Hey, let's give thanks for an old DC war comic with the emphasis on Russ Heath.
Prompted by reading that OUR FIGHTING FORCES issue t'other week I was thinking about Russ Heath, no, not because I have a kink for elderly comics artists. He’s old so I thought maybe I should do something about him. Y’know before he pops off and we all find out that he’s spent the last decade living in a badgers set and eating his own nose hair and we all feel bad before being distracted by the new AVENGERS movie. The first thing I think of when I think of Russ Heath is that time he squatted in the Playboy Mansion before he was asked to leave, probably with his pockets stuffed with canapés and ladies’ pants. The second thing I think of is this:
"Truth In Advertising!"
I know the child I was spent a ridiculous amount of time fantasising about those products, luckily though being a foreigner I never got the chance to purchase them and find out how much of a chasm existed between Heath’s marvelously evocative illustrations and the cheap plastic bas-relief reality. Alas, the murdered dreams of a generation of greedy children must be laid at the feet of Russ Heath. I guess no man gets to decide how History will remember him but I think it is important to at least mitigate the sins of Russ Heath by recalling the excellence of his work, particularly his work in this ‘70s DC war comic that I just happened to have read this week.
OUR ARMY AT WAR Featuring SGT. ROCK #245 By Russ Heath, Mort Drucker(?), Joe Kubert, Sam Glanzman(a) and Robert Kanigher, Sam Glanzman(w) and some other people who aren't credited because back then that's how comics rolled. (DC Comics, $0.25, 1972)
Sgt. Rock in The Prisoner by Heath & Kubert The nights in North Africa are cold but things heat up when Sgt. Rock is held behind enemy lines! It's a tale that could have been called "Rock, Paper, Scissors - NAZI!!" or "Now I Know Why The Uncaged Bird Doesn't Sing!" but wasn't!
This one’s called “The Prisoner” but rather than involving Sgt. Rock waking up in a natty blazer and being chased by balloons on a Welsh beach it involves Sgt. Rock being captured and interrogated by a nasty Nazi. Kanigher only has a few pages to play with so it’s to his credit that so much is packed in here. Following Rock’s nighttime abduction and the apparent death of the Combat Happy Joes of Easy Co. when they pursue him (it’s okay they are fit as fiddles when he rejoins them at the end, they just are because this is a Robert Kanigher War comic and he ain't got room for the niceties!) we get to the meat of the matter. Rock in a chair while a Nazi tries to break him.
"Fret not. The deaths of Easy Co. would be retconned faster than even a Marvel Event could manage."
What I wanted to do here was look at Russ Heath's work and try to at least ameliorate his rep as being strong on hardware but weak on the other stuff. So here we have Rock out of his element and Heath out of his element as the bulk of this tale involves one man interrogating another. Given the restricted arena for it to work it’s going to be all about catching moments; catching the right moments and not fluffing the catch. How’s Russ Heath’s catching?
Kanigher sets up a couple of ambitious bits of business here. There’s clearly supposed to be some kind of contrast between the methods of the effete interrogator and his more hands on second in command. Here’s two panels that set that right up without any dilly dallying:
"When it came to circus acts Sgt. Rock was always more of a clown man."
In the first panel Heath powerfully illustrates the large amount of violence that is contained in such a small act as pushing someone forcefully into a chair. The amount of movement in the Nazi’s body is minimal in comparison to the effect on rock and his seat. It’s cause and effect and here the cause is slight but the effect is great. Rock's inadvertent flailing perfectly captures a his instinctive need for a solid footing. Even the chair manages to suggest the shock of an inanimate object briefly become animate. Maybe?
The second panel not only contrasts the two approaches of the Nazis but also provides a vivid symbolic enaction of the approach of Kapitan Smooth. After all, if nothing else, I think we can all agree that a canary eating bird seed of the tongue of a Nazi is vivid. Going from brute force to sedate sadism is a pretty neat trick and I think we're going to have to say Heath gets that one bang on.
Temporarily divorced from his usual hardware Heath transfers his energies and has some fun with the Nazi, not only giving him a cigarette holder but also a creepily lax wrist action. C'mon the guy looks sculpted from smarm. Sure it’s shorthand and reliant on clichés but this character only lives for a handful of panels so it’s important to get it across quickly. In this guy’s case, contrary to what your Mum told you, it’s important to make the wrong impression. Have to keep that balance though, let the visual clichés serve the narrative and not overwhelm it.
"Trust me, I'm a NAZI!"
