Marvel Essential: Sgt. Fury And His Howling Commandos Vol.1 by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Dick Ayers (graphic novel review).
Like all ‘Marvel Essential’ and ‘DC Showcase’ volumes this is in black and white on cheap paper. Marvel has discontinued the ‘Essential’ line, sadly, but I think DC are still doing ‘Showcase’.
The first issue of ‘Sgt. Fury And His Howling Commandos’ was dated May 1963 with story by Stan Lee and art by Jack Kirby. On-line sources call them co-creators which is probably fair enough. Lee says the series came about as a result of a bet with publisher Martin Goodman that he and Kirby could sell a title with a ridiculous name. Artist John Severin says, that in the late 50s, Kirby approached him with the idea of a newspaper strip about a tough, cigar chewing sergeant with a team of oddball GIs – sort of an adult ‘Boy Commandos’. Who to believe? No matter.
While on credit where it’s due, the information on the splash page of issue # 5 and many thereafter, tell us it was written by ‘Ex-Sgt. Stan Lee’ and illustrated by ‘Ex-infantryman Jack Kirby’. In later issues, ‘Ex-Corporal Dick Ayers’ is mentioned. This would give kids the vague impression that Sgt. Stan Lee was a bit like Sgt. Fury. Indeed, he writes himself into issue # 22 barking authoritatively at Corporal Dick Ayers who is painting a plane in England. In real life, Sgt. Stan Lee was never anywhere near England or the front line. He entered the forces in 1942 and worked for Signals, repairing telegraph poles before transferring to a department writing training manuals. This was a good use of his skills and he served his country but I find the credit a bit galling. Ex-infantryman Jack Kirby served on the front line in France under Patton and was sent home with severe frostbite.
Anyway, here’s the cast: Sergeant Nick Fury, a tough New Yorker; Corporal Timothy ‘Dum-Dum’ Dugan, former circus strongman; Private Gabriel ‘Gabe’ Jones, a black trumpet player; Robert ‘Rebel’ Ralston, a jockey from Kentucky; Dino Manelli, a handsome movie star of Italian descent who can speak German and Isadore ‘Izzy’ Cohen, a master mechanic. Clearly they represent America’s ethnic groups. There’s also Jonathan ‘Junior’ Juniper but he doesn’t stay long and is replaced by Private Percival Pinkerton, a comedy English toff with a ‘bumbershoot’. Back at base in England is Captain ‘Happy’ Sam Sawyer who is stern but loves them really. They’re stereotypes but even this much characterisation was unusual in comics at the time.
The stories are almost pure action. The howlers are sent on a mission to destroy a submarine base, rescue a trapped division, blow up an installation developing nuclear weapons or whatever. It all consists of them charging vast hordes of Nazis who fire zillions of bullets but can’t seem to hit them. The Howlers’ dialogue is approved by the Comics Code Authority and therefore not indicative of the way soldiers really speak. There are a lot of darned chicken-scratchin’, beetle-brained types about but nothing worse. The Germans speak English badly. They say ‘Der’ instead of ‘the’, ‘Ve’ instead of ‘we’ and ‘haff’ instead of ‘have’. They also say ‘verdammt’ a lot. To be fair, this was justifiable poetic licence at the time in a comic for kids. Often, they get bopped on the head so Dino Manelli can steal their uniform and infiltrate somewhere. In one story, Dino is injured and replaced for the mission to get Rommel by a dad-blasted, chicken scratchin’ no good bigot who doesn’t like Izzy Cohen or Gabe Jones being near him. In a pioneering buddy movie script, Nick Fury starts off disliking Captain America as a fancy pants show-off but ends up respecting him. Bucky features, too, as do Baron Strucker, Doctor Zemo and a non-stretchable Reed Richards in issue # 3. The Marvel Universe was taking shape. If you make allowances for the silliness, there are some pretty good stories in here with the beginnings of characterisation and humanity by which Stan Lee made his mark in the field.
