Okay, I thought, here comes yet another take on a classic Joe Kubert war comic.
After reading Billy Tucci’s “Sgt. Rock,” I wasn’t necessarily looking forward for another new creative team coming in and playing around with a concept that was perhaps better left in the past. After, all, what could the Haunted Tank possibly offer contemporary audiences? How could the ghost of General J. E. B. Stuart — a Civil War-era poltergeist — work in a war comic set in the Middle East? The series seemed doomed to failure, or, at best, awkwardness.
But I’m glad I didn’t let my preconceptions stop me from reading Frank Marraffino and Henry Flint’s “Haunted Tank” #1, because they address all of the possible concerns within the first issue, and establish this five-issue limited series as a refreshing change of pace. This issue bodes, and it bodes well.
Here’s how they make the ghost of J. E. B. Stuart work in a contemporary war comic: they give him a black descendent. A Confederate General and a black American Sergeant in the Iraq War not only make an odd couple, but their friction creates a layer of meaning that wasn’t around in the classic Haunted Tank stories.
If you don’t already know, the original Haunted Tank stories, as written by DC warhorse Robert Kanigher, and often illustrated by Joe Kubert, told of a literal haunted tank, as the ghost of a long-dead Confederate general aided his great-great-grandson in the battles of World War II. Like many Kanigher war stories, each issue was very similar to the one that came before, and the basic structure of each story was that the younger Stuart would get his tank into trouble, and the ghost of J. E. B. would help them get out of it. There were a few different variations on that basic plot, but that was the core of the series.
Marraffino keeps that core intact here, but by adding the racial dynamic into the mix, he adds some much-needed irreverence to puncture the stuffed Confederate shirt of General Jeb. The ghost of General Stuart is an insufferable windbag, a ridiculous relic of the past, and Sgt. Stuart (and friends) have no patience for him. But since this is a Haunted Tank comic, they soon discover how much the dead General can help them out. Whether it’s riding into battle on his spectral horse (wielding his pale saber) or manning the guns on the tank for the unconscious soldiers, General Stuart is an indispensable ally.
Early on in the comic there’s a great scene, hilariously illustrated by Henry Flint (whose work here looks better than I’ve ever seen it before — and looks very different from the style he employed on “Omega Men”), in which the ghost of General Jeb puts his hand on the white soldier (Johnson) assuming him to be the descendent he’s supposed to help. When he realizes that the black soldier is the one bearing the name of Stuart, Jeb’s eyes open wide, and he can only whimper, “A mistake has been made,” in total confusion. The scene works wonderfully, and it deflates the pompous ghost General with perfection.
I haven’t read anything written by Frank Marraffino before, but this is a strong Vertigo debut. This “Haunted Tank” is a more than worthy follow-up to the Kanigher classic.