Monday, June 12, 2017

Star Spangled DC War Stories Issue 106: June/July 1969

The DC War Comics
by Corporals Enfantino and Seabrook

The Brave and the Bold 84

Batman and Sgt. Rock in

"The Angel, The Rock and the Cowl"
Story by Bob Haney
Art by Neal Adams and Joe Kubert

Peter: Bruce Wayne is called to the Gotham Museum by the curator after a mysterious man has claimed to own an Archangel statue brought to Gotham for safekeeping just after World War II. The curator is struck by a heavy object and a German man emerges from the shadows. Bruce recognizes him immediately as Colonel von Stauffen, a Nazi war criminal long wanted by the authorities.  The face brings back memories of a time long ago, when Bruce Wayne served as an agent for England, searching for a mystery weapon the Germans had green lit.

Bruce is brought aboard a plane, where he meets Sgt. Rock and Easy Company, who are meant to help Bruce in his search. At least that's what's supposed to happen. The men must parachute into the German-held Chateaurouge, where Wayne quickly discovers (as his alter ego, Batman) that the secret weapon is nerve gas, hidden in empty bottles of wine. Two of Rock's men, Bulldozer and Wild Man, discover the "wine cellar" and, thinking it some exotic alcoholic beverage, steal two bottles and head back to the action. Discovering the theft, Batman must intercept the Easy Joes before they open the bottles and kill everyone around them. Colonel von Stauffen initiates "Operation: Barbarian," a plan to stop D-Day, and begins rolling out the nerve gas. Bruce Wayne (back in his civvies) informs Rock of the deadly cargo and blows the German convoy to hell. Back in the present, von Stauffen is about to blow Bruce Wayne's head off when a strong arm reaches in and puts the Colonel to sleep. The massive arm belongs to Sgt. Rock, who followed the Nazi after recognizing him at the airport. The two old buddies exchange pleasantries and go their separate ways.

There have always been problems with the passage of time in comic books (Peter Parker was in high school for, it seems, twenty years) but "The Angel, The Rock and The Cowl" presents a special problem with the passing of decades. Bruce Wayne appears to be just as young when he takes on his role as ex-patriot spy as he does when he next encounters the deadly Colonel 25 years later, while Rock has obviously aged. Wouldn't B&B editor Murray Boltinoff red line this peculiarity or would he just chalk it up to the goofiness of the medium and make that deadline? The story itself isn't all that great. I'm no WWII expert, but did the Germans really know that D-Day was on the way? These ones did. And writer Bob Haney obviously hasn't spent much time with Easy Company, as most of them come off as stumbling bumpkins, with Bulldozer and Wild Man missing from action long enough to steal some wine bottles. This particular episode doesn't sit with what we know about Easy and its leader who, unfortunately, is reduced to not much more than a witness to the proceedings. The team-up promised is never delivered. So, thank goodness, we've got Neal Adams's stellar work to keep us occupied (although I could have done with more Batman and less Wayne); Neal once again shows why he was the perfect choice to take over the character (if for only a short while) in the early '70s.

Jack: Not every page is Adams at his best, but there's enough pizzazz here to keep me satisfied. The secret hidden in the wine bottles reminds me of Notorious, though I wonder how Bruce Wayne could look at a seemingly empty bottle of wine and conclude that it contained nerve gas. Rock doesn't behave like the Rock we know, but this is made up for by seeing him in 1969. A letter writer in Brave and the Bold 87 notes that Joe Kubert had a hand in the art on (at least) page 19 and the editor confirms that Kubert helped Adams out of a deadline jam, though he doesn't say whether Kubert just worked on one page or whether he was involved in more. The top half of page 19 looks like 100% Kubert to me. The editor also addresses complaints about Bruce Wayne's seeming not to age by claiming that Adams drew him to look as if he had just finished college and based his depiction on Bob Kane's, while drawing him looking older in 1969. I confess he looked the same to me in 1944 and 1969.

