Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Bob Haney & Archie Goodwin's Two Unknown Soldiers: What Is This America & Who Is Its Unknown Solider? Part 2

continued from Monday last, and concerning the "DC Showcase Presents: The Unknown Soldier" collection;


If Joe Kubert's few "Unknown Soldier" tales seem to reflect a patriotic and kindly conservative frame of mind, respectful at times of difference and yet committed to and trusting of traditional forms of power and authority, Bob Haney's tales of the nameless and faceless warrior which followed read today as if they were founded in a somewhat more left-of-centre sensibility. From the very beginning of his ten issue run on "Star Spangled War Stories", Mr Haney's scripts dealt not just with the hi-jinks of assassinating Hitler and the like, but with the fallibility of military authority, racial prejudice in the US Army, the decency of combatants on all sides of the fighting, and the strength and bravery of women and their essential contribution to the cause. And yet, despite all these symbols of what even then would've been understood, correctly or not, as tokens of a liberal mind, Mr Haney's vision of America is remarkably close to that of Mr Kuberts. He portrays more flaws in the system than did his predecessor, and recognises more sources of virtue within it too, though that may merely be a reflection of the fact that he wrote three times more stories than Mr Kubert did, but in the end, the two creators are united in never questioning the necessity of the war or the superiority of the American way against all-comers.


Hindsight makes Mr Haney's first story, the Joe Kubert-illustrated "Invasion Game", appear to be a possible response to the depiction of the Unknown Soldier's exceptionally polite and subservient Black Sergeant in Mr Kubert's first few stories. After all, to read the panel wherein Mr Kubert's Soldier discusses undertaking a mission to his Sergeant and declaring that it'll ".. raise the morale of our people!" is to wonder whether the Soldier has ever considered that Black Americans might not have felt so closely aligned to the White majority at all (151:4:5). In truth, it reads today as an insensitive speech, particularly given that the panel in question focuses on the duteous and agreeable face of the Black Sergeant as he listens to such a one-nation declaration, as if he too must share his superior's convictions. And yet it can't be denied that such an assumption would have come easily to the lips of many if not most white Americans in that conflict. In fact, given the extremes of racial hostility felt by large swathes of white American troops to their comrades of colour in that conflict, extremes that shocked even the racially-unenlightened British of the period, the Unknown Soldier's speech might even be read as well-meaning rather than ignorant; at least he considers that America is composed of a people who are both white and black rather just the former.

It's a reading of the Soldier, as a sympathetic but typically-ignorant man of his times, which sits well with Mr Haney's tale of his meeting with "Chat Noir". Faced with a Black American soldier on the run from the US Army in France who claims to have been "rail-roaded into a court-martial" (155:6:3), the Soldier responds by declaring, "Sounds like sour grapes to me." (155:6:4). Later, he taunts "Chat Noir" by accusing him of running " ... out on (his) buddies because of a 'bum' rap!" (155.8:3), and the distrust between the two characters is maintained until the stories' end, when, as you might expect, the Black American saves the life of the White American while declaring "I guess ... we've been fighting the same enemy ... Maybe ... we're still part of the same country!" (155:11:3). But, for all that the differences between the politically powerful and the powerless are resolved in just 11 pages, what's most noticeable is how unsentimental the reconciliation between the two is, and, indeed, how powerful and competent Chat Noir has been represented as while leading a French partisan cell. Indeed, the Unknown Soldier is often shown helpless without his reluctant comrades aid, and the closing of the tale, with Noir back in his Army uniform with his Sergeant's stripes conspicuously in place, seems an obvious acknowledgement that he had indeed been the victim of racial prejudice.


And yet, as with many a popular story written to entertain while engaging with wider social issues, "Invasion Game!" is as disturbing a text as it is a heartening one. For there's a clear sense that Mr Haney's America is still a morally superior state, even if some of its servants are clearly ethically compromised. Indeed, wherever the State is shown acting dishonestly in "Invasion Game!", such as in deceiving a French resistance cell into sacrificing itself as an unknowing decoy prior to D-Day, it's deception is portrayed as being to the ultimate good. "Chat Noir" may have had his stripes unfairly removed from him, to take another example, but with the intervention of the kindly if rather socially naive Unknown Soldier, everything is restored to an equitable state of affairs. All that's needed, it seems, for a better world to appear is for the American government to be trusted to do the right thing, or, at worst, to rectify the mistakes which its servants have committed. As Mr Haney has his Black hero declare at the tale's closing, "Figure that this country is worth any effort!" (155:11:4)

All of which, it must be said from the perspective of 2010, sounds rather willfully naive. The Black American man, Mr Haney seems to be saying, has to accept the duty of fighting his way up from the bottom of the pile against incredible odds, and he has to rely on the unlikely patronage of passing White secret agents to maintain whatever small advantages he's earned. It's an impossibly long-term vision of political chance that's both well-meaningly wishful and grounded in a faith that the American state will eventually do the right thing for "Chat Noir" and his fellow people of colour. The idea that the American state has been culpable in deliberately and institutionally supporting racism, and that prejudice isn't just the responsibility of a few bad apples, doesn't, on the evidence of this tale, seem to have occurred to Mr Haney, or his Unknown Soldier.

And yet, given how uncharitably most majority cultures are to any minorities who seek even nominal parity where social justice is concerned, Mr Haney's apparent message isn't an unreasonable description of what the long road to a greater equality will involve. The truth of the matter is that it's only by individuals, and groups of individuals, working within the state and fighting generation upon generation for their rights that systems change. It's just that Mr Haney hasn't acknowledged how unbearable hard the struggle would be for Chat Noir and his people, nor of how venal as well as how ignorant much of the entrenched power elites of the Western world would prove to be.


What would the politically correct form of this tale have been? Should "Noir" and the Soldier have hunted down and exposed the racists who "rail-roaded" the Black man? Should the Soldier have dedicated himself to fighting for justice on the home-front, and in the social context too, as much as in battlefields against the Axis powers? Should the Soldier have apologised for the racism of the state, or perhaps joined Chat Noir in exile to set up some non-conformist underground army to make their own way to their own ends during the war, and beyond it?

And at what point is it acceptable to simply accept the good intentions and progressive kind-heartedness of Mr Haney and Mr Kubert's work, to note what an impressive and able man "Chat Noir" is, and to abandon the belief that every 11 page tale must perfectly reflect a modern agenda and its take on a social injustice before it can shake off the suspicion of incorrectness?


Reading these tales of Mr Haney's is to finally be shaken free of the Seventies-borne consensus that his work was in various ways irredeemably marked by anachronistically careless and shallow style of writing. Yes, those qualities can at times undoubtedly be found in Mr Haney's work here, but they at worst work to compromise rather than utterly discredit his scripts. In truth, his craft as evidenced in these Unknown Soldier stories is invariably entertaining and, unexpectedly perhaps, thought-provoking too, and there's a fierce intelligence that's expressed playfully therein even as it tries not to draw too much attention to itself. So, the Black American rebel leading a French underground band is of course code-named "Chat Noir", since that was, according to its creator and owner Rodlophe Salis, the "most extraordinary (19th-century) cabaret in the world ... (where) foreigners from every corner of the world" could be met. And the Nazi death camp so convincingly labelled Totentanz by Mr Haney (158:1:1) is, of course, named after the German for the Danse Macabre, or the Dance Of Death, a Medieval allegory describing how death is ever-present at each moment of one's short and vulnerable life. These touches, which are so embedded into the text that the reader can barely notice that they're there at all, show how seriously Mr Haney must have taken his popular entertainments. A far more pretentious intellect might have made greater play of such cleverness, but even when Mr Haney was under attack from many in fandom for disregarding the sacred tenants of continuity in his superhero books, he choose to produce laudably solid rather than showy work.

And so his work repays some greater measure of respectful attention than has at times been granted to it, for Mr Haney's scripts appear even today to reflect a belief that the reader is a bright penny who can trusted to think for themselves and to make sense of what's in front of them in their own way and to their own ends. This, of course, is an approach that stands in direct contradiction to that of the politically correct, who invariably demand water-tight ethical maps through which plot and character illustrate the worthy and the intolerable approaches to the acceptably moral life, as if fiction's purpose was to serve as a secular version of the Medieval Mystery plays, popular entertainment that the ignorant and the uneducated might learn from and emulate.


