Men of War: Uneasy Company -- is something of a risk, but a calculated one. Men of War would appear to be war comics for people who don't like war comics, a war comic with a dash of superheroics thrown in.
In this way, Men of War -- which was cancelled with the second wave of DC New 52 titles -- is successful. For fans of DC's Checkmate, for instance, Men of War has enough fiction mixed with its realism to keep readers interested through Ivan Brandon's first six-issue arc.
The final issues and back-up stories, however, are a mixed bag of wonderful and weird, banal and reductive, that underline perhaps the problems that war comics have always faced. Especially in today's political climate, the line between a cogent piece of war fiction and one that's trite or potentially insensitive is a fine one -- Men of War has a little bit of both.
[Review contains spoilers]
The best chapters of Uneasy Company are the first two, in which young corporal Joe Rock becomes the sergeant of DC Comics fame (this Rock is the grandson of the World War II Rock). Men of War becomes a kind of Smallville-esque origin story for Rock (albeit in two issues) as he grows into the man the reader knows he will become. Rock and the reader gets hints of a conspiracy in which Rock's "East Company" may be pawns of evil government forces; Rock also faces not one but two metahumans from a grunt's-eyes view. Brandon and artist Tom Derenick's work is not Greg Rucka and Ed Brubaker's Gotham Central, but there's similarity in the tone and perspective.
With the third chapter, however, Brandon begins a four-part story where a covert Easy Company mission goes awry, and by the end the Company appears to be the prisoner of vampires supplying weapons to Middle Eastern insurgents. This remains a fine story, comparatively -- Brandon's is the best work of the book -- but it does not answer any of the questions from the first two issues, and Brandon's poetic narrative sometimes gets in the way of the basic sense of the story (why, for instance, is the old woman shot? What's with the hydrochloric acid? Why do they lose the boat in the first place? And so on). Right after, Brandon's story concludes, so unless he gets to write more Easy Company somewhere else, Uneasy Company is ultimately a story that suggests a lot of interesting things but never resolves any of them.
Still, Brandon has plenty that's impressive here. Rock, the Easy Company, and the vampires comport themselves with a warrior's honor -- a kind of slow, dangerous dance -- that's fascinating to learn the rules of. The Easy Company's super-powered soldier, Private Korba, is also one to watch -- the religious shame with which he perceives his own powers is unique for a DC character, and this and the reaction of his fellow soldiers suggest much about the darker side of having powers in the DC New 52.
Following Brandon's story are two more Men of War issues with guest-creative teams, and then the backup stories that originally appeared in the issues, wisely shunted to the back. Among the best of these are "Knife Fight" by Matt Kindt, a sad and romantic story of two spies thinking how their lives could have gone (I found it easier to read all of her dialogue first, then go back and read his afterward). Kindt and Jeff Lemire's Frankenstein story was good, too, though it really is just a "one-off" story, not revealing much new about Frankie. And J. T. Krul and Scot Kolins have a smart, emotional story here about the difficulties soldiers face when they return home again.
Among these, however, are a couple of others that miss their mark. Jonathan Vankin's Navy Seals Tracker and Ice are a too-stereotypical team of pacifist-and-warmonger, and their adventure saving a family from insurgents using them as human shields is too pat -- the soldiers go in, they beat the bad guys, they're hailed as heroes. That the inexperienced Tracker is allowed to deliver a traditional Middle Eastern woman's baby is near ridiculous, medically and religiously -- it makes for a story that treats war too glibly.
B. Clay Moore's story is perhaps supposed to be funny, with malfunctioning robots in a war zone. But the punch line of Moore's story, without sufficient hint of irony, is that the soldier's poor equipment is good for Washington's bottom line. This is alongside artist Paul McCaffrey depicting the heads of numerous turbaned, bearded men exploding in cartooney blood, similarly far too glib for this subject matter.
Superhero comics can be heavy on the irony since in reality no one actually flies across the sky, but there's an extent to which a successful war comic has to remember that actual people go to war. The stories can be critical of war, like Krul's, or funny or romantic or intriguing, but nonchalant seems the wrong way to go. The black-and-white, good versus evil that writers are used to writing superheroic comics doesn't necessarily work here; for a war comic to succeed in today's market, it would require a writer hyper-aware of these issues.
Men of War: Uneasy Company is a good experiment in war comics for today's audience, but it does not emerge as more than an experiment. Ivan Brandon's "Uneasy Company" story ends too uncertainly and the book does not feel as complete as the also-cancelled Mr. Terrific or Static Shock. The short stories are also interesting, but don't add to or play off the main story. The audience can only hope Brandon gets his hands on Sgt. Rock again some time in the future, such that Men of War ends up as more than simply a "one-shot."
[Includes sketchbook section by Tom Derenick and assorted artists]
Next week, the Collected Editions review of the DC New 52 Batgirl debut, and more. See you then!