Haunted Tank #1: Second Take
There is a scene toward the end of the premiere issue of the new Haunted Tank series in which the tank squad stumbles into an ambush of four enemy tanks. The Iraqis are caught somewhat unaware by the approaching Americans, but are still able to muster up in time to deal what should be the death blow to these unfortunate invaders. In gallops General Jeb Stuart CSA (Retired, or Deceased, rather), who, having been run off by his African-American namesake, returns in the nick of time and beheads the unsuspecting Iraqis, setting up the uneasy peace that will define his relationship with eponymous tank's crew.
As the dust settles and the crew of the tank realize that once again, their asses have been saved by this "antiquated relic trying to stay relevant," Sergeant Jamal Stuart, instead of thanking him, suggests that the fact that he is still walking the earth, serving with his progeny implies that he has some atoning to do for his actions during his lifetime. This moment crystallizes one of the major problems with the execution of this issue. Marraffino has laid the mechanics of his script a little too bare--we are forced to witness how he included the bit about Jeb Stuart commending himself to God on his death bed in order to set up this confrontation. It is sloppiness like this that makes what could have been a legitimately thoughtful and deeply humorous comic into one mired by clunky dialogue and a self-serving agenda.
It's important to point out that just about everything that Brandon cites as a positive in his review is basically true. Marraffino and Flint have somehow managed to take what is at base an amazingly absurd and problematic conceit and turn it into a comic that, at least in its basic premises, works as a fun meditation on the paradoxes of war and military culture for our post-modern age. The problem, then, is that the writer has been allowed to get a little overzealous in the execution and this has had the unfortunate effect of undermining a lot of what should work in the comic's favor.
A good example of this comes in the initial dust-up leading to Jeb's first appearance. As the tank squad rumbles along the miles of Iraqi desert wasteland, they are beset by a sudden explosion, revealed to be the result of a rocket-propelled grenade fired from a Toyota pickup filled to bursting with Arabs sporting all manner of light arms. As the Arabs approach their quarry, one of their number shouts, "Come, my Syrian brothers! Let us think of ways to spend Saddam's money!"
Without getting too wonky, the first of these commands displays a lamentable lack of understanding of the dynamics of tribe, ethnicity and nationality which proved so problematic to the American military's handling of the post-conflict insurgency. The Arab nation-state is a relatively recent invention, in most cases arbitrarily delineated by the French and British governments at the end of the first World War. By and large, the people living in the vast swaths of territory straddling the Syria/Iraq border would identify primarily by their tribal affiliations, and for all practical purposes have historically ignored that artificial political boundary. As a matter of fact, the only people who might identify themselves as "Syrian" in this way, live in places like Damascus in a manner more akin to our own, than to these apparent Bedouin warriors.
The second command is even more problematic, in that it completely undermines the correlation that Marraffino later draws between the southern position in the American Civil War and the Iraqi Arabs defending their homeland in this current conflict. Jeb's lamentations about foreign invaders may conveniently ignore the central position that slavery held in the impetus for southern secession, but it still represents the major reason why poor whites--easily the population most hurt by the institution of slavery, after the slaves themselves, of course--fought in such great numbers in that conflict. By reducing these Arabs' motives for fighting the Americans to strictly financial terms, Marraffino succeeds in perpetrating the very racial arrogance that the series appears to be trying to turn on its head.
All of this being said, the series is not without its redeeming qualities. As Brandon mentioned, Henry Flint's Seth Fisher-style, cartoony-realism gives nearly every panel something which holds the eyes. Moreover, their is some real ironic brilliance in some of the comic's more elaborate humorous set-pieces. The groaning, too obvious reference to sand people is redeemed in the following panels when a member of the tank squad shouts, "Look! Weapons of mass destruction!"--the next panel revealing a shitting camel. Probably my favorite moment of the book comes in the exchange between the Stuarts, in which Jeb seems to be just missing Jamal's euphemistic references to slavery--the juxtaposition of Jamal's righteous indignation, Jeb's pompous ignorance and Johnson's utter cluelessness is comics gold.