Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Sgt. Rock's Odyssey

In the early 1970s, Archie Goodwin briefly took over as editor of DC Comics’ war books. At the time, there were three important DC books that featured continuing characters: Our Army at War had Sgt. Rock, G.I. Combat featured the Haunted Tank, and Our Fighting Forces had the Losers.

For years, all of these books had been written almost exclusively by Robert Kanigher, who had also created all the featured characters. His work had always been good and often excellent, but when Goodwin stepped in a change was made that helped elevate all three of these books to a new level.

Kanigher usually did not worry about internal historical continuity in his war books. One month, Sgt. Rock would be fighting in France. The next week, he’d be in North Africa, which would place the story two years earlier in historical reality. Yet a character introduced in the France story would still pop up in the North African story line.

This never hurt the books, since the individual stories were strong and the art work (usually by Joe Kubert or Russ Heath) was absolutely superb. But in 1972, it was decided (I assume by Goodwin, since he had just become editor) they should try out some multi-issue story arcs. Goodwin himself took over the Haunted Tank, sending that armored vehicle and its ghostly guardian on an ill-conceived raid that kept them trapped behind enemy lines for a half-dozen issues. The Losers, still written by Kanigher and drawn by John Severin, went on a mission to Africa and ended up in a series of inter-connected adventures that took them across the Sahara.

Kanigher and Russ Heath (possibly the single most underrated artist in comic history) took Sgt. Rock on his own personal Odyssey. Starting in Our Army at War #256, Rock is detached from his beloved Easy Company in Europe and sent on temporary assignment to Burma, where he’s given a squad of newly promoted sergeants to train. His trainees are suspicious of him at first, but Rock earns their respect as he teaches them to balance aggressive action with watching out for the men under their command.

The story really begins in OAAW #257. The B-17 flying Rock back to Europe is caught by anti-aircraft fire and crashes on a Japanese-held island. Rock is the only survivor. Building a hang-glider out of the remains of the bomber, he manages to destroy the anti-aircraft gun that was hidden in a cliff-side cave.

This issue shows the sort of thematic tight-rope that Kanigher always walked in his war stories. First, the story is full of real human moments, most especially when Rock vainly tried to save the screaming crewmen inside the burning bomber. But at the same time, it was filled with pure comic-book action. Rock builds a hang-glider out of the remains of the bomber, for heaven’s sake. Looked at objectively, it doesn’t get any sillier than that.

But it doesn’t seem silly in context with the story as a whole. The sense of humanity that Kanigher built into the story is the main reason, of course, but Russ Heath’s art work is a big part of it as well. With his understanding of human anatomy, his dynamic portrayal of violence, his technically accurate portrayal of vehicles and weapons and his cinematic shifting of perspective from panel to panel, he could give any sort of action sequence a sense of reality and urgency. No matter how silly it might be when compared to real life, it works beautifully in the comics.

OAAW #258 starts with Rock adrift in the Pacific in a rubber raft. Washing up on another island, he’s forced into an uneasy alliance with a Japanese Marine also stranded there. Together, they launch a raft and put back out to sea. But their alliance comes to a bloody end when they spot a boat in the distance. Tragically, only after the Japanese has been fatally wounded, does Rock see the boat is an abandoned PT Boat.

OAAW #259 has Rock rescued by an American hospital ship. Once again, Kanigher’s strong sense of humanity comes to the forefront while Rock helps care for the wounded, and again when several of the walking wounded decide they are sick of war and take over the ship, determined to find an island paradise somewhere. Rock does not approve of their action, but he doesn’t condemn them either, knowing what they’ve all been through.

But when they come across an island where invading U.S. Marines are being slaughtered on the beach, the mutineers find they can’t turn their backs on their countrymen. They and Rock enter the fray and help turn the tide.

OAAW #260 involves Rock and his companions blowing up a Japanese gun emplacement that’s about to open up on a second wave of landing craft. But when they return to the beach, they learn that some Japanese civilians are hiding in a cave near the top of a cliff. With a young prisoner as a translator, they climb up to try to get the civilians to surrender. But the civilians, including a mother clutching her child, begin to leap to their deaths. They’ve been told that the Americans will torture them if they are captured. (This, by the way, is drawn straight from history. Civilians often did commit suicide because of this propaganda and those that did try to surrender were often gunned down by Japanese soldiers.) The moment where Rock, who was always so stoic in the midst of combat, turns to the young prisoner in an absolute panic, screaming at him to tell the civilians they won’t be hurt, is quite possible the single-best Sgt. Rock moment ever and one of the most emotionally affecting sequences in any comic ever.

The next issue was a story out of continuity with the rest of the story arc. It picks up again in OAAW #262, with Rock finally coming home to Easy Company. He finds another Sergeant has been put in charge while he was Missing in Action. Rock finds himself a spare wheel in his own outfit. He learns the new guy lost his entire command before coming to Easy and still has nightmares about this. The new guy is given a chance to redeem himself, though, giving his life to save Easy Company in the story’s climax. Rock is home and in command again, but the war goes on.

Overall, this was a wonderful story arc, both in terms of writing and art, well-worth finding and reading.


  1. I had the last issue (262) and thought the artist that did it was one of the best to do Rock. Wish I still had my copy


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