Friday, March 31, 2017

A Soldier's Stories - Kirby At War!

In these times, the glorification of war is hardly sustainable. The horrors of war are all too readily apparent due to modern communications methods. That said, the romanticism of war remains to some degree when applied to the dedication and rigor of men and women who commit to that service. Jacob (Jack Kirby) Kurtzberg was one of those men who served his country during the war which put down Fascism and saved the planet from decades if not centuries of oppression. Kirby survived his stint in the war and became as we all know arguably the greatest and most influential talent in all of comic books. Among the thousands and thousands of pages of comic art he generated were some which chronicled the doings of soldiers in that war. Though he is less famous for his war material than greats like Joe Kurbert, Sam Glanzman, Russ Heath, Harvey Kurtzman, John Severin, Irv Novick, and Jerry Grandenetti, he nonetheless brought a distinctive character and raw energy to the task. Below are some of my favorite Kirby comic book covers which combine that distinctive Kirby power with harsh reality of war.

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Thursday, March 30, 2017

The Golden Derby - March 1967!

Fifty years ago this month Charlton Comics finally dropped the next to last of the Action Hero books onto the stands. When Peacemaker debuted it marked the  near completion of the set which these days is most famous alas for inspiring The Watchman. But for my tastes, the originals win the day. Captain Atom was a hero from the Cold War 50's, Blue Beetle was a revived and revised hero from the Golden Age of Comics (and would debut again in his own comic next month), Judomaster was a WWII set war adventure blended with superhero action, and Thunderbolt was a new kind of hero for a new kind of world. Peacemaker, who had debuted some months earlier in the pages of Fightin' Five was created by Pat Boyette, a man of many talents who made his most lasting comic book mark with his "Man Who Loved Peace So Much, He Is Willing To Fight For It." Some have joked about the seeming contradiction in those words, but I've never seen any. Peace is not obtained exclusively by diplomacy but by a smart combination of willing diplomacy and ready force. Peacemaker seems to me to speak to that reality. Also on hand this month is Thunderbolt, this issue also by Pat Boyette and writer Steve Skeates who steps in to replace creator Pete Morisi (PAM). The battle against the Dragon was one of the earliest Charlton books I ever read and holds a powerful place in my memory. One of the biggest events of this month is the debut of The Many Ghosts of Dr.Graves, a ghost-buster turned ghost host who debuted in Ghostly Tales and  would go on to become one of Charlton's most durable books, even making it the final months of the company's existence. Once again we have a powerhouse Boyette cover to behold. Joining Dr.Graves in the genre categories they so faithfully maintained is a great issue of Texas Rangers in Action which debuts Riley's Rangers, a very handsome western feature. Rocke Mastroserio supplies the cover for this issue as well as the cover the next book. The war in Vietnam is front and center in this month's issue of War Heroes which asks the questions all of America was beginning to ask about that tragic conflict. Giving peace a chance seemed to be the theme of the month.

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Wednesday, March 29, 2017

The Howlers - Captain America!

The revival of Captain America, a Golden Age Timely creation of Joe Simon and Jack "King" Kirby proved to be a great idea. The other Golden Age greats like the Human Torch who was re-imagined as a teenage hero with the Fab 4 and the Sub-Mariner who at first was a villain of sorts had proven there was still room for these Golden Age concepts to find footing. Captain America, sans his kid partner Bucky was thrust into the modern world. But that didn't mean that there weren't more World War II adventures to tell. The first of these was told in the pages of the thirteenth issue Sgt. Fury and the Howling Commandos written by Stan Lee and drawn by Cap's co-creator Jack Kirby with regular Fury artist Dick Ayers back on inking chores for one standalone special issue.

When the story picks up we find Fury and his girlfriend Pamela Hawley on a date at the cinema where they enjoy a newsreel featuring the Howlers and a new phenom battleground figure Captain America. Fury is dismissive of this new guy as the couple go to a pub where Fury gets into a fight with his old nemesis Bull McGiveney who had been picking on a familiar golden-haired army recruit we know as Steve Rogers. Later we see Cap and Bucky discussing their next mission and Cap's says that Fury and the Howlers would be ideal to work with on an upcoming mission. Then Cap and Bucky fight their way into enemy territory to investigate a plot to tunnel into the protected island of Britain.

Eventually Fury and the Howlers are given the go ahead to enter the battlefield and they do so with Howlers falling along the road, each either wounded or distracted by battle. Soon only Fury and the youthful Reb Ralston make it to the rendevous and find themselves aboard a train which is shuttling slave labor to work on the the mysterious tunnel. The two discover Cap and Bucky and in two teams they fight to destroy the tunnel and then independently they return to London, both with a profound respect for the others. The Howlers are reunited, all of them having returned safely.

There's no doubt this is a blockbuster of a story. Kirby's artwork is robust and at its action-filled peak. At this stage I preferred Chic Stone's inks to those of Ayers, but there's not much between them, and this is Dick's book after all. It's a strange adventure really as it's clearly decided to cut down on the Howlers and it's strange how they peel off as the story flows along. Cap and Bucky get a lot of page time in this one, especially early in the adventure which at some points you forget it's Fury's book.