Oh, the canary's nice too, well done Russ Heath. The poor thing has been broken to the extent that it won’t even occur to it to fly off even though it has every opportunity. This is the sly power of persuasion but can a man as bluff and artless as The Rock resist? ( Spoiler: Yes.) He does this by just blaring his serial number in response to every question. This is the recommended technique and the repetition works well. The scene isn't as tense as it could be due to its enforced brevity. In a modern comic they could argue about their favourite Charlie Chaplin films or the best Hero sandwich they ever ate with lots of nine-panel grids with each panel containing the same image of a person face-on except in the last panel where the mouth has moved slightly and there’s a balloon saying “I know!” Regrettably Kanigher and Heath don’t have access to such sophistication. Actually they just don't have a lot of pages and their primary goal is to entertain in the space they have. They do actually have craft in spades. Which might be the point I'm struggling to make? I don't know, I got distracted.
Sorry, where was I? Rock's belligerent obstinacy is tiresome to our Nazi friend and so he has little recourse but to point his Luger in Rock’s face. Rock persists with his recalcitrant repetition so the Nazi straight up shoots him in the face. The series ends and no more Sgt. Rock comics were ever published. No, I have fooled you with the magic of my words; it was a blank! What a trickster! What with unsettling canary feeding tricks and poor taste in physical humour it’s no surprise that following the War very few fleeing Nazis chose to hide under the guise of children’s entertainers. But he’s overplayed his Hunnish hand as Rock now knows he isn't bluffing. Next time is for keeps – how will the Rock escape!
I love the effect not having the tail on the first balloon has. It creates a disconnect between the text and image that nicely suggests the disorientating sensory impact of stress. Rock’s vision is lagging behind his hearing as his mind works overtime to process everything. As the moment of truth arrives Rock's hearing and vision synch up and the zoom replicates the focusing of his attention. That's some nice craft there.
In a weak attempt at suspense I may have forgotten to mention that Rock’s hands aren't tied. So he just slaps that sucker back as it fires and our teutonic torturer gives himself a lead lobotomy! The contrast between force and finagling doesn't really go anywhere but Kanigher does get to demonstrate that neither can break The Rock.
"Despite dying before they were formed Rock was a big Manhattan Transfer fan (Each time I hear RATTA-TATTA-RATTA, chanson d'amour!)"
Having left the tent (Kanigher's been a good boy until now but can't resist here: "CATCH THIS, BUSTER!”) and blown the whole base up by driving through it in a Kubelwagen while firing a mounted Spandau one-handedly (Because he’s THE ROCK!) Sgt. Rock faces off mano a mano with the thuggish one with the unpleasant method of seating guests. I mention the brand names of the hardware just to show that Heath gets to do his signature hardware thang even in such a restricted arena. You can clearly tell the items have been referenced even if I have got the names wrong, after all I've less familiarity with WW2 German hardware than The Pope so errors may occur. Heath gets one panel for this confrontation. And I think we can safely say he uses this panel wisely:
Man. That panel is so sturm und drang it’s actually turned the page yellow with the heat from the boiling background fires! Or maybe that’s because I don’t keep my comics nice. Anyway, I think we can agree that that single panel puts most capes’n’tights bust ‘em ups to shame. It’s the kind of thing that’s given at least a double page splash these days. Maybe with some deathless dialogue along the lines of “Hnn!” or “Ack!” Well, Russ Heath spits on such page wasting ostentation! Heck, he doesn't even need dialogue. Actions speak louder than words after all and that panel is full of A!C!T!I!O!N! You could stick that panel on the cover with “And Worlds Will…DIE!” as the strap line and it would still barely communicate the oomph and bang it blasts into your eye-holes. Russ Heath got one panel and he gave you one panel. One great panel. And I’m sure he doesn't really spit because it's dirty.
"The Many Emotions Of Sgt. Rock #1: Sweaty"
I have of course cherry picked moments to illustrate the versatility of Russ Heath. There are some dead panels on these pages and his faces are often less than emotive. Kanigher's script also reaches for more than it can deliver but both of them were working with limited pages and purely to the end of entertaining bored G.I.s, kids and people waiting for video to be invented. Oh, and Kanigher gets a good joke in at the last. Rock gets back to Easy Co. and it turns out he couldn't answer the Nazi’s question because he didn't know the answer! I don't know but I think that's pretty suave and makes Kanigher's script GOOD! but Russ Heath, largely out of his element remember brings it up to VERY GOOD!
And me? Like The Thousand Year Reich – I’m GONE!