A Sailor's Story Revisited

By Eric Mills

Glanzman enlisted in the U.S. Navy once he turned 18 and soon found himself in service on board the Fletcher -class destroyer USS Stevens (DD-479) as she sailed through the heart of the Pacific war, earning nine battle commendations along the way. “Never in my life had I felt so much pride and joy” than when first assigned his ship, he would later recall. And through it all, the metamorphosis from raw recruit to seasoned destroyerman, from the Brooklyn Navy Yard to Panama to Pearl Harbor to the Gilberts, from Kwajalein to Guadalcanal to New Caledonia, New Guinea to Eniwetok to Guam, Leyte to Luzon to Lingayen Gulf, Brunei Bay to Balikpapan, from pollywog to shellback, through boredom and battle, drudgery and death all around, from 1943 to 1945, through it all, Sam Glanzman had a trusty sidekick: his sketchpad.

He was more than just a sailor; he was an artist/chronicler with a frontline view of the most titanic naval conflict in the history of the world. His vantage point wasn’t the bridge or the wardroom, but the crew’s mess and the fireroom, and the cluttered nooks and crannies of a warship that he always explored with a keen, curious, and observant eye. He sketched because it fulfilled the burgeoning creative itch that war had curtailed, because it staved off boredom, because it was just what he did—and did well. What it all amounted to by the time the Stevens hove-to off San Diego after the fighting was over was a unique visual scrapbook, deftly rendered by hand, of the Pacific-theater experience. Later, it would hold Glanzman in good stead.

Carving Out a Silver Age Career

Comics creation is a multilayered process—story, penciling, inking, coloring, lettering—and when you’re the one doing several parts or sometimes even all of that, and getting paid an unrealistically low per-page rate for it in 1946, it’s easy to throw up your hands and say, enough’s enough. Frustrated by the difficulty of making a go of it in comics, Glanzman temporarily abandoned his calling in the postwar years and became somewhat of a manual-labor jack-of-all-trades—lumber worker, cabinetmaker, boatyard laborer. By the early 1950s he was married and installing machine guns on military aircraft at Republic Aviation on Long Island. But that was all roof-over-your-head, food-on-the-table stuff. He was still trying to crack into art as a viable career, picking up the odd comics assignment here and children’s-book illustration gig there.

By the late 1950s, he was back in the ring for another swing at a full-time comics living—albeit at the lower end of the food chain, a relatively bargain-basement outfit called Charlton. But it got his foot back in the door, and this return marked the start of a very prolific period in his artistic career. As the ’50s morphed into the ’60s, Glanzman divided his time between Charlton and the more upscale Dell comics lines, producing some classic comic books along the way. One cult favorite that he worked on for Dell during this phase was the lost-world adventure Kona, Monarch of Monster Isle . “As an impressionable young nerdling,” a kid named Chuck Dixon was first exposed to Glanzman’s artwork in an issue of Kona . “In the comic book in question there were LOTS of dinosaurs,” he recalls. “Mr. Glanzman treated the readers to a sequence featuring a dinosaur stampede down a narrow ravine—hundreds of prehistoric critters of all types thundering and skittering and charging in a narrow-packed mob. . . . Those pages enflamed my imagination. And no wonder. It was an awesome sequence wonderfully realized by Mr. Glanzman.” Chuck Dixon would grow up to become one of the rock stars of the comics world in the 1990s, gaining fame for his voluminous work on Batman and other iconic characters.

Another highly sought title Glanzman worked on during what’s known as the Silver Age of comics was the Charlton series Hercules: Adventures of the Man-God , which had a 13-issue run from 1967 to ’69. Hercules marked an admirable attempt at bringing authenticity to the retelling of the Greek myth, framing its stories around the 12 Labors of Hercules . Glanzman’s art, especially toward the end of the run after a switch-out of writers, is what gives the series its salient collectability; the imagery is quite exquisite, a foreshadowing of the sword-and-sorcery genre that was just about to take off at the time. “Getting the details right in my stories was very important,” the artist said in a recent interview. Be it dinosaur anatomy or the ancient world, “I did research for everything.” And it showed.

But for all his forays into fantastical realms, it was the war-comics genre that most served as the Glanzman mainstay through the years. War at Sea, Fightin’ Marines, Battlefield Action, Submarine Attack, Combat , and an array of others boasted remarkably detailed and accurate Glanzman artwork. And while much of this material was your standard meat-and-potatoes, rah-rah, good guys-vs.-bad guys fare, the artist would become renowned within comics-aficionado circles for his work on a groundbreaking series that reflected the growing ambivalences of the Vietnam War era. “The Lonely War of Willy Schultz,” appearing in Charlton’s Fightin’ Army from 1967 to ’69, told the tale of a U.S. Army captain of German heritage grappling with his identity and loyalties in the European theater of World War II. It was, in its own way, quite revolutionary—a war comic that actually provided some nuance. In that sense, it was a harbinger of even greater things to come.

