by Michael Hutchison
The most notable war hero at DC is Sgt. Rock, the leader of Easy
Company. Created by Robert Kanigher & Joe Kubert (the same team which
would later create the World War I Red Baron-inspired Enemy Ace) in 1959,
Sgt. Rock would be published non-stop until the 1980s! Sgt. Rock is a
tough-as-nails leader, and he and the "combat-happy joes of Easy Company"
fight in the European Theater and in Africa, then later move to the Pacific
Theater. They see action in every major WWII battle
and like M.A.S.H.,
there's probably more action than could realistically be packed into four
years! But Sgt. Rock is far from following continuity; it isn't even published
in any kind of order that looks like actual World War II history. Sarge
might be in the Ardennes in one issue and in the African desert the next.
Thus, the main characters never change, the dead and wounded are always
brand new enlisted men referring to their wives back home before they
get blown up, and the locations are fictitious ("Murder Ridge", "Breakneck
Hill," "Psychotic Loner Point" etc.).
Frankly, I read a lot of Sgt. Rock comics before I wrote this article and I just don't get the appeal. Many of these stories are morality tales whose point is pretty basic and can be seen coming a mile away. One of the issues I read, "Our Army At War" #297, features a story called "Battle Percentages" in which a general comments on the necessary sacrifice of some of the soldiers under his command. Sgt. Rock takes Easy Company on the mission, losing men along the way. Rock makes a point of collecting the dogtag of each fallen man and when the general later claims victory for his plan, Rock shakes the dogtags and states, "This is what it cost!"
Which would be a very good point to make if we hadn't seen it coming from a long ways away or if Sgt. Rock wasn't already stating this dramatic conclusion ON THE COVER!
Another basic problem with Sgt. Rock is its dependence on the assertion that you're bulletproof as long as you're brave and believe in yourself. Instead of succeeding due to the use of a combination of brains and courage, Rock merely trudges towards his enemy firing his machine gun while the Germans manage to miss him by a mile. Blinded by his courage, no doubt.
One of the tales reprinted in an early 1990s "Sgt. Rock" reprint series
is a particularly good example of such silliness. Sgt. Rock is ordered
to take a hill in which the Germans are well ensconced. As Easy Co. takes
on horrendous fire, Sgt. Rock finally radios for a (gasp!) withdrawal
order. The army command, unable to believe that Rock would (gasp!) ever
actually encounter a situation where he can't succeed, thinks it's a German
trick. They refuse to give such a command over the radio and instead send
a runner with the order to retreat. This plucky little messenger is excited
to get the chance to meet Sgt. Rock and thus braves the German territory
to get the message through. He is attacked by German tanks, planes and
snipers, losing the use of several body parts but limping onward to get
the message to Rock. When he arrives and delivers the message, Rock is
so embarrassed of his cowardice that he and Easy Company proceed to stand
upright (isn't that just a bad strategy, no matter how brave you are?)
and take the hill. Your emotions, you see, are able to overcome the laws
of physics which say "biological matter will be destroyed upon impact
by hyperaccelerated metal and explosive compounds." Moral: Don't be yellow
and you'll triumph over all logical boundaries.
Robert Kanigher is a very complex puzzle of a man. He is an inventive genius who created dozens of great superhero characters like the Metal Men and numerous war characters such as The Losers and Gunner and Sarge (who, by the way, I'm not covering in this article). He is also a heavy-handed and often mediocre writer whose stories tended towards jingoism and rather obvious moralizing. I've nothing against patriotism and morality, mind you, when they are done effectively and subtly. I'm just saying that a story whose point is "War costs the lives of good, decent people" is rather obvious, especially given that the reader of a Kanigher war comic is probably of a more empathic nature than, say, the reader of "Lobo - Blazing Chain of Love".
But I would be besmirching Kanigher's name more than he deserves if I didn't note that he was also working under the eye of the Comics Code Authority. I've never been one of the CCA's big detractors; those sentiments are more in-line with the Alan Moore-worshipping Vertigo crowd. But some CCA rules were unreasonably strict. Such as the one that says you can't show a dead human body, even in a war comic! That single rule reduced all war comics to banal tales of adventure. While they didn't need to be "first 25 minutes of Saving Private Ryan" gruesome in detail, they could still have carried the weight and impact which war brings. I'm a big believer in the visual power of violence. Somewhere in-between the ultra-clean films where soldiers grab their wound so that you don't see any blood and the explicit detail of "Saving Private Ryan" should be a level of violence which could be seen by teenagers. A movie or comic book about a violent event which hides the actual violence is only fooling itself. The kids (and the audience was largely kids back then) should see that bullets have an effect and war has a real cost in pain and loss.
