Perfect Pages: Blazing Combat
This is a new thing I’m gonna be working on over here whenever I find something that speaks to me like so. The title is self-explanatory; when I find a page that I think is perfect, for lack of a better term, I’ll scan it up and give it a little word massage.
Do I have any kind of standards for this? Of course not. But when I see a page that whose construction speaks to me on a deep level, then I’ll know it for me, and that’s all that matters, isn’t it?
Enough nonsense, let’s get this going.
(Click to enlarge.)
This page comes from a story called “Holding Action” written by Archie Goodwin with art by John Severin. You can find it in the Fantagraphics collection Blazing Combat, which came out earlier this year. The book collects the only four issues of the comic of the same name, which was basically shut down in 1965 (think Vietnam) because of it’s honest take on warfare. Much like Charley’s War, it was basically an anti-war comic. Thesee stories refused to glorify battle and instead sought to provide honest and realistic tellings of the violence and brutality that our armed services are forced to endure. Each story is short, no more than a few pages, and each one serves it’s purpose, reminding us of the high cost that soldiers paid from the Revolutionary War all the way up to Vietnam. Think about this: This was a comic that told a story from the perspective of an innocent Vietnamese citizen casualty within a year of the U.S. Army officially entering the conflict. Pretty ballsy, no?
“Holding Action” is a tale of a young soldier named Stewart who goes from being afraid to use his gun to refusing to part with it at the cost of his sanity. The page I chose illustrates the crucial turning point when Stewart is forced by his superior officer to start shooting. By the end of it, he simply can’t stop. It’s the first six panels of this that really get me. The camera angle in the top three places the reader right behind the action, heightening the sense of realism by making you feel like you’re in the trenches with Stewart. You can’t see either of the characters’ faces, so the tension is conveyed through the body language. Look at the Sergeant’s hands on Stewart’s shoulders as he goads him to shoot; in a very real way, he’s the one pulling the trigger.
But once you get to those next three panels, you see the transformation, the terrified child turning into a cold-blooded killer. Severin doesnt show us anything else, and we don’t need to see it. This is a moment about a boy and his gun. Look at him crying in that first panel, watch his eyebrows come down in the second as the gun becomes his own, and by the third panel, he’s another person entirely. That kid who was afraid of the action is completely gone.
Those last two panels lack the power of the top six, but they serve the purpose of showing us that Stewart has completely lost his mind. The danger is gone, but this kid can’t stop shooting. Even if most of the action takes place in the first two thirds here, the page as a whole is perfect to me. However, I’m willing to make up for that by showing you the last three panels of the story, which are equally fantastic.
(Again, click to enlarge. Do I really need to say that?)
By the end of the story, Stewart has completely lost it. All he wants to do is shoot; he even needs to be restrained from taking potshots at enemy medics. When his rifle is finally taken away from him, he breaks. Here we see him being taken away. As he’s dragged into the ambulance screaming, we get a close-up look at the very same Sergeant who forced Steward to fire his weapon in the first place. Unlike that three-panel moment where we saw Stewart’s change before, this time we see almost nothing in terms of emotion on the Sergeant’s face (at least I don’t). He clearly has no regrets.
It took me a while until I realized I was reading a story about two casualties of war. One man’s sanity and another man’s heart.
Look at me, getting all intense and stuff. What’s that about?