Monday, January 05, 2009

Storytelling Engines: Sgt. Rock

(or "A Rock-Solid Character Study")

For all that I frequently talk in these columns about the need to consider the entire set-up of a series in order to really get a feel for its storytelling engine--setting, supporting cast, core concept, recurring antagonists--every once in a while a series reminds me that the whole thing really does live and die on its main character. Sure, there are a few ensemble series where no one character is the protagonist, and everyone plays a role in the development of the story...but "Sergeant Rock" is most definitely not one of those series. While it does have a recurring cast, the lead character, narrator, viewpoint character and most compelling and interesting person in the series is Frank Rock, top-kick of Easy Company, and the series outlived most other war comics to become the gold standard for the genre based on him. (Not that Joe Kubert's brilliant art didn't help, of course. But Kubert also illustrated "Enemy Ace", which did not run for hundreds of issues.)

Rock isn't just a sergeant, he's the sergeant; his character is both drawn from and informs the archetype of the combat-savvy veteran enlisted man who keeps his unit together in a way that officers can't. He does so with a mix of compassion, courage, toughness, heroism, and a down-to-earth understanding both of the psychology of the fighting man under his command and of the realities of the battlefield. To the men who serve under him, the Rock of Easy Company can handle anything, knows everything, and is an authority figure just one step above a general and one step below God. It seems like he's been a sergeant forever and like he will be a sergeant forever. (In fact, creator Bob Kanigher claimed at one point that Rock was killed by the last bullet fired in World War II.)

Every issue provides some additional shading and definition to Rock's character, of course; as the character moves from North Africa to Italy to France in his service, you also get a deeper understanding of his background and psychology. But the basic elements of Sergeant Rock are so definitive as to be instantly and intuitively grasped by any reader after only a single issue. You feel like you know who Rock is right away, to the point where you feel like you know what he'd do in any given situation. He's a character that almost writes himself, his personality is so clear. When you have a character like that, it makes the writer's job much easier. (You could argue that Spider-Man shares that same clarity of personality; you can drop Spidey into the middle of World War II, an alien dimension, or prehistoric times, and he'll still be Spider-Man. The same holds true of Frank Rock--no matter what he's fighting, he's still the Sarge.)

Of course, any World War II comic has a lot of advantages when it comes to storytelling engines; the war spanned almost a decade, sprawled over half the world, and had antagonists that have come to symbolize clear, unambiguous evil. That's a lot of stories to be told--and indeed, non-fiction books about the war are their own cottage industry. You can tell World War II stories for a long time before you run out of ideas. But stories about the war are, inevitably, stories about the soldiers who fought it, and a compelling war story starts with a compelling soldier. And when it comes to compelling soldiers, Frank Rock gives ground to nobody.

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