I grew up around World War II. It was everywhere in my house when I was a kid. It wasn’t some abstract conflict, it was concrete and very real to me from a very young age. It was a living, breathing thing in my house. From Hogan’s Heroes to old war movies (I’ve seen the Dirty Dozen several dozen times) to documentaries about the war to Remembrance Day ceremonies and, of course (because it’s ME talking), comic books.
Marvel’s war comics were … less than stellar. They were an after-thought. Sgt. Fury and the Howling Commandos were not as cool as Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. Although I *do* own a copy of CAPTAIN SAVAGE AND HIS LEATHER-NECK RAIDERS that has a letter from Gary Groth, World’s Greatest Comic Book Snob. That was about it for Marvel’s war books. Oh, and Captain America fought Nazis a lot but that kind of doesn’t count.
DC’s war line was where it was at.
SGT. ROCK was my favourite. Trite as it may seem, it really brought home the pointless horror of war while subtly glamourizing it, even though every single issue was a simple and self-contained morality tale. It had a comfortable formula – Easy Company was on patrol. All of a sudden, THE GERMANS ATTACK! There’s a brief skirmish, which sets up the main plot, of Easy Company’s mission in that story. The Germans either counter-attack or plot nefariously to do so. Easy Company kills them. Sometimes, there’s a new recruit who’s a coward or a hot-head. (Spoiler Alert – they usually don’t make it and Rock has to pick up their dog-tags.)
Sergeant Frank Rock, top-kick of Easy Company, fought in every theatre of operations at least three times. He was at Normandy, he was in Africa and the Middle East, he went as far as the Eastern Front and saw action all over the Pacific and all points in-between. He barely even got wounded. His ‘costume was a sleeveless shirt, a bandolier of ammunition for a gun he didn’t carry and the sergeant’s chevron painted on his helmet. He led a motley-but-deadly effective crew – Bulldozer, the machine-gunner, the big guy and Rock’s 2IC (Second in Command), Little Sure Shot, the Native American sharp-shooter who never missed, Ice Cream Soldier (he was cool under fire), Wildman, who never shaved. “Nothin’s easy in Easy”, Rock would say when his men started grumbling. Occasionally, they’d shoot down a plane with a machine-gun or destroy a tank by clever insertion of a grenade, which was usually referred to as a “pineapple”. We’ll put that down to “artistic license”. Rock’s creator, the writer Bob Kanghier, claimed that Frank Rock was killed by the last bullet fired in World War II.
Then there was THE LOSERS – Captain Storm, a Navy man who lost his PT boat; Captain Johnny Cloud, a Native American pilot who was the sole survivor of his squadron; Gunner and Sarge, a couple of blast-happy Marines (and their bomb-sniffer dog Pooch, who saved all of their skins more than three times). Eventually, they added a girl Loser – Oona, a pretty, young partisan whose village was wiped out by the Nazis. They were given impossible tasks, suicide missions of vital importance and, despite their unfortunate moniker, they always won. They also seemed to shoot down their share of Messerschmitts using only a Thompson sub-machine-gun. (Captain Storm, to be fair, lost both an eye and a leg when he lost his ship so he was their unofficial leader. He was also mistakenly thought dead for a while and Oona had a crush on him so there’s that, too.)
THE HAUNTED TANK was the most fucked-up of them all, though. Here’s the pitch (are you sitting down? You might need a stiff drink for this) – Jeb Stuart, commander of a Sherman tank, sees repeated hallucinations of General J.E.B. Stuart, his name-sake and a loyal son of the Confederacy, mortal enemy of William Tecumseh Sherman, the man who marched to the sea and sacked Atlanta, the man famous for the quote “War Is Hell”. (The full quote goes something like “War is Hell and that’s a good thing; otherwise, we’d begin to enjoy it.”) Anyway, this ghostly apparition aided the crazy tank crew – the men inside the tank couldn’t see the ghost and honestly though that their commander was legitimately insane, talking to himself all the time – the ghost would warn them of danger up ahead or offer some strategic wisdom that inevitably saved the day. Occasionally, one of the tank crew would get killed and replaced. There was a VERY SPECIAL ISSUE where a black character was introduced and the question then became – would the Confederate ghost still aid them? (Spoiler alert – turns out he would. I guess being dead for a hundred years changes your mind on race relations.)
Bear in mind, I was four years old when I started reading these comics, soaking them up, absorbing them. World War II was as distant in memory as the 80s are today; the Vietnam War was still winding down at the time. I remember watching Saigon fall on tv when I was five years old. I knew about Messerschmitts and William Tecumseh Sherman and Thompson sub-machine-guns, steeped in militarism while literally still in short pants.
I knew the difference between the Wehrmacht and the Gestapo before I went to kindergarten. I knew it was impossible to shoot down a fighter plane with a gun but I also knew about “artistic license”. All because of reading comic books. (Okay, I also watched a lot of Hogan’s Heroes, too.)
I once got in a fight with a kid who said that the Italians won World War II. (You’ll be shocked to learn that he was Italian.) I think I was about eight years old. I said “No, they didn’t. They lost. They were the Bad Guys.” He disputed this, as his father had apparently served in the Italian Army during the war ( … the poor bastard.). What started as shouting soon came to blows (Spoiler Alert – I lost the fight) and it was later explained to me that we were actually both right – the Italians had been part of the Axis, true but they capitulated (I learned a new word that day) and were occupied and cruelly used by their erstwhile Teutonic ally and actually ended the war on the side of the angels. (In a bizarre twist of Fate that nobody saw coming, it turned out that me and that kid both had the same birthday. Weird, huh?)
The moral of this story is right in front of you. Violence never solves anything but sometimes, there’s no other option. (Especially when you call somebody’s dad a war criminal.) Every DC war comic carried the motto above – “MAKE WAR NO MORE”. As in – “Stop Making War” but also the more existential “Make War into a concept that no longer exists.”
Obviously, like a lot of utopian ideals of the 1970s, that didn’t work. At all. Not even a bit. Comics, man. Nothin’ but heart-break. Then again, I already knew that “Nothin’s easy in Easy.” And they’ll call you a Loser, even if you always win.