But for all the intelligence and entertainment that marks his stories, Mr Haney's preference for fast-paced and wide-ranging adventures told over the course of a very few pages often meant that he time and time again cut the corners of his plots. For every moment that he delights with, as when he recalls that the Soldier will need a different accent for each new role, as with "the Lootenant" (159:11:4) in "Man Of War", there's a plot convenience put to use that destroys the credibility, and much of the moral sense, of his tales. In "Totentanx", for example, the business of both breaking into and out of a death camp is made counter-productively simple. If the camp itself is quite rightly portrayed as a hell on Earth, a literal dance with death, and if the reality of the camp's ovens is never obscured, the effect is still undermined by the story-fact that a smart and well-prepared American can not just break out, but escape with another prisoner in a fine staff car while disguised as Adolf Eichmann! With the best of intentions, it's a business that demeans the millions upon millions of souls who could never, with all the smartness and planning in the world, escape what the Nazis had designed for them.

What's more, it's a carelessness which casts Mr Haney's fictional America in a bleaker light than anything else we've discussed so far. Because with both the Soldier's experience and the escapee Erika's testimony, the facts of the Holocaust would have been utterly unarguable long before the liberation of the first camps. As a consequence, the failure of the Allies to interfere significantly in the business of both the extermination as well as the work camps in any whole-hearted and systematic fashion could never have occurred in this Haney-verse. With his character and his contacts, the Unknown Soldier would surely never have rested until the fact of Genocide was public knowledge as well as a primary aspect of military policy.

But The Unknown Soldier obviously never did anything of the sort, for such a personal crusade and its inevitable success was never referred to again, although the business of the Holocaust was shown continuing as it did in our world in many of DC's other books, which leaves the reader regretting, for this and other reasons, that this whole unfortunate if well meaning story was ever told at all.


Despite that unfortunate business, Mr Haney's scripts for the Unknown Soldier are marked in their intent if not always their effect by a progressive and liberal frame of mind, and both the ranks of his heroes and villains are drawn from a wider cast of types than was always evident in some brands of American war comics. The woman codenamed "Berengaria" in "Totentanz" is as brave as a character can be, imprisoned in a death camp and yet courageously conspiring with the Soldier who's pretending to be her imprisoned husband, despite the secret pain of the fact that her husband has long since been murdered and "destroyed ... in the ovens" (158.11.5). The mad "Colonel "Bloody" Barton, who's driving his men to their unnecessary and cruel deaths, is portrayed as ever bit as dangerous, if somewhat less contemptible, as the players on the other side; to be American here is not, as Mr Kubert had declared in the Soldier's first tale, always to play fair and only kill if it's unavoidable. (SSWS: 159) And there's respect shown even to enemy commanders who've filled the role of cruel antagonists in the Soldier's adventures too; Colonel Funaga is is a torturer, but the Soldier accepts their common humanity and regards his foes suicide as "a soldier's price! One more cost to add onto war's tally sheet!" (159:12:5), while the Nazi Colonel Lutzen, the "Black Eagle", willingly testifies to save an American soldier unjustly accused of cowardice and sentenced to death by firing squad. (Later in the story, the Soldier can't even bring himself to shot Lutzen when the German escapes captivity. 159.14.6).

Mr Haney's vision of the War is therefore somewhat different from any stereotypical representation of a great crusade wherein noble America acts to save the world while providing her men with a glorious cause to prove their manhood by. Mr Haney's America may ultimately be in the right, but her men on occasion bully their fellows, sentence innocent men to death and allow madmen to lead their divisions into battle. It's an America where the well-meaning likes of the Unknown Soldier has to learn that everything in the political garden isn't as straight-forward and fair as he'd presumed, although for all of that, matters do seem remarkably easy at times to put to rights. It's a world where women can be braver and more resilient than men (*2), where the enemy can be as honourable as "our" own fighting forces, and where those ordinary civilians not in uniform are often as important to the cause as those with the badge-caps and the equipment manuals.

Indeed, given that Mr Haney's Soldier is far more likely to be found working with civilians rather than standing next to his fellow soldiers in need of his skill and courage, there's far less of a sense than previously that the typical American man isn't up to the responsibilities of his patriotic task. There's none of that sense of the Wandering Jew with a bazooka that permeated even the very first appearance of the Soldier in a Sgt Rock tale, where he could achieve all that the typical grunt couldn't and dare what the everyday G.I. might not. (SSWS:157: Kanigher/Kubert) And, especially since he had so many more issues to write than Mr Kubert did, Mr Haney takes the opportunity to show some ordinary G.I.'s as being quite frankly drunkards and, oh dear, may we say frequenters of alien females of easy and commodified virtue (166:10:5). The WASP dreams of excellent comportment and self-evident superiority have quite evaporated in the mud and squalid combat of the Italian Campaign shown in "The True Glory" (SSWS 166), for example, as Mr Haney makes his case that even men with a taste for the bottle and the flesh were every bit as able to serve the cause as a more well-laundered and restrained West Pointer might be.

And it's that popularism, that sympathetic take on the potential inherent in each and every American, and indeed American ally, that most marks Mr Haney's vision of America in "The Unknown Soldier". If Mr Kubert's short tenure on the strip produced a vision of America and its cause which was both decent and respectfully traditional, Mr Haney's USA is a more flawed nation full of fallible but usually decent folks. And if Mr Haney's America also contains patriotic madmen and racist soldiers, well, with a few good men of influence to help the oppressed fight back, things will be OK eventually.

Won't they?

*2:- Consider also Elrika in "The Long Jump" (161), although it should be noted that these brave women are still remarkably young and beautiful. They're no more typical women than the heroines of most Hollywood blockbusters are today.


A far more radical, and far less optimistic, take on the "Unknown Soldier" was offered by Archie Goodwin, Bob Haney's successor as the writer of "Star-Spangled War Stories". For Mr Goodwin, it seems, there was nothing glorious on any level to be associated with the business of war, and even a successful mission was to be considered as nothing more meaningful than a temporary relief from further suffering. Certainly the endings of his Unknown Soldier stories are never a cheering business. In "Three Targets For The Viper", for example, the Unknown Soldier succeeds in protecting the lives of F.D.R., Churchill and De Gualle, but at the cost of destroying the life of a Vichy spy reduced to a "quiet, unresisting young woman" (167:14:4). The sinking of the Nazi submarine carrying plans for secret weapons to Japan in "Destroy The Devil's Broomstick" involves the sacrifice of a U-Boat captain who's family has already been "shot down by ... (the) Gestapo ..." (169:14.3), and, most disturbing of all, in "Appointment In Prague", an aged old Czech actor and his estranged and virulently-Nazi grandson are both killed as the Soldier barely concludes his mission (172:12:1-6).

Mr Goodwin's Unknown Soldier is a quite different character from Mr Kanigher and Mr Kubert's hyper-confident and super-heroic G.I., the comforter to and inspiration of beleaguered front-line troops. Instead, Archie Goodwin's faceless soldier is a man who can barely save the day despite his very best efforts, who brings death with him wherever he goes, and who can do little but attempt to patch up wounded fighters and carry out hopeless missions by the skin of his teeth. He's certainly not a man who by the fact of his fighting beside the ordinary foot-soldier inspires super-human deeds, unless he's impersonating a man who's already raised such confidence in his men. In fact, super-human achievement on the battlefield is regarded by Mr Goodwin as a self-destructive chimera, an ideal of military heroism which sets impossible standards for ordinary men and destroys them accordingly. The legendary Major Edge, in "Legends Don't Die", is a leader "worshipped by every man serving under him" (170:5:6), a warrior who has "reaped medals and glory performing near superhuman feats" (170:5:4), and even the Soldier baulks at impersonating him. And yet Major Edge has, unbeknownst to his troops, gone quite insane with what would today be referred to as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, unable to stand the stresses of the role he was forcing himself to lead. War, in Mr Goodwin's tales, isn't a testing ground to survive with a measure of patriotic decency and nobility. Instead, war seems to be a horror that in one fashion or another is completely unsurvivable, for whatever a person is when they enter the fighting, the war will change them utterly and rarely if ever for the better.