There’s a lot of silliness, though. In issue # 15, the lads are sent to Holland and captured by a company of Nazis. Then one shot knocks the cap off the officer. There are more shots. ‘They vould neffer attack us unless ve vere hopelessly outnumbered’, says a soldier and all the Germans run away, not even bothering to shoot the howlers first. A Dutch boy fired the shots. Yes, the Nazis were so cowardly they ran away from one lone boy and this is how they conquered Europe?! Meanwhile, almost any lone American is able to beat tanks and aeroplanes very easily with a machine gun or a grenade. Sergeant Fury, the toughest, digs his way out of a prison camp ‘using a stolen dinner spoon combined with nothing more than sheer muscle, sweat, and courage.’ That’s one hell of a man. That’s one hell of a spoon.
I bought this for the eight issues of Kirby art. It’s not his greatest but it’s interesting and there are five, six or seven panels to the page. None of those wasteful splash pages he became too fond of later. Much of it is clumsy but I think you have to bear in mind the amount of stuff he was turning out at the time. The inks are by Dick Ayers and George Roussos, four issues each. Ayers smoothes out the pencils while Roussos doesn’t but the latter’s heavy blacks bring out the power of the original art. Frank Giacoia is my favourite inker on Kirby and Roussos has some of his traits. The main thing with Kirby, no classic illustrator, is the dynamism of the layouts. For a tussle between Fury and Baron Strucker, he does a lovely nine panel to the page fight sequence similar to the one he did when Captain America fought Batroc in Tales Of Suspense # 85. I like these kind of things, evidence of conscious story telling technique and an artist with his mind on the job. There’s a detailed analysis of a few pages from issue # 13 in The Jack Kirby Collector # 68, ‘Kirby Kinetics’ by Norris Burroughs. That was the one starring Captain America.
Dick Ayers took over the art after issue # 7, barring the aforementioned issue # 13, and the art is initially disappointing to a Kirby fan. However, as you read on, you get more used to Ayers style and he seems to improve. There are solid establishing shots, good continuity and decent illustrations throughout. The look varies depending on who is inking him. Ditko did issue # 15, interestingly, and Carl Hubbell inked a few near the end of this book. The best, I think, is Frank Giacoia whose solid blacks and attention to detail bring the pencils up a notch. I learned to appreciate Ayers’s subtle skills.
This volume finished with issue # 22 and Annual # 1 and I figured that must have been it for the series. Boy was I wrong. ‘Sgt. Fury And His Howling Commandos’ continued for 167 issues until December 1981 but there were reprints alternating with new stories after issue # 80 and only reprints after issue # 120. With super-heroes doing so well Stan didn’t have time to write it and Roy Thomas took over briefly, then Gary Friedrich who had quite a celebrated run. Dick Ayers’ art was highly regarded by then, especially when John Severin took over the inking.
Nick Fury went on to be a big star in the Marvel Universe. He showed up as a CIA Colonel in Fantastic Four # 21 (December 1963) and then became leader of S.H.I.E.L.D. in Strange Tales # 135 (August 1965). Dum-Dum Duggan was another S.H.I.E.L.D. agent but I don’t recall any other howlers being involved.
In summary, ‘Marvel Essential: Sgt. Fury And His Howling Commandos’ is a good black and white reprint of a 1960s war comic. It will give you no understanding at all of the realities of war. On the other hand, it is fun and perhaps a timely reminder in an age of dubious wars where it’s hard to tell the good guys from the bad and that, once upon a time, there really was a bad guy we could all oppose with a clear conscience. People in Britain, especially on the left, are inclined to forget that the USA saved us from fascism in World War Two. Yes, when a dangerous right wing megalomaniac outsider got himself elected to the leadership of a major world power by blaming foreigners for everything; when he bullied his neighbours, suppressed news media that opposed him, launched a new arms race with military spending at unprecedented levels and plunged the whole world into chaos, the Americans were there to stop him.
(pub: Marvel, 2011. 544 page black and white graphic novel softcover. Price: £13.91 (UK), $19.99 (US), $21.99 (CAN). ISBN: 978-0-78516-395-4)
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