Peace, Man

WAR (Ughh!! Good God y’all)!!! What is it good for? Absolutely………….., well quite a lot actually. Getting rid of stroppy dictators, establishing a parliamentary democracy, iconic leather images, giving the rest of the world a whipping boy in the French and we won’t even go into what the Romans ever did for us.
Ok, I’m being a little facetious here, but war has delivered much that the world should be grateful for: – beautiful, evocative art, moving poetry, senses shattering films, stark in- your- face photography and some of the finest story-telling in literature.

The comic-book world has been no exception in this.

The war story has a long and distinguished history in the comic-book world. The Second World War saw an explosion in the market, and although they were typical of the time in that their outlook was jingoistic, racist and with a simple B/W view of the enemy that didn’t stop them from depicting how awful war could be. Many writers/artists fought during WWII and when they returned home they took the opportunity to tell the reader about their experiences and how it had changed their view of the world. One of these was Will Eisner, whose Spirit strip changed radically in look and content. Others were Bob Kanigher and Joe Kubert (fresh from the Korean War) who created one of DC’s greatest war icons, Sgt. Rock of Easy Company.

Sgt. Rock had made his debut (as The Rock) in G.I. Combat and continued this with various appearances in Our Army At War over 1959, but it was in the first 1960 issue that Joe Kubert took on the assignment as regular artist.

Kubert instantly brought a new dimension to the look of the stories. Techniques such as close-ups, light and shadow and an attentive use of detail managed to bypass the recently formed Comics Code moratorium on blood and brutality. Kubert called this “the illusion of art”. By drawing the reader’s attention to things like sweat drops, five day growth of beard and the messy look of the battlefield, Kubert could bypass the Code and depict how war really was. It also helped that secondary dirty and destroyed environments like bridges, waterways and forests induce the reader to forget about what they DONT see- close combat with the enemy.

Kanigher’s correct use of combat language (without the swearing), plus giving Rock the role of narrator and storyteller, helped the reader to relate to Rock and Easy Company. Rock did not like killing, but war is war and he got on with the job at hand. Honor, comradeship and the belief that what you are fighting for is right and just, is all important when under fire and facing death. New readers are helped through combat by Rock’s no-nonsense, fatherly way. But older more, combat weary readers tend to look at the man himself. What makes Rock tick? What does he think in the cold night of lone watch? The fact that Kanigher wrote all of Rock’s tales gives the man’s story an epic feel. Rock’s sentences become stanzas in one long saga that was meant to end when Rock finally died with the last bullet of the war. Never mind Coleridge’s Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, this was The Rhyme of the Grizzled Sergeant.

But the Vietnam War began to change the views of many. War was no longer something that happened to somebody else. Unrelenting nightly news reports showed that American G.I.’s were not invincible or the paragons of honor and virtue they had been made out to be. That politician’s interfered too much in the decision making, mostly towards their own ends. And before long, Sgt. Rock and Easy Company were seen as anachronisms by DC and consigned to the dustbin of history. Power fantasies were easier to draw and write without causing too much of a fuss.

Since then the war comic has been rarely seen. In the eighties Marvel started their acclaimed Nam comic. Written by a vet and like OAAW full of realistic talk and situations it ran out of steam when the original writer left and Marvel resorted to using staple characters like The Punisher in it. Its worth Marvel republishing the first batch of stories in graphic form (which they did, but it was never properly done) and its only until recently, and with the aid of Garth Ennis, that war comics have made a comeback at DC.

With the success of these tales DC decided to revive some of their previous war heroes. Rock (now General Rock) was shoe-horned into DC continuity with their Superman: Our Worlds at War cross-over in 2002. DC also considered making a regular war title and asked Joe Kubert to draw the covers, and then the whole thing. But Kubert didn’t really want to do this and finally it came down to what Kubert really felt happy with. Putting Rock and Easy Company right back where they belong. On the battlefields of Europe in World War II.

Sgt. Rock: Between Hell and a Hard Place by Joe Kubert and Brian Azzarello is the result and a beautiful one it is too.

The premise is simple. Rock and Easy find themselves escorting a group of SS officers through the Hurtgen forest during the German army’s retreat and the Allies push to Berlin. The officers are later found murdered and Rock has the unenviable job of finding out who did it. The fact that it may have been one of Easy and the conundrum of whether killing is murder even if you are at war makes Rock’s task all the harder.

Azzarello’s writing is taut and not a line is wasted. Like Kanigher, his words reflect the time and even with Vertigo’s mature tag he sees no need for explicit swearing. There’s just no point when good writing can convey what needs to be said.

Joe Kubert’s art though is just amazing. His pencils now looser and able to show the horror of war has not meant that Kubert has abandoned the illusion of art. It just means that it’s become more lyrical and flowing. The first page alone goes to prove this and all it is is three panels, just three wordless panels. The first depicts a helmet resting on a stack of rifles. The second, a hand picks it up. The third, we see the back of the soldier walking away, putting it on. All the time, the rifles are in view and as the soldier walks pass them Kubert pulls back until they are in full view. A wonderful moving image that is found in a comic-book.
Kubert’s Easy Company all have the eyes of haunted men. They’ve seen too much and now, without the Comics Code, we do as well. Blood flows as men are shot through the head, impaled by tree trunks and graphically blown up by mines. Death follows Easy and only the beginning of Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan compares to this. Kubert’s and Azzarello’s other masterstroke through the story is that it’s set in the depths of winter. You feel the cold at all times. Snow lies all around and Kubert has all the men wrapped up in their winter uniform (or whatever blankets are to hand), but the tenseness of their situation is depicted once again by Kubert’s use of close-up and sweat.

Fighting the Second World War has rarely been depicted as tight and bloody as this in comics. Personally I would hope that DC abandon their plans to bring out regular war comics again and concentrate on getting the best writers and artists to do something that takes time (Kubert spent a year on the project and all the penciling, inking, coloring and lettering was done by him), to make something special and thought-provoking such as this.

Sgt.Rock: Between Hell and a Hard Place is written by Brian Azzarello and illustrated by Joe Kubert. Published by DC/Vertigo comics and out now, in hardback, priced £18.95.

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