Thursday, 15 August 2013

Essential Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos volume 1

Today is VJ Day so it's time for a look at Marvel's most prominent war comic.

One of the few other Essential volumes to step outside the superhero genre (though, as we'll see, it keeps quite near) is Essential Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos volume 1, Marvel's first and main Silver Age war comic. This volume carries issues #1-23 and the first annual. All the stories are written by ex-Sergeant Stan Lee with the early issues drawn by ex-Infantryman Jack Kirby who is then succeeded by ex-Corporal Dick Ayers, though Kirby returns for one issue. In several of the issues the creators' former ranks are given. Sergeant Lee and Corporal Ayers even make a cameo in issue #22, working at an airstrip where the Howlers depart on a mission. The appearance keeps up the conceits from similar moments in other series that Marvel is retelling the adventures of actual people as told to the writers and artists, and that artists do not find Lee the easiest writer to work with.

At the core of the team are the First Attack Squad of commandos, or the "Howlers". This small unit is rough and ready, finding regimented discipline and formal parades a chore, but giving their all in action. The Howlers are loyal men who look out for each other and there are no egos or prejudices amongst them that could damage the squad's cohesiveness. This is briefly shaken when it appears that one of them has turned traitor, but the revelation that he was doing so under orders soon restores relations to normal. But the squad are also sufficiently open to accept new members who've proven themselves. This is shown vividly when Percival Pinkerton arrives and his handling of two tormentors quickly persuades the Howlers of his abilities.

Each of the Howlers is distinctive both visually and audibly, as well as in their skills. Heading the team is Sergeant Nick Fury, an all-American roughneck and what he lacks in grace more than makes up for with his bravery and skill. After many years of seeing an older Fury as the director of S.H.I.E.L.D. it's a surprise to see his young days as a field sergeant. His faithful number two is Corporal "Dum-Dum" Dugan, an ex-circus strong man who seems to prefer war to his wife and mother-in-law, and who provides the Howlers with much of the physical brute strength. The team's resident mechanic is Private Izzy Cohen, a Jew from Brooklyn. In the role of bugler is Private Gabriel Jones, a black musician from New York. Providing a touch of glamour and also translation in the field is Private Dino Manelli, an Italian-American serving under a fake name to disguise his movie career. Private "Rebel" Ralston is a hard edged Southern ex-jockey. The team's youngest member is Private "Junior" Juniper, fresh out of university but as brave as any man. Junior is killed in issue #4, being hit in a firefight as the Howlers escape. The death scene itself is surprisingly limited compared to the deaths of major characters in later years but it's a reminder of just how dangerous war is and how any one of the squad could suddenly be shot down. In the earlier issues Junior does not feel like a deliberately created piece of canon fodder just waiting to be killed off, but as rounded a character as any other. His replacement is Private Percival Pinkerton, an upper class British soldier who always carries an umbrella that proves a surprisingly effective multi-purpose tool and weapon. Why he calls his umbrella a "bumbershoot" - a piece of old fashioned American slang - is beyond me. The squad's commanding officer is Captain Sam Sawyer who has a good if tough relationship with Fury, defending him when needs be in the knowledge that the Howlers get the results needed.

Most war comics are first and foremost about telling exciting stories set against the backdrop of a recognisable war. They are rarely intended to be completely historically accurate, especially when it comes to particular fronts and famous officers. This is especially noticeable here with the Commandos' missions at first appearing to be set in 1944 when they ensure the security of plans for D-Day, but a subsequent issue takes them to North Africa where references to Tobruk, a general sense of pessimism and the presence of Rommel suggest it is 1942 before El Alamein - except that Rommel is known by Allied intelligence to be part of a plot to kill Hitler, which in reality Rommel was a late recruit to in mid 1944, after he had left Africa. Not long afterwards the Commandos are briefly redeployed to the Pacific in advance of the Battle of Okinawa which began in April 1945. Issue #22 explicitly dates itself to August 1st 1943 and Operation Tidal Wave. It's probably best to just overlook the disregard for chronology. Equally it's best not to ask if Commando units stationed near the English Channel and usually sent to France and Germany really were often deployed on one-off missions as far apart as Norway, Romania, North Africa, Okinawa or Burma (now Myanmar).

