The GeeksverseLeaving Proof 255 | A Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos retrospective

Leaving Proof 255 | A Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos retrospective
Published on Saturday, February 21, 2015 by
In this edition of Leaving Proof: Join us for our overview of Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos, Marvel’s hit Silver Age war comic and a somewhat unconventional platform for the message of diversity and racial harmony.

If there is one area where DC Comics has traditionally lorded it over industry rival Marvel Comics, it is in the realm of World War II-set war comics. With the demise of EC Comics’ Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat in the wake of the establishment of the Comics Code Authority in 1954, DC (then known as National Periodical Publications) consolidated its grip on the genre in the late 1950s when it acquired the rights to Quality Comics’ Blackhawks and G.I. Combat, adding to a publishing slate that already included the popular Our Army at War, Star Spangled War Stories, Our Fighting Forces, and All-American Men of War.

Marvel Comics predecessor Atlas Comics did publish several war anthology comics—in 1956, the company had about 10 ongoing war comics series if we discount the superhero titles that occasionally featured battles against military villains—but none of them could hold a candle to National’s best titles in terms of longevity and popularity. The longest-running Atlas war comic, the appropriately-titled Battle, managed to get up to 70 issues before it was canceled in 1960. By way of comparison, National’s Our Army at War hit the 100-issue milestone the same year as Battle‘s cancelation, with sales surging behind the introduction and breakout popularity of Bob Kanigher and Joe Kubert’s signature war comics creation, Sgt. Rock.

In 1961, Atlas Comics had ditched its old moniker in favor of a new name, Marvel Comics. With the rebranding also came a shift in focus: Marvel prioritized the publication of new sci-fi and superhero titles, although it did maintain a smattering of western, romance, and horror books. With brash young writer-editor Stan Lee at the forefront, Marvel also set to distinguish itself as the hip and trendy alternative to National/DC, and while war comics could be a lot of things, they didn’t exactly fit within the new vision for the company.

Sgt_Fury_Howling_Commandos_No._1Still, it wasn’t like Lee to leave an opportunity to enlarge Marvel’s readership unexploited. The apocryphal story is that Lee made a bet with Marvel’s publisher Martin Goodman that he and Jack Kirby could make a hit for the company even in the war comics genre where it had historically struggled. In 1963, Marvel began publication of Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos, a comic about an elite squad of infantrymen in World War II led by a gruff NCO somewhat reminiscent of Our Army at War‘s popular Sgt. Rock, with Lee on scripting duties, Kirby providing the pencils, and long-time Kirby collaborator Dick Ayers on inks. As any comic fan worth his Mylar bags knows, the series’ eponymous sergeant went on to have a post-World War II career as the eyepatch-wearing, cigar chomping Col. Nick Fury, Marvel Comics’ answer to James Bond (the post-WWII Nick Fury, sans eyepatch and still an enlisted man, would appear for the first time as a CIA agent in Fantastic Four #21, cover-dated December 1963).

It’s worth noting that the three primary members of the original Sgt. Fury creative team were all military veterans, although given the fact that all three men were of draft-eligible age during World War II, maybe we shouldn’t be so surprised at this coincidence. (Also worth noting: Anecdotally, among the three, only Kirby actually saw frontline combat as an infantryman in the European theater. Lee and Ayers served in roles away from the fighting.)

The series’ first 28 issues, cover-dated between May 1963 and March 1966, can probably be considered the essential Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos comics, as they feature Lee as writer and some combination of Kirby and Ayers on illustration duties—the earliest issues had Kirby’s pencils inked by Ayers, later issues have Ayers taking over the penciling duties and being inked at various times by fellow Kirby collaborators Chic Stone and Frank Giacoia (using the name Frank Ray), Spider-Man co-creator Steve Ditko, romance comics veteran John Tartaglione, and the reliable Vince Colletta.

Sgt_Fury_Howling_Commandos_18These earliest Sgt. Fury stories featured an almost playful take on war. Whether this was because of Lee’s natural disposition, an incidental effect of Kirby’s growing penchant for extreme stylization in his figures (he had yet to develop into the “classic Kirby” of the mid/late 1960s, but he was well on the way by this point), the Comics Code Authority’s quasi-censorship, or a combination of all three, it’s difficult to say. What is more certain is that Lee and Kirby/Ayers’ Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos had neither the gritty and occasionally bleak character-driven realism of Kanigher and Kubert’s Sgt. Rock serial in Our Army at War nor the complex, sometimes uncomfortable, ethical bearing of Harvey Kurtzman’s Two-Fisted Tales.

