Saturday, November 21, 2009

Can't Stop the Rock?

The current issue of BACK ISSUE MAGAZINE (
focuses on DC and Marvel war comics from the '70's -- an era in which the comics featured mainly World War II stories (with occasional trips into World War I) even as the Vietnam conflict raged on. The magazine notes that DC's flagship war-comic hero, Sgt. Frank Rock, first appeared 50 years ago. Almost simultaneously, the trades have reported that Joel Silver's 20-year quest to bring the Rock of Easy Co. to the big screen may be moving forward -- albeit by moving the combat-happy joes of Easy to (arrgh!) the future. (

All this brings back memories of my comics-reading days in the early-to-mid 1970's. Before I started collecting superhero comics, war comics were my passion. Even at that young age, I could tell the differences in the styles of Marvel's and DC's war comics. Marvel's comics (primarily SGT. FURY AND HIS HOWLING COMMANDOS; occasionally other COMMANDER AND HIS ADJECTIVE NOUNS spin-offs) were mainly gung-ho caper stories, in which the charismatic lead and his multi-ethnic team would crack wise as they cracked heads. They were basically like Marvel's superhero comics, except that the heroes killed people. The DC comics were more brooding and bordering on realistic (although they had more than their share of lone-soldier-with-a-few-grenades-takes-out-a-regiment tales). They were more likely to focus on single lead characters (Enemy Ace, Unknown Soldier, Balloon Buster, etc.) or a rank-and-file combat squad (the Easy Company dogfaces, who had colorful nicknames but weren't quite as diverse as the Howlers) rather than special-mission commando cadres. The one commando-type comic I recall featured the decidely non-heroic title THE LOSERS.

All of these comics were put out under the Comics Code. That meant (a) lots of panels of either soldiers shooting or soldiers falling -- but hardly any of the shooter and victim in the same panel; and (b) when soldiers did meet in close combat, they were more likely to resort to fisticuffs or wrestling rather than point-blank shooting or graphic knifing/bayoneting. This generally had the effect of making war look much less nasty than the footage running on the nightly news from Vietnam and the Middle East.

When I moved from war comics to superhero comics, I found two aspects of the transition jarring. First, superhero comic artists didn't know squat about drawing firearms. Although war comics artists paid lip service to drawing different weapons correctly (after all, in some stories, choice of weapon substituted for characterization), superhero comics artists would often draw vaguely gun-looking devices for the characters to shoot. (Jack Kirby, of course, knew how to draw guns; but he would design completely new firearms for the superhero comics, and you didn't care whether they had any analog in real life.) Second, superhero comics had a different attitude toward death. The death of a single person in such a comic was a monumental event. By contrast, death was such a constant in the war comics that individual lives were pretty much meaningless. I like to think I benefited from the transition.

Anyway, I think that the various efforts to bring comic book soldiers like Rock to the silver screen is doomed. There's really no reason to bring war stories from the comics to movies; movies have been doing WWII stories about ordinary soldiers since, well, WWII. That said, I do think SGT. FURY AND HIS HOWLING COMMANDOS has already been translated into a movie, with some success -- except that it was called INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS.

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