In fact, those that won't adapt in the face of the realities of war, those who retain their illusions about noble sacrifice and glory are shown being broken by Mr Goodwin where more malleable humans survive. In addition to poor Major Edge, there's Captain Ransom in "The Glory Hound" (SSWS:168), who fulfils every criteria of a dashing war hero and who yet proves to be a self-regarding idiot, a Sergius Seranoff for the Second World War, capable of little more than leading his adoring troops towards disaster. And yet, Ransom is shown performing with the same unshakable confidence and bravery that the Unknown Soldier himself was in his first appearance. (The foolish Ransom is even shown inspiring his men exactly as the Soldier used to, rousing his troops with the clarion call that "If it means fightin' til we die -- we'll do that, an' nobody ever won one by running away!" - 168:12:1) And yet now, in Archie Goodwin's hands, the Unknown Soldier is no more confident nor physically able than his peers. Indeed, he's overwhelmed with self-doubt when told to impersonate Major Edge, saying "And I'm expected to take his place ... ?" (170:5:7), and now he wins his battles, if he wins them at all, through a quiet and modest competency, through wisdom and restraint, rather than a pulp-heroesque derring-do. As he tells the horrified Ransom, while revealing his war-ruined face to the self-obsessed Captain;

"You think you know war, Ransom? I'm going to show you what it's really like Ransom! It's not winning medals ... and it's not a game! And it's not fighting and gloriously for Baker Company. I'm going to show you war's true face, Ransom. This is the face of war, Ransom .... MY FACE! Do you like it? Maybe you can win one of these for you or your men?" (168:12:3-6)

And so, in the space of just three years, the Unknown Soldier had gone from being a patriotic superman inspiring his fellow soldiers to deeds of great and necessary heroism, to a vulnerable and insecure everyman, terribly wounded and yet absolutely determined, a symbol of war's inevitable and unavoidable brutalities. No longer an example of the individual given over entirely in service to the Nation's endeavours, Mr Goodwin's Unknown Soldier was a symbol rather of what the Nation's endeavours, necessary or otherwise, wreck on the individual.


And Mr Goodwin's scripts would have nothing to do with the concept of an soldier's "honour" which appears from time to time in the work of other writers on this strip. To Mr Goodwin, there's no difference between the desperate business of civilians and soldiers in their common plight before the devastation of war. The only character who speaks of "real men, warriors -- not foolish weaklings like you!" (171:13:2) is the boy Josef, a brainwashed boy conscripted from the Hitler Youth, with a head full of ideology and its promised glories and an exceptionally early and bloody death before him. No, there's no support for any ennobling philosophy of war that in any way separates the individual fighter from the consequences of their action through high-flying ideals of duty and self-sacrifice. Commander Gunther, for example, the U-Boat Captain who willingly dooms himself and his despicable passengers by valiantly taking his own submarine to the bottom of the ocean, declares that "In war, we do what we must, not always what we like ..." (169.4.3), but the Soldier makes no attempt to sentimentally define Gunther as a "warrior". Instead, the Unknown Soldier remembers him as "an enemy, but more ... a man." (169.4.4)

Even the very label of "soldier", it seems, separates those who bear it from their own identity as individual human beings, and from their responsibilities as such to each other. The lost and exceptional Major Edge, to both Mr Goodwin and his "Unknown Soldier", is no "living legend" at all, but a "fine fighting man" (170:5:2), and the Soldier's final advice to the disgraceful Captain Ransom sums up, or certainly seems to, Mr Goodwin's philosophy where the duties of each man at war are concerned;

"Forget the glamor, forget the glory ... save your men, Captain!" (168.13.1)


And yet it's not that America and the nation's cause is in any way being denigrated in Mr Goodwin's stories. The saving of President Roosevelt's life in Morocco in "Three Targets For Thee Viper", for example, is presented as an unmitigated good (167:14:2), and the Axis armies, if not their nation's citizens, are an obvious evil which must be unquestionably defeated. But the war itself was no longer being presented as a crucible in which the patriot citizen might valiantly reach a greater measure of their own potential while fulfilling their duty to the nation. Instead, the focus of Mr Goodwin's stories during his brief six-issue stay on "The Unknown Soldier" was on the dehumanising effect that war itself has upon everybody who comes into contact with it, rather than upon America's effect upon the progress of the war. And in doing so, this year's worth of stories became the first of those in this collection to meaningfully reflect the logo of "Make War No More" which had been placed in the final panel of each of DC's war tales for several years up until 1973, and which had ironically been removed with the beginning of Mr Goodwin's tenure on the title. (Until then, a more accurate logo might have read; "We know war's a destructive business, but make it as a decent American and you'll win out if your cause is just".) For although his stories were in no way either pacifist or anti-imperialist, their sense was straight-forward; even when war must by necessity be entered into, war itself is always the enemy, and the inevitable victor too.

This stance of Mr Goodwin's constituted the most complete reversal of a title-character's purpose that I can recall. Unlike the brief tenure of Mr Kanigher and Mr Kubert, which identified the ordinary soldier as heroic and just fighters in need at times of assistance and inspiration, and that of Mr Haney, which argued that the nation's cause and methods were moral even as some few of its servants might be incompetent or bigoted, Mr Goodwin focused only on how the best of us can be damaged and even corrupted by the experience of warfare. For Major Edge and Captain Ransom, for Commander Gunther and Shandra, are all characters who possess those admirable qualities which mark out the very best of us, regardless of whose side they're fighting for. They're brave and loyal, able and daring, and yet war destroys them all, killing them, taking their liberty or their sanity, or simply destroying their most cherished values.

To Mr Goodwin, it seems, the issue was never who was in the right and who wasn't, because the necessity of America's war against Fascism was beyond doubt. But the matter of how to survive the waging of war without becoming either one of war's monsters or its victims, or both, is what most concerns his stories of The Unknown Soldier.


Monday, 27 September 2010

Joe Kubert's "Star Spangled War Stories":- What Is This America, And Who Is Its Unknown Soldier?


Trying to make sense of the politics of the past in the terms of the preconceptions of the present is an inevitably pernicious business. For the political correctnessess of today seem to provide their adherents, knowing or otherwise, with an ideological ockam's razor that can immediately and virtuously divide the world up into good and bad, them and us, right and wrong. And so comforting and self-perpetuating are these processes of self-satisfying condemnations that the complexity and uniqueness of the past inevitably becomes collapsed into an eternal now, throughout which the often already simple-minded prejudices of the contemporary world are presumed to apply. And it is an insidious business, this assuming, without even realising that it's happening, that today's sensibilities tell us anything about yesterday at all. It's a disturbing fact that I was reminded of when misreading DC Comic's "Showcase Presents: The Unknown Soldier", a collection of war comics published in the five years from the June of 1970 to that of 1975. Because, to my own considerable disconcertment, and within just three pages of beginning Joe Kubert's "They Came From Shangri-La!", I'd found that I'd convinced myself that I was reading a quite different story to the one that was actually on the pages before me. There I was, thinking that Mr Kubert had been nailing to the mast a dove-white flag, a dogmatically anti-war thesis that the idealistically pacifistic counter-cultures of then and now might march self-contentedly under, and yet, what I was reading was no such thing at all.