Sticking out rather more are the presentation of a number of historical and cultural factors. The Commandos themselves are an anachronism, being a mixed race unit at a time when the US Army was still segregated (a source of tension in some host countries like the United Kingdom). In issue #6 the squad has a temporary replacement member, George Stonewell, who turns out to be a bigot who is reluctant to share and serve alongside Jews and blacks. It would have been a bold move to address the subject of more general racism in the US Army during the war, but the story side-steps it by making the bigot a one-off. However whilst the squad may be a racially progressive portrayal the same cannot be said of some of the other races presented. Many of the Germans and Japanese seen conform to easy clichés, whilst issue #17 sees the squad encounter an African tribe, whose presentation could have stepped out of the Victorian era.

The series is also a little ambiguous when it comes to Italy. Issue #3 sees the squad deployed there but a reader could be mistaken for thinking that the country was conquered by the Germans and liberated, as opposed to being an ally until the pro-German regime collapsed and the Germans stepped in to control things directly. This also avoids questions about the loyalty of American soldiers of Italian descent, such as Dino, or for that matter it may have made it easier to sell to Italian American readers. Later on issue #12 touches on the issue more with radio calls for Allied soldiers of German and Italian descent to defect but Dino only fakes this under orders from Fury.

The series is also a little off in its portrayal of the United Kingdom. Stan Lee was neither the first nor last American writer to struggle with understanding British titles so it would be wrong to blame him alone, but there's something about the way Lord Hawley is introduced, and even more with his son being "Sir Percy" that feels off-key. The geography is surprising as well - the squad seem to be based near the Straits of Dover, the nearest point to the continent, yet in one issue they get a few hours leave and go to spend the evening Shakespeare's home town of Stratford-upon-Avon. Not even high speed rail would allow that! However in one regard the series is spot on by not succumbing to the lazy myth that the United States was solely responsible for victory in the Second World War, with the British presented as equal allies to the Americans.

Some of the dialogue also sounds a little strange, particularly Percival Pinkerton's which makes him sound a little too much the stereotypical upper-class buffoon. And contrary to the impression some movies may give, the Cockney accent is not widely heard outside the East End of London and is certainly not standard fare in pubs across the country. The Germans who can speak English tend to speak an Americanised English which is understandable given where the comic was created but still surprising given geography - for example "railroad flat cars" when the more natural translation for a German would be "flat railway trucks".

British Nurse Lady Pamela Hawley becomes Nick Fury's romantic interest from issue #4 onwards but, as a caption at the end of issue #10 states, the series is a war comic not a romance comic and so after her introduction she usually appears only briefly at the start and/or end of some adventures. She is killed off in issue #18, another reminder of the sudden personal cost of war and it comes suddenly - Fury has decided to propose to her upon his return from a mission and is so caught up in it he won't let anyone tell him critical news. Then he arrives at the Hawley home only to be told by her father that Pamela died helping the wounded in an air raid. Deaths don't always have to be shown on panel to have an impact and this one perhaps works the best this way, highlighting Fury's grief that he wasn't by her side when she died. Such an off-panel approach can work when handled well. It's also another case of the series being one of the first Silver Age Marvel titles to break new ground before the bigger named titles got there. So here is the start of the route that led to the deaths of the likes of Gwen Stacey, Karen Page and many other romantic interests.

Continuity is generally tight but there are occasional lapses. Issue #15 sees the Howlers sent to the Netherlands to disrupt the dikes and there's a mystery about the identity of Agent X with the hint that he could be Mayor Rooten, seemingly a collaborator. Wisely the thread is left dangling - in real life many a mission ends with not every thread resolves - but four issues later Fury is again in the Netherlands and goes straight to Rooten as though his identity was clear all along.

