Quick apology to my folks at Sequart.com: I’ve been basically without a computer for about the last ten days. First the Blaster worm took me down, and then Windows ME refused to reinstall my cable modem. So I’m back up and running now, hopefully with more reviews this coming week (though we’ll have to wait and see on that one: my boss is throwing a Lord of the Rings party for the release of the extended version of Two Towers, so that’s gonna consume a LOT of Wednesday evening and throw off my usual reading / writing schedule…).
Now I have to say, I was a pretty easy sell on this one. Normally, I’m irritated by DC’s tendency to initially release original graphic novels in hardcover format, because 96 pages for $24.95 is simply not a bargain. And the problem is that nine times out of ten, I end up coughing up the money for it anyway, then regret it when I realize that I definitely could have lived without it until the softcover was published (Orbiter is a good example of this; perfectly good story, just not worth twenty-five bucks). So I was hoping that this one would be the rare case where I grab it the day it’s released and actually feel justified in doing so, and it seemed like there were pretty good odds for it because a) I love Sgt. Rock, b) I love Azzarello’s work and c) I don’t think there are very many artists in the history of the business that are even half as good as Joe Kubert.
And you know what? It’s outstanding.
Between Hell and a Hard Place takes place in the Hurtgen Forest, on the border between Germany and Belgium, in the latter months of 1944. Pressing onward to Berlin, the end of combat suddenly a very real goal, the 22nd Infantry finds itself in the enviable position of throwing waves of men against a surprisingly stalwart German defense, entrenched in the artillery-shattered ruins of cities and fog-shrouded woodlands of northwest Germany. Their forces rapidly dwindling, with supplies low and reinforcements even lower, the story opens as Terry O’Riley, the Ice Cream Soldier, leads a sparsely staff patrol through the densely wooded forest. Ambushed by Nazi soldiers and pinned down by artillery, things look grim for Ice Cream’s small band of green recruits. That is, until Sgt. Rock arrives.
Rallying the troops and regrouping at a safe point, Rock plans Easy Company’s next move. The arrival of Little Sure Shot provides reconnaissance information that the Germans are holed up in a bunker a short distance away. Mounting a counterattack, Rock and his soldiers execute a pincers maneuver and take several German officers hostage. However, during the chaos of the firefight, the Nazi captives make a break for it, only for Easy to find all but one gunned down in a nearby clearing. The conflict then becomes two-fold for the rest of the graphic novel: 1) finding the missing officer so that he can be interrogated by Allied troops and 2) determining who killed the remaining Germans (specifically, if a member of Easy Company mowed them down in cold blood, as the Nazis were unarmed at the time of their escape).
Structurally, Hell and a Hard Place is very nicely put together, being possessed of a rather cinematic feel in regards to scene transitions. The book is broken in chapters that, generally speaking, consist of one specific mood or event. For example, one such portion toward the end of the book is little more than the Ice Cream Soldier walking the perimeter of base camp with a new recruit and shooting the bull. Azzarello’s hand is really evident in scenes like this, as much of the rest of the book is pure Hollywood combat. The chapter in question, however, is made all the more powerful by the fact that it is bookended by chapters of complete carnage, a completely human moment of camaraderie during a brief respite from the inevitable gunfights.
If there’s any complaint to made about Sgt. Rock, it’s that perhaps it’s a bit too influenced by the World War II stories that Hollywood has produced in recent years. Because while tales of loss and the inhumanity of war are part and parcel of the time period in question, the ending feels less like an homage to the conclusion of Saving Private Ryan and more like a straight lift. Without spoiling the plot details, suffice it to say that both stories end with a last ditch effort by Allied soldiers to stop a German panzer, with vocal accompaniment by a sultry French singer and that’s a little too close for me.
All in all though, it’s a great story and well worth your money. It’s archetypical at times, but most WWII stories are, so instead buy it based on the fact that rare is the occasion that DC breaks out Sgt. Rock alone, much less Wildman, Little Sure Shot and the rest of Easy Company. And rarer still is the confluence of two such highly reputable craftsmen as Azzarello and Kubert.