With Only Five Plums


By Terry Eisele & Jonathon Riddle (CreateSpace)
ISBNs: 978-1-48399-114-6 (TPB); 978-1-48399-123-8 (TPB) and 978-1-48399-127-6 (TPB)

As any long-time reader will attest, I’m a huge advocate of doing it yourself when it comes to making comics, and this collection – three books of an epic historical exposé of one of modern humanity’s greatest atrocities thus far – shows just why, as it spectacularly blends harsh fact with high drama to reveal the tragic story and eventual small triumph of Anna Nesporova whose family was targeted in error by the Nazis occupying Czechoslovakia…

Sadly unavailable in digital formats yet, but still readily available in trade paperbacks, the testament is divided into three quietly understated, deeply evocative volumes of ambitiously oversized monochrome memoirs, crafted by historian Terry Eisele & illustrator Jonathon Riddle from Nesporova’s own words, dramatizing the horrific story of the Nazi atrocity at Lidice in Czechoslovakia.

The memories are not merely those of a survivor but come from a woman whose entire family was intimately connected with the cause of the tragedy…

The history opens in With Only Five Plums: The Time Before as an elderly woman is encouraged by an interviewer to talk of times long past but never forgotten. She cautiously relates the idyllic life in the nondescript hamlet of Lidice before specifically concentrating on the expansive Horak family and her life as innocent, ordinary Anna Horakova during increasingly trying times.

Relating instances of village life, childhood experiences and the early days of her marriage, Anna’s story takes a dark turn when describing Christmas customs. In 1941, a cherished family meal tradition presaged disaster for the entire Horak clan…

In June 1938, European leaders trying to appease Hitler allowed Germany to annexe part of Czechoslovakia and, as a consequence, Anna’s brother Josef fled to Britain, joining the growing émigré/refugee population. He dutifully wrote home that he numbered amongst his new friends Edvard Benes and Jan Masaryk: the leaders of the government-in-exile…

The next stage in the tragedy came when Nazi aristocrat Reinhard Heydrich – a sadistic monster eagerly expediting Hitler’s pogrom against the Jews – was assassinated. The Horak family were mistakenly implicated in the plot.

Nazi retaliation was astoundingly disproportionate: the village where they lived – almost universally Christian – was eradicated from the Earth; the male population massacred and the women sent to concentration camps in a display of calculated butchery as bad as anything visited upon the Romani, Jews or any other ethnicity the Nazis deemed “subhuman”.

Heavily pregnant at the time, Anna – along with other expectant mothers – was separated from the rest. As the children were delivered, they were taken away. Those that passed certain tests were removed to be brought up German, whilst the mothers joined their sister villagers in packed cattle-cars at rail marshalling yards. The destination was Ravensbruck Concentration Camp…

The tale resumes in With Only Five Plums Book 2: This Dark Age where, following a brief recap, Anna details the appalling journey, paying especial detail to an elderly Jewish woman’s attempts to cheer up younger girls with the story of Rabbi Loew’s Golem. That fabulous avenger was created to protect the Jews of Prague during a previous wave of persecution…

After many days and hundreds of miles, the train arrives in Fürstenberg from where the survivors are force-marched to the camp. Anna’s record of daily humiliations and the slow, piecemeal destruction of bodies and spirits covers three years, but she considered herself lucky. At least she had a skill the Germans found useful (professional-standard sewing) and wasn’t part of a group considered genetically inferior such as the Roma “gypsies”.

Heartbreaking memories of Romani inmate Florica (and her folktale of the origins of blonde-haired people) poignantly counterpoints a diary of privation and desperation and serves to underline the horrific accounts of the scientist-torturers Ernst-Robert Grawitz and Ludwig Stumpfegger who used women as guinea pigs for their horrendous experiments…

The captivity suddenly ended in spring. The panicked Germans were in retreat: burning files and dismantling buildings. The women were led out of the gates with a few guards and ordered to march. They staggered through Germany and other countries shattered by bombs and, as the days passed, many died. Soon they were not enough soldiers and Anna and some other women slipped away, heading always towards a home that no longer existed.

Avoiding the “liberating” Russian soldiers, the group finally reached Czechoslovakia, battered but once more a free nation. Here Anna met Mrs. Kubrova; wife of her husband’s employer, who took her in and eventually drove her to Lidice… or at least where it had once been…

The chronicle concludes in With Only Five Plums Book 3: Life in the East is Worthless, which describes the aftermath of the war. Throughout all her trials and torments, Anna had been utterly oblivious to the fate of her family and her home. Now she learns that both had been eradicated with devastating efficiency. All that was left was the daughter taken from her at birth and lost seemingly forever somewhere in Germany…

From Kubrova, Anna discovers what the Nazis had done to turn a thriving, bustling village into a barren featureless field and of other survivors – mostly stolen children. These scenes are more harrowing in their understated simplicity than anything else in this grim graphic report…

However, there is a slight moral victory to be seen as aged Anna then relates how Lidice was rebuilt and repopulated (despite the Soviet Union’s absorbing the newly liberated nation into their Warsaw Pact-enforced alliance) before the saga concludes with an emotional Epilogue wherein Anna finally reveals the fate of her stolen daughter…

Slipping back and forth in time, conversationally adding depth and historical background to a remarkably restrained, tightly controlled and shatteringly effective examination of human nature at its worst and best, With Only Five Plums (a Czech expression akin to “with only the clothes on your back”) focuses on one of the most depraved and appalling acts in human history and manages to extract a message of hope and triumphant perseverance from the tragedy.

This triptych is a superb example of pictorial reportage and graphic memoir, with each big (280 x 216mm) book also offering poetry written about the atrocity (The Far-off Village by Mazo de la Roche, Lidice by C. Day Lewis and To Lidice by George England respectively); text features and extensive, fascinating excerpts from ‘Jonathon’s Sketchbook’.

Anna Nesporova passed away in 2006, before these books were completed, but the sense remains that the brooding, painfully oppressive and achingly moving story related would have made her proud. As with all accounts of Atrocity, the tale of Lidice needs to be told and retold, if there’s to be any hope of stopping such things from happening again and as always, such accounts work best when they come from the hearts and mouths of those who were there.

With Only Five Plums is a powerful story of inhumanity, stupidity and endurance that will certainly impress fans of war stories and devotees of fine storytelling, but hopefully it will most appeal to history teachers; professional and not…

© 2013 Terry Eisele. All rights reserved.
For more information and to obtain your own copies check out www.terryeisele.com

Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos Epic Collection: Volume 1: 1963-1965: The Howling Commandos


By Stan Lee, Jack Kirby & Dick Ayers, with George Roussos, Steve Ditko, Frank Giacoia, Chic Stone & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-1-3029-1657-2 (TPB)

Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos began as an improbable, decidedly over-the-top and raucous WWII combat comics series similar in tone to later ensemble action movies such as The Magnificent Seven, The Wild Bunch and The Dirty Dozen. The surly squad of sorry reprobates premiered in May 1963; one of three teams concocted by men-on-fire Jack Kirby & Stan Lee to secure fledgling Marvel’s growing position as the publisher to watch.

Two years later Fury’s post-war self was retooled as the big-name star of a second series (beginning with Strange Tales #135, August 1965) when espionage shows like The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and the 007 film franchise became global sensations.

Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. combined Cold War tensions with sinister schemes of World Domination by subversive all-encompassing hidden enemy organisations: with captivating super-science gadgetry and iconic imagineering from Jack Kirby and Jim Steranko.

For all that time, however, the original wartime version soldiered on (sorry: puns are my weapon of choice), blending a uniquely flamboyant house-bravado style and often ludicrous, implausible, historically inaccurate, all-action bombast with moments of genuine heartbreak, unbridled passion and seething emotion.

Sgt. Fury started out as a pure Kirby creation. As with all his various war comics, The King made everything look harsh and real and appalling: the people and places are all grimy and tired, battered yet indomitable.

The artist had served in some of the worst battles of the war and never forgot the horrific and heroic things he saw – and more graphically expressed in his efforts during the 1950s genre boom at a number of different companies. However, even at kid-friendly, Comics Code-sanitised Marvel, those experiences perpetually leaked through onto his powerfully gripping pages.

