Sunday, March 26, 2017

The Howlers - Court Martial!

In the seventh issue of Sgt. Fury and the Howling Commandos, the creative team of Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and George Roussos knock a comic which gives us a glimpse, a secret origin of sorts for the bombastic top kick of the Howlers.

Sergeant Nick Fury and his Howling Commandos are on a mission deep inside the European theater. They finally get to their rendezvous which it turns out is with an officer named Parker that Nick Fury knew in as a kid. But personal affiliations are put aside as the Howlers fall under his command and they prepare to attack a Nazi installation. At the last moment Fury objects and tries to stop the attack but the Parker is not listening and Fury has to punch him to stop the attack but a bomb drops and the entire team is blow up.

When Fury awakens days later they are back in London and he is accused of failing to follow orders and striking an officer and a court martial is planned. Standing in the way of his defense is that Fury is suffering from amnesia due to the blast. The trial begins and Captain Sam Sawyer gets Fury the best military attorney he can find. Nonetheless the charges seem pretty straightforward and Fury and his team see that he will at best be imprisoned if not shot for his actions. During the trial much is revealed about Fury's background, his boyhood as an orphan and rough and tumble upbringing in a tough part of New York City.  But at the last moment an enemy attack rocks the court room and Fury regains his memory and reveals that the Nazis had set up a trap for the team that night and his actions were to save everyone. He is returned to his post and he and Parker come to a friendly accord.

This story was interesting from a few perspectives, not the least of which was the insight it gave into our titular hero. But it also came across to me as a bit too pat, as it was evident from the get-go that there was some secret which informed Fury's behavior and would ultimately clear him of the charges. Why that information couldn't come forward within the chain of command is unanswered and a warrior of no small consideration is left dangling. The contrivance of the story hurts the effectiveness.

More to come.

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Saturday, March 25, 2017

The Howlers - Fangs Of The Fox!

The sixth issue of Sgt.Fury and the Howling Commandos brought the realities of war front and center when the fictional Howlers are ordered to capture Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, the notorious Nazi war leader dubbed "The Desert Fox". It's a potent story by Stan Lee with exquisite artwork by Jack Kirby and George Roussos (Bell). It's also a story which speaks directly to bigotry and racism, something comic books were only beginning to address in 1964.

The Howlers lose the services of Private Dino Manelli, their resident actor and fluent German speaker. His replacement is a name named Stoneman who comes across strangely when introduced to the Italian-American Manelli and the Jewish-American Izzy Cohen. But when he meets African-American Gabe Jones his bigoted attitudes erupt and he is put on notice by Nick Fury that such nonsense will not be tolerate inside the Howlers. The team, still smarting somewhat from the dust up head of to the deserts of North Africa complete their nearly impossible mission to capture the notorious Rommel. They find some help from local Arab nomads and eventually locate Rommel's camp. Against nearly impossible odds they sneak into Rommel's camp but the plan is upset when Stoneman's racism precludes him working with Cohen or Jones and he ends up creating a firefight. The Howlers escape with their lives barely and Stoneman is saved first by Izzy who carries him off the battlefield and later by Gabe when his rare blood is the only match for the racist soldier. The Howling Commandos are disappointed they failed in their mission but heartened when they learn that their mission had been cancelled soon after they left because it became known that Rommel was part of a secret plot to kill Hitler. The Howlers dismiss Stoneman quickly when they return to base but some clues indicate he might have learned something from his interaction with the team, but it's suggested that such bigotry takes time to recover from.

The forward thinking evident in this story was no inconsiderable improvement for a comic book industry which has a tough history with portraying race. Even the earliest issues of this comic itself foundered in regard to this as the debut issue actually failed to show Gabe as a black man on the interior, though this was corrected in reprints. But as it turns out it was the military which in the late 1940's under Harry Truman did lead the way to eventual desegregation throughout a reluctant nation with the an order to desegregate its own forces going forward. The team portrayed in Marvel's comic was not possible in the war itself. This country's greatest shame is its ongoing fundamental racism which continues to permeate the society in all sorts of ways even though its legal foundations have long been struck down. We can only hope books like Sgt. Fury helped in some small measure to lead the way.

