Friday, March 8, 2013

Our Army at War #207, Featuring Sgt. Rock!

Since I went to grad school, I've had the great good fortune to spend a fair amount of time in a town with a really good comic book shop in it. Atomik Comiks in Johnson City, Tennessee has become a weekly tradition as I drop in to pick up whatever comics have come in, and (perhaps even more importantly) to hang out for an hour or three and shoot the breeze with owners Shawn Samier and Lynsey Holliman, and whoever else might pop in in the interim. It's really one of the best comic shops I've ever seen, and Shawn's collection of Silver Age (roughly 1956 - 1970) comics is just phenomenal. If you're both into comics and in the area, you should check it out.

Anyway, yes I still buy comic books and rather than go into some sort of unnecessary defense of the practice I will simply quote from a 2005 interview with Joss Whedon where he was asked if he still read comics. Whedon replied, "Yes, at age forty-one I go into a comic book shop every Wednesday." It would thus appear that I am in good company. (For the unwashed out there, Wednesday is New Comic Day.) So, over the past few months I've become more and more interested in the work of Joe Kubert. I've always been a fan, even as a child when I wasn't really aware of who was scripting and drawing the comics I liked, but I knew what I liked. Nowadays, however, I have some experience and education in both American popular culture studies and US history, as well as an adult awareness of the creators behind the cool stories and art. An artist like Kubert, who's career began in 1942 and ended only with his death in 2012, and who's own interest in history was not exactly negligible, is like a load stone for a guy like me who's primary academic interests are war, American memory, and American myth.

All of the above is just background, though. What I want to tell you about today, Readers Mine, is the sheer joyous experience that comic books can be, even to a full-growed man. This Wednesday, I decided to treat myself to a late Silver Age comic featuring Sgt. Frank Rock of Easy Company, a character co-created by Kubert and writer Robert Kanigher in 1959. Shawn and Lynsey had Our Army at War #207 at an astonishingly good price (thanks guys!), and I bought it based on Kubert's incredible cover:

Our Army at War #207, with cover art by Joe Kubert
Kubert's strong lines, mastery of shading, and fearlessness of blacks is clearly on display here, as is his dedication to a level of realism that even in 1969 when the comic was printed, remained unusual. The GI's aren't clean cut with immaculate uniforms, or calm and cool in the face of danger, and the tanks approaching them are quite readily identifiable as Panzerkampfwagen VI Tiger Ausf.Es or "Tiger I"s. Now I'm not saying that Kanigher and Kubert were dedicated to true realism, because Rock and the "Combat-Happy Joes of Easy Co." got out of more scrapes and scraps than any actual World War II US Army infantry company could have, but within the constraints of the comic book world, when you read their Sgt. Rock, you're getting more grit and grime and PTSD than is the usual for such fare. 

So I settled in to read the comic (of which the Kubert/Kanigher Sgt. Rock is only one story), and I found myself exclaiming out loud at almost every page turn. The story is gripping, the art sweeping on every page, but the page that really Wowed me was this one:

Our Army at War #207, p.9. Script by Robert Kanigher, art by Joe Kubert.
What you need to notice is what's not in these panels. Look at the whites, where no color has been used, particularly on Rock's face in the final panel. Against the light orange background which perfectly evokes both the heat of the North African desert and flames from the destroyed German scout-car, Kubert's brilliant pen and ink work on the shouting Sgt. Rock's face, left in "simple" black and white makes the image jump, and underlines and emphasizes Rock's shouted command driven by a hard-earned knowledge and fear of the war. I haven't seen a single panel in any of the modern books I have collected to match this one. Despite all of the CG rendering and coloring, and the undeniably gifted artists and writers that currently make up the modern comics market, they just can't match this. You can't call Kubert's work on Rock's face here an instance of less-is-more (indeed this may be the single most detailed image in the entire comic), but what's going on here is a far greater understanding of how art works, particularly how sequential art works, than is usually found today. The high-detail black and white image against a colored background and with colored word-balloons was a clear choice to shift the emphasis of the story from combat, explosions, and derring do, to a far more intimate focus on Rock and the knowledge that a single act of destruction is not victory but an invitation for further deadly violence against the all too fragile men of Easy Co. It is - simply - brilliant. And beautiful.

Our Army at War #207 gave me the kind of comic book reading experience that I remember from my childhood and teenage years and which contemporary comic books, particularly from Marvel and DC, all too often lack. It is a painstaking attention to detail and artistry that can make a simple story (which this Sgt. Rock piece assuredly is) into something truly great, and which demonstrates why comic books can be works of art, and are worth intense critical study as an art form. Keep in mind that O.A.A.W. wasn't a prestige title. For all of it's popularity and sales for DC, it wasn't Batman, Superman, The Flash, or The Justice League of America. It's just that Kanigher and Kubert (by this time Kubert was also editing the series) cared about their product and their art. Sure they were churning it out on a deadline, but they were also dedicated to their craft.

And I'm just not sure how true that is at the Big Two today.

Okay, that's enough for one post! Thanks for sticking with me, Readers Mine! I know this is a bit off my usual beaten path, but I just had to share it with you. Come back around on Monday for the next installment of "Meth Monday" where I'll continue to ruminate on Breaking Bad and plug the book I'm writing with K. Dale Koontz: Wanna Cook? The Unofficial Companion Guide to Breaking Bad (see how I did that?).
Until then - be well!

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