For Father’s Day I wanted to get pa something real special, but special was hard to come by in that waning hour before I met him Sunday afternoon. Only a stroke of luck and a supreme lack of willpower had me entering a local comic shop where I spotted this cover staring back at me through a thick plate of glass.
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I’m not entirely sure when my dad told me that his favorite comics growing up were the Sgt. Rock and The Haunted Tank series. Maybe it was when we browsed a comic shop together in Florida and he spotted the new adventures of his old friends on the shelf, or maybe when he stumbled across some old issues once hidden away while moving his own father out of their old place. Either way, it was an off-hand comment made and forgotten until SGT. ROCK himself, looking a bit like Nicolas Cage here, nearly burst out of his glass prison with a twenty dollar price tag and growled “Remember me?”. I left the shop with it (and the new Walking Dead trade of course. Treat yourself so you can treat others…) and couldn’t wait to get home and carefully peel back the plastic in slow reverence of the time capsule I was unsealing.
As I understand it, Sgt. Rock was essentially the Rambo of his time. During and after the Second World War, comic books were the major venue for the government and companies like DC to cash in on tales of heroics and valor in combat. War comics of this time could easily exploit the black and white nature of the conflict to create fearless soldier heroes and ubiquitous villains through the Axis forces. There was never any question of who was right or wrong in these comics, and no deeper pondering on the glorification of violence or the traumatizing nature of combat (as we’ll see). These were comics of a simpler era, targeted expressly at young boys, before the medium and the story-tellers matured into types of war stories we have today. Hindsight is 20/20 after all. This compendium issue also included a tale from Jeb Stuart & The Haunted Tank, which meant I was hitting two nostalgias with one bomb. That series is a bit lesser known, but no less canonical when it comes to war comics, being the second longest running series right behind Sgt. Rock. It centers around Lt. Jeb Stuart, who commands an M3 Light Tank in combat with his crew, and is visited by the ghost of the Confederate General James Ewell Brown Stuart, who helps them out through tough scrapes. In return they fly the Confederate Flag I guess? The cover used for their Wikipedia article depicts a tank ramping off a hill to take out an enemy fighter plane so they must be pretty rad, barring any old racist generals.
It was another lucky coincidence that the issue I bought was published in 1965, the year dad was born. I considered holding onto it for his up-and-coming birthday, for the resonance value and all, but with it already out of the plastic and the bindings wilting with each page I turned, it was probably best to get it into his hands as soon as possible. Doesn’t mean I didn’t snag a few shots before it departed.
One of the big things about comics now and certainly moreso back then were the novelty items they tried to unload on unsuspecting kids. There were plenty of retro ads for selling other issues of Sgt. Rock and the crew or trying to hook people onto some entirely new comic series set in the deep, unexplored Amazon wilderness, but there were also those hokey gimmick item ads you’d come to expect from this era.
A boomerang, magic cards, miniature secret camera (not really exciting anymore), a surprise package!? I can just imagine being a little kid pouring over this, saving up my few hard earned cents for the x-ray specks, before ultimately caving and settling with the worms or trick black soap. Some choice quotes:
Yes — Looks like real chewing gum but tastes like . . . like . . . ONIONS! It’s too funny!
Drop in a coin and the turntable revolves fitting melody . . . just like the modern juke box that youngsters adore.
Based on an optical illusion principle, they allow you to seemingly “see” the bones of your hands. Riotous fun at parties – your friends will think you can see right through them! C – r – a – z – y
A dollar in 1965 would be roughly equivalent to $7.37 today, so these prices aren’t so bad in retrospect.
The first Battle Star to appear after this is, of course, Sgt. Rock, and we’re introduced to his Easy Company while they’re at their most vulnerable (see top image). It’s not long before their joyous hootin’ and hollerin’ and frolickin’ and towel snappin’ is overheard by the enemy. A plane swoops in to strafe their position and Sgt. Rock knows exactly what to say to get his men motivated.
