Friday, October 31, 2014

Sgt. Rock Day: Between Hell & A Hard Place

After reading the superb mini-series, The Prophecy, I dug into my comic archives and came up with the preceding visit to Sgt. Rock and Easy Company, Between Hell & A Hard Place.  While the story takes place AFTER Prophecy, the comics were released 3 years earlier in 2003.  After a long layoff from the character, Joe Kubert was asked to consider doing covers for a new series then those talks became focused on Kubert doing the actual book.  Not wanting to take on writing and artist duties, DC's Vertigo brand lined up 100 Bullets' Brian Azzarello for scripting.  Set in 1944, Hell & Hard finds Easy Company in the woods along the Belgian and German border where units are being torn apart daily by German troops.  Replacements arrive to fill ranks but the fresh from the mint greenhorns are more of a hindrance than a help.

In this case I had the series collected into a beautiful graphic novel that included an opening page introducing Sgt. Rock and his Combat-Happy Joes.  Here you are reminded that Rock's first name is Frank and that he hails from Pennsylvania where he was a professional boxer turned steel mill worker before being drafted.  Bulldozer is actually Horace Nichols, Ice Cream Soldier is Terry O'Riley, Wildman is Harold Shapiro and Little Sure Shot is Louis Kiyahani.  Unlike the slice of life Prophecy, Hell & Hard fleshes out the characters as we learn that Ice was in prison and the Army was a way out, we see the friendly yet edgy dynamic between Wildman and Sure Shot, that Rock is there to wipe their behinds and noses, etc.  The realistic approach to storytelling starts right away as Ice visits with an injured comrade who has lost both hands in battle.  From there things only get worse as another soldier gets promoted to Lieutenant after his two superiors are killed while on patrol.  Stuck in the dense woods, patrols are getting ripped up regularly as the Germans push in.  A new detachment finds itself under fire and panicking when they run into the stoic Sgt. Rock and his men.  Of course Bulldozer and the rest don't want new replacements, especially inexperienced ones to have to babysit but orders are orders.

A very interesting beat is when Sgt. Rock tells the new kids not to introduce themselves and gives each one a nickname as who they were back in the world no longer matters and after the horrors they'll face in the war, they'll want to leave their nick names behind and go back to their real identities.  So you get Grease, Tinny, Cowboy and the like.  After stumbling upon a group of German soldiers in their foxholes, Rock and friends capture four SS Officers but after a skirmish, three of them end up dead, executed, and the fourth has escaped.  While the troops are used to the killing, the murder of the three SS Officers seems wrong, even in time of war and the finger pointing begins.  Could someone from Easy Company just murdered three unarmed men?  From there, Easy Company is tasked with taking a town where they deal with snipers, dug in troops and Tiger tanks as they pursue the escaped SS Officer.

Kubert's art seems surprisingly different here than in Prophecy, lines aren't as tight and everything has a washed out, mushy feel but upon comparison, it's the color job that makes the difference.  Whereas Prophecy has a drab, solid appearance, Hell & Hard utilizes a color palette that reminded me of water paint with its variations in texture and fill.  It's still dynamic and exciting with lots of details in the woods, expressions on faces, explosiveness in the action scenes and in a very unique editing choice, full on music bars and lyrics to accompany a woman singing in French.  It's also very violent with impalement, burning alive, grenades, close quarter combat, headshots, booby trap mines and lots of spilled blood. Azzarello's script reminds you of 2001's Band of Brothers, particularly the Bastogne episodes where they're holed up in the woods being shelled by Germans then invade the town.  There's moral conundrums galore as our characters discuss killing versus murdering, doing what they have to in order to survive, revenge, punishment, good vs evil and the like, it's all very interesting but also very familiar in a Hollywood sense. 

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