Of course, like all comics of the time, the company's other titles were heavily cross-promoted in the books I picked up. Mostly the superhero titles advertised other superhero titles but, occasionally, an ad for a science fiction comic or a war book would show up in the comics I bought.
|As attractive as the DC house ads were, with their terrific Ira Schnapp design, I wasn't in the slightest interested in war comics, so I wouldn't experience the grandeur of Joe Kubert and Russ Heath art until much later.|
Then, by the time I got to 1965, I was avidly devouring Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's Marvel Comics. Captain America was my favourite and I thoroughly enjoyed his adventures in both Tales to Astonish and The Avengers. But seeing the cover of Sgt Fury 13 - either in a house ad or in a shop, I can't recall which now - I knew I had to have it. In that story, as related in my earlier post, Captain America was just a guest star and so Fury and his Howlers had the lion's share of the action. But that was enough to pique my interest. Here was a war story that played out more like a superhero tale. The Howlers were each individuals and had particular talents that came handy in just about any situation. And the combination of Lee's deft, bantering dialogue and Kirby's over-the-top action sequences was enough to make me forgive the title for being a war comic. And the Marvel completist that I was turning into had to track down the earlier issues I'd missed.
WAR - MARVEL STYLE!By the time the first Sgt Fury comic came out, Lee and Kirby were already beginning to refine the Marvel style of comic-building. Bearing in mind that at this stage Marvel publisher Martin Goodman was still restricted to just eight titles a month under the terms of his distribution contract with the DC-owned Independent News - just sixteen bi-monthly titles in all - it looks like Sgt Fury and His Howling Commandos was a replacement for the cancelled Incredible Hulk, the last issue of which had appeared two months prior.
|Sgt Fury 1 placed this odd "Meet the Howling Commandos" double-page spread right after the title splash ... very unusual for a Marvel Comic of this period.|
Though I have no way of knowing for sure, I'm convinced this was Stan Lee's doing. In his autobiography Excelsior!, Stan wrote, "I told [Goodman] I felt we were succeeding because, unlike with most other comics, we were concentrating on characterisation and realistic dialogue, which had helped make the fantasy angles seem more believable. Also, I had tried to inject humour, humour that comes out of character and situation rather than simple gags. I referred to our entire approach as the Marvel Style. I told him that it was that style that made the difference.
"Martin replied, 'That's too subtle, Stan. Kids don't appreciate that. You know what I think? I think they're just good titles, that's what. Spider-Man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man; they're great names.'
"I knew they were, but that wasn't the point. That's when I decided to bet that I could prove he was wrong. Remember, it was the Sixties and readers were sick of war and anything that had to do with war. So I said, 'I'll do a war book with the worst title I can come up with, but if it's done in the Marvel Style, I'll bet it'll sell.'
"He said, 'Not a chance. Once and for all, this'll prove you're wrong, Stan. Go ahead and try it.'
"Well, it wasn't easy coming up with the worst name possible but I tried. I wracked my weary little brain hour after hour until I finally zeroed in on the most unlikely title I could think of - Sgt Fury and His Howling Commandos.
"The fact that it was a war theme alone should have been its death knell, but the title was admittedly too long and much too cumbersome. We could barely squeeze it on the masthead. Then, to make my task even tougher, I gave our hero, Sgt Nick Fury, the most ethnically mixed platoon I could dream up. It consisted of Jewish Izzy Cohen, Italian Dino Manelli, Irish Dum-Dum Dugan, Gabriel Jones, a black man - well, you get the idea. There was even a gay platoon member named Percival Pinkerton."
That last bit, about Pvt Pinkerton, I'm really not sure about. At the time, I'd always taken the portrayal of Pinky to be just the way Americans see the British - slightly fey, tea-drinking, umbrella-carrying prigs. It never occurred to me, until reading that quote in Stan's book, that Pinky was anything other than Stan's view of a typical British soldier. And I still don't. I'm fairly sure that this is all just retro-fitting history to make Stan seem more astute than he actually was.
