Sometimes I think the world would be a better place if every country took a whole weekend off to high-five itself. As humble as ever I'm sure I speak for every man, woman and child in the United Kingdom when I say there are no hard feelings from over The Pond . So, after you folk have read Brian Hibbs' important update on his Graphic Novel Clubs below, well...kick off your Sunday shoes and cut Footloose! Put that needle in the groove and let The Loggins loose! America loves its Loggins! Happy Birthday, America! FOOTLOOSE! Art by Russ Heath, an American.
No, no, no! Oh, Sgt Rock, the optimum method of seagull attracting is to be a small child stood in St Ives holding a rapidly collapsing ’99, as my still somewhat traumatised son will attest. Naturally I realise it isn’t the fault of the seagull but rather that of the idiots who persist in feeding them in flagrant contravention of the many signs prohibiting this precise behaviour. (I am particularly proud of how middle-aged that sentence sounds; it’s the written equivalent of rolling up my jacket sleeves and nodding fiercely along to a shitty Phil Collins “number”. At a wedding.) SGT ROCK by Heath & Kanigher
Anyway, this... OUR ARMY AT WAR #258 Art by Russ Heath, Sam Glanzman Written by Robert Kanigher, Sam Glanzman DC Comics, $0.20 (1973) Sgt Rock created by Joe Kubert, Robert Kanigher & Bob Haney
This comic came out in 1973 and is set during a war which ended in 1945. As I peck these words out it’s 2015 and while you’ve probably heard of that war (The Second World War) you’ve probably never heard of this comic. There’s no real reason for you to have done so. I only found it because I’ve had to start clearing out the garage because someone had the crazy notion that we should put a car in there. Sheer madness, I trust you’ll agree. Obviously then, I’ve been sorting through my comics, and I read this one and thought I’d write about it precisely because it is a good example of the kind of comic that’s rarely mentioned; a 1970s DC war comic. 1970s DC war comics get the high hat because they aren’t as good as 1950s EC war comics and also, everybody probably (and rightly) feels a bit hinky about war as entertainment. This sensitivity to tastelessness can be seen right there in this issue's letter column:
Allan Asherman there, making sure everyone's on the same pag viz a viz reality and war. Besides Sgt Rock the book is also bulked out by other strips, most notably one of Sam Glanzman's unaffected and clear eyed depictions of serving aboard the USS Stevens. It's a particularly bleak tale drawn in Glanzman's Kuberty and roughly blunt signature style. Basically, Sam Glanzman is pretty great, you know?
Anyway, this isn’t the old Comics Were Better Back Then! or the rarer Hey, Look a Lost Masterpiece! it’s just a look at one of hundreds of thousands of comics produced in the past before it slips into the obscurity it was intended for. Well, slips back into my garage, because this one’s a keeper.
SGT ROCK by Heath & Kanigher
Keeping it as basic as basic training then, the cover is by Joe Kubert but that’s not all of Joe Kubert’s contribution. If you squint at the print below the opening splash page it’s possible to see that the Editor was also Joe Kubert. Joe Kubert (1926-2012) was a titanic comics talent whose staggeringly voluminous output consisted largely (but not solely) of war comics. And Tor comics. In his later years he would attempt to connect more directly with the world by addressing the Bosnian conflict (Fax From Sarajevo ( 1990)) and by dealing with a chunk of personal issues in a series of OGNs addressing the Holocaust (Yossel, April 19, 1943 (2003)), parental expectations (Jew Gangster (2005)) and the reality of war (Dong Xoai, Vietnam, 1965 (2010)). All of them were visually striking if slightly over earnest comics which, disarmingly, sought to impart the importance of decency, respect and empathy. An admirable aim he pursued right up to the end of his life, and which saturates his final comics series (Joe Kubert Presents (2013)) And, yes, even his Tor comics. Here though, with OAaW#258, the mighty Joe Kubert’s visual contribution is a typically arresting cover featuring Sgt Rock wrestling a very yellow fellow indeed. Sgt Rock’s foe is a Japanese soldier and his icteric aspect may be down to a touch of malaria and an attendant pinch of jaundice, but let’s face it it’s probably down to the heavy handed colouring of the day. But wait, weren’t Sgt Rock and Easy Company active in the European Theatre which was kind of light on Japanese soldiers and, it should be noted, a really poor choice for a night out as theatres go? Every so often Robert Kanigher would find a reason to shift Sgt. Rock to the Pacific. This was largely for reasons of variety, I expect. While Bob Haney actually wrote the prototype Rock’s first appearance in OAaW#81 (1959), Kanigher created him (Rock, not Haney) in an editorial capacity and he and Joe Kubert further refined the character into his iconic state. Kanigher wrote the vast majority of Rock’s antics so it was probably primarily for the sake of his own sanity that he changed things up intermittently.
