Monday, March 6, 2017

Star Spangled DC War Stories Part 99: April/May 1968

The DC War Comics
by Corporals Enfantino and Seabrook

 Our Army at War 192

"A Firing Squad for a Sergeant!"
Story by Robert Kanigher
Art by Joe Kubert and Jack Abel

Jack: Rock faces "A Firing Squad for a Sergeant!" as an S.S. captain demands to know what French underground unit he is supposed to contact and what his mission is. Rock recalls how Easy Co. had been flown over occupied France and dropped in by parachute. Rock had become separated from the rest of his men and he was captured by Nazis. Just as he is about to be shot, the teen fighters of Unit 3 appear and save the day, gunning down the enemy soldiers and rescuing the American sergeant. Unit 3 leads Rock to the hidden Nazi airbase and, together, they destroy it.

Bob Kanigher coasts through a 23-page story that easily could have been told in half that length. While Bob says on the letters page that Kubert is back full time, he only penciled this story and thus Abel's inks result in some awkward panels. I was excited when I saw that this was a full-length story but I was disappointed when I read it.

You tell 'em!

Peter: I've had it up to here with green G.I.s and kid soldiers; this double-length "blockbuster" is truly unremarkable. Even Joe's work is slapdash but then, with an assist from Jack Abel, what do you expect? More interesting is this issue's "Readers--Sound Off!!" wherein Big Bob hands the entire page over to super-fan Robert Gudera of Philly, who wants to know some of the behind-the-scenes skinny on past artists and writers and gets a gracious response and lots of info from the chief himself.

 G.I. Combat 129

"Hold That Town for a Dead Man!"
Story by Robert Kanigher
Art by Russ Heath

"Combat Nightmare!"
Story by Dave Wood
Art by Jack Abel

Peter: The boys of the Jeb Stuart roll into a village where an entire tank team has been wiped out and vow that they'll "Hold That Town for a Dead Man!" Eerily, once they've arrived in the town, they see the tank commander, dead and propped up against debris, still holding his machine gun. Just then, an enemy tank fires a TNT message at the Jeb and the crew must duck their giant tin can into a building. Unfortunately, once they exit out the other side, the crew discover another tank, lying in wait for them. After receiving a blast from the enemy, the Jeb's crew plays dead until the Nazis come close enough to blow to hell. As if on cue, the ghost of General Jeb Stuart arrives to deliver an odd prediction to his descendant: "The dead captain will rise again!" Rolling back out onto the main street, the Stuart once again comes under fire and commander Jeb Stuart is blown out of his seat into the rubble. Paralyzed, Jeb can only watch in fear as a Nazi flame-thrower approaches but his life is saved by the machine-gun fire of the dead captain! Jeb grabs the flame-thrower and blasts the final enemy tank. He shouts in glee to the dead captain who saved his life, "The fight's over for your town!"

"Hold That Town for a Dead Man!"
Another one of those oddball semi-sorta-supernatural entries in the Haunted Tank saga but then, of course, a series revolving around a tank haunted by a Civil War general, by definition, is supernatural, isn't it? So we really shouldn't question how the dead soldier's finger activated the machine gun (Was it rigor mortis? An act of God? General Stuart intervening?) but just enjoy a ripping yarn anchored by incredible Heath art (I wish we had room to run more than a couple panels as there are plenty of "poster shots" here. And how could you not think of the climactic scene in Saving Private Ryan when you gaze upon the dead captain? Along with the Enemy Ace story, "Hold That Town . . ." proves that Big Bob can still dine at the Quality Table now and then.

Jack: Kanigher and Heath deliver a powerful opening sequence as the men of the Jeb Stuart come upon the dead soldiers. I liked the lack of any ghosts in part one but, sure enough, along came the ghost to open part two. The story is exciting and the art is great, better than what we get from Kubert and Abel in Our Army at War, but I'm beginning to wonder if this series might not be better off losing the "Haunted" business once and for all and just concentrating on thrilling tank battle action.

"Combat Nightmare!"
Peter: "A surprise package of TNT" wipes out an entire squad except for Private Joey Madden but the incident turns out to be a "Combat Nightmare!" when Joey wakes up and sees all his comrades alive and kickin'. Joey is convinced that the dream was an omen and he waits for the mortar to fall and kill his friends but once he takes out an entire tank crew, he's convinced the nightmare is over. A silly story that makes very little sense. First, the kid wakes from a terrible dream but, for some reason, is convinced that the incident will come true. Why couldn't it have just been a dream and why is Joey so obsessed? And, once the tank is destroyed, why is he convinced that now he's broken the string and his guys will survive? Perhaps Jack can explain this one to me. Though Dave Wood had been around for quite a while, it seems as though he took a batch of Hank Chapman's scripts home with him one night to study; how else to explain all the TNT gobbledygook that comes out of the Private's mouth? The ever-popular Statement of Circulation shows that G.I. Combat was selling an average of 209,640 copies per issue in 1967 (that's up slightly from 202,100 in 1966). For comparison's sake, DC's top-selling funny-book at the time was Superman, which sold an average of 636,400 per month!

