Monday, March 18, 2019

Star Spangled DC War Stories Issue 151: August 1974

The DC War Comics
by Corporals Enfantino and Seabrook

Weird War Tales 28

"Isle of Forgotten Warriors"
Story by George Kashdan
Art by Alfredo Alcala

Peter: Sadistic Colonel Deermont rules the Black Cat Battalion with an iron fist and its mascot, a cute little feline, with an electric collar. The Battalion comes to an island in the Pacific and wipes out the Japanese soldiers in no time. Then weird stuff starts happening: soldiers and equipment disappear. When the men are ambushed by more Japanese soldiers, the Colonel flees and comes face to face with the secret of the disappearances when he falls down a hole and awakens the size of a pea. The natives have discovered a rite that shrinks the military men down; they place them in a miniature POW camp in the middle of a moat and keep them prisoners for entertainment. Deermont discovers soldiers of different wars in the camp and quickly takes charge. When he discovers there are Japanese on another part of the miniature camp, he focuses his attention on wiping them out. When the ragtag team comes up against numbers too great to vanquish, the Colonel's men mutiny and he mows them down with a machine gun. Using a subterranean tunnel (dug by ants, which he encounters along the way), Colonel Deermont escapes but then encounters his black cat, who toys with him before putting the Colonel out of his misery.

Start to finish, "Isle of Forgotten Warriors" is one huge pile of rubbish, save the usual heroics of Alfredo Alcala. As usual with these stories, the chief antagonist, Deermont, is so sadistic it's hard to suspend disbelief and just enjoy the dopey adventure. The saga is all over the map and stocked with funny book cliches. According to the GCD, this story was originally intended to be published as an installment in the short-lived "Adventurers Club" series in Adventure Comics. It was rewritten to fit in Weird War Tales but it wouldn't have had to be altered much, since the "Adventurers Club" series was simply a narrator (Nelson Strong) relating weird tales that had happened to the members of the club. Strong would appear in bookended panels (a la Cain in House of Mystery), but would not star in the stories themselves. I haven't read the other tales in the "Adventurers Club" series but, after reading "Isle of Forgotten Warriors," I'm not sure I've missed anything.

Jack: I remember those few offbeat issues of Adventure from 1973. I think you give Alcala too much credit here, since his art isn't particularly impressive. We know early on that Lt. Deermont is a bad dude because he tortures his pet cat. Later, he shoots and kills his own men! Part three of the story veers into Incredible Shrinking Man territory, as Lt. Deermont battles giant ants. The end is a nice turnabout, as the black cat gets revenge on the soldier, but this is not much of a story.

G.I. Combat 172

"At the Mercy of My Foes!"
Story by Archie Goodwin
Art by Sam Glanzman

Story by John David Warner
Art by Dan Green

Peter: While on patrol, the Haunted Tank is damaged by a Nazi tank and the men must forage for parts before they can get back on the road. Meanwhile, over the next ridge, their old adversary, the vicious but honorable General Preiss (see issues #168 and 170), has had equal problems with the jeep he was riding in. The driver has been mortally wounded and the General is stranded. Luckily for him, a German tank rolls up to his rescue and it just happens to be commanded by his pupil, the vicious and dishonorable Helmut Kuhl. Preiss spots the Jeb Stuart on the other side of the hill and lays down a trap to catch the men. Kuhl would just as soon slaughter them but that's not the way of the honorable General. When Kuhl tries to run Gus and Jeb over with his tank and then toys with them as they dangle off a cliff, Preiss puts a bullet in his student and swears, as God is his witness, he'll kill the crew of the Haunted Tank... but in an honorable way.

"At the Mercy of My Foes!"
I'm too lazy to go through my notes to see just how honorable the good General was in his previous appearances but Archie seems to be setting him up as a quasi-good guy for future cameos. The script for "At the Mercy of My Foes!" is a mish-mosh of good and bad. I liked the little throw-away touches here and there, not designed to make a splash but to resonate: Preiss inquires as to the whereabouts of Kuhl's academy buddy, Steinmetz, to which Kuhl chillingly replies:

"Can you believe it? He actually confided to me his mother was a Jew. I had no choice but to report him. After that, it was the Gestapo's business."

