Tuesday, June 1, 2010

56: Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos #1

Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos #1
March 5, 1963

  • Brace yourself for a change: There are no superheroes anywhere in this comic! Yes, Stan Lee & Jack Kirby's newest creation was a war comic, a genre lacking from Marvel's output for some time. Stan and Jack had both depicted wartime in comics during the early days of World War II - most notably in Jack Kirby & Joe Simon's Captain America, as well as the WWII efforts of the Sub-Mariner, the android Human Torch, and more - before shipping off to service themselves: Stan in 1942, Kirby in 1943, and both of them returning home in 1945. So they each had very real experiences to draw upon in shaping this comic twenty years later, from the missions they ran to the kinds of men they served with, and the result is plain to see: The first issue of Sgt Fury is compelling, exciting, and even a bit shocking. For the first time since Fantastic Four #1, you get the feeling that Stan & Jack were firing on all cylinders, and working on a project that they really believed in.

    No small cast here!
    (Click to enlarge.)

  • Immediately noticeable is the mixed-race cast of Fury's team. While this admirably reflects the reality of the enlisted men they served alongside, such ethnic diversity wasn't something generally portrayed in comics of the time. (In all the comics reviewed on this site so far, how many non-white characters have appeared? And how many of those as non-villains? Off the top of my head, I count Ho Yinsen, who helped Tony Stark build his first Iron Man ... and that's it.) While there were thankfully few missteps as embarrassing as the Legion of Super-Heroes' Tyroc blunder in 1976, it's worth keeping in mind that, yes, even into the 1970s decision-makers at the big companies displayed questionable judgment on the issue of race. In fact, in this first issue Gabriel Jones was famously colored the same hue as his companions; the colorist who worked on the issue had colored the character correctly, but the printer noticed the "error" and "fixed" it. That's the story, at least, but it seems somewhat suspect: After all, the idea that someone might have assumed this to be a mistake is perhaps plausible, if horribly naive ("Why would there be a black man in a comic book?"). However, we're not talking about one panel being corrected, but a character's appearance throughout. Can we truly believe that the person responsible for the "fix" really thought the colorist accidentally chose the wrong color on one character, in every panel that character appeared in, in the entire book?

    Cornered, boxed in, with nowhere to go ... and then 
    saved, miraculously, by members of the French Resistance!

  • Perhaps the most shocking thing to the typical reader of Silver and Bronze Age Marvels is how the comic doesn't shy away from a soldier's obligation to kill his enemies. The pre-modern superhero comics always made a point that heroes don't kill, and even their villains were rarely shown to engage in more than mere dastardly behavior; the unintentional joke in reading a Rawhide Kid comic is how he always disarms his opponents by harmlessly shooting the guns out of their hands, rather than shooting the villains themselves. But here, while good taste is utilized in the depiction - we see grenades launched and a Molotov cocktail lobbed, but no sight of flaming bodies or destroyed limbs - there's no denying that they're fighting for keeps here. Even with the wildly over-the-top style with which the action is portrayed, that distinction alone places the comic on a different level than all of the (nevertheless enjoyable!) superhero comics Marvel was producing at the time.

    Sgt. Nicholas Fury is a take-no-prisoners kind of guy.

  • Stan and Jack, being masters of their craft, knew the need to start off strong. Which is why this first mission for Fury's team is a big one: ensuring that D-Day goes off without a hitch! As the comic opens, we see LaBrave, leader of the French underground, radioing US troops for aid - right before Nazi soldiers burst in and capture him! Since he knows the time and details of D-Day, Fury's superior officer explains, it's imperative that he and his Howlers track down and liberate LaBrave from the clutches of the enemy before they can torture the information out of him. It's a difficult task, and the forces arrayed against them are mighty; in fact, a reader of the time might be forgiven for wondering, near the end of the story, if the title character had indeed been killed off in his first issue! Stan has said that he felt the Sgt Fury comics he did with Jack Kirby were some of the finest stories he ever wrote - and upon reading it ourselves it's hard to disagree.

    And the the readers would be back as well...