DRAWN & QUARTERED
‘Sgt. Rock’ heads back to war zone
I knew Joe Kubert had been around forever, but I didn't know he was that old. Nearly 80, he's been in the comics business for more than 60 years. Kubert is more than a master artist -- more on that later -- and he's also noted for two things in the industry: forming the first professional school of comic artists and being the jack-of-all-trades behind the most successful war comic of all time, "Sgt. Rock of Easy Company."
And so, when a brand-new "Sgt. Rock" hits comic book stores that is both illustrated and written by Kubert, it's both wonderful and comfortable at the same time.
Beginning in the DC title "Our Army at War" in the late 1959, and scripted by Bob Kanigher, Sgt. Frank Rock took a decidely low-key, grim and realistic approach to the appalling stress of combat. This was in the day when the Charleton company dominated war comics, and other wildly imaginative DC titles featured haunted tanks and GIs battling dinosaurs. Easy Co. had a collection of characters who went by nicknames -- Wild Man, Ice Cream Soldier, Bulldozer, Little Sure Shot -- except that these names were earned in combat, not appelated by whim.
"Our Army at War" had a tremendous influence on the telling of war stories from the GI's point of view, from the "Combat!" TV show to "Saving Private Ryan." At one point, Bruce Willis was supposedly cast as Rock in a film that never happened, which is too bad, because that's good casting.
The title ran for an astounding 422 issues, not petering out until 1988. In the DC Universe, Frank Rock, now a general in his 80s, runs the Pentagon.
Marvel's competition for Rock was "Nick Fury and His Howling Commandos," who went everywhere in the European theater in WWII, blowing trumpets and yelping "YAAAaaa AAAAggggGGGHHHhHHHHhhh!!!" Fury was formed by the wink-wink fatalism of the '60s, when killing was done with style and attitude. Rock, on the other hand, would have ducked behind some rubble and waited for Fury to get his keester blown off.
Sgt. Rock and Hans Von Hammer ("Enemy Ace," also written by Kanigher) were among the most realistic characters ever developed at DC's house, both hard-eyed veterans of killing and destruction who also abhorred what they were doing. Not exactly anti-war, the stories were realistic about the cost of freedom. The comic book industry at the time was dominated by military veterans, many Jewish, for whom the war was a recent memory.
The new book, "Sgt. Rock: The Prophecy," opens with the squad parachuting into Lithuania to help partisans prise a "valuable package" away from the Nazis. Right away, there are no enemy lines, no clear sense of direction, no apparent sunny days, just a grim, smoky, long night of catastrophe. The story is spare, often told with images, and doesn't feel like any place we've been before, proving there's still life in the ol' Sarge.
As for the artwork, wow. Nobody does a spare, crisp line like Kubert, and the sagging brush strokes have an emotional authenticity. Even simple outlines of soldiers in the distance seem to have weight and weariness. Kubert also isn't afraid to stick to the classic three-tier comic page -- he zooms in and out like a camera, and yet his technique never calls attention to itself. Whatever it is, it's the right tool for the job. Like calling in Sgt. Rock when you need a real Mission Accomplished.