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John Seavey’s Storytelling Engines: Sgt. Rock

Here’s the latest Storytelling Engine from John Seavey. Click here to read John’s description of what a Storytelling Engine IS, anyways. Check out more of them at his blog, Fraggmented.

Storytelling Engines: Sgt. Rock

(or “A Rock-Solid Character Study”)

For all that I frequently talk in these columns about the need to consider the entire set-up of a series in order to really get a feel for its storytelling engine–setting, supporting cast, core concept, recurring antagonists–every once in a while a series reminds me that the whole thing really does live and die on its main character. Sure, there are a few ensemble series where no one character is the protagonist, and everyone plays a role in the development of the story…but “Sergeant Rock” is most definitely not one of those series. While it does have a recurring cast, the lead character, narrator, viewpoint character and most compelling and interesting person in the series is Frank Rock, top-kick of Easy Company, and the series outlived most other war comics to become the gold standard for the genre based on him. (Not that Joe Kubert’s brilliant art didn’t help, of course. But Kubert also illustrated “Enemy Ace”, which did not run for hundreds of issues.)

Rock isn’t just a sergeant, he’s the sergeant; his character is both drawn from and informs the archetype of the combat-savvy veteran enlisted man who keeps his unit together in a way that officers can’t. He does so with a mix of compassion, courage, toughness, heroism, and a down-to-earth understanding both of the psychology of the fighting man under his command and of the realities of the battlefield. To the men who serve under him, the Rock of Easy Company can handle anything, knows everything, and is an authority figure just one step above a general and one step below God. It seems like he’s been a sergeant forever and like he will be a sergeant forever. (In fact, creator Bob Kanigher claimed at one point that Rock was killed by the last bullet fired in World War II.)

Every issue provides some additional shading and definition to Rock’s character, of course; as the character moves from North Africa to Italy to France in his service, you also get a deeper understanding of his background and psychology. But the basic elements of Sergeant Rock are so definitive as to be instantly and intuitively grasped by any reader after only a single issue. You feel like you know who Rock is right away, to the point where you feel like you know what he’d do in any given situation. He’s a character that almost writes himself, his personality is so clear. When you have a character like that, it makes the writer’s job much easier. (You could argue that Spider-Man shares that same clarity of personality; you can drop Spidey into the middle of World War II, an alien dimension, or prehistoric times, and he’ll still be Spider-Man. The same holds true of Frank Rock–no matter what he’s fighting, he’s still the Sarge.)

Of course, any World War II comic has a lot of advantages when it comes to storytelling engines; the war spanned almost a decade, sprawled over half the world, and had antagonists that have come to symbolize clear, unambiguous evil. That’s a lot of stories to be told–and indeed, non-fiction books about the war are their own cottage industry. You can tell World War II stories for a long time before you run out of ideas. But stories about the war are, inevitably, stories about the soldiers who fought it, and a compelling war story starts with a compelling soldier. And when it comes to compelling soldiers, Frank Rock gives ground to nobody.

18 Comments

In fact, creator Bob Kanigher claimed at one point that Rock was killed by the last bullet fired in World War II.

Except for his B&B Universe self, who stayed around to team up with Batman! :-)

See, I still don’t buy that “last bullet fired in World War II” death for Rock. If the last bullet fired killed Rock, then what killed the guy that killed Rock? Did Bulldozer have to choke him to death or something? (If Rock was killed by accident or friendly fire, that would kill all joy.)

Who was better, Rock or Fury? I enjoyed both very much in the 60’s. Rock (and Easy Co.) appeared more realistic, but the interaction Fury had with his Commandos, his superiors and his rivals made for much more of a fun read. It’s Fury’s continuing storylines (such as Eric Koenig’s phoney “heel turn” that tips the scales for me. Fury 1, Rock 0.

See, I still don’t buy that “last bullet fired in World War II” death for Rock. If the last bullet fired killed Rock, then what killed the guy that killed Rock? Did Bulldozer have to choke him to death or something? (If Rock was killed by accident or friendly fire, that would kill all joy.)

Unless it was something like the John Wayne sniper bullet at the end of The Sands of Iwo Jima

They could always do some cheat around it, with the last bullet of WWII being in some museum somewhere and wind up getting used by some super-villain during a team-up between a nonegenarian Rock and Batman or somesuch…

My picture of it, mentally, was that Rock was involved in mop-up operations, and his squad accepted the surrender of one of the last hold-out units. The commander ordered his men to stand down, Rock and his men relaxed…and one jittery young soldier panicked and got off a shot before his own men grabbed his gun away from him. That was the bullet that killed Frank Rock.

Kanigher’s point, though, was that all of the appearances of Rock after WWII are non-canonical in his book. As far as he was concerned, Rock didn’t survive the war.

