Emanata: Old Soldiers Die

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We never met Frank Rock until he was already dead. Sgt. Rock and Easy Company were longest-running protagonists of American war comic books: from their initial appearances in G.I. Combat and Our Army at War in 1959 to the end of Sgt. Rock in 1988, they appeared monthly for more than 28 years. By the time World War II comics became popular, of course, the war was long over–and, as Rock’s longtime writer Robert Kanigher put it, “he and Easy Company live only, and will eventually die, to the last man, in World War II.”

Until now, there’d never been, as far as I know, a canonical death-of-Sgt.-Rock story; it was the received wisdom that Rock had been killed by the final bullet fired in World War II. And now we’ve seen how it happened: in this week’s DC Universe Legacies #4, there’s an eight-page backup story, “Snapshot: Remembrance,” written by Bronze Age master Len Wein and drawn by Joe Kubert, the artist most closely associated with Rock. The premise is that a bunch of DC’s major war characters meet up in a bar on July 4, 1976, to talk over old times and memorialize the sergeant. There’s a flashback in which things go down as expected, with a too-sweet twist: on the last day of the war, Rock gets shot as he’s rescuing a little girl who’s wandered into the middle of the firefight (she’s holding a small doll, as little girls who wander into firefights in comics tend to do).

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The rest of the story is undiluted fan-service: Gunner and Sarge are still hanging out, Johnny Cloud is in Congress, Gravedigger’s a colonel, the bartender’s named Bob-as-in-Kanigher (and turns out to be the Unknown Soldier in disguise, although we never actually get to see him scratching his face Unknown Soldier-style). And hey, it looks like the rest of Easy Company survived after all! Mademoiselle Marie pops by; she’s now an ambassador (of course), and she’s there with her tall, handsome son, who’s the very image of Frank Rock. Kubert’s artwork isn’t as tight and urgent-looking as it was back in the ’60s and early ’70s (or as passionate and eccentric as his recent graphic novel Dong Xoai, Vietnam 1965), but that’s fine in this context; his relaxed, scraggly line has more character and authority than most artists half his age can muster, and having him draw the story makes the wrinkles on these characters’ faces seem legitimately earned.

The problem with “Snapshot: Remembrance,” though, isn’t just that it’s a series of winks: it’s that we as readers know and care less about these characters after it than we did before. (To put it differently, it’s not that Rock dies, it’s that everyone else lives.) It’s a natural impulse to want to give a long-serving character a happy ending. But that rarely does much good, and it’s especially counterproductive for characters who “live only” as warriors: not only does knowing that all of the rest of DC’s World War II cast survived into the ’70s sap the strength of any future story they might appear in, it’s dramatically unsatisfying.

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It’s not impossible to write a powerful conclusion to a serial of this kind: it just has to stick to the serial’s tone. Compare, for instance, the story about the death of long-running Western antihero Jonah Hex that Michael Fleischer wrote in 1978: Hex is shot down as an old man, then stuffed and mounted and sold to a traveling Wild West show. (He doesn’t survive his mileu either, and his body suffers even a greater indignity in death than in life.) Or Combat Kelly and his Deadly Dozen, a  Marvel war series from the early ’70s which ended with a deranged issue in which nearly the entire cast gets slaughtered one by one. Or the fate of Mayor Mitchell Hundred, a.k.a. the Great Machine, as seen in the final issue of Ex Machina this week: he’s destroyed in spirit by the greater political machine.

Wein’s story, on the other hand, says too little about the nature of the characters he’s brought together. Kubert’s covers for Kanigher’s old Sgt. Rock stories were slaps in the face, and statements about the horrible cruelties and moral ambiguities of war: Rock freezing to death, or devastated that he’s killed a young boy, or watching a comrade’s doom, or begging a medic to start shooting. But the death Wein has given Rock might be the least morally ambiguous situation the sergeant has found himself in in half a century of comics.

The DC war heroes’ destiny–peace, honor and drinking buddies–is what actual soldiers may earn, but fictional soldiers never can. Of course Rock died by the final bullet of World War II: that was Kanigher’s way of saying that he was the toughest of them all, and that his character couldn’t make sense outside the context of that war. Neither could any of the others in this story, if you want to be honest about it; Rock would have been the last one to fall.