 Star Spangled War Stories 145

"Return of the Hangman"
Story by Robert Kanigher
Art by Joe Kubert

Peter: His sleep wracked with nightmares about the long-dead Hangman, the Enemy Ace begins to believe that, perhaps, his arch-enemy may not have perished after all. Trying to put it out of his head during the daytime hours, von Hammer whips his three protégés into shape to become aces in their own right. Still, Hans cannot get over a deep uneasiness. His fears come true as the Hammer witnesses the "Return of the Hangman"! Seems the ace did not die in their last aerial battle after all. The Count's Spad crashed into a conveniently-placed river and he hoofed it back to his castle, where his sister, Denise, nursed him back to health. Now, madder than ever, the Hangman swears he will extract more than a pound of justice from his rival. One by one, the three young pilots nurtured by von Hammer are shot down by the bitter Count and, finally, the two aces have their rematch. It's not much of a sequel though, since the Hammer dispatches the Count (or so we think) much the same way he did last time--with a well-timed bit of low-to-the-ground flying and some telephone wires. Hans's crippled Fokker crashes in the nearby forest and his bruised and bleeding body is circled by a pack of hungry wolves. Just in time, the Hammer's black wolf mascot shows up and chases away the scavengers.

Though it's exciting to have the super-ace/villain the Hangman back for another adventure, there's no denying this script has several holes large enough to fly a Sopwith Camel through. Von Hammer is kind enough to share with us the details of the Hangman's "resurrection," details Hans could not possibly know about since he wasn't there. Also, it's illogical that Count De Sevigne would emerge from his months of rehabilitation vowing "a terrible vengeance against the Hammer of Hell" since the last time the two aces met, it was clear there was a deep admiration between the two. The guy was just doing his job. The Hangman would only expect the best out of his rival. The climactic confrontation we've all been waiting for arrives at last . . . and ends in a handful of panels. The Hangman, arguably tied for first place in "The World's Number One Killer Pilot" competition, flies his Spad into some phone wires? Really? Obviously, there has to be a re-re-match coming up. All this complaining is because the previous installments set a bar so high that some entries would naturally disappoint. I've no doubt we'll be flying high again very soon. Oh, and Joe does his usual stunning job visualizing the battles and bloodshed but it looks, in some panels, like he may have gotten a wee bit of help. There's an almost Gil Kane-ish look to the panel above, isn't there?

Jack: I did not notice it while reading, but that nose sure has a Kane vibe! I like this story, from the opening double-page splash, which has a Golden Age DC feel with the giant Hangman holding the little Enemy Ace in his hand, through the six-page recap of the Hangman's last appearance. Kubert must have loved doing this series, because the art is just fabulous. I agree with you that the Hangman is disposed off much too quickly after such a big buildup.

Our Army at War 207

"A Sparrow's Prayer"
Story by Robert Kanigher
Art by Joe Kubert

"Top of the World!"
Story by Robert Kanigher
Art by Sid Greene

"SOS Send Our Food"
Story by Mike Friedrich
Art by Ed Robbins

Jack: A new recruit nicknamed Sparrow spends much of his time on his knees praying for the survival of Easy Co., but Rock and the others have to respond to a sudden Nazi mortar attack by sliding down a sand dune in the North African desert to confront the enemy troops firing on them. Wild Man gets tired of Sparrow's praying all the time and Rock leads his men on foot across the desert, where they are attacked by a Nazi tank company. "A Sparrow's Prayer" is answered when a sand storm whips up and allows the Americans to defeat a tank with some well-placed grenades.

A little help from Neal Adams?
("A Sparrow's Prayer")
An odd story, especially because the new character does not get killed at the end. Still, it's good to have a substantial Rock tale after a few months of reprints and head trips, especially since Kubert's art is as good here as it is in Enemy Ace.

Jake Flaherity was on "Top of the World!" when he worked on urban skyscrapers back at home, but when he finds himself in the trenches of WWI he's down in the mud. An enemy tank causes a trench collapse and he and his men must dig their way out before he can shoot a mortar off and stop an enemy advance. A rare appearance for Sid Greene in a DC War comic, this reads and looks like a file story that got pulled out of a dusty drawer somewhere and plunked down in this 1969 comic to fill four pages of space.

A group of U.S. soldiers are trapped in a cave guarded by a Nazi tank and running low on food and water. When supplies run out, the men get desperate and, one by one, run out hoping for food, only to be gunned down. Their radio message requesting help is garbled, so when a plane finally gets through and drops supplies by parachute, it turns out to be more guns!