…or if he DID survive, he was out of the service and sitting around a VFW hall, drinking Pabst and talking smack about Korean communists. A far cry from his man-of-action days.

Say it with me : Sgt Rock was cooler than Fury. Better art, better writing, better characters, better everything. Now, who’s better Fury or Captain Savage and his Leather-Neck Raiders? (Issue #15 of which features a letter from a young Gary Groth!)

Actually Fury’s cooler than Rock, but Rock was a better book. But nuthin’ beats the “voice” Stan managed for Fury & Dum Dum (it continued in the early Shield stories too, before Steranko came on). Perfect tough-guy banter. Rock was not so much into the banter, b/c he was much more “sensitive” (realistic).

What about the Sgt. Rock and Dozer that showed up in Keith Giffen’s Suicide Squad? Are they the same people?

Depends on who you ask. Kanigher said no, any “Sergeant Rocks” that appeared post-WWII were just someone else with the same name (it is a pretty common name, after all.) But the writers who were writing those stories, including Giffen and Haney, intended for the character to be “the” Frank Rock.

Since Kanigher never wrote an actual death story, though, I think that you’d have to assume, from a continuity standpoint, that the “last bullet” story is apocryphal and that post-war appearances of the Sarge are what they seem to be.

IIRC, near the end of the Giffen Suicide Squad series, there might have been a hint that Rock and Bulldozer weren’t exactly who they appeared to be. Perhaps a walk-back after they knew the series was canceled.

In any case, I don’t think Rock necessarily has to die as per Kanigher, but it *is* totally wrongheaded to have him running a secret black ops organization or being a general and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (which is just wrong, wrong, wrong, on about six different levels.)

In my mind, the big difference between Fury and Rock is that Nick Fury is a fighter. The kind of guy who, when there’s *not* a fight going on, he goes out to find one or start one, because that’s what he *is*.

I always saw Frank Rock, though, as the epitome of the “citizen soldier.” Someone who did his duty, and was incredibly good at it, but had no desire to be a career soldier or an officer. After the war, he went back home to Western Pennsylvania and did construction work, eventually started his own business, married, had a family. Retired comfortably in Florida, where he recently passed away.

And he never, *ever*, talked about what he did in the war, except in the vaguest terms. This year, as his kids and grandchildren went through his stuff, they discovered an old footlocker full of evidence of his amazing wartime exploits. They had no idea until then.

Deco’s right about right: Fury’s a cooler character, and transplants to other settings (spy stuff, superhero stuff, etc.) but Rock had a better book.

Did Rock ever meet Blackhawk, in the comics? I don’t remember if they saw each on the Justice League cartoon. I tried it myself here, and I remember Rock’s cameo in the Garth Ennis Enemy Ace, but I’m drawing a blank.

I’m pretty sure Blackhawk and Sgt. Rock never met, unless it was some incidental thing (like in a George Perez Crisis panel with 250 other characters or somesuch.) It never happened in the Evanier/Spiegle Blackhawk series, at least.

And in the Silver Age, remember that Blackhawk was a *contemporary* feature, never a WWII “period piece.” So having Rock meet Blackhawk was about as likely as him meeting, say, Aquaman.

suedenim: Nice take on Fury being a “fighter”. That’s so true on many fronts. If he wasn’t fighting the enemy, he was duking it out with Bull McGivney. I also remember him showing up in Captain America every once in a while, goading the “old soldier” into fighting him, be it either for Cap looking at the Countessa ” the wrong way” or just to “test his reflexes”.

I’m not so sure I agree about dropping Spider-Man into prehistoric times. I think a more grounded (well, as Marvel comics go), modern New York setting is just as important for a successful Spidey story as Pete’s personality. Even stories that are a little more sci-fi than usual don’t work so well for me, like that John Romita Jr. one where Mysterio shrinks Spidey into a miniature theme park of horrors…of course, it turns out to just be hypnosis, but that’s another matter entirely. Basically, I think we (the readers) have to be able to picture ourselves as Spider-Man, and that doesn’t work so well in WWII or outer space. Which is why I don’t like Spider-Man being an Avenger, I suppose.

I don’t think it’s a question of prehistoric times being a particularly good setting for a Spider-Man story so much that his character is so well-defined that you know exactly how he’d act in that scenario. It’s easy to imagine what he’d do, what wisecracks he’d make, etc.

It’s a trait he shares, IMO, with Ben Grimm – their characters, traits, voices, etc., are so well-defined that they’re really hard to screw up. Oh, sure, there have been many crappy Spidey or Thing stories over the years, but the majority of them are crappy for some reason *other* than being written way out-of-character.

The thing that I always forget about the Sgt. Rock stories is that they are almost always relentlessly grim. Growing up in the late 70s and 80s and watching so many gung-ho action movies I am always surprised that the stories aren’t more “Rock kicks ass!” and that they are consistently much more “war is Hell” in their message.

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