Sunday, 28 August 2016

United Colours of Commando-dom

BACK IN THE 1960s, I had begun reading American comics by first discovering DC editor Julius Schwartz's re-tooled versions of The Flash and Green Lantern, and the ultra-smooth Michelangelo-inspired art of Carmine Infantino. In pretty short order I discovered Justice League and the other superhero titles. Superman and Batman I'd already been familiar with via the black and white annuals that were available in the UK around the time.

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.
However I wasn't interested in war comics. After all, we had plenty of war stories in our own home-grown comics I could read if I wanted to. So the work of writer/editor Robert Kanigher and artist Joe Kubert went pretty much unnoticed by me.

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.


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.
What was different about Marvel's war comic was that the squad was made up of an ethnically diverse crew. Both Lee and Kirby would have been aware that, for example, black and white soldiers would have been segregated into different platoons during WWII, but they didn't care about that. Right from the get-go, the pair set out to create a comic that, though set in the world of two decades earlier, addressed what they saw as real concerns in 1963's United States.

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.

This first issue of Sgt Fury didn't seem to know what it wanted to be. Especially out of place is the goofy third panel in the page above and the DC-like "Weapons of War" feature page that might have been at home
GI Combat, but seems oddly out-of-place here.
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.
Sgt Fury and His Howling Commandos 2 (Jul 1963), did start out in the middle of a mission with The Howlers infiltrating a French town. But their mission just lasts five pages, by page 6 Fury's back in the UK, being chewed out by CO "Happy" Sam Sawyer and being given a new mission - put a stop to the Nazis' heavy water experiments.

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.

With this third issue, the Commandos are better defined. Stan also ties the book into mainstream Marvel continuity by having Fury meet Reed Richards, later leader of the Fantastic Four. Indeed a few months later, an older Fury would show up as a guest star in FF 21 (Dec 1963).
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.
Sgt Fury 4 (Nov 1963) once again has Fury and the Howlers behind enemy lines, this time to capture and return with British propagandist, Percy Hawley, aka Lord Ha-Ha. Trouble is, the traitor is the brother of Pamela Hawley, a comely Red Cross worker that Fury met while on leave in London. As the mission unfolds, it turns out that Lord Ha-Ha is a willing collaborator, not the tortured prisoner his family believes. The situation is compounded when Fury's youngest Howler, Junior Juniper, takes a fatal Nazi bullet. Fury must overcome his own anger and report back to the Hawley family that their son died bravely.

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?

One of my favourite issues of Avengers, number 3 (on sale beginning of Oct)  is advertised in Sgt Fury 4 (on sale 3 Sept) ... but Stan realised that few readers would know who the red-and-yellow armoured guy was, so showed Iron Man in his old yellow armour. Iron Man's revised Ditko armour first appeared in Tales of Suspense 48 (on sale 10 Sep).
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.
For his disobedience, Fury is busted down to private, but the Howlers, far from being gleeful, are sympathetic and supportive, something Fury finds worse than being razzed by them. Nevertheless, Fury manages to secure a return match and, warned by Dino, gives the Micky Finn a miss and kicks Strucker's Teutonic ass. Fury's rank is restored and all is right with the world once more.

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.
Sgt Fury 6 (Mar 1964) opens with Fury single-handedly capturing three Nazi infiltrators, before his date with Lady Pamela Hawley, the British Red Cross worker. Then Fury and his team are dispatched to North Africa to take on Rommel and his Panzer Tank Divisions. But with Dino injured during training, the Howlers are assigned a temporary replacement, George Stonewell. First off, Stonewell refuses to shake Dino's hand because he's Italian. At first, Fury gives the new man the benefit of the doubt, but when Stonewell is rude to Izzy Cohen, Fury gets suspicious. Finally, when Stonewell says he's not going to sleep in the same barracks as Gabe Jones, Fury gets, well, furious, and tells Stonewell, "You're a genuine, 14-carat, dyed-in-the-wool, low-down bigot!", then warns him, "You so much as look crosseyed at Izzy, or Gabe, or anyone because of his race or colour and I'll make you wish you were never born!"

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.


Back 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.
One day, while we were all playing together in the street, we asked them why it was that they were black and their parents were white. They explained that they had been adopted but really were brother and sister. No offence was intended or taken and, mystery solved, we all got back to the important business of playing, and the subject never came up again.

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.

Stan editorialised - quite strongly- against racism in his Oct 1968 Soapbox. Just a couple of months later, he pulled out all the stops and lambasted those who "condemn an entire race, despise an entire nation or vilify an entire religion." (Click to expand the image)
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.


