27 September 2012

A Post-Mortem on Two Comic Book Series

Editor's note: The following is Part IV of this week's Red Bull Rising mini-series "Comic Book Re: Insurgency." For more insights and information about telling war stories using graphic-novel techniques, see also Part I, Part IIPart III, and Part V.

After a incomplete study of DC Comics' 21st century "Men of War" and "G.I. Combat" updates—each of which was cancelled after runs of less than 12 monthly issues—I'm prepared to make a few "lessons learned" diagnoses.

Each title featured one serialized story and one standalone story in each issue. The writers of "Men of War" sought to update the World War II character of Sgt. Rock by recruiting his nephew into a modern-day suicide squad. Despite the clandestine nature of its missions, the squad was still clearly in the military. Modern-day uniforms and real-world weapons. Not a ray gun or killer robot in sight.

That's not to say that strange things were not afoot. Sgt. Rock and his team would occasionally encounter mysterious people on the battlefield. They might have been friendlies, allies, or potential targets. Also, one of the members may have had superpowers. The figuring it all out was the fun part. Or, it would've been, had the series not been cancelled.

Much of the writing was notably internal monologue. In other words, readers were inside Sgt. Rock's head. In real-time. This is an important technique in war comics. Otherwise, war-comic characters would have to spout running commentaries on their intentions and actions. Imagine: "I'm firing my weapon!" or "I'm shooting at you!" It just sounds a little silly, when the rest of your action seems based in reality.

Whether or not the new Sgt. Rock existed in the same storied universe as Superman, Batman, and the like is uncertain. The inclusion of superhuman or mystical entities actually could've worked. Television programs such as "Heroes" (2006-2010) and "Alphas" (2011-present) have successfully built on this question: What would happen if select "normal" humans started exhibiting strange powers?

Put that in the context of a small military unit, such as a U.S. Army squad, and I'm already popping the popcorn.

Still, "Men at War" apparently generated little heat on comics store racks.

Its replacement title, "G.I. Combat," also sought to reinvent, resurrect, or rejuvenate some long-established DC properties, including "The War that Time Forgot" and "The Unknown Solider."

The former storyline involved a group of U.S. soldiers who parachute into an electrical storm on the Korean Peninsula, only to find themselves in a land zoning hot with Great Lizard madness. Dinosaurs make for a lot of sizzle, but little steak. Once you've seen one knife fight with a Tyrannosaurus Rex, or a machine-gun ambush of stampeding Brontosauruses, you've pretty much seen everything. There's also not a lot of ink or pages left over for character development.

I kept looking for some old guy to say: "Welcome, to Jurassic FOB!"

Having remembered the character from my comic-book collecting adolescence, I really wanted to like "The Unknown Soldier." The narrative follows the attempts of a soldier without identity, facially disfigured and psychologically shaky, to wreak havoc and revenge on his country's enemies. The 2012 title updated the character's ability to disguise himself using realistic but temporary mask technology, and gave him super strength, endurance, stamina, night vision, and healing ability. The Unknown Soldier, in other words, is Captain America, Wolverine, and Darkman, all wrapped up in the same bandages. Toss in some Mission: Impossible and Bourne-again memory loss for good measure.

Then, it got downright unrealistic.

In one mission, he is issued a Barrett .50-cal. sniper rifle with "silencer, computer software, and time-bomb rounds." In another, he digitally downloads the memories of a high-level terrorist. At one point, someone back at the TOC wants to push the self-destruct button on the "nuke" that has apparently been medically placed upon The Unknown Soldier's person.

The bottom line: Even if "Men of War" was perhaps too subtle for its own good—there is, after all, a fine line between building a slow reveal, and losing the reader to shiny objects—perhaps The Unknown Soldier was a bit too over-the-top.

I'm secretly glad that "Men of War" and "G.I. Combat" are finite. My recent research expedition into the local comic book shop triggered my old collector's obsessive-compulsive need to own every issue of something. Having a few holes in the stacks will give me something for which to search in passing, but not make the relationship among my resurgent hobby, my local retailer, and my wallet an open-ended and potentially abusive one.

That said, I picked up two issues of the new "Think Tank" series from Top Cow. It started out as a 4-issue limited series, but the company has announced that it will expand to 12 issues. The story involves a snarky young weapons designer who decides that he's tired of indirectly killing people. Imagine Tony Stark without the Iron Man suit, with a good dose of Dr. Gregory HouseDoctor Who, or maybe the Benedict Cumberbatch version of Sherlock Holmes. There are drones and thought-readers and smart munitions. For people who like their mil-fiction with a little science, or their mil-science with a little fiction, this one is worth a trip to the comics store.

That, however, is another story, for another day.

Tomorrow: Our final (?) discussion of writers and artists who are successfully telling war stories through their own super projects. Stay tuned, True Believers!

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