"Top of the World!"
This is an unusual story where the writing is better than the art. The plight of the soldiers is palpable and their sequential deaths are grim. It reminded me of an EC story, especially in the brutal ending. The art, as Peter notes below, is hardly more than chicken scratch, but for some reason the whole thing worked for me, perhaps because it is so unusual in a DC comic.

Peter: Ed Robbins's art for "SOS" is just about the most amateurish and ugly I've seen yet on this journey; hard to believe Joe Kubert accepted it for publishing. It's that bad. But the story it illustrates is unrelentingly grim and so powerful that it makes me overlook the art and give it a big thumbs-up. I believe this is the first DC War contribution from Mike Friedrich (at about this time, Friedrich also made his DC Mystery debut with the classic "His Name is . . . Cain" in House of Mystery #180), a writer who would move to Marvel a few years later and reinvigorate Iron Man and Captain Marvel. Friedrich will contribute four scripts to this title from 1969-71.

"SOS Send Our Food"
Trying to squeeze three tales into twenty-five pages of story content is a mistake; vignettes like "Top of the World!" have no room to "spread their wings" as it were and come off feeling incomplete or, worse, a waste of space better given over to character development in one of the longer scripts. The Rock tale does nothing for me; it should make me ponder the mysteries of life or something. It doesn't because all I can think while reading it is that Sparrow sure looks like one of the other young grunts who have filled the role of "green" in several recent Rocks. The gimmick, that Sparrow is religious and looks to God in the midst of Hell, is never really explored aside from Wild Man's derisive comments and, of course, the deus ex machina disguised as holy intervention.

 G.I. Combat 136

"Kill Now--Pay Later!"
Story by Robert Kanigher
Art by Ross Andru and Mike Esposito

"No-Name Hill"
Story by Robert Kanigher
Art by Ed Robbins

"The 13th Bullet!"
Story by Howard Liss
Art by Fred Ray

Peter: Though they were born continents apart, both tank commander Jeb Stuart and U-boat captain Ludwig Von Ernst have the same moral code: fight to the end and go down with the ship. The two may be in disparate war climates but, inevitably, they meet when both arrive at the same beach--the Jeb to check out enemy movement and the U-boat for repairs. When Von Ernst spies the approaching tank, he fires on her but the Jeb Stuart proves more dangerous as she rams the boat's conning tower as it's submerging. As he always promised, Von Ernst goes down with the sinking ship but he takes the Haunted Tank with him. The next day, the tank is dragged out of the muddy water for repair.

A wee bit of tinkering by the editor?

Sure doesn't look like
A+E to us!
How many times have we seen this story before? The two men, separated by different cultures, both raised the same way as boys, come together for the big clash? Way too many, says I. I will admit to being intrigued by the short glimpses we're afforded into Jeb Stuart's childhood. Big Bob should have taken that aspect and run with it rather than throw the stale formula into the microwave for a warming-up. Von Ernst is your go-to scarred Nazi monster indistinguishable from any other Nazi monster. The art of "Kill Now--Pay Later!" (a really stupid title that makes no sense) is credited to the dreaded Andru/Esposito team (and, may I stress once again, how much I loved the A/E partnership on The Amazing Spider-Man? It's just hideous, it seems, in its early stages.) but there sure looks like a whole lot of Joe Kubert dotted here and there. And hey, how about that penultimate panel where one tank man says to another, "The ol' Haunted Tank'll see service again . . ." At what point did the supporting cast discover the tank was haunted? Was I out of town that week, Jack?

Next issue: Russ is back and not a moment too soon!

A colonel of two wars and a young G.I. have never seen action before until their jeep is hit by a mortar and the pair must fight for their lives on a "No-Name Hill"! This one's a very short piece but it's got bite and an honest-to-goodness poignant wrap-up. The art's very good as well; Robbins isn't as stylish as Heath or Kubert but he gets the job done all the same.