As an example of this, Kanigher's "Sgt. Rock" comics of the 1980s were a far sight more intelligent and subtle than his work of previous decades. While still a bit over-burdened with expository captions and still relying on Rock's bulletproof-because-he's-Sgt. Rock nature, the stories were allowed to include real violence and wounds and as a result, made their impact more with visuals than through preachy narrative.
I firmly believe that there's a future for Sgt. Rock, especially after the remarkable "Saving Private Ryan" which reawakened an interest in World War II. It will be important to remember that today's youth has been raised on the glories of World War II and the Gulf War and the horror stories of Vietnam. A Sgt. Rock war comic which isn't realistic balancing both patriotism and the violent cost won't last long.
Another Kanigher creation of the 1960s was the Haunted Tank. This is the tale of J.E.B. Stuart, descendent of Confederate general Jeb Stuart. The general's ghost haunts the tank. It's an interesting concept for a short story, but I just don't get how in the heck this is interesting enough to keep our attention for decades! Maybe I just got ahold of some of the lamer issues?
I'm not exactly a big fan of the pro-slavery side of the Civil War, but I can appreciate that the General could be a good fighter no matter what side he fought for. I wonder if Kanigher made it a Confederate general just because Southerners are more colorful to write? I wonder if sometime next century DC will publish a comic in which an American Gulf War tank is inhabited by the spirit of Rommel just because he's a good military planner? Actually, what I really wonder is how Gus, the black member of the Haunted Tank's crew, feels about this whole situation? It can't be satisfying owing your military victories to the ghost of a man who fought to keep your ancestors in bondage when he was alive!
Regardless, the focus of the Haunted Tank stories seem to be more about the crew than the general. He's just there to talk about his war adventures and pass on occasional advice to his ancestor.
The 1970s introduced "The Unknown Soldier", created by Joe Kubert. This story, of a faceless, unidentified lone soldier who uses his disguise ability to pose as various people during World War II, has been a success and has lead to two recent revivals of the concept.
"Weird War Tales", a title of the 1970s and '80s, introduced more far-fetched characters such as the "Creature Commandoes" (created by J. M. DeMatteis) and "G.I. Robot" (by Pepe Morino Casaras). In both cases, these were not your standard war stories. The Creature Commandoes follow the adventures of three (later four, with the addition of a gorgon-woman) soldiers who are transformed into monsters. Thus, you have a wolfman, a Frankenstein's monster and a vampire fighting Nazis in World War II. G.I. Robot, similarly, is about an experimental robot who fights Nazis and can fire mini-missiles from his fingers.
And if I didn't get the point of the Haunted Tank, I'm sure not going to understand what makes this so intriguing! As Tim Truman says in this month's interview, these were not the high point of the war comics genre.
Truly one of the most mature and intriguing of war comics is one that I would not have discovered if all the issues hadn't been on sale for 50 cents each at my comic book store! 1977's "Men of War" introduced us to Gravedigger. Created by David Michelinie, Gravedigger is the story of young Ulysses Hazard. Stricken by polio and tormented by unsympathetic bullies when young, he pushed himself to the limit to rebuild his body into a fighting machine. But when World War II called all young, able-bodied men into battle, he found himself unable to fight for his country due to the color of his skin. All negro soldiers are put to work in menial detail, burying bodies of other soldiers. Finally, he takes on the Pentagon itself in order to gain combat duty. He is made into a special agent of the Pentagon, codenamed "Gravedigger". Later, during combat, he gets a vicious scar across his nose that resembles a cross or a gravestone!
These stories are thrilling and very well-written. Even though there are some silly "war comic" cliches, such as a trio of British soldiers who each wear the headgear of their region and talk in bad dialects, I would highly recommend adding "Men of War" to the list for your next trip to the back issue bargain bin!
All characters are DC Comics
This piece is © 1999 by Michael Hutchison.
Fanzing is not associated with DC Comics.
All DC Comics characters, trademarks and images (where used) are DC Comics, Inc.
DC characters are used here in fan art and fiction in accordance with their generous "fair use" policies.
Fanzing site version 7.2