Why SGT. ROCK’s War Stories Need to Be Heard

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When it comes to war stories, action sells. It becomes easy, then, to sweep under the rug of DC Entertainment’s action-packed war comics of old. It’s easy to see them as nationalistic, militaristic pulp — relics of a less enlightened era with as much relevance today as lard, cigarettes, and fedoras. Before writing this article, I thought as much. Yet should we ignore them? I mean, weren’t they at least somewhat successful? At the top of the list of successful war comics sits DC’s SGT. ROCK.

Beginning in the late 1950s, stories of Sergeant Rock and Easy company were told and sold for almost 30 years, spanning an impressive run of no less than 350 issues. What made his war stories successful? What set his tales apart from the others told at the time? Ultimately, is there anything we can learn from SGT. ROCK today? Does he really belong in the past?

Growing up in a military family, living in military communities, and living near former battlefields my whole life, it’s a question that’s at once relevant and extremely personal to me. It’s something that I can only answer through my own experience with war stories — both the ones I see portrayed in fiction and the personal tales I hear from veterans. War stories are an indelible part of my life, and it’s a topic I feel privileged to examine. First, with SGT. ROCK, and then others that may follow in this series.

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My First War Story — or How I Learned About WWII…

I came to know about DC’s war comics thanks to my dad. He grew up in the mid-1960s, during, arguably, the heyday of war comics. Based on my dad’s DC collection, they were just as popular as the other titles. For every superhero comic we’d find — tucked away in old suitcases or desk drawers — we’d find at least one war comic.

Yet it wasn’t just me exploring my dad’s old stuff. I have an older brother and, at the impressionable ages of young and younger, we decided to play “WWII” at my grandmother’s house. Up in the attic — where my dad stored his old comics  — we found a few items to facilitate our pretend game. One was my great-grandfather’s GI helmet, complete with captain’s bars. The other was a helmet with which that same great-grandfather returned stateside. It was grey steel and sloped down in the back to cover the nape of the neck. At a young age, I didn’t really know what the eagle, painted on the helmet’s side, clutched in its talons:

Sgt. Rock

We next found some cap guns for weapons. My brother, who had taken more history than me, split them up by helmet, good-guy versus bad-guy. So, by older-brother logic, I got to be the bad guy. Donning his green helmet and clutching a replica M1, he climbed down the attic ladder while I counted off 30 seconds. I was worried more about my strategy than what side I was on.

To me, it was just tag. Yet I think my mom must have had a whole herd of cows when she saw me running after my brother with a replica Luger in hand and an over-sized Luftwaffe helmet on my head.

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Our First War Stories Emulated the Battles — Not the Soldiers

These days, I grimace at the memory of running around the living room and backyard of Manasquan, New Jersey dressed like a Nazi. Yet, at the time, I didn’t know better. In the unwritten rules of cap-gun fights, I had to shoot — or be shot. So like hell was I going to be the one who lost.

That, dear reader, is my first war story. Right around that age, it would soon be joined by other tales of pantomimed military action. When we moved to East Tennessee and saw colonial-era reenactments at Fort Loudoun, my brother and I were at it again. I remember wielding my father’s single-shot musket cap-gun while my brother used his six-shooter, all in our front yard. Yet it wasn’t just cap-guns we used to fight. When we got plastic swords, us and the neighborhood kids would have at each other, pretending to fix bayonets and charge.

In the end, my childhood war stories were games of action. You had an enemy who was your enemy because they weren’t on your side. If they shot you or stabbed you, you lost. No heady tales of morality, widows, and orphans — we were just boys, pretending to be soldiers, “killing” each other.

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Throughout all of this, I read the war comics. I remember the various and sundry issues the best — but the titles, I’ve forgotten. The plots were formulaic, following a single soldier in some combat peril. Although tension would be high, and buddies would be lost, they would survive. That survival, of course, would come through the killing of nameless Nazis, Imperial Japanese, or North Koreans. In other words, the bad guys.