This isn’t to say that the comic trivialized death or glossed over the ugly business of killing—some of the most poignant issues in the Lee-Kirby/Ayers run actually featured the deaths of important cast members, including an original member of the Howling Commandos and Fury’s girlfriend, whose character and relationship with Fury was cultivated by the creative team over several months, earning fans of her own in the process.

It was with a combination of Lee’s bombastic dialogue and breezy approach to characterization, Kirby/Ayers’ distinct art, CCA-approved violence and gunplay, comedy, and just the right amount of tragedy that the title was able to find a sustainable niche in the National/DC-dominated war comics space. Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos entertained the teen and adult readers who were the traditional market for war comics, but perhaps more importantly, its caricature of combat was also accessible to readers who were too young to have any firsthand memories of the Second World War (or even the Korean War, for that matter).

Sgt_Fury_Howling_Commandos_56That accessibility cut across more than just the generational divide. The Howlers, as the team was referred to in the comic, was a racially integrated unit that featured a black man, Gabriel “Gabe” Jones, on its roster, in clear contravention of the US military’s policy on race relations during World War II (since Lee, Kirby, and Ayers all served in the Army during the war, the choice to include Jones on the team is very clearly a deliberate one, and not simply a case of unfamiliarity with Army policy at the time). Gabe Jones wasn’t the first recurring black hero to appear in a nationally-distributed comic—he wasn’t even the first recurring black hero to appear in a war comic: Jackie Johnson, one of Easy Company’s machine gunners, played the lead role in the centerpiece story (“Eyes for a Blind Gunner!”) in Our Army at War #113, published in 1961. What made Gabe Jones’ inclusion in the Howlers’ roster so significant was his visibility: Jackie Johnson may have appeared in print two years before Gabe Jones, but it would be another four years before he would be seen again in the pages of Our Army at War. Because the Howlers was a squad-sized unit, Jones was, by necessity, always in the thick of the action in the pages of Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos, month in and month out. As comics expert and current Image Comics editor David Brothers noted in an article written for Marvel.com in 2011:

While [Gabe Jones’ inclusion on the Howlers] doesn’t seem like a big deal to those of us living in 2011, there are several reasons why the existence of Gabe Jones is notable. War comics have generally been enormously popular with kids; they glamorize the United States, present an easy to digest definition of heroism, and were often used to deliver simple, but sometimes necessary, life lessons. Heroes in war comics—Fury and his Commandos included—were honorable men first and foremost. They lived by a strong moral code and treated everyone fairly, especially their enemies. By placing Jones on the team without any fanfare, Lee and Kirby were making a very clear statement: African Americans are just as normal and honorable as everyone else.

Sgt_Fury_Howling_Commandos_01_splash

The original Howling Commandos roster as introduced in Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos #1 (May 1963), illustration by Jack Kirby and Dick Ayers. Note that Gabe Jones (third from right) was incorrectly colored with a light skin tone. This would happen on occasion in the series’ earliest issues. Whether this was a deliberate decision or an honest mistake on the part of the the uncredited colorist—the comic did not start crediting the colorist until issue #106!—is unclear, although some fans have suggested that the fault may have been with the printing staff replacing the original dark skin tone. These coloring errors were later corrected in the reprints.

Jones’ membership on Fury’s team fit in with one of the comic’s main underlying themes—the United States and its allies stood for democracy, equality, and justice against the Nazis’ vision of a racist, fascist society. Besides Fury and Jones, the Howlers also counted among its original members master mechanic Izzy Cohen, perhaps the most explicitly Jewish hero yet to appear in a Marvel comic, Italian-American heartthrob Dino Manelli, Irish-American strongman and machine gunner Timothy “Dum Dum” Dugan, the Kentucky-born scout Robert “Rebel” Ralston, and Ivy Leaguer Jonathan “Junior” Juniper.

This theme was never more evident than in issue #6 (“The Fangs of the Desert Fox”), an issue that has Jones, Manelli, and Cohen dealing with the racist and anti-Semitic attitude of the newly-assigned Howler George Stonewell. It would have been a simple enough matter for Lee to make the Nazis as the obvious racists in the story, but in making the bigot foil one of the Howlers’ own, Lee shows a degree of storytelling sophistication that is somewhat unexpected given the rather unsubtle nature of his writing on the series to that point.

[An aside: I know Lee is a polarizing figure for many comics fans because of his conflicts with Kirby and Ditko over issues regarding proper attribution and credit during his days as Marvel’s lead writer-editor, but if there’s one thing that should be beyond reproach, it’s his commitment to promoting diversity, multiculturalism, and racial harmony in his comics work, and I think that’s a quality that has become embedded as one of the core editorial values in Marvel’s publications.]