But wrapped around Archie's gems is another plot that finds the Tank crippled and vulnerable but still somehow able to weather any storm. Sam Glanzman's art is horrendous; other than Gus (for obvious reasons), you can't tell one crewman from the other. You have to pay very close attention to the word balloons to decipher identities as they all look like shriveled-up corpses. Still, there are enough positives here to give it a thumb-sideways.

In the back-up, Voltag the "Conqueror" sails the English coast in search of defenseless castles to rape and pillage. Voltag gets wind of a huge castle on a cliff, and he and his men arrive to find no defenses whatsoever. When a holy man meets them at the gate to convince them to turn back, Voltag cleaves him in two and continues over the drawbridge. But when the Vikings break down the inner door, they discover piles of corpses: the castle has been struck with the plague! I'm not a fan of these war stories from ancient times but I have to admit that "Conqueror!" is a cut above the rest. The reveal is predictable but the dialogue is readable and the art is gorgeous. Dan Green renders these Vikings as strong, vicious men and the castle as a great structure; these are not cartoony doodlings, a la Ric Estrada. Green went on to be second banana to Romita and the Buscema brothers, which is a shame since he could probably have had a successful career penciling one of the Conan books, based on his work here.

Jack: I'm not sure I'd call Green's art here "gorgeous" but it is good and a heck of a step up from Sam Glanzman or Ric Estrada. The Haunted Tank story's not bad, despite the dreadful pictures; it's good to see an enemy soldier with ethics who realizes that the rabid youth he's paired with must be sacrificed for the greater good. "Conqueror!" is somewhat predictable but I like the Viking characters and the setting in the Dark Ages.

Our Army at War 271

"Brittle Harvest"
Story by Robert Kanigher
Art by Russ Heath

"The Gun"
Story by Robert Kanigher
Art by Ric Estrada

Jack: Privates Krull and Rankin have joined Easy Co. as Sgt. Rock and his men march toward the Kroder Dam, a key spot that the Nazis plan to blow up in order to flood the valley roads around it and make the movement of heavy equipment impossible. Krull is a farmer from Maine who talks about crops, and when three unknown members of Easy Co. are killed in a land mine explosion, Krull compares the guns sticking up from the ground and marking their graves to sticks marking the sports where spinach or carrots have been planted on a farm.

"Brittle Harvest"
On their way to the dam, the men of Easy Co. happen on a Nazi patrol down in a valley, shooting at an American patrol higher up. Rock gets his men to make giant snowballs, which they roll down the hill and which then land on the Nazis, burying them. An American plane then drops bombs on the snowbound Nazis to finish them off. On the way to Kroder Dam, Easy Co. is the target of bullets from a Nazi plane, but Krull shoots it down with what looks like a grenade-launcher; he remarks that it's "easy as shootin' crows in a cornfield." Rock and his men finally reach the dam and see that the plane Krull shot down crashed into the top of the structure, creating a breach that allowed water to flow over the top and drown the Nazis below, who had been planning to blow it up. The cold winter temperatures made the water quickly freeze, leaving the Nazis planted in the ice like "some kind of weird garden," according to Rankin, and Krull calls it a "Bitter Harvest."

Well, thank goodness for Russ Heath! Now that Joe Kubert just does the covers, Heath is the best artist we've got illustrating Sgt. Rock stories. I really like this one, perhaps because Rankin and Krull don't get killed at the end, as I was certain they would. Now, that doesn't mean we'll ever see them again, but for once the new recruits are not just there to provide cannon fodder. Heath's art, of course, is superb.

Like Sam Glanzman, Ric Estrada seems best when
his panels omit human faces ("The Gun")
In North Africa, a young Nazi soldier named Hans is quite fond of his machine gun and thinks it is "invincible...and will last forever!" When American soldiers attack and battle begins, Hans is busy shooting away until his dog tags, hanging off his neck, jam "The Gun" and he is stabbed to death by one of the soldiers he shot. The only winners in this fight are the vultures that feast on the corpses in the desert sun.

There's not much to this five-pager; we know Hans will get his just desserts and Ric Estrada's art is never inspiring.

