Wednesday, June 20, 2007

The Comics Page #14: Showcase Presents The War That Time Forgot

DC’s Showcases continue to plumb genuinely odd and obscure territory, much to the delight of the comics blogosphere. There is a certain segment of fandom for whom words like “World War II soldiers fighting dinosaurs” mean more than the death of Captain America ever could. Sadly, we’re pretty much in the minority, but at least some part of comics publishing is catering to us. THE WAR THAT TIME FORGOT doesn’t quite live up to what I expected, and suffers from the fact that one big collection isn’t really an ideal format for these hugely episodic and oft-repetitive stories, but it does deliver what it promises, and with a bit of skill.

Some background may be helpful. In the 1960s, war comics were in a decline. You had Sgt. Rock, and Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandoes, but the Comics Code prevented these and other titles from featuring the kind of lurid and gritty violence that had distinguished the EC-style war books. You could still have plenty of shootings and explosions, but basically you needed a gimmick to get noticed amongst an increasing flood of superheroes. So, for DC’s STAR SPANGLED WAR STORIES, idea man Robert Kanigher started writing stories about soldiers encountering dinosaurs (because everyone loves dinosaurs, right?) It was enough of a success to become a regular feature for at least six years (that’s where the collection cuts off, anyway) and dominated covers, but Kanigher treated almost every entry as a wholly self-contained story with no reference to past episodes. Back in those days, comics were still mostly considered cheap and disposable entertainment, so you could get away with this (though the end was already in sight.)

The plot of each story tends to follow a formula. The focus is on a very small group of soldiers- from as few as one to as many as five- in various branches of the armed forces in the War in the Pacific (apparently Europe was dinosaur-free), usually on assignments to find missing platoons or scout out enemy operations. A sudden attack by a prehistoric creature (pterodactyls and other flyers were the most common) lands them in a lost world, generally an island. They have to use what gear they have and good old Army ingenuity (or Navy ingenuity, or Air Force ingenuity, or Marine ingenuity) to get out alive, often while resolving personal conflicts.

A couple of times Kanigher broke the pattern and tried to establish ongoing characters. For three nicely insane little issues, a GI gets paired with “Joe”, a robot soldier designed to obey his commands. That, needless to say, is awesome, but either sales didn’t merit keeping with that premise or Kanigher just got bored. Later, he works in the Suicide Squad, a kind of American Foreign Legion in which GIs with checkered pasts sign on for missions they’re not likely to return from. From this we get Morgan and Mace, two G.I.s who, as the covers and narrative text constantly remind us, hate each other more than the enemy. See, Mace was an Olympic bobsled runner who froze up on a tough turn and sent the sled flying, which killed Morgan’s brother, and so Morgan gets assigned to make sure Mace never panics during a critical moment again. By making menacing remarks and pointing a .45 at him throughout. While they fight dinosaurs. (Dear GOD I hope these two exist in the canon DCU somewhere.) Kanigher was also fond of teams of acrobats-turned-soldiers, for some reason.

Here’s where I run into a dilemma. Is it really fair to judge these stories by how they read in a collection, when of course they were never intended to be collected? Read together, the stories are fairly repetitive, particularly in the time spent getting the soldiers to the lost world to start with; also, each story being complete in itself means that the potential of a group of soldiers fighting for their lives amidst prehistoric monsters is never fully exploited. I would’ve loved to see an ongoing “Swiss Family Robinson with guns and dinosaurs” approach to the material. But then again, I’m criticizing it for being something it never tried to be, based on my expectations. All I can say is that the pterodactyl dive-bombings do get tiresome after a while. And I never thought I’d write that sentence.

Overall, though, the stories work on their own terms, in the old anthology style that’s all but completely vanished from modern comics. The characters are given just enough definition and personality to last us for 15 pages, often with simple, clear, elegant arcs. At times one feels that Kanigher is just writing normal war stories and putting in dinosaurs to grab our attention, which may well have been the case. And it helps- the art, credited to Ross Andru, Mike Esposito, and others, reflects the classic, scientifically inaccurate view of dinosaurs as big, ponderous reptile monsters, with even the herbivores displaying sharp teeth and a mean attitude. We even get a giant white gorilla and a friendly baby pterodactyl, and some monsters that never show up at the natural history museum. It’s all in fun.

Most of us in this book’s target audience would gladly buy and read it regardless of quality, but for anyone who’s the least bit apprehensive, this is actually good stuff. This is one of those neat collections that brings up material you didn’t even know existed, and though 500+ pages seems like a bit much for such a narrow niche, it actually holds up well. Besides, you never know when you might want to read a story where former circus performers throw torpedoes at a giant snapping turtle monster. It comes up more often than you’d think.

Grade: B

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