Monday, May 04, 2009

Winter Soldier [Gallery of War - RK & Estrada]

Winter Soldier
by Robert Kanigher & Ric Estrada
Our Army At War #263
December 1973
American Revolution
7 pages

General Washington must deal with a deserter during the long hard winter at Valley Forge.

This is one of the few few Gallery stories to deal with a recognizable historical figure rather than the more common frontline soldier. Which actually fits in quite well with the theme, since the framing device in the story is about an artist in 1791 about to paint a portrait of Washington and being intimated by him being a living legend. He's then told a story about the winter at Valley Forge.

The basic story is that a young soldier named Jim does what a lot of the soldiers are thinking of doing in the desolate winter and attempts to desert. He's captured and arrested, and General Washington imposes a sentence of death by firing squad. The story explores Washington's reasons for this, and the burden that making such decisions has on him. It humanizes him for the reader as well as the painter.

Kanigher manages to explore a few themes of life in general and war in particular in this short story. It's about the nature of courage and cowardice, it's about the burden of difficult choices, it's about how in war it's sometimes harder to deal with a single life in your hands than with larger numbers. He does all this with some crisp dialogue and a clever plot (with a few twists I haven't mentioned here).

Estrada, as usual, is in his element drawing this kind of story. I was especially taken with his use of dark shadows in this story, with some of the scenes taking place in candle-lit tents and the like. Really dark, evocative, shapes. One panel in particular, showing the troops trying desperately just to stay alive in the cold, worked really well, with the art really getting the idea of cold through to the reader.

The body language is also very effective. On the first page you can see the fear in Jim as he runs away, not just in the face, but in the whole body. When his sentence is passed, you can see the resignation. When he's trying to write to his mother and explain, you can see the sorrow, and when he finally faces the firing squad you can see the courage and determination. Washington shows similar body language through the story, as you can see the effect the decisions he has to make wear on him, but also see the determination to do what's right.

While this story features a general, it's also about the frontline soldiers, at both ends of the spectrum of war.

I can't recall the exact reference, perhaps it was in Kanigher's Comics Journal interview, but I'm almost sure I read Kanigher talking about this story elsewhere, in the context of him having written it for some other venue (stage play? radio play?) first.

Estrada did a single DC war story in the 1950s, "Parade for a Statue" in Our Army At War #41 (December 1955). He tells an amusing story in The Comics v7#10 about how Kanigher had him re-draw the statues in the story and how they misread each other didn't seem to like each other's attitudes at the time. Fortunately they got along better when they met again and collaborated in the 1970s.

Robert Kanigher's Gallery of War

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