When Sgt. Fury and the Howling Commandos first debuted in early 1963 they were Marvel's second action team after the revolutionary Fantastic Four. Both the Avengers and the X-Men were still months away from hitting the stands. There is some debate about the origin of this comic with Stan suggesting it was done on a bet of sorts with Martin Goodman to bring the Marvel magic to any comic genre and other sources suggesting that the Commandos was yet another Kirby concept which found its way into the Marvel mythos. Both things could be true, but who knows at this point.
In the first adventure we meet the "Howling Commandos", the First-Attack Squad led by Sgt. Nicholas Fury with Corporal "Dum Dum" Dugan his second in command. Each of the Howlers was distinctive with a specific ethnic or regional background to set them apart. Dum Dum was a Boston native and former circus strongman, while Fury hailed from Hell's Kitchen in NYC. Also on hand are Private Izzy Cohen, a tough-minded Jew from NYC with a mechanic bent, Private Rebel Ralston, a hillbilly and ferocious fighter from Kentucky, Private Dino Manelli, an Italian loverboy-type who was famous in the movies, Private Gabe Jones, a quiet trumpet-playing black man from NYC, and finally Private Junior Juniper, an Ivy Leaguer and youngest of the team. These guys have the flavor of the Simon and Kirby Newsboy Legion all grown up and gone to war.
In their first documented mission the team is sent into Europe to rescue a French Resistance leader who had fallen into Nazi hands and who knew the date of D-Day. Their mission is to bring him back but by all means not allow this critical bit of data to fall into enemy hands. The team fight and trick their way through enemy lines, sometimes with the help of the French Resistance and do find the man they seek, who it turns out has a daughter in the Resistance itself. All of these characters manage to get a moment to shine and of course this first mission is a success though the tough as nails Fury is not apt to give his Commandos much time off nor any credit for a job well done.
One neat note is that the final panel of the debut issue shows Fury and the Howlers chasing onto the beach during D-Day, but Stan sagely has a caption which says that's a story for another day. That day came some years later in the second Sgt.Fury and the Howling Commandos Annual.
This tale was ironically reprinted a few times, one notable instance was as the one hundred and sixty-seventh and final issue of the esteemed run in 1981. The first reprinting was of part of the story only a year after its initial printing in the first Marvel Tales Annual.
As concocted by Lee, Kirby and inker Dick Ayers this first adventure is pretty standard issue as far as what they do. The energy and heat in this series comes from the friendly combative natures of the Howlers themselves who are constantly in a war of words among themselves, using a realistic and even fatalistic attitude to adjust themselves to the combat missions they undertake. They are men who volunteer for defacto suicide missions and they approach that with an aplomb and general good nature, an attitude which makes them admirable in the extreme. The fight they wage is a relative bloodless one, limited by the rigors of the Comics Code, but death is part of the equation, if not as stark and horrrific as in real life of course. This is classic comic book action with just a tiny mote more realism than one might find in a battle against the Skrulls.
I hope to get a look at all the Commando comics produced by Lee and Kirby. Kirby did precious few of these, handing off the chores to the reliable and sturdy Dick Ayers sooner than later. But more on that next week.