Issue 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.
The plot introduces Lt Spencer Parker, a childhood acquaintance of Fury. Under Parker's command, Fury and the team are to raid an enemy ammunition dump. But at the last moment, Fury tries to prevent the raid and when Parker won't listen, belts him on the jaw. Critically, the ammo dump explodes, knocking Fury unconscious. When he comes round Fury finds that he's on a charge of insubordination under fire. But Fury has no memory of the events and now has to find a way to prove his innocence in court.

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.
The story opens with the appearance of the eccentrically-dressed, umbrella-wielding Pvt Pinkerton at Fury's base. Reb and Dum-Dum remark that he's the "cutest-lookin' soldier ya ever did see" though Dino warns that "those British guys are tougher than they look." When a couple of other soldiers fetch up and start mocking Pinkerton's appearance and name, he sets about them with his umbrella, immediately endearing himself to the watching Howlers.

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

Saturday, 6 August 2016

WAR: What Is It Good For?

WHEN I WAS in primary school, back in the early 1960s, I was surrounded by tangible evidence of the Second World War. In South East London, where I was growing up, much of the area we ranged across in our youthful travels was still decimated by the efforts of the Luftwaffe. Bombsites were everywhere and offered a wealth of adventure to fearless eight-year-olds who had no concept of the dangers of these precarious structures. Most of our leisure time was spent on the streets, playing-acting conflict (cops and robbers, cowboys and indians and, of course, war games) and imagination was our answer to the dearth of actual toys.

Bombed out buildings like this formed  playgrounds for us kids during the early 1960s. Every neighbourhood bore the scars of WWII and no one seemed to have the money to tear these accidents-waiting-to-happen down.
Some of us were lucky enough to own capguns, mostly in the six-shooter western style. The truly fortunate might have a rifle. Most of us just used sticks.

I had one of these capgun Lugers around 1962, though mine was in much better condition than this one. Having the gun was one thing, but affording to buy caps for it was quite another proposition.
One game I remember well I first came across while visiting my grandparents in Glasgow, probably around 1963 or so. The game involved a designated shooter who would lie in wait at the foot of a grassy bank. The other kids would all charge the shooter's position, whooping and yelling. The shooter would then shoot them down, one by one. The one who "died" in the most spectacular way would be chosen to be the shooter for the next round.

This was the grassy bank outside my grandparents' flat where we'd play the shooting game. It really doesn't seem to have changed much since the early 1960s.
I enjoyed that game so much that I brought it back to South-East London with me, where it became just as popular amongst the other kids on my estate.

When we weren't playing at war, we were reading about it in our British weekly adventure comics, watching it on television or seeing war movies at our local cinema, whether it was at a feature in the evening with our parents or with our mates at Saturday Morning Pictures.

Combat! was a long-running television show that focussed on the US military, and featured many top-name Hollywood actors, like Lee Marvin. Hogan's Heroes, on the other hand, saw the funny side of the Nazi POW camps.
Aside from history shows like All Our Yesterdays, the Second World War was also represented by fictional shows, both dramatic and comedic. Probably one of the best war shows was Combat! which ran from 1962 to 1967. But the one I remember best is Hogan's Heroes, which made the Nazi military holding American and Allied soldiers prisoners of war figures of fun. It wasn't a show I followed, but it did seem to be on the tv all the time during the 1960s.

The Longest Day featured an all-star cast and was one of the biggest box-office hits of 1962. John Wayne and Robert Mitchum represent the US forces, Sean Connery and Richard Burton showing the flag for the UK. Gert Frobe played a small role as a German NCO.
Hollywood film studios considered WWII something of a cash cow. Just between 1962 and 1964 there were over thirty English-language war movies released, funny and serious, including The Longest Day (1962), PT109 (1963) and Father Goose (1964).

There were quite a few comics from UK publishers that made the Second World War their chief topic. And many adventure and sports comics would also feature a variety of war stories. The tradition continues up to the present day, with 2000AD also featuring war stories like Rogue Trooper and Bad Company, both talking their inspiration from earlier earthbound conflicts.
And of course comics, both home-grown and US imports, were stuffed full of war stories. Some comics, like Victor, were dedicated to the genre, but war stories even turned up in sports comics like Tiger. And in the states, WWII had been a major subject for comics publishers pretty much from VE Day onwards.

