Wednesday, March 23, 2011

It's never wrong to include a dinosaur

I've written briefly about The War That Time Forgot in a post from a few years ago. And I still think it's one of the coolest concepts for a comic book series ever.

The series was written by Bob Kanigher, DC's go-to guy for war stories. When looking at Kanigher's work as a writer, I tend to mentally divide his stuff into two catagories.

There were those stories where he constructed plots that would show off the skills of the artist drawing the book, but also introduced an element of real humanity into them--effective character studies that added dramatic backbone to the stories. The Sgt. Rock story arc I covered a few weeks back is a good example of this.

Then there's the stories where it seems ALL he was trying to do was give the artist a chance to show off. He'd still construct a plot that followed a vaguely logical sequence, but his characterizations would be so sketchy as to be almost non-existent. A look at his early Haunted Tank stories provided examples of this--heck, it took several issues for him to consistently remember the names of the crew of the tank, while their back stories changed several time. But the stories allowed Joe Kubert to draw stuff such as a Tiger Tank inexplicable hidden on the second floor of a bombed out building. Or a German fighter strafing the Haunted Tank as it crawled across a makeshift bridge.

It looked cool. And that's all that mattered.

Well, dinosaurs always look cool. So dinosaurs tossed together with the already cool-looking stuff from World War II couldn't help but double the visual fun.

Humans in the "War That Time Forgot" series rarely stuck around for more than one issue, but there were a few instances where Kanigher ran with the same characters for two or three issues, perhaps hoping to come up with guys popular enough to make regulars. But he never did--and it really didn't matter. This was another case where his characterizations were of the sketchiest kind. The humans were in the story purely to toss them into combat with dinosaurs.

Star Spangled War #116, 117 & 118 featured Morgan and Mace, two members of the World War II version of the Suicide Squad. (The Squad at that time consisted of tough, highly trained commandos who were sent on the most dangerous missions.) Morgan and Mace hate each other. This is because Morgan blames Mace for the death of his brother in a pre-war tobaggan accident.

In fact, Morgan is perpetually convinced Mace is a coward and will run out on their mission at any moment. He's pretty much obsessed with this idea. No matter how many times Mace pulls off a Medal of Honor-level piece of heroism, Morgan keeps his .45 trained on him to make sure he doesn't run off.

Gee whiz, it's silly. But it really doesn't matter, because the whole set up is merely an opportunity to get the two of them into conflict with dinosaurs. In most of these stories, the action takes place on a remote Pacific island. But the first Morgan/Mace story is one of several set in the Arctic, where a few frozen dinosaurs end up getting thawed out.

The two commandos accept the presence of dinosaurs with remarkable aplomb while managing to complete their task of blowing up a German rocket base. In the next issue, they're in the Pacific, flying an experimental jet bomber that's brought down on a remote island by--yes--a dinosaur.

The two spend several pages blowing up prehistoric creatures before happening upon a pterodactyl nest. When one of the eggs hatch, the "little" creature (incorrectly labeled a dinosaur by the soldiers) apparently imprints on them.

They end up with an ally. The pterodactyl (named "Dino") shows up several times, both in this issue and in the next, helping Morgan and Mace out of sticky situations.

In fact, when the two commandos are attacking a Japanese aircraft carrier in a torpedo bomber they salvaged, Dino is there to help once again by personally weaving through the anti-aircraft fire and dropping the torpedo on the flattop.

I love it. I shouldn't love it. The characterizations are stilted and taken to a ridiculous extreme. Dino showing up to help doesn't make any sense at all, even in the context of a world where dinosaurs still exist. It's really kinda dumb.

But it doesn't matter, because artist Ross Andru makes it all look so fun! That was the point of the whole series--just to look cool. To look fun. To look wonderfully imaginative. I'm generally critical of poor plot construction and characters stripped of even basic personality traits. Even the most basic pulp or comic book fiction should make sense within the context of the world it creates.

But "The War That Time Forgot" proves that sometimes all that must step aside so that we can see what it looks like when a pterodactyl dive-bombs an aircraft carrier.


  1. I had never read any of these comics growing up, despite my love of dinosaurs. I don't know why, perhaps they didn't mix superheroes in with them.

    I bought the Showcase edition of this book, and you are right, it's wonderfully enjoyable. not remotely logical, but so much fun.

    great write up!

  2. The Showcase volume was great. I keep hoping they'll do a follow-up volume, even though it'd be a little thinner. There's still six or eight Star Spangled War issues the first volume didn't get to, along with some stories in Weird War Tales and a G.I. Combat issue in which the Haunted Tank ended up on that island.


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