The creative team’s earnest attempt to include an African-American hero in the cast did not go unappreciated. In issue #27 (February 1966), a missive from one David Cheever of Columbus, Ohio was printed in the comic’s “Tell it to Fury” letters column:

Dear Stan [Lee] and Dick [Ayers],

I would like to thank you personally for accomplishing something that has never been achieved in comicdom. What I am referring to is the wide use of Negro characters in your magazines. It makes me proud to know that, although we face racial barriers, others think of us not just as individuals but as Americans. In your magazines, you picture us from defenders of justice and peace to fighters of communism. Having a father who served in the 92nd Infantry during World War II and a brother now serving in Viet Nam, I am sure it makes them, as well as others who are in the United States Armed Forces, feel a glow of pride to know they are being remembered and not forgotten. For I am sure that Sgt. Furys come in many races, creeds, and colors.

Sgt_Fury_Howling_Commandos_23_PinkyOriginLater in the Lee-Kirby/Ayer run, the Howlers get a new member when the bespectacled, umbrella-toting, Balmoral bonnet-wearing British dandy Percival “Pinky” Pinkerton joins the outfit as a replacement for the team’s killed-in-action casualty. In a 2002 interview with CNN, Lee claimed that it was his intention from the outset for Pinkerton to be gay (although he never explicitly spelled this out in the comics due to the CCA’s restrictions on sexual content), which, if true, would make Pinkerton the first gay hero in a Marvel comic. There is some reason to doubt the veracity of Lee’s claim, however as this was seemingly contradicted by Pinkerton’s “origin story” as written by Lee and published in Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos #23: In a conversation with Fury, Pinkerton blames his fondness for “pretty girls” as one of the reasons why he failed at the military academy, although of course, it’s entirely possible that Pinkerton was lying to Fury for fear of discrimination (he received a rather rough welcome to the unit for his effete mannerisms, after all).

Make no mistake, however: Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos still occasionally traded in stereotypical depictions of its German and Japanese villains. But even then, the book’s creative team managed to inject nuance: Eric Koenig, a German Nazi, has a change of heart in issue #27 and later, under the pen of Roy Thomas (who would take over the writing in issue #29), he actually joins the Allies’ cause and eventually becomes a full-time member of the Howlers.

Sgt_Fury_Vol_1_27Even before Lee’s departure from the title, however, problems tied to Nick Fury’s simultaneous existence as both a period piece character (in Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos) and a contemporary character (in the popular, Jim Steranko-drawn “Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.” serial in Strange Tales) were beginning to crop up. Issue #27, for example, featured a pretty convoluted and unsatisfying backstory for why the Nick Fury of 1965 wears an eyepatch.

Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos was able to maintain a sense of danger and suspense during the first two years of its publication because the creative team established early on that no one, with the exception of Fury, was safe from death’s capricious hand. There were no guarantees that any of the other Howlers or their friends, lovers, and allies would make it out of World War II alive. However, as more and more of the Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos cast started appearing as present-day S.H.I.E.L.D. agents and supporting characters in the Nick Fury serial in Strange Tales (and later, the Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. series), that particular type of narrative tension became unsustainable. In addition, the fact that the modern-day Nick Fury was already established in Strange Tales as simply an older, slightly more suave version of the character in Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos also meant that the latter’s writers were quite limited in the directions that they could take him in terms of character development. Sgt. Fury’s future, as well as that of his Howler comrades, was already set in stone in many respects.

[A second aside: This mirrors the same problem Our Army at War writer Robert Kanigher faced when an aged Frank Rock started showing up in DC’s modern-day superhero comics. Kanigher’s solution was to simply ignore those appearances, writing in the letter column of Sgt. Rock #374 that Sgt. Rock’s Easy Company “will eventually die, to the last man, in World War II. No disguises, costumes, super powers.”]

Despite the creative constraints they labored under, Roy Thomas and Gary Friedrich (who replaced Thomas as the series’ regular writer in issue #42) still managed to craft some pretty good stories. Thomas did an excellent job chronicling the evolution of Eric Koenig from ex-Nazi to full-fledged Howler in a relatively lengthy three-issue arc (issues #35–37). As for Friedrich, he probably did more to develop the character, motivation, and background of the non-Fury Howlers in his first 15 issues on the title than Lee and Thomas did in the entirety of their stints.

[A final aside: Am I the only one amused by the fact that Ayers and Friedrich’s most popular comics creations were both named Ghost Rider and that they ended up working for so long on the same book? Ayers created a western comics character bearing that name in 1949 (this character was later renamed “Phantom Rider”) while Friedrich co-created the more famous motorcycle-riding demon vigilante in 1972.]