"They Came From Shangri-La!", the first of three Unknown Soldier tales both written and drawn by Joe Kubert, begins with a single page of four panels (151:1:1-4) briefly describing several of America's wars, and I confess that I obviously wasn't paying enough attention to the images and text before my eyes when I processed the beginning of this story. Indeed, all I registered at first glance was that none of the panels contained any jingoistic representations of the supposed glories of war, with not a trace of cheering and victorious soldiers on show, or of sub-human opponents menacing innocent women and children while the onrushing American troops race in to save the day. And in particular, I noted in passing how all of those representations of previous American wars appeared to accentuate the brutality and miseries of combat. That meaning certainly appeared to be there in the second panel, for example, where a string of silhouetted cannons hammer away at the distant lines of the unseen American enemy. Similarly, it was surely the purpose of the final panel, where-in the American experience of World War One was reduced to a piteous shot of the bodies of dead Doughboys caught on barbed wire while cumbersome fighter planes plummet from the sky above, to denigrate the very business of warfare itself. After all, that doleful image surely existed in the tradition of "Journey's End" and "All Quiet On The Western Front", of "Good-Bye To All That" and "Paths To Glory", which meant that this was surely to be no conventional war comic at all.

And if the first panel, concerning the Revolutionary War, didn't appear to be so specifically tapping into that anti-war iconography, then it was certainly conspicuous in avoiding anything that might appear to equate combat with manliness and a virtuous heroism. Nor could the charging American soldier in the third panel running hunched and with his face sunk into a skull's shadows be easily read as an advert for martial valour either, especially when associated with the Spanish-American War, a conflict which even the most single-mindedly American-first of contemporary historians find difficult to present as a straight-forward example of national ethicality.

And then, to turn to the double-page-length shot of a lonesome shadowed figure standing before the endless mournful rows of white gravestones at what seems to be Arlington National Cemetery (151:2:2-3) , is to surely, surely, rightfully conclude that this tale of Mr Kubert's was designed to show how the nameless mass of ordinary soldiers in America's history have been crushed beneath the brutalities and meaninglessness of war. Certainly, the harrowing and epic portrayal of ill-prepared, wounded, shocked and helpless sailors at Pearl Harbour below only reinforced such a reading, or so I was sure. (151:2-3)

But turn the page onwards again, as I did, and the stupidity of my thinking, and the inappropriateness of my preconceptions, immediately became obvious. For what I'd so completely failed to consider was that Mr Kubert could be quite utterly appalled by the horrors of war while simultaneously being intent on exalting the heroism of the men involved and the necessary purpose of their task. His ideology, if any term so cold and counter-productively precise can be applied to Mr Kubert and his work here, was one which incorporated two concepts which are so often today held to stand in contradiction to each. After all, those who hold to the idea that war with all its bloodyhanded slaughter is a gruesome business tend often to oppose the very fact of it, and the possibility of good arriving from it, while those who believe with greater passion in the value of war as a social process as well as a tool of politics by other means tend to avoid dwelling on the awful truth of the battlefield.

But Mr Kubert was neither turning away from the cost of war nor from what he believed was the fact of its historical necessity. This in itself, to say the very least, is an uncommon stance in the popular culture of 2010, and one which could quite easily be mistaken for something far more reactionary than the fact of its original purpose.

Or, rather, it could be so, for a moment or two, by a muttonhead like me, reading "They Came From Shangri-La!" in those last woozy minutes between crawling in beside the Splendid Wife and surrendering to sleep.


Hands raised in the air in supplication, I own up to the fact that I was rather shocked by my first encounter with Mr Kubert's Unknown Soldier following what seemed so misguidedly to me to be the apparently anti-war images discussed above. But when first encountered, and contrary to my ill-formed expectations, the Unknown Soldier was no isolated and alienated figure, as might be expected if this were a story of ordinary men whose lives have been destroyed by the wars between nations. In fact, the nameless, and faceless, Soldier is from the off a character completely incorporated into the state and aligned with unquestioningly executing the business of war. He's no outsider at all, living as he does in "a small, secluded estate, just outside

of Washington D.C.". (That word "small" hardly modifies the scent of tradition and power which the statement and the drawing evoking a rustic but privileged living evokes at 151:4:3.) He's pleased to receive his orders, he's happy to be involved in a "grand-stand play" (151:4:5), and he's absolutely comfortable being waited upon by an incredibly polite and subservient Black American sergeant (151:3-4). And when the Pentagon is shown, whereto he's gone to receive his orders, it's presented with none of the iconography of state corruption, of military incompetence, of illicit power and even occult malignancy which it is so often portrayed in the light of in today's media. (151:4:4) Instead, this is the Pentagon of unquestioning patriotic myth, the seat of incomparable military wisdom and moral incorruptibility, and that sense of a world in which everything is in its rightful moral place is in its turn reinforced with the shot of the Capitol Dome in the next panel. (151:4:5)

And it's at that point that I realised, shamefully and belatedly, that I'd read all of the preceding pages wrongly. The meaning of the story's beginning wasn't to evoke a sense of a passionate opposition to war, but to emphasis rather the selfless sacrifice of those engaged upon their ennobling and necessary patriotic duties. It's a reading that I'd've picked up earlier if I'd not been so entranced by the typically gorgeous Kubert art, the panel-to-panel continuity of which carries the eye from frame to frame as if words are a fifth wheel and an extra-seat of brakes on a racing car with a Grand Prix circuit before it. Yet those narrative captions that I'd partially skipped carried an unquestioning respect for the typical "rag-taggle soldiers" (151:1:1) persevering through battles "that scarred (them) body and soul" (151:1:2) in their struggles to "fight for freedom at home" (151:1:4), and those images of war's horror which were in my mind so inescapably associated with a culture of resistance to state military power were instead being pressed into service with all the force of their original and patriotic meanings. In that sense, Mr Kubert's battlefields were not intended as representations of horrors alone. Instead, and this is in many ways quite alien to much of the modern mindset, they were in part a reflection of that of which Lincoln spoke in the Gettysburg Address;

"We are met on a great battle field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate - we can not consecrate - we can not hallow - this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract."

And so it dawned on me that this Unknown Solider was to be no more an anti-hero standing with the abused and exploited individual against the uncaring military might of the USA in these stories than he was to don a long-underweared costume and join the Justice Society Of America. Instead, the Unknown Soldier is there to bolster those who can't find a way to serve their state against the apparently overwhelming might of democracies enemies, to inspire those who've faith in their Nation if not themselves, and to serve the mythical America of "The City That Is Set On The Hill That Cannot Be Hidden." And that's a narrative purpose for the strip that's emphasised with the Unknown Soldier's first internal monologue:

"I've answered their call -- just as my forefathers have -- for generations! Even as far back as the revolutionary war! Every man in our family knew the responsibility he had to assume ... if conditions demanded ... and he was called!" (151:5:5-6)


In the terms of the political correctness of today's left, therefore, Mr Kubert might easily be read to be occupying the position of the political reactionary in "They Came From Shangri-La" and his two tales which followed. For beyond the unquestioning acceptance of the necessity of war and service to it, and in addition to the worrying fact that the battlefield military heroes herein are all unquestionably white, the officers competent and inspiring, and the only men of colour in the story either servant-class Black Americans delivering letters or savage Chinese beasts, the fact that the reader is expected to cheer on a bombing raid on Japanese cities executed as much to generate positive propaganda as to achieve specific military ends is somewhat hard

to swallow (151:4:5). "We -- don't kill -- unless -- we have to!", declares the Unknown Soldier to a half-naked and barbarous Chinese guerrilla, who's been defeated in a grand old punch-up by our much less-muscular boy in order to show, as his enemy had challenged him to, "what sort of a man" an American is. (151:12:3). Yet just a few pages before, American bombers had been engaged on what would be by the fact of their lack of numbers a token raid on the Japanese mainland, a Doolittle Raid for the DCU, if you like, and for all that the American public might be cheered by such an enterprise, the question of whether the airman had to undertake the raid hangs over the Unknown Soldier's declaration of American ethics.

America is good, America is strong, and these half-naked foreigners need to be shown America's skill at unarmed wrestling so that American manliness might inspire peace and correct behaviour all across the world.

All of which, from the modern left-liberal perspective, sounds rather repellent, does it not?


