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Reviews and commentary by Tony Isabella
"America's Most Beloved Comic-Book Writer & Columnist"

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TONY'S ONLINE TIPS
for Monday, May 31, 2004

Memorial Day. It's a day to remember those who have died in service to our nation, those whose sacrifices should be honored on each and every day.

Today's column had to reflect this day, but it was hard for me to focus on our slain heroes through my anger at the administration which has so recently and fraudulently sent more than 800 young men and women to their deaths. This current war is driven by the greed of the rich and the powerful and not by any imminent danger to the American people.

Of course and sadly, there *are* wars that need to be fought. Our country was attacked; we must respond to that attack and defend against future attacks. Neither of those goals explains why we're in Iraq or why our soldiers are dying there. Still, this is not a day for such a conversation.

Cleveland Plain Dealer columnist Dick Feagler, in that paper's Sunday edition, wrote of a young man who dies in Iraq and joins the dead of earlier wars. His column concluded thus:
In the morning, there's a parade. Many of us sleep through that. We lie in bed and hear the thump of the drums from a high school band marching us to a place where some vets will tell us about the kids who have died for us. Somebody is sure to say that a lot of kids have given their lives for us. But my limited experience in war is that kids don't give lives for us. They give lives for each other. They are trained, our children, to try to save each other from the cauldron into which we have sent them.

All bravery really comes from that. When the Iraq kid gets to heaven, most of his friends are young men. He can search as he may, but he will seldom find anybody over 40. And he will never find a politician of the stripe that sent him there.

When we play taps tomorrow, even if some old guy is playing it, keep in mind that it's played for a kid. It always has been. The old folks wipe their tears, but maybe they ought to be more careful...more careful of the kids from the Marne and Anzio and, tomorrow, Iraq.
I can't say it better than that.

What I can do is share with you some recollections of a comic-book series that told of brave young men in a terrible conflict and did so with compassion and thoughtfulness. They were stories about heroes and, like so many of our stories, we make our heroes larger than life. Yet, so very often, these stories also made our heroes precisely *as* large as life.

Today is for those who fought and died for our country. But, I'd also like to take a moment to recall the late Robert Kanigher. He manned a typewriter and not a machine gun, but his aim was true and his talent was immense. His SGT. ROCK scripts entertained and moved generations of comics readers...and I'm proud to present this gallery of some of my personal favorites.

******

Our Army at War #112
OUR ARMY AT WAR #112 [November, 1961]

My brother Ernie, three years younger than me, was the first Rock fan in the Isabella household. I had an issue or two around the bedroom we shared with even younger brother Ray, and he took a liking to them.

Always the organized and thrifty sort, Ernie saved his money and ordered a subscription to OUR ARMY AT WAR. I read his copies, then continued buying the title when he decided to stop buying the comic. I "inherited" all of his creased-vertically-down-the-middle (but otherwise kept in mint condition) copies.

I don't remember anything about this issue save for the great Joe Kubert profiles of the Rock and the rest of the "combat-happy Joes of Easy Company" on the cover.

Kanigher would give many of the Joes distinctive nicknames. My favorites were Bulldozer, Ice Cream Soldier, Little Sure Shot, and Wild Man. He wrote entire stories around the soldiers earning their "battle tags" under fire. As a kid, I always wondered what kind of nickname I would have earned.

Feel free to offer suggestions on that score.

******

Our Army at War #124
OUR ARMY AT WAR #124 [November, 1962]

"Target - Sgt. Rock" had the shell-shocked hero leading German soldiers into battle against his own Easy Company. This was one of those "larger than life" stories that seemed perfectly reasonable in the hands of Kanigher and Kubert. I haven't seen this comic in years, but I still recall the grinning Germans encouraging Rock to launch the attack with American slang.

******

Our Army at War #128
OUR ARMY AT WAR #128 [March, 1963]

Our Army at War #135
OUR ARMY AT WAR #135 [October, 1963]

Kanigher was fascinated by doubles and twins. You'll see the concept turn up in all of the genres in which he worked and his war stories were no exception. In "The Battle of the Sergeants," Rock crossed paths with a Panzer sergeant similar to him in many ways. In "Battlefield Double," he meets his literal double, also wearing the uniform of the enemy.

"Enemy" didn't automatically translate to "monster" in these stories. I think that essential truth is what made Kanigher's Rock scripts so memorable.

******

Our Army at War #147
OUR ARMY AT WAR #147 [October, 1964]

Our Army at War #148
OUR ARMY AT WAR #148 [November, 1964]

These two issues absolutely blew me away when I read them as a kid. From the "book" design of the Kubert covers to the sky-high concept of Sgt. Rock having to impersonate a general and carrying it off brilliantly and heroically, this is as classic a Rock story as there ever was.

"Generals Don't Die" and "Generals Are Sergeants With Strips" were reprinted in the 1988 SGT. ROCK SPECIAL #4.

