Sunday, March 15, 2009

Comics That Destroyed My Mind 1: Our Army at War #271!

Summer, 1974.

As far as I can remember, this was the first comic book I ever read, perhaps the first narrative as well. Family lore has it I was reading street signs and things like "Season's Greetings" on holiday decorations as early as age four. But I was around six years old when this comic came out, it's the earliest comic I have distinct if untrustworthy memories of, and after all these years, I’m not even sure how it came into my possession.

Perhaps my mom bought it for me as a reward for not acting like a little bastard (for once) on one of our grocery store trips. Or maybe I inherited it from one of my brothers’ friends. My oldest brother was sixteen and more into sports and funk music than comics; in fact, he was never into comics. My middle brother, then only fourteen, was similarly inclined, but leaning more towards cars and girls. They both had some buddies who had outgrown comics, and sometimes as the little tag-a-long, I was the beneficiary of their largess. But I can’t imagine any of them owning a brand new comic book, or admitting it if they had.

In my mind’s eye, I picture myself reading Our Army at War #271, sprawled face-down on one of our folding beach loungers, the one with the backings made of thin vinyl tubing in white and green, on the back patio of our red-brick ranch house on Forest Glen, every neighbor a friend. My dad built the patio cover himself out of sturdy wood and roofed it with these strange, corrugated white and yellow tiles that let some of the sun’s glare through while still providing shade.

In the summer of 1974, the patio was the ideal place to relax, hot and humid as the south Georgia summer always was, grass neatly cut, the birdbath nearby alive with splashing bluebirds and jays, Mom’s azalea bushes dark and full-leafed, and swaying loblolly pines full of squirrels. Cars passing up on 12th Avenue, their tires whirring and providing a regular tidal sound, the scene as a whole quite comfortable and soothingly womblike.

Yep, the perfect setting to read about Sgt. Rock and his Easy Company joes slogging it through some icy battlefront, their breath vaporizing into little white clouds in every panel. I never forgot that seemingly insignificant detail, nor the story’s title: “Brittle Harvest.” Certain details were lost to memory, like the farm boy soldier knocking down a Nazi bomber with a rifle grenade. Memory is fallible. It's difficult sometimes to tell which are actual memories and which are retroactive falsification, the mind trying to be helpful by filling in the blanks for you.

For example, all through the years I thought the solid if unspectacular Frank Redondo pencilled and inked this issue. After all, the elusive Redondo drew about a billion Sgt. Rock tales in the 1970s and 1980s, practically every one I read as a kid and young teen. Imagine my surprise when I discovered years later the spectacular Russ Heath drew it. Russ is one of my all-time favorite artists, and did his best work for the black & white Warren magazines, especially "Give and Take," the story he did for Blazing Combat where he combined an almost mechanical fine-line hatching that prefigured Brian Bolland by a number of years with gray ink washes that gave incredible depth and an almost sfumato quality to the imagery.

But his four-color art jobs for DC were always cleanly rendered, and with more verisimilitude in terms of uniforms and vehicles than Joe Kubert’s more Impressionistic take on Easy Company’s adventures. Oh, and as you can see above, this issue has an action-packed Kubert cover. As much as I love Heath, Kubert is the name linked to Sgt. Rock in my mind. Kubert is another favorite and I cannot get enough of his work. I always bought DC war comics hoping against hope Kubert would have some sequential stuff inside; imagine having to settle for Heath.

One thing I noticed when re-reading this recently—and this is how I remember most of the Rock tales—Easy Company almost always seems to be flat-hatting it on these endless, lonely patrols. Sometimes they have definite objectives, but usually they’re just out there, encountering seemingly random assaults by the Germans. A solo halftrack here, a Tiger or a Panther there.

Easy rarely, if ever, seems to participate in attacks on towns or strongpoints with other units. There are no fire and maneuver tactics where they lay down a base of fire then attempt to flank the enemy, rarely any armor support. In this story, they use the unorthodox method of rolling giant snowballs at a German machine gun nest, then watch as a random fly-by from a P-47 Thunderbolt finishes the job... and later, that insane “one-in-a-million” grenade shot accomplishes their entire mission for them.

I also can't remember ever reading an Easy story detailing anything about the chain of command or the company's battalion, regiment or division, although I remember Rock occasionally discussing things with a “looey.” Also, the mountainous yet tree-less terrain in this story doesn’t seem to correspond to any place the US Army fought over during the winter of 1944-45 in the ETO. It certainly doesn’t look like Belgium or France. Maybe Easy’s in Finland for some damned reason known only to their absentee CO.

Don’t let anybody con you into believing Bob Kanigher’s war stories are the ultimate in comic book realism. They aren't as wacky as Stan Lee's Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos, but they aren't Band of Brothers or even Norman Mailer's Naked and the Dead. What they have going for them rather than any kind of reportorial quality is a vaguely downbeat, depressing mood, more truthful in spirit than fact or documentary-like detail, I guess. They say more about the general human condition than educate readers about how it really was for an infantryman during WWII. And they frequently have impressive hooks, like this story’s hauting final image, beautifully realized by Heath… the clutching hands of the frozen German soldiers poking through the ice at the base of a wrecked dam.

As untrustworthy as memory is, that’s a comic book panel I’ve never forgotten, not since that summer day so long ago when words on the page began making sense and I first understood a comic book about some GI named Rock. "Make War No More."

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C.K. Dexter Haven said...
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