Kirby was – unfortunately – far too valuable a resource to squander on a simple war comic (or indeed the X-Men and Avengers: the other series launched in that tripartite blitz on kids’ spending money) and was quickly reassigned, leaving redoubtable fellow veteran Dick Ayers to illuminate later stories, which he did for almost the entire run of the series (95 issues plus Annuals) until its transition to a reprint title with #121 (July 1974).

The title then carried on until its ultimate demise in December 1981 with #167.

This initial trade paperback and eBook compendium collects the contents of Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos #1-19 (spanning May 1963 to June 1965) and opens – just as you’d expect – with blistering premier ‘Sgt. Fury, and his Howling Commandoes’ (that’s how they spellled it in the storree-title – altho knot ennyware else).

Crafted by Lee, Kirby and inker Dick Ayers, the rip-snorting yarn is bursting with full page panels interrupted by ‘Meet the Howling Commandos’ – a double-page spread starring the seven members of First Attack Squad; Able Company. This comprised Fury himself, former circus strongman/Corporal “Dum-Dum” Dugan and Privates Robert “Rebel” Ralston (a Kentucky jockey), former student Jonathan “Junior” Juniper, jazz trumpeter Gabriel Jones, mechanic Izzy Cohen and glamorous movie heartthrob Dino Manelli.

Controversially – even in the 1960s – this battle Rat Pack was an integrated unit with Jewish and black members as well as Catholics, Southern Baptists and New York white guys all merrily serving together. The Howling Commandos pushed envelopes and busted taboos from the very start…

The first mission was a non-stop action romp pitting ‘Seven Against the Nazis!’ and putting the squad through their unique paces as the ragged band of indomitable warriors take on hordes of square-necked Nazis to save D-Day and rescue a French resistance fighter carrying vital plans of the invasion.

They even bring back a high-ranking “kraut” prisoner and leave room for a Kirby fact-page comparing and contrasting six different side-arms of the period in ancillary feature ‘Weapons of War’

Issue #2 found the ‘7 Doomed Men!’ up to their torn shirts in Germans as they first infiltrate a French coastal town to blow up a U-Boat base and get back to England just in time to be sent on another suicide mission. This time it’s to destroy a secret facility at Heinemund in the heart of the Fatherland, where Nazi scientists are doing something sinister and nefarious with “hard water”…

These overblown fustian thrillers always played fast and loose with history and logic, so if you crave veracity above all, I’d steer clear, but if you can swallow a heaping helping of creative anachronism there’s always great fun to be had here – especially since nobody drew atomic explosions like Kirby…

This drama is topped off with more fact pages as ‘The Enemy That Was!’ explores the capabilities of ‘The German Infantryman’ whilst ‘Weapons of War: “Chatter Guns” of World War II’ details everything you need to know about submachine guns…

Rough-&-ready gallows humour and broad comedy became increasingly important to the series from #3 onwards, with home base rivalries and wry comradely sparring leavening the outrageous non-stop carnage of the missions. ‘Midnight on Massacre Mountain!’ sees the septet explosively invading Italy to rescue a US army division caught in a Nazi trap. Along the way they meet a brilliant OSS officer training partisan troops, and Fury believes that young Reed Richards will go far…

Supplementing this exploit is a fascinating feature revealing what ordnance and hardware cost in ‘America’s World War II Shopping List!’

‘Lord Ha-Ha’s Last Laugh!’ in #4 began an inking tour of duty for George Bell (AKA 1950s Kirby studio-mate George “Inky” Roussos) and introduced a love interest for the Sarge, after he meets aristocratic Red Cross volunteer Lady Pamela Hawley during an air raid in London. How cruel and tragic was fate then, that the Howlers’ very next mission takes them to Berlin to kidnap a young British nobleman with the same name, acting as a crucial propaganda mouthpiece for the Wehrmacht…

The mission is a double disaster. Not only does Pamela’s ignoble brother perish, but the debacle also costs the life of a Howler…

‘Weapons of War: Combat Rifles of World War II’ then ends this shocking, surprisingly grim and low-key melodrama…

Fury’s key appearance as a CIA agent in FF #21 – not included here – was released between that issue and #5, but no mention is made of it when the dark and cunning yarn introduces one of Marvel’s vilest, greatest villains. ‘At the Mercy of Baron Strucker’ sees Fury humiliated and defeated in personal combat against an Aryan nobleman who uses candid filmed footage as a propaganda tool of the Nazis. Only too late does dashing Dino point out how the nonplussed noncom has fallen for the oldest trick in Hollywood’s archvillain playbook…

A riotous rematch goes rather better after which ‘Weapons of War: Light Machine Guns of World War II’ ends matters in a graphically educational manner, before ‘The Fangs of the Desert Fox!’ in #6 dumps the Squad in the desert to confront the massed forces of General Erwin Rommel in a mission foredoomed to fail…

‘The Court-Martial of Sergeant Fury’ provides a glimpse into the hard-bitten hero’s past and offers insights into his tempestuous relationship with immediate superior Captain Samuel “Happy Sam” Sawyer. Of course, to get that information we must watch Fury endure a dramatic trial after seemingly sabotaging a mission and striking a commanding officer…

Although continuing to draw the magnificent, eye-catching covers, Kirby left the title with this issue. His astounding abilities were more profitably employed in the superhero titles, even as Lee began consolidating the ever-expanding Marvel Universe by utilising more WWII iterations of contemporary characters.

‘The Death Ray of Baron Zemo!’ in #8 pits the Howlers against a Captain America villain recently debuted in The Avengers. Ayers & Roussos capably depict the unit’s attempts to capture the Nazi super-scientist and a weapon which might shape the outcome of the entire war. The tale also introduced Junior Juniper’s replacement: a rather fruity caricature of a British soldier named Percival Pinkerton, resplendent in horn-rimmed specs, pencil moustache, fuchsia beret and impossibly utilitarian umbrella…

In #9 the implausibly audacious ‘Mission: Capture Adolf Hitler!’ goes awry after the latest Howlers’ invasion of Berlin again brings Fury face-to-face with Wolfgang von Strucker; leading to temporary capture and an astounding escape, after which ‘On to Okinawa!’ in #10 sees the squad achieve greater success when despatched to the Pacific to rescue a captured US colonel from the Japanese.

This tale also saw the debut of a bearded bombastic submarine commander who would become a series regular before eventually winning his own title (Captain Savage and his Leatherneck Raiders) in 1967.

The pace had visibly slowed and melodramatic subplots increased by #11, with ‘The Crackdown of Capt. Flint!’ depicting Happy Sam briefly replaced by a spit-and-polish officer who soon learns the limitations of his ways after which, in #12, a raid on a V1 factory in the heart of Europe seemingly prompts Dino to join the Nazis ‘When a Howler Turns Traitor!’

It was just a pre-arranged ploy of course, but sadly nobody told the American commander, who latterly stuck the star in front of a firing squad…

This issue also included a Marvel Masterwork Pin-up of Fury by Ayers.

Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos #13 is arguably the best issue of the entire 167 issue run. The title says it all…

‘Fighting Side-by-Side with… Captain America and Bucky!’ reunited Lee, Kirby & Ayers in a blistering battle yarn wherein the Howlers cross paths with the masked Sentinels of Liberty after both teams stumble across a top-secret Nazi operation to build an invasion tunnel under the channel to England. To resort to the terms of the times: “Wah-Hoo!”…

Ayers was back to pencil #14 with Lee scripting and Roussos inking a minor milestone as harassed Adolf Hitler decrees the creation of a Nazi answer to Fury’s elite attack force. All ‘The Blitzkrieg Squad of Baron Strucker!’ have to do is lure the Howlers to a V2 rocket base and spring their trap… Yeah, that’s all…

Irregular supplemental feature Weapons of War provides all the gen on the ‘B-26 Martin Marauder’ to inform and entertain in equal amounts before Steve Ditko stepped in to ink Ayers in issue #15 as ‘Too Small to Fight, Too Young to Die’ relates an ill-fated mission in Holland to destroy the dykes and flood the occupation forces. The job goes drastically awry and the Howlers “flee” back to Britain with nothing but a broken-hearted boy named Hans Rooten – who has no idea that his despised quisling father is in fact the Allies’ top spy in the region…

The boy is adopted as the Howlers’ plucky mascot but can’t accompany them when the squad is despatched to Africa in #16 to eradicate yet more Nazi super-weapons in ‘A Fortress in the Desert Stands!’ (inked by Frank Giacoia using the pseudonym Frankie Ray). From there it’s only a short camel-ride south until the ragtag rovers encounter spear-wielding natives and nasty Nazis engaged in a battle of Hearts & Minds ‘While the Jungle Sleeps!’ (by Lee, Ayers & Vince Colletta).

