By Stan Lee & Dick Ayers, with George Roussos, Steve Ditko, Frank Giacoia, Vince Colletta, Chic Stone, Carl Hubbell & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-2928-8 (HB)
Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos began as an improbable, decidedly over-the-top and raucous WWII combat comics series similar in tone to later ensemble action movies such as The Magnificent Seven, The Wild Bunch and The Dirty Dozen. The surly squad of sorry reprobates premiered in May 1963, one of three teams concocted by men-on-fire Jack Kirby & Stan Lee to secure fledgling Marvel’s growing position as a publisher to watch.
Two years later Fury’s post-war self was retooled as the big-name star of a second series (beginning with Strange Tales #135, August 1965) when espionage shows like The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and the 007 film franchise became global sensations.
Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. combined Cold War tensions with sinister schemes of World Domination by subversive all-encompassing hidden enemy organisations: with captivating super-science gadgetry and iconic imagineering from Jack Kirby and Jim Steranko.
For all that time, however, the original wartime version soldiered on (sorry: puns are my weapon of choice), blending a uniquely flamboyant house-bravado style and often ludicrous, implausible, historically inaccurate, all-action bombast with moments of genuine heartbreak, unbridled passion and seething emotion.
Sgt. Fury started out as a pure Kirby creation. As with all his various combat comics, The King made everything look harsh and real and appalling: the people and places all grimy, tired, battered yet indomitable.
The artist had served in some of the worst battles of the war and never forgot the horrific and heroic things he saw – and more graphically expressed in his efforts during the 1950s genre boom at a number of different companies. However, even at kid-friendly, Comics Code-sanitised Marvel, those experiences perpetually leaked through onto his powerfully gripping pages.
Kirby was – unfortunately – far too valuable a resource to squander on a simple war comic (or indeed the X-Men and Avengers: the other series launched in that tripartite blitz on kids spending money) and quickly moved on leaving redoubtable fellow veteran Dick Ayers to illuminate later stories, which he did for almost the entire run of the series (95 issues and Annuals) until its transition to a reprint title with #121 (July 1974). The title then carried on until its ultimate demise in December 1981 with #167.
Following an enticing and revelatory reminiscence from Ayers in his Introduction, this second hardback and eBook compendium re-presents the contents of Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos #14-23 and the first Annual (collectively spanning January to October 1965) opening with a Lee scripted, George Roussos/Bell inked milestone as harassed Adolf Hitler decrees the creation of a Nazi answer to Fury’s elite attack force.
All ‘The Blitzkrieg Squad of Baron Strucker!’ had to do was lure the Howlers to a V2 rocket base and spring their trap… Yeah, that was all…
Regular supplemental feature Weapons of War then provides all the gen on the ‘B-26 Martin Marauder’ to inform and entertain in equal amounts.
Steve Ditko stepped in to ink Ayers in issue #15 as ‘Too Small to Fight, Too Young to Die’ related an ill-fated mission in Holland to destroy the dykes and flood the occupation forces. The job soon goes drastically wrong and the Howlers “flee” back to Britain with nothing but a broken-hearted boy named Hans Rooten – who had no idea that his despised quisling father was in fact the Allies’ top spy in the region…
The boy is adopted as the Howlers’ plucky mascot but can’t accompany them when the squad is despatched to Africa in #16 to eradicate yet more Nazi super-weapons in ‘A Fortress in the Desert Stands!’ (inked by Frank Giacoia using the pseudonym Frankie Ray). From there it’s only a short camel-ride south until the ragtag rovers encounter spear-wielding natives and nasty Nazis engaged in a battle of Hearts & Minds ‘While the Jungle Sleeps!’ (by Lee, Ayers & Vince Colletta).
All this time the chalk-and-cheese romantic relationship between Nick and English aristocrat Lady Pamela Hawley had been developing to the point where the Yankee lout was ready to propose. That all ends in #18 when, whilst the unit is busy sinking a German battleship in a Norwegian port, she is ‘Killed in Action!’ (Chic Stone inks).
Crushed and crazy, Fury goes AWOL in the next issue, remorselessly hunting down the leader of the bomber flight which had targeted the hospital she worked in before extracting ‘An Eye for an Eye!’ in a satisfyingly shocking Stan Lee story sensitively rendered by Ayers & Giacoia. The Howlers go along for the ride, but whether to help their leader or hold him back is debatable…
A far grimmer Fury is still in the mood for cathartic carnage in #20, so when ‘The Blitz Squad Strikes!’ features the German Kommandos invading a Scottish castle filled with imprisoned Nazi airmen, he and the Howlers are more than delighted to lead the sortie to retake it.
In the next issue the long-running rivalry with First Attack Squad; Baker Company again results in frantic fisticuffs before being interrupted by another last-ditch rescue mission in Czechoslovakia ‘To Free a Hostage!’ (inked by Golden Age legend Carl Hubbell, as was the next issue).
However, even after Allied scientist and captive daughter are reunited, the bubbling beef with B Company doesn’t diminish and when both units are subsequently sent to sabotage the oil refinery at Ploesti the defending forces capture everybody. However, after the gloating Nazis try making Fury and his opposite number to kill each they quickly learn ‘Don’t Turn Your Back on Bull McGiveney!’ and even Strucker’s Blitz Squad can’t contain the devastating destruction that follows…
The final WWII exploit contained herein is the Giacoia-inked saga of ‘The Man Who Failed!’, wherein a rescue jaunt to Burma to save nuns and orphans results in shameful revelations from English Howler Percy Pinkerton’s past: simultaneously supplying close insight into why our True Brit upper lips are so stiff…
This combat compendium then concludes with the 15-page lead story from Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos King Size Annual #1 (1965) as the post-war Howlers are called up and mustered to the 38th Parallel to defend democracy from Communist aggression. This particular escapade sees them rescuing former Commanding Officer Colonel Sam Sawyer and results in Fury winning a battlefield ‘Commission in Korea!’ to at last become a Lieutenant in a rousing romp by Lee, Ayers & Giacoia. Also extracted from that that might special are pictorial features ‘A Re-introduction to the Howlers’; ‘A Birds Eye View of HQ, Able Company – Fury’s Base in Britain’; ‘Plane’s-Eye View of Base Tactical Area, Sub-Pen, Dock and Air-Strip!’ and ‘Combat Arm and Hand Signals’ before a 2-page house ad feature for the hero’s super-spy iteration as ‘Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.’ wraps everything up in Marvel’s military fashion.
Whereas close rival DC increasingly abandoned the Death or Glory bombast at this time in favour of humanistic, almost anti-war explorations of war and soldiering, Marvel’s take always favoured action-entertainment and fantasy over soul-searching for ultimate truths. On that level at least, these early epics are stunningly effective and galvanically powerful exhibitions of the genre.
Just don’t use them for history homework.
© 1965, 2017 Marvel Characters Inc. All rights reserved.