Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Two Men versus One Submarine

A few years ago, I wrote a post comparing Buz Sawyer and Terry Lee--two comic strip characters who both flew combat aircraft during World War II. That comparison was a general one that didn't examine any specific story arcs in detail. It's taken me awhile to get back to them, but I think we'll spend this week flying with Buz on one of his more intense missions, then drop in on Terry next week.

Buz Sawyer was written and drawn by Roy Crane, who had left his classic Wash Tubbs and Captain Easy strip in 1943 for financial and ownership reasons.

Wash Tubbs had been a joyously entertaining adventure strip with no real pretense at realism. With Buz Sawyer, Crane was more down-to-earth, toning down the cartoony aspects of his art and giving us relatively realistic war stories that dealt with themes of patriotism, courage and responsibilty.

Early on, Buz flew Dauntless dive bombers off a carrier in the Pacific, with his best buddy Roscoe Sweeny serving as his radioman/gunner. But by 1945, Buz had spent some time back in the States training in Avenger torpedo bombers. This presented Crane with a challenge in terms of how he handled his characters. He'd created a fun and believable dynamic with Buz and Roscoe, but the Avenger needed three crewmen. Crane had to add a new character into the mix. This is "Kissable" Jones, an eager young rookie who was quickly used for some comic relief moments.

A six-week story arc starting in late June 1945 had Buz and his crew flying anti-submarine patrols. They find and bomb a sub, but take an anti-aircraft hit. Buz is forced to belly flop in the Pacific. He and Roscoe get into the plane's life raft, but Jones is missing. Did he drown? Did he bail out on his own?

Determined to find his missing crewman, Buz takes a dangerous chance in showing lights and shouting. This backfires on him, though. He and Roscoe are spotted by a Japanese sub and taken prisoner.

So that's how Crane dealt with his new character--by shoving him off onto the side lines as quickly as possible so that Buz and Roscoe could share the lime light. It would turn out that Jones did bail out on his own and was rescued by an American ship. The war ended soon after that and Buz returns to civilian life (becoming a trouble-shooter for an oil company), so Crane never had to worry about establishing a new three-way character dynamic on a regular basis.

That's not a criticism, by the way. Crane knew his characters and if shoving poor "Kissy" Jones out of the picture was the best way to tell good stories, then we can trust Crane to know this.

Anyway, the sub commander wants to know where the American fleet is. Despite threats of torture and a casual comment that Roscoe will simply be killed, Buz won't talk. The sub, though, runs across the fleet on its own. The commander orders everyone to battle stations, leaving Buz and Roscoe alone with a single guard. This is not a good idea.

Buz and Roscoe are quickly free, with a rifle, a bayonet and a knife to share between them. But what can they do against the sub's crew? They're outnumbered and outgunned.

But Crane has set up the situation to give Buz a plausible opportunity for checking this one off in the Win column. Remember that the sub is at battle stations, with the crew scattered in different compartments behind water-tight doors. Crane gives us a cutaway panel to make sure we understand the situation--if the two Americans can simply capture the control room, they can hold it against the crew and maybe figure out how to bring the sub to the surface.

The fight that follows is short, sharp and beautifully choreographed. Buz and Roscoe take out the crew in the control room quickly and brutally. While Roscoe plays with the various wheels and eventually stumbles across the ballast control, Buz uses the rifle to plug any of the enemy unwise enough to try to enter the room.

The sub comes to the surface and promptly gets rammed by an American destroyer. Buz and Roscoe get out into the water and are soon rescued.

It's a fun, expertly told story that is typical of Crane's genuis. Roy Crane pretty much invented the adventure comic strip with Wash Tubbs, influencing a lot of other artists ranging from Gil Kane to Charles Shultz. Between his two strips, Crane spent a half-century spinning absolutely wonderful yarns.

But Crane wasn't the only brilliant comic strip artist to recount the adventures of a combat pilot during the war. Next week, we'll see what Terry Lee is doing over in the Chinese-Burma-India Theater of Operations.

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