Ensley F. Guffey On… War Comics

Each week, one of Biff Bam Pop’s illustrious writers will delve into one of their favorite things.  Perhaps it’s a movie or album they’ve carried with them for years.  Maybe it’s something new that moved them and they think might move you too.  Each week, a new subject, a new voice writing on… something they love.

This week we have the pleasure of having Ensley F. Guffey share his love of War Comics, after the jump. 

DC's war comics characters, drawn by Joe Kubert for the History of the DC Universe Portfolio, 1986.
DC’s war comics characters, drawn by Joe Kubert for the History of the DC Universe Portfolio, 1986.

The first book I ever read cover-to-cover was a Golden Key Pink Panther comic book. I was four years old at the time, and I have been reading comics ever since.

From the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s I cemented my lifelong love of comics, and while issues of The Amazing Spider-Man were always treasures to be read and reread until they were in tatters, it wasn’t until Walt Simonson started writing and drawing Thor when I was eleven, followed shortly thereafter by the gift of a cousin’s collection which contained a big chunk of the Claremont/Cockrum – Byrne – Cockrum runs on The All New X-Men and  The Uncanny X-Men that I became truly enamored of the cape-and-tights wearing crowd.

Before that, the greatest joys the spinner rack at the local newsstand could deliver were war comics. As an adult with advanced degrees in history and passion for American popular culture, I returned to the genre and discovered to my delight a field that ranged far wider and delved far deeper than I could have imagined. War comics are almost as old as comics themselves, and despite periods of waning interest, they return again and again in the US and around the world. Many are, as they have always been, jingoistic crud, but a surprisingly large percentage are incredible examples of storytelling and startling honesty about the brutal realities of warfare. Hopefully this column will become a regular, if occasional, feature here at Biff Bam Pop!, and I’ll have a chance to talk more about the genre past and present, but today I want to tell you about the war comics that swept me away as a kid and became an important part of my ongoing passion for history.

In the United States of my childhood, during the last decade of the Bronze Age of comic books, war comics meant DC’s war line, and a collection of characters that had already become part of comics culture, and in some case of the larger culture of America. I remember being delighted with Lt. Jeb Stuart and his World War II adventures in a tank haunted by his namesake, Confederate General J.E.B. Stuart. Then there were the darker, edgier missions undertaken by “the man who no one knows, yet who is known by everyone”: the Unknown Soldier with his bandaged face and pop-collared trench coat. There were others, as well: the Viking Commando; Gravedigger; World War I’s Enemy Ace; Johnny Cloud; Captain Storm; Gunner, Sarge, and pooch; and the incredible Mademoiselle Marie, hero of the French Resistance.

But if you want to talk about the paragon of DC’s war line, the character that captured me early and still holds me close today, there’s no contest: Sgt. Frank Rock of Easy Company, US infantry.

Joe Kubert, Inked page from DC Special 18
Joe Kubert, Inked page from DC Special 18

Created by Robert Kanigher in 1959’s Our Army at War #83, and in continuous publication until 1988, Sgt. Rock led Easy Company in North Africa, Sicily, Italy, France, and Germany, with occasional side trips to the Pacific Theater and even the Eastern European Front. Rock may have sprung from Kanigher’s wildly fertile imagination, but he was given life and depth and soul by artist Joe Kubert, who left such an indelible mark on the character that every artist who followed him had no choice but to adopt Kubert’s artistic definition of Rock: infinitely weary, deep-set eyes, dark three-day stubble, uniform trousers that were too big and had to be rolled at the cuffs, combat fatigues that were worn, dirty, usually showing holes at the knee and shoulders, a half-crumpled cigarette dangling between his lips, and his face streaked with sweat. Together, Kanigher (who would write almost every Rock story up to and including the final regular issue of the series in 1988) and Kubert created one of the most intriguing icons in American pop-culture.

Kubert and Rock, by Joe Kubert
Kubert and Rock, by Joe Kubert

An undoubtedly tough combat vet who survived more frontal charges without cover against entrenched enemy positions than is even remotely possible, the Rock stories in Our Army at War and Sgt. Rock also regularly dealt with “combat fatigue,” PTSD, atrocities by both sides, racism and civil rights, continuous death, and the grinding, seemingly unending and relentless fact of a life lived at war, and the infantryman’s perspective of yet another yard of dirt to cross with only another to come beyond that, and beyond that, and beyond that. All of this in a comic aimed at 10 – 13 year olds, and constrained for its entire publication run by the Comics Code. I came to Sgt. Rock somewhere around six or seven years old, already boyishly enraptured by the machines of World War II (I blame my mother, whose bedtime stories to me were often selections from Time/Life’s World War II series) from the gull-winged Corsair F4U and shark-like P-51 to the deadly grace of the Panther tank and the big guns of the USS North Carolina. Hey, my appreciation of Rock and Easy’s adventures wasn’t deep or terribly intellectual, but even as a kid I recognized something different about the Rock stories that made them somehow “more real” than the rest of DC’s offerings usually were, and I think it may well have been the sheer humanity of the characters.

