of substance, just a little bit of edge maybe, here in "The Brainwashed Jet," but the opening and second act are pretty engaging (the sequence where the Koreans sacrifice one of their own pilots in order to test Major Wade is heavy stuff for a funny book) and certainly led me to believe there might just be a little more meat on the bone. I even thought Jerry Grandenetti's cartoony, exaggerated style (yep, that same awful mishmash I moaned about above!) was perfect for the nightmarish brainwashing segment, as if we're seeing this distorted world through Major Wade's eyes. Alas, Bob Haney has to wrap it all up with a "he's always been a hero, boys and girls" bow. Why bother misleading kid brother Billy? A missed opportunity.

Jack: A little more meat on the bones than usual for a backup story, don't you think? I love The Manchurian Candidate and I like the way Bob Haney worked the idea of brainwashing into what is essentially a run of the mill story. Even though the end was a bit of a letdown he gets points for trying.

Next Up:
The Best DC Horror Stories of 1974!
On Sale June 8th! 

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