Captain Hurricane in the Valiant wasn't my cup of tea, though I would occasionally read a friend's copy. Art in the main was by R. Charles Roylace, though the above example may well be by a fill-in artist. Pretty much all the war stories in the comics of the 1960s followed this format, some with more, some with less comedy content.
In British comics, the genre was pretty much defined during the 1960s by Captain Hurricane, who appeared in Valiant. Like most other WWII stories in the comics of the time, Captain Hurricane was full of comedic Germans, who shouted, "Gott in Himmel" and "Englisher schweinhund!" a lot. Every speech balloon, in fact. Mostly, no one was killed, just roughed up a bit. Stories would often end with Hurricane walking away from a pile of German soldiers, all with black eyes and cauliflower ears, dusting off his hands and congratulating himself on a job well done. These stories were not of great interest to me, and I must have only read a handful of Valiants all through my childhood.

Though they weren't publishing war comics, Timely books featured a lot of war in them. Unlike DC, Timely's heroes took on the Axis forces head-on.
I wasn't greatly taken with the war stories from the other side of the Atlantic either. For the most part it was the superheroes that caught my attention. Had I been aware of the earliest Marvel Comics, I would have understood that the first exploits of the Marvel Comics characters I would come to obsess over had their roots firmly in the events of World War II.

Unlike market-leader DC Comics, Timely seemed quite happy to let their superheroes tangle with Nazis and Japanese. Captain America Comics 1 (Mar 1941) famously had the hero socking Hitler on the jaw on the front cover several months before the US entered WWII. And the long run of Alex Schomberg covers on Marvel Mystery Comics featured an unbroken run of The Human Torch and the Sub-Mariner trashing both the German and Japanese forces for the duration.

One of the first, if not the first, identifiable war comic was Wings, from Fiction House. Others who tried war as a subject for an anthology comic failed and it wasn't until the beginning of the 1950s that Martin Goodman's Atlas had a success with War Comics.
Actual war comics, as a stand-alone genre, wouldn't come along for another couple of years, though there were a couple of early niche examples. Wings Comics, debuting at the end of 1940 and running 124 issues through to 1954, concentrated on air combat stories. And U.S. Marines came along in 1943, but only managed four issues, ending the following year. But it was actually Martin Goodman's Atlas Comics, under the editorship of Stan Lee, that really kicked off the war comic genre with, appropriately, War Comics 1 (Dec 1950). Once Goodman saw the sales figures on that book, he had Stan launch a fleet of war comics, including:
  • Battle 1-70 (Mar 1951 - Jun 1960)
  • Men's Adventures 9-20 (Aug 1951 - Apr 1953) continued from drama title Men's Adventures; continued as horror title Men's Adventures
  • Combat Kelly 1-44 (Nov 1951 - Aug 1957)
  • Man Comics 11-28 (Dec 1951 - Sep 1953) continued from drama title Man Comics
  • War Adventures 1-13 (Jan 1952 - Feb 1953)
  • Battle Action 1-30 (Feb 1952 - Aug 1957)
  • War Combat 1-5 (Mar-Nov 1952) continued as Combat Casey 6-34 (Jan 1953 - Jul 1957)
  • Battlefield 1-11 (Apr 1952 - May 1953)
  • War Action 1-4 (Apr 1952 - Jun 1953)
  • Men in Action 1-9 (Apr-Dec 1952) continued as Battle Brady 10-14 (Jan-June 1953)
  • Battlefront 1-48 (Jun 1952 - Aug 1957)
  • Combat 1-11 (Jun 1952 - Apr 1953)
  • 3-D Action 1 (Jan 1954)
  • Marines in Battle 1-25 (Aug 1954 - Sep 1958)
  • Navy Action 1-11 (Aug. 1954 - April 1956) continued as Sailor Sweeney 12-14 (Jun-Nov 1956) continued as once again as Navy Action 15-18 (Jan-Aug 1957)
  • Battle Ground (first four issues "Battle-Ground") 1-20 (Sep 1954 - Sep1957)
  • Marines in Action 1-14 (Jun 1955 - Sep 1957)
  • Navy Combat 1-20 (Jun 1955 - Oct 1958)
  • Devil-Dog Dugan 1-3 (Jul-Nov 1956) continued as Tales of the Marines 4 (Feb 1957) continued as Marines at War 5-7 (Apr-Aug 1957)
  • Navy Tales 1-4 (Jan-Jul 1957)
  • G.I. Tales 4-6 (Feb-Jul 1957), continued from humour title Sergeant Barney Barker
  • Commando Adventures 1-2 (June-Aug 1957)
Right on the heels of Goodman's War Comics 1 came Bill Gaines' Two-Fisted Tales 18 (Dec 1950), carrying on the numbering from EC's first run of Haunt of Fear (15-17), though Gaines' title wasn't a full-on war comic. Gaines would catch up the following year with Frontline Combat, which centred on both WWII and Korean war tales. Both books were edited by Harvey Kurtzman and more than any other comics, set the tone for quality war stories from that point on.