******

Our Army at War #160
OUR ARMY AT WAR #160 [November, 1965]

"What's the Color of Your Blood?" is one of those stories that sticks with you. My recollection is that Kanigher had introduced Jackie Johnson a few months previously and without any particular fanfare. He was just another "combat-happy Joe" of Easy Company. I was unaware of the historical unlikelihood of a black man being in Rock's squad when I first read the story, but, in retrospect, I have no problem with it. There was a larger issue to be dealt with here and, if any of my own comics writing has addressed that issue, part of the credit must go to Kanigher.

The paths of war lead to a rematch between boxer Johnson and "Storm Trooper" Uhlan, the arrogant challenger who took the title from Jackie in an epic match. The defeat haunts Jackie even in the midst of war, but the conclusion of this story leaves no doubt as to which is the better man.

This story can be found in AMERICA AT WAR, a sensational trade paperback collection first published in 1979, and also in SGT. ROCK SPECIAL #6 from 1988.

******

Our Army at War #162
OUR ARMY AT WAR #162 [January, 1966]

Our Army at War #163
OUR ARMY AT WAR #163 [February, 1966]

I never asked him, but I suspect these two issues were why my brother Ernie dropped his subscription. We both enjoyed the usual fantasy/horror/monster/sci-fi movies which aired on Cleveland TV in the 1960s, but I don't think Ernie liked fantasy creeping into his war comics. Me...I loved this two-issue tale.

Across the comics street, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby had brought Thor, Norse god of thunder, into their marvelous universe of super-heroes and super-villains. I thought the Viking Prince was every bit as cool: a laughing warrior who sought death so that he could be reunited with his forbidden love.

During my mercifully brief time as a DC Comics editor in the mid-1970s, I tried to revive the Prince on two occasions. Once as a member of a retooled SEVEN SOLDIERS OF VICTORY set in the World War II of Earth-1, and once as a stand-alone feature, same setting, and featuring a triangle between the Prince, his Valkyrie sweetie, and Mademoiselle Marie, the "French Battle-Doll" who had stolen my heart the first time I saw her drawn by Kubert.

Maybe these books would have happened if I'd been better able to stomach the absurd working conditions of the early Jenette Kahn days. Maybe not. I do know I would have had to fight tooth-and-nail to get the writer I wanted on the second version.

Robert Kanigher.

We'll have to talk about that some day soon.

******

Our Army at War #179
OUR ARMY AT WAR #179 [April, 1967]

In "A Penny For Jackie Johnson," Kanigher revisited the racial issues of Jackie's earlier starring vehicle. It wasn't unusual for Kanigher or other comics writers of the past to retool older ideas into new stories, but, in this case, I think he wanted to make sure his readers realized that bigotry was not the exclusive purview of Hitler's Germany, but, sadly, also existed in our American society. This tale's racist was a Southerner; I always felt Kanigher should have written one more Jackie Johnson story on this theme. If only to explore the sadder truth that racism isn't always as obvious as it was portrayed here.

******

Our Army at War #196
OUR ARMY AT WAR #196 [August, 1968]

"Stop the War - I Want to Get Off" was written by Joe Kubert, who had also taken over the editing chores of OUR ARMY AT WAR from Kanigher. It's included here because a) I really like this cover, and b) it signals a change in Rock's fortunes.

Kanigher's Rock stories could never be considered pro-war, but times had changed. Our greatest generation was watching its sons die in a questionable conflict. Those sons (and their daughters) were actively protesting that war. For years, every DC Comics war story would end with a graphic that read, in stark black capital letters, "Make War No More."

It is an ideal the world has yet to embrace.

******

Our Army at War #233
OUR ARMY AT WAR #233 [June, 1971]

Kanigher and Kubert's World War II take on the still-so-fresh-it-hurt exposes of Vietnamese civilians being killed by Americans caused quite a stir outside the comics world. The New York Times chose it for the cover illustration of a magazine supplement story about the new relevance in comic books.

Kanigher's tale was not a simplistic one. On more than one occasion, John Doe saves his fellow soldiers from death by bending the rules. Neither he nor Rock make a completely convincing case for their respective viewpoints. Even after the story reaches its climax in a villain called Alimy (jumbled from My Lai), there is no easy answer to Kanigher's question of whether John Doe was a hero or a murderer.

******

Memorial Day.

We honor those who have given their lives for our country by remembering their sacrifice. I think we also honor them by making sure we don't ask today's soldiers--or tomorrow's--to make similar sacrifice for anything less than the defense of this nation or to safeguard its most precious ideals.

If there be fault to be found in our military, I think it lies more with elected officials who don't embrace those ideals or even understand what they are...and those unwilling to adequately arm and compensate our troops...than with the men and women who serve in its ranks. That, too, is a subject we will discuss here in the weeks to come.

But, today is for remembering our war dead and thanking them for that sacrifice. It seems so utterly inadequate to express with words my admiration and gratitude for their acts. I owe them much, and, yet, this, too, is what they fought and died for.

Make War No More. We have to try harder.

For all of them. For the Iraq kid.

And for tomorrow's kids.

Tony Isabella

<< 05/29/2004 | 05/31/2004 | 06/14/2004 >>

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