Saturday, July 26, 2014

Favorite DC Characters #4 - Sgt. Rock

Character: Frank Rock aka Sgt. Rock, the Rock of Easy Company

Creators: Robert Kanigher, Joe Kubert

First appearance: Our Army at War #83

First encounter: It could be any one of my dad's old Our Army at War comics. Offhand, I'm going to guess it's either issue 213, 214, or 234. Those are the ones I have the oldest memories of reading through.

Definitive writer: Kanigher and Kubert. Most of my dad's comics are from the period when Kubert took over writing, and Russ Heath drew them, but not all, so I'm going to credit them both.

Definitive artist: JOE KUBERT! Even though Heath drew most of the ones I have, Kubert still did his share, plus the covers, and it's his Rock, a little more worn, a face that's more creased, the whipcord arms, that I think of.

Favorite moment or story: Look, there are a lot of moments of Rock being awesome, beating Nazi's butts and saving the day, but I'm picking Kanigher and Kubert's "Easy's Had It", which was in Our Army at War #203 (I'm not sure if it was a reprint or that was its first appearance). The story is about how all of Easy Company is convinced Rock is this invincible super-soldier and that he's all that keeps Easy going. Rock continually tries to beat it into their heads that no one is indispensable, and everyone is expected to carry on if any of the others fall. Unfortunately, he keeps undercutting his point by saving the entire company with single-handed exploits of awesomeness, as he takes out two Tiger tanks, and later shoots down an Me109. Then Easy Co is sent to take out an entrenched group of Nazis on a hill overlooking a critical road, and Rock gets hit. As Easy Co seemingly has no medic, the guys are convinced Rock is dead (though he's merely stunned). For a moment, all seems lost as his guys carry him down the hill. Then they stop, and set him to, as Bulldozer puts it, 'watch them finish. . . what he started.' Then they start back up that hill as Bulldozer exhorts the guys to show how combat happy they can get. . . for ROCK! It gets a little dusty every time I read that story. 

What I like about him: Well Rock won Toughest Guy in Comics in a 2006 poll conducted on Chris Sims' original Invincible Super-Blog, how can I go wrong with that?

I was not initially a big fan of Sgt. Rock, or any of DC's war comic characters. I wanted superheroes, and my dad had relatively few of those in his collection. And most of what he had was DC, and I wasn't up for Silver Age Superman and the constant stream of tricks he played on his friends. That changed as I got a little older. Part of it was, since the war comics featured characters who were human, they were more in the underdog vein I found I preferred. The Haunted Tank was this little M-3 Stuart that constantly found itself up against German tanks many times larger than it was. The Losers were 4 guys always up against superior numbers (and their own neuroses about being losers). The Unknown Soldier, even with all his skills and tricks, was usually alone in hostile ground, with no hope of back-up if things went wrong.

Then there's Rock. He's tough, but not bullet-proof. He gets wounded, he gets beat up sometimes. He's experienced, but not infallible. The Nazis can still get the drop on him sometimes. He's a good solider, but he's not some specially trained secret agent master of disguise, nor does he know how to fly planes or pilot boats, and he doesn't have the ghost of a Confederate general giving him hints and warnings. The closest thing he has is his "Sergeant's Radar", and that's something he developed by virtue of having fought in the war for awhile. He became a sergeant by, as he puts it in "Battle of the Sergeants", 'just by bein' lucky and lastin' longer than anyone else atop a certain hill I'd rather forget.' Rock might have been a little tougher than your average American citizen who was drafted to fight (by virtue of being a steel mill worker and semi-pro boxer before the war), but at the end of the day, he was mostly a regular guy who had to stay alive long enough to learn how to fight in a war, just like most people.

While Rock is generally a tough, no-nonsense guy, he does have a sense of humor. he's not likely to unleash a gut-bustin' laugh, but he's getting a decent bit of amusement out of Easy's attempt to surprise him with some new duds in the picture up above. Beyond that, he has a solid core of compassion the war hasn't dimmed. Rock looks after the guys in his company, even the ones who cause trouble. When PFC Hogan shows up in issue #214's "Easy Co. . . Where Are You?" and immediately starts in with the sass mouth and questioning Rock's competence, Rock refuse to give in to the urge to whip Hogan's butt. When Hogan gets himself captured (because he thought he could handle everything himself), Rock's determined to save him, and leads the charge on the enemy position to rescue him. When Smitty finds himself too scared to fight, Rock talks to him about how everyone has hang-ups, and the key is to turn them to your advantage. In Rock's case, he cares about his men to the point he nearly gets killed trying to gather the dog tags of the fallen under fire (and we see it in other stories of that time, so this wasn't a one-off thing). But it also manifests itself in the way he doesn't ostracize Smitty for being scared, but instead calmly works with him to conquer his fear, to realize he's part of the group, and while they rely on him, he can also rely on them. That lesson of "Easy Had It" again, that no one person has to win the war themselves, it's everyone's job.

The compassion carries beyond Easy Company, though. Rock's inclination when meeting people not in uniform is to consider them friendly or non-hostile until they give him a reason to think otherwise. In issue #234, when Easy takes part in the invasion of Italy, they make their way into an old pisan's house. He's not out to make any trouble, so when three Tiger tanks rumble up, Rock tells his guys to get ready to hightail, so this family and their home aren't destroyed. As it turns out, the home has a basement, and the pisan encourages Easy to duck down in there with his family, but Rock's first instinct was to draw the war way from these innocent people. A few issues prior to that, Rock was attacked by an enemy soldier in the snow, who turned out the be a 17-year old boy. Rock's exhausted, maybe at the end of his tether, so it haunts him, and ultimately he finds the boy's home to deliver his effects personally to the family. It's not the smartest move, but Rock doesn't want to kill anyone, certainly not a kid, and he felt like he owed it to him. It's one of the key things in DC (and probably also Marvel's) war comics, there's no glorification of the person who loses himself in the opportunity the battlefield presents to kill.

In fact, in issue #233, Rock may have killed one of his own men, Pvt. Johnnie Doe, who was committed to killing anyone he could justify as an enemy. Could be Nazis with their weapons in the air, could be people dressed as farmers carrying guns, Johnnie didn't care, he just shot them. They hadn't said they were resistance fighters, or that they were surrendering, after all. He was just being careful to protect his guys, he might claim, but it's all an excuse. Eventually, he was ready to drop a grenade down the chimney of a house that had enemy soldiers in it, but also a family they were using as shields. Johnnie proclaimed the whole thing a set-up, even as Rock shouts at him not do it, it'll be murder. And then Rock fires in the same panel the grenade explodes, and Rock's left with questions as to whether Johnnie held the grenade too long, or Rock killed him.

Certainly, Frank Rock is a bit of an idealized vision of an American soldier, but I don't think that's a bad thing. He's a citizen solider doing his best to carry out orders, while not spilling any more blood than he can avoid, on either side. He was asked by his country to try and help stem the tide of totalitarianism and help people in other countries be free alongside millions of other people, and that's what he's trying to do. He doesn't take any joy in killing or death, it's just an ugly reality he has to deal with. The goal is to help something better come about, and there have to be people alive afterwards to enjoy that something better for it to mean anything.

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