Destroyer Memories Awoken

Having cranked out so many seemingly endless pages of content through the ’50s and ’60s, Glanzman had an ever-growing reputation for quality and was garnering serious attention within the industry. The big leagues—DC and Marvel, that is—beckoned. The late, great Joe Kubert—cocreator of Sgt. Rock (the quintessential war-comics character) and founder of the influential Kubert School of Cartoon and Graphic Art—was overseeing DC’s war titles as the 1960s became the ’70s. Kubert knew talent when he saw it, and he brought Glanzman aboard at DC. Many consider DC’s war-comics output in the ensuing decade to be the apotheosis of the genre. The stories “reached a creative peak in their development,” notes Chuck Dixon. “They were more realistic and more mature than they had been in the ’60s, when the stories would feature massive fistfights more suited to superhero comics or gimmicky stories that were mostly one-note in execution.” Glanzman proved an ideal fit for the evolved approach to the material, being put to work on Our Army at War, Star-Spangled War Stories, Weird War, and G.I. Combat . As Dixon points out, these “were serious comics taking the business of war seriously.” Glanzman’s artwork for the long-running “Haunted Tank” series in G.I. Combat gained him an ever-growing following. But it was in Issue #218 (April 1970) of Our Army at War that Glanzman would quietly embark on what would blossom to become his greatest achievement in comics. Here, for the first time, appearing as a back-up story to the main feature, was a tale of the USS Stevens in World War II—not just drawn, but written as well, by a man who had been there.

Many more would follow—more than 50, in fact—all bound by page-count limitations, but each a vivid slice of shipboard life, eventually, collectively, comprising a sort of epic account. “These were not simple action tales of rousing derring-do,” Dixon says. “These were portraits of men in combat. As earnest as the material was in the lead features of the various war books, these stories of the Stevens were often a dose of the coldest reality.”

After all these years, all those comics in one genre after another, Sam Glanzman was telling his own story at last—the story of a tin-can sailor in World War II.

Art as Memoir

If the 1970s witnessed a growing maturity in comics, the 1980s marked a whole new level of respect for the medium—acceptance of it as more than mere juvenilia. It was a time of ever-edgier content, of expanded formats, and the coming of age of an idea and a term that had been bandied about off and on for years: the graphic novel. Why should the writer and artist be bound by the page constraints (or subject-matter restrictions) of the typical spin-rack issue? Would there be a ready audience for such a thing as a (gasp) book-length comic? There was indeed, and the graphic-novel concept took off at a gallop in the ’80s.

It was the age of Watchmen, Maus, and Batman: The Dark Knight Returns . Some objected to the new nomenclature on the grounds it was either (a) pretentious, (b) merely a marketing term, (c) in many instances just a way of repackaging individual issues (see Dark Knight Returns ), or (d) all of the above. But “graphic novel” served as an apt descriptor for the emerging idea of a lengthier, more ambitious storytelling format. Marvel Comics embraced it enthusiastically, launching a graphic-novel line that ran the gamut from the Marvel stable of superheroes to such old-school favorites as the Shadow and Dracula—and perhaps most uniquely, the wartime reminiscences of one Sam Glanzman.

Here finally was the broader canvas that his war experiences deserved. No more back-of-the-issue short-shorts, no more pastiches or stand-alone vignettes. In this recounting, Glanzman himself would be inserted as the main character, and the narrative would be more purely autobiographical. Except for the standard “names were changed” bit, this was the real deal. “All the war stories were as detailed and realistic as I could remember,” Glanzman said. And when A Sailor’s Story was published in 1987, it met with such success that a sequel, A Sailor’s Story, Book Two: Winds, Dreams, and Dragons , soon followed in 1989.

A Sailor’s Story was unique in the new graphic-novel arena in a couple of ways. First, Marvel saw it as such worthy material that the company initially published it in hardback. (Softcover was usually the standard operating procedure.) Second, it was technically not a “graphic novel,” but more accurately a “graphic memoir,” so a bit of a trailblazer in that regard as well. Marvel editor Larry Hama recalls the sense within the office that they had something very special on their hands. Pat Redding Scanlon was the assistant editor honchoing all the production, proofing, and such on A Sailor’s Story . As Hama tells it, “I remember her opening a box of original pages when they first came in from Sam and remarking, ‘It’s like an honor just to hold the pages.’”