The story in Sgt Fury 1 (May 1963) isn't actually that great or ground-breaking. The plot has Fury and his team parachute behind enemy lines to free a captured resistance fighter before he can be forced to reveal the dates of the Normandy landings to the Nazis. And though in later years Jack Kirby would insist he always did his best work so he could "make sales", I really don't think this is anything like Jack's best work.
The splash page is truly horrible. The composition is jumbled and Nick Fury doesn't look anything like Nick Fury. It's possible that other hands messed with this before it went to press, but examples of Kirby phoning it in are seen all through the book. Is it possible Jack didn't agree with Stan about putting his energies in to a war book? After all, the newsstands were awash with WWII comics. More importantly, are they "Commandoes"? I thought they were "Commandos".
The structure of the comic is odd, as well. There's a six page "origin", which shows us The Howlers in training with Dum-Dum Dugan presiding, then the team parachuting in to France, during which Dugan takes out a Messerschmitt with a hand grenade. The art looks rushed and crude, almost like this prologue was actually an afterthought, and the inking by Dick Ayers is not up to the standard that we'd been used to in the Marvel monster tales in the preceding years.
The second chapter, which runs to 15 pages, seems better drawn, with a full page splash at the beginning, and starts off in the middle of the action with The Howlers already on the ground, infiltrating a French town.
Is it possible that the original story was just these fifteen pages, which were planned for a generic war book (Commando Action?), along with a shorter back-up tale, in the same way the first few Spider-Man stories were just 14 pages? I guess we'll never know, but it doesn't seem an unreasonable explanation.
But those minor carps aside, Lee and Kirby established the feel of the book and the characters right out the gate. All the components that would separate Sgt Fury from its DC counterparts were all there - the informal and slang-laden dialogue, Fury as a tough but fiercely loyal leader, the wisecracks in the face of danger, and the liberal undercurrent, using the Nazis as a stand-in for what Lee saw as intolerant attitudes in contemporary American society.
|Sgt Fury 2 had the first portrayal of a Nazi concentration camp in comics. There's also a sequence near the end where Dum-Dum destroys a V2 rocket in its launching pad.|
The Howlers deliberately get themselves captured and sent to a concentration camp where the nuclear research is going on. Though Lee and Kirby don't dwell on it, they make it pretty plain that human beings just don't do this kind of thing to each other and that's the reason they're fighting this war.
The issue also featured another "Weapons of War" page and a bonus feature page showing an annotated drawing of a Nazi infantryman.
Sgt Fury 3 (Sep 1963) developed the characters further, establishing Fury's crew as a bunch of roughnecks you'd never want to get on the wrong side of. After a brawl in a bar, it takes an entire platoon of MPs, backed by a tank, to put Fury and the guys in the guardhouse. But they don't stay long, as Capt Sawyer has a mission for them in Italy. There they meet and agree to help Maj Reed Richards of the OSS, the US's wartime equivalent of Britain's MI6 and a forerunner of the C.I.A. Fury and the team deliver the vital information from Richards to the battalion trapped behind enemy lines, enabling the US forces to escape without casualties.
I quite like the line uttered by Richards on page 11, pictured above (click on the image to expand). "No time for long speeches, Fury!" Over in Fantastic Four, set twenty years later, Reed Richards was characterised by his long speeches, as often commented-on by Ben Grimm. Blink and you miss it, but I think this was just Stan Lee amusing himself.
In Sgt Fury 3 the character of The Howlers is by now even more firmly stablished and while the stories aren't to be taken too seriously and there're more comedy sequences, Stan and Jack never lose sight of the fact that war's a serious business. Nowhere is that more plain than in the next issue.
|Lee and Kirby bring a new dimension to the Silver Age war comic by having a major character killed in combat. And staying dead.|
The Lord Ha-Ha character is based on a real-life, American-born traitor, William Joyce aka "Lord Haw-Haw", who broadcast Nazi propaganda over the radio airwaves during the Second World War. Joyce was captured in 1945, tried, found guilty of treason and executed by hanging at Wandsworth prison in January 1946.
