Thursday, December 12, 2013

Marvels: Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos #1

"Seven Against the Nazis!" by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby & Dick Ayers
(May 1963)

This is the first series that I'm reading for these posts that I've actually never read before. All of the others so far, I've read through in the past or at least read issues of here or there over the years. But I had never once read an issue of Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos before. I've never been that into war comics (although I dig me some Sgt. Rock), and in fact I had considered just skipping this series entirely, even though Nick Fury is obviously an integral part of the Marvel Universe.

Oh my goodness gracious, what fun I nearly missed.

This comic is just pure fun. It's a World War II adventure comic, with cartoon Nazis and a cigar-chomping manly swagger that's got its tongue firmly in its cheek. It doesn't make light of the dramatic aspects--it doesn't reduce the entirety of World War II to cliches--and it knows when to be serious and not clown around about the sacrifices that were made and the deaths that mounted. Stan and Jack never let you forget that Fury and his men are going up against an army and a leader that killed millions. But he does it in a way that raises the dramatic stakes and--even though there's a lot of humor and adventure here--gives the characters a shade of emotional realism.

These aren't superheroes Stan and Jack are dealing in this time. These are men with a real good shot at dying, trying to survive and, if they have to die, take as many Nazis with them as they can. It's every boy's fantasy of playing war, with just the right amount of peril. Never get too sure that people can't be killed. This is war, son!

God damn it, comics used to be great.

So, to our story. Pierre Labrave, the leader of the French Resistance, is captured by Nazis. The US Army, afraid that Pierre will give up the plans for the D-Day invasion under torture, assigns Able Company the job of rescuing Pierre from Nazi territory. Captain "Happy Sam" Sawyer picks his top man for the job: Sgt. Nick Fury, leader of Able's First Attack Squad, better known as the Howling Commandos.

The Howlers are immediately identifiable and distinct. Right now, that's merely so they'll be easy to tell apart in all the action. Time will tell if we get into the depths of each character, the way Stan and Jack have done in Fantastic Four.

From left to right: Corporal Dum-Dum Dugan, former circus strongman; Robert "Rebel" Ralston, ex-jockey from Kentucky; Izzy Cohen, master mechanic (and, although Stan doesn't use the word, Jewish, which puts another personal spin on his desire to fight the Nazis); "Junior" Juniper, the eager new kid; Fury himself, and on the other side that's Gabriel Jones with his trumpet and handsome would-be actor Dino Manelli.

Every mission is fraught with danger; they can't even get to their drop without Nazi planes attacking their C-48. Possibly my favorite moment in the whole issue: as the Commandos parachute away, Dum-Dum takes out a Nazi fighter plane with a single grenade.

The rest of the issue takes place in Nazi-occupied France, with the Commandos making their way through a village under attack by a Nazi division. There's a lot of great action here, with the men getting in wisecracks (Dino doesn't want any French gals seeing him with mussed hair) as well as some righteous anger (Fury's angry at the idea that the Nazis are slaughtering civilians because of a Resistance presence).

The way Stan and Jack portray the Nazis is stereotypical and cartoonish without truly trying to be offensive. This isn't the propaganda cartoons of the early 1940s, when Captain America fought barbaric huns and the original Human Torch was always facing Japanese soldiers with yellow skin and pointed teeth. We haven't seen very sensitive portrayals of other races in Marvel Comics so far--I'm thinking of every Asian character we've seen with yellow skin and speaking in pidgin English--but mostly it's ignorance and not being very thoughtful rather than a deliberate attempt to dehumanize. It's easy to deal in stereotypes in comics, but that's also what teaches and perpetuates stereotyping, and I hope the comics get better about that, because it can derail everything.

The Nazi soldiers are dangerous, but also clownish, with their written-out accents (lots of "ve vill" and "iss" and German swears) and the occasional balding man with a monocle, because Stan Lee has apparently seen Grand Illusion. It's a cartoon take on the Nazis, one familiar from a lot of movies and other comics.

Also there's Hitler, who Stan and Jack delight in making ridiculous and petty. Seems justified. Interesting to think that, when this comic came out, Hitler had only been dead for 18 years. 18 years is only the amount of time since my youngest sister was born.

The Commandos are helped out by the timely intervention of French Resistance soldiers, who offer to lead Fury and his men to the villa where the Nazis are holed up. First, the Commandos head outside town to rescue the villagers the Nazis plan to execute, and then it's time to sneak back into town, led by Marie Labrave, Pierre's daughter, bravely carrying a rifle (and stylishly decked out in a jaunty beret).

Sneaking back into the town, Fury blows up the arsenal and the ammo dump, but is caught in the explosion, spurring his loyal men to fight on. But, overwhelmed by superior numbers, the Commandos are caught and taken to the courtyard to be executed, along with Pierre and Marie. But wouldn't you know it? Fury's alive! He frees himself from the rubble, surprising the Nazis, and giving the rest of the Commandos a shot at fighting back. They leap into action with their battle cry, "WAH-HOO!," and make their way out of town, with Pierre rescued and a captured Nazi general for good measure.

One little detail I love here is that Dum-Dum and Fury are constantly fighting, almost coming to blows on one occasion, but of course he's the first one to give the sarge a big bear hug when he turns up not dead.

In a flash-forward, we see that, of course, the Allies carried through with the D-Day invasion, and that the Howling Commandos were right there on the beach, "but that's a tale for another time."

Fun stuff. Just an awful damn lot of fun stuff.

Stray observations:

:: Is it a coloring error, or what? On the cover, and in the two-page spread that introduces our cast, Gabe Jones is colored as a Caucasian man, even though he's clearly African-American through much of it. This coloring error comes and goes. It's weird.

:: Of all the Howlers, Dum-Dum is my obvious favorite.

He's basically the Ben Grimm of Able Company. I dig the humor of these little moments; just the perfect tone for the book, but also a bit of character before getting into the story, like in FF. (When I read these, I picture Dum-Dum with the same voice Peter Cullen used for Leatherneck on G.I. Joe.)

:: Speaking of G.I. Joe, these issues have a "Weapons of War" section where Kirby draws a bunch of weapons from the time and details what they are, and I recognize a lot of them from my G.I. Joe figures. They did a good job making those toys realistic. You know, for a while. (Hell, even when it became science-fantasy, it was still the best action figure line of all time.)

By the way, you can also see George Lucas' fascination with the era when you look at some of these weapons and realize that Han Solo's blaster is basically a modified German Mauser M 98.

This whole issue is a fantastic introduction to the characters; the premise doesn't really need an introduction. I'm so glad I decided not to skip these fun adventures!

Next Marvels: Johnny Storm's next menace: painting!

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