Monday, July 27, 2015

Star Spangled DC War Stories Part 58: March 1964

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

Russ Heath &
Jack Adler
GI Combat 104

"Blind Man's Radar!"
Story by Robert Kanigher
Art by Joe Kubert

"The Return of Sgt. Mule!"
Story by Hank Chapman
Art by Jack Abel

Peter: A new German weapon is able to seek out and destroy Allied tanks in complete darkness. The Jeb Stuart must find a way to smoke out the menace and destroy it. While traveling through the wreckage of downed tanks, the men pick up a GI who's been blinded by the "night-fighter." Without time to turn back and get the man to a medic, the Stuart pushes on, all the while shadowed by the ghost of the Colonel, who continually tells his descendant that the Haunted Tank will come under fire during a great darkness. Jeb (the tank commander) tells Jeb (the ghost) that Jeb (the tank) will avoid destruction by staying in the blazing sun. That's not possible, though, as the tank enters a dark forest, is hit with a sky-darkening storm and, finally, a total eclipse (!) that renders it powerless to the "night-fighter." Luckily, the blinded GI has his other senses sharpened even faster and keener than Matt Murdock and warns Jeb that danger is approaching from the sky. Jeb orders his men to fill the sky with lead and the onslaught brings down the "night-flyer" for good.

The gripping finale of "Blind Man's Radar!"

Even though "Blind Man's Radar" is filled with many coincidences and frankly unbelievable occurrences, the story is also jammed with wall-to-wall action and suspense, traits that can often help you overlook shortcomings. Kanigher and Kubert are an unbeatable team and they combine here to create several nail-biting moments. Sure, we know there's no real danger to the men of the Jeb Stuart (this isn't Game of Thrones, after all) but when the Haunted Tank is pelted with ammo and the men are trapped inside the flaming box ("Here come our purple hearts," moans one of the boys), we can almost feel the claustrophobia our heroes must feel. When the blinded GI screams out, "I can hear something! Something up there!" as the "night-fighter" dives in for the kill, I got goosebumps. One of the Best of 1964!

Jack: Definitely above-average for the Haunted Tank series, but we still have the problem of ghostly Jeb Stuart giving cryptic warnings. Just come right out with it, will you? "Doom will strike you from the dark," he says. So what, the dark woods aren't enough? Nope, still more "doom from the dark" warnings! Then the torrential downpour doesn't cut it? Nope! How about a solar eclipse? Yep, that's it! The poor tank commander is afraid to tell his tank mates about the ghost because they'd call him crazy. There's a lot of that going around--he should meet the guys over in Star Spangled War Stories who don't want to tell anyone about the dinosaurs they keep running into!

Skinner has nagging doubts
about his role in the war
Peter: Time and time again, Sgt. Mule makes an ass out of Private Skinner, outperforming him on the battlefield and outsmarting the enemy at every turn. It wouldn't be so bad if Sgt Mule wasn't a donkey. Though Skinner is the butt of jokes from his human comrades, he eventually learns to live with and fall in love with his own private... er... Sgt. Mule. As if a mind-reading pooch wasn't bad enough, here we're saddled with a brainy beast of burden! Leave it to Hank Chapman to drum up "The Return of Sgt. Mule"; Hee haw-lways seems to find the hilarious aspects of World War II and reminds us that War wasn't always Hell. Some animal lovers (Jack Seabrook, for example) would cite Sgt. Mule as a fresh and startling concept but I hasten to add that this is actually the third time Chapman has made a donkey a hero of the military (the first two being "Mule PFC" from Our Army at War #29 [December 1954] and "The Sarge Was a Mule" from OAAW #117 [April 1962]) and we'll be subjected to a sequel before the end of the year as well ("Sgt. Mule Walks Among Us"? "House of Sgt. Mule"?). It's a reminder that these funny books were aimed at seven-year olds with disposable coins, but it's jolting after reading the stunning "Blind Man's Radar." I feel like a jackass wasting this much type on "Mule."