Of course the audience of the time (children, soldiers, degenerates, reprobates) couldn’t be counted on to have seen the previous issue so a quick catch up was always appreciated. The first page of this issue is one such catch-up. Today you might get a page of poorly proof read text, the tone of which can vary from the functional to the humorous. Here we get a Russ Heath splash page, which may very well just be an exercise in visual exposition, but it’s one done with such design flair and general artistic excellence I’d certainly hang that bad boy on my wall. Check it out. Check it out again. Still rocking, right? All the information a reader needs is represented visually right there. Rock’s haunted face has pride of place in a position suggesting the elements surrounding him are thoughts/memories, and the smoke trail of the falling plane carries the eye down while it gluts itself on the surrounding detail. You’d have to be trying very hard indeed not to interpret the visuals here correctly. Admittedly, yes, all the information a reader needs is repeated in the text box. But while this image-text repetition results in a certain level of redundancy intrinsic to the form at this time (i.e. 1973, not 2015) this occurs less frequently than you might expect in the following pages, but it does occur. I hold that this repetitiveness is entirely intentional and a natural result of the bifurcation of the workload, rather than bad writing per se. Say an editor asks a writer to write a script and assigns it to an artist, where’s the guarantee that they’ll get back a seamless piece of entertainment? It’s over there having tea with Lord Lucan is where that is. So, you make sure the writer writes it all down and you make sure the artist draws it all too; belt and braces, basically. Comics was different back then; it was better. No, of course it wasn’t. The rewards back then were pitiful. I’ve read this comic a couple of times and I can’t actually find the names “Robert Kanigher” or “Russ Heath” credited as writer or artist respectively. These dudes expected nothing. These dudes weren’t going on chat shows anytime soon, or getting their snout in the TV cash-trough, or snorting uncut Hollywood; they were making a comic and doing it as well as they could. Which in Russ Heath’s instance was phenomenally, in case I don’t make that clear later. Heath’s the star of this strip but Kanigher’s no slouch.
SGT ROCK by Heath & Kanigher Robert Kanigher (1915-2002) was, reportedly, not well loved by his peers but as far as posterity is concerned that carries as much weight as a politician’s promise. You pick up this book and you'll just find Robert Kanigher’s a decent writer. This sucker just chugs along. It’s 14 pages long but it feels like three times that, and in a good way. In another way he’s a very bad writer because the strip is just a succession of events that aren’t actually thematically connected or any of that fancy stuff; but it entertains. Since that was his job - he’s a good writer here. For the bulk of the issue Rock is alone and adrift yet Kanigher singularly fails to let us into Rock’s head except via his terse and basic narration of events.
SGT ROCK by Heath & Kanigher
Most writers wouldn’t exercise such restraint. There are no revelations about Rock’s past; it’s all about his present. This is good because Rock is a pretty basic character. Whatever you throw at him, he doesn’t fall. He endures. He’s a rock. That’s it. (It works, don’t knock it.) Having flashbacks to Rock’s first sweetheart, harvesting waving fields of corn, labouring in the steel mill and being dandled on Pappy’s knee etc. would dilute him. Sure, such after the fact encumbrances would appear in other Rock comics and be so poorly policed that at one point if you totted them up he’d got three Dads, like some shitty sit-com or something. In this comic there’s none of that; just a man existing moment to moment. Because that's how you survive a situation this horrific. Well, in this comic anyway. However, Kanigher’s nerve buckles when it comes to having faith that this stoic castaway stuff will keep the audience attentive. So we have a flashback with Easy Co. storming a pill box so that the kids get their customary action scene, complete with Kanigher’s signature move – the "TNT-whatsit" phrase ("Looks like that flyin' swastika is goin' to put us in the ice-box --with a TNT ICE-BERG!"). In his defence Kanigher does use the scene to establish the particular quality of Rock the issue will pivot around; his stubbornness. And, let's face it, editorial may have required certain “Sgt Rock” elements to appear in every issue; I think that’s pretty likely. A more organic outburst of action occurs when Rock lands on one of those tiny islands the Pacific hosts which are as numerous as my grudges, and he encounters some Japanese soldiers. A sequence of violence is then depicted by Russ Heath who, with ink, brush and genius, manages to communicate all the desperate tension and explosive movement of such an encounter. Being the shy type I’ve never been attacked by Japanese soldiers on a beach but for a few seconds Russ Heath sure made me feel like I had. Just Rock and the Japanese officer are left and, sensibly enough, they decide to pool their resources until they get back to the war.
