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Sgt. Rock:
Between Hell and a Hard Place

writer: Brian Azzarello
artist: Joe Kubert

A wintry scene racked by the far-off sounds of battle. Splintered trees reach up into gray skies, dwarfing the men bonding, suffering and dying at their bases. Some speak English; some speak German. And when the two meet, a cacophony of gunfire chatters, the same in either language.

At first glance, this looks like an adaptation of HBO's Band of Brothers. It even features the same group - Easy Company.

Even though the television mini-series was based on actual events, the more you look at Joe Kubert's art, the more you realize what a debt Steven Spielberg owes to this master illustrator. Sergeant Frank Rock of Easy Company may command a fictional group of joes, but it's clear that he and his men have been surviving realistic war scenes a lot longer than actors have, no matter how gritty their training.

The comparison between film and graphic novel is hard to avoid, especially as writer Brian Azzarello has placed the bulk of this book in a similar setting as the middle episodes of Band of Brothers. But he wastes no time in getting to know the characters, prepping us for their loss of innocence. Instead, the first chapter opens outside of a medic's tent, our first image being rifles propped up in a semblance of a grave marker.

First he deals with the wounded, but as survivors of a couple of doomed missions commiserate, the camera pulls back to reveal rows upon rows of bodies. And yes, it seems only appropriate to call it a camera, because Kubert's sense of scene layout and composition is sharper than many directors working in film and television.

Azzarello even waits a while to introduce Rock, not that the character needs one, instead letting us absorb a few human faces that will be lost over the course of the story. Though you may pick this up because you like the character (and let's face it - no way are you going to lose one of the men of Easy Company), Azzarello never lets us forget this is a book about war. And war is ugly.

Plenty of war comics have made that point time and time again. We've seen the motivations of men at war, some innocent, some naļve, and some all too world-weary. So Azzarello plunks a murder mystery at the center of his story. The men of Easy aren't just fighting the Nazis; they have to find an escaped prisoner who may be the only witness to the murder of three other Nazi officers - and the killer may be one of their own.

Such a plot allows for an examination of the difference between killing in a war and cold-blooded murder. Many of the characters end up surprised by their own take on the issue. Even Rock, having separated his men from their old civilian lives by assigning them nicknames and hence new identities, still has a strong moral line that gets shaken by these events.

It's paced slowly and coolly, a story that does honor to the work of Rock's creator, Robert Kanigher, while adding another high mark in the career of Azzarello.

Of course, Azzarello has been doing knock-out work on 100 Bullets anyway, so what makes this graphic novel noteworthy is the return of Kubert to the character. Though in his seventies, his power as an artist has not dimmed a whit. His sense of physicality and expression, while not as flashy as younger artists, still has more control than many. A lot of artists have their specialties; Kubert has the whole package. There's not a panel wasted, either. Rather than indulging in pin-up splash pages, Kubert would rather tell the story. When a splash finally appears, it is to nice dramatic effect.

For fans of Sgt. Rock, this volume is a must-have. The rest of you: check it out. It will make a surprisingly nifty Christmas gift for the relative who has watched Saving Private Ryan a hundred times (and you know you have one). It's a good-looking book with a tight, tense story.

Derek McCaw

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