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Russ Heath

Read my column about DC’s greatest war hero — Sgt. Rock!

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Longbox Graveyard #120

Conceived as a means of keeping me on track while organizing and reducing my comics Accumulation, the Longbox Graveyard has taken unexpected twists and turns these last hundred-plus issues. I never anticipated this blog would lead me to blog about Godzilla; or discover a deep appreciation for Jack Kirby’s take on Nick Fury’s spy gadgets; or to host a panel at San Diego Comic-Con. And likewise, it was my unplanned attendance at an Edgar Rice Burroughs panel as last year’s Comic-Con that led to this week’s column, as that presentation reignited my nostalgia for Tarzan.

Joe Kubert, Tarzan

I dove deep into Tarzan after Comic-Con, reading a half-dozen novels in as many weeks, and it has been fun to reacquaint myself with the Ape-Man. The books were a bit better than I remembered, with lightning-flashes of indelible imagery, like when Tarzan puts paid to poor Count Raoul de Coude in a Parisian drawing room in Return of Tarzan, or when the villainous Nikolas Rokoff is finally cornered by Sheeta and Akut in The Beasts of Tarzan, or when Tarzan explores ancient, night-haunted chambers in Tarzan And The Jewels of Opar. The novels are full of derring-do and reversals of fortune, and if the characters are sometimes thin and there is an over-reliance on shipwreck and people being kidnapped by apes … well, these are pulps that we are talking about — and pulps that are better than a hundred years old at that!

Burroughs’ shortcomings are even more forgivable when you realize that he was essentially a self-taught writer, who embarked on an astonishingly prolific career relatively late in life — a career that saw him create fantastic worlds of adventure on Mars, Venus, and at the Earth’s Core. His greatest achievement, of course, was to create one of fiction’s immortal characters in Tarzan, who would star in two-dozen novels from Burroughs, and innumerable television shows, movies, and … comic books! Tarzan’s early comic-strip adventures under master artists like Hal Foster and Burne Hogarth are treasures of the form, but more familiar to most audiences will be Joe Kubert’s 1972-1977 Tarzan run at DC Comics.

Joe Kubert, Tarzan

Tarzan’s first DC issue was #207 (continuing previous numbering when the book was published by Gold Key), and Joe Kubert was a one-man band — writing, drawing, and editing the new adventures of the Ape-Man. As befit a new enterprise, Kubert started at the beginning, with a four-issue adaptation of Burroughs’ Tarzan of the Apes.

Joe Kubert, Tarzan

Kubert’s adaptation of Tarzan’s origin tale is a marvel of economy, compressing Burroughs sometimes-meandering hundred thousand word jungle epic into four fast-moving and visual twenty-four page comic books, doing minimal violence to Burroughs story, and in some ways improving on the original through wise omission of elements that had not stood the test of time. Kubert’s script tightens Burroughs’ plot, reduces (somewhat) the original author’s reliance on coincidence as a plot device, and eliminates the broad comic relief of the novel — which incidentally also scrubbed the story nearly free of the mild-for-its-era racist stereotyping that is an unfortunate component of the novel.

Joe Kubert, Tarzan

The result is jungle magic. Using a conversation between an adventurous female looking for her father in the wilds of Africa and her guide as a framing device, Kubert tells the origin of Tarzan as a flashback. As was the case in Hal Foster’s strips — which were a profound influence on the young Kubert — Kubert’s Tarzan is heavily reliant on captions, sometimes taking on the sense of an illustrated story, but unlike Foster, Kubert deploys the full comic book toolbox, including the thought and word balloons that never intruded on Foster’s art. But even with these trappings competing for panel space, Kubert concedes little in illustrative power, bringing Tarzan, the jungle, and the jungle’s many beasts to life with marvelously-constructed panels and pages that aren’t afraid to go silent when the action warrants.

Joe Kubert, Tarzan

Effective genre comics require that the artist be a production designer as well as a storyteller. Bereft of familiar vistas like the rooftops of New York to anchor their comic book action, science fiction and fantasy comic book creators must work twice as hard to create a consistent and believable world around their characters. I felt that Marvel’s John Carter, Warlord of Mars series failed, in part, because world design was given short shrift — Tarzan’s Africa does not require the development of Carter’s Barsoom, but there is still a danger that the series will founder amidst indifferent swaths of jungle foliage.