Yet there's absolutely no doubt that "They Came From Shangri-La" is a far more complicated text than either knee-jerk left-correct thought or old-school "my-country-right-or-wrong" patriotic bigotry might reveal. In truth, Mr Kubert's work falls into neither camp, as well as into both, which is confusing to anybody who imagines that the values of the past mirrored those of today's popular media-led debates. His Unknown Soldier tales certainly serve as a useful slap across the face to the likes of all of us who've fallen into the unfortunate habit of picking up on fragments of old texts, considering them quite separately from their original context, and then passing facile judgement on whether they're acceptable or not in the light of today's commonsense wisdom.

After all, it's easy to be naively shocked by Mr Kubert's assumption that his audience would be thrilled to watch the Unknown Soldier and his colleagues bomb a Japanese city (151:8:1), just as the pleasure the tale's characters take in the success of their mission (151:11:2) seems inappropriately cruel. And yet to feel in anyway disconcerted by these things is to be engaged in the business of rewriting, or attempting to rewrite, the attitudes of those in the past to conform with today's fleeting takes on what constitutes acceptable behaviour. If nothing else, Mr Kubert's representation of how many American bomber crews regarded their value of their missions, or indeed of the lives of those they were bombing, is absolutely accurate. He is expressing exactly what those folks in that time were most likely to themselves.

A shallow-minded modern analysis of this might involve decrying Mr Kubert as an unreconstructed xenophobe, and jump from that to assume that what we have on show in this story is a glorification of arms if not the man. Yet Mr Kubert's depiction of the realities of war in the story is in places quite distinct from the gung-ho school of action-adventure stories. Only two of the bomber's crew beyond the Unknown Soldier survive their mission, for example, and there's a keen sense shown by one of those that his life had been saved not by his bravery or his mission, but by the skill of the mysterious "Captain Schales". This is, therefore, a traditional war comic without the traditional glorification of the business of being a soldier. The ends of a soldier's business are virtuous, but the process of fulfilling them is hard and fearsome and very likely impossible to live through. Survival itself is often determined by chance and the kind of unthinking bravery that leads to personal extinction, such as is shown occurring when the emaciated Jewish prisoner turns on the SS Captain in "Instant Glory"(153.9.4), or when the Unknown Soldier's brother Harry throws himself onto an exploding grenade and is blown into a thousand and more pieces. (154:5)

This isn't a depiction of war as a glorious enterprise in any way whatsoever. Rather, Mr Kubert's version of World War Two is of an unquestionably necessary war, but the business of fighting it is rarely portrayed as anything other than a grubby and unpleasant reality. And if some acknowledgement of the suffering of the Japanese caught on the ground by the Unknown Soldier's bombing of Nippon would have undoubtedly increased the common humanity on display in the story, the lack of such a nod to modern sensibilities doesn't mean that the text is callous. "They Came From Shangri-La" isn't as inclusive and caring as many a modern tale would be created to be, but stories can't often be classified into either "utterly morally acceptable" or "utterly morally unacceptable". Today, we would expect such a tale to be about humanity undergoing a mutually-degrading and dangerous experience, but in 1970, Mr Kubert was telling his story from the point of view of American fliers engaged in the dangerous business of killing their enemies.

His story doesn't lie about that, but neither is it a machismo-enhancing and thrill-a-minute business for the characters involved.


But a faith in America and the apparent necessity of unflinchingly serving her through the most appalling of circumstances doesn't necessarily sit well with much of what's so commonly believed today. We exist in a time where one ideological wing seems to expect that any engagement in the business of war by the American state should be seen as a patriotic business to be unsullied by scrutiny and oversight, let alone by any kind of negative representation, while the most determined of opponents seem hysterically bent on establishing the "fact" that war itself is never a necessary or productive business. To stand between the two camps and argue that (a) the American state can be right in declaring war, while (b) portraying the business as a vale of barbed wire, cruelty and death is to scramble much of simplistic sandcastle-building and mud-slinging of the present day. Indeed, were these three Unknown Soldier tales of Mr Kubert's to be released into the market for the first time today, it's easy to believe that they'd either cause such cognitive dissonance among their audience that they'd pass by unnoticed, or that they'd be attacked by both right and left, and especially the left, for their presumed "message".

But in truth, the few pages that Mr Kubert wrote and drew to launch the Unknown Soldier's series are neither liberal nor conservative, not reactionary nor radical, or at least, they're not anything of the sort as we read those terms today. His stories say nothing about social policy or social justice, except to state that the soldiers of a nation at war tend not to regret attempts to strike back at their enemies, as is surely a fact of life which will forever be true, and that innocents shouldn't be victims of those in power. There's no wider manifesto to be deduced from the facts here, no easy target to raise the ire of one interest or another. And even if there's a sense that the Unknown Soldier himself comes from the kind of old WASP farming stock which is even now supposedly associated with a monopoly of political power in a great deal of the Union, there's also the fact that his life is utterly dedicated to preserving the typical and often helpless man at arms. There's no snobbery, for example, in Mr Kubert's depiction of the ordinary soldiers in "Instant Glory" (152). They're simply likable if fallible human beings, shown, for example, as being glad to rest during a patrol to down a few "liberated" pints, and they're portrayed as being

understandably if unheroically terrified when faced by the SS. (152:2-3) And if it feels somewhat politically uncomfortable to note that the welfare of so many should rely upon the son of one of old families who's good enough to be looking out for them, as if this is a text which is patronisingly conservative, there's no sense that their lives are less important than his. Quite the contrary, in fact, for the Unknown Soldier is shown as having a mission not to establish the hegemony, the worthiness, of any truer American stock, but rather to stand as "one man in a pivotal position ... (to) exert an influence on hundreds -- even thousands -- of others." (152.4.6) His purpose, in Mr Kubert's take on the character, seems to be to lend a hand at whatever cost to himself wherever the unavoidable miseries of the battlefield threaten to overwhelm the men trapped within them. It's a complicated mix of messages, in that it portrays the typical American as worthy of support and capable of great things, but only if they get the appropriate leadership. Still, it's not disdainful of the common man, and the origin tale of "I'll Never Die"(154) shows that the Soldier himself had to be saved and inspired in his turn by the strength and the self-sacrifice of his brother. The business of being a better soldier is something which arises not from being one type of American or another, not from being born as a somebody who's a member of one "real" USA or another, but from the inspiration of other citizen-soldiers who have no doubt been inspired through other's examples in their turn.

It's a difficult myth to process, that of the elite who serve at their own cost to inspire others, whether they're composed of the most able or the kindest or the oldest folks in the land, and it's a myth which often masks a series of social groups claiming to act in the nation's interest while avidly pursuing little but their own. But for all that, it can be an affecting and moving myth too, and regardless of it's political value, the desire to create a character who'll stand by others when they most desperately need help is not to be high-handedly sniffed at. And if democracy is going to function and even prosper, then it will inevitably rely upon folks standing up and showing a willingness to take a lead and make sacrifices. If the Unknown Soldier might have chimed with modern sensibilities rather more if it had starred a Black American lead, for example, or had the Soldier been backed up by a squad of competent outsiders from a rainbow nation of the American dispossessed, as would surely have been true, it's still in itself at worst only somewhat patronising, and, at best, it's often an inspiring story of men trying to do their unselfish best under impossible circumstances.