More to come.

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Friday, March 24, 2017

The Losers - The Major's Dream!

Our Fighting Forces one hundred and sixty-one sports another Joe Kubert cover but again Jack Kirby is the man responsible for the story and art inside. D. Bruce Berry is back as inker.

"The Major's Dream" tells the story of Major Geoffrey Soames, a British officer who has seen some potent action in the Asian theater. He is assigned to help The Losers with some mapping of possible targets. Along with is loyal aid Sim he shows The Losers how to reach a particular temple where Soames had lost comrades before, and they are required to take shelter there when Japanese forces get too close. But this temple holds a deadly secret and that secret provides nightmares for Soames who dreams he is under attack by the deadly goddess Kali. As the enemy forces are eliminated by Allied bombing the Losers survive in the shelter of the temple,  but Soames loses control and weirdly makes his dream come true as the statue of Kali falls on him and kills him weirdly allowing him peace as he joins his men.

This story seems to be Kirby's response to the classic story of the noble Gunga Din as first imagined in poetry by Rudyard Kipling in late nineteenth century and later adapted to film by Hollywood in 1939. That yarn which tells the rousing story of three friends who fight with gusto and bravery seems almost to have been the story of Major Soames (who looks a bit like Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) and what we see in this Losers story is a more realistic portrayal of what the rigors of war might inflict.

More to come as Kirby's tenure on the title comes to a close.

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Thursday, March 23, 2017

The Losers - Ivan!

Joe Kubert takes over the cover art chores on Our Fighting Forces one hundred and sixty, but beneath that lush cover is another Jack Kirby effort, again inked by Mike Royer.

"Ivan" tells the story of a repulsive Hitler youth who cold-bloodedly kills those trying to escape the clutches of the Nazis. Ivan is a Nazi himself, someone who fully believes the tenants of the Nazi movement and who with the aid of his mother prey on those running from Hitler's forces by taking money to hide them but then turning them over anyway and even participating in their execution. Ivan is as ugly a character as I've run across in comics. The Losers have pretended to be Nazis and have infiltrated Ivan's town on a mission and discover Ivan's scheme. They free the refugees and help them to freedom while leaving Ivan and his odious mother to face Nazi justice in a firing squad.

This story is one of the more disturbing in this run, offering a portrait of a young sociopath who seeks the praise of a culture which promotes and celebrates murder. The depravity of the Nazi culture is well recorded, but in this story I found myself compelled to follow a young man who lies and cheats and kills and who seems to feel that this is the way a man lives, and the fact his mother is right there to assist makes it even creepier. The Hitler Youth ,a nightmare version of the Boy Scouts remains one of the truly frightening parts of a very frightening regime. And again we see that Kirby is able to present death in war with an emotional truth and power which often escaped comic book storytelling.

More to come.

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Wednesday, March 22, 2017

The Losers - Mile-A-Minute Jones!

In Our Fighting Forces one hundred and fifty-nine Jack Kirby and inker Mike Royer give us the story of Mile-A-Minute Jones, an African-American soldier who has to run a deadly race not only to survive but  to win a victory of sorts for his country. This is the final issue of the run which will feature a Jack Kirby cover. In fact Joe Kubert steps in to do all the covers for Kirby books this month and will continue to do with a few exceptions right through the end of Kirby's tenure.

