In this bi-weekly series reviewing classic science fiction and fantasy books, Alan Brown looks at the front lines and frontiers of the field; books about soldiers and spacers, scientists and engineers, explorers and adventurers. Stories full of what Shakespeare used to refer to as “alarums and excursions”: battles, chases, clashes, and the stuff of excitement.
Today I’m going to do something a little different: Instead of reviewing a favorite book, I’m going to review a favorite comic. Like countless people around the world, I was saddened to hear of Stan Lee’s recent death. As I paused to reflect on all his works meant to me, one comic book in particular stood out in my memory—an issue of the series Sergeant Fury and the Howling Commandos where they meet the superhero Captain America and his sidekick, Bucky. Others may better remember Spider-Man, or the Fantastic Four, or Hulk, or Daredevil, or the Mighty Thor, but to me, this issue reflects some aspects of Lee and his work that shouldn’t be overlooked.
It was hard to find comics consistently when I was young. They were available at the local drugstore, but they often sold out of popular titles, and we only went when my mom or dad needed a prescription filled. There were comics with their covers stripped off available at the corner store for a nickel (a practice I later found was illegal), but it was hard to find a particular favorite. So my collection from those days is full of gaps, and I preferred comics that told a complete tale in a single issue.
My favorites were the war comics, and while DC had the most titles, it was Sgt. Fury’s stories I liked best, because it was created by people that I knew were veterans, and it was about a team of soldiers that felt like real people. My dad, like most dads in those days, had served in World War II. He didn’t give us details, but his service took him from Normandy to Bastogne, and I’d seen the medals on his Army Reserve uniform, so I knew he had been in the thick of things. The costumed superheroes in the other comic books seemed a bit silly to me, but I knew the stories in the war comics were about real heroes, just like my dad.
About the Author
Stan Lee (born Stanley Lieber in 1922, died 2018) was a comic book writer, editor, and publisher whose creativity and skills in promotion made him perhaps the most recognizable figure in the comics industry, and one of the most widely known figures in popular culture. He started his career in the family publishing business as an assistant in 1939. His first story submission appeared in a Captain America comic in 1941, when he was 19. He served in the Army in World War II, first in the Signal Corps, and then in the Training Film Division.
After the war, Lee began editing and writing comics for Timely Comics. The years after World War II were tough for the industry: comic books were looked down upon, and even condemned as being a bad influence on children. Lee was frustrated and considering leaving the field. He credits his wife Joan for encouraging him to take some risks, since he was considering leaving anyway, and develop superheroes in a new manner for the newly renamed Marvel Comics. The first of these was the Fantastic Four, which he created with artist Jack Kirby. These characters were not simplistic archetypes, as had been common in comics to date. Instead, they had realistic personalities, made mistakes, and had problems like any other people. The book was an immediate success, and soon Lee was involved in creating a whole universe of characters. With Kirby, he created the Avengers, the Fantastic Four, the Incredible Hulk, Iron Man, Thor, the X-Men, Black Panther, and Nick Fury. With veteran artist Bill Everett, he created Daredevil. And with Steve Ditko, he created Spider-Man and Doctor Strange. The new characters were hits, and readers were eager to buy these new adventures. Lee also tied the books together into a single fictional universe, with the heroes, villains, and various events crossing over from one book to another.
Lee was an excellent promoter and salesman. He included letter pages in the comics, and each issue had a “Bullpen Bulletins” page that gave the fans background on development of the comics, and news on currently available issues and upcoming plans. The page also included a column, “Stan’s Soapbox,” where he talked about the comic business, and also gave his thoughts on issues such as drug abuse and racism. This gave readers the feeling they were part of the process, and part of a larger community. He employed a lot of colorful catchphrases, including the signature motto “Excelsior,” which is Latin for “Ever Upward.”
Lee was also good at self-promotion, sometimes at the expense of the people he worked with. He developed a reputation for taking personal credit for collaborative efforts. Also, the artists he worked with were producing work for hire, and unlike him, they owned no share in the final product. The fact that he became a multi-millionaire while they received little beyond their initial pay was a sore point for many.
Lee eventually sold Marvel, but remained the public face of the company. He began making cameo appearances in movies and TV shows featuring Marvel characters. He started a number of other business ventures, and created new characters, although few of these independent efforts appeared to have been very successful as his earlier work. And as the years went on, he became more generous about giving credit to his collaborators.
I got a chance to see Stan Lee at a New York Comic Con later in his life, and among all the celebrities I saw, he was the one with the biggest personality. With his humor and enthusiasm, he completely commanded the room from the moment he walked in until the moment he walked out. It was easy to see why he was such a giant presence in the industry.
Lee’s wife Joan, who played a big role supporting him throughout his career, died in 2017, and after that, his life took a difficult turn marked with illnesses and disputes between family and managers. He died on the 12th of November 2018.