War Stories of Action Sold the War Comics

When I read the comics, I wasn’t looking for depth. I was looking for the action. I wanted to see the close-calls and blow-by-blow sequences that I could reenact in play. With my dad’s war comic collection, I had plenty of inspiration.

Before SGT. ROCK came on the scene, war comics were already popular. By the late 1950s, Robert Kanigher was an editor and writer at DC for five different war comics: G.I. COMBAT, OUR ARMY AT WAR, OUR FIGHTING FORCES, ALL-AMERICAN MEN OF WAR, and STAR-SPANGLED WAR STORIES. They promised tales of action and heroism — all on the battlefield.

Sgt. Rock
An advertisement for STAR-SPANGLED WAR STORIES appearing in OUR ARMY AT WAR #83. Image courtesy of DC Entertainment.

I, at the same age my dad was in the 1960s, gobbled these stories up. Not just in comics, but in any of the war movies or video games that would follow in their place. In other words, I proved Joe Kubert right, the famed artist who collaborated with Robert Kanigher to create these comics. See his reply, below, to a well-thought-out fan letter:

Sgt. Rock
Joe Kubert responds to a veteran’s fan letter from OUR ARMY AT WAR #300. Image courtesy of DC Entertainment.

So I played right into their hands, just like my dad before me. And in my memory, I declared these comics action war stories and nothing else. So when I looked back through the war comics, now, imagine my surprise when I discovered that wasn’t the whole story. It’s true that pulp action was a major component of these comics, but there’s a kernel of something deeper within each. Something, unfortunately, that I never saw as a kid.

For All of Their Action, the Anthologies Did Have Some Heart

For one, there was a fair deal of history and knowledge to be gained in these comics. Especially in OUR ARMY AT WAR, “Combat Corner” was a section where readers could write in with questions about the military. Fan letters often discussed — in-length — technical corrections to the drawings of military vehicles or weaponry. If that wasn’t enough, there were also two-page stories discussing select topics in military history or tradition.

Sgt. Rock
“Combat Corner” from OUR ARMY AT WAR #82. Image courtesy of DC Entertainment.

Yet the education wasn’t all academic. Even though the hero would often live to survive another day, it wasn’t without change. The one-shot stories told the transformative events of the protagonist’s life — for better or worse. Through their eyes, we could see the effect of war in all of its manifestations. It would shape their outlook on life or attitude towards their situation. Through this method of storytelling, we got to hear the most important war story each character had to share. Though full of action, if we simply listened, we could hear the deeper message.

Sgt. Rock
In a trying moment, a soldier witnesses his buddy take a grenade for him in OUR ARMY AT WAR #1. Image courtesy of DC Entertainment.

Yet OUR ARMY AT WAR was still no different from the other anthologies of the time, which all followed single stories of individual soldiers. It wouldn’t be until a special moment in 1959 that the comic became something different. As Joe Kubert writes: “The day Bob handed me a script featuring a character called Sgt. Rock held no special significance for me — or Bob. Just another war story about an American soldier. I don’t think either one of us ever dreamt that fifty years later, Sgt. Rock would still be around.”

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Enter Sgt. Rock and the “Happy-Combat Joes” of Easy Company

In OUR ARMY AT WAR #81, April of 1959, we get our first introduction to a sergeant by the nickname of “Rocky.” Sgt. Rocky, a former steel mill worker, faces a Nazi enemy known as the Iron Captain. With many, many allusions to working steel, it’s clear where this fight will go. The surprise, however, is that it’s all told through the eyes of an injured PFC caught up in the conflict. It’s the effect of watching Sgt. Rocky’s unshakable demeanor that inspires the storyteller.

Sgt. Rock
The inevitable outcome is Rocky’s victory in OUR ARMY AT WAR #81, the Nazis surrender. Image courtesy of DC Entertainment.