All this time the chalk-and-cheese romantic relationship between Nick and Lady Pamela Hawley has been developing to the point where the Yankee lout is ready to propose. That all ends in #18 (with Chic Stone inks) when, as the unit is busy sinking a German battleship in a Norwegian port, she is ‘Killed in Action!’

Crushed and crazy, Fury goes AWOL in the final tale of this collection, remorselessly hunting down the leader of the bomber flight which had targeted the hospital she worked in before extracting ‘An Eye for an Eye!’ in a satisfyingly shocking Lee story sensitively rendered by Ayers & Giacoia. The Howlers go along for the ride, but whether to help their leader or hold him back is debatable…

Gilding this gladiatorial lily, the book signs off with a wealth of stunning original art pages from Kirby and Ayers, several contemporary house ads, and previous collection covers. Whereas close rival DC increasingly abandoned the Death or Glory bombast at this time in favour of humanistic, almost anti-war explorations of war and soldiering, Marvel’s take always favoured action-entertainment and fantasy over soul-searching for ultimate truths. On that level at least, these early epics are stunningly effective and galvanically powerful exhibitions of the genre.

Just don’t use them for history homework.
© 1963, 1964, 1965, 2019 Marvel All rights reserved.

Horizontal Collaboration


By Navie & Carole Maurel, translated by Margaret Morrison (Korero Press)
ISBN: 978-1-91274-001-7

World War II – with its world-shaking reordering of society and all the consequent, still-felt repercussions – is very much in people’s minds at the moment and I’d like to offer up this new translated European tale as a counterpoint to the commemorative bombast, and the much-delayed honours finally being paid to the ever-dwindling last of “The Few”.

At least now, as well as the valiant men, we’re finally acknowledging the commonly disregarded contributions of women also caught up in the conflict, not to mention the unsung heroes of all nations who were drawn into the horror.

This particular hardcover, however, is not about heroes. Horizontal Collaboration deals with people: civilians and fugitives, women and invading occupiers: the ones who are seldom celebrated but who also confronted the triumph of global darkness, all in their own small, unnoticed ways…

France fell to the Germans in 1940. The country was occupied and partitioned on June 22nd, with the Germans holding the industrial north and central regions whilst Marshal Philippe Pétain’s puppet protectorate Régime de Vichy was allowed to govern the south and pacified colonies such as Algeria. When the nation was liberated in September 1944, a vicious wave of retaliation began against those who cooperated with the conquerors in ways great and small.

A sordid time of scores settled (real, imagined or fabricated) and cruel abuses almost arbitrarily inflicted on guilty and innocent alike plagued France for years afterwards. The most telling indignities were perpetrated upon women – wives, mothers, sisters or strangers – accused of fraternising with or giving comfort to the enemy.

Such liaisons were called “Collaboration Horizontale” and even the most nebulous or unfounded accusation of such betrayals carried a heavy and immediate price…

Just about now, a grandmother listens to her granddaughter unload about her current amour and her mind drifts back to the war and a secret she has never shared with anyone…

In 1942, a large apartment house on Passage de la Bonne-Graine is filled with families, all dealing with the German conquerors in their own way. Despite the change in their fortunes, they have not found any way to overcome the petty grudges and ingrained social difficulties that kept them at odds with each other even before war broke out…

Surly aged crone Madame Flament is rude to everybody, and spends all her time complaining or disappearing into the cellars to feed her cats. What secret is she really hiding?

Old Camille is deemed the man of the house, but he is gentle, ineffectual and blind; blithely letting life go on around him and apparently noticing nothing. His wife is the building’s concierge. Brusque matron Martine Andrée is a snooping busybody loudly championing decency and family values, but her home life is nothing to envy and her sharp tongue scores points off family, friends and foes indiscriminately.

She despises the younger women and their families in the building, especially pretty Joséphine Borgeon who makes ends meet through her theatre act. Everybody knows what she really does to survive…

Also viewed with suspicion is young mother Rose. Her husband Raymond has been taken away to work for the Nazis, so his friend and neighbour Leon – a gendarme – has been keeping a “friendly” eye on her, even though his own pregnant wife Judith keeps clumsily falling and hurting herself and surely needs proper supervision…

Strangely boyish artist Simone keeps to herself as much as she can and – originally – there was also a Jewess called Sarah Ansburg and her son Anaël. They somehow disappeared before the Germans could find them. That must be the reason Abwehr intelligence officer Mark Dinklebauer spends so much time in the building. It couldn’t possibly be that he has fallen in love with one of the occupants, or that this most forbidden of passions is dangerously, illegally reciprocated, can it?

Crafted with deft incisiveness by media writer and historian (Mademoiselle) Navie and rendered in a beguiling style (powerfully reminiscent of Will Eisner in his later years) by seasoned illustrator and author Carole Maurel (Luisa: Now & Then, Waves, L’apocalypse selon Magda), this is a meditative and uncompromising glance at ordinary lives under relentless pressure: an ensemble piece of human drama that takes as its heart and centre point an unlikely flowering of true but doomed love…

Moving, beguiling and evocatively rewarding, Horizontal Collaboration is a beautiful tragedy and potent reminder that love takes no prisoners while enslaving all it touches.
© Editions Delcourt – 2017. All rights reserved.

Horizontal Collaboration will be released on 18th June 2019 and is available for pre-order now.

Willie and Joe: The WWII Years


By Bill Mauldin, edited by Todd DePastino (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-439-9 (PB)

During World War II a talented, ambitious young man named William Henry “Bill” Mauldin (29/10/1921 – 22/01/2003) fought “Over There” with the 45th Division of the United States Infantry as well as many other fine units of the army. He learned to hate war and love his brother soldiers – and the American fighting man loved him back. During his time in the service he produced civilian cartoons for the Oklahoma City Times and The Oklahoman, and devastatingly, intimately effective and authentic material for his Company periodical, 45th Division News. He also produced work for Yank and Stars and Stripes; the US Armed Forces newspapers. Soon after, his cartoons were being reproduced in newspapers across Europe and America.

They mostly featured two slovenly “dogfaces” – a term he popularised – offering their trenchant and laconic view of the war from the muddied tip of the sharpest of Sharp Ends…

Willie and Joe, much to the dismay of the brassbound, spit-and-polish military martinets and diplomatic doctrinaires, became the unshakable, everlasting image of the American soldier: continually exposing in all ways and manners the stuff upper echelons of the army would prefer remained top secret. Not war secrets, but how the men at arms lived, felt and died.

Willie and Joe even became the subject of two films (Up Front -1951 and Back at the Front – 1952) whilst Willie made the cover of Time magazine in 1945, when 23-year old Mauldin won his first Pulitzer Prize.

In 1945, a collection of his drawings, accompanied by a powerfully understated and heartfelt documentary essay, was published by Henry Holt and Co. Up Front was a sensation, telling the American public about the experiences of their sons, brothers, fathers and husbands in a way no historian would or did. A biography, Back Home, followed in 1947.

Mauldin’s anti-war, anti-Idiots-in-Charge-of-War views became increasingly unpopular during the Cold War and, despite being a certified War Hero, Mauldin’s increasingly political cartoon work fell out of favour (those efforts are the subject companion volume Willie & Joe: Back Home). Mauldin left the increasing hostile and oversight-ridden business to become a journalist and illustrator.

