Guttergeek Review: SGT. ROCK: THE LOST BATTALION

Posted by on May 31st, 2010 at 3:53 PM

Billy Tucci, Sgt. Rock: The Lost Battalion (DC Comics, 2009). Hardcover, $24.99.

War comics are uniquely difficult to critique—especially on Memorial Day. It’s as though, because these stories are rooted in the violent atrocity and sacrifice of real life combat, the military bravery on display creates an insular shield around the actual telling of the stories. This isn’t necessarily a lament. Some great war comics have been written since the 1940s, and the genre enjoys a distinguished place in the medium. Joe Kubert has written and illustrated a number of these stories using the characters of Sgt. Rock and Easy Company (including the excellent 2007 series Sgt. Rock: The Prophecy), so it’s clear that war comics can be effective. But that doesn’t mean that all of them are good. Billy Tucci’s recent Sgt. Rock: The Lost Battalion is not a bad story, but it’s a story that suffers from the wrong choice of medium.

The Lost Battalion is based loosely on a real story pulled directly from WWII. The title battalion is the 1st Battalion, 141st Infantry—an assault team sent into the forested French Vosges Mountains in October 1944 to rescue the survivors of a failed assault on German forces. The survivors numbered only eight men—all members of Item Company, 3rd Battalion, 442nd RCT. Item Company consisted of “Nisei” Japanese-American soldiers who had been treated as cannon fodder and were considered a “Purple Heart Brigade” because of the high number of casualties they sustained during battle—even after the Japanese internment camps had been created back in the U.S. The Lost Battalion held the line against the German army for 11 days with limited food, water, and supplies before reinforcements helped them drive the German soldiers out. The heroism of both Item Company and the men sent to rescue them is inspirational and awe-inspiring, and Tucci’s research is clearly impeccable. The problem isn’t that the source material is bad; it’s that it doesn’t fit well in a Sgt. Rock story.

Tucci uses a variety of voices to narrate the story, and this is where the problems begin. The primary narrator is William J. Kilroy—a cartoonist/reporter from Up Front Magazine based loosely on war correspondent Ernie Pyle and cartoonist Bill Mauldin. Kilroy’s narrative voice is interesting enough, but Tucci uses it early on to provide so much background information that the story has trouble getting started. And just when is seems Kilroy’s perspective will be guiding the action, the narrative perspective shifts in the second chapter—first to the journal of German General Friedrich Weise (who leads the assault on the American forces), then to Sgt. Rock and Easy Company, then back to Kilroy. The point of view is jumbled throughout the book, and the result is a series of choppy transitions and vignettes. There are times when it seems that pages (and even panels) have been printed out of order.

This isn’t to say that Tucci isn’t a great visual artist. What he lacks in pacing and progression he makes up for in artistic design. The Lost Battalion is a beautiful book to look at. Panel compositions are well-balanced and occasionally experimental:

The gutter between panels is frequently broken by leaves, weather, or ammunition in a way that unifies the elements and guides the action of the page. Tucci’s accuracy (both visual and historical) is impressive, but it comes at the expense of the linear story he’s trying to relate. The best Sgt. Rock stories are powerful because they are streamlined and understated. Rock hates war, but his love and loyalty to his fellow soldiers lead him to plow on through the madness and misery of WWII until it’s ended and everyone can go home. Despite the many acts of selfless bravery we witness in The Lost Battalion, the story is too bloated and weighed down for this sentiment to come across effectively.

Tucci does write sharp, clever dialogue for The Lost Battalion. There are great and familiar moments of military bravado, self-deprecation, and gallows humor. And there are times when this comes across well:

Tucci also makes a play for longtime war comics readers by including references to characters such as the Unknown Soldier and the Haunted Tank:

But there are times when the inside jokes are too clever by half. Tucci suggests that the narrator is the same Kilroy that originated the popular and mysterious “Kilroy Was Here” tagline. And there’s an inexplicable moment when Tucci seems to introduce a South Park joke into a battle scene:

The next page includes this panel:

If this was intentional, it’s a horribly-placed and dated inside joke. If it wasn’t intentional, then the editor really should have caught this and nixed it before it went to press.

Ultimately, though, the bad jokes don’t matter as much as the construction of the story. The Lost Battalion simply gets bogged down in tactical maneuvers, battle plans, and narrative confusion. If that’s your thing—if you’re a WWII buff or a military tactician—then this is your book. But for someone looking to learn about the war by way of an engaging, fluid story, Tucci’s book is a disappointment. His dialogue is funny and quick, but it drags on too long. There’s a difference between witty repartee and extended dialogue that tries to pack in too many “soldierisms” (so as to sound authentic). Comics are probably just the wrong medium for this story, which would work better as a nonfiction film documentary. It’s a true-life war story superimposed on the characters of Sgt. Rock, and it’s an uncomfortable fit. Comics rely on image and text working together in balance to convey a narrative effectively. That balance just doesn’t exist in this book. When the visual narrative picks up steam, the text too often slows it down.

The Lost Battalion isn’t an unfit memorial to the soldiers of WWII. In fact, the events and dramatization of this story create a moving tribute to the heroism and sacrifice displayed by majority and minority soldiers during the war. The problem is that Tucci never quite decides what sort of story he wants this to be. And while the last two chapters of the book find a pace and direction missing in the first four chapters, the overall story suffers from a lack of focus and clarity. The major redeeming qualities of the novel are Tucci’s stunning art and the amount of research he put into getting the details right. It’s a testament to Tucci’s meticulous care for the subject matter that I had to read and re-read the details of this book to get my facts straight enough to write this review. I just wish I had enjoyed the story more as I was doing so.

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