500 Essential Graphic Novels: Marvel Masterworks: Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos, Volume 1 (1963-64/2006) Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Dick Ayers
I certainly won’t get to all of them, but I’m attempting to read through several of the graphic novels listed in Gene Kannenberg’s 500 Essential Graphic Novels: The Ultimate Guide. I started with The Yellow “M” and this is the second stop in my ongoing journey through Kannenberg’s book.
The beginnings of Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos may be apocryphal, but it makes for a good story. Apparently, Stan Lee bet his publisher at the time (1963), Martin Goodman, that the Stan Lee/Jack Kirby formula could sell anything, even a war comic with a wordy, awful title. Lee came up with a fictional Army special forces unit of sorts, the First Attack Squad, also known as the Howling Commandos, which fought primarily in European missions during WWII. The group is led by cigar-chomping Nick Fury (Yes, the same Nick Fury in the S.H.I.E.L.D. comics and Marvel movies... more on that in a minute.)
Calling Fury a “take no prisoners” type of guy is an understatement of monumental proportions. He spits out orders, leads missions and takes action like a guy who’s got a permanent caffeine iv in his arm. (Make that both arms.) The rest of the commandos are largely stereotypes with recurring jokes played by and against them, such as “Dum Dum” Dugan, a mountain of a guy with flaming red hair underneath a bowler hat who would rather fight the Nazis than face his wife and mother-in-law back home; “Izzy” Cohen, a Jewish American from Brooklyn who’s also a master mechanic; Dino Manelli, an Italian American who gave up an acting career to serve his country; “Rebel” Ralston, a slow-talking but fast-moving Southerner; Gabe Jones, an African American bugler; and Percival “Percy” Pinkerton, a Brit who’s as dangerous with his umbrella as the other Howlers are with their rifles.
Most of the stories in this collection (reprinting Sgt. Fury #1-13) are sort of “Mission of the Month” stories with the Howling Commandos foiling Nazi plans or rescuing captured Allies. Say what you will about Stan Lee, but he knows how to tell a story and several of these tales hold up quite well, for the most part, although you can probably predict much of what will happen in each one.
Jack Kirby’s art is always worth your time, but Dick Ayers took over (with a few exceptions) from issue #9 for much of the title’s 167-issue run, giving it his own expert touch. The tone of the stories balances the ugliness of war with frequent humor, usually at the expense of the stereotyped Howling Commandos. But this is far from a Hogan’s Heroes type of book. There’s a lot of fighting, battles, and even killing (although most of this happens off-panel).
If you enjoy this title, you’re sure to like the Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. stories, featuring the same Nick Fury, only this time in the world of super-espionage. There’s also the Nick Fury of the Marvel movies, but now we’re getting into some slightly confusing territory that I’m going to (conveniently) leave alone for now...
I enjoyed Sgt. Fury more than I thought I would and certainly plan to read more. I’m eager to see where Lee and Ayers take things from the end of this volume, which features a pretty nifty Captain America and Bucky story. I’ll also be interested to see if I enjoy DC’s Sgt. Rock (which debuted in 1959) as much, which I plan to read soon.