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Message updated 25th June 2023

Sunday 16 September 2018

Little Known Incidents of WWII (No 6) - Love Your Sarge

Cover art - Virtue in War
 This marvellous picture is the cover art for the war comic, 'Virtue in War' from the Combat Picture Library series.  When I discovered this picture recently, I nearly choked on my cornflakes. The image of the hunky Sergeant gazing at a sleeping private immediately suggested a gay theme to me, along the lines of the captioned version below.

Desert Rat's Unrequited Love (mitchmen-mod by Mitchell)
I might add that this interpretation was not just invented by me, but inspired to a significant degree by the characterisation of the sleeping man's face. With flamboyant hair and striking eyelashes he's an almost-stereotypical gay man of that era. Despite the absence of definitive shaping, crotch-wise, his sprawled open-legged pose is pretty inviting and super, chunky legs they are too! The artist didn't really have to show him like that, nor did he have depict the Sergeant looking at him so furtively and sadly!

A Soldier's True Feelings (mitchmen-mod by Mitchell)
  In those days, anyone revealing queer tendencies in the forces would have been imprisoned for a long time and then kicked out, dishonourably discharged. There must have been thousands of gay men serving their country in the company of other men and pretending to be straight, like I have portrayed the poor chap above.

This illustration is from the same story, but I changed the thought bubble in the second frame. In the original he is actually coming to terms with his fear of going into battle again, having just experienced the traumatic evacuation of the British Army from Dunkirk. He is shown simply thinking 'I'm scared'  (which isn't a total contradiction of my reinterpretation). While it isn't surprising in this period that he goes home alone, notice that there's no goodnight kiss scene between these two frames.

The characterisation of this soldier, 'Joe', is of a sensitive, reflective individual. That is brought out in this rather nice study where he journeys with his unit to the next battlefield. Shorn of their helmets, the artist reminds us of the youth (18+) and ordinariness of the diverse conscripts.

Other images in the story develop Joe's sensitive nature further. He is depicted in the thick of battle exclaiming "This is crazy!" That's not typical behaviour for War Comic heroes who are usually preoccupied with defeating the opposition and surviving. However the artist is at pains to make clear in these scenes that Joe's feelings do not stop him from being an effective soldier and doing his duty to kill.
That's lest you get the 'wrong idea' about him.

The artwork for the narrative pages of this comic are not of the same standard as examples I have shown in other posts in this series, but it's worth following the story of Joe a little further.

He strikes up an unlikely friendship with the Sergeant of his unit and they are seen drinking together in a bar and discussing the NCO's family. There isn't a scene that matches the cover picture but that also seems to reflect a relationship of some significance between them. Their friendship comes to an untimely end when the Sergeant is killed in action, right in front of Joe (below).

In these comics, the Sergeant is nearly always the principal hero figure, a sort of older brother/father character who's highly experienced. He knows all the tricks of the enemy and is a fount of knowledge to naive senior officers, even coming to their rescue sometimes (as we saw in No 4 in this series). This one breaks that mould by foolishly standing up to mock the retreating enemy and he pays a heavy price.

You can see from the uniforms here that we are back in the Western Desert, with shorts and rolled sleeves the order of the day. These are very short shorts, however, regulation length was just above the knee. The cut adopted by this artist is more stylish, more boyish if you like, but eerily erotic in danger-filled battle scenes.

Whilst the War Comic Sergeant is usually a great leader of his men, he's also down-to-earth and approachable. He's manly and often craggily handsome and his men often fall in love with him, metaphorically at least, or as the comic usually expresses it, 'they would follow him anywhere'.
We don't know if Joe is in love with his Sergeant but his reaction to the death is profound.

I've included this page for it's storytelling rather than it's artistic merits. 
That said, Joe's angrily shaking, muscular forearm in the top picture is not without interest.

His reaction to the Sergeant's demise is pretty extreme, especially considering the man's own foolishness was largely to blame and that he is described as falling to a 'stray bullet' and not a nasty, opportunist sniper. The reference to his pregnant wife gives a justification of sorts but the next frame makes clear that it's Joe's personal attachment to his Sergeant that's really driving his emotion.

This part of the plot line peters out on this very intriguing note. Were they or weren't they?
Probably not, but I can't help but wonder about the soldier in the background who seems to be watching the distraught Joe with great interest. His helmet is tilted at a strange coquettish angle that reminds me of the women in Moulin Rouge imagery. Very odd and just a little suggestive.

As Joe's story goes on, he finds himself having to trek across the desert to safety, supporting a weakened colleague, a Corporal this time, but Joe clearly likes his stripes! It's a man to man sequence which is virtually identical to the story I played with in the last post. There's some nice shorts and male bonding imagery but I'll save that for another time.
The slightly pretentious title of the story 'Virtue in War' has some significance in relation to Joe's moral character but it might equally relate to his possible sexual leanings in an era of criminalisation. This and the off-piste characterisations of Joe and the Sergeant are part of an approach to story-telling in the Combat Picture Library series that was more consciously elevated than the earthy, patriotic drive of the War Picture Library featured in previous posts. CPL stories are laced with great chunks of history set out in a rather academic way rather than being closely integrated into plot lines. This can result in stories which are less substantial and have a tendency to ramble across protracted time spans.

As a postscript, I have discovered CPL also previously used the same cover art for a story called 'Sicily at all Costs. I don't have that book to check if it's the same story with a different title, but you can't blame them, it is a great picture!

For other posts in this series click on the 'War Comics' label below

Go to Part 7 - Flash The Flesh

Read series from Part 1

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