By Robert Kanigher, Russ Heath, Irv Novick, Jerry Grandenetti, Joe Kubert, Jack Abel & various (DC Comics)
Robert Kanigher (1915-2002) was one of the most distinctive authorial voices in American comics, blending rugged realism with fantastic fantasy in his signature war comics, horror stories and superhero titles such as Wonder Woman, Teen Titans, Hawkman, Metal Men, Flash, Batman and others genres too numerous to mention here.
He also scripted ‘Mystery of the Human Thunderbolt’ – the first story of the Silver Age introducing Barry Allen as the new Flash to the hero-hungry kids of the world in 1956.
Kanigher sold his first stories and poetry in 1932, wrote for the theatre, film and radio, and joined the Fox Features shop where he created The Bouncer, Steel Sterling and The Web, whilst providing scripts for Blue Beetle and the original Captain Marvel.
In 1945 he settled at All-American Comics as both writer and editor, staying on when the company amalgamated with National Comics to become the forerunner of today’s DC. Whilst writing Flash and Hawkman, he created Black Canary and, decades later, debuted another memorable female lead in Lady Cop, as well as many memorable villainesses such as Harlequin and Rose and the Thorn.
This last torrid noir temptress he redesigned during the relevancy era of the early 1970s into a schizophrenic crime-busting super-heroine who haunted the back of Superman’s Girlfriend Lois Lane, which Kanigher also scripted.
When mystery-men faded out at the end of the 1940s, the ever-resourceful writer/editor shifted over to westerns and war stories, becoming in 1952 writer/editor of the company’s combat titles: All-American War Stories, Star Spangled War Stories and Our Army at War.
He created Our Fighting Forces in 1954 and added G.I. Combat to his burgeoning battle-portfolio when Quality Comics sold their line of titles to DC in 1956, all the while providing scripts for Wonder Woman, Johnny Thunder, Rex the Wonder Dog, Silent Knight, Sea Devils, Viking Prince and a host of others.
Kanigher was a restlessly creative writer and frequently used his uncanny but formulaic adventure arenas as a testing ground for future series concepts. Among the many epochal war features he created were Sgt. Rock, Enemy Ace, The War that Time Forgot and The Losers as well as the irresistibly compelling “combat ghost stories” collected in this stunning and economical monochrome war-journal.
This terrific first monochrome tome re-presents the early blockbusting exploits of boyhood friends Jeb Stuart Smith, Arch Asher, Slim Stryker and Rick Rawlins as depicted in G.I. Combat #87-119 (April/May 1961- August/September 1966) and also includes guest-star missions from The Brave and the Bold #52 (February/March 1964) and Our Army at War #155 (June 1965).
The eerie action begins with ‘Introducing – the Haunted Tank’, illustrated by the sublime Russ Heath. In this introductory tale the now-adult pals are all assigned to the same M-3 Stuart Light Tank, named for the legendary Confederate Army General who was a strategic wizard of cavalry combat. During a patrol the underdog neophytes somehow destroy an enemy Panzer even though they are all knocked unconscious in the process…
Narrated by Jeb as he mans the Commander’s spotter-position (head and torso sticking out of the top hatch and completely exposed to enemy fire whilst driver Slim, gunner Rick and loader Arch remain inside) the tanker recounts how a ghostly voice seems to offer advice and prescient, if veiled, warnings. These statements and their midget war machine soon draw the jibes of fellow soldiers who drive bigger, tougher war machines…
Eventually the little tank proves its worth and Jeb wonders if he imagined it all due to shock and his injuries, but in #88 ‘Haunted Tank vs. the Ghost Tank’, Jeb is actually seeing and conversing with his phantom namesake as he and the boys solve the utterly rational mystery of an enemy battle-wagon which seems to disappear at will.
‘Tank with Wings’ in G.I. Combat #89 was illustrated by Irv Novick and describes how old General Stuart’s impossible prophecy comes chillingly true after the M-3 shoots down a fighter plane whilst hanging from a parachute, after which Heath returned to limn a brutal and staggering clash against German ‘Tank Raiders’ who steal the Americans’ haunted home on treads.