EC's Frontline Combat was the publisher's first war anthology. The earlier Two-Fisted Tales contained war stories but also had pirate tales and other boys' adventure subjects.
It's probably fair to say that the EC books were the inspiration for the DC war comics, mostly edited by Robert Kanigher, and often written by him too. All enjoyed long and successful runs, though again, it wasn't a genre I followed and I was mostly aware of these books through the house ads in the DC superhero comics I was buying.

The DC house ads of the 1960s were always appealing and none more so than the ads for Star Spangled War Stories, with their sensational stories of WWII infantrymen battling dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures in a hostile island environment.
The "golden age" of DC war books from from the early 1950s to the late 1960s, though many of the titles lasted longer:
  • Our Army at War 1-301 (Aug 1952 - Feb 1977)
  • Star Spangled War 3-204 (Nov 1952 - Feb/Mar 1977)
  • All-American Men of War 2-117 (Dec 1952 - Sep/Oct 1966)
  • Our Fighting Forces 1-181 (Oct/Nov 1954 - Sep/Oct 1978)
  • G I Combat 44-288 (Jan 1957 - Mar 1987), acquired from Quality Comics
One of the last of the successful DC war titles was Weird War Tales. Honourable mention should be given to Joe Simon and Jack Kirby's war anthology Foxhole which debuted in the middle of the 1950s war boom.
A later DC war comic that enjoyed a long run was Weird War Tales and I should make mention of Simon & Kirby's war title Foxhole which, while not the first, is certainly one of the highly-regarded war titles of the era.

Of all the war genre comics available to me during the early 1960s, the only title that even vaguely interested me was the dinosaurs vs G.I.s issues of Star Spangled War Stories. But for some reason I never read any of them as a kid. It wasn't until much later (last year, in fact) that out of curiosity I picked up a copy of the DC Showcase Presents collected volume and gave it a read. And a thankless task it was too.

Though I never read any DC war comics during their 1960s heyday, I always had an abiding curiosity about the War That Time Forgot series, and snapped up a hardback copy of the Showcase Presents collection when I saw it on Amazon for £0.80 ... I still haven't finished reading it.
These tales were clearly written with a transient young audience in mind. Scripter Robert Kanigher must have realised that few kids were loyal to any one brand or even title and would just buy comics whenever the covers appealed to them. And the DC circulation guys must have told him that covers with dinosaurs were always good sellers. As a consequence "The War That Time Forgot" is another concept-in-search-of-a-story. Each 13-page story had no continuing characters, workman-like art by DC's star war artists Ross Andru and Mike Esposito and an identical plot: Some US soldiers find themselves on an unnamed Pacific island where dinosaurs have survived. The entire story would be just scene after scene of giant reptiles trashing subs, tanks, jeeps and (mostly Japanese) soldiers. After reading three or four in the collected album I was losing the will to live.


During the last 1950s and early 1960s, Ross Andru (born Rossolav Andruskevitch) and Mike Esposito were DC Comics' go-to team for just about any series that needed to be delivered on time and drawn competently. 

Ross Andru was born into a musical family. His father had played the french horn with the Ballet Russe and the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra. Michael Esposito also was from a musical family - Esposito Sr fronted the band Ralph Perry and his Orchestra. Both had attended the Cartoonists and Illustrators School in New York under Burne Hogarth, after serving in WWII. Hogarth had singled Andru out in 1948 and gave him work assisting on the Sunday Tarzan strips. That lasted a couple of years until Hogarth left the strip.

Andru and Esposito were an editor's dream - hard-working sons of immigrant families
who drew fast and well and never missed a deadline.
It was around that time that the pair teamed up and began providing art for Key Publications' Mister Mystery, Standard's The Unseen and Joe Yank and Hillman's Western Fighters. But by 1951, they fetched up at DC Comics where they got to work on DC's burgeoning war comics, with their debut stories in All-American Men of War 6, Star Spangled War Stories 13 and Our Army at War 14 (all Sep 1953).

The team would be a mainstay on the war books for the next few years, often working over Editor Robert Kanigher's scripts. Then in 1958, a couple of years after DC had successfully reinvented Golden Age super-hero The Flash for a new audience, the company decided a makeover was needed for Wonder Woman and assigned Kanigher to the task. Kanigher turned to his most reliable art team and Andru and Esposito spent the next decade chronicling the adventures of the Amazon superheroine.

