Longbox Graveyard #101
When the great Joe Kubert passed away last year he left a hole in our hearts and revealed a hole in my comics Accumulation. Wishing to review Kubert’s work I was dismayed to learn I had nothing close to hand, a situation I happily remedied at WonderCon last month with the purchase of a half-price copy of DC’s Sgt. Rock Archives, Volume 1.
How did the earliest adventures of Sgt. Rock and Easy Company hold up after half a century? Read on for my review!
These DC Archive volumes are very nice — if they weren’t so darn expensive I’d buy one every time I visit a comic shop. This volume reprints the earliest Sgt. Rock stories, commencing with 1959′s G.I. Combat #68 and concluding with 1960′s Our Army At War #96. Twenty tales over eighteen months — the longest of them barely more than a dozen taut pages — but those tales were enough to establish a winning formula that saw Sgt. Rock step from the choir of disposable comics war heroes and establish himself as one of the icons of the Silver Age.
There’s nothing wrong with a formula … when it’s a good formula. And the formula on display in this Sgt. Rock collection is a winner. The focus is relentlessly personal — it’s just Sgt. Rock and Easy Company, somewhere in occupied France, date unknown. Each story is a mission, or a part of a mission; an endless parade of hidden machine gun nests and fortified hills that have to be taken, one after another after another. The soldiers exist only in moments of battle. There are no letters from home, no quiet moments in the chow line, no memories of what the world was like before the war, and no hope the war will ever end.
And it never would end for the men of Easy Company, as the series would prove to be among DC’s most resilient titles. Retitled Sgt. Rock in 1977, the book would run 340-odd issues all the way to 1988 — almost thirty years at the sharp end for Rock and his men.
Part of what makes these stories work so well, even a fifty years after they were written, are their powerful voice. Each story is narrated by Sgt. Rock himself — who sometimes breaks the third wall and speaks directly to the audience by way of introducing or concluding his stories — but even more distinctive than Rock’s voice is that of the book’s primary author, Bob Kanigher. The very definition of an old pro, Kanigher wrote comics for fifty years, penning Gold and Silver Age stories for characters like Wonder Woman, Hawkman, and Black Canary, working for DC well into the 1970s. But it is Sgt. Rock who is arguably Kanigher’s greatest creation, and while we associate this character with the sublime Joe Kubert, Kubert himself credits Kanigher as the “true creator” of Sgt. Rock in his forward to Volume 1 of the Sgt. Rock Archives.
Bob Kanigher, by Joe Kubert
Kanigher’s storytelling tone is straight-forward, battle-weary, and unsparing, and peppered with colorful slang. Hand grenades are “eggs,” soldiers who are killed have “cashed in their dog tags,” infantrymen are “dogfaces” with “tin pots” for helmets. References to the “combat-happy Joes of Easy Company” and the frequent observation that “nothing is easy in Easy Company” are repeated so often they become a kind of mantra (a technique writer Martin Pasko suggests may have been deliberate in the Mort Weisinger era at DC).
Also characteristic of Kanigher is a kind of triptych storytelling style, employing three equally-weighted panels in quick succession to focus in on soldiers in moments of stress — a methodology perhaps better known for demonstrating The Flash’s speed tricks, but here used to show a rifleman panicing when cornered by enemy armor, an exhausted soldier summoning up the will to hump an ammo box through the snow, or a wounded Sgt. Rock loading a bazooka.
Read in a collection like this Archive, where all but three of the twenty stories are by Kanigher, the tales take on a rhythm, like a ballad or an epic poem, with these same, welcome routines the chorus we return to, again and again, blurring together the events and incidents of Easy Company’s long march through the war.
For all that Kanigher put his stamp on the series, Sgt. Rock is justifiably remembered as artist Joe Kubert’s greatest series. With his cocked helmet, boxer’s nose, perpetual stubble, and laconic reaction to unspeakable danger, Kubert’s Sgt. Rock might have commanded a spot in my Top Ten Manliest Superheroes list if he could have been bothered to wear a cape. But aside from some late-stage (and possibly non-canonical) involvement with the Suicide Squad, Rock would retain his fatigues — and his rank of Sergeant — throughout all his long years of comic book military service.
Kubert’s Sgt. Rock is rumpled and weary, but never defeated — he’s the picture of the ideal American citizen-soldier, a guy who didn’t ask for a fight but isn’t going to back down from one, either. Rock’s lack of spit-and-polish recalls Bill Mauldin’s Willie & Joe, but unlike Mauldin’s G.I.s, these tales have little concern for those portions of a soldier’s life away from the action — the boredom, the terror, the endless search for food and a dry place to sleep, the heartfelt griping of the expendable soldier ordered to his doom by faceless superiors miles away from the frontlines … none of these things concern Rock, at least not in these first twenty issues.