He was a film actor for a while (appearing, amongst other movies, in Red Badge of Courage with veteran war hero Audie Murphy); a war correspondent during the Korean War and – after an unsuccessful campaign for Congress in 1956 – finally returned to newspaper cartooning in 1958.

He retired in 1991 after a long, glittering and award-studded career. He only drew Willie and Joe four times in that entire period (for an article on the “New Army” in Life magazine; for the funerals of “Soldier’s Generals” Omar Bradley and George C. Marshall; and to eulogize Milton Caniff). His fondest wish had been to kill the iconic dogfaces off on the final day of World War II, but Stars and Stripes vetoed it.

The Willie and Joe cartoons and characters are some of the most enduring and honest symbols of all military history. Every Veterans Day in Peanuts from 1969 to 1999, fellow veteran Charles Schulz had Snoopy turn up at Mauldin’s house to drink root beers and tell war stories with an old pal. When you read Sgt. Rock you’re looking at Mauldin’s legacy, and Archie Goodwin drafted the shabby professionals for a couple of classy guest-shots in Star-Spangled War Stories (see Showcase Presents the Unknown Soldier).

This immense, mostly monochrome (with some very rare colour and sepia items) softcover compendium comes in at 704 pages, (229 x 178mm for the physical copy or any size you want if you get the digital edition): assembling all his known wartime cartoons – as originally released in two hardback editions in 2008. It features not only the iconic dog-face duo, but also the drawings, illustrations, sketches and gags that led, over 8 years of army life, to their creation.

Mauldin produced most of his work for Regimental and Company newspapers whilst under fire: perfectly capturing the life and context of fellow soldiers – also under battlefield conditions – and shared a glimpse of that unique and bizarre existence to their families and civilians at large, despite constant military censorship and even face-to-face confrontations with Generals. George Patton was perennially incensed at the image the cartoonist presented to the world, but fortunately Supreme Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower, if not a fan, knew the strategic and morale value of Mauldin’s Star Spangled Banter and Up Front features with those indomitable everymen Willie and Joe

This far removed in time, many of the pieces here might need historical context for modern readers and such is comprehensively provided by the notes section to the rear of the volume. Also included are unpublished pieces and pages, early cartoon works, and rare notes, drafts and sketches.

Most strips, composites and full-page gags, however, are sublimely transparent in their message and meaning: lampooning entrenched stupidity and cupidity, administrative inefficiency and sheer military bloody-mindedness. They highlight equally the miraculous perseverance and unquenchable determination of ordinary guys to get the job done while defending their only inalienable right – to gripe and goof off whenever the brass weren’t around…

Most importantly, Mauldin never patronised civilians or demonised the enemy: the German and Italians are usually in the same dismal boat as “Our Boys” and only the war and its brass-bound conductors are worthy of his inky ire…

Alternating crushing cynicism, moral outrage, gallows humour, absurdist observation, shared miseries, staggering sentimentality and the total shock and awe of still being alive every morning, this cartoon catalogue of the Last Just War is a truly breathtaking collection that no fan, art-lover, historian or humanitarian can afford to miss.

…And it will make you cry and laugh out loud too.

With a fascinating biography of Mauldin that is as compelling as his art, the mordant wit and desperate camaraderie of his work is more important than ever in an age where increasingly cold and distant brass-hats and politicians send ever-more innocent lambs to further foreign fields for slaughter. With this volume and the aforementioned Willie & Joe: Back Home, we should finally be able to restore the man and his works to the forefront of graphic consciousness, because tragically, it looks like his message is never going to be outdated… or learned from by the idiots in charge who most need to hear it…
© 2011 the Estate of William Mauldin. All right reserved.

The Misadventures of Jane


By Norman Pett & J.H.G. (“Don”) Freeman (Titian Books)
ISBN: 978-1-84856-167-0 (HB)

Once upon a time, Jane was one of the most important and well-regarded comic strips in British, if not World, history. It debuted on December 5th 1932 as Jane’s Journal: or The Diary of a Bright Young Thing: a frothy, frivolous gag-a-day strip in the Daily Mirror, created by (then) freelance cartoonist Norman Pett.

Originally a nonsensical comedic vehicle, it consisted of a series of panels with cursive script embedded within to simulate a diary page. It switched to more formal strip frames and balloons in late 1938, when scripter Don Freeman came on board and Mirror Group supremo Harry Guy Bartholomew was looking to renovate the serial for a more adventure- and escape-hungry audience. It was also felt that a continuity feature such as Freeman’s other strip Pip, Squeak and Wilfred would keep readers coming back; as if Jane’s inevitable – if usually unplanned – bouts of near nudity wouldn’t…

Jane’s secret was skin. Even before war broke out there were torn skirts and lost blouses aplenty, but once the shooting started and Jane became an operative for British Intelligence, her clothes came off with terrifying regularity and machine gun rapidity. She even went topless when the Blitz was at its worst.

Pett drew the strip with verve and style, imparting a uniquely English family feel: a joyous lewdness-free innocence and total lack of tawdriness. The artist worked from models and life, famously using first his wife, his secretary Betty Burton, and editorial assistant Doris Keay but most famously actress and model Chrystabel Leighton-Porter – until May 1948 when Pett left for another newspaper and another clothing-challenged comic star…

His art assistant Michael Hubbard assumed full control of the feature (prior to that he had drawn backgrounds and mere male characters), and carried the series – increasingly a safe, flesh-free soap-opera and less a racy glamour strip – to its conclusion on October 10th 1959.

This Titan Books collection added the saucy secret weapon to their growing arsenal of classic British comics and strips, and paid Jane the respect she deserved with a snappy black and white hardcover collection, complete with colour inserts.

Following a fascinating and informative article taken from Canadian paper The Maple Leaf (which disseminated her adventures to returning ANZAC servicemen), Jane’s last two war stories (running from May 1944 to June 1945) are reprinted in their entirety, beginning with ‘N.A.A.F.I, Say Die!’, wherein the hapless but ever-so-effective intelligence agent is posted to a British Army base where somebody’s wagging tongue is letting pre “D-Day” secrets out. Naturally (very au naturally), only Jane and her new sidekick and best friend Dinah Tate can stop the rot…

This is promptly followed by ‘Behind the Front’ wherein Jane and Dinah invade the continent, tracking down spies, collaborators and boyfriends in Paris before joining a ENSA concert party, and accidentally invading Germany just as the Russians arrive…

As you’d expect, the comedy is based on classic Music Hall fundamentals with plenty of drama and action right out of the patriotic and comedy cinema of the day – but if you’ve ever seen Will Hay, Alistair Sim or Arthur Askey at their peak you’ll know that’s no bad thing – and this bombastic book also contains loads of rare goodies to drool over.

Jane was so popular that there were three glamour/style books called Jane’s Journal for which Pett produced many full-colour pin-ups, paintings and general cheese-cake illustration. From these lost gems, this tome includes ‘The Perfect Model’, a strip “revealing” how the artist met his muse Chrystabel Leighton-Porter; ‘Caravanseraglio!’, an 8-page strip starring Jane and erring, recurring boyfriend Georgie Porgie plus 15 pages of the very best partially and un-draped Jane pin-ups.

Jane’s war record is frankly astounding. As a morale booster she was reckoned worth more than divisions of infantry and her exploits were cited in Parliament and discussed with actual seriousness by Eisenhower and Churchill. Legend has it that The Daily Mirror’s Editor was among the few who knew the date of D-Day so as to co-ordinate her exploits with the Normandy landings.

In 1944, on the day she went full frontal, the American Service newspaper Roundup (provided to US soldiers) went with the headline “JANE GIVES ALL” and the sub-heading “YOU CAN ALL GO HOME NOW”. Chrystabel Leighton-Porter toured as Jane in a services revue – she stripped for the boys – during the war and in 1949 starred in the film The Adventures of Jane.

Although the product of simpler, less enlightened, and indubitably more hazardous, times, the charming, thrilling, innocently saucy adventures of Jane, patient but dedicated beau Georgie Porgie and especially her intrepid Dachshund Count Fritz Von Pumpernickel are incontestable landmarks of the art-form, not simply for their impact but also for the plain and simple reason that they are superbly drawn and huge fun to read.

