With Memorial Day 2017 in the rear view mirror, I got to thinking about how the military is portrayed in popular culture. There are countless films, books and documentaries, all detailing the horrors of armed combat and the bravery of the men and women who put their lives on the line for the love of country. There was a time however, when people got their fill of wartime adventure stories from something called the “War Comic“. Beginning in the 1930’s and continuing through the 80’s War Comics depicted tales from the battlefield without pulling many punches. Make no mistake, these were not Superhero Comics. The stories were oftentimes graphic, and so was the artwork. From World War II through the Korean War one didn’t have to look much further than your local comic book stand to get a glimpse of the horror and realism that actual soldiers knew all too well. Amidst titles such as All American Men of War, Star Spangled War Stories and G.I. Combat, one character stood head and shoulders above the rest, a rough and rugged soldier from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, who went by the name of Sgt. Rock. Yet, for all of his popularity, when War Comics eventually faded from the market, fans were left wondering whatever became of Sgt. Rock, who seemingly vanished from pop culture without a trace. (link)
To unravel the mystery of The Sarge, we have to know a little bit about his origins. The character first appeared in Our Army At War #81 in 1959. He was the creation of editor Robert Kanigher. Legendary comic artist, Joe Kubert teamed with Kanigher to bring Sgt. Rock to life on the page in exacting detail. The title of the comic eventually became Sgt. Rock as its main character gained popularity. The book became a staple of DC Comics’ lineup and continuedto be published through July of 1988. Given his longevity, it’s easy to see what made Sgt. Rock so beloved. He was depicted as an “everyman” who started out working in a steel mill. He went on to become an uncompromisingly steadfast soldier, who rose through the ranks after enlisting in the Army following Pearl Harbor. His adventures took place on battlefields in North Africa, Europe and Italy. Eventually, he became platoon sergeant of a unit known only as “Easy Company”. Like their Sarge, the members of Easy Company were known to be “combat happy” and willing to follow their “topkick” (as Sgt. Rock was affectionately known) into hell. (link)
What was notable about Sgt. Rock, as for all War Comics heroes, was the fact that he was not superhuman, like so many of the comics characters that inhabit popular culture. He existed in a defined time period and like any human being, would at some point have to meet his demise. Therefore, one would assume that his story and that of Easy Company would have a discernible end. Yet, as any comic fan will attest, beginnings and endings are merely the playthings of comic writers. Characters are constantly revived, undergo alternate timelines, deaths and rebirths. That’s why when the Sgt. Rock Comic officially ended without tying up its characters’ fates, it was no surprise that The Sarge continued to pop up from time to time as a supporting player in everything from Superman Comics to the Suicide Squad where he was an advisor to then-President Lex Luthor (don’t ask, it’s complicated).
Despite these cameos, the classic Sgt. Rock, the one that readers grew to love, hadn’t been given a real sendoff befitting a true hero. His creator, Kanigher, eschewed the notion that Sgt. Rock had lived beyond World War II, notably asserting that “It is inevitable and wholly in character that neither Rock nor Easy survived the closing days of the war.” So, that’s it? Were fans simply going to be left to their imaginations to determine what actually happened to one of the most popular and unique characters in comic history? Not exactly. Enter our hero, Joe Kubert, whose art had brought Sgt. Rock to life from the very start. Kubert, along with Bronze Age writer Len Wein came through for the character’s fans in August of 2010 with a story called “Snapshot: Remembrance“. In that tale, the surviving members of Easy Company meet at a bar on July 4, 1976 to relive their glory days. In a flashback, we learn that Sgt. Rock, on the very last day of World War II, rescued a little girl who had wandered onto a battlefield and in doing so, was felled by the final bullet fired in the historic conflict. In heroic and dramatic fashion, closure was finally given to those who had waited almost three decades to find out their hero’s fate. (link)
Sure, there are some who will argue that the 2010 tale is not the definitive ending to Sgt. Rock’s story. After all, if mortals like Bruce Wayne and Tony Stark can live 70 years without so much as a grey hair then why not The Sarge? To those fans I say that Sgt. Rock was never meant to exist in the same “universe” as the heroes who populate traditional comics. His world was intended to be just like ours, where men and women who sacrifice their lives for freedom sometimes leave everything in the theater of combat.
To that end, Sgt. Rock is a character unlike the caped crusaders that we idolize in today’s comics and films. His story, and yes, his death serve to remind us of the grave consequences of war and the bravery of the heroes who don’t get the benefit of a reboot. For that, we thank you, Sgt. Rock, wherever you are.