Although Sgt. Rock shows up again in issue #82, it’s OUR ARMY AT WAR #83 where he appears most prominent. In a scene foretelling Braveheart’s The Legend Spreads,” we get stories of the mighty Rock of Easy Company. A swaggering soldier, unimpressed with Sgt. Rock’s battlefield demeanor, joins Easy and does what he can to show he’s better than Rock. Yet, in a pivotal moment, he’s ashamed and ends up learning humility from Rock’s example.

Sgt. Rock
“The Wall” learns a lesson from “the Rock” in OUR ARMY AT WAR #83. Image courtesy of DC Entertainment.

From that point on, Sgt. Rock became a regular feature in each anthology. In issue #302, DC renamed the comic to SGT. ROCK. That was in 1977 and SGT. ROCK would run until issue #422 in 1988.

Sgt. Rock was “the Rock” on Which Easy Company Leaned

As the issues piled on, other soldiers become staples of Easy Company. There was Bulldozer — a massive, hulk of a man and Rock’s second-in-command. Then there was Wildman, sporting a thick, red beard, who often lost his temper when the action got too hot. Little Sure Shot was an Apache sniper, able to track down enemies with ruthless efficiency. African American Jackie Johnson appeared with Easy Company before the army was desegregated. Finally, there was Ice Cream Soldier — shortened later to “Ice” — a man who never lost his cool no matter how bad combat got.

Sgt. Rock
Easy Company in their skivvies in OUR ARMY AT WAR #300 — because fighting is never easy for them! Image courtesy of DC Entertainment.

Yet all of Easy Company — including the replacements who didn’t make it past a single issue — rallied around Sgt. Rock. This didn’t come from his combat prowess. It was his personality, leadership, and down-and-dirty suffering with his company that gave his men strength to face the action of the war. Where some of Easy is brash and bombastic, Sgt. Rock shows restraint. When others become cold and inured to war, Sgt. Rock shows compassion (and even tears). To Easy Company, he’s the model soldier, in touch with his humanity when so many would lose it.

Sgt. Rock
In OUR ARMY AT WAR #175, Rock witnesses an enemy aircraft strafe a little girl — and loses it. Image courtesy of DC Entertainment.

The effect that Sgt. Rock had on Easy Company is clear. He was “the rock” on which his men could depend, both in a pinch and afterwards when the horrors of war were too much to fathom. Was there violence? Yes, but although SGT. ROCK glorified the action, it never glorified the war.

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The War Stories of Easy Company Told the Soldier’s Stories

For this subtle distinction, I give Robert Kanigher (and later, writing in the 2000s, Joe Kubert himself and Billy Tucci) a lot of credit. As SGT. ROCK developed, it didn’t become a grisly anti-war series (like Warren Publishing’s BLAZING COMBAT). Instead, we got to know the company who kept fighting despite the losses they faced.

What lessons can that teach an audience? There are elements of duty. You follow orders because they protect you and your own. There’s honor — you take prisoners of war if enemy soldiers surrender. You bury the dead, care for the civilian, and try to keep your soul intact.

Sgt. Rock
Sgt. Rock confronts a disturbed “replacement” in Easy Company in SGT. ROCK #351. Image courtesy of DC Entertainment.

These elements are even more obvious in later incarnations. SGT. ROCK: BETWEEN HELL AND A HARD PLACE (2003) asks if murder can still happen in wartime. THE PROPHECY (2006) is about keeping a young rabbi safe so he can tell the world about the Holocaust. THE LOST BATTALION (2009) uses Sgt. Rock and Easy Company to tell the real-life WWII story of the Lost Battalion. All three — written for a mature audience — could eschew the action pulp to reveal the deeper moral underpinnings always present in SGT. ROCK. Or, at least, when action is present, blood is too.

Sgt. Rock
Ice Cream Soldier witnesses the death of a recruit from SGT. ROCK: BETWEEN HELL AND A HARD PLACE. Image courtesy of DC Entertainment.

BETWEEN HELL AND A HARD PLACE and THE PROPHECY were written by Joe Kubert (the latter illustrated by him, too). When reading them, you get a sense that he finally got to tell the stories he’d been wanting to tell. During the Vietnam War, DC Entertainments’s monogram, “Make War No More” was attributed to him.