Cap had just gotten his own series in the pages of Tales of Suspsense and clearly this delightful blast form the past is a jolt to call attention to that. Soon enough the modern day Nick Fury, the head of SHIELD will be showing up on a regular basis in the pages of Cap's series and now we know how the two rough and tough heroes met.

And that wraps up the Dojo's look at Kirby's work on the Howling Commandos. It's not work I was all that familiar with, some of these stories I think I've never read. They hold up amazingly well and Kirby's art was outstanding on most of the issues, just stellar. He really relished this type of adventure it seemed and it's a shame he didn't do more. But then we'd not have some other great classic and that would be a pity too.

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Tuesday, March 28, 2017

The Howlers - Baron Zemo!

With the ninth issue Sgt. Fury and the Howling Commandos enters a new phase. To begin with, the title proves so successful that it goes monthly. But sadly that means that it becomes impossible for Jack"King" Kirby to stay on as regular penciler and those chores are handed off to longtime inker Dick Ayers. Ayers is an artist with a venerable and illustrious record but there's no doubt that his arrival is a step in a different direction. But in this transition issue there is still plenty of Kirby to discuss, for one thing the cover is a dandy. It features a Nazi villain named Baron Zemo and this story is is debut, sort of.

Sgt. Fury by Dick Ayers
The Howlers get a new recruit to take the place of the lost Junior Juniper who had died in battle all the way back in issue four. The new guy is a British soldier named Percival (Pinky) Pinkerton and he comes with an affected manner, a red beret and an omnipresent bumbershoot which often is used in combat. He proves himself as the First Attack Squad is sent once again behind enemy lines to capture a Nazi scientist named Baron Zemo. This adventure is specifically designed to showcase each Howler and one by one they get their moment in the sun as the team fights its way across the Germany to get to Zemo's ancestral castle where they find the villain armed to the teeth with many high-tech weapons, none more dangerous than his "Death Ray", the very weapon which prompted their attempt to capture him. But Zemo is able to escape the Howlers, though they get control of the Death Ray itself, though that proves momentary as when Zemo flies away in his own plane his booby-trapped Death Ray explodes and takes much of his castle with it. The Howlers barely escape and make their way back home.

But as it turns out this is the first in what is a double debut for the notorious Baron Zemo. In the pages of The Avengers by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby with some delcious Chic Stone inks, Baron Zemo is still alive in the modern Marvel Universe and we learn that he is the man responsible for sending Captain America and Bucky Barnes on their epic rocket trip which ended up with Cap being frozen for years before being found and thawed by the Assemblers. Zemo now wears a hood, one bonded permanently to him by dint of his own invention "Adhesive X". He holds a grudge against Cap and has long feared his return as he lords it over some natives in the wilds of South America. He learns that Cap is back and quickly organizes the first Masters of Evil conclave to fight the Avengers who protect Cap. The Radioactive Man, the Black Knight and the Melter all attack New York City using both their own powers and Adhesive X guns and the Avengers try to intercede. Giant-Man and Cap get stuck to some pavement and must contact the imprisoned enemy of the Human Torch, Paste Pot Pete to get access to a chemical which will undo the effects of Adhesive X. He comes through and they confront the Masters of Evil again, switching up opponents and using the Teen  Brigade led by Rick Jones to substitute tear gas for the Adhesive X remedy.

When the Masters of Evil are finally defeated, Baron Zemo and Cap face off before the villain tries to escape in his weird helicopter with what he thinks is a cure for his situation but soon his aircraft appears to fall out of the sky presumably the tear gas having taken effect.

But apparently the Avengers did not capture him as he shows up the very next issue, again back in his little South American kingdom where he recruits the Execution and the Enchantress to become the new Masters of Evil and they confront the Avengers again.

Later he is instrumental in giving power to Wonder Man, a creation he hopes will give the Masters the edge with the Avengers, but of course Wonder Man turns on the villains especially Zemo.

Zemo is a thorn in the Avengers' side for several issues of the early run.

But finally he and Captain America face off in a final battle which proves deadly for the notorious Nazi scientist and justice is served at long last.

Now to see an alternate version of the mighty battle from Avengers #6 check out this Marvel Super Heroes adaptation from 1966. Likely this was the first version of the story (which eliminates Bucky, Rick Jones, Giant-Man and the lovely Wasp) I ever encountered. The ending is a bit different too. But that delicious Kirby artwork is fully on display.

Now that Jack Kirby is gone from the Howling Commandos comic, it does lose a little steam. I admire Dick Ayers, but his ability to inject the excitement into the series falls far short of what Kirby had done with the book. This title had some of Kirby's best work and though Ayers will become a mainstay with the title and to some extent develop his own more muscular style (and is later joined by the great John Severin) which proves quite successful there is always the question of what might have been.

But Kirby is not quite done. There is one more Kirby drawn Howlers issue and it co-stars a certain Living Legend. One more to come.

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