Friday, January 28, 2011
Social History in Comics: G. I. Combat 141 - "Let Me Live... Let Me Die!"
Joe Kubert's cover of G. I. Combat 141, like many DC covers from the late 60s or very early 70s, is somewhat misleading. Taken at face value, and it's the word balloons that do it, the cover suggests to readers that in the story the Haunted Tank is going to be destroyed, and that somehow it will be the fault of an African American man. Quite why DC would want to create the latter impression is curious, because Robert Kanigher's story reads with an integrationist, anti-racist message. The story begins with the Haunted Tank crew re-stocking with ammunition from a supply depot manned by a segregated African American unit, much as would have often been the case in WWII.
The action takes it's leave of the supply depot, and the crew of the Haunted Tank meet up with Sgt. Rock and Easy Co.! So this is a crossover issue.
On this next page Kanigher highlights not only the hell dished out by a tank with it's machine gun when fully loaded, but the hell experienced by the gunners when that ammo runs out. The point seems to be, without those men supplying the ammo, war is hell for those expected to fight. Rock and Easy will hold the position while the Tank goes back for more ammunition. But what they find when they arrive back at the supply camp is sickening indeed.
At the ammo dump there's one lone survivor. After loading up, and hearing the survivor's story and of his frustration at being in the war but without the opportunity to actually fight, Jeb insists the un-named African American soldier ride with them. Just as well, because when the Tank is attacked by a fighter plane their new crew member saves the day (note the contrast between what actually happens in the story and the impression given by the cover).
Back on the front line, the un-named African American soldier mans the machine gun in a fierce fight with the Nazis, and just as victory is achieved, he takes what turns out to be a fatal bullet. This one had some signs that it was going to end tragically, and sure enough it does.
Superb art by Russ Heath really compliments Kanigher's script. We're left at the end with another Kanigher message of transcending those racial categorizations that divide us as human beings. His anti-racism messages were rare but clearly important to him, as over the years he didn't let up. He wasn't a lone voice in the comic industry, but he said the most out of the few who wrote in this way. Just like the African American heroes of WWII to whom he was drawing attention in this story, Kanigher's status as a great comic book writer, one with possibly the most important message ever delivered by the medium, is not fully recognized. Huge numbers of African Americans fought in WWII but few had direct, front line combat roles. Those that did often distinguished themselves but didn't receive the recognition they deserved. Nor was the importance of those vast numbers relegated to supplying the combat troops fully recognized. Gradually, and while it's still possible to do so, people here and there work to correct the tale history tells of those events, like in an article I came across recently. But here in this 1970 DC comic, Kanigher and Heath were doing that 40 years ago, probably almost un-noticed at the time, except by regular readers of The Haunted Tank! And certainly the more I read of Kanigher's work, the more I feel I want to highlight his contribution not only to my favorite art form, but also to eradicating racism.