The story begins with Henry "Mile-A-Minute" Jones attempting to elude Nazi soldiers who have attacked and largely wiped out his comrades. Using surprise and his speed he does manage to escape the Nazis, all save one named Bruno Borman who some years ago had been a runner and had competed against Jones himself at the Olympics in Berlin. The Losers show up and save Jones as they make their way into a town to capture a Nazi leader. While the Losers take their captive Borman escapes his bonds and races after them to warn a Nazi company some distance away. Jones sees him and tries to overtake him, and the two essentially recreated their race from years before but this time with life and death on the line. Borman given a head start wins, but as he leads the Nazis back to attack they run into a minefield and are destroyed. Jones had missed the mines because he followed a white line which showed the safe path through. So the Losers fly out with their captive and Jones as Borman's body lies on the battlefield.

The little fable here of Henry "Mile-A-Minute" Jones is of course inspired by the real life saga of Jesse Owens, the African-American Olympian who showed up Adolph Hitler in the 1936 games.

Owens famously won four gold medals in the Berlin games as a sprinter and long jumper, the first to do so and the most by any American until the 80's. The success of Owens put to lie the execrable nonsense about race superiority promoted by Hitler's noxious and properly defunct regime.

Kirby does a pretty good job here of recreating a contest and pits two old competitors against one another, this time for all the marbles.

More to come.

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Tuesday, March 21, 2017

The Losers - Bombing Out On The Panama Canal!

The Losers return in the one hundred and fifty-eighth issue of Our Fighting Forces and Jack Kirby's story (inked by Mike Royer) picks up right where we left it last time with the Losers facing imminent death by firing squad.

A hidden cell of Japanese soldiers have hidden a bomber in the interior of Panama and now are planning to bomb the crucial Panama Canal. Meanwhile The Losers are about to be shot by Panama Fattie's henchmen but at the last moment they find a way to start a fight which frustrates the plan. After a terrific battle in which Fattie refuses to shoot Captain Storm, a man she has fallen for on first sight, the Losers gather up the hoods and then chase down Fattie's truck as she heads off into the jungle and she refuses to drive down Captain Storm. She drives to the secret Japanese compound and the Losers follow her. In the final shoot out she is killed but enemy plane is stopped and the Panama Canal is safe.

As it turns out the Japanese did indeed have plans to destroy the Panama Canal. It involved an enormous submarine named the Sen-Toku which could potentially launch aircraft. To read more about that unsuccessful plane read this.  It's a plan which in pure concept is even zanier than the scheme outlined by Kirby in this colorful yarn.

More to come.

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Monday, March 20, 2017

The Losers - Panama Fattie!

the one hundred and fifty-seventh issue of Our Fighting Forces by Jack "King" Kirby is the only two-part story in his often overlooked run on The Losers.

"Panama Fattie" begins right where you think it might in the country of Panama, specifically the crucial Panama Canal which is vital to the U.S. and its prosecution of the war in the Pacific. We meet a rotund smuggler named "Panama Fattie" who is the head of a gang of hoods who it turns out work for the highest bidder, this time that happens to be the Japanese government. The Losers are attached to the Navy and sent to investigate the smuggling and undercover as sailors are waylaid by Fattie's men. A ferocius fight ensues but unexpectantly Fattie grows fond of Captain Storm before she reveals her role as leader of the gangsters. Despite Fattie's affections the Losers seem destined to die by firing squad as the story closes.

Kirby always seems to find a way to work gangsters into all his series and given its historical nature The Losers would be a relatively easy mileau to introduce such concepts. Putting the gangsters in Panama is a neat twist and continues the wide-ranging world hopping The Losers are accustomed to. While it's easy at this distance to imagine that everyone in the western world was a loyal supporter of the war effort, it doesn't take much awareness of human nature to know that there will always be types who seek to make hay off the suffering of others. Profiteers exist in every war and usually are the characters who will never themselves take up a gun in defense of their country.

More to come as we find out more about the threat to the Panama Canal next time.

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Sunday, March 19, 2017

The Howlers - Baron Strucker!

The fifth issue of Sgt. Fury and the Howling Commandos gives Nick Fury his very own arch-enemy. The appearance of Baron Wolfgang Von Strucker makes the book really jump up as he adds that dash of personality to the enemy which had been so abundant among the Allies.