Andru and Esposito began drawing Wonder Woman with issue 98 (May 1958), Metal Men with Showcase 37 (Mar 1962) and finally The Flash with issue 175 (Dec 1967, though their first cover was 177, pictured above).
A few short years later, Robert Kanigher pitched an idea for DC's Showcase comic. The Metal Men was accepted and Andru and Esposito were once more drafted in to provide the art. The series was promoted to its own book and ran 29 issues with the same creative team. From there, Andru and Esposito took over The Flash from outgoing artist Carmine Infantino , who had been promoted to the position of DC's Art Director, then editorial director.

Though Mike Esposito regularly moonlighted at Marvel Comics during the 1960s, under the name "Micky Demeo" so as not to upset the notoriously prickly Robert Kanigher, Ross Andru would only turn in one job for Marvel during that decade, a fill-in issue for Amazing Spider-Man when it looked like regular penciller John Romita wasn't going to make deadline. In the end the fill-in wasn't needed and eventually saw print in Marvel Super-Heroes 14 (May 1968). A couple of years later, Ross Andru took over the regular pencilling job on Spider-Man, the majority of them inked by Esposito, and with Gerry Conway, created The Punisher.

In the 1970s, Ross Andru became Marvel's main Spider-Man artist, even working with Mike Esposito on Marvel Team-Up. Probably the crowning achievement on Andru's Spider-Man tenure was the high-profile DC-Marvel crossover, Superman vs The Amazing Spider-Man in 1976. 
In a 2010 interview, Gerry Conway said, "Ross Andru could place a character anywhere he wanted. He had a terrific sense of spatial relations; he could track a battle easily across rooftops, from panel to panel. He drew some great sequences where he maintained the same stationary background, a rooftop or a street, across an entire page, but move the characters from panel to panel. I know there are artists today who do that, but many of today's artists are figure-oriented. Space and context doesn't seem as important to them, whereas it was extremely important to Ross. He used to go around New York City taking pictures of the buildings so he could be accurate about where he put Spider-Man."

For all that success, I was never a fan of Andru and Esposito's work, finding it lacking in personality. But perhaps that's what endeared them to the DC (and later the Marvel) editors. Maybe their slightly bland style could fit just about any kind of series without them having to change the way they drew. And certainly no editor would even complain about an art team who always turned their work in on time.

Editor-writer Robert Kanigher pictured during the late 1940s.
Andru and Esposito's most frequent editor and scripter Robert Kanigher got into the comics business in 1941, contributing scripts to Fantastic Comics 15 (Feb 1941), Big 3 4 (Jul 1941) and Zip Comics 15 (Apr 1942). The following year he sold a script to Fawcett for Captain Marvel Adventures 29 (Nov 1943). In 1945 he began his association with DC Comics, which was to be his professional home for the next forty years. His first sale was a script for Wonder Woman in Sensation Comics 44 (Aug 1945), and it would be a character he would come to have a long association with, writing for the character from 1947 though to 1968. Kanigher would also write many Flash, Green Lantern and Hawkman scripts during the Golden Age of Comics. In 1956, it was Kanigher who was assigned by Julius Schwartz to write the first re-vamped Flash stories for Showcase, and Kanigher also created The Metal Men, who made their debut in the same title. Kanigher would also edit the main DC war comics up until he retired in 1968, then continue to write for those books for the next 20 years. 

Famously short tempered and overly-protective of his scripts, Kanigher would regularly lambast those he saw as transgressors. John Romita recalled of Kanigher in an interview, "He used to compliment me whenever he'd see me in the bullpen. 'Like the stuff ... like the stuff...' That was about the amount of conversation we had. Then one day we were in the elevator together, and he said, 'Like the stuff.' I, like an innocent fool... I used to do some adjustments to his pages. If he had a heavy-copy panel, I might take a balloon from one panel and put it in the next. Just because I was distributing space. I was so stupid and naive, I said to him, 'It doesn't bother you, does it, that I sometimes switch some of the panels around and move some of the balloons from one panel to another?' He started to chew me out in the elevator! 'Who the hell do you think you are, changing my stuff? Where do you come off changing my stuff? You don't know anything about this business!'"

Ross Andru died 9 November 1993. Mike Esposito passed 24 October 2010. Robert Kanigher died in 2002.


As far as war comics were concerned, it wasn't a genre I had much interest is as a ten year old, not until until later in the 1960s, when Stan Lee's makeover of Martin Goodman's comic line became Marvel Comics and Lee & Kirby brought a new character-driven dynamic to the otherwise standard superhero and adventure titles they were publishing. Stan and Jack set out their war stall in competition with DC's mighty five titles and at last got me interested in war stories. But Marvel's war comic wasn't so much a different take on war adventure tales as it was a social manifesto.

And that's what I'll be talking about in my very next blog entry ...

Next: Sgt Fury and his Howling Whatchamacallems!