Wednesday, January 6, 2016

One of the Best Fight Scenes Ever.

Our Army at War #254 (February 1973) is an unusual issue in several ways.

The first few pages are a bit odd. Sgt. Rock seems to be on the verge of a break-down, panicking unnecessarily a couple of times. So at first the story seems to be setting up a tale showing us that even the toughest soldier has a breaking point or needs a rest.

But then Rock pulls himself together on his own, suffering a wound to save the life of fellow soldier Jackie Johnson. From there, the story branches off to give Jackie a Day in the Limelight.

So the prologue of the story seems a little disconnected from what follows. The point very well may have been that Rock pulled himself together when one of his men needed him--which is fine by itself. But there's no follow-up to this.

But, despite this bit of awkwardness, the story goes on to be one of my favorites.

Jackie Johnson, by the way, became a regular part of Easy Company in 1961's Our Army at War #113. A composite of Jackie Robinson and Joe Louis, he was (to quote DC's wiki page) "one of the first non-stereotypical African-American characters in comics."

That the military was segregated during World War II was deliberated ignored in order to make Jackie a part of Easy Company. Interestingly, his first appearance, in which he and Wildman had to work together to man a machine gun after both are wounded, did not heavily play up his race. The story simply shows a white guy and a black guy working together without further comment. Future stories did the same--Jackie is just one of the guys. This isn't that notable today, but in the 1960s, having a black comic book character that didn't make his color a major plot point was very notable indeed.

On with the story from issue #254: Jackie is left in a German village to look after the wounded Rock while the rest of Easy continues their patrol. There's no German troops around, just a lot of civilians, with the men too young or too old to be in the military. Jackie tries to find food and a doctor for Rock, but the villagers see him as an invader and won't give him the time of day.

Then a trio of German soldiers show up and (after the former boxing champ lands a couple of epic punches) capture Jackie. But they aren't really soldiers anymore--they are deserters who soon murder an old man and begin looting the town. A young boy frees Jackie and asks him to help.

Jackie takes out the deserters, earning the gratitude of the town. They even help hide Jackie and Rock when actual German troops arrive.

It's a great story, with writer Bob Kanigher and artist Russ Heath infusing the situation with real emotion. After the disjointed prologue, the plot is strong and the various characters seem very real.

This by itself would have made it one of my favorite Easy Company stories. But Jackie's short, violent battle against the deserters at the climax really puts it over the top. Take a look at the three pages I'm including below. The fight is a textbook example of comic book fight choreography. You can easily follow the action from one panel to the next. You understand the geography of the situation and where the various characters are in relation to each other. Heath uses light and shadow magnificently to add suspense and atmosphere to the fight, while also adding little details (such as the one soldier getting tangled in the laundry after being shot) that add complexity and make the entire sequence more visually interesting.

If you are interested in all about the mechanics of visual storytelling, these pages are really worth studying and appreciating Heath's skill at composition and laying out the action in a logical & exciting manner.

Next week, we'll return to the world of Super Heroes and watch the Avengers get thoroughly outsmarted...   Or do they?

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