I didn't think that new inker George "Bell" Roussos was any better or worse than Dick Ayers, who'd inked the first three issues. In some ways the art looks a little sharper here. However, I think the story is much stronger here than it has been in the issues so far. The introduction of a love interest for Fury separates it from other contemporary war comics and using that relationship to set up a moral conflict for Fury when the girl's brother turns out to the the villain of the piece makes for strong and emotionally resonant storytelling.
There's also another "Weapons of War" feature page and an house ad for Avengers 3, which contains a deliberate mistake ... can you spot it, readers?
Issue 5 (Jan 1964) continued to cement Sgt Fury and His Howling Commandos as a different kind of war comic. This tale introduced the nefarious Baron Strucker, who would become major villain both to Nick Fury and to other Marvel heroes. The story has Fury challenged to a one-on-one fight by high-ranking Nazi Strucker. Though expressly forbidden by his commanding officer, Fury disobeys and sneaks into occupied France by night to answer the challenge. But the wily Nazi pulls the old "drugged toast" routine and Fury, not realising that "the flagon with the dragon has the brew that is true", succumbs to the drugged wine and passes out in the middle of the fight. The Nazis film the whole shameful incident and dump the unconscious Fury back in Britain via parachute.
|Sgt Fury 5 had a great story from Stan Lee, great storytelling and art from Jack Kirby, but is let down slightly by the rushed inks of George Roussos.|
As strong as I thought the story was, I didn't think Roussos' inks in this issue were up to the standard he'd set for himself in issue 4. There are many reasons why a piece of work might look rushed - perhaps it was rushed, or perhaps others interfered uncredited - but the result is still the same.
Interestingly, with this issue, Lee took to crediting himself and Kirby as "Ex-Sergeant Stan Lee, U.S. Army" and "Ex-Infantryman Jack Kirby, U.S. Army". It's likely that this was intended to lend a bit of authenticity to the stories, but the writing is so stylised that it couldn't possibly be mistaken for a documentary.
|On the surface, Sgt Fury 6 is about the Commandos taking on Rommel in the North Africa campaign, but in the end, there's not very much Rommel in this parable about racism in the U.S. and its parallels in Nazi Germany.|
And if Stan hasn't yet made his position clear, he has Fury go on to say, "Rats like him aren't on any side. They just crawl outta the mud long enough to poison whatever they touch!"
Tellingly, there's a scene in the middle of the story where Stonewell is required to interrogate a captured Nazi officer, who suggests that Stonewell has much in common with the Nazi ideology and that if he switches sides, he'd be well rewarded by Rommel. Stonewell rebuffs this saying, "You're barking up the wrong tree, Fritz. I've got use for Nazis, either ..."
The pay-off to all this is when Stonewell is injured under enemy fire and Izzy hoists the unconscious man onto his shoulders and carries him to safety. A German doctor treats Stonewell's wounds but it's left to Gabe to supply the essential rare type AB blood that Stonewell needs to survive. Stonewell comes round long enough to remark, "No! Not your blood! It -- It wasn't from you??!!"
Stan wisely leaves it to the reader to decide whether Stonewell is redeemed at the end of the story, and Fury gets to make a summing up: "The seeds of prejudice, which take a lifetime to grow, can't be stamped out overnight -- but if we keep trying -- keep fighting -- perhaps a day will come when 'Love thy brother' will be more than an expression we hear in church". It may be out of character for Fury to talk that way, but just putting that sentiment in a kids' comic is a pretty bold step for the early 1960s.
STAN LEE WAS MY FATHERBack in the early 1960s, we kids lived in a divided world. On the one hand, we would watch the dramatic events unfolding in the United States, as African-Americans (we didn't call them that, then) battled the authorities in their struggle to keep civil liberties and equality in the public eye. Then in the UK, our immigrant citizens were largely integrated into the wider population, working and learning alongside the indigenous British population.
South-East London, where I grew up, was a largely white area at the time. In 1962, I was eight years old and the only black kids I knew were the children of a white couple who managed the tall flats across the road from where I lived in Woolwich.
|This block was right across the road from the flats where I grew up. The caretakers and their adopted kids lived in the ground floor corner flat in this picture.|
Yet at the same time, we kids were surrounded by casual racism. More than once I'd hear an adult remark that a black family's house was very clean, as if they didn't have hygiene in the Caribbean. Racist jokes were commonplace and we naive kids would even repeat them. But as I got older, more and more my values were shaped by what I read in Stan Lee's Marvel Comics. Not by how my mum behaved, but by how the characters in Stan Lee's stories behaved, and by the liberal - if slightly simplistic - views that Stan professed in his writing.