Jack: The hauntings continue in this taut tale, where a soldier has trouble distinguishing dreams from reality. I enjoyed the story, despite the bland art by Abel, and I'm looking forward to more from Dave Wood.

Just a little more Russ Heath!

 Our Fighting Forces 112

"What's In It For the Hellcats?"
Story by Howard Liss
Art by Jack Abel

"I Haven't Had My Basic Training Yet"
Story by Howard Liss
Art by Jack Abel

Jack: Those nasty Nazis stole ten million in cash that was supposed to be used to feed hungry French resistance fighters. Since all of the legitimate Allied forces are otherwise occupied, Hunter's Hellcats are given the task of parachuting into occupied territory and grabbing the dough back from the enemy. When they are tempted to keep half of what they stole, Hunter has to have yet another fistfight with Brute to show them who's boss. In the end, they take off with the loot and show the Nazis what's what.

This pretty much sums it up.
(What's in it for the Hellcats?")
"What's in it for the Hellcats?" has to be the worst story of 1968. It just can't get any worse than this. Liss has fallen to sub-Chapman levels of storytelling and dialogue and Abel is just churning out pages without even trying. Here's a sample of the dialogue: "Like ya figgered it, Swinger! Da nitro blew a hole inna floor, too! We grab da cash an' cop out t'roo da sewer system! We join up wit' da lootenant outside town!" This is really the bottom of the barrel.

Peter: If we approach the "Hunter's Hellcats" stories knowing full well they'll be mindless, then perhaps they'll be easier to assess? Not really, but for some reason this one, just as vacuous as the previous six chapters, didn't put me to sleep or make me roll my eyes more than nine or ten times. I can't stand trying to decipher Brute's Bronx vocabulary (Mlle. Marie is much easier to understand!) but I love how he and Hunter get into major fisticuffs and afterwards the event is pretty much forgotten. Well, Brute is a bit thick, isn't he?

Jack: Tom Thomas wants to be a frogman like his brother Hank but when he enlists he gets stuck in the Army instead. He is shipped out with the infantry despite telling everyone that "I Haven't Had My Basic Training Yet!" His unit is told to hold a bridgehead so the engineers can put up a pontoon bridge. Tom uses his wits and ability to hold his breath under water to defeat one Nazi after another.

Jack Abel does his best Ross Andru impression
("I Haven't Had My Basic Training Yet!")
Much better than the Hellcats story, this backup tale still has some of the cliches that we thought Howard Liss was good at avoiding. We have the brother who wants to join up, the fish out of water, the hero when the chips are down, etc. A whole issue of Jack Abel's art is about all I can take and that Irv Novick cover is no prize either.

Peter: The back-up is truly awful, with equally awful Jack Abel art (check out Tom's goofy eyes on page 2). The only thing "I Haven't Had My Basic Training Yet!" has going for it is the best title of the month.  Our Fighting Forces sold an average of 152,200 copies an issue, easily the lowest-selling of the four DC titles.

 Star Spangled War Stories 138

"The Slayers and the Slain!"
Story by Robert Kanigher
Art by Joe Kubert

Peter: Hans von Hammer is engaged in a vicious battle to the death with a French fighter pilot over Cambrai. The Frenchman makes several elusive moves and is actually able to fire a round into the Hammer's shoulder but, in the end, the experience of the German wins out and the Hanriot erupts into flames and heads Earthward. The Enemy Ace heads back to his home base but an ominous shape appears on the horizon . . . that of the plane belonging to the French ace, the Hangman! Exhausted and losing consciousness due to loss of blood, von Hammer can do nothing but gird for another grueling exhibition of aerial skill. Luck is on the German's side this day as the Hangman signals that his guns are empty and, obeying the rules of the sky, von Hammer pulls out of the Hangman's way and salutes, knowing he'll face his French counterpart soon.

When the Ace returns to his Jagdstaffel, he's checked into the base hospital to recover from his wound; extra special care is given to him by nurse Gerta, who takes a shine to the bed-ridden pilot. When he's well enough to leave the hospital, he spends an evening with Gerta, only to discover the girl is afraid of him and wants no part of the killer. The next day, while at the airfield, the Hangman pays a visit and shoots down one of the new recruits. Swearing vengeance, von Hammer takes to the sky for a one-on-one with the Hangman. During the battle, the Enemy Ace is able to destroy several French balloons but the Hangman escapes to fight another day.