As the Wikipedia article is quick to cite, Sgt. Rock’s abilities tend to reach very mythical scales. Besides having back muscles that look like the dunes of the Sahara, he’s also a crack shot and routinely downs enemy plane with nothing more than his machine gun and a little positive thinking.
Phallic imagery of the plane’s nose aside, check out those classic lines and coloring. Don’t get that kind of quality in comics anymore. On a technical note, although they appear to be in the Pacific theater, this plan is cited as an ME-109, which is definitely a German fighter plane.
But Sgt. Rock’s story isn’t all about shooting stuff and explosions, it actually taps into a much deeper subject, and then instantly ricochets away from it.
Meet Manny, who is having some serious second thoughts about the whole war thing. In Manny we come across a character that is a much more common trope in our modern war stories in cinema, novels, television, etc. He’s the guy who can’t face the horror of combat without breaking down, and is usually introduced as an acknowledgement by the creative forces behind the work that these events impacted people in deeply resonant ways, leading to things like PTSD. Sgt. Rock seems to come to the appropriate realization here, that Manny is the “weakest link” and maybe he’s just not cut out for combat. These guys do go bare knuckles against tanks afterall, maybe there is just something different about Easy.
A few pages later, Manny breaks down again.
But Sgt. Rock knows the solution. You don’t need rest behind the lines or serious counseling, what you need is a good pep-talk and a swift authoritarian kick to the butt.
Sgt. Rock proceeds to push Manny ahead of him, screaming orders like Walk! Aim! and Fire! to really get Manny back on the beaten path. Eventually Manny either gets over it or is terrorized into murdering people and finds his place among the squad.
Everyone loves a happy ending.
Another interesting bit of history resting between the ads and Battle Star stories is this mini-comic.
It seems the PC Police have always been invading our entertainment mediums in one way or another. What if that kid was using dopey ironically?? Or he didn’t mean it in the insulting way, just the degrading one. Either way, I love that fourth panel zoom-stare right into the audience. Also check out the modernist architecture on that school, and the Todd’s eerily prophetic drawing of Kim Jong-Un.
The other stories are pretty standard fare. Routine patrols and missions gone bad, lucky shots to take out the enemy, and ultimately pulling through by your good graces and white American smile. Mlle. Marie, the only female character present, spends most of her story peering out a window and reporting enemy troop movements over the radio to French resistance members, all ze while tauking like ze stereotypical fraunch women.
And then there’s…
Yes, even dogs had their place in the war and Pooch is one helluva soldier. Despite almost blowing his buddy’s cover and getting him killed on the first page, Pooch reveals himself (herself?) to be a loyal and courageous K-9 with little regard for his (her?) own personal safety. That said, Pooch isn’t the brightest mute in the litter.
Through such trials and periods of heightened tension and emotion, a man can come to rely on and trust his dog over any other man. A dog will give you all its love and attention, and things confided to a dog will never be revealed. This has a way of stirring the deeper tremors of a man.
This set up should be obvious to anyone who’s familiar with the tropes of story-telling. Introduce a lovable companion, prove their worth to the group, deepen the connection between said companion and the main character and subsequently the audience, making it seem like this good thing could never end, and then…
Guess Pooch was smarting than he/she looked. Gunner’s casual resignation of “Pooch — What am I goin’ to do with you?” after that dog saved HIS DAMN LIFE feels like it needs an appropriate sitcom laugh track after it, just to ease the tension. That said, I really hope we see this grenade retrieval feature in the new Call of Duty.
How to top off this cavalcade of real men being real go-getters in a real war? As every little boy (and some girls I’m sure) quietly flips the last page, maybe while hidden under their blankets with a flashlight, wonders how they too could be like Sgt. Rock or any of the Battle Stars, DC and the American Body Building Club swoop in to offer the solution.
This was the anti-bully legislation of the time. Be bigger, musclier, and more of a man than your bully and he’ll slink away like the pitiful beta he is. There’s a lot of interesting word choice to dissect here, but I think my favorite adjective comes from
This can be soon the handsome NEW Jet Power YOU
And if one can take anyway anything from this ad, it might be that Rob Liefeld was right.