The Nazis have taken note of the the Howling Commandos and especially of their leader Nick Fury and think it would be in their best interests to sabotage his popularity. To that end the order Baron Strucker, a blue-blooded Nazi famous for his fighting prowess to tempt the American to his doom. Strucker does just that with a dramatic strafing run which drops an invitation for Nick to come fight him on an isolated Norwegian island. Fury is anxious to go,but his commander Captain Sam Sawyer firmly denies him permission. Fury disregards and goes to the meeting but is drugged and falls victim to Strucker in a sham sword fight which his filmed by Nazi propagandists.

Returned to London summarily in shame Fury is busted to private by a furious Sawyer and Dum Dum Dugan takes command of the Howlers.

Eventually the squad goes to fight Strucker and Fury is able to redeem himself and defeat the arrogant Nazi and get photos to prove it. He is grudingly returned to his leadership when Sawyer sees that the brass want Fury to have a high profile.

This story was reprinted for the first time in the second Sgt.Fury and Howling Commandos Annual.

Dick Ayers
Jim Steranko
Of course Baron Strucker went on to become one of Fury's most implacable foes, both during World War II and later in the 60's as the hidden extra-secret leader of Hydra in the pages of Strange Tales.

Thomas Kretschman
And personally I found his appearance in the Avengers movies quite good, though far too brief for my tastes. A waste of a really really good villain.

More Lee and Kirby Commando action to come next week.

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Saturday, March 18, 2017

The Howlers - The Last Laugh!

By the fourth issue of Sgt. Fury and the the Howling Commandos things are really beginning to pick up. With the team firmly established over the course of three issues, Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby feel free to give a little focus to the head honcho Nick Fury himself. Also joining the team is new inker George Roussos (using the name "George Bell") who to my eye  adds a real luster to the Kirby magic which is maturing with each month of the ongoing Marvel revolution.

The story begins with a London air raid which forces Fury to seek shelter and there he meets a beautiful British nurse named Pamela Hawley. Later he is called to the estate of Lord Hawley to find out this lovely lady is his daughter and further that her brother is the notorious Lord Ha-Ha, a British citizen who has been issuing Nazi propaganda on the radio. Fury and the Howlers are sent to capture and return Lord Ha-Ha. They follow through on the mission but find their prisoner is in fact a Nazi sympathizer and his attempts to undermine the Howlers ends up in his own death. The team escape the Nazis and return to London where Nick must tell Pam about her brother's death, though he withholds the full truth of his traitorous nature.

This story was reprinted a few years later in the second Sgt. Fury and the Howling Commandos Annual. 

This is a crucial month for Nick Fury in another way too. He is introduced into the then modern day Marvel Universe in the pages of Fantastic Four #21, This follows the appearance of Reed Richards in the previous issue of Fury's comic and points the way forward to the eventual establishment of Fury as a part of SHIELD, putting him at the very center of the Marvel Universe itself.

More Howling Commandos to come next time.

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Friday, March 17, 2017

Captains Savage!

Captain Savage and His Leatherneck Raiders is one of those late 60's series I'd love to see Marvel collect. Trying to recapture the success of Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos, this comic is a direct spin-off of the former.

Captain Simon Savage was introduced in the tenth issue of Sgt.Fury by Stan Lee and Dick Ayers. On a mission to Okinawa, the Howlers are transported there aboard a submarine commanded by a gruff no-nonsense commander known as "The Skipper". The Skipper shows up several more times during the run and helps to transport the Howlers to many destinations, not the least of which was on D-Day.

His appearance in Sgt.Fury and the Howling Commandos #49 sets up his new series as he drops the Howlers off for a rare mission in the Pacific Theater, the zone that Savage himself will specialize in.

The diverse but still rough and tough members of the "Leatherneck Raiders" are Lee Baker,, Roy "Blarnery" Stone, Jaques LaRocque Sam "Yakkety" Yates, and Jay Little Bear.