SGT ROCK by Heath & Kanigher
I know, I know, you’re ahead of me here and are already thinking of John Boorman’s 1968 movie HELL IN THE PACIFIC. This movie starred Lee Marvin and Tosihro Mifune as WW2 enemies stranded on a Pacific island who first fight then unite, before the War inevitably returns and with it, duty. And this bit in the comic is, indeed, like that fine movie, but it isn’t 103 minutes long it’s 14 pages long. Kanigher & Heath don’t have the room to do more than nod in the movie’s direction but it’s a firm nod. So, I guess there’s a bit of pop culture referencing going on there; some homaging, yeah? You didn’t realise they did that before Community did you! This basic premise was also, uh, homaged somewhat more extensively in an episode of Battlestar Galactica, but that hadn’t happened in 1973 and I doubt Robert Kanigher had seen it unless he was prone to prophetic visons of crap culture. Depends how hard he was hitting the sauce, I guess. I know I’ve seen a few sights that way (badgers on mopeds!) One of the interesting things about the movie is that Marvin and Mifune never stray from their native languages so the audience shares their frustrations and breakthroughs, this is a great idea but probably not one the public warmed to as the movie was a huge financial loss. Kanigher & Heath don’t have time for all that smart malarkey so it turns out the Japanese officer can speak English.
SGT ROCK by Heath & Kanigher
In a pithy masterclass on exposition, Kanigher establishes how that is ("My mother taught it in school." BANG! Job done.) Kanigher cannily uses the officer to have Rock fill us in on the story so far, which is one time too many really. As though sensing this Russ Heath wades in and draws the balls off of what is basically several panels of two men sitting and talking. The standout here is the bit where Russ Heath takes us under the surface of the sea to show a shark shadowing the raft and its oblivious passengers. A certain kind of easily excited blogger might start telling you that this shark represents the war which exists independently of the two men’s attention and could explode into their lives without warning. Me, I think Russ heath is keeping both himself and his readers awake and just really drawing that shark the way sharks should be drawn - really well. Look at that panel. Damn, the song Russ Heath’s art sang in 1973 is so strong in this comic I can hear it all the way in th efuture year of 2015.
As I’ve said the strip is only 14 pages long (did you catch that?) and yet Rock’s journey takes days, weeks even. Kanigher acquits himself well, but it’s Russ Heath’s art which leaves you feeling you’ve shared Rock’s journey and appreciating its span while he generously spares you the actual tedium of it. Heath’s opening splash is a majestic thing but the double pager that follows it up is equally strong. Having established Rock is adrift on the previous page Heath uses the top panels on the next page to punch home how long Rock’s been floating and the cost it’s had on him. Alternating (and enlarging) Day-Night-Day panels punctuated by repetitious babble take the eye across to the seagulls which become in Rock’s sun-fried mind, and before our eyes, planes swooping down from the top right with their bullet trails diagonally strafing the combat happy joes of Easy Co., who push across to the right against the bullets and take us to the page turn. That’s some pretty sweet visual storytelling right there.
SGT ROCK by Heath & Kanigher
In a later sequence similar to the one at the top of page two Heath manages to make it send a different message; this time the panels again indicate an indeterminate but large amount of time has passed but Rock seems barely to have moved. The maddeningly slow pace of drifting depicted there, because unless some weather is happening the sea isn’t really rushing anywhere.
SGT ROCK by Heath & Kanigher
Again and again, on every page it’s Heath’s eye for detail which convinces. Heath pays everything the same level of interest and doesn’t play favourites. As a result his people are convincing in posture and expression within a world that seems concrete. He actually draws the sea for a start, then there’s the stances in the tussle on the raft, the body blown back by bullets, the predatory grace of a shark, everything, all the way down to the scabs on Rock’s head.
Just another comic; just another day at work for Russ Heath & Robert Kanigher. Our Army at War #258 is just VERY GOOD!
In the end all rocks must crumble but some things endure. Yeah, I'm talking about COMICS!!!
Merciful Minerva! It's a content-pocalypse here at The Savage Critics! Below this there's Amazing Abhay taking a comic by the throat in his talented teeth and shaking it until its neck snaps. Beneath that there's Gentle Jeff Lester using duct tape, tact and sheer pluck to bring you, via technology, not only the cheapest comics...but the best comics! Beneath that there's Bewildered Brian Hibbs vs. online journalism! Bang-on Brian Hibbs cracking the heads of several cape comics together was also a thing that occurred! As ever, earlier in the week the best Commenters in any seven dimensions you care to mention took on the Shipping List and, of course, Gentle Jeff and Garrulous Graeme's audio bliss in Podcast form remains in geosynchronous orbit with all our ears!