Those views permeated all the stories Stan wrote, and obviously drip-fed into my consciousness over the years. By the time I was a teenager, Stan had taken to editorialising his stance in the Soapbox column on the Marvel BullPen Bulletins page. The earliest one I could find was in the October 1968 column where Stan says, "We believe that Man has a divine destiny, and an awesome responsibility - the responsibility of treating all who share this wondrous world of ours with tolerance and respect - judging each fellow human on his own merit, regardless of race, creed or colour. That we agree on - and we'll never rest until it becomes fact, rather than just a cherished dream." Which is pretty much what Fury said at the end of Sgt Fury 6, four years earlier.
My mum and stepfather never taught me those values when I was a kid. It was left to Stan Lee to give me my moral compass in life.
BACK TO SGT FURYIssue 7 of Sgt Fury and His Howling Commandos (May 1964) was a change of pace, putting Fury on trial for disobeying a direct order under fire and striking a superior officer, an act punishable by firing squad.
|Sgt Fury 7 is much less a war action epic and more a courtroom drama, along the lines of The Caine Mutiny (1954). Nick Fury is on trial for his life, with no memory of the events that have led to his situation.|
Finally, Fury's memory returns and he's able to prove through the testimony of a captured German soldier that he had prior knowledge that the ammo dump was a trap, rigged to explode to kill the invading commandos. Fury's swift action saved not only Lt Parker's life but those of the Howlers, as well.
Though I have no basis for this, I did wonder if Stan had some idea of having Spencer Parker turn out to be some relative of Peter Parker. In the 1968 Amazing Spider-Man Annual 5, Stan would reveal that Peter's parents were Richard and Mary Parker, who were CIA operatives, recruited to the organisation by Nick Fury, so it's not too much of a stretch.
Issue 7 would be last Sgt Fury drawn by Jack Kirby, except for issue 13 which I covered in my blog entry about Captain America's wartime exploits. And this is where I planned to end this entry. However Sgt Fury 8 (Jul 1964) introduced new Howler Percival Pinkerton to the readers, so I'll cover that issue too.
|Sgt Fury 8 was the first in a long run drawn by Dick Ayers and introduced new Howler Percival Pinkerton to the team. The main plot about Dr Zemo's death ray seemed almost incidental.|
But is he an intentionally gay character? I can't see any evidence of it here. As I said at the beginning of this piece I think, at the time, Stan just wanted to portray an English soldier pretty much as he thought his readers would expect an English soldier to appear. Anything else is just retrofitting.
The rest of the issue involves the Howlers tracking down Nazi scientist Dr Zemo to destroy his death ray weapon. Dick Ayers' art is very serviceable, though he's no Jack Kirby. Right after this, Sgt Fury and His Howling Commandos went to a monthly schedule so, clearly, Marvel readers had taken the comic to their hearts.
What stands out for me is that Stan had to use a relatively obscure title like Sgt Fury to begin furthering his laudable liberal agenda. He didn't use premiere Marvel characters like Fantastic Four or Spider-Man. Maybe that would have been just a step too daring for 1963, but once he realised that the readers were with him, then he made no attempt to disguise what he thought about the equality issue. Later, Stan would use the anti-mutant sentiments in The X-Men to draw a parallel with racism in the US, but that was done in an allegorical way. In Sgt Fury, it was all out in the open for anyone to see.
Despite its position as one of Marvel's more low-key titles, Sgt Fury and His Howling Commandos went on to have a long and successful run with Ayers as the penciller. I especially like the issues inked by John Severin, and later writers like Roy Thomas and notably Gary Friedrich had their own successes with the title.
And of course, Nick Fury became a major player in the Marvel Universe of the present day as well, as director of SHIELD. But that, too, is a story for another day.
Next: Don't mess with the logo