A Yankee takes a nice lookin' pistola off a Reb and the dying soldier tells him that the gun has almost magical powers and never misses its target but warns that the gun will misfire on "The 13th Bullet!" The Union soldier finds that the dead man was right; his first twelve shots find their marks every time but, keeping in mind the warning, he puts the gun away rather than firing for a 13th time. Replacements come and the man is shocked to see the drummer-boy is his teenage son. Just then, the troop is attacked by dirty, mangy Johnny Rebs and, without thinking, he tosses the magical firearm to his son. The boy points, aims, and misfires, and he's shot dead. Here's one that walks that fine line between coincidence and the Twilight Zone. It's good to have Howard Liss back, even if this one doesn't measure up to his past triumphs. Fred Ray's art is a bit scratchy but at least the characters don't have saucer eyes or melty faces (like the soldiers belonging to Andru and Grandenetti). I can't wait until Weird War Tales arrives in a couple years.

Jack: Another issue where we have to slog through 13 pages of a mediocre lead story to get to the backups, which are slightly higher in quality. In the Jeb Stuart tale, Kanigher once again sets up parallel situations, then presents parallel flashbacks, and finally has the two meet for a battle whose result was never in doubt. The same parallel storytelling is used in the third story, though the two combatants are brought together more quickly and the tale soon takes a supernatural turn. The middle story has a surprising power for only running four pages, and Ed Robbins's art is far better than what we saw above in Our Army at War.

Our Fighting Forces 119

"Bedlam in Berlin"
Story by Robert Kanigher
Art by Art Saaf

"Home . . !"
Story by Howard Liss
Art by Fred Ray

"[This Story Has No Title!]"
Story by Robert Kanigher
Art by Gene Colan and Bernard Sachs
(Reprinted from All-American Men of War #4, May 1953)

Jack: Disguised as Nazi soldiers, Lt. Hunter and his Hellcats parachute into Berlin to extract General Kress and his daughter. The general wants peace and is in danger, so it's fortunate that the Hellcats happen upon his daughter almost immediately. She is pinned by a car that went off the road after a bomb blast and Brute holds up the car so she can be saved. Fraulein Kress takes the Hellcats to her father's office just in time for them to stop him from being executed. There is "Bedlam in Berlin" as the Hellcats escape through the city's subway tunnels, which Hitler has decided to flood with water to punish Germans hiding down there. In the end, General Kress and his daughter are safely put on a plane for London and the Fraulein gives Brute a big hug for saving her.

Brute finally gets some lovin'!
("Bedlam in Berlin")
We must be getting to the end of the Hellcats series because it's starting to get pretty good. I admit that the bar was set low by some of the early series entries, but even Art Saaf's workmanlike art seems to work here. I like the Hellcat above the logo on the cover and I appreciate Brute finally getting a little attention from a pretty girl.

Peter: Y'know, once you resign yourself to the fact that "Hunter's Hellcats" will never experience writing or art on a par with Enemy Ace, Sgt Rock, or even Gunner and Sarge, you can try to look at it in another light. It's the DC War equivalent of The Fast and the Furious movie series; brainless and loud but, in the end, harmless. It's hard to take any war story seriously with art like that of a talking animal strip and a plot avoiding anything that resembles reality or continuity. The Hellcats seemingly go from one death-defying mission to another and emerge unscarred. But if they keep writing them, I'll keep reading them. I welcome the challenge.

"Home . . !"
Jack: Rebel soldier Lonny Hart escapes from his Civil War Yankee prison, determined to make it "Home . . !" to his family's beautiful mansion. Attacking a Yankee camp to get some food results in his getting shot in the arm, but he survives and steals a Union horse from another camp before having to disguise himself under a blanket to ride alongside Union troops in the rain. He is discovered but fights his way out of trouble and makes it home. In his mind, his mansion still stands, but we see that it has been destroyed in war.

I read this entire story thinking it was going to end up with an Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge twist, but the surprise conclusion was a bit of a letdown. The art is average at best.

Peter: With "Home . . !" and the aforementioned "The 13th Bullet!," it's obvious that editor Kubert assigned Howard Liss and Fred Ray to come up with some Civil War stories with edge and Liss, at least, delivers. Nice twist ending, but Ray's art is even shakier than in the G.I. Combat story; it's on a par with John Calnan's awful DC work.