A Sailor’s Story brought the World War II Pacific bracingly alive for a generation of readers who hadn’t experienced those times firsthand. In addition to the history, there’s the humanity through it all, these memorable characters among Glanzman’s shipmates that the reader gets to know (and recognize in the picture panels) as the saga unfolds. Not unlike the Patrick O’Brian approach, Glanzman’s narrative ranges continuously (and effortlessly) from the human element to the minutiae of shipboard jargon and naval architecture, armaments, and tactics. His diagrammatic drawings of a gun mount, or a ship’s fireroom, or destroyer close-in fire support for amphibious landings, or a cross-section of the Stevens herself are as fascinatingly detailed and instructive as a Naval History special foldout section. Above all, his recreation of the sailor’s life with all its ups and downs, joys and despairs, deprivations and rewards makes the reader feel vividly there.

“Sam Glanzman wasn’t just doing a fancy comic book—he was testifying, and memorializing,” Hama recalls. “. . . There are many books about the U.S. Navy in the South Pacific during WWII, but no other graphic novels, to my knowledge, written and drawn by somebody who had actually been there. Somebody who meticulously chronicled all that he saw in sketchbooks and diaries. Somebody who could remember the sights, the sounds, the smells, the joys and sorrows, the fear and the boredom—and who had the power to translate it all into pictures and words.”

No surprise, then, that A Sailor’s Story has earned copious praise through the years. It prompted The A.V. Club , an entertainment website, to declare, “Sam Glanzman is one of the great storytellers of 20th-century comics.” And according to The New York Times : “What makes A Sailor’s Story most compelling is its modest grace. It’s not really a memoir of war, but of life aboard a floating town. Mr. Glanzman’s stories are like those you’d hear from a favorite uncle, true tales about average men who were most concerned about beer, women and gambling, not life, death and the enemy.”

The Stevens Revival

For all who missed A Sailor’s Story the first time around, it is now readily available again, Books I and II anthologized along with a wealth of bonus material, in a new edition published by Dover Books. The venerable Dover, longtime standard-bearer for affordable facsimile reprints, is branching out into the graphic-novel sphere, and as Dover editor Drew Ford described it, what better way to launch the line than with Glanzman’s magnum opus? “My job at Dover consists of delving back into the past, digging out what I feel are important graphic novels and uncollected comic book runs which deserve to be brought back into a print, both for the original readers and so they might be discovered and enjoyed by future generations of comic book fans,” Ford said on the occasion of the 2015 Glanzman re-release. “. . . The Sailor’s Story graphic novels were something that I personally believed should have been reprinted by someone a long time ago. . . . Therefore, when the opportunity to reprint a series of classic graphic novels came up here at Dover, the first book I thought of was A Sailor’s Story .”

Also, Dover has announced that a follow-up volume will be released later this year: an anthology of the 50-plus USS Stevens stories Glanzman wrote and illustrated during the DC years, plus additional material—the first-ever gathering-together of these stories in a single book. In other words, a must-have.

Because he’s primarily famous as a comic-book artist, the quality of Glanzman’s wordsmithing is perhaps somewhat overlooked. But the stellar writing in A Sailor’s Story is a huge part of its impact. Some passages are capable of bringing the reader to the verge of tears. Here’s how Glanzman describes the reaction of the rescued crewmen of the USS Shelton (DE-407), as they watch their ship sink after being struck by Japanese torpedoes off Morotai on 3 October 1944:

The Shelton ’s crew, horrified and helpless, watched her assassination.

To those crewmen, as with all true sailors, a ship is not steel and iron . . . but a living entity. They would always remember her grey shape, her powerful grace, the surge of her mighty engines as she lunged into the foe . . . and too, the almost heavenly peace as on moon lit waters she seemed to guide silently, stealthily, leaving behind a white veil in the black waters. Her wake, a phosphoric white ribbon with flecks of diamonds.

. . . Nothing . . . no marker for her final resting place. Quietly, like a funeral procession, the ships left. Cold depressing rain fell gently.

Simultaneously elegiac and filled with precise descriptive detail—that’s just plain damn beautiful prose. Add in the art panels that accompany it, and it all becomes very moving. A Sailor’s Story deserves its unique place in the pantheon of World War II memoir, and hopefully it can now find an even wider readership. It is vital material because, as Glanzman himself puts it, “I lived it.” And through his artistry, the rest of us, at least vicariously, can live it as well.

But above all, Glanzman’s work stands out not because of its accuracy and its verisimilitude, but because of its heart. It is imbued with an underlying sense of loss, of undying honor and respect for the ones who went out there and served, and especially for the ones who never made it home. As the opening page of A Sailor’s Story reads:




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