After years of neglect, don’t let’s waste the opportunity to keep such a historical icon in our lives. You should find this book, buy your friends this book, and most importantly, agitate to have her entire splendid run reprinted in more books like this one. Do your duty, lads and lassies…
Jane © 2009 MGN Ltd/Mirrorpix. All Rights Reserved.

Commando: True Brit


By Many & various (DC Thomson/Carlton Books)
ISBN: 978-1-84442-121-3 (HB)

DC Thomson is probably the most influential comics publisher in British history. The Beano and Dandy revolutionised children’s comedy comics, newspaper strips Oor Wullie and The Broons (both created by writer Editor R. D. Low and legendary artist Dudley D. Watkins) have become a genetic marker for Scottishness and the uniquely British “ordinary hero” grew from the prose-packed pages of Adventure, Rover, Wizard, Skipper and Hotspur.

After decades of deft consumer-led publication for youngsters, in 1961 the company launched a digest-sized paperback title dubbed Commando. Broadly the size of a paperback book, it boasted 68 pages per issue and an average of two panels a page for its single stand-alone adventure tale, as well as the venerable British extras of themed information pages.

Not to belabour the point, but each issue told a complete war story (usually of World War I or II – although all theatres of conflict have featured since), a true rarity for British comics which usually ran action and thriller material in one or two-page instalments over many weeks. The sagas were tasteful yet gripping yarns of valour and heroism: stark black and white dramas which came charged with grit and authenticity. The full painted covers made them look more like novels than comics and they were a huge and instant success. They’re still being published today and are even available in digital editions.

This lovely volume comes from 2006, gathering an even dozen mini-epics selected by series editor George Low, and, although much of the collection’s original marketing concentrated on the baser nostalgic element by exhorting the reader to remember dashing about the playground shouting “Achtung” or “Donner und Blitzen” and saluting like Storm-troopers, these tales – subtitled “The Toughest 12 Commando Books Ever” are exemplary and compelling examples of dramatic comic storytelling.

Because of company policy these tales are all uncredited, (and I’d rather not prove my vast ignorance by guessing who did what), so unless you feel like consulting the numerous online sites devoted to the material, you’ll have to be content with the work itself, and that in itself is reward enough. So in this anniversary week, if you’re looking for a more homegrown comics experience, superbly-written and wonderfully illustrated, check out ‘Guns on the Peak’, ‘The Fighting Few’, ‘Bright Blade of Courage’, ‘The Haunted Jungle’, ‘Tiger in the Tail’, ‘The Specialists’, ‘Mighty Midget’, ‘VLR: Very Long Range’, ‘Flak Fever’, ‘Fight or Die!’, ‘Fearless Freddy’ and ‘Another Tight Spot…’ in this brilliant compilation.
™ & © 2006 DC Thomson & Co. Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

High Command – The stories of Sir Winston Churchill and General Montgomery


By Frank Bellamy & Clifford Makins (Dragon’s Dream)
ISBN: 978-9-06332-901-3 (PB)

Inexcusably absent as we commemorate the achievements and sacrifices of earlier generations are these twin neglected classics of British comic strip art, crafted by one of the world’s most talented narrative illustrators. These wonderful biographical series originally ran in The Eagle: the most influential comic of post-war Britain, which launched on April 14th 1950, to astound readers weekly until 26th April 1969.

It was the brainchild of a Southport vicar, the Reverend Marcus Morris, who was at that time concerned over the detrimental effects of American comicbooks on British children. He posited a good, solid, thoroughly decent Christian-inspired antidote and sought out like-minded creators. After jobbing around a dummy to many British publishers for over a year with little success, he eventually found an unlikely home at Hulton Press, a company that produced adult general interest magazines such as Lilliput and Picture Post.

The result was a huge hit spawning clones Swift, Robin and Girl (targeting other demographic sectors of the children’s market), as well as radio series, books, toys and all other sorts of merchandising.

An incredible huge number of soon-to-be prominent creative figures in many arenas of media worked on the weekly, and although Dan Dare is deservedly revered as the star, many other strips were as popular at the time, many even rivalling the lead in quality and entertainment value. As was the trend of the times, the content combined fact with fiction, stressing learning and discernment equally with adventure, thrills and fun…

At its peak, The Eagle sold close to a million copies a week, but eventually changing tastes and a game of “musical owners” killed the title. In 1960, Hulton sold out to comics megalith Odhams, who then became Longacre Press. A year later they were bought by The Daily Mirror Group who evolved into IPC. And so it goes in publishing…

In cost-cutting exercises, many later issues carried (relatively) cheap and oh-so-trendy Marvel Comics reprints rather than British originated material. It took time, but the Yankee cultural Invaders won out in the end…

With the April 26th 1969 issue Eagle was merged into Lion, eventually disappearing altogether. Successive generations have revived the prestigious glamour-soaked title, but never its success.

From its glorious Reithian heyday (“Educate, Elucidate and Entertain”) comes a brace of brief biographical serials devoted to two men who were crucial to the war effort that had imperilled the readership’s forebears, originally collected into a classy album by Dragons Dream in 1981.

The first half was reprinted in 2014 as slim scarcely seen paperback The Happy Warrior: The Life Story of Sir Winston Churchill as Told Through the Eagle Comic of the 1950’s (ISBN: 978-1-90650-990-3) with a scholarly commentary from Richard M. Langworth CBE, but we’re long overdue for the combined volume to resurface (you will never know the effort involved in not just saying “the Full Monty” there…)

In High Command, however, we can devour the life story of Sir Winston Churchill and the quiet general (both scripted by Clifford Makins), beginning with the icon of Bulldog Spirit. Originally titled The Happy Warrior, the prestigious full-page back cover feature (running from October 4th 1957 until September1958) was Frank Bellamy’s first full colour strip. He followed up with Montgomery of Alamein (volume 13, #10-27, spanning March 10th to 7th July 1962), delivering twice the punch and more revelatory design in two-page colour-spreads that utterly spellbound readers, whether they were war-fans or not…

Churchill himself approved the early strips and was rumoured to have been consulted before the artist began the experimental layouts that elevated Bellamy from being merely a highly skilled representational draughtsman into the trailblazing innovator who revolutionized the comic page.

The tireless experimenter also began the explorations of the use of local and expressionistic colour palettes that would result in the extraordinary Fraser of Africa, Heros the Spartan and the deservedly legendary Thunderbirds strips.

The Churchill story follows the great man from his early days at Eton through military service in Cuba as a war correspondent, and into politics. Although a large proportion deals with World War II – and in a spectacular, tense and thrilling manner – the subtler skill Bellamy displays in depicting the transition of dynamic, handsome man of action into burly political heavyweight over the weeks is impressive and astonishing. It should be mentioned, though, that this collection doesn’t reproduce the climactic, triumphal last page, a portrait that is half-pin-up, half summation and all hagiography.

Bernard Law Montgomery’s graphic biography benefited from Bellamy’s newfound expertise in two ways. Firstly, the page count was doubled, and the artist capitalized on this by producing groundbreaking double page spreads that worked across gutters (the white spaces that divide the pictures). This allowed him to craft even more startling page and panel designs.

Secondly, Bellamy had now become extremely proficient in both staging the script and creating mood with colour. This strip is pictorial poetry in motion.

Makins doesn’t hang about either. Taking only three episodes to get from school days in Hammersmith, army service in India and promotion to Brigade Major by the end of the Great War, Monty’s WWII achievements are given full play, allowing Bellamy to create an awesome display of action-packed war comics over the remaining fifteen double-paged episodes. There really hasn’t been anything to match this level of quality and sophistication in combat comics before or since.

If you strain you might detect a tinge of post-war triumphalism in the scripts, but these accounts are historically accurate and phenomenally stirring to look at. If you love comic art you should hunt these down, or at least pray that somebody, somewhere has the sense to reprint this work.
© 1981 Dragon’s Dream B.V. ©1981 I.P.C. Magazines Ltd.

Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos Marvel Masterworks volume 3


By Stan Lee, Roy Thomas, Dick Ayers & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-4212-6 (HB)

Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos began as an improbable, decidedly over-the-top, rowdy and raucous WWII combat comics series similar in tone to later ensemble action movies such as The Magnificent Seven, The Wild Bunch and The Dirty Dozen. The surly squad of sorry reprobates premiered in May 1963, one of three action teams concocted by creative men-on-fire Jack Kirby & Stan Lee to secure fledgling Marvel’s growing position as the comics publisher to watch.

Two years later Fury’s post-war self was retooled as the big-name star of a second series (beginning with Strange Tales #135, August 1965) when TV espionage shows such as The Man from U.N.C.L.E. or Mission: Impossible and the James Bond film franchise became global sensations.

Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. combined Cold War tensions with sinister schemes of World Domination by subversive all-encompassing hidden enemy organisations: with captivating super-science gadgetry and iconic imagineering from Jack Kirby and Jim Steranko.

For all that time, however, the original wartime version soldiered on (sorry: puns are my weapon of choice), blending a uniquely flamboyant house-bravado style and often ludicrous, implausible, historically inaccurate, all-action bombast with moments of genuine heartbreak, unbridled passion and seething emotion.

Sgt. Fury started out as a pure Kirby creation. As with all his various combat comics, The King made everything look harsh and real and appalling: the people and places all grimy, tired, battered yet indomitable.

The artist had served in some of the worst battles of the war and never forgot the horrific and heroic things he saw (and more graphically expressed in his efforts during the 1950s genre boom at a number of different companies). However, even at kid-friendly, Comics Code-sanitised Marvel, those experiences perpetually leaked through onto his powerfully gripping pages.

Kirby was – unfortunately – far too valuable a resource to squander on a simple war comic (or indeed the X-Men and Avengers: the other series launched in that tripartite blitz on kids’ spending money) and he was quickly moved on, leaving redoubtable fellow veteran Dick Ayers to illuminate later stories, which he did for almost the entire run of the series (95 issues plus Annuals) until its transition to a reprint title with #121 (July 1974). The title then carried on until its ultimate demise, with #167, in December 1981.

Ex-serviceman Lee remained as scripter until he too was pulled away by the developing Marvel phenomenon after which a succession of youthful, next-generation writers took over, beginning with Roy Thomas who provide welcome background in his Introduction, after which this third hardback and eBook compendium re-presents the contents of Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos #24-32 and the second Annual (collectively spanning November 1965 to August 1966) opening with a Lee scripted, Ayers and Frank Giacoia (AKA Frankie Ray) inked milestone as the war-weary squad head back to America in ‘When the Howlers Hit the Home Front!’

Of course, they still find plenty of trouble when battle comrade and Kentucky gentleman “Rebel” Ralston and his family are captured by Nazi Bundists and the First Attack Squad forgoes leave to rush to the rescue. At adventure’s end, however, the victorious team are forced to leave grievously wounded corporal Dum Dum Dugan behind to recuperate…

John Tartaglione signed on as regular inker for ‘Every Man My Enemy!’ as the unit return to Britain to commence a secret mission and expose a spy who has infiltrated their Army camp. The hunt eventually uncovers one of history’s greatest super-villains and leads to the first of many deadly clashes between Fury and the most dangerous man alive…

Golden Age veteran Carl Hubbell deployed his pens and brushes on ‘Dum Dum Does It the Hard Way!’, as the doughty corporal is shot down in the Atlantic whilst seeking to rejoin the Howlers, precipitating a stirring saga of privation and courage as the flight crew’s life raft is picked up by merciless U-Boat commander Vice Admiral Ribbondorf – the Sea Shark! That move was only the Nazi’s first mistake…

Issue #27 – by Lee, Ayers & Tartaglione – then reveals the origin of the sturdy sergeant’s optical injury (which would, in later life, lead to his adopting that stylish eyepatch) when the squad are despatched to Germany to destroy a new Nazi beam weapon. A now-obligatory SNAFU separates the squad and ‘Fury Fights Alone!’ before finally escaping “Festung Europa” and battling his way back to Blighty…

In the previous volume readers saw how Hitler demanded that his elite field commander should form a specialist unit to surpass Fury’s Commandos. The result was The Blitzkrieg Squad of Baron Strucker and they proved utterly ineffectual. Now the Fuhrer gives his once-favoured Prussian aristocrat one last chance to prove himself by obliterating the French town (and Resistance stronghold) Cherbeaux: a task even the disaffected Junker feels is a step too far…

With the town mined and the population imprisoned within, Fury’s Commandos are sent to stop the promised atrocity in ‘Not a Man Shall Remain Alive!’ The battle in the streets ends with another spectacular face-off between the icons of two warring ideologies and ‘Armageddon!’ for the hostage city…

With Strucker’s threat seemingly ended, Roy Thomas begins his run with ‘Incident in Italy!’ as the First Attack Squad parachute into a trap and are locked up in a POW camp. With the spotlight on former movie idol Dino Manelli, the Howlers link up with partisans, bust open the camp, free the captives and blaze their way back to liberty, before ‘Into the Jaws of… Death!’ sees the heroes retraining for underwater demolitions before being distracted by the abduction of their commander, Captain Samuel “Happy Sam” Sawyer. It’s the biggest and last mistake this bunch of Gestapo goons ever make…

The monthly missions conclude here with another episode of infernal intrigue as one of the Howlers is insidiously indoctrinated and turns against his comrades as they battle for their lives in Norway while dealing with ‘A Traitor in Our Midst!’

Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos Annual #2 was released in August 1966, and offered a brace of reprints (not included here) plus an all-new but out-of-continuity tale by Thomas, Ayers & Tartaglione. ‘A Day of Thunder!’ is set on June 5th 1944 and stirringly reveals the pivotal role the Howling Commandos play in paving the way for D-Day…

Closing this comics campaign is an unused cover art by Ayers.

Whereas close rival DC increasingly abandoned the Death or Glory bombast at this time in favour of humanistic, practically anti-war explorations of war and soldiering, Marvel’s take always favoured action-entertainment and fantasy over soul-searching for ultimate truths. On that level at least, these early epics are stunningly effective and galvanically powerful exhibitions of the genre. Just don’t use them for history homework.
© 1965, 1966, 2017 Marvel Characters Inc. All rights reserved.

Showcase Presents Sgt. Rock volume 2


By Robert Kanigher, Joe Kubert, Bob Haney, Russ Heath, Jerry Grandenetti & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-1984-0 (TPB)

Sgt Rock and the “combat-happy Joes” of Easy Company are one of the great and enduring creations of the American comic-book industry. The gritty meta-realism of Robert Kanigher’s ordinary guys in life-or-death situations captured the imaginations of generations of readers, young and old. So pervasive is this icon of comicbook combat that’s it’s hard to grasp that Rock is not an immortal industry prototype like Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman – with us since the earliest moments of the industry – but is in fact a late addition to and child of the Silver Age of Comics: debuting as just another tale in war anthology G.I. Combat (#68, January 1959, by Kanigher & Joe Kubert).

The archetypal sergeant was an anonymous boxer who wasn’t particularly skilled but simply refused to be beaten, absorbing any and all the punishment dealt out to him.

When ‘The Rock!’ enlisted in the US Army, however, that same Horatian quality attained mythic proportions as he held back an overwhelming Nazi attack by sheer grit and determination, remaining bloody but unbowed on a field littered with dead and broken men.