Supply your own title!
Jack: An American soldier trudges through a snowy landscape, well aware that he is being followed by an enemy soldier and that his gun only has one bullet left. Avoiding death until he has a good angle for a shot, his gun jams at the last minute and he rushes the enemy and subdues him with the gun butt. Early Gene Colan work, this story has no title and the editor asks readers to write in with suggestions. My thought would be "One Bullet Left!" The enemy appears to be dressed like it's the Korean War, and the story first ran in 1953; it has an EC War Comic vibe to it and Colan drew war stories for both companies around this time.

Peter: The reprint's a good one, albeit with a lame gimmick, with fabulous Colan/Sachs art. It's got a gritty, noir-ish feel to it that's lacking in most post-code war tales.

Our Army at War 208

"A Piece of Rag . . . A Hank of Hair!"
Story by Robert Kanigher
Art by Russ Heath

"I Love a Spitfire"
Story and Art by Ken Barr

"Move On!"
Story Uncredited
Art by Joe Kubert
(Reprinted from All-American Men of War #56, April 1958)

Jack: When Easy Co. enters a bombed-out French village, Rock finds a child's doll that is little more than "A Piece of Rag . . . a Hank of Hair!" Nazis suddenly attack from a machine gun nest hidden in an abandoned building, so Rock hops on a motorcycle, rides straight at them, and lobs a fatal grenade inside their lair. The sound of a child crying leads the men of Easy Co. to find the little girl who lost the doll, and the hard-bitten men turn soft and give her their candy.

No members of Easy Co. were harmed
in the drawing of this story
"A Piece of Rag . . ."
The next morning, the sweep of the town continues. The girl drops her doll down some steps and comes face to face with more Nazis, who hold her at gunpoint and threaten to kill her unless Rock and his men throw down their arms. The girl kicks the commander in the shin and hits the ground, so a fierce fight ensures, first with bullets and then with fists. In the end, Easy Co. is once again victorious, and Rock promises to take the little girl to the Red Cross, where she can hope to be reunited with her parents.

I love Joe Kubert's art, but the Sgt. Rock series was getting a bit stale and an entry drawn by Russ Heath is most welcome. Kanigher's story is well done and the sight of the men of Easy Co. giving her candy and chocolate is amusing. If there was ever a scene that proved none of the Easy Co. regulars will ever die, the point-blank shootout with the Nazis is it. A couple of the men get a flesh wound but nothing more.

An American pilot joined the R.A.F. in WWII to help the Brits fight the Nazis, but he has trouble handling both his plane and the pretty barmaid in the local town. Confessing that "I Love a Spitfire," he goes up alone and encounters a Nazi terror rocket that he manages to knock off course with the wing of his plane. Flush with confidence at his success, he lands his plane, marches into the pub, takes the barmaid over his knee, and gives her a good spanking. She is so grateful that she melts in his arms.

Just what she wanted.
("I Love a Spitfire")

Yeesh! This one was going along pretty good until the pilot decided to show the barmaid what was what by tanning her hide. Talk about a scene that wouldn't fly in 2017!

As a boy, Eddie was an Army brat whose family kept having to "Move On!" when his father was transferred. All he wanted was to live in the country and see trees, haystacks, and a brook. Now he's in the Army himself, being told to move on all the time. He comes upon a oak tree and hangs by a limb but discovers a Nazi hiding above in the branches. He steps in a lovely brook and sets off a mine before fighting Nazis in a rubber raft. He goes to have some rest in a haystack, but it's hiding a Nazi tank. What's a poor soldier to do? He finally gets to stay put but finds himself bored after a few weeks.

"Move On!"
Late 1950s Kubert is always welcome, even though the story follows a familiar pattern.

Peter: "A Piece of Rag" is a bit on the sappy side but who am I (the world's #1 Russ Heath fan) to complain about some silly little thing like a script? "Move On!" is one of those stories we love so much that latches onto a slogan and then runs it into the ground. That leaves the real prize of the issue: Ken Barr's "I Love a Spitfire." Like "A Piece of Rag . . . ," I'm not wild about the plot (and, as a sensitive 21st Century Man I, of course, abhorred the blatant misogyny in the final panels) but Barr's aerial dogfights are on a par with . . . dare I say it . . . Russ Heath's! Absolutely fabulous choreography.

Next Week:
We make a real "Mess" of things!

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