Saturday, February 21, 2009

Out of the Vault - Fightin' Army #60

I was never a big fan of the war titles, but my stepbrother couldn't get enough of 'em, especially DC's, so I became very familiar with the big names on the DC side--Sgt. Rock, the Losers, Enemy Ace, the Haunted Tank, the Unknown Soldier--mostly written by Robert Kanigher and drawn by either Russ Heath or Joe Kubert. I read exactly one issue of Sgt. Fury and his Howlin' Commandos, but the rough-and-tumble style of the Marvel soldiers seemed like kid's stuff next to the general excellence of the DC war line.

And then there's the Charlton title, Fightin' Army. I actually have three issues of this. Two were either purchases by my step-brother or else they were part of a random vacation stack my step-mother bought before a road trip. This one, Fightin' Army #60, carries the cover date November 1964, so it would have been published a couple of months before, when I was still one year old.

I think I salvaged it from a dumpster. There was a big dumpster set up in our neighborhood for people to drop off newspapers for recycling, and we discovered that sometimes people dumped old comics in there. One time, I found a bundle of old stuff, including an issue of Classic Comics adapting the tale of Marco Polo. That's where I think I discovered this.

It's not very good. Fightin' Army was an anthology title full of self-contained stories ranging from three pages long all the way to eight. The art is dull. The lettering looks mechanical and contains some odd typos like "LT? SHORTELL."

The stories aren't very well written, either. The first seems like a true-life account of a forward observer during the Korean War, Lt. Guy Shortell. Over four pages, Shortell demonstrates how awesome he is at calling in artillery on the enemy, until the final two panels of the story, in which Shortell is shot by enemy soldiers then calls in fire on his own position as it is overrun. In a DC comic, this would be a dramatic moment, with an emotional ending and the bittersweet "Make War No More" medallion at the end. The Charlton version is more like "I'm shot. I'm dead. The End." Sorry. Just "End."

The next story is written in first person, about a Special Forces soldier in Vietnam who's dealing with a Viet Cong infiltrator in a village he's trying to protect. I think it might have been sent in by a reader. In three pages, he tracks down the enemy agent and catches him. Then...

The ending is so low-key and anti-climactic, it feels as if it were written by Harvey Pekar.

Other stories are more typical war comic fare: a soldier who's assigned a screw-up buddy who ends up saving his life, a World War I pilot challenged to an aerial duel by one of Von Richtofen's aces, and an odd little story about an American soldier sent to fetch a bottle of champagne for a general in northern France during WWII. He takes a wrong turn and ends up behind enemy lines. Luckily, his family was German, so he speaks the language. He steals a uniform and, posing as an enemy soldier, loses the champagne but manages to kill an enemy commander.

Really, the most interesting thing about the comic is the cover. If you've ever seen comics that were published during WWII, you'd remember covers bulging with action--hordes of soldiers shooting each other, or shooting at Captain America or the Human Torch, skies full or warplanes dropping bombs, shells flying everywhere.

This comic was published after the Comics Code Authority had been established, so it has to give the appearance of mayhem without actually depicting it. Two soldiers in the background tear down a Nazi flag, while a third soldier fires his sumachine gun. At first glance, it looks like it might be taking place during a raging battle.

But if that's so, why are the two soldiers in background wasting time tearing down a flag instead of mopping up the enemy? Why is the third soldier shooting at an empty Nazi helmet floating in the air? Is there a dead soldier flopping on the ground just out of frame? Or did somebody toss the helmet in the air for target practice? Or is the soldier simply invisible?

Seriously, what's the deal?

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