Throughout the early days Jeb’s comrades continually argued about what to do with him. Nobody believed in the ghost and they all doubted his sanity, but ever since he began to see the spirit soldier Stuart Smith had somehow become a tactical genius. His “gifts” were keeping them all alive against incredible, impossible odds.
In #91’s ‘The Tank and the Turtle’ a chance encounter with a plucky terrapin leads to brutal clashes with strafing aircraft, hidden anti-tank guns and a booby-trapped village whilst ‘The Tank of Doom’ (illustrated by Jerry Grandenetti) sees the snowbound tank-jockeys witnessing true heroism and learning that flesh, not steel, wins wars…
In #93 Heath depicted a ‘No-Return Mission’ which depleted American tank forces until the Ghostly General took a spectral hand to guide his mortal protégé through a veritable barrage of traps and ambushes, after which ‘The Haunted Tank vs. the Killer Tank’ seeks to widen the General’s role as the phantom protector agonises over intel he is forbidden to share with his Earthly namesake during a combined Allied push to locate a Nazi terror-weapon.
This time it’s the young sergeant who has to provide his own answers…
The rest of the crew are near breaking point and ready to hand Jeb over to the medics in #95’s ‘The Ghost of the Haunted Tank’, but when Slim assumes command he too begins to see and hear the General amidst the blistering heat of battle…
In ‘The Lonesome Tank’ Jeb is back in the hot-seat and scoffing at other tank commanders’ reliance on lucky talismans, until the General seemingly abandons him and he is pushed to the brink of desperation, after which G.I. Combat #97’s ‘The Decoy Tank’ proves that a brave man makes his own luck after a Nazi infiltrator takes the entire crew hostage.
‘Trap of Dragon’s Teeth’ allows the Ghostly Guardian to teach Jeb a useful lesson in trusting one’s own senses over weapons and machinery in combat, and issue #99 greets the legendary Joe Kubert who opens a stint on the series in the book-length thriller ‘Battle of the Thirsty Tanks’, with the Stuart labouring under desert conditions which reduce both German and American forces to thirsty wrecks as they struggled to capture a tantalising oasis.
The crew reveal that their fathers had all been tank jockeys in WWI who had disappeared in action when ‘Return of the Ghost Tank’ in #100 finds the lads back in Europe. Shock follows shock as they realise their sires had all been part of the same crew and credibility is further stretched when the M-3 begins to retrace and re-enact the last mission of their missing fathers…
Any doubts about whether the General is real or imagined are finally laid to rest in #101’s ‘The Haunted Tank vs. Attila’s Battle Tiger’ (illustrated by Jack Abel), as the evil spirit of the barbarian becomes patron to a German Panzer and opens a campaign to destroy both the living and dead Jeb Stuarts, after which Kubert returned for ‘Battle Window’; a moving tale of old soldiers wherein a broken-down nonagenarian French warrior is given one final chance to serve his country as the American tank blithely trundles into a perfect ambush…
A particularly arcane prognostication in #103 drives Jeb crazy until ‘Rabbit Punch for a Tiger’ shows him how improvisation can work like magic in a host of hostile situations, whilst ‘Blind Man’s Radar’ helps the crew complete a dead man’s mission after picking up the sightless sole survivor of an Allied attack…
In the mid-1960s before the Batman TV show led to rampant “Bat-mania”, The Brave and the Bold was a comicbook featuring team-ups of assorted DC stars.
Issue #52 (February/March 1964) grouped Tankman Stuart with Sgt. Rock and Lt. Cloud as the 3 Battle Stars in ‘Suicide Mission! Save Him or Kill Him!’ (Kanigher & Kubert). In this superb thriller the armoured cavalry, infantry and Air Force heroes join forces to escort and safeguard a vital Allied agent who had been sealed into a cruel and all-encompassing iron suit.
Fast-paced, action-packed and utterly outrageous, the perilous chase across occupied France produced one of the best battle blockbusters of the era.