Jack: Amazing that we have a candidate for worst of the year in the same issue as a candidate for best of the year. It just goes to show you, oh I don't know what it goes to show you. That sometimes comics can be a disappointment? That the backup story in the war comics is almost always weaker than the lead story? That Jack Abel sure could mail it in sometimes? That Hank Chapman got paid for writing lines like: "bouquet of boom-blossoms"? How long till Enemy Ace?

Joe Kubert
The Brave & The Bold 52

"Suicide Mission! Save Him or Kill Him!"
Story by Robert Kanigher
Art by Joe Kubert

Jack: Johnny Cloud is sent on what could be a "Suicide Mission!" to travel behind enemy lines and pick up a valuable French agent with the code name "Martin," then return him to the Allied side. Cloud does battle with a Nazi plane before landing carefully, aware that his own plane has been rigged to blow up in case of a crash. He finds Martin lying in the back of a hay wagon driven by a dying old Frenchman, but to Cloud's surprise, the Nazis have encased Martin in an iron suit from head to toe in an attempt to prevent his escape or recognition.

Cloud loads Martin onto his plane and takes off, barely avoiding a Nazi machine gun with the aid of the old Frenchman, who Martin admits was his own father. Cloud is nearly done in by another Nazi plane until a last minute shot by a U.S. tank saves him. The tank--the Jeb Stuart--takes Cloud and Martin in the right direction, fighting off enemy tanks with some well-timed but cryptic advice from its ghostly adviser. After being damaged by an anti-tank mine, the Haunted Tank is saved by a blast from a bazooka manned by none other than Sgt. Rock.

Rock, Stuart and Cloud manage to remove Martin's iron suit only to discover that the secret French operative is Mlle. Marie! A Nazi commander in a tank corners the foursome, who recall the friends of Spartacus and all claim to be the famous agent, Martin. Rock makes a run for it and blows up the tank that chases him. Back at H.Q., the three Americans are promoted, though the newly-minted Lt. Rock is not happy about it and plans to find a way to return to Sgt. status.

"Save Him or Kill Him!" is automatically one of my favorite of the DC war stories we've read so far, but then I'm a sucker for team ups. Kubert's art in the Cloud and Stuart sequences is good but not great; he saves his best for the Rock sequence. Don't think too hard about why the Nazis would stick Mlle. Marie in an iron suit, because it makes no sense, but it does make the revelation of Martin's identity surprising. Ghostly Jeb Stuart is his usual, cryptic self, but the finale, with some sparks flying between Marie and Rock, is classic. And have we ever heard before that Sgt. Rock's first name is Frank? 

Peter: Our first full-length war blockbuster of the month (and the first ever War Heroes Team-Up) is a fun mash-up but could have been so much better. The reveal of Mademoiselle Marie under the tin can was a complete surprise (it's the first we've seen of the French babe since she lost her gig to a bunch of dinosaurs back in June 1960) but the "handing over of the baton" has a sameness to it that drags the narrative down. I would have preferred to see more interaction between the three headlining heroes (and if I were Gunner, Sarge, and Pooch, I'd have been calling my agent the second this issue hit the stands) and perhaps more depth given Bob was allowed a larger page count. I'm not all frowns, though, don't you worry. Kubert's art is right up there with his best and precious little time is given to the resident "ghost" and "spirit."

In Comic Book Marketplace #47 (May 1997), DC war collector and historian Mick Rabin says about B&B #52: "One of the great Kubert/Kanigher collaborations, which is often left out of the DC Big-5 history books. For one thing, it just isn't among the Big-5 runs, so it is frequently overlooked or forgotten." Many of Rabin's childhood friends skipped picking up B&B #62 because it wasn't a superhero story. "This came as little surprise," Rabin continues, "as I searched for nearly seven years before I found a copy which graded above Fine.... it has my vote for scarcest post-1962 DC issue from a mainstream title." From a marketing standpoint, this issue must have been a huge gamble (one that evidently didn't pay off since it will be five years before Sgt. Rock guests in the pages of Brave and the Bold again) but perhaps the editor (not coincidentally, Bob Kanigher) was hoping to boost sales of the war titles through a book usually given over to spandex and cowls. After reading the upbeat climax, I picture Marie and Rock, twenty years after the war, married, living in a little house in Florida perhaps, with the Sarge growling at the alligators, "Get off my lawn!"