Yet if there's one factor in Mr Kubert's take on the Unknown Soldier which undermines the writer's democratic and compassionate intentions, it's the fact that the Soldier is himself something of a superhero. An unlikely mixture of "The Scarlet Pimpernel", "Justice Inc" and "Dial "H" For Hero", there's no-one that the Soldier can't become, no skill that he can't immediately master, and every time he looks completely different to his appearance in his previous adventures. In fact, so apparently superheroic is he that Mr Kubert describes him in terms which could be applied to the likes of the World War Two-era Captain America;

"His knowledge of military history and strategy is absolutely uncanny! There's no five G.I.'s who can take that cookie in hand-to-hand combat! He's tough!" (151:9:6:1)

He can crash-land B-25's with "not a bent bone in the crew" occurring (151:9:5). He can outfight seven foot tall Chinese warriors. (151:12-13) He has some kind of American mystic instinct which means that he'll find the one place where his presence can win the day (152.5.5). By his own willingness to ignore the pain and social consequences of his total facial disfigurement, he has become a man more competent and, yes, more lucky than any other. "I don't know who that GI is ... But -- I'd follow him through the gates of Hades!" declares a G.I. on the cover of Star Spangled War Stories number 152, and the problem is that in every issue the American soldier seems to need a great deal of inspiring, among some other fundamental qualities of soldiering such as basic survival skills and battlefield judgment. Indeed, Mr Kubert's G.I. as a species seems to lack so much specialised knowledge and even a measure of gumption, which means that the noble suffering so emphasised in the introduction to Mr Kubert's first story seems to have been caused at least in part by each individual soldier's own incompetence. If only they were all as dedicated and able as the Unknown Soldier, the stories seem to say, if only they were to a man so devoted to the cause that they too would abandon their own identities and the offer of "the Congressional Medal Of Honour" (154:8:4) in order to serve their fellow soldiers, why, no-one would be suffering at all. As the Soldier himself pronounces when describing his own mission and the sacrifices that he knows he must make;

"(My) own identity must be erased! (I) must have no past -- and (my) future will be in a state of constant, imminent danger!" (154:9:2)

By giving up the very fact of his own identity, and by dedicating the raw materials of his own existence entirely to the American war-effort, the Unknown Soldier becomes capable of any task he's assigned to achieve. But it's the strangest thing, to be arguing that the American way of life, based in so many ways on the very idea of individuality, should be best served by abandoning all vestiges of that very quality, and it leaves all the soldiers who haven't done so seeming inadequate, appearing too selfish to make the commitment that would save America, and themselves while doing so.

Politically, it is something of a worrying message, though it's not one which many of our dominant public if not intellectual discourses today would easily identify. For on the one level, Mr Kubert's tales seem to speak of patronage, of the great man who from his enlightenment helps the common mass to achieve their selfishly-obscured potential. But there's also something profoundly disturbing and of the political extremes about it all, a sense of the Communist as well as the Fascist ideal, of the Stakhanovich model of the man who lives only to serve the state and defines his value by the degree to which he achieves that, and of the myth of the "martyr" Horst Wessel, who Goebells declared had existed as a necessary extension of the will of the Volk and was a noble martyr of the same.

And though there seems no doubt that Mr Kubert saw the Unknown Soldier as a comforting figure who would stride out of the shadows to protect the everyday American at those moments of war when they couldn't protect themselves, the very fact of his superheroic competency and willingness to sacrifice combined with, the inability of those he rescues to protect themselves seems to a greater or lesser degree to under-value the contributions of the typical soldier who never could be superheroic, and who yet, together with their colleagues from so many backgrounds and indeed nations, did in the end succeed in bringing the Second World War to a close.

For though on the one hand this Unknown Soldier is a sentimentally pleasing idea, he was never needed in the "real world", and his presence as written seems rather insulting to the soldiers of the imaginary one he's been created to inhabit, just as he at the very same time seems to be powerfully touching symbol of the soldier's desire for a friend and comrade at the very moment when all will be lost without such.

And yet one reading doesn't trump the other. The view of the Unknown Soldier as an insult to the common man can't of itself eliminate the value of the sweet and uncommon empathy for the ordinary human being caught up in the wars between nations that is constantly expressed within Mr Kubert's pages. Right doesn't stand above left, the reactionary reading doesn't eliminate the radical one. The pair of them sit there in the same text, and the truth is that both of them are true, and neither of them on their own tells the complete truth of what Mr Kubert's stories seem to be saying.


In the end, Joe Kubert's Unknown Soldier is an incredibly confused example of the politics of war comics. He's a character who in Mr Kubert's few stories seems reactionary, but who is also quietly if conservatively liberal in many ways too. His adventures are unquestioning of the state's virtue and competence, but never less than absolutely compassionate when it comes to the lot of the common American man-at-arms amidst the horrors of war which governments by apparent necessity consign their citizens to. If the attitude to those who aren't American is at times less sympathetic, there's nothing here that strays anywhere near xenophobia; a touch more empathy where Japanese citizens if not soldiers, and Chinese guerrillas, are concerned would seal off that moral leakage entirely.

Indeed, in the end, the main problem with the text's politics is simply that Mr Kubert's Unknown Soldier is so incredibly able where his colleagues are merely human, a fact which somewhat diminishes their own efforts and achievements. By wanting to portray a character who'd fight beside the ordinary man in the most terrible of circumstances, Mr Kubert presented, in the train of Robert Kanigher's first story of the character, a superhero of sorts without which the typical American soldier would be lost. It was a problem that would quickly threaten to swamp the strip as other writers and artists took the reigns from Mr Kubert, but in itself it shouldn't detract from the fact that this was a comic book war hero designed to stand beside his fellows at the darkest of times, an example of wish-fulfilment which in itself is far more justifiable and touching, and considerably less dubious, than much of the wish-fulfilment offered up elsewhere wherever the likes of the fully-costumed superhero appeared.

But what Mr Kubert's "Unknown Soldier" certainly isn't is politically correct, or, indeed, politically incorrect either. Those assumptions, I'm very much afraid, are the illusions of a present day far more obsessed with confirming untestable and yet comforting moral hypothesis than in recognising the individual character of the objects before their gaze, and the corrupting influence of these ideologies extends far beyond those who consider themselves to be part of some moral elect. The "Unknown Soldier", for all that it's a long-discontinued character from the 1970s, is worth a greater measure of attention than any of those sweeping judgements that the cultural partisans might produce, as, of course, is the estimable work of Mr Kubert, wherever it may be encountered.


Friday, 24 September 2010

Death Is Everywhere & Then It Isn't: Some Thoughts On "Showcase Presents: The War That Time Forgot"


Death is everywhere in the first seven of Robert Kanigher's scripts for "The War That Time Forgot", and it's not the kind of death that you'd expect from a series which DC Comics began publishing just six years after the company had signed up to the dictates of the Comics Code Authority. For despite the fact that these thin stories of hapless GI's facing down very large dinosaurs indeed are in so many ways as nonsensical and absurd as any massed-ranks superhero tale from 2010, Mr Kanigher was obviously quite disinterested in providing his youthful readers with sanitised and war-glorifying pablum. Instead, these tales present a quite brutal and unforgiving world where virtue and innocence in no way protects his characters from harm, where men regularly suffer from the fear, and even trauma, that real-world combat inevitably brings, and where survival is as much a matter of luck as it ever is the result of competence and bravery. And if Mr Kanigher never goes anywhere near the idea that war of itself is a bad thing, he's always quick to point out that it's often futile, that its victories are regularly illusionary if not pyrrhic, and he seems exceptionally keen to continually re-reveal the truth that mass-combat brings with it mass casualties.

It's the strangest form of realism that I've ever seen in a comic book, because on the surface of these stories, we're presented with plastic-looking dinosaurs, standard-issue comic-book war narratives, and the least fidelity to any believable depiction of combat that might be imagined. In the very first of these tales, for example, a great dinosaur emerges head and claws above a crevice and a GI immediately declares that "The earthquake must have opened the underground tomb these monsters were in for millions of years -- maybe in a state of suspended animation -- brought them back to life." (90:5:5), an utterly unimaginable example of battle-field speculation for a grunt on a WWII field mission. But this is, of course, a child's story, and in children's stories adults can spontaneously spout pseudo-scientific clap-trap at the opening of a dinosaur's jaws without the fact generating any grounds for complaint. And if the historical details are also woefully askew, with tanks being anachronistically parachuted out of planes with a brief and almost-guilty accompanying word balloon declaring that "A tank's not standard equipment for a job! But -- This isn't a standard kind of job!" (90:2:6) , well, Mr Kanigher obviously knew this was all quite silly, and yet he couldn't help himself. It's a kid's comic book, it's simply entertainment, and, given all those daft rubbery dinosaurs running around, why worry about a parachuting tank or two?

