Wednesday, February 4, 2015

3 Plastic Astronauts for One Comic Book

See these Marx Toys plastic astronauts? According to the school-bus economics of 1970, three of these guys were worth one comic book.

I used to frequent a gaming/comic book forum on which I once posted a story about selling my DVDs of the original Transformers cartoon on Ebay to help fund one of my mission trips to South Sudan, including paying for my anti-malaria pills. This quickly turned into a years-long running gag on that forum in which it was repeatedly claimed I once sold Optimus Prime into robot slavery for drug money. It's probably just as well that I've lost touch with that forum, because now I would have given them fodder to claim that I sold our brave astronauts returning from moon missions into slavery along with Optimus.

Anyway, here's the comic book. A kid named Scott had it on the school bus in what must have been late in the school year--the comic was published on April 30, 1970.  When I lived in New York State (until the summer of 1970), there was no regular source of comic books anywhere near where we lived, so reading one was a treat. Not that I wasn't already educated in All Things Geeky--TV shows such as the Adam West Batman, Adventures of Superman re-runs and the various Saturday Morning superhero cartoons had already made me a fan of the genre. I also owned a Fantastic Four Little Big Book. And an occasional comic book did pass through my hands. But this one---THIS ONE--was the first one I actually owned personally. If I had figuratively sold Armstrong and Aldrin into slavery to get it... well, that was a price I was willing to pay.

Boy, I loved this. I still remember trying to describe to my parents and my siblings how wonderful the story was. My parents, I'm sure, listened politely. My siblings, darn them, could not have cared less. But then I've always been more awesome than any of them anyways.

For years, I tried to identify and re-acquire it, but I incorrectly remembered the incident as having been a year or two earlier than it actually was and I was thus never able to narrow it down to the correct issue. It wasn't until last June that, remembering the phrase "hang-up" was used a lot in the story, it occurred to me to simply search that phrase in the DC wiki. That ID'd the issue and a quick trip to Ebay got me a copy.

I love owning this comic book once again. (Our Army at War #221, to be precise. Cover dated July 1970.)

It's easy to see why 9-year-old me was fascinated by Sgt. Rock. It was in part that I was already a reader of World War II stuff. And this particular story, written by Joe Kubert and drawn by the great Russ Heath, was well-structured and very engrossing. 

It begins with Rock and several other Easy Company guys trapped in the wreckage of a building, surrounded by the Germans. One of the guys, Smitty, is terrified and convinced that he'll freeze up and probably get the others killed. He eventually begs Rock to simply kill him--he'd rather die than be responsible for the deaths of his comrades.

In between short but sharp fights as they repel German attacks, Rock tells Smitty he's not the only soldier with a hang-up. He tells about how Easy Company regulars Ice Cream Soldier and Bulldozer had their own hang-ups when they joined the unit.

The kicker is Rock's own hang-up---when they were ambushed and driven into this building, Rock stayed outside under fire to collect dog tags from the soldiers who were killed. They were his responsibility and he couldn't leave them without performing this last duty for them. 

Smitty is able to pull himself together and the Americans manage to break out of the house and get away before the Germans can overwhelm them.

The story really is well-constructed, with Rock's stories (presented as flashbacks) interspersed with the fight scenes to keep everything tense. Heath's art work is typically excellent throughout--the images I remembered most vividly and (it turns out) most accurately were of the panels showing us Easy's defense of the house.

As a grown-up, I can appreciate a slight weakness in the story. (Smitty's particular hang-up is being afraid? Not a terribly uncommon hang-up among soldiers in combat, I would think.) 

But I can also now appreciate a subtlety to Smitty's dilemma that's not overtly pointed out in the story, but that I think Joe Kubert deliberately intended. Smitty is convinced he's too afraid to be of help in the fight and initially this is true. But his reaction to this is to demand that Rock kill him. The "coward" is willing to give up his life rather than allow another soldier to die. It's no wonder Rock didn't give up on him.

This issue makes an interesting companion piece to a couple of later issues written by Bob Kanigher, issues #246 and #248, both of which I've reviewed on this blog. The attitude towards cowardice in all three issues is similar and very mature. All three stories are about soldiers who allow fear to get the best of them. But in all three stories, there is no condemnation, but a recognition that fear can get the best of anyone. Each time, the "cowards" are given opportunities to redeem themselves. They are stories that recognize a soldier's obligation to perform his duty in spite of fear, but still remembers that soldiers are flawed human beings who will sometimes fall short of an ideal. Anyone can have a cowardly moment. The key is not to let that moment rule you for the rest of your life.

As I said earlier, I love owning this comic book again. It's worth it not just for the still-great storytelling, but for the memories of how thrilled a 9-year-old boy was with this particular tale. 

Darn my siblings for not appreciating it also. Why did I end up with all the Awesome DNA in the family?


  1. Not sure you got all the awesome DNA. And I believe the Fantastic Four big little book belonged to not you, but one of those darned siblings.

    1. So now you not only claim the toy fire truck with working hose was yours--you are now claiming the FF Big Little Book was yours also? Are you sure you're not a super-villain?


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...