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 -
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.