Wednesday, August 28, 2013

How Many Haunted Tanks Does it Take to Win a War?

When writer Bob Kanigher first created the Haunted Tank in G.I. Combat #87 (1961), he came up with a pretty nifty idea. A guy named Jeb Stuart, the namesake of the famous Civil War cavalry general, is placed in command of a Stuart tank during World War II. Soon, he discovers that his tank is actually haunted by Gen. Stuart. Only Jeb can see and hear the general, who provides him with cryptic advice that Jeb usually interprets in the nick of time to pull himself and his tank out of the fire.

For a dozen years, this formula worked well. The art was nearly always provided by either Joe Kubert or Russ Heath, giving the stories the strong visual backbone they needed. Kanigher didn’t worry a lot about character development or historical continuity. He just told good stories, giving Kubert and Heath the opportunity to provide wonderful imagery.

But in 1973, things changed for Jeb and his crew. I’ve already reviewed  G.I. Combat#150, in which the Stuart is destroyed and  the crew goes to a tank graveyard and builds a bigger, better tank out of a mish-mash of parts from destroyed tanks.

For three years, the series played on the irony of the Haunted Tank being built Frankenstein-like from the wrecks of dead tanks. But in G.I. Combat #185 (December 1975), that tank was destroyed when a
German fighter plane, shot out of the sky by the Jeb’s crew, smashed into it.

Jeb and his men find their way to a nearby village. There they see that a small Stuart Tank—the twin of the original Haunted Tank—has been captured by the Germans. Taking over the Stuart, they engage in a dogfight against a huge Tiger Tank through the streets of the village. Jeb wins by taking advantage of his tank’s smaller size, using the narrow alleys to get behind the Tiger and blast it to pieces. It’s another fine issue, with Sam Glanzman doing a particularly good job of depicting the tank vs. tank fight. We always understand the situation as we follow the action—Glanzman is able to ensure that we can always see where the two opposing tanks are in relation to each other.

So they were back to using a Stuart. But that lasted less than a year. In G.I. Combat #194 (September 1976), the Stuart takes out two enemy tanks, but is itself fatally damaged. The crew bails out only to be captured and sent to a nearby concentration camp.

Meanwhile, the commander of one of the German tanks, himself badly wounded, is taken to a base holiday. The commander is a particularly brilliant tactician. Rather than lose his skill, the German doctors rebuild his body, turning him into a robot.

When the Americans escape (in a grisly scene in which they hid in the truck taking bodies to a mass grave, then knife the truck drivers once out of the camp), they run across a Sherman tank whose crew was killed. They take this for their own. General Stuart is enraged—how dare they use a tank named after “that Union firebrand who set fire to my beloved South!”

When the Sherman goes up against a Tiger tank commanded by the robotic commander, they end up in a fight for their lives that they only barely win. The issue ends with Gen. Stuart returning to them, having realized he is the guardian of men, not a “hunk of steel.”

The story here strays perhaps a little bit too far into science-fiction territory to really work as effectively as it could, but Glanzman’s art is still strong and, in the end, a robot Nazi tank commander is no more unlikely than a ghostly Confederate cavalryman who gets into a snit over the name of a tank.

Anyways, Jeb and his crew stayed in a Sherman until the series eventually ended. (Though not the same Sherman the whole time—they lost a few along the way.) Regardless of which tank they were using—each of which had its own little bit of irony behind it—the stories were always fun to read. General Stuart was right—it was the fighting hearts of Jeb Stuart, Arch, Slim, Rick and Gus that were really important.

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