The tale inspired an instant sequel or two before, in Our Army at War #83 (June 1959), the story really began…

This second titanic tour of duty collects as a paperback and in stark and stunning monochrome the groundbreaking tales which made Sgt Rock a comics legend. These grim and gritty, epically poetic war stories are taken from the then still-anthological Our Army at War #118-148, bracketing May 1962 to November 1964, a period when American comics were undergoing a renaissance in style, theme and quality. Sadly, there’s no news on when these classic yarns will enter the 21st century either in modern colour editions or in digital formats…

Scripted throughout by then-editor Kanigher, the terse episodes herein begin with ‘The Tank vs. the Tin Soldier!’ – illustrated by the magnificent Russ Heath – wherein movie idol Randy Booth is mustered in to Easy Company and spends all his snobbish energy trying to get out again. By the time he learns how to be a real soldier, his moment in the limelight has turned from cinematic melodrama to Greek tragedy…

The artist most closely associated with Rock is Joe Kubert, who illustrated #119’s memorable fable ‘A Bazooka for Babyface!’ as a kid who lied about his age makes it to the Front, but doesn’t fool the indomitable topkick. Of course, by the time the fighting dies down enough to send him back, the Babyface is a seasoned combat veteran…

Kubert superbly limned the majority of stories in this volume, such as #120’s ‘Battle Tags for Easy Co.!’, which deployed brief vignettes to illustrate how squad stalwarts Ice Cream Soldier, Wild Man and Bulldozer earned their nicknames, before showing the latest “Green Apple” recruit why the Sarge was called Rock, after which ‘New Boy in Easy!’ (#121) introduced a chess-obsessed replacement who takes a lot of convincing that war is no hobby and men aren’t just pawns…

This narrative device of incorporating brief past-action episodes into a baptism of fire scenario played over and over again in Sgt. Rock and never got old. OAAW #122 featured ‘Battle of the Pyjama Commandoes!’, comprising more portmanteau tales as a number of Easy Joes recuperate in a field hospital, until the Germans break through and the wounded must pick up their weapons again…

High-energy stylist Jerry Grandenetti illustrated ‘Battle Brass Ring!’ in #123 as a pushy new replacement antagonises the entire unit until he learns to his cost the value of teamwork and price of command, after which Kubert returned for ‘Target – Sgt. Rock!’

When the indomitable warrior is captured and brainwashed by a Nazi tank commander into leading an attack on Easy, Bulldozer has to balance Rock’s life against his beloved sergeant’s unflinching standing orders…

More moral dilemmas punish the valiant warriors in #125 (illustrated by Heath) as the unit is cut off from the main Allied force and ordered to ‘Hold – At All Costs!’, whilst ‘The End of Easy Company!’ (#126 and illustrated by Kubert) pits the unstoppable dogfaces against impassable fortifications and a veritable mountain of Germans who severely underestimate the sheer stubbornness of tired, angry GIs…

With Kubert settling in for the long haul as regular artist on the strip, issue #127 offered an epic 25-page blitz of stories-within-a-story, as a quartet of combat-happy Joes relate personal tales of their unbeatable boss in ‘4 Faces of Sgt. Rock’.

OAAW #128 headlined ‘The Battle of the Sergeants!’ as Rock meets his Nazi counterpart in the deserts of Africa, after which #129 reveals that ‘Heroes Need Cowards!’: exploring Rock’s earliest days in the Army, whilst ‘No Hill for Easy!’ in #130 sees the battered band of brothers go above and beyond to placate a shell-shocked Major and finish the suicide mission of a deranged last man standing…

In #131 ‘One Pair of Dogtags … For Sale’ introduces Easy to a woman warrior every inch their equal, who literally spills her own blood to keep Rock alive, whilst in ‘Young Soldiers Never Cry!’ the sergeant becomes a combat babysitter after rescuing a toddler on the battlefield of Normandy.

In #133 ‘Yesterday’s Hero!’ depicts how a decorated veteran joins Easy to a rapturous welcome, but flounders, unable to escape the shocking circumstances that made him an unwilling example of both heroism and cowardice, after which, in ‘The T.N.T. Book’ another replacement insists on playing the odds in war as he had on the track… until discovering the true stakes of battle…

Our Army at War #135 pits Rock against a German non-com who was in almost every way his ‘Battlefield Double!’, whilst in #136 a desperately frightened new kid arrives, begging the indomitable topkick to ‘Make Me a Hero!’

Issue #137 sees a cavalry holdover from WWI finally achieve his long-delayed charge to glory in ‘Too Many Sergeants!’, before close skirmish separates Rock from his greenest new man in #138, and the weary warrior goes through combat hell to find ‘Easy’s Lost Sparrow!’ The next mission results in capture for four of the unit’s best and a ‘A Firing Squad for Easy!’ at a German Submarine dock. Happily, the team of Frogmen they’d been protecting return the favour…

OAAW #140 offers another full-length thriller – with cameos from fellow comicbook combatants Captain Johnny Cloud and French Resistance fighter Mademoiselle Marie – revealing the wry story of how Rock keeps winning deserved but wholly unwelcome battlefield promotions. His dilemma as a ‘Brass Sergeant!’ is only resolved after reuniting a misunderstood son with his “spit-and-polish” General father under most exceptional circumstances…

An timid old school friend turns up in #141, still needing Rock’s protection until “Shaker” finally pulls the ‘Dead Man’s Trigger!’, whilst in the next issue Kanigher pushed the envelope with the tale of a boy who held the sergeant to ransom and became ‘Easy’s New Topkick!’ in order to finish his dead Maquis comrades’ last mission. This stirring saga inspired the creation of Unit 3 – a French Resistance squad of battle-hardened children who appeared sporadically in later issues.

In #143, the US soldiers are back in the desert where embattled dogfaces honour fallen comrade Farmer Boy by planting ‘Easy’s T.N.T. Crop!’ to harvest a victory built on sand, after which ‘The Sparrow and the Tiger!’ sees Rock at last succumb to battle fatigue and the constant loss of his “kids” until a scared replacement shows him the true value of persistence and grace under fire…

Our Army at War #145 offers the backstory on the squad’s Native American rifleman in ‘A Feather for Little Sure-Shot!’, whilst in #146 imagination runs wild as ‘The Fighting Guns of Easy!’ compare stories about the men who fire them.

This second searing selection of combat actions concludes with a rare 2-part yarn, beginning in #147 as ‘Generals Don’t Die! Book One’ finds the hands-on topkick the envy of all his commanding officers. However, after helping desk-jockey General Bentley die in glorious battle, Rock is obliged to fulfil a promise to a dying man and forced to impersonate Bentley.

Things get even trickier when the impostor must lead the troops in breaking a stalled advance: a classic conundrum spectacularly resolved in the blockbuster conclusion ‘Generals Don’t Die! Book Two: Generals are Sergeants with Stars!’ Here Rock keeps a dead man’s secret and maintains the Bentley family honour until he can pass on those unearned “brass stars” to the next Bentley generation…

Kanigher at his worst was a declarative, heavy-handed and formulaic writer, but when writing his best stuff – as here – his work was imaginative, evocative, iconoclastic and heart-rending. He was a unique reporter and observer of the warrior’s way and the unchanging condition of the dedicated and so very human ordinary foot-slogging G.I.

With superb combat covers from Kubert, Grandenetti, and Heath fronting each episode, this battle-book is a visually perfect compendium and a certain delight for any jaded comics fan looking for something more than flash and dazzle.

A perfect example of true Shock and Awe; these are stories every comics fan and combat collector should see, and are too long overdue for collection in modern archival editions
© 1963, 1964, 2008 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Buz Sawyer volume 3: Typhoons and Honeymoons


By Roy Crane (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-703-1 (HB)

I’m making an effort not to be snarky or political today. Powerless ranting and supposedly scathing asides don’t do much to change the world and nothing at all good for my blood pressure. What does is wonderful comics masterpieces. Here’s one now…

In these seen-it-all 21st century days, science is flashy: astounding and confounding us on a daily basis (I assume you’ve all seen the supermassive black hole doughnut by now?). It’s perhaps an effort, then, to remember simpler times when folk were impressed by amazing things we now take for granted, when human-scaled drama and adventure was enough to set pulses racing and hearts pounding… until you read a book like this one.

This third stout and sturdy hardcover edition re-presents more magnificent newspaper strip exploits of dynamic all-American everyman Buz Sawyer: war hero, globetrotting troubleshooter and here an imminent groom-to-be. The strips cover the epochal period from July 21st 1947 to October 9th 1949 wherein – after much procrastination, intrigue, bloodshed and sexy skulduggery – our boy clean-cut boy-next-door finally marries his extremely understanding sweetheart Christy Jameson.

