Review by Win Wiacek
To the shame and detriment of the entire comics industry, for most of his career Sam Glanzman was almost a secret creator of American comics. Despite having one of the longest careers, most unique illustration styles and the respect of his creative peers, his public acclaim never reflected this. Thankfully he lived long enough to enjoy a belated spotlight and bask in some well-deserved adulation.
Glanzman drew and wrote comics from the 1940s, most commonly in classic genres ranging from war to mystery to fantasy, where his work was always raw, powerful, subtly engaging and irresistibly compelling. He really came alive, though, as a pioneer of graphic autobiography, translating personal World War II experiences as a sailor in the Pacific into one of the very best strips to appear in DC’s 1970s war comics.
U.S.S. Stevens, DD479 was a peripatetic filler-feature that bobbed between DC’s war anthologies. It provided wry, witty, shocking, informative and immensely human vignettes of shipboard life, starring the fictionalised crew of the destroyer Glanzman had served on. It was, in most ways, a love story and tribute to the vessel which had been their only home and refuge under fire. In four or five-page episodes, the auteur recaptured and shared a kind of comradeship peace-timers can only imagine creating a maritime epic to rank with Melville or Forester, but with stunning pictures too. Every episode of this astounding unsung masterpiece is housed in one stunning hardback compilation and if you love the medium of comics, or history, or just a damn fine tale well-told, you must have it.
That’s really all you need to know, but as noted, Glanzman belatedly enjoyed some earned attention, and this tome opens by sharing Presidential Letters from Barack Obama and George Herbert Walker Bush for his service and achievements. They’re followed by contextualising articles by Ivan Brandon and Jon B. Cooke.
The first official U.S.S. Stevens, DD479 appeared after Glanzman approached Joe Kubert, when newly appointed Group Editor for DC’s war titles. He commissioned ‘Frightened Boys… or Fighting Men’ depicting a moment in 1942 as boredom and tension are replaced by frantic action when a suicide plane targets the ship. A semi-regular cast is introduced slowly in later episodes; fictionalised incarnations of old shipmates including skipper Commander T. A. Rakov, who ominously pondered his Task Force’s dispersal, moments before a pot-luck attack known as ‘The Browning Shot’ proved his fears justified.
Glanzman’s pocket-sized tales always deliver a mountain of information, mood and impact and ‘The Idiot!’ is one of his most effective, detailing in four mesmerising pages not only the variety of suicidal flying bombs the Allies faced, but also how appalled American sailors reacted to them.
This is an extraordinary work. In unobtrusive little snippets, Glanzman challenges myths, prejudices and stereotypes – of morality, manhood, race, sexuality and gender – decades before anybody else in comics even thought to try. He also brought an aura of authenticity to war stories which has never been equalled. He eschews melodrama, faux heroism, trumped-up angst and eye-catching glory-hounding to instead depict how “brothers in arms” really felt and acted and suffered and died.
Shockingly funny, painfully realistic and visually captivating, U.S.S. Stevens is phenomenal and magnificent: a masterpiece by one of the very best of “The Greatest Generation”. It’s a sublimely insightful, affecting and rewarding graphic memoir every home, school and library should have and one every reader will return to over and over.