It would be natural to expect the series to take place in its own world, isolated from the rest of the Marvel universe. Instead links to that wider universe are established fairly early on. A young Reed Richards makes a brief guest appearance in issue #3 and in return Nick Fury made an appearance in the present day in Fantastic Four #21. Issue #8 ties in with the Avengers by making the villain a young Baron Zemo, albeit before his hood was fixed to his face. And Captain America and Bucky have a major guest appearance in issue #13.

The series develops only a few recurring antagonists, reflecting the nature of war and the squad's operations. Adolf Hitler shows up in person quite a bit but the primary antagonist is Baron von Strucker. Midway through the series he assembles the Blitzkrieg Squad to rival the Howlers, with the members consisting of various soldiers and thugs aiming to counter the Howlers. The names show a limited imagination when it comes to Germans - Ludwig, Fritz, Otto, Siegfried, Ernst and Manfred. The Blitzkrieg Squad appear a few times and it's surprising that they don't suffer much attrition either. Back home the squad's other main rival is Sergeant Bull McGiveney, head of the Second Attack Squad who frequently clash and fight with the Howlers but the two squads work effectively together when in the same combat zone in issue #22. A bit part is "the Skipper" who commands a submarine and often gets the Howlers in and out of enemy territory. He would later be given a name - Captain Savage - and his own series. The only other recurring character of note is Hans Rooten, a Dutch boy who believes his father has turned collaborator and so he leaves with the Howlers, becoming their mascot but doesn't go on any missions with them.

The annual sees the squad reunited in the Korean War. The story is even more propagandistic than the Second World War adventures, with few opportunities missed to paint the Communists in a bad light. This originally saw print in 1965 and it's hard to miss the obvious parallel with Vietnam in the year the American ground involvement began. At this stage US public opinion was largely in favour of the intervention and it was easy to show American forces in east Asia without risking a sales backlash. It would be interesting to see if this was sustained in later issues. The annual also serves to bridge some of the gap between the series and Fury's present day adventures - Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. which had just launched in Strange Tales (and which are the most prominent Silver Age absentee from the Essentials) - by showing how Fury was finally commissioned as an officer. But both the annual and the S.H.I.E.L.D. tales break a convention of fiction by showing us the heroes will live in the long run. A feature in the annual shows the current members of the squad and raises the prospect the membership will change in future issues, yet the annual cuts off the possibility of further deaths.

The earliest issues contain one page guides to aspects of the war. Most are "Weapons of War", showing the various different guns used by different countries in the war, but issue #3 has "America's World War II Shopping List!" showing various vehicles and equipment and how much each item cost, though I don't know if the prices are from the war itself or instead are the costs of such equipment in 1963. The "Weapons of War" feature briefly returns in issue #14 with a guide to the B-26 Martin Marauder bomber. The annual also adds a piece on Combat Arm and Hand Signals plus a guide to the base, now explicitly placed at Dover.

The series may offer a degree of realism by such information and by killing off regular characters, but a lot of the time it's a high octane adventure that skims over the gorier details like bodies and blood. The Howlers routinely survive against ridiculous odds and the German and Japanese armies seem to both be composed almost entirely of graduates of the Imperial Stormtrooper Marksmanship Academy. And some of the enemy plans seem to be a little fantastical - the idea that the Germans could devote huge resources during the war to building a tunnel under the Channel is a little hard to swallow but ultimately this series is meant to be more of an enjoyable romp rather than a gritty historical exploration of the war. As a result it bends chronology and location to allow its characters to go through a wide variety of scenarios. There's a strong sense that Lee, Kirby and Ayers were proud of the series. I don't know much about where they were deployed during the war so I'm not sure if these are fantastical embellishments of some of their own experiences or a substitute by ex-soldiers who found themselves deployed away from the front line, but there's a real sense of authenticity about the characters, even if the actual composition of the squad owes more to 1960s sensibilities than 1940s realities.

On top of everything else, this volume and Essential Rawhide Kid volume 1 both show the potential for releasing some of Marvel's non-superhero titles, something that DC's Showcase Presents volumes have been rather better at exploiting. So is anybody up for trying the ultimate step - Essential Millie the Model?

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