About the Artist
Jack Kirby (born Jacob Kurtzberg in 1927, died 1994) is among the most prolific and influential of comic book artists, writers and editors of all time, and is known as “The King” by many fans because of his influence on the field. He started working as an artist for Timely Comics before World War II, notably co-creating Captain America with writer Joe Simon. He did not shy away from a scrap, and upon hearing that Nazi sympathizers were protesting the Captain America comic in front of the building, Kirby reportedly rolled up his sleeves and went out to confront them. He served in the Army in the European Theater, and because of his drawing skills, worked as a scout for the advancing Allied forces. After the war, he returned to work for Timely as well as for competing companies such as National Comics Publications, which later became DC. He had particular success creating romance comics. He attained fame for the work he did with Stan Lee when Timely became Marvel Comics, contributing to the creation of superhero characters including the Avengers, the Fantastic Four, the Incredible Hulk, Iron Man, Thor, the X-Men, and Nick Fury. Strains over credit and compensation for his work led to his departure to work for DC, and there he created a whole pantheon of characters, including the New Gods, who play a big role in the DC universe to this day.
The Howling Commandos
Lee and Kirby drew on their military experience to create the Howling Commandos, and while many of the characters’ adventures were fanciful, that experience gave the comics a realistic tone. One of my favorite aspects of the Howling Commandos books was the fact they were about a team—and what an interesting team it was, full of colorful characters! Lee made a point of creating a diverse team as well; he wanted to show Americans from all backgrounds and regions working together. The team included:
- Captain “Happy Sam” Sawyer, who gave the Commandos their missions, bailed them out of the stockade after brawls, and was perpetually frustrated by their methods and conduct.
- Sergeant Nick Fury, the hard-bitten leader of the team, always chomping on a cigar, whose shirts frequently ended up in tatters.
- Corporal Dum Dum Dugan, a former circus strongman who wore a striped shirt under his uniform and a bowler hat with his corporal stripes affixed.
- Private Dino Manelli, a Hollywood star who refused special treatment and wanted to serve on the front lines. His acting skills and knowledge of German and Italian often proved handy.
- Private Gabe Jones, an African American jazz musician who played bugle calls during attacks. At this point in history, there were no mixed-race units in the Army, but Lee decided to ignore that fact in order to promote diversity.
- Private Izzy Cohen, the “everyman” of the unit, an ordinary Jewish guy from Brooklyn, an auto mechanic by trade, and the only team member consistently shown wearing his helmet.
- Private Reb Ralston, a spirited southerner from Kentucky who taught the others the yell that gave the unit its name. He was a skilled horseman, sometimes used a lasso, and wore a distinctive fatigue hat with the brim pinned up.
- Private Junior Juniper, the youngest member of the unit, who was lost in one of their earliest missions—driving home the point that survival of any of the characters was not guaranteed.
- Private Percival Pinkerton, a British soldier added to the unit to replace Juniper. Pinkerton wore a red beret and ascot, and always carried an umbrella. In later years, Lee revealed that he considered him one of the first gay characters in Marvel Comics, although this was not mentioned at the time the comics were appearing.
- Eric Koenig, an anti-Nazi German defector who joined the unit later in their adventures.
After the war, Fury continued in the Army, eventually attaining the rank of Colonel. He was working for the CIA when he was approached by Tony Stark, and asked to head the super-spy organization S.H.I.E.L.D. While the other Howlers went their separate ways, Dum Dum, Gabe, and Eric joined Fury at S.H.I.E.L.D. The comics showed the team reuniting in subsequent years, taking on missions in Korea and Vietnam, for example. As time went by, Marvel explained Fury’s surprising longevity through something called the “Infinity Formula,” which halted his aging. Today, while the other Howlers have all met their demise, Dum Dum lives on in the form of a robotic Life Model Decoy, and Fury is condemned to live on the moon as the “Unseen,” in punishment for slaying an alien being known as the Watcher (a rather unpopular move, to some readers).
In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the World War II version of Nick Fury was replaced with a character played by Samuel L. Jackson, with a more shadowy background and no ties to a particular war. In order to bring the comic universe in line with the movies, the comics then introduced a new character, the son of an African American woman and the original Nick Fury, who resembles Jackson. This Army veteran discovered his true parentage, took the name Nick Fury, Junior, and joined S.H.I.E.L.D.
Nick Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D. serve as part of the connective tissue of the Marvel Universe, appearing in many books in many roles. And Nick Fury’s viewpoint, as a practical old soldier in a world full of superheroes, became an integral part of the storytelling. To my eyes, the super-competent Agent Coulson of the movies can be seen as an heir to the original Nick Fury character in the comics.