From the War Stories of Soldiers, I Began to Listen

With much older eyes, I can pick out the intended message of the war stories better than with my action-obsessed eyes of youth. The reason for that is simple. In the second half of my life with my parents, from 1999 on, I became a military dependent. That’s when my dad, supplier of war comics and replica cap-guns, was commissioned as an officer in the United States Navy.

After that — and especially when the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan started — those nameless soldiers became people I knew. When we visited battlefields, I started to read more of the testimonies from soldiers and civilians. You start to become aware of the horrors of war. The lines between good-guys and bad-guys blur to become lines of good and evil — on both sides. You start to listen to the war stories. The war stories of the soldiers — the people — who fought.

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What do those war stories tell? Stories of suffering, stories of pain — but also the stories of valor, stories of camaraderie. Stories of sacrificing one’s life so that others may live. These are the war stories of SGT. ROCK. These are the stories worth listening to, if those who lived them want to share.

I think, more than anything else, that’s what kept SGT. ROCK and Easy Company popular. Audiences could see the soldiers suffer together and follow their journey as real human beings. A journey we can follow in how a soldier lives but also in how a soldier dies.

Sgt. Rock
In DC UNIVERSE: LEGACIES #4 we see the culmination of SGT. ROCK’s war stories in how he died: taking the last bullet fired on the last day of the war to save a little girl. Image courtesy of DC Entertainment.

What Should Be the Future of War Comics?

I do believe that war comics are still relevant, simply because we still have soldiers. We still have issues in the world that leaders seek to solve by having men and women die fighting each other. Those conflicts involve real people making real sacrifices. In other words — to come back to the start — wars generate stories to which a captive audience will listen.

Yet not everyone who writes war stories will have served. Therefore, for those of us who aren’t soldiers, we need to be careful about the war stories we tell. Focus too much on action, and we lose the face of the person fighting that war. Focus too much on the horror of war, and we risk condemning the soldier instead of the conflict.

When we can, we should be open to listening to the war stories of veterans — but only if they’re willing to share. Traumatic events and difficult decisions leave their mark on veterans of all conflicts. In BETWEEN HELL AND A HARD PLACE, we’re reminded of the reason behind Easy Company’s goofy nicknames. It happens when a soldier — nicknamed Grease — objects to Sgt. Rock refusing to call him and other new members by their names:

“Look…who you were, you left stateside. You’re lucky, you’ll get to be that person again. In Easy, who we are now is all that matters. This war, you’re gonna do some things the person you were might find damn hard to live with. So I’m doing him a flavor, leavin ‘im home. You get it… Grease?”

Does Sharing the Stories Work?

On that final note — listening to the war stories of soldiers — I’ll end with my dad again. His calling is the ministry, and, as an ordained pastor, he entered the Navy in the Chaplain Corp.

Before his commission, he worked at the VA, counseling religiously-inclined veterans. Day in and day out, he’d witness vets suffering from PTSD and other mental scars from their service — what they saw or what they did. It would be in college when I learned why he joined the Navy. “I wondered if I couldn’t be there to help them before they came to me at the VA,” he said.

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There’s a magic in storytelling. In any traumatic event, it’s easy to tell stories about yourself to yourself: how I’ve failed, how I’m guilty of an unspeakable offense, or how I’m broken and unfit.

Yet when you tell your story to someone else, you can’t hide behind your own tales. When a captive audience hears a story and connects to the narrator, it’s to a being capable of humanity. The connection between audience and storyteller is a two-way sharing of human bonds.

This is what I saw my dad do. Chaplains rotate being “on call” — that is, a duty to be available, day or night (or weekend) to be present when crises of war stories happen. From the extremes of suicide intervention to marital disputes, he’d sit and listen — listen to the war stories. In listening, he’d remind the soldier of his or her humanity.

Were these war stories exciting and full of action? No, but from the same dad who introduced me to his childhood war stories of action, I’m happy to share the new ones.

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