Monday, March 16, 2009

Comics That Destroyed My Mind 2: Weird War Tales #32!

Hmm… another war comic. No, I wasn’t a little war-monger in 1974; I was merely an imaginative kid steeped in the martial traditions of my country. America’s direct military involvement in Vietnam had ended the year before with the signing of the Paris Peace Accords, and in the coming year the war itself would conclude with a victory for the communist North and that infamous scene with the helicopter taking off from the roof of a Saigon apartment building.

I’ve read about soldier-boy toys like GI Joe losing their popularity as America’s disillusionment with the military-industrial complex grew in the early 1970s, but you would never have known it if you lived in south Georgia suburbia, where we fought massive battles with the Marx Toys “Guns of Navaroneplayset, watched syndicated re-runs of The Rat Patrol on TV and un-selfconsciously waged war amongst ourselves with plastic rifles and kid-sized army uniforms.

And we read war comics unapologetically and even semi-patriotically; the Americans were always the good guys and always won, and while we might sympathize with individual German or Japanese soldiers (like Enemy Ace or the kamikaze pilot from the famous U.S.S. Stevens tale by Sam Glanzman), we also expected them to die at the story's end. We read of Sergeants Rock and Fury, and also DC's bizarre hybrid of war and horror, perfectly poised to fit whatever peacenik zeitgeist was supposedly floating in the air of the Me Decade, Weird War Tales, the comic hosted by Death.

But more important to me personally, Weird War Tales #32 is yet another comic containing a single panel so shocking to my six-year-old self it’s come back to haunt me time and again over the years. But, as I learned while rediscovering Our Army at War #271, memory is a very tricky thing. It’s faulty, very subjective, especially as the chronological gap grows between initial observation and later remembrance.

Once again, I have no idea how I came to own this comic. Maybe my parents bought it for me. I loved Godzilla movies when I was a kid, and who can argue with the cover-- a giant, fire-breathing beast killing the snot out of a bunch of Nazis? It looks a little like something out of Marvel's pre-Fantastic Four monster titles. Too bad there's nothing remotely resembling this image anywhere inside the comic. It would've made one helluva story.

The two things I actually thought I remembered about Weird War Tales #32 were the robotic Japanese soldiers... and the general who made a deal for immortality and paid a horrific price for it. But my brain really did a number on those stories over the years, twisting them all out of shape like those ink images we used to pick up from the newspaper funny pages on Silly Putty, then bend and stretch until Dick Tracy or Charlie Brown looked even more like sideshow freaks. Obviously, I'm not one of those eidetic memory people, although some of my friends seem to think I am.

No, I may have Rainman's social skills, but I'll never have his card-counting abilities. No trips to Vegas for this kid.

Take, for example, how my brain mish-mashed the story “Mission Into Madness.” It’s just a two-pager. Two measly pages! But over the years, I really embellished it. I remembered it being much longer, with the US Marines hitting the beach of a Pacific island in a massive amphibious assault only to run into much stronger resistance from the Japanese than they’d expected. And in the end, they get a shock when they discover they’re fighting not men, but robots. About the only thing I remembered correctly were the Japanese robot soldiers. Actually, a mere three OSS agents paddle a rubber raft onto the beach, and from the dialogue, they’re very much aware they’re tangling with mechanical men.

Well, that was a cool little tale, but hardly frightening, even with its implication future iterations of the war-robots will be more effective. The story that scared the shit out of my six-year-old self was “Glutton for Punishment” by Jack Oleck, with art by someone named Jodloman. And even that one wasn't safe from the ravages of my creaky brain-waves. The way I remembered it was some Greek general from Alexander’s army makes a deal with Satan for immortality so he can conquer his own empire.

Actually, the protagonist is a Crusader knight, a fat gourmand at the head of a large company of men who hate his guts. I’d completely forgotten the food aspect, as the commander and his men haven’t eaten for several days as the story begins.


Instead of Satan, a ghostly Saracen named Ibn Said-- is he demon, sorcerer or djinn? The story never tells us-- comes to the commander's tent and offers a feast, but with a catch. If the commander accepts, he can live as long as he wants, until he requests to die, after which he’ll be Ibn Said’s slave in the afterlife for eternity. Being a fat pig, the commander can hardly resist and digs into the food with relish, sneers at Ibn Said’s terms. After all, who would ever ask to die?