Of course, he then dragged her into his lethally adventurous world as prime problem-solver for Frontier Oil – a company with fingers in many international pies…

Before the two-fisted romance kicks off, however, the ever-erudite Rick Norwood uses a letter from Crane’s personal papers (donated to Syracuse University) to examine the creator’s history, influence and opinions in his own forthright words in ‘The Life of a Professional Artist’.

Crane and his creative team (see Buz Sawyer volume 2: Sultry’s Tigerfor details) laboured long, hard, often acrimonious hours to produce each daily strip; all beguilingly rendered in monochrome through Crane’s masterly techniques employing line art and craftint (a tricky mechanical monochrome patterning effect which added greys and halftones to produce miraculous depths and moods to the superb underlying drawing) but the toll was heavy on personnel and feelings.

The colour Sundays were usually the province of ghost artist Hank Schlensker and starred Buz’s grizzled old sidekick Roscoe Sweeny, and this volume concludes with a brief selection that primarily guest-starred the named lead and Roscoe in wartime reminiscences and occasional contemporary gag goof-offs…

The never-ending rollercoaster of thrills, spills and chills picks up as Frontier Oil’s Mr. Fixit reels at the realisation that he’s at long last formally engaged to his girl…

Buz is only just coming to grips with the marriage in prospect, whereas avowed “Ladies Man” Chili Harrison is cynically unmoved that his former office-mate is on Cloud 9… at least until they get a desperate call from mutual Navy buddy Thirsty Collins. Their homely shipmate has a problem only Buz can solve…

The old salt had made good since hostilities ended and owns his own plantation on his own island. He has, however, been maimed in an accident whilst wooing a woman by post. Now she is coming to marry her Mr. Collins, based on his winning words and a single photo… of Buz. With the jig up, Thirsty deeds Patricia Patterson all his worldly goods, sets up Sawyer to marry her and attempts his own wildly flamboyant suicide…

Reluctantly flying down to Puerto Rico, Buz is soon embroiled in a ludicrous imbroglio as, even after having everything explained, Pat professes to prefer the hunk at hand rather than her timid, missing matrimonial mystery man.

Thankfully, a colossal hurricane and a conniving, lecherous playboy cad do more to convince Collins to fight for and win his baffled bride than all Buz’s indignant, infuriated, exasperated arguments…

In Roy Crane’s world there are no tidy beginnings and endings. Each adventure follows seamlessly on from the last and even as Buz makes his way back to New York the next escapade is well underway.

Patient sweetheart Christy has had enough waiting around and goes looking for a job, landing up as Chili’s secretary, but only after the unrepentant, blithely unaware hound-dog clears the way by promoting his own highly efficient but unsightly amanuensis – at great personal and financial cost – so that he can have unrestricted access to the pretty stranger joining Frontier Oil.

Naturally, sparks fly when Sawyer finds his fiancée toiling for his dissolute and (probably) degenerate former wingman, whilst Chili is horrified to find he had lost this particular hot babe to “old Buzzo” even before he had hired her…

As Buz lays his wedding plans and retirement, his crafty boss Mr. Wright convinces him to sideline all that mushy stuff for one last job, and soon Sawyer and Sweeney are in the Goat Islands off Portugal, hunting a devious gunrunning ring supplying rebels in Salvaduras.

Masquerading as itinerant writers on a yachting jaunt, our heroes don’t fool bombastic Brobdingnagian bully Hammerhead Gool or his puny, effete but Machiavellian boss Harry Sparrow for a moment. It’s only the diminutive mastermind’s overwhelming squeamishness and sensitivity to the thought of blood that prevents their immediate destruction.

Moreover, when deception, bribery and seduction fail to deter the undercover operatives, Sparrow resorts to abducting them whilst immediately despatching the cached ordnance and munitions to the revolutionaries wrecking Frontier’s Salvaduran oil fields.

That slow voyage of the damned only leads to the explosive loss of Sparrow’s ship and shipment, as well as the end of the coup…

Back in America, Buz has proved himself too valuable to lose, and Frontier’s most important executive J.J. Freeze finds herself – when all is said and done, a “mere woman” – compelled to employ him as a bodyguard on her secret mission to secure lucrative mineral rights deals in Java and points East.

Sawyer is just as reluctant, but the promise of enough money to retire in style proves too tempting. Yet again, patient, understanding Christy is again left behind to fret and worry. She has good reason: Sparrow is still alive and eagerly anticipating the prospect of a vast payoff and some sadistically-enacted vengeance…

Tracking Freeze and Sawyer from Ireland to Egypt to Singapore, the little weasel poisons Freeze, who orders Buz to go on to Surabaya alone, carrying a cash payment of $1,000,000 for the nation’s capricious and over-educated Maharaja.

Harry even brazenly confronts Buz; putting our hero off guard as he instigates his latest master-plan: hiring a double to blacken Sawyer’s name and reputation in prim and proper Javanese High Society.

With the deal effectively scuppered, Sparrow maroons Buz on a desert island to force him to surrender the cash – unsuccessfully – before playing his final stroke: drugging the valiant Yank with a solution that causes amnesia…

Back in America, when word comes that the deal has flopped and both Buz and a million bucks are missing, Christy refuses to accept the slanderous stories and sells everything she owns to buy passage to Java. Soon she is an innocent abroad searching the dives and alleys of Surabaya for her man. When she is targeted by bandits and worse, Christy’s frantic escape brings her into contact with a crazy old lady who collects stray cats – and did the same for a derelict American with no name or memory…

The action seamlessly shifts into romantic melodrama as Christy tries to win back Buz from the lonely and dangerous harridan he has come to love, but even after that struggle heart-wrenchingly succeeds, the greater fight to clear his mind and good name continues…

When that minor miracle is finally accomplished, the restored Buz at last begins the oft-postponed wedding plans, only to be kidnapped by his rich, crazy and somehow not dead stalker Sultry, the Maharani of Batu.

In no mood to be balked, however, the impatient two-fisted groom-to-be fights his way out of her palace and onto a Honolulu-bound plane…

Back in their rural hometown in time for Christmas, Buz and Christy finally tie the knot and prepare for the rest of their lives but the new Mrs. Sawyer is still terrified that domesticity might kill her over-active husband…

As the newlyweds enjoy a carefully sequestered and discreet honeymoon off-panel, Sweeney appropriates the daily strip for a few weeks for a hilarious comedy sequence as he attempts to find them the perfect wedding present and ends up hunting Longhorn Sheep off-season in the near-arctic conditions of the Rocky Mountains in December…

A turning point began in early 1948 as Wright and the Frontier Oil brass track down Buz to offer him a life-threateningly dull desk job or a perilous field assignment in Darkest Africa.

Perfect wife Christy, understanding Buz’s needs, bravely ignores her own feelings and talks him into the latter, offering to share his addiction to danger and the unknown…

Soon the couple are trekking across the Veldt: pioneers tasked with carving an airport and oil installation out of the jungle, but the natural wonders and threats of Africa are as nothing compared to the murderously conniving schemes of their nearest neighbour.

Dashing, debonair Kingston Diamond is solicitous in advice and unctuous in his welcome of the young Americans, but his patient game includes sabotage, terrorism, slaughtering Christy’s menagerie of pets and even murdering Buz to eventually win him the only white woman in 100 miles…

As previously mentioned, also included here are fourteen of the best Sundays – all notionally with appearances by Buz (spanning July 29th 1945 to 17th February 1963) – a cheerily tantalising bonus which will hopefully turn one day into an archival collection of their own. Whilst not as innovative or groundbreaking as Captain Easy, they’re still proficient works by one of the Grandmasters of our art form.

Buz Sawyer: Typhoons and Honeymoons is a sublime slice of compelling comics wonder and an ideal way to discover or reconnect with Crane’s second magnum opus. Bold, daring, funny and enthralling, these adventures influenced generations of modern cartoonists, illustrators, comics creators and storytellers. The series ranks amongst the very greatest strip cartoon features ever created: always offering comics tale-telling that is unforgettable, unmissable and utterly irresistible. Try it and see for yourself.
Buz Sawyer: Typhoons and Honeymoons © 2014 Fantagraphics Books. All Buz Sawyer strips © 2014 King Features Syndicate, Inc. All other material © the respective copyright holders. All rights reserved.