Monday, June 20, 2016

Star Spangled DC War Stories Part 81: February 1966

The DC War Comics
by Corporals Enfantino and Seabrook

Our Fighting Forces 98

"Death Wore a Grin!"
Story by Robert Kanigher
Art by Irv Novick

"Breakthrough in Reverse!"
Story by Hank Chapman
Art by Jack Abel

Jack: Lt. Larry Rock has been captured by the Japanese and is being used as a punching bag by their champion, an enormous Master of the Martial Arts who wears a groovy medallion on a chain around his neck. As he's getting the stuffing beat out of him, Larry thinks back to Vince Albie, who he's been chasing all his life. A hero on the football field and an iron lung survivor, Albie joined the Marines and led a gun unit at Pearl Harbor before shipping out to Australia and then Guadalcanal, Larry a few steps behind him all the way. Larry was captured while on patrol and the enemy decided to let the big man beat him up for awhile. In one of the more ludicrous turns of events in a DC war comic, Larry grabs on to the big guy's neck medallion and the big guy does a modified hula hoop maneuver, swinging Larry bodily around and around as Larry hangs on to the neck chain. Unfortunately, this results in the Martial Arts Master dying of a broken neck! Suddenly, Albie and the marines appear and rout the Japanese, who run for the jungle, and Albie admits he's spent years chasing his own idol, Larry's big brother, Sgt. Rock!

We can't make this stuff up!

Not quite bad enough for Worst of the Year, "Death Wore a Grin!" makes me wonder why Bob Kanigher bothered with the Larry Rock character. He doesn't seem to have much going for him at this point, and his big claim to fame--seeing red due to a metal plate in his head--occurs only in flashback. The backup story isn't much better, as a unit of new soldiers has to prove itself by fending off wave after wave of Japanese attackers coming at them from the rear.

Peter: "Death Wore a Grin" feels more like a superhero adventure rather than a star spangled war story, with its unbeatable Asian giant and frenetic pacing. It's the best of the four "Fighting Devil Dog" installments (which ain't saying much) but it's not a great story. Bob just can't help throwing in two of the DC war cliches into an already cliched series, with the pals from college who magically meet up again in combat and the dopey hero worship (and Wertham would say homoerotic love) Larry holds for Vince. Evidently, four chapters in the life of Larry Rock was enough for Bob Kanigher and the series gets the axe, with Captain Hunter taking over the slot next issue. Lt. Rock will co-star (along with Gunner and Sarge!) in the Capt. Storm title in June 1966. Irv Novick's art is awful here; it's sketchy with an almost unfinished look to it. Speaking of bad art, there's "Breakthrough in Reverse!" with its equally amateurish Jack Abel doodlings. It took me a while to jump onto the Abel bandwagon but Jack had been rolling along quite nicely the last several months 'til he hit this brick wall. The nadir would have to be any of the panels depicting Asians with two great big buckteeth.

Blitzkrieg Beavers? 

All American Men of War 113

"The Ace of Sudden Death!"
Story by Robert Kanigher
Art by Russ Heath

"What Price Ace!"
Story by Hank Chapman
Art by Gene Colan

Peter: Still smarting from his C.O.'s dress-down (last issue), Steve Savage promises he'll be good and won't break away from his formation to bomb those nasty German balloons. A new recruit idolizes Savage but the Lt. tries his darndest to dissuade the hero worship. While out on a patrol, Steve just can't help himself and heads for those pesky balloons, taking out two of the three zeppelins before he spots the new kid tailing him and realizes he's gotta get back to the base. The major tears Savage a new one and grounds him but the Germans fly over the base, dropping a challenge for Steve to meet them in the skies. The kid hops in a plane and takes off but doesn't make it too far before being blown out of the sky. Steve dons his old cowboy hat and, disregarding the protests of the major, hops in his Spad and takes to the sky, eliminating the dirty Fokkers who had shot down his little buddy.

Except for a jig here and a jag there, "The Ace of Sudden Death" is almost a carbon copy of the first Steve Savage adventure. We've got the rebellious Steve Savage disobeying orders, the major's ears getting real red and steam coming out of his nostrils, and the realization that maybe what everyone says about him is true: he's a born killer and that's what he's good at in life. Heath's air battles are almost iconic; his art should be hanging in some highfalutin' gallery somewhere. And while Bob never misses a chance to insert a cliche here and there (Steve exists to carry out a promise made to his Paw on his deathbed), he also sprinkles the narrative with more death and mayhem than we're used to seeing in the DC war stories. The closest kin would have to be Enemy Ace. So, though it's not the most original sophomore effort, it's still a winner. One other quick observation: I believe this is the first time we've seen a direct sequel to a previous chapter. We know, for instance, that Johnny Cloud had flashbacks of people in his past and would then meet those people every issue but, by the next installment, he was on to the next flashback with no lasting trauma. The first two Balloon Buster thrillers are like one long epic divided by two months and nothing else.

Jack: You're right that Russ Heath makes this story better than it should be. Did you catch the brief mention of "that enemy ace, Rittmeister Hans von Hammer" on page two? The general compares Steve Savage to von Hammer and says that the war should be fought only between such born killers. I was hoping for a showdown between Savage and the Hammer of Hell, but no such luck.

