Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Death of the Haunted Tank

You know, I actually don't know why editor Joe Kubert and/or writer Bob Kanigher decided to destroy the original Haunted Tank after a full decade worth of stories. Perhaps they were looking to add a small amount of realism to the comic. The original tank was an M3 Stuart, which was armed with a tiny 37mm cannon. In real life, this was pretty much useless against the heavy armor of larger German tanks. The new tank had a 76.2mm gun, making it at least a little more believable when Jeb Stuart and his crew blew the turret off a Tiger tank.

Or maybe they wanted something more visually distinctive. The new tank wasn't a standard Allied model, but rather a sort of Frankenstein's monster built from the pieces of vehicles destroyed in combat. And that's a cool idea in of itself. The tank haunted by the spirit of a man killed in the previous century was itself built out of dead tanks.

cover by Joe Kubert

But whatever the reason for it, the story introducing the new tank (G.I Combat #150--November 1971) is a strong one.  The plot is pretty straightfoward. The ghost of General Stuart announces his time with the crew is done and leaves. That leaves Lt. Jeb Stuart at a loss--he depended on the General's cryptic advice to keep his crew alive.

But there's no time to think about that just yet. The Haunted Tank is assigned to help out an infantry unit that's pinned down and under heavy attack.



Things don't go well. A direct hit from a German anti-tank gun leaves the tank in flames and forces the crew to bail out. At first, they despair. But one of the ground-pounders reminds them that they are specialists and their skills are still needed. So Jeb and his men hightail it back to a tank junkyard and quickly slap together a brand-new armored fighting vehicle.





Taking this into combat, they soon kick some German butt. Then General Stuart reappears, having gone only to teach them the lesson that they shouldn't depend on him or the "luck" he brought them, but on their own fighting hearts.



Actually, the ending is completely predictable, but it's a good story all the same. It is one of my favorite examples of Russ Heath's wonderful art. This particular issue, I think, shows off Heath's skill at composing the scene in each panel, shifting the "camera" angle constantly and giving us battle scenes rich in detail--all while still telling the story in a clear and logical manner.

Over the years, there have been a number of hardcover and trade paperback reprint books that highlight the work of specific comic book artists, such as Neal Adams and John Romita. And this is a good thing--these are artists who deserve recognition and whose work can still entertain readers today.

But so far (unless I missed one) there hasn't been a volume dedicated to Russ Heath. An Archives or Omnibus edition showing off his work at DC--Sgt Rock, the Haunted Tank, the Sea Devils, etc--should be considered a cultural necessity.

The story was reprinted in issue #169 (Feb. 1974) with a new cover

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