And then there's me talking about a comic Howard Victor Chaykin and Russ Heath did in 2005 that no one read. The Savage Critics: For people who ain't lookin' for nothin' but a good time because it don't get better than this! (Everybody loves Poison! Except people with taste!)
LEGEND #1 to 4 Written By Howard Victor Chaykin Illustrated by Russ Heath Inked by Russ Heath & Al Vey Lettered by Rob Leigh Coloured by Darlene Royer & David Rodriguez for Wildstorm FX Wildstorm, $5.99 each (2005) Inspired by Philip Wylie’s novel GLADIATOR
One of the totally bizarre things about comics in the 21st Century is the continued expectation broad based multi media content providers and dispersal merchants (formerly known as: writers) have that they will shock the living shit out of us all with the concept of superheroes but in the real world. It’s utterly nutty because none of them seem (seem) aware that that’s how this whole crazy capes mess started up in the first place. It had to really. You start with the real world and you put your superhero in it. All the rest, all the goofiness, all the magic all the “silliness” that is popularly taken to define the Cape genre comes after and from that initial starting point. Not being in the real world isn't inherent in the capes genre. Well, no more than any other genre. Opening myself up to a cascade of corrections, but in the interests of getting somewhere before you start catching flies, I’m taking Superman as the first superhero. Stay with me here, because LEGEND is “inspired by Philip Wylie’s Novel GLADIATOR”.
And so too is Superman inspired by Philip Wylie’s novel GLADIATOR(1930), certainly to the extent that Wylie threatened to sue Jerry Siegel in 1940. There are a remarkable number of similarities between the two works but there are also a number of significant differences, that’s how “inspiration” works, I guess. If memory serves, the only really totally outlandishly fanciful element in the first published Superman story is...Superman; he is a superhero but in the real world. Similarly GLADIATOR, Superman’s inspiration, involves a super-powered individual but in the real world. You see what I’m saying here though? The very genesis of the capes genre is in actual fact superheroes but in the real world. You might think this is just a tiresomely roundabout way of telling modern comics creators to knock it the fuck off but it isn't just that. No, it’s also a tiresomely roundabout way of introducing LEGEND by Howard Victor Chaykin (HVC) and Russ Heath.
LEGEND is a comics adaptation of Wylie’s book and was published by Wildstorm Comics in 2005. It isn’t the first adaptation as the novel was made into a feature film in 1938. Since this flick starred Joe E.
Hill Brown the flexibly faced funnyman familiar to fans of Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot (1959) and apparently revolves around wrestling it’s probably less than faithful in its adaptive duties. Probably more faithful was the abortive adaptation by Rascally Roy Thomas and Tony DeZuniga titled Man-God in MARVEL PREVIEW #9 (1976). I have used 'probably' there because I've seen neither of them. Nor have I read the original novel. I have, however, read LEGEND by HVC and Russ Heath. A lot of people haven’t read LEGEND as it was published in 2005 by Wildstorm Comics which, at that point in history, was the publishing equivalent of being buried alive.
By all accounts this one’s a pretty accurate adaptation, with just a few necessary changes to update it to the 50’s thru the ‘70s. Vietnam is swapped in for WWI for example. Chaykin and Heath's’ book consequently is light on the heroics and high on the super. After all, Siegel and Shuster brought the cape but Wylie brought the super-man. Wylie’s creation at no time battles for Truth, Justice or any Way be it American or not. His book takes the case of an extremely gifted individual called Hugo Danner and examines how someone so special could ever fit into the moribund world of us normal dreary folks.
It’s the kind of book people who feel they are themselves gifted tend to write. By all accounts (i.e. Wikipedia) Wylie was quite gifted, or at least a very thoughtful individual who used his writing as a device for disseminating his thoughts rather than primarily for producing entertainments. He probably felt a greater sense of achievement in having popularized the raising of orchids than being midwife to genre informed by wonder and imagination. A genre into which his book was adapted by HVC and Gil Kane, except,that's right, it wasn't. I'm glad you are still awake. But it almost was...