Joe Kubert
Our Army at War 140

"Brass Sergeant!"
Story by Robert Kanigher
Art by Joe Kubert

Jack: Heading back to Easy Co. in a jeep with his C.O., 2d Lt. Rock complains mightily about his promotion, even as he fights off enemy planes and tanks. The battles leave both men's uniforms in shabby condition, much to the disgust of frontline general "Spit 'N' Polish," who threatens them with demotion if they don't take better care of their appearance.

Back at Easy Co., Rock must put up with razzing from his men as well as a new 2d Lt. named Smith, who is the son of General "Spit 'N' Polish" and who is wracked with self-doubt due to his father's harsh style of parenting. He begs Rock to put him in a position to prove himself, but it's not until he bravely takes out an enemy tank that his father softens. In the end, "Spit 'N' Polish" realizes that Rock is more valuable to the war effort as a sergeant and demotes him, using another tattered uniform as an excuse.

How about that? A continued story in a DC war comic, and a darn good one at that! "Brass Sergeant!" picks right up where "Suicide Mission!" leaves off and tells an exciting story that is marred only by the constant complaining of Lt. Smith about how he's not worthy. As usual, Kanigher and Kubert rise to the occasion with a satisfying portrait of--what else?--our army at war.

Peter: Only the second full-length solo Sgt Rock saga (after "4 Faces of Sgt Rock" back in OAAW #127), "Brass Sergeant" is a direct sequel to the Brave and the Bold team-up and, like that trailblazer, has a bit of a drag to it but, ultimately, satisfies. I could have done with a lot less whining from Spit 'n' Polish Junior and I was sure, before story's end, that Rock would have climbed the rank ladder all the way to General, but the action that opens this "blockbuster book" is aces. I had to laugh after Rock showed up at his C.O.'s office, shaved and showered, with his ammo belts hanging across his shoulders. Didn't this guy ever go anywhere without his bullets? Doesn't bode well for Mademoiselle's wedding night!

Ross Andru &
Mike Esposito
Star Spangled War Stories 113

"Dinosaur Bait!"
Story by Robert Kanigher
Art by Ross Andru and Mike Esposito

" 'General' Sarge"
Story Uncredited
Art by Jerry Grandenetti

Peter: The Navy and the Air Force team up to get to the bottom of disappearing subs in Area X-9 (you know, that part of the Pacific that's... uncharted). Representing the services are brothers Jim and Nick. Jim has always been there to protect little brother Nick, so when Jim's sub is snapped up by a terror from the prehistoric dinosaur ice age, Nick is understandably upset but never gives up hope that his big brother made it out okay. Before too long, though, Nick's got giant-sized troubles of his own as he and his men fly out of a cloud bank and end up landing on the wing of a pterodactyl. The men have no choice but to abandon ship and hope they don't end up as snacks for the giant birds. They all manage to parachute safely down to an island below but the dinos just keep on coming. As they are making their way back to the beach after a daring escape from a vicious Kangasorus Rex, they spy Jim's sub being tossed out of the water onto the beach by a long-necked thingy. Using explosives, Nick and his men are able to destroy the monster and take back the sub. On the way home, the brothers smile, confident that they will have forgotten all about the horrors they've lived through by the time they reach base.

After a delightful change of pace with last issue's "Dinosaur Sub-Catcher," Bob Kanigher realizes he's not paid enough to come up with clever twists every issue and heads back into familiar water with "Dinosaur Bait," going so far as stocking the tale with the mothball-worthy brothers-in-arms subplot and falling back on dinosaur pinball. There's not one panel in this story we haven't seen before; dinosaurs and soldiers can be cool but they can also get monotonous. Nick, as portrayed by Andru and Esposito, looks like a crack addict most of the time with his bulbous eyes and sweaty brow.