Peter: It's nice to have Heath back after a two-issue furlough but it would have been nice to drop a decent story in his lap. From eye-rolling crop-growing analogies to snow that folds like turf, this is one goofy script, bulging with such lame dialogue as: "Did y'ever think of bullets as seeds? Seeds we plant into men... that harvest nothing but death?" Sheesh. "The Gun" is better, but it doesn't elevate to the lofty heights of previous Big Bob Gallery classics such as "White Devil... Yellow Devil." Estrada's art bugs the hell out of me; it almost looks as though it was crafted on a computer. I would rather the artists had been flipped on these two stories. Give Heath the superior script and let Estrada handle the pap.

Star Spangled War Stories 181

"One Guy in the Right Place..."
Story by Frank Robbins
Art by Jack Sparling

"Hell's Angels! Part One: The Hammer of Hell"
Story by Robert Kanigher
Art by Frank Thorne

Peter: In a direct sequel to last issue's adventure, The Unknown Soldier continues his journey to find his brother's grave. What he finds is an eerily-quiet jungle about to be invaded by Allied forces. The quiet is disturbed, though, when the soldiers hit the beach and are massacred by hidden Japanese forces. Burdened with his oversight and with the blood of dozens on his hands, US wanders through the jungle until he is discovered by a group of rebels commanded by a gorgeous little gal by the name of Maria (think pig-tailed Mme. Marie, Jack!), who tells the US that a shadow soldier is slipping through the jungle and wiping out the Japanese, leaving the calling card, "Harry Pays Back!" Since our bandaged hero's brother's name was Harry, naturally we are to assume that Harry didn't bite the dust after all but, in a nice twist after the freedom fighters have laid waste to the scummy Japanese, we discover that Maria herself left the notes to provide confidence to her rebels. Maria leads the Soldier to his brother's grave and, at last, he can make peace with himself.

Not a bad story; "One Guy in the Right Place..." is, in fact, the best US story since the Robbins/Sparling crew took office. Just as I was rolling my eyes at the suggestion of the long-dead Harry somehow surviving the blast and wandering through the jungle, never letting on to his brother of his survival, Robbins throws in a tidy twist we all should have seen coming. I do question why the brass back in Washington have no problem with their #1 secret agent taking lots of time off to soul search but if there was no path to reawakening there would be no story.

Sure looks like Kubert
to these untrained eyes!

In the match-up we knew would come some day, Rittmeister Hans von Hammer collides with "Balloon Buster," Steve Savage in part 1 of "Hell's Angels!" After a brief tussle in the sky, Savage runs out of ammo and von Hammer safely escorts him to a German airfield, where Savage is taken prisoner. But for how long? The first Enemy Ace adventure in four years is certainly not on a par with "Killer of the Skies" or the Ace's debut saga (my picks for the two best stories of 1965), but not a bad re-intro to von Hammer and the less long awaited return of Steve Savage (to be fair, Steve's short run was enjoyable as well, just not on the mythic scale of Enemy Ace), Balloon Boy (with nary a balloon in sight!). There's a major twist coming up at the climax of this three-parter, but we'll get to that in a few months. Frank Thorne's art is uncannily close to Kubert's and that's a good thing. Someone upstairs told Archie not to screw up and assign Sparling or Glanzman to this one.

Jack: The Unknown Soldier story gets off to a shaky start as US seems unable to comprehend that Japanese gunners would be guarding the beach where Allied forces were about to land, but as I read it I found myself (yet again) wanting to read a good book about WWII so that I knew more of the historical perspective. By the end, it's a good story; I like US removing his mask at his brother's grave and I like the twist with Maria turning out to be the person leaving notes in the name of the deceased brother.

The Enemy Ace story is good but, at seven pages, too short to get any real air speed going. I agree that Frank Thorne apes Kubert in a few spots (or maybe Joe was helping out?) but Frank is no Joe and his art, for the most part, strikes me as too loose and '70s-groovy for this series (see Steve Savage's tight pants). The old magic is not back yet, but there are two more stories to read.

For some reason, I feel compelled to rank the art in the four comics this month from best to worst:

Inside stories: Heath, Green, Thorne, Alcala, Sparling, Estrada, Glanzman

Covers: Kubert, Heath, Dominguez

Peter? Care to weigh in?

Peter: Oh, Jack, you know I can never ignore a challenge! Therefore:

Heath, Green, Alcala, Thorne, Sparling, Glanzman, Estrada

Next Week...
Uncle Creepy gets a companion!

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