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Saturday, 24 May 2014

Between Rock and a hard place

Viewing again the series Band of Brothers, about the men in 101st Airborne’s Easy Company, had me reminiscing about another group of American soldiers with whom I grew up.

In the 1950s, like most kids, I read comics – Comet, Topper, Eagle, and Lion. Some of the stories featured soldiers, sailors or airmen – and two that spring to mind are Battler Britton and Luck of the Legion. (Battler was black and white, Luck in colour, an exception then). UK weekly black and white comics were War Picture Library, Commando and Battle; [Commando survives to this day, and is still seeking new stories to illustrate]. Then in the 1960s I got hold of American comics in full colour and there were a good number of them being published then – The Haunted Tank, War Cry, Battle, Star Spangled War, Our Fighting Forces, G.I. Combat, and Our Army at War, to recall a few.

The comic that grabbed me most in this genre was Our Army at War. It was a combination of the superb artwork of Joe Kubert and the powerful human tales, many of them penned by Robert Kanigher. These comics didn’t glorify war – they showed the devastation, the waste and presented moral and human stories, reinforcing integrity and friendship, tightly told within a limited structure of between 8 and 14 or so pages. This comic became Sgt Rock in 1977 with issue #302; the numbering was maintained until the final issue #422 (1988). Reprints and one-off comics have appeared since.

The sergeant of the comic’s Easy Company was Rock (Franklin ‘Frank’ John). He first appeared in April 1959, in the story ‘Rock of Easy Company’ in Our Army at War #81. (The comic started in 1952, as did many others in the genre). This first tale was written by Bob Haney, pencilled by Ross Andru and inked by Mike Esposito. The editor was Robert Kanigher, who provided Bob with the precise specs for the story (gleaned from Sgt Rock Special #5, 1989). By the time Joe Kubert joined the creative team, Kanigher was writing the stories – and these two are most associated with the Sergeant Rock tales. Of course there are plenty of other talented artists and writers who have contributed over the years, including Russ Heath and Joe’s son Andy.
Easy Company had a core of regular combat soldiers in the comic – among them Bulldozer (Corporal, large and strong), Wildman (bearded history professor), Jackie Johnson (an African-American), Little Sure Shot (an Apache), and Ice Cream Soldier (small, but cool in battle).
Studying comics is useful for genre writers, teaching economy in words. The pacing has to be tight and fast, the scene-changes are sharp and have to help the story along, and of course the characters have to come across with very few brush-strokes. Many of the techniques employed in screenplays and the resultant movies can be learned from comics.


In the US, tomorrow is Memorial Day, a holiday during which the men and women who served in the US Armed forces are remembered. (Previously known as Decoration Day, originated after the American Civil War to commemorate the soldiers who died in that conflict.) So, here, a Limey living in Spain, I’d like to offer this brief reminiscence to honour those who have fallen.
Of particular interest during this 100th anniversary of the start of WWI is the comic series Charley’s War – please see the website here


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