Sgt. Fury and the Howling Commandos #13
This book is a cross-over that ties the Howling Commandos, who were not created until the 1960s, to the World War II adventures of Captain America. Underscoring Marvel’s commitment to the feedback and desires of their readers, this comic brags it is “IN ANSWER TO THE GREATEST READER DEMAND IN MARVEL’S HISTORY!” This is not the first cross-over in the Howling Commando comics, as Fury had encountered a young Major Reed Richards working with the O.S.S. in a previous mission. These events are an example of “retconning,” or retroactive continuity, where creators go back and add or tweak backstory to fill gaps, address apparent inconsistencies, or knit stories together.
Unlike many other Lee and Kirby comics, the book does not start with a battle scene. Instead, we see Fury and his girlfriend, Lady Pamela Hawley watching a newsreel showing the Howling Commandos’ exploits. She explains away the muted reaction to the newsreel as typical British reserve, only to have the crowd erupt with excitement when the newsreel shows the exploits of Captain America and Bucky. Fury is miffed that someone in a nutty mask is getting all the adoration. He takes Pamela to his favorite pub, only to find one of his rivals, Sergeant Bull McGiveney, harassing a young Private. Fury comes to the youngster’s defense, his unit joins in the fray, and a brawl erupts. It turns out that the young private is Steve Rogers, also known as Captain America. Cap and Bucky are preparing for a reconnaissance mission across the Channel into occupied France. Cap’s impressed by Fury, and indicates that if the two of them need help, he will be asking for the Howling Commandos. Cap and Bucky arrive in France via submarine and rubber raft, and incongruously for a scouting expedition, blast their way through German forces on the beach.
Meanwhile, the Howling Commandos, freed from the stockade by the eternally annoyed Captain Sawyer, practice their unarmed combat techniques. This scene might not seem important, but the banter between the men was always one of my favorite parts of these comics. Cap and Bucky, now back in sneaking around mode (albeit sneaking around clad in bright red, white, and blue), see some Germans about to illegally execute some downed airmen. They naturally put their mission aside and swing into action to address this injustice, and tell the airmen to find their submarine and bring the message back to England that Cap needs the Howlers. The team is plucked from the extra training they were doing to atone for their fisticuffs and parachuted into France. They’re discovered by the Germans, Gabe is injured, and Izzy is tasked to get him to the coast so a submarine can extract him. The team engages in a fierce firefight, but Dino and Dum Dum split off, capture a coastal artillery emplacement, and turn its guns on the Germans.
While Percy holds off Germans, Fury and Reb board a train full of slave laborers being sent to work on a secret German project. Fury finds that same blond soldier from the pub, who says he was recently captured by the Germans, and there is a Hitler Youth member on the train who speaks English suspiciously well. They arrive at the German work site, which turns out to be a secret tunnel being built under the Channel to support an invasion. The Hitler Youth member takes the blond soldier away for questioning while Fury and Reb hide their Tommy guns and join the workers being brought down the tunnel. There is a sudden explosion—Cap and Bucky emerge from the smoke, and Fury and Reb throw off their disguises. They engage the Germans, and Fury is impressed by Cap and Bucky’s skill and bravery. Fury and Reb battle their way to an escape hatch while Cap and Bucky find detonators that can blow up the tunnel. After the fight, the rest of the team visits Fury and Reb in the hospital, and tell them that Gabe is OK. There is banging on the wall, and their neighbor asks them to keep the noise down. That neighbor is Cap, as he and Bucky are also there recovering in the room next door.
This comic was full of the action, humor, and adventure I was looking for. I thoroughly appreciated the banter and teamwork, and how each team member was given a role to play. And just as Cap in his costume won over the Howlers, he also won me over as a young comics reader—I began to see that these costumed characters were not just silly, and that they could be taken seriously. I enjoyed seeing how all the Marvel comic characters were tied together, and the sense that each of them had detailed and complicated lives extending past the adventures contained in the books. After reading this issue, I decided to start picking up Captain America comics, and those of other costumed heroes.
For me, a shy and bespectacled young man, the comics of the 1960s opened up a new and exciting world. They started me down the path of reading just for fun and enjoyment. First with the adventures of Sergeant Fury and the Howlers, and then with those of costumed superheroes, I found plenty to keep me entertained. And Stan Lee, with his colorful stories and his conversational style on those Bullpen pages, helped welcome me into this world. He and his collaborators transformed a genre, breathing new life into comics just as many were predicting their demise. Today, given the popularity of movies based on these characters, there are few people on the planet who aren’t aware of Stan Lee and his work.
And now it’s your turn to talk: Unlike the old days, we don’t have to wait until the letter column in the next issue appears to see what the readers have to say. Have you read any of the Sergeant Fury and the Howling Commando comics? What are your favorite works and characters created by Stan Lee? And what are your thoughts on his legacy?
Alan Brown has been a science fiction fan for over five decades, especially fiction that deals with science, military matters, exploration and adventure.