Jack: A better-than-usual entry in this repetitive series, "Dinosaur Bait!" benefits from some unexpectedly appealing art by Ross and Mike, such as the three-vertical-panel page reproduced here showing men in free fall blasting away at pterodactyls. There is a humorous flashback to the brothers' younger days as gang members and a fun sequence where one imagines the undersea horrors the other is facing. I don't usually like the War That Time Forgot stories this much!

Peter: A sergeant who dreams of wearing a higher rank gets a chance to step into those shoes when the General he's chauffeuring is paralyzed in the desert and the pair are surrounded by Nazis. With a little trickery and a whole lot of luck, the Sergeant saves both their hides and even earns a little respect from his senior officer. I thought " 'General' Sarge" was a clever little story (okay, so you do have to check your brain at the door several times...) hampered by Grandenetti's scratch-and-run art.

Jack: Though the GCD does not credit the writer, my money's on Bob Haney, in my opinion by far the better of the two writers responsible for most of the back of the book stories. With captions written in the second person ("You stagger like a startled rabbit from the only cover--") and an eerie series of panels where Nazis dressed in desert attire march toward the abandoned fort, this tale delivers the goods despite the artwork. As in the Sgt. Rock stories this month, the message at the end is that fighting sergeants can be more valuable than generals.

Joe Kubert
Sgt. Rock's Prize Battle Tales 1

(A reprinting of seven stories, only one of which actually stars Rock)

"The D.I.--and the Sand Fleas!"
Story by Robert Kanigher
Art by Joe Kubert
(reprinted from G.I. Combat #56, January 1958)

"Silent Fish"
Story by Robert Kanigher
Art by Russ Heath
(reprinted from Star Spangled War Stories #72, August 1958)

"Out in Front!"
Story by Robert Kanigher
Art by Ross Andru and Mike Esposito
(reprinted from Our Army at War #67, February 1958)

"Island of Armored Giants!"
(reprinted from Star Spangled War Stories #90, May 1960)

"What's the Price of a B-17?"
Story by Robert Kanigher
Art by Joe Kubert
(reprinted from Our Army at War #79, February 1959)

"Gun Jockey!"
Story by Robert Kanigher
Art by Irv Novick
(reprinted from Our Army at War #82, May 1959)

"Calling Easy Co.!"
(reprinted from Our Army at War #87, October 1959)

Peter: DC war fans must have jumped out of their foxholes in record numbers when they saw what was essentially the first DC War Annual hit the stands in early 1964. Sgt. Rock's Prize Battle Tales #1 features seven reprints culled from the titles between 1958 and 1960. 80 pages of blazing combat action for only two bits! Another monster, published as an 80 Page Giant, will appear in early 1965.

Jack: I have fond memories of the 80 Page Giants from childhood--Core Memories, perhaps, as they put it in Pixar's Inside Out. I love the covers with multiple stories featured.

Peter: The best reprint of the issue is easily "Calling Easy Co.!", but since we've covered that before, the runner-up gets the nod. The green soldiers learning the basics at training camp from the hardened drill instructor believe they're being singled out and picked on but, of course, without hardening, these boys wouldn't make it off the beach alive. When the D.I. chooses to accompany his new recruits to the landing, the boys fast come to realize what the man has been doing for them. A very solid, gritty, pre-Rock WWII saga. Chris Pedrin, in his indispensable study of the DC war books, Big Five (Alton-Kelly, 1994), cites the lead character of "The D.I.--and the Sand Fleas" as an early Sgt. Rock prototype ("...the closest yet to the Rock we know"). Far be it for me to argue (or at least mildly disagree) with the expert on Rock, but I don't see it. Sure, the hard facial features and masculinity are there but that's mostly due to Kubert's artwork. Rock is gruff and (for the most part) takes no guff but he's never really been a practitioner of mind games like the titular drill instructor. Regardless, "The D.I.--and..." is a very good story, with Kubert and Kanigher at the top of their game.

It never gets old!

From Battle Classics #1
(October 1978)

After that cup of coffee has kicked in, 
join us for another skin-tingling issue of 
Do You Dare Enter?
On Sale August 3rd!

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