And yet, under this knowingly ludicrous surface, the same basic rules that characterise real conflict can often be sensed, if not always seen, to be at work. In "The Sub-Cruiser" (SSWS 97), for example, the GI protagonists survive a host of prehistoric challenges before every single one of them except for their unnamed Skipper are wiped out by a torpedo dropped on them by a great flying dinosaur. "It's spotted us! River's too narrow for evasive action! Full speed ahead!" (97:14:3) orders the Skipper, and the reader can't help but shrug and assume that the situation is being made as desperate as possible before one last brave and fortunate manouvre sees the crew safely escaped out to sea. And surely that'll happen, for why else would the reader have been put through successive assaults upon the everyman heroes by a great sea-monster, a Tyrannosaurus Rex-type creature, a close cousin of King Kong, and two 50 foot-long river serpents?

But, no, the Skipper's cry to "Abandon ship!" (97:14:40) comes too late, and he himself of all his men only survives by clinging to "no 1 torpedo" and being swept out onto the ocean. Obviously, being a good person in these stories will not of itself secure survival, being brave will not guarantee victory, and death itself is an unavoidable fact of the business of going to war, rather than an excuse for sentimentality and glorification. And so, underpinning the fripperies of the surface of the first few episodes of "The War That Time Forgot", is a far more cruel and potentially disturbing world-view at work, one which was typically absent from a great deal of the era's depictions of war in any medium, and which in turn would sadly swiftly disappear from this strip before the following year was out.


It was the appearance of "Hank Howard -- The toughest trooper we ever knew" (95:2:5-7) in the third tale in this collection that first made me wonder whether everything I was reading was quite as conventional as it appeared. For Howard in "Guinea Pig Patrol" has been missing for thirty-three days and whatever he's experienced has driven him completely and catatonically mad. Yet he's not presented as a man, or a soldier, who's shown weakness or a lack of courage in the face of adversity. In fact, though he's clearly exhausted and driven past the limits of his own endurance, there's nothing of the excesses of hand-waving and doom-ladened prophecies which might be expected from the only broken survivor of a catastrophically-unsuccesful mission. Indeed, Holland's colleagues are remarkably respectful of him, and his state brings neither the pity or excesses of sympathy which a modern version of this tale might bring. He's ill, yes, and they've clothed him in a blanket for some warmth, and the stares of his colleagues reflect no negative judgement of him at all. In fact, those gazes seem far more concerned with their own fears, for they're obviously shaken and wondering whether they can survive that which has taken the brave Holland's sanity from him.

Courage and mental disorder are not in any way portrayed as being incompatible qualities here. In fact, it's strongly implied that it's Holland's bravery that has carried him through, and it's that mixture of compassion and respect for the victims of war in these stories that sits so very oddly in what is, after all, nothing more than a story of men with guns taking on large lizards with claws and pointy teeth.

It's an attitude to the unavoidable mental consequences of combat and soldiering in general which runs right through these early tales. Soldiers are constantly being shown in terror, quietly suffering through their fear with sweet-beaded brows and miserable expressions. Just two pages after Howard's first appearance, for example, his fellows headed in the direction of whatever ruined him are shown lonely and fear-sickened as they fly outwards, the caption reading; "Silence is so thick -- You

can cut it with it with a knife .. " (95:4:1) And it's not just the anticipation of conflict which so upsets these clearly-laudable men. In "The Frogman And The Dinosaur" (SSWS 94), an experienced aquanaut finds himself unable to summon up an answer to the question "Was it rough out there?" (94:3:2), instead looking down and away from the stares of his colleagues with a look ".. that reduced (them) to tadpole size ... " (94:3:3). And what's so atypical about this is that the reader is clearly expected to empathise with and show respect to these brave men despite their nervousness, fear, exhaustion and, in Holland's case, mental disorder. It marks a complete absence of machismo in the text, a significant lack of any depiction of war as fun and playful, which, to the modern reader relatively ignorant of the DC War books of the period, is both shocking and cheering. After all, this was a book about killer dinosaurs popping up during America's island-hopping campaign of World War II. What's there to be anything other than gleeful about?

And it's that respect for the characters he's describing here which identifies Mr Kanigher as such a remarkable writer, a fact which I fully accept I knew before, but which I didn't entirely grasp to the degree that I should have. Because here we have a host of quite frankly silly stories, but they're grounded in a form of psychology and a recognition of the capriciousness of fate which makes them as moving as they are absurd. It's a skill that can be seen in the scene of the nervous sub-mariners in "Last Battle Of The Dinosaur Age" (92:3:3, above), where the unease of everyone in the scenes of the crew by Ross Andru is obvious and yet never demeaning.


If fear is something which every character in the first seven tales here bears as well as they can, then death is a similar commonplace, and who lives and who dies is determined by factors quite seperate from individual virtue. Of course, that doesn't mean that the first few chapters of "The War That Time Forgot" are presented as a bloody and nihilistic text. In truth, on a first reading, there's nothing that's too radical to mark those initial tales out from the later ones, or at least, there isn't until the reader notices that hardly anyone at all gets killed after issue 98, or that all that fear has been replaced by wise-crackery, and that the counter-intuitively serious tone's been swamped by a style that swings dangerously close at times to camp.

Not that a parent would have likely skimmed the pages of "Star Spangled War Stories" in '61 and the first half of '62 and seen anything that was explicitly disturbing. Quite the contrary, in fact. The terrible killing of Leo in "Guinea Pig Patrol", for example, is so subtly presented that the careless reader can actually miss that it's actually occurred. I certainly did, until I started to get the slightest hint of what Mr Kanigher was doing. For he's not bowdlerised the business of war here so much as hidden it in plain sight. So, Leo's death scene begins as his shadowed form breaks the surface of the water with him holding a Bazooka above his head (94:8:5, above), and there's no obvious jeopardy and it seems that he'll rejoin his surviving comrades on their raft after an attack by underwater dinosaurs. Then he's shown looking shocked and passing his weapon to "Marve" on the life-raft, declaring "Grab the Bazooka -- quick!". (94:9:1) And then we're shown two confused and fearful young faces under a caption declaring "He didn't answer -- He just disappeared -- " (94:9:2) And it's actually quite easy to miss the fact that Leo's been taken beneath the water and slaughtered, and that Leo knew he was going to die and die horribly, that he felt those great teeth fastened onto his legs or around his middle, and that all he could do was hold on just a few seconds longer in order to help his mates.

It's not that death is absent in this story, it's just that our eyes and our attention is always turned away, hurried onwards and elsewhere, before the teeth puncture flesh, the water floods the lungs, the body gets torn into two. But all those things happen, and it grounds the daft stories in a quietly shocking sense of horror.

Now, a great measure of this restraint where the depiction of death and suffering was concerned was undoubtedly down to the influence of the Comics Code Authority, which, as its administrator Leonard Darvin said in 1966, refused to " ... allow a close-up of a person who's obviously dead, like with the mouth open, the eyes staring. We think that's horrendous." (*1) But where most comics from 1955 onwards simply stopped showing characters in situations where death occurred at all, Mr Kanigher was in "The War That Time Forgot" showing death occurring on a considerable scale and with no moral principles informing it. That's something quite different from providing children with stories that are saturated with all of the paraphernalia of war, and all the thrilling playground-esque gun battles associated with it by kids, without any of the real-life consequences being on display at all. And if Mr Kanigher was hardly trying to present a pacifist treatise on the matter of what war does to human beings, he wasn't either producing a mindless celebration of the business of being a real man with a gun and an invulnerability to anything beyond the most cosmetic of duelling scratches.

Or, at least, he wasn't for these first few months of the strip until the summer of 1962, when a far more innocent version of "The War That Time Forgot" was presented to the market, and prospered for another six years.

*1:- Quoted on page 127 of Bill Schelly's splendid "Man Of Rock:A Biography Of Joe Kubert", which I expected little of and which has yet proven unexpectedly to be a marvellously informative as well as a thoroughly enjoyable read. It's a lovely unpretentious social history as much as narrative of life in the comics industry from 1940 onwards, and I really think you'd likely enjoy it.


