Friday, May 23, 2014

Those Hard-Talking Commandos!

Marvel Masterworks: Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos Volume 1: written by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Dick Ayers; illustrated by Jack Kirby, Dick Ayers, and George Roussos (aka George Bell) (1963-64; collected 2001): Early Marvel's first (and really only) semi-successful war book was a distinctly Marvelesque effort. Unlike DC's earlier Sgt. Rock, Sgt. Fury clearly took place in the same universe as the company's superhero books (Sgt. Rock would only be folded into DC continuity more than a decade after his first appearance). In the first 13 issues collected here, Reed Richards (later of the Fantastic Four in the book's chronology, as Fury was set during WWII) appears, as does Captain America villain Baron Zemo, along with Captain America and his partner Bucky Barnes.

The other Marvelization came with the decision to centre the action on a small squad of commandos, rather than all of Easy Company, as with Sgt. Rock. The Howling Commandos could thus appear anywhere in any of the theatres of WWII from issue to issue. And boy, do they! One month they're in the Japanese theatre, the next they're going after Rommel, and the next they're teaming up with Captain America to halt a Nazi effort to build a tunnel under the English Channel. They also thwart saboteurs in England. They're everywhere.

The whole thing goes down smoothly, with terrific art from Jack Kirby and, inking and then pencilling the title, the perennially under-rated Dick Ayers. There's a lot of action, much of it improbable (never have tanks been taken out so easily by soldiers armed only with guns! never have massive fortifications been overwhelmed by so few wise-cracking commandos!), all of it enjoyable so long as you didn't come here looking for realism.

Sgt. Fury also provides an early example of one of the delights with Marvel books down the ages -- the sometimes comic gaps between what the art clearly shows and what the dialogue writer tells you is happening. Again and again, the commandos clearly kill people by the score, but to satisfy the Comics Code Authority, Stan Lee's dialogue tells us that the Nazis escaped or got knocked unconscious off-'camera.' It's a forerunner to all those mysteriously surviving criminals in crashed helicopters and cars on The A-Team (which itself owes a clear debt to Sgt. Fury). Never have so many Nazis been knocked unconscious off-page by flame throwers, grenades, plunges off cliffs, and endless streams of bullets!

Unlike Sgt. Rock. Sgt. Fury makes no attempt towards even a gesture towards realism. This is early Marvel superhero action, enjoyably drawn and often hilariously over-written. As in real life, Stan Lee never knew when to shut up on the page, at least with Sgt. Fury. The dialogue comes so thick and heavy at times that some word balloons have been coloured so the reader doesn't get confused. Sgt. Fury and His Chatty Commandos, anyone? Recommended.

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