In their first big adventure written by Gary Friedrich and drawn magnificently by the potent team of Dick Ayers and Syd Shores, the Raiders take on Baron Stucker no less and his Samurai Squadron on Hydra Island.

In a story which is surprisingly important given the relative B-status of Captain Savage's comic, we learn for the first time the "secret origin" of Hydra no less.

Arnold Drake steps in as writer for the the fifth issue joining the regular Ayer and Shores art team. The story concerns part-time  Raider Rolfe Harrison, an Aussie.

In the sixth issue written by the returning Gary Friedrich the Raiders take the mission to save one of their comrades, in particular Izzy Cohen, a member of Fury's Howling Commandos.

The seventh issue is a humdinger and like many of the earlier stories does its most to tie the Savage stories into the larger Marvel Universe. (This cover makes me think of the movie Apocalypse Now.)

This time that is accomplished by having Savage and his Raiders go out and save a downed flyer by the name of Ben Grimm. This is not at all unlike when the Howlers were assisted by Reed Richards on a mission. This story was written by Archie Goodwin.

In the eighth issue, written by Friedrich and the last for a time by Ayers and Shores, the Raiders go on a mission which is not at all what it appears to be hence the title. This was in fact the first issue I bought off the stands myself.

Friedrich and Ayers return for the ninth issue and are joined by inker John Severin. This issue is significant if only for the fact that the bearded Savage must lose his signature whiskers. It's a shame really as now he looks like most other soldiers and loses a bit of that cool factor. Also getting a revamp is the title of the book in which the "Leatherneck Raiders" become the somewhat more generic "Battlefield Raiders". I personally always liked the former better, it had more distinctiveness.

The tenth issue is by the same team and sports an action-filled John Severin cover.

The eleventh issue sees the return of inker Syd Shores just in time to present the tragic  death of Raider.

The twelth issue is a real change of pace as Don Heck steps in. He and Dick Ayers switched assignments with Ayers taking on the sci-fi superheroic adventures of Kree Captain Marvel and Heck taking on the war-torn missions of the U.S. Captain Savage.

The next issue has Arnold Drake step in as the regular writer for a time, re-joining his old partner Heck from Captain Marvel, along with inker Shores.

That team continues for the next issue which purports to tell of Captain Savage's very first mission.

John Severin offers up a really atmospheric cover for the fifteenth issue though inside the creative team remains the same.

Severin does another great cover and begins as inker over Heck with Drake still on scripts for the sixteenth issue.

Drake and Heck are gone in the seventeenth issue but staying on as inker is Severin. The veteran team of Gary Friedrich and Dick Ayers return to the series they started.

Severin keeps delivering the covers as the same team of Friedrich, Ayers and Severin is on tap for eighteen.

With the nineteenth issue the series reaches its end and so does the premise as Captain Savage regrows his signature beard and once again takes charge of a submarine. There was a proposal by Gary Friedrich apparently to continue the series as a war comic focused on submarine adventures but it was not to be, and so Simon Savage and most of his comrades faded into comic book oblivion for the most part.

There was one exception though.

A few months later a new combat book titled Combat Kelly and the Deadly Dozen  (picking up a vintage Atlas title and blending it with a hit movie) hits the stands and it's of significance to Savage fans since old Raider Jay Little Bear is a member of this ill-fated team.

I say ill-fated because he dies in the ninth and final issue of that run along with almost everyone else. A potent ending for one particular Raider.

Captain Savage and his Leatherneck Raiders lasted nearly twenty issues, not insignificant but most of that time it was casting about to find an audience sufficient to make it last. That was an uphill struggle likely because even Sgt.Fury was hitting the skids at this time and was soon to revert to reprints before ending a few years later. War was not in fashion, at least not at the comic stands from Mighty Marvel. To my knowledge only the debut issue has ever been reprinted and that was in Marvel First: The 1960's. We need more.

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