Thursday, September 25, 2014

Marvels: Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos #6

"The Fangs of the Desert Fox!" by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby & George Roussos
(March 1964)

Technically, the villain of this issue is Erwin Rommel, the Desert Fox, commander of Hitler's North African campaign. But it's more accurate to say that the real villain this issue is hate. And that's mainly what I'm going to be discussing in this entry.

The trouble starts when the Howling Commandos start some intense training as a prelude to a secret mission in North Africa, where they're going to attempt to take down Rommel's forces. During training, Dino Manelli is injured. Dino's the only one who can speak German, so a replacement is assigned for him: George Stonewell.

It becomes obvious immediately that Stonewell is a bigot. He doesn't want to shake hands with Dino, an Italian, or with Izzy Cohen, who is Jewish. He's thrilled to meet Reb Ralston and Dum-Dum, apparently relieved, but when he meets Gabe Jones, the lone black commando in the group, he's so thrown off that he refuses to sleep in the same barracks.

Fury immediately reacts with anger: "Stonewell, at first I thought you were just tryin' to throw your weight around--tryin' to act like you thought a commando should! But you ain't just actin', mister!! You're a genuine, 14-carat, dyed-in-the-wool, low-down bigot!"

He goes on here:

(Aside: the line about trading Stonewell in "for a real human being" is my favorite thing anybody says this issue.)

I love that all of this is accomplished with a mix of subtlety and explicit statement. Stonewell's racism is obvious through his shock at seeing Gabe, his refusal to shake Gabe's hand, and his desire to sleep somewhere else. He doesn't use any racial slurs or make any threats. It's clear from his reactions to being in the same room with Gabe and on equal footing. It's Fury who snaps and brings the issue forth.

This is a way of attacking the issue head-on, and I really respect that. Think about comic books in 1964. Hell, just think about the Marvel Universe so far; we've barely seen any black people in any roles, except for Gabe Jones. And there have been subtle moments with Gabe that pushed back at racism--here's my personal favorite--but here we're finally addressing the issue. Between this story and the issue of Fantastic Four with the Hate-Monger, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby have decided to confront the specter of hate head-on. They may not be doing it perfectly, but these are important steps. Jeez, when did DC even notice black people existed? The seventies?

What's so great about this issue is that no one ever acts out of character, either. I wouldn't necessarily consider Stonewell a Straw Bigot because there's more to his character than just being hateful. Stan & Jack don't sugarcoat his racism or try to explain it; they incorporate it into his character. For the most part, he's a good soldier and a loyal American. It's a complex picture of just how ingrained in otherwise decent people that way of thinking--and the actions it gives way to--can be.

For example, as the Howlers make their way into Axis territory, Stonewell's bigotry nearly gets both Gabe and Izzy killed at different points. Not because Stonewell is trying to get them killed, but just because he doesn't trust them to do their jobs well, because he's WASP-y and therefore (in his mind) better at everything.

But when Stonewell questions a Nazi officer about the location of Rommel's command center, the Nazi tries to appeal to Stonewell's assumed racial superiority and offer him a deal. Stonewell, no traitor, refuses and dresses the man down. I think that's an important moment in the story. Stonewell's a racist, yes, but that doesn't mean he's a Nazi. That would be too simplistic. Bigotry isn't confined to cartoon Nazis in a comic book, and it didn't end with World War II.

In the end, Stonewell's bigotry blows the mission. As he and Izzy are attempting to infiltrate, and against the biggest odds we've ever seen--Rommel's entire desert command, a seemingly endless amount of troops stretching further than the eye can see--Stonewell decides his plan is better than Fury's, which would see him sharing victory with "an inferior." Their cover blown, Izzy and Stonewell have to fight their way out, which nearly gets Stonewell killed. Not only does Izzy save the man's life, but he gets an emergency blood transfusion from Gabe.

An interesting side note on this: the transfusion is performed by a Nazi doctor that Fury impresses into work. The doctor's response is basically that, enemy or no, "I am a doctor first." That's a nice little moment that the story doesn't linger on. Some things transcend hate.

The mission failed, but that's okay: British Intelligence have discovered that Rommel is one of the men involved in a conspiracy to assassinate Hitler, and the Commandos' mission is scrubbed. Returning to their base, Stonewell stows his gear and heads off for reassignment without saying a word. He does, however, leave behind his new APO number for Izzy and Gabe, possibly out of gratitude for saving his life.

Sgt. Fury leaves us with the following thought: "The seeds of prejudice, which takes a lifetime to grow, can't be stamped out overnight--but if we keep trying--keep fighting--perhaps a day will come when 'love thy brother' will be more than just an expression we hear in church!"

It would ring false for Stonewell to have had an immediate change of heart, especially in 1964. But the seed of hope is there, and that's a lot more than we've seen in a lot of comics.

Stray observations:

:: This issue gets the action started right off with Nick Fury, riding a bicycle to a date with Pamela Hawley, single-handedly taking on and capturing three Nazi saboteurs.

:: Guys, straighten up, Churchill's watching.

Look busy or something.

:: This issue is sort of like a single-issue Lawrence of Arabia, with Fury and his men crossing the desert, even meeting Arabs and being sheltered by them and given horses. There's also a fantastic action sequence with the Howlers being chased by Stuka dive bombers. In addition to having a message and dealing with it in a way that doesn't grind the story to a halt, it's also a great action issue.

Now, my major problem with this issue is the usual problem I have with Sgt. Fury: coloring. Gabe Jones is still being colored inconsistently. Generally, he's this ashen gray color, but often he looks like a white dude with a sunburn, and sometimes he's just outright colored like the rest of the Caucasians. The message might have even more impact if Gabe were consistently African-American.

On the other hand... it does make an unintended point about the "white default setting" in American entertainment, doesn't it?

Next time: the return of the Wizard, and it's Doctor Strange's turn to fight aliens.


Roger Owen Green said...

Interesting that Gabe is far more fully realized than just about any woman in the Marvel Universe at this point.

SamuraiFrog said...

I'd argue that Stan and Jack are at least *trying* with Sue Storm, but they fall into cliches too easily.