Joe Kubert, Tarzan

Kubert sidesteps many of these pitfalls with the same technique he used on Sgt. Rock, with economical pencils that focus the reader’s eye on the dramatic subject of each panel — usually characters and their emotions — while using the environment as framing device or abstract background. But Kubert pays more attention to the environment here than he did on the war-torn Western Front, as befits his exotic subject, employing color to good effect to show the jungle in its many hues, and never missing an opportunity to use a sunset or a full moon to alter his palette for maximum mood and variety.

Joe Kubert, Tarzan

As a fan of both Burroughs and comic books, I am hard-pressed to imagine a better adaptation of Tarzan of the Apes into comics form, and I say this with full recognition of the limits and pitfalls of this kind of endeavor. In my own brief career as a comic book author, I wrote an adaptation of The Three Musketeers, but my reverence for the source material made for a poor comic book — my desire to preserve Dumas’ original language led to pages swarming with words that gave my letterer writer’s cramp and offered little insight for readers who might have been better advised to stick with the novel. In adapting Tarzan of the Apes, Kubert is respectful but unafraid to make judicious cuts when the comics form requires, bringing a lifetime of comics storytelling to bear to interpret Burroughs’ tale visually, using original language where appropriate, but also abridging and embroidering his version where additional action is warranted.

Joe Kubert, Tarzan

For example, Burroughs’ Ape-Boy doesn’t see his first action before the fifth chapter of Tarzan of the Apes, but Kubert gets an adult Tarzan into a battle to the death with a panther with a double-page spread on the second page of his adaptation. Additionally, Burroughs’ blizzard of supporting characters (whom the author largely abandoned after this debut novel) are minimized in favor of more visual jungle action, and Kubert even manages to adopt a bit of Jungle Tales of Tarzan (Burroughs’ sixth Tarzan novel, though it tells tales contemporary with Tarzan of the Apes) when he shows Tarzan’s battle with his future ape friend, Taug, over the affections of Tarzan’s “first love,” Teeka.

Joe Kubert, Tarzan

There are a few missteps, but they are minor. The framing device of the woman looking for her father doesn’t really pay off, and the page count does not permit a fuller development of the romantic triangle between Tarzan, Jane, and William Clayton, meaning that Tarzan’s selfless renunciation of his name and title in misguided consideration of Jane’s happiness rings a little hollow at the end of the tale.

Joe Kubert, Tarzan

But truthfully, I have to look to find faults with this masterful example of comic book storytelling, which I think will delight both Burroughs fans and Silver Age comics readers. That I haven’t afforded these issues my highest letter grade has less to do with the quality of Kubert’s Tarzan than it does with the simple observation that Tarzan’s tales are just less-suited to comic book storytelling than the long-underwear operas that are more commonly examined here at Longbox Graveyard … but by any measure, these are superior comics, whether as a change-of-pace or simply on their own.

Joe Kubert, Tarzan

Title: Tarzan
Published By: DC Comics, 1972-1977
Issues Rescued From The Longbox Graveyard: #207-210, April- July 1972
LBG Letter Grade For This Run: A-
Own The Reprint: Tarzan: The Joe Kubert Years, Volume 1

IN TWO WEEKS: #121 Iron Fist!

Sgt. Rock

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!

Sgt. Rock Archives, Vol. 1

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.

Joe Kubert & Bob Kanigher, Our Army At War #83

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 fourth 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.

Kanigher by Kubert

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.

Joe Kubert, G.I. Combat #68

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.

Joe Kubert

Joe Kubert

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.

Willie & Joe

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.

Joe Kubert, Our Army At War #84

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!”

Joe Kubert, Our Army at War #92

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!”

Joe Kubert, G.I. Combat #68

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!

Russ Heath, Our Army At War

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.

Joe Kubert & Bob Kanigher, Our Army At War #87

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.

Joe Kubert, Sgt. Rock

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!

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