Sgt_Fury_Howling_Commandos_108It was also during the first three years or so of Friedrich’s tenure that the art on the title reached its peak quality, Yes, the early Kirby-penciled, Ayers-inked issues were powerful in their own way, but they were also the work of artists in the midst of transition, and the quality from issue to issue could be inconsistent. By contrast, the pairing of an older and more experienced Ayers on pencils and former Two-Fisted Tales lead artist John Severin on inks (Severin would serve as the series’ regular inker from 1967 to 1970) was a partnership of two illustrators who were supremely comfortable and confident in their technique and style.

Sales of the comic held steady into the 1970s but, whether it was because of changing popular attitudes towards military-themed entertainment in light of the Vietnam War or simply a case of creator fatigue, there is an ineffable sense of decline with the latter-day issues. By issue #80, the series would actually switch to a schedule that alternated new material with reprints of earlier issues. There were still the occasional standouts, though, such as issue #81 (“The All-American”), penned by the series’ regular letterer Al Kurzrok and the final issue to feature the Ayers-Severin duo on art; and issue #108 (“Bury My Heart at Dresden”), written by Friedrich and probably as close as Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos ever got to the aporetic, humanistic tone of EC’s Two-Fisted Tales and its spiritual successor, Warren Publishing’s Blazing Combat.

Friedrich and Ayers tried to replicate Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos‘ success with two spin-offs, Captain Savage and his Leatherneck Raiders and Combat Kelly and the Deadly Dozen, but both books floundered out of the gate even with the strategic use of crossovers with Sgt. Fury to boost sales. Captain Savage was axed with issue #19 and Combat Kelly (which featured a revived Atlas Comics character as its main lead) ceased publication after just nine issues. Talking about the two titles years later, Friedrich candidly admitted that they were nothing more than simple cash grabs:

I think there wasn’t anything original about them. Martin Goodman, who owned Marvel at the time [… ], saw that Sgt. Fury was doing pretty well and told Stan ‘Let’s do some more war comics’. Stan’s ideas were to do more of the same and that’s what we tried to do. I was in it for the money. If they wanted me to write ten war comics, I’d write ten war comics.

Issue #120 would feature the last original Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos story, a solid but unremarkable standalone tale written by Stan Lee’s younger brother Larry Lieber, but the series would limp along as a reprint-only publication for another 47 issues before finally being canceled in late 1981.

Looking back, it is more than a little strange that a title that ran for so long—18 ½ years if you count the reprints-only issues—and sold as much as it did during its heyday doesn’t have a higher profile today. A big part of that likely has to do with the fact that the super-spy version of Nick Fury co-designed and popularized by Silver Age superstar artist Jim Steranko has eclipsed the original-but-less-glamorous Army NCO edition of the character. S.H.I.E.L.D.’s Col. Nick Fury, with his sleek, form-fitting blue jumpsuit, stylish eyepatch, futuristic gizmos, flying car, sexy love interests, and age-retarding Infinity Formula certainly fits in more with Marvel’s superhero community than the original, olive drab-clothed dogface. Indeed, despite canonically existing in the same shared universe as Marvel’s superhero titles, Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos featured very little interaction with Marvel’s more fantastical characters (a chance encounter with a young, pre-Fantastic Four Reed Richards in issue #3 and guest appearances by Captain America and Bucky in issue #13 are the only ones to immediately come to mind), which is just as well—it helped ground the comic in the reality of war.

Despite its inability to recreate its creative and sales achievements and the public’s seemingly waning interest in the genre, Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos would not be Marvel’s last attempt at a war comic. In 1986, Marvel would launch a war comic for a new generation, created by veterans of a more recent (and less popular) conflict. But that, dear friends, is a column for another day.

The first 45 issues of Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos—43 regular issues and two annuals—have been collected in four Marvel Masterworks hardcover volumes. In addition, the first 23 issues and the first annual have been reprinted (in black & white) in the Essential Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos trade paperback. Those interested in reading the later issues will have to seek out the original “floppies,” however, as they’ve never been collected in trade or hardcover and the Sgt. Fury comics have yet to be made available by Marvel on any of its digital platforms.

Further reading:

The Military Vanguard for Desegregation: Civil Rights Era War Comics and Racial Integration: Christopher Hayton and David Albright examine in-depth a selection of positive portrayals of black characters in various war comics published during the Civil Rights Era, including Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos #6.

Other columns in the “Sequential Art of War” subcategory:

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