Haunted Tank #1

The old Haunted Tank series was about a contemporary soldier named Jeb Stuart that's protected by the ghost of J.E.B Stuart, a Confederate General. I've never read it and it's probably pretty cool but a little dumb and whether you're a P.C super-sensitive type or not, the concept that the descendant of Confederate soldier protects one of his ancestors in war--implicitly drawing a connection between the Civil War and later wars--is a least little bizarre or, "problematic" as they like to say at Liberal Arts school.

So what Marraffino wisely does is base the comic around these "problems", comment on them, switch it up, and still keep the pulpy fun and some of the jingoism intact. The first thing the story does, after a totally bad-ass appearance by J.E.B Stuart manning a tank and shooting up some insurgents, is make an interesting connection between the Iraq War, America's aggression, and the sectarian violence going on in the Middle-East. Following an quick origin story that's a little sloppy (the transition's made by a soldier literally asking J.E.B "What's your story anyway?"), J.E.B explains his devotion to the South in a way that side-steps slavery: "When a foreign power seeks submission of one's sovereign state, an indistinguishable hatred fuels inexhaustible defiance." The implication of that defense by J.E.B, whether justified or not, is that it's the same mindset working throughout the Middle East.

Again, it's hard or maybe just too early to fully parse this connection out, but it certainly makes the connection between modern times and the Civil War more complex than they apparently were in the original incarnation of the series. Marraffino moves on though, not giving the irony of J.E.B's word as he's standing in the desert with soldiers fighting a war based a great deal on American aggression too much importance, instead interrupting it with a black soldier (named Jamal) who attacks J.E.B's support of slavery and the ugly violence that it entailed. It's one more quick, important aside that the original series presumably didn't touch upon that sorta needs to be addressed and Marraffino's smart to get it all out of the way, even if it feels a bit jumbled.

Ultimately too, the jumbled nature of how plot points and ideas are conveyed isn't a big deal because the comic's based on an insane premise in the first place and also, there's worse things for a comic book writer to do than stuff too much into an issue. Plus, it all pays off and the lack of subtlety's forgotten when the hook of the series--a genuine shocker--is revealed. J.E.B explains why he chose the tank he's chosen to haunt, explaining it's his "sacred duty" to protect his "descendants in battle" and he puts his hand on the shoulder of the white soldier. Two frames reveal the last names of the soldiers, the white one (Johnson) and the black one (Stuart). In a really funny panel, in which General J.E.B Stuart's eyes turn to shocked little circles, he realizes that indeed, his descendant is Jamal Stuart. The shock's equal on Jamal's part who tells J.E.B to beat it.

And it's this point where the comic gets really complex and not just like, smart for a comic book. Jamal and J.E.B are equally surprised and perturbed by their connection, for different reasons yes, but this kind of plurality is refreshing as it doesn't stop or fall back on simple, stock characters to represent a race or ideology. You start to see all of these weird connections between how the characters are represented, as J.E.B's dialogue is written with a slightly exaggerated Southern Gentlemen accents (all "mah" and "ah") immediately recalling the unfortunate trend in comic to make all black characters speak with verbs that end with the "g" and fill-out their sentences with "Yo" or "dog". There's also some fun reversals of expectation. The black guy's name is the typically "black" name of Jamal, but he's hardly racist or accidentally-racist caricature, he's the Sergeant, the guy in charge.

He's also illustrated with a little more subtlety too. Artist Henry Flint does some wonderful work throughout, finding this balance of realism and rubbery fun, and he takes the time to differentiate faces and ethnicities in fairly impressive ways. The Middle-Eastern soldiers, despite being in the comic mainly to be shot-up or beheaded by J.E.B, aren't drawn to look anymore menacing or scary than anybody else- they've got the same resigned calm on their faces as American soldiers, even as they praise one another during battle. Flint's got a tough job ahead of him, as almost the entire issue takes places in the middle of the desert with only sand and horizon as background, but he focuses on intense, detailed close-ups full of dots of dust and the realistic wrinkles of clothes and gear, and then will leap to a beautiful but still raw-looking wide-shot. Put it this way: After browsing the book's art a couple times, I'm actually disappointed I grabbed the Joe Kubert cover and not Flint's own.

If Flint's work was a little less conventional, he'd be ready for the Seth Fisher award in terms of occupying this weird space of being realistic but cartoon-like expressive and ready to surprise you at every page-turn. That's the perfect art for this book too because Frank Marraffino's update on this DC war comics classic is both faithfully sincere and aware of the inherent absurdity of a story about a tank haunted by a Confederate Civil War general. Brilliantly too, Marraffino plays off of that classic series in a way that I hesitated spoiling for you, but since it's hinted at on the cover and really will bring smart readers that may have dismissed this comic over to the fold.

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