Bill Mauldin’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Willie & Joe
After all, Sgt. Rock wasn’t created for veterans of the war. No, these are tales of a “boy’s own World War II,” or maybe World War II as it really was … in the movies. These tales were for kids who watched John Wayne movies on television, then crawled around their backyards wearing plastic helmets and toting Daisy BB rifles to combat imaginary Krauts. But while their focus is on action and the virtue of courage, these stories aren’t shallow or unsophisticated. Kubert’s peerless pencilling gives the stories a grounded and realistic you-are-there quality, and even if we know we shouldn’t quite credit it when Rock single-handedly takes out another bunker or another Tiger while shrugging off a slug in the shoulder, it also seems plausible, in a tall tale kind of way. After all, that’s the way many war movies were in the 1950s and early 1960s — war was hell, but it was also necessary, and for the most part our guys were the good guys and the bad guys wore the German helmets. It would remain for the Vietnam generation to popularize war movies as we know them today, where war is the greatest enemy of all, and to a greater or lesser extent all men are ground up by the gears of the machine.
Rock’s feats may seem superhuman, but Rock is no Superman. He may miraculously survive more than his share of enemy fire, but on the inside, Rock is all too vulnerable, harboring very real concerns for his men, and doubts about his own ability to lead. Viewed with almost superstitious awe by his soldiers, Rock is acutely aware that it’s all on him to bring his men through Hell in one piece, and it is in wondering how the mission will play itself out, and which squaddie will receive a lesson in the manly virtues of war, where the tension of these stories reside. After all, we know how the war will turn out — Hitler eats a bullet in his bunker (SPOILER!). But will Pvt. Anderson learn to work as part of a team, or will the “Ice Cream Soldier” melt under fire, or will ancient Sgt. Dunn finally prove his courage because he’s “too old to run?” These are the human-scale stories of Easy Company, and they’re the reason we come back, issue after issue.
With their circular themes and cheerful Silver Age disregard for continuity, these stories seem all-of-a-piece, but there are a few tales that stick out (and even the least of them is of solid and serviceable quality). Especially memorable was watching the men of Easy Company run out of bullets — but not out of nerve — defending No Return Hill against a German overrun in “Calling Easy Co!” or seeing Rock trying to disabuse his men of their dangerous reliance on lucky rabbits feet in “Luck of Easy!”
My favorite story might be the first in this volume — “The Rock!” — where our hero is introduced as a gritty warrior who doesn’t know how to quit, rising from the boxing canvas as easily as his muddy shell hole, bloodied but unbeaten, daring his foe to “C’mon and fight!”
And every now and then, flashing like lightning in the thunderous din of the battle of Our Army At War, there will come a Russ Heath cover that just takes your breath away. As good as Kubert was with his interiors, these covers are even more stunning (and there will be more about Heath’s war covers in next week’s Longbox Graveyard). Kubert’s Archive introduction lauds Heath for accuracy in drawing tanks and equipment “more like the real thing than if they were photographed.”
And he’s right!
cover to Our Army At War #86, by Russ Heath
In case you can’t tell, I loved these stories. Sgt. Rock is strong, escapist genre fiction. These are unapologetic action comics, their pages swarming with sound effects. BRRRP! KPOW BRATATATAT! The men of Easy Company come under every imaginable kind of fire, from machine guns, snipers, mortars, and tanks — inevitably, Tiger tanks — that appear on the battlefield like sixty-ton trump cards, the infantryman’s worst nightmare, and setting the stage for some desperate bit of individual heroics to save the doomed squad. But no matter how big the action, the stakes are always personal.
Simple but not simplistic. Anti-war but not anti-duty. Little victories and catastrophic defeats. Nothing is easy in Easy Company, and neither is it easy to get to the heart of what makes these stories so good. There’s nothing quite like them today — the Judge Dredd books of the 1980s have a bit of the same narrative approach, but Sgt. Rock has none of that series’ irony. Probably Sgt. Rock is an artifact of its age, a special brew that could be concocted only in those heady post-war decades of the American Century. Certainly this was a golden era for war comics, which have never been quite so good, either before or since. Fortunately, through DC’s Archive series, you can take a trip back to when men were men and they got on about their business without expecting anything but a soldier’s grave in return.
Don’t wait to take that journey! It took me four decades of reading comics to find my way to Sgt. Rock, but now I’m ready to join the outfit. There’s a war on, you mugs! Move it out!
NEXT WEDNESDAY: #102 Cover Gallery: Russ Heath At War!