Wow! I had hoped the return of von Hammer would be worth waiting for and Big Bob and Joe do not disappoint. What is it about this anti-hero that brings out the best in Bob Kanigher? The extra pages afforded to "The Slayers and the Slain!" obviously enable Joe to stretch his visual skills, as if he's broken out of the vise-grip of the standard panel, and this story gives us six full or near-full pages to bookend the action. There are several panels to point to and gasp, "Classic!" as well as several instances of Kubert experimenting with layouts. Joe has never been better! The story, while being a bit samey as the other Enemy Ace installments, is still high-caliber; we see how conflicted von Hammer can be with his role as "The Hammer of Hell." He clearly eats up the excitement of the hunt and chase but the kill wounds him psychologically. The last we see of the Hangman's plane, it's swirling downward, knocked from the sky by the force of one of the balloon explosions, but he'll be back and we'll get to know some of his background as well. That's a good thing too, as the situation sets up a strange irony: we'll be rooting against the good guy. Enemy Ace is a fascinating character we'll be lucky to spend time with for the next three years (and, as an added bonus, most of those chapters are full-length). Circulation figures published this issue show SSWS selling an average of 170,310 copies per issue (up from 160,000 the previous year) in 1967.

Jack: A great DC war comic! I think the Hangman is a new villain (hero?) and I'm sure he'll return. It's interesting that Kanigher portrays von Hammer as a celebrity in WWI Germany; Gerta says that she is like every other woman in Germany who wants to be held in von Hammer's arms. I guess it's not only the kids writing letters to DC who can't wait to spend some quality time with the Enemy Ace! I agree that Kubert's art is spectacular. The story is almost non-stop action and serves as a terrific reintroduction to a classic character.

Our Army at War 193

"Blood in the Desert!"
Story by Robert Kanigher
Art by Joe Kubert

"Frogman Delivery"
Story Uncredited
Art by Russ Heath
(Reprinted from Our Fighting Forces #2, January 1955)

Jack: In the early days of WWII, before Frank Rock was a sergeant, his unit was on a ship heading for North Africa when a fight broke out between a couple of soldiers named East Side and Farmer Boy. Farmer Boy had brought some dirt from home in a pot and wanted to see something grow amidst the horrors of war, but East Side did not respect this desire. Farmer Boy's little pot is broken during an attack on the ship by a German plane but Jackie Johnson offers him a tin cup to preserve the dirt.

Easy Co. is assigned to a remote post in the desert but Farmer Boy continues to protect his can of dirt from home. During an enemy attack, he takes a shot meant for East Side and then attacks an enemy tank that threatens to run over his precious memento. He dies in the fight and is buried next to his can of dirt; the next morning, a poppy blooms in the can.

"Blood in the Desert!"
I know that Peter, the old crank, will not appreciate "Blood in the Desert!" but I enjoyed it. It's good to see a flashback to Easy Co.'s days in North Africa and it's not surprising to see that Rock was taking a leadership role even before he made sergeant. The final miracle, where the flower blooms in the desert, is symbolic--the poppy that grows from the dirt represents the dead soldier, just as poppies are used to remember soldiers who died during wartime. Kubert is completely back to his old self in this and the Enemy Ace story and his art improves Kanigher's prose.

Peter: The Rock stories have been so poor lately that I'll reach out and grab anything that's half-decent and hold it up for praise. So it is with "Blood in the Desert!," which isn't great but isn't horrible. At least Bob doesn't lean too much on the preaching (other than Farmer Boy's endless drone about his soil and the war) and Joe's back to his old superlative self. That's gotta count for something, right? You won't find this one on any "Best of . . ." lists but it's passable.

Jack: A PT Boat drops off two frogman, who have a job to do that will take three hours. In the meantime, the PT boat is attacked by an enemy plane and its engine is disabled. The boat gets stuck in a net set by the enemy and then has to avoid gunfire from shore and sea in order to make it back in time to the rendezvous point and pick up the frogmen.

"Frogman Delivery"

"Frogman Delivery"is a quick, fun story with solid Heath art from 1955 is a good supplement to the lead story this issue.

Peter: There's not much story to "Frogman Delivery," just a series of tense incidents, but that's okay since our visual guide is the master. If we gotta have reprints, give us the Heath! For some reason, the only title of the DC war books not to release circulation numbers in 1968 was Our Army at War.

You say you want more battle action?
You say you want Alex Toth?
We say "Tune in Next Week for both!"

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