Rock and Easy were men who suffered. Sure, they were heroes fighting the good fight in the ”Good War,” but man, every issue someone (usually a replacement) died, and the survivors really felt that death, but then they had to pick up their feet and march on. Nor were Rock and Easy any kind of supermen. They flipped out in the middle of combat more than once, were driven to their knees by grief and the unending stress of combat, even fled from a firefight a time or two. His adventures were more about trying to stay human and whole in the midst of inhuman and shattered conditions as they were about beating the “stinkin’ Ratzis”, and Rock was well aware that “heroism” and “cowardice” were just different sides of the same human coin. Man, I loved those comics as a kid!

Rock and Easy Co. by Joe Kubert, from Who's Who: The definitive Directory of the DC Universe #7
Rock and Easy Co. by Joe Kubert, from Who’s Who: The definitive Directory of the DC Universe #7

And I love them now. Going back to Our Army at War and Sgt. Rock as an adult, and reading issue after issue as collected in a Showcase Presents or DC Archive Edition reveals some flaws that even the seasoning of nostalgia can’t overcome. Kanigher was a repetitive writer who, when he found a formula that worked was not afraid to ride it until it died, then have it stuffed and saddle up all over again. He was also inconsistent in terms of quality, and continuity was not something on which he tended to waste his time. Yet he could also be truly brilliant, and it was Robert Kanigher who brought the Civil Rights Movement to comics by introducing Jackie Johnson, just another “combat-happy Joe of Easy Co.” who also happened to be black. This was in the fall of 1961, after the Freedom Riders went into the Deep South, facing fire and death. Long before the Black Panther sprung out in Fantastic Four #52, or Sam Wilson stepped onto the scene as the Falcon in Captain America #117, Jackie Johnson was marching with Rock and Easy as an equal, fighting both the Nazis and the prejudices of officers and GIs that Easy encountered during the war. Indeed, Kanigher made no bones about directly relating American racism with Nazi racial theories of master races and sub-humans. Kanigher and Kubert would go on to use Rock and Easy’s experiences in World War II to create an issue addressing the My Lai massacre, and more than one harshly criticizing the Vietnam War. Kanigher, Kubert, and the rest of the team became masters at invoking popular memories of World War II in order to address contemporary issues, often in no uncertain terms.

Portrait of Bob Kanigher by Joe Kubert. The Comics Journal #85
Portrait of Bob Kanigher by Joe Kubert. The Comics Journal #85

The art on the Rock books was never short of stellar. Besides Joe Kubert, over the decades Rock and Easy were drawn by Russ Heath, Jerry Grandinetti, Ross Andru, Gene Colan, Irv Novick, Andy Kubert, and an artist who drew most of the issues I read as a kid, and who is not nearly as well-known as he should be: Frank Redondo. Kubert set the style, but the artists who followed, as well as innovative colorists like Tatjana Wood, never produced anything but beautiful work, issue after issue after issue. Besides being my first comic book love, the Sgt. Rock books also gave me an early and almost subconscious tutorial on great sequential art, and the tastes I developed then for realism softened by a touch of loose-lined impressionism have stayed with me to this day.

It is safe to say that every war comic produced after 1962, and every creator working in the genre since then has been influenced, one way or another, by Sgt. Rock, and the character has demonstrated a powerful endurance, and left a deep mark on American culture. In Vietnam, Sgt, Rock was invoked as much as John Wayne as an example of both the ultimate fictional hero, and the perfect example of how to get yourself killed if you acted that way in the real war. Yet Rock remained far more popular among US combat troops in Vietnam than John Wayne, because the depictions of the effects of combat on a soldier in the Rock stories were far closer to the truth than almost anything else in the mass culture of the time. The Rock books were always profoundly anti-war while also being profoundly pro-soldier, and that continues to speak to readers today.

In 1973, The New York Times ran a feature story about Our Army at War #233, in which the story “Head Count” directly tackled American wartime atrocities in the wake of the conviction of Lt. James Calley for his part in the My Lai massacre. Beginning in 2004, revivals of Sgt. Rock became national news as the Times and other news sources also ran features marking his return in the graphic novel Between Hell and a Hard Place, the mini-series The Prophecy in 2006, and the graphic novel The Lost Battalion in 2009. When Joe Kubert died in 2012, of all the incredible characters he had created, all of the pages he had drawn in a career that stretched back to 1938, it was Sgt. Rock that emerged as symbol of his career and talent, and a two-page center spread showing a bedraggled Sgt. Rock waving Easy Co. forward through the snow that served as his memorial, running in every September 2012 DC Comics release.

Joe Kubert memorial, DC Comics, September 2012
Joe Kubert memorial, DC Comics, September 2012

I doubt we have seen the last of Rock and Easy Co. and I, for one, will have the next mini-series, graphic novel, or whatever it may be pre-ordered months in advance. Things ain’t easy in Easy, but Rock has seen me through for over thirty years, one step at a time. I don’t see any reason to quit on him now.

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