Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Nightmare in Norway

Last week, we briefly met the Phantom Eagle, a Marvel hero who fought in the First World War and is largely forgotten today.

So this week we'll visit with an other forgotten hero, though we'll be jumping ahead to World War II. John Kowalski was introduced in War is Hell #9 (October 1974). For its first 8 issues, War is Hell was a reprint book, but with this issue, a new continuing character was introduced. Kowalski wouldn't be around long, though. The book would only run 7 more issues, ending after #15. John Kowalski has pretty much dropped into comic book limbo since then.

But his stories were good ones. Kowalski, a Polish-American, actually dies on the first day of World War II, when the Nazis invaded Poland. But the circumstances of his death were such that he was cursed as a coward and must now possess others when they are killed in combat, then use the opportunity to save others from the horrors of war.

It's potentially a great premise, allowing the character to jump around the globe to different theaters of war and use this to tell a wide variety of war stories.

War is Hell #14 (August 1975) is the only issue of the series I read growing up, but I always remembered it vividly. For years, I wanted to read it again, but I mis-remembered it as a Weird War Tales, so always looked for it under the wrong title. (Heck, I even had the wrong company.)

But thanks to a chance encounter on the Marvel wiki and a visit to Ebay, I have read it again. And I wasn't disappointed--it's an exciting and emotionally engaging tale.

The Germans are invading Norway. The commander of a company of Wehrmacht paratroopers (Captain David Mueller) is killed in an early skirmish, but Kowalski takes over his body.

Now I've only read this issue and the first Kowalski story from issue #9 (recently reprinted in a trade paperback), so I'm not sure exactly what the rules are when Kowalski takes over a dead guy. His entry on the Marvel wiki is annoying vague. Judging from this story, he seems to retain the personality and memories of the person he possesses, though Kowalski's spirit seems to guide the former dead guy towards helping the innocent. Or something like that.

Because here Kowalski/Mueller continues to lead his men into battle as they attack and capture a
Norwegian coastal town. He promises the civilians that everyone will be well-treated.

But an SS officer is accompanying the paratroopers and HE insists the Jews in the town be rounded up and imprisoned.

Kowalski/Mueller knows what is going to happen to them and, though he tells himself he doesn't care, in the end he can't stand by and let them all die. Instead, he orders his men to bring the Jews to the docks and asks the captain of a freighter to take them to England.

When the SS officer finds out about this, Kowalski/Mueller finds himself fighting a rear guard action against his own men, buying time for the freighter to build up steam.

This is a great story, given real emotion by Chris Claremont's strong script and George Evans' clean, crisp pencil work. There's a sense of real humanity here--presenting the idea that you don't simply follow your duty blindly if it makes you a party to mass murder; the idea that protecting the innocent from killers is our highest moral duty.

Also, the final fight scene--with Kowalski holding off the German troops--is superbly choreographed. The action is laid out in such a way that we always understand the situation perfectly, which in turn helps build up the suspense as the fight continues.

There's emotional bite to that fight scene as well. Kowalski/Mueller at first tries to hold off his men without killing any of them, but that proves tragically impractical. Also, at one point, the German troops open fire on the freighter as it waits to get underway. Not all the innocents aboard get to cover in time.

This particular issue of War is Hell really lives up to its title.

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