Another month, another gamble from DC. They’ve been very brave and bold about trying out different genres in the New 52, but it hasn’t always worked out for the best. For example, they’ve always had a rich supply of World War 2 era characters, so right off the bat, they tried to resurrect two such titles: Blackhawks and Men of War (starring Sgt. Rock). Both were very poor. For my money, the reason they failed was simply because DC tried to modernise them. While the Blackhawks have been around since the War, Sgt. Rock was only created in the late 1950s, yet still set during WW2. They belong to that time, and don’t work in any other.
Whatever the reason, they were cancelled. But DC was not ready to surrender on its war genre. The anthology series G.I. Combat, featuring many of its wartime characters, soon followed. This collection contains three such stories, organised together conveniently in the trade, and I shall break them down similarly here:
The War That Time Forgot
(Written by J.T. Krul; art by Ariel Olivetti.)
This first tale sees two Special Forces officers crash land on a remote island populated by dinosaurs. While struggling for survival, battling ferocious thunder-lizards and confused enemy soldiers, the backstories of the two main characters are very well detailed via flashback. This gives them and the main story greater gravitas without slowing down the action at all.
And the action is awesome. Really, anything with dinosaurs in it is gonna be good. Although they don’t quite mine the original series’ ideas as much as they could, there’s plenty to entertain here. Aside from some disappointingly static faces, Olivetti’s art style is atmospherically realistic, pulling you into the peril and letting you feel those mighty explosions and gunshots. By the end, you’ll be as breathless as the characters in it.
The Unknown Soldier
(Written by Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray; art by Dan Panosian and Staz Johnson.)
These short stories are the brains of the collection. Gray and Palmiotti prove once again that there is no genre they cannot master, this time presenting us with an intense, smart spy thriller. The Unknown Soldier was always an intelligence officer, but here is updated to the modern espionage world; all computers and chemical weapons. Viruses of both kinds. And it works superbly.
Both artists also contribute to the realistic, gritty tone, excusing the Unknown Soldier’s metahuman upgrades, of course. While the stories deal with situations that could be ripped from our world’s headlines, there is also a slight twist of fantasy to them — not enough to dilute the emotional punch though — which only makes the story smarter.
Indeed, the backstory given for this version of the Soldier is rich, moving, and tragic. Something Palmiotti and Gray are also experts in (see: Jonah Hex). Amidst the slick spy adventure, they also manage to give the main character a deeper mythology. It’s a noble effort, but I can’t help feel that it serves to lose some of the grounding they establish.
The Haunted Tank
(Written by Peter J. Tomasi; art by Howard Chaykin.)
It’s appropriate that this tale comes last, as it was my favourite of the collection. Lt. Jeb Stuart, now 97 years old, is summoned by the tank he commanded in WW2, which is possessed by the spirit of a Confederate general, to save his grandson’s life in Afghanistan.
Most of this story is pure, hilarious fun, as old Jeb and his magic tank give the U.S. government the slip as they try to contain the paranormal vehicle, then make a dramatic rescue of his grandson, waving his Civil War sword proudly to confused terrorists. Yes, there’s plenty of laughs and triumphant action moments, but this is still a war series, so there’s some grim parts too.
That’s why Howard Chaykin is the right artist for the job. His style is soft, light-hearted, slightly cartoonish, but there’s a slight rough edge to it as well. That’s perfect for this story.
I was in love with the zany exploits of the mad old soldier, who may or may not have a few screws loose, and his bewildered grandson, blasting their way through the Middle East in a 50-year-old tank haunted by a 100-year-old ghost, and then they brought in one of my favourite DC wartime concepts: The Nazi War Wheel. That sealed it.
Each of the stories in this collection are brilliant for their own reasons: dinosaur-blasting action, hardcore espionage thriller, ghost-tank hijinks. All set in the modern age too, so maybe I was wrong earlier. They represent not only some great creative talent, but also the fact that capes and big names aren’t necessary to make a series good. So, naturally, it’s already been cancelled. You think war is Hell, try the comics business.