Back in G.I. Combat #105 the ‘Time-Bomb Tank!’ starts seconds after the B&B yarn as the Haunted Tank receives intel that Sgt. Rock’s Easy Company are under attack. As they dash to the rescue, however, circumstances soon cause the M-3 to become a mobile Marie Celeste…
The ‘Two-Sided War’ finds Jeb promoted to Lieutenant and suffering apparent hallucinations where he and his crew are trapped in the Civil War, after which #107’s ‘The Ghost Pipers!’ details how the tankers aid the last survivor of a Scottish battalion in an attack that actually spans two wars, before the armoured cavalrymen again team up with Rock in ‘The Wounded Won’t Wait’. As Rick, Arch and Slim are injured, the Easy Co. topkick rides shotgun on the brutal return trip back to base…
Issue #109’s ‘Battle of the Tank Graveyard’ downplays the supernatural overtones in a more straightforward clash deep within a deadly mountain pass whilst ‘Choose Your War’ has the Confederate General chafing at his role assisting “Union” cavalry… until circumstances again seem to place the modern soldiers in a historical setting and the two Jeb Stuarts work out their differences.
For #111’s ‘Death Trap’ the uncanny crew again work with Easy Company – in the desert this time since continuity was never a big concern for Kanigher – but when the M-3 is captured by the enemy, Jeb and the boys endure a bloody taste of infantry fighting before taking it back.
‘No Stripes for Me’ is actually a Sgt. Rock adventure from Our Army at War #155 (June 1965) with the Haunted Tank in close support as a battle-hungry General’s son continually refuses the commendations and promotions his valiant actions deserve, no matter what the cost to men or morale around him…
Rock and Jeb stayed together for G.I. Combat #112’s struggle against the Luftwaffe ‘Ghost Ace!’ who is Attila the Hun’s latest mortal avatar: a blistering supernatural shocker that once more forces the Phantom General to take a spectral hand in the battle against evil, after which ‘Tank Fight in Death Town!’ sees the war following the M-3 crew back into a much-needed leave.
Luckily Rock and Easy Co. are around to provide vigorous fire-support…
After nearly four years in the saddle, scripter Kanigher decided to revamp the backstory of the crew and issue #114 (October/November 1965) featured the Russ Heath illustrated ‘Battle Origin of the Haunted Tank’ with the General revealing that he had been assigned to watch over the M-3’s boys by Alexander the Great.
In the afterlife all great military commanders sponsor mortal combatants but Stuart had refused to pick anybody and was stuck looking after “Damned Yankees”. Happily, the courage and mettle of the boys under fire had changed many of his opinions after watching their first battle in the deserts of North Africa…
Heath also drew the team-up in #115 wherein Jeb is reunited with Navajo fighter-pilot Johnny Cloud as ‘Medal for Mayhem’ pits both spiritually-sponsored warriors against overwhelming odds and forced to trade places in the air and on the ground. (Cloud regularly encountered a cirrus-mounted Indian Brave dubbed Big-Brother-in-the Sky galloping across the heavens during his fighter missions…)
Novick then illustrated a sequel when Cloud and Stuart help proud Greek soldier Leonidas fulfil his final mission in the stirring ‘Battle Cry of a Dead Man!’
‘Tank in the Icebox’ in #117 is another Heath martial masterpiece wherein a baffling mystery is solved and a weapon that turns the desert into a frozen hell is destroyed before Novick assumes the controls for the last two tales in this volume, beginning with ‘My Buddy… My Enemy’ wherein a bigoted Slim learns tragically too late that not all Japanese soldiers are monsters and #119 again asks difficult questions when Jeb and the crew must escort an American deserter to his execution, with German forces attempting to kill them all before they got there in ‘Target for a Firing Squad!’
An added attraction for art fans and battle buffs are the breathtaking covers by Heath, Kubert and Grandenetti, many of them further enhanced through the stunning tonal values added by DC’s brilliant chief of production Jack Adler.
These spectacular tales cover the Haunted Tank through the blazing gung-ho early years to a time when America began to question the very nature and necessity of war (Vietnam was just beginning to really hurt the home front in 1966) and combat comics started addressing the issues in a most impressive and sensitive manner.
The stories here combine spooky chills with combat thrills but always offer a powerful human message that has never dated and may well rank amongst the very best war stories ever produced. This is a series long overdue for a modern archival and digital renaissance.
© 1961-1966, 2006 DC Comics, Inc. All Rights Reserved.