Like many comics LEGEND isn’t perfect because Gil Kane didn’t draw it. But at least LEGEND had a fighting chance of being drawn by Kane. HVC developed LEGEND with Kane in mind. His hope seems to have been to nudge Kane more towards work in the hard-boiled pulp vein of Kane’s self-published HIS NAME IS…SAVAGE (1968). Kane seemed to naturally gravitate towards fantasy, a direction HVC felt worked against Kane’s desire to tell more socially relevant tales. When Kane, with Rascally Roy Thomas, took on the monumental task of adapting Wagner’s Ring Trilogy into comics HVC’s reaction was a big fat,“So?”. Unfortunately the fantasy genre was entirely simpatico to Kane’s desire to avoid research. LEGEND with its broad backdrop of several decades and visual dependence on verisimilitude would require, oh yeah, research and so Gil Kane declined. This is of course a colossal loss to comics and me personally but I try not to be too bitter. After all the project would eventually be drawn by Russ Heath. I like Russ Heath but what did HVC make of his work? If only there were a pricey collection of interviews with him I could plunder. Oh, Wait…
Costello: Was there anything you changed in the text of your adaptation to account for the difference in Kane’s and Heath’s styles?
Chaykin: No. It is what it is, and Russ just took it and ran with it. At the time Russ and I were neighbours…He would come over to the house and show me pages. I was delighted, particularly because I’d assumed for a number of years that Russ had lost it because the work he’d been doing for most of that era was shit, and it turns out he was phoning it in because he was lazy. He was capable of doing great stuff and just wasn’t bothering. Russ is really old. He dated Fred Flintstone’s sister. He’s still a very vital and incredibly talented guy, one of my heroes. And he’s got carrot coloured hair. He looks like he was molested by a carrot.
(Extract from an interview with Brannon Costello on pp.270-271 of HOWARD CHAYKIN: CONVERSATIONS Edited by Brannon Costello (University Press of Mississippi, 2011))
While I’m not as enamoured of Heath’s work here as HVC is, it is pretty good stuff that serves the material well. His grounded and reality-sourced work gives the whole thing a necessary level of detachment. A warmer, more intuitive style would risk the reader being swamped by viscera. Heath’s style may be the equivalent of a man in a lab-coat pointing at genitals while declaiming their Latin nomenclature but this is entirely necessary. The earthily robust script by HVC is so ripe with a raunchy lust for life that even Heath’s distanced work ends up crossing its legs and dabbing sweat from its top lip. If Gil “Sugar Lips” Kane had drawn this the thing would have had to be printed on asbestos and available only to blinded castrati. Yes, Chaykin’s script obviously brings to the fore things better left to the aft in Wylie’s day.
Despite the almost absurdly heated erotic activity, profane humour and offhandedly extreme violence the book seems to embody all the things Wylie initially intended. It remains the tale one gifted man’s progress through the various layers of his society in search of a place in which to fit. A fruitless search as it turns out. Chaykin remains true to the spirit of the thing even if the execution is totally Chaykin-esque. By Chaykin-esque we are of course talking the Chaykin of popular perception (the urbanely disillusioned priapic satyr with the gift for page design and filthy wit) rather than the Chaykin of reality (the respected professional, loving partner and twinkly grandfather noted for not suing people who write about him on the Internet. Cough.)
Initially, I admit, I wasted quite some time by typing several thousand words in a jocular journey through each of the four issues highlighting particularly preposterous points but then I went and binned that. Sacrifice. In order for the books to still retain plenty of surprises I have instead written around the work while (hopefully) letting the work speak for itself through the selection of images scattered about this dreary chuff. I think they say far more, far better than anything I could ever conjure about the very particular, very (very) melodramatic pleasures of Howard Victor Chaykin and Russ Heath’s LEGEND. It’s highly unlikely that you've ever read a comic like LEGEND but it’s highly recommended that you do. Seriously, this comic should be available on the NHS as treatment for depression. For all its sincerity and intelligence LEGEND is some pretty funny stuff and it’s never funnier than on the last page. You can probably find these comics for cheap and that’s probably worth doing because LEGEND is VERY GOOD! C'mon, when was the last time you read a comic about a man with a cock as big as a cat...but in the real world! Exactly. Have a jolly splendid weekend and remember to read some COMICS!!!
A slightly cheekier Birthday greeting below the break.
Happy Birthday Howard Victor Chaykin!
I will MAKE them honour you!
Best wishes from JohnK (UK) and the whole of COMICS!!!
Edited three panels from THE SHADOW: BLOOD AND JUDGEMENT (1986)by Howard Victor Chaykin, Ken Bruzenak & Alex Wald. Rude panel from LEGEND (2005)by Howard Victor Chaykin, Russ Heath, Rob Leigh & Wildstorm FX.
(Hey Kids! Have I told you about LEGEND? Oh boy, just you wait, kids. Just you wait. It's bonkers!)
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!