Good people die all the time without warning in "The War That Time Forgot". The entire submarine crew that the reader has spent six pages with in "Last Battle Of The Dinosaur Age" is taken to their sea-floor deaths by a giant sea serpent, and that despite the fact that they've seemingly rescued the tales protagonists and are taking them in the direction of the safety of home. In fact, submarines in these stories are places to avoid if Dinosaur Island is anywhere in the vicinity. The submarine in "Mission X" is carried far into the sky by a giant Pterodactyl and then blasted loose by friendly fire, resulting not in the expected rescue but in a tragic destruction; ".. the sub wasn't meant to fly .. It plummeted through the air like a great rocket ... until it splashed into the sea with explosive force ... " (96:8:3-4)

It's as if the stories have been designed not to show how goodness or decency or fighting well will protect the soldier in wartime, but to illustrate the role of chance. For there's little if anything at all that differentiates the survivors from the victims, and so the stories focus on those who make it to the last panel on the last page simply because they're the characters who survive. In "The Sub-Crusher", Petey's brother Nick dies simply because he's in another one of those tasty-to-dinosaur'submarines (97:3:4), and not because he's a worse man than Nick or because Nick has a lesson or two to learn. And the nameless tank driver in "The Island Of Thunder" (98:7:all panels) is killed by a rampaging Triceratops without having done anything more compromising than being in the wrong place in the wrong time, because life in wartime is just like that.

And if luck plays the major part where survival on what will come to be known as Dinosaur Island is concerned, then we're shown that it's best complimented not by a devil-may-care attitude, or even bravado, but by competence. These aren't stories where bravery per se saves the day. In fact, it's made obvious from the very first appearance of a dinosaur in SSWT (90:3:4) that courage on its own will carry very little weight in a punch-up with any of these five-storey beasts. The inexperienced and at-first inept divers Zack and Phil in "The Frogmen And The Dinosaur" (SSWS 94) make it through to the end of their story because they learn to listen to their Lieutenant, who inspires them through a mixture of good practise and some old fashioned workplace bullying. As a consequence, they manage to avoid any repeat of the kind of daydreaming while being attacked by gigantic monsters which has previously threatened to be quite literally the end of them. It'd be an unfashionably prosaic stance to take in our far more infantilised culture, to suggest that survival is a question not of character but education, but it's a principle that's hard to take issue with. For though expertise doesn't save more a few of Marve's parachute brigade in "Guinea Pig Patrol" (SSWS 95), to take another example, it does allow the few survivors to fight together and hold whatever ground they've got until rescue arrives.


There's a noticeable change of emphasis in both the tone and content of Mr Kanigher's scripts for "The War That Time Forgot" beginning with the eighth tale in "Star Spangled War Stories" # 98, and that change is maintained and intensified over the coming months, leaving us with little choice but to conclude that it was deliberate. Perhaps the book wasn't selling as it might, or perhaps it was thought to be far too bleak in tone. (Indeed, the two matters might well have been correlated.) But whatever the explanation, the stories became far more conventional and far less satisfying from that point onwards. In "Dinosaur Sub-Catcher" (SSWS 112), for example, the workings of fate have been so modified that a submarine being chewed up by a monster high above the Antarctic ice is not only shocked free, but by chance hits the freezing ground at a friendly angle and skids right back into the safety of the water. (112:13:5/14:1-4) This is surely the world turned upside-down. And the next issue sees a crippled US bomber landing conveniently on the outstretched " ... wing of a flying dinosaur!" (113:6:1) which handily stays extended and flat until all involved can parachute to safety. It's a very different kind

of story which is told from then onwards, and death becomes so rare that the likes of Manny's rather unconvincing sacrifice in "The Killer Of Dinosaur Alley" (SSWS:121) stands out as a considerable, and a sadly cloyingly sentimental, exception rather than the rule that marked the first run of stories. For whereas the previously recidivistic Manny is portrayed dying and being buried with all the full woeful paraphernalia of weeping, sorrow, sacrifice and an all-flags-flying redemptive funeral, the deaths of whole submarine crews were previously portrayed as being simply part of the ugly and to-be-expected consequence of the business of being under arms while flying under flags.

And so the final panel of "The Sub-Crusher", which shows a huge force of both fighter-bombers and what look like high-flying B-52's carpet-bombing "Lava Island" and causing "an inferno" to "engulf the area", (97:17:2) seems with hindsight to definitively mark the end of that first take of Mr Kanigher's on "The War That Time Forgot". "That finishes them, Nick." declares the sole survivor of all of those who began the tale, sure that the monsters have been flash-fried out of existence, contiuning; "Now we can go on and win the war." And at that, the sense of the book changes, and by "The Circus Of Monsters" (SSWS 99), dinosaurs are being outfought by three carnival trapeze artists while submarines emerge mysteriously undamaged from apparently fatal confrontations with great killing monsters. This children's book with a most unchildish sub-text had become no more and no less than most of the other comiMs on the newstands, and the brief flourish of fusing those silly monsters with that brutal and respectful approach to the business of combat was gone. In the end, Mr Kanigher was producing the likes of SSWS 120, where the fearsomely-named "Suicide Squad" teamed up with "Caveboy" and "Dino, the Flying Baby Dinosaur", at which point my desire to read on and try to make more sense of it all simply evaporated, and only the pedants desire to check his own preconceptions moved me to turn another page.


There will undoubtedly come a time when someone in a scholarly article somewhere will decide that these tales of "The War That Time Forgot" reflect to some degree American thinking about the wider world from the turn of the Sixties onwards. And the usual ill-argued business about how titles can't survive in the marketplace without reflecting the prejudices of its consumers will be presented as a defence for a thesis that argues thaT, to naive and fearful Americans, the whole world beyond the borders of the USA occupied in the 1960's a space labelled "Here be monsters". And if that argument should indeed ever be presented with reference to these tales by Mr Kanigher, a further and apparently more sophisticated twist might be added by noting how the more innocent and optimistic tales of Dinosaur Island and its world-travelling and rather-mighty inhabitants came to be printed as the Kennedy campaign limped past Nixon and into power. The darkness of the Fifties, perhaps, was at first reflected and then eclipsed by the rise of Camelot-on-the-Potomac, and killer sea-beasts replaced by friendly flying baby dinosaurs.

But, of course, any such tosh would all be nothing but tosh and hindsight, just as the apparent foreshadowing of Vietnam which could be perceived in the scene of the firebombing of Lava Island is nothing but hindsight and tosh itself. (98:13:2) "The War That Time Forgot" as a historical source tells us less than some cultural commentators might like to have us believe about the value of artefacts from the popular entertainment of the past, beyond the inarguable fact of how Robert Kanigher and his collaborators kept shaping and re-shaping a product in the hope of selling more comic books. There's some gold to be prospected from those pages where social facts are concerned, but not so much that these issues of "Star Spangled War Stories" on their own will ever justify a healthy research grant. But within the context of what might actually be known rather than airily deduced, I do wish that it were possible to stumble upon some editorial notes somehow removed around April of 1962 from the legandary office Mr Kanigher shared with Julius Schwartz and which, hidden from sight until now, might explain why those first stories in this run were so much bleaker, and atypical, and, from the perpective of today, so very much more interesting than what followed. Because those intitial few tales were a very different kind of story indeed, bleak, with a trace of the almost ammoral, and strangely affecting. They're well worth the reading, for all of their pre-pop art clumsiness, and there's a host of clues there-in for many of today's comic book creators about how to make absurd plot confections carry far more weight than their riduculous componenets might ever seem capable of bearing.

But Caveboy and Dino the flying baby dinosaur? I'll leave the matter of their significance to more qualified commentators.

Well, that's what you get when you set yourself the task of writing something about a war comic from 1961 that you've barely raced through before. What a remarkable and obviously brilliant writer that Robert Kanigher was! I hope I might see you again for the next piece here on TooBusyThinkingAboutMyComics, though as things stand, I've not the faintest what it'll be. I wish you, as always, the most splendid of days, and again recommend to you Mr Schelly's book on Joe Kubert, the cover to which I've scanned into place below. It starts off slowly, you may well for a few pages think you're reading the slowest of Jewish family histories, all fine and necessary-in-itself, and then, without you noticing, it reveals itself to be a time machine to the very earliest days of comic books, and a great many fascinating points beyond.