Peter: Brad and Mark are an aerial daredevil duo known as "The Barnstorming Buddies," who do everything together (yes, everything . . .) until Brad steals Mark's girl from him and the act becomes dangerous. When the two join the Air Force in World War I, they become hated rivals within the same squadron, each trying to become the first "ace" in the group. A particularly grueling day in the sky begs the question, "What Price Ace!," and brings Mark and Brad back together as they celebrate acehood together. Raise your hands, everyone who knew the two guys who wanted to kill each other would be hand in hand at the climax. Well, heck, at least they're not brothers, right?

Jack: The barnstorming tricks made this story more exciting than the usual backup feature and I found myself turning pages in excitement, something I don't usually do with Hank Chapman's efforts. Gene Colan's art, while not his best work, rises to the occasion and keeps the thrills coming.

 Our Army at War 163

"Kill Me--Kill Me!"
Story by Robert Kanigher
Art by Joe Kubert

"My Hands are a Bomb Bay!"
Story by Hank Chapman
Art by Jack Abel

Jack: Sgt. Rock and the Viking Prince walk away from the Nazi plane that VP brought down last issue with only his sword, but they walk straight into a patrol of Nazi soldiers. VP is practically begging them to "Kill Me--Kill Me!" so he can head to Valhalla and be reunited with his Viking Babe, but he seems invincible.

A foxy redhead named Helga appears and says she's with the Underground, sent to lead Rock to the Nazi drone base. VP takes out a tank that was following her and she falls for him, much to the chagrin of his ghostly Valkyrior. Rock & VP meet up with Easy Co. and follow Helga to the Nazi base, but she turns out to be a spy and a pitched battle ensues. There is a huge explosion and Rock sees VP being carried off to Valhalla by his lady love.

Just like a woman!
This is a very disappointing conclusion to the two-part team-up story. The Viking Prince wants to die so he can be with his gal pal, and his disregard for the lives of anyone else doesn't seem very heroic. After we're told that he can't be killed by wood, fire or water, he dies in an explosion, and neither Rock nor the editor (Kanigher) can explain what killed him. Kubert's art seems a bit rushed this time out.

Peter: The conclusion of the "Viking Prince" team-up is as goofy and disposable as the first part and would appeal only to old-timers like my compadre, Jack, who digs the 1960s DC free-for-alls like Jimmy Olsen becoming a cactus or Lois Lane marrying JFK. The "gay, reckless barbarian swordsman" 's unending drone about "meeting his beauty, Valkyrior, in Valhalla" outwore its welcome real quick-like but, to keep the peace, I'll go with the flow and say it was okay for what it was. Let's not make it a habit though, all right? I thought "My Hands are a Bomb Bay" was more than just a good pick-up line; it was actually an involving nail-biter that, for the most part, avoided nauseating cliches and just stuck to the storyline. Another pat on the back for Hank.

Our Army at War 164

"No Exit For Easy"
(Reprinted from Our Army at War #100)

"The Tank and the Turtle!"
(Reprinted from GI Combat #91)

"Top-Gun Ace!"
(Reprinted from All American Men of War #86)

"Call for a Frogman!"
Story by Robert Kanigher
Art by Joe Kubert
(Reprinted from Star Spangled War Stories #57, May 1957)

"My Pal, the Pooch!"
(Reprinted from Our Fighting Forces #50)

"A Medal for Marie!"
(Reprinted from Star Spangled War Stories #86)

Peter: I liked "Call for a Frogman" a lot. It comes from a long-ago time when the four DC war titles were filled with stand alone stories rather than chapters in ongoing sagas. The final panel, where Nick gives the greenie the word on how his day went, is perfect. "In closing, all I can say is that the "Enemy Ace" does not belong in the limbo of lost heroes. He deserves a full-length magazine with quality art and story as he maintained in Showcase." So says 15 year-old Howard Craykin of Kew Garden Hills, NY, on the letters page. So what, you say? Letters calling for an Enemy Ace title were flooding the DC offices, right? Well, with a little typo-fixing, Craykin becomes Chaykin, the Howard Chaykin who would later pencil the film adaptation of Star Wars and create the critically-acclaimed American Flagg!

Jack: Both "Call for a Frogman!" and "No Exit for Easy" show how strong Joe Kubert's art was in the period from 1957 to 1960. I think he was spreading himself too thin by 1966, based on the Easy Co. story with the Viking Prince this month. This is a really great comic! I love the DC 80-Page Giants. This one came out not long after they abandoned their own numbering and came out as part of other series, with the "G" number alongside the series issue number. Check out the great Table of Contents page reproduced below. The Grand Comics Database does not provide an original source, but I'll bet this was taken from an old Kubert story. Notice how each soldier's helmet has the artist's initials, and be sure to look for Kanigher!

Next Week!


marksweeneyjr said...

It's be a few years, but Steve Savage, Balloon Buster WOULD face off against Enemy Ace in a fantastic 3-part serial in Star Spangled War #s 181-183 by Kanigher & Frank Thorne. Good stuff!

As are your reviews - I just discovered your work and am making my way through the DC war stuff. Great job!

Peter Enfantino said...


Thanks for taking the time to leave us a comment. I was just telling Jack yesterday that I can't wait to burst into the 1970s war comics (especially strips like The Unknown Soldier) as I read quite a few as a wee lad and remember them being quite edgy. Of course, I remembered the Batmans of the 70s being equally edgy and, if you've read enough of Jack and I, you'll know that I had a bit of a rude awakening as far as those go. Just as I thought these 1960s war comics were going the way of Pal, Jimmy Olson, with gorilla GIs and soldiers who turn into dinosaurs, hope, in the form of Howard Liss, arrives.
Anyway, thanks again, and don't be a stranger!