His courage bucked up by his seeming invincibility, the commander throws himself into the campaign with surprising vigor… only to lose an ear to a Saracen’s scimitar. Shocked and in pain, he orders his men forward, then confronts the spectral Ibn Said. The commander shouts, “You! How-- Trickster! You lied to me! You promised me I wouldn't be hurt! Liar!" And Ibn Said gently replies, “Liar? I promised that you would live until you asked to die, Commander, nothing else. Remember? I regret your injury, of course, but-- ”

No matter, it’s just an ear. The knights attack another Saracen city, and this time, the commander loses his left eye. Now he’s really getting pissed at Ibn Said, and his troops are starting to think he's not only an asshole but an insane asshole.

One thing that makes this story so effective is Oleck’s use of the traditional motif of threes. You know how that goes—in folktales and jokes, the third time is always the charm. The first odd prime number, Dante's Divine Comedy has three parts of thirty-three cantos each, the Three Little Pigs, Three Billy Goats Gruff, the Holy Trinity, the original Star Wars trilogy, their crappy prequels, Three's Company starring the late John Ritter as Jack Tripper, good things and bad news come in threes, three is the magic number. After the commander receives two wounds, Oleck has foreshadowed something nasty. What body part comes next? What loss will cause the haughty commander to beg for death, giving him his richly-deserved comeuppance?

The greedy, hateful bastard meets his doom trying to get to safety at Jerusalem, after allowing the Saracens to wipe out his army. Forced to take shelter in some ruins, the commander and his few remaining knights suffer bombardment from Greek fire (the half-remembrance of which I think altered the story’s time period in my mind over the years). The smarter knights flee, but the enraged commander chooses to stay. After all, he’s immortal now. Ibn Said taunts him as the Saracens score a direct hit on our livid fatso with their fiery weapon…

And here’s where things get gruesome. In the aftermath, we see Ibn Said standing triumphantly over what’s left of the commander… a burnt, limbless hulk. Hair singed off, naked and in excruciating pain. But his mind is still working. He manages to argue his way into an alteration of the original bargain and has Ibn Said “put [him] back together.”

The result resembles an overcooked baked potato that somehow rolled behind the refrigerator, picking up dust bunnies and cobwebs, a thing with no arms but with over-sized hands sticking out of its buttocks. The commander begs for Ibn Said to kill him, but the ghostly Saracen is walking away. Death, the narrator, gloats that the commander can still eat, “If he finds someone to feed him, that is.”

Now that last page scared the living shit out of me as a six-year-old. The hideously deformed commander is bad enough, but the thought that Ibn Said just left him alive and immortal and in that condition gave me nightmares that night. For weeks afterwards, I had this fear that one day, I might actually meet the commander, perhaps in my own bedroom. He’d be standing there on his gnarled hands, his flabby body naked and crawling with scar tissue under the incandescent light that ordinarily seemed so comforting but now offered only a brightly illuminated view of the follies of both gluttony and war.

But the way I long remembered the last panel was as a full-frontal shot of the commander’s new form. Instead, it’s a shadowed rear angle. You get to see his burnt ass, though. And we all love burnt asses, right?
I don’t really understand why Ibn Said didn’t take his soul. There's nothing in the dialogue suggesting they changed that part of the deal. Ah well, it's just a small plot hole, not enough to ruin the story. Or prevent me from carrying its final panel in some form or other around in my mind for more than thirty years.

2 comments:

cub said...

thanks for having the "glutton" scans. i linked to your blog from a.v.club for the latest Homeland review.

WWT and Weird Mystery Tales got me through many long boring car trips-- so happy to find a fellow warped mind.

Joel Bryan said...

Thank you very much! This blog is about as popular as whatever that thing is that isn't very popular at all, so getting a nice comment like this really makes my week!

Yeah, these comics did a lot of inadvertent damage, didn't they? I can't even tell you how much sleep deprivation they caused when I was a kid.