At this point, there’s interest in pretty much any comics from the 1960s and the early Marvel period, but that hasn’t always been the case. In particular, the western and girl humor titles of that period remained affordable for years, as did the pre-hero monster/suspense books. As did this series, SGT. FURY AND HIS HOWLING COMMANDOS. That isn’t really the case anymore. But these books were relatively prevalent at the time, and so I wound up with a number of early issues in my Windfall Comics purchase of 1988. The three-for-a-dollar price I paid for these books was still a good deal even for these issues, even then. SGT FURY, it must be said, was a bit of a weird title. It was less realistic (or “quasi-realistic”) than the war series that DC was putting out under editor Robert Kanigher. In a lot of ways, it wasn’t a war series at all, but rather a super hero book dressed up in war colors. For all that everybody was armed to teh gills in SGT FURY and fired those weapons off at the slightest provocation, it was rare that anybody got hurt. The whole thing was more of an adventure romp, with the Howlers being the all-heroic good guys, and the Nazis being caricaturish black hats.
This was the first issue of the series to not be drawn and largely plotted by Jack Kirby. For all that Kirby’s issues were just as cartoonish in teh depiction of warfare, he did draw upon his own military experiences as a veteran of World War II in putting the strip together. He was also an ace action artist, who could make the shenanigans of the Howling Commandos palatable and not laughable, as they would occasionally become. But there were other series that needed Kirby’s touch more, and so he was replaced on SGT FURY by Dick Ayers, who would go on to illustrate it on and off for about a hundred issues. It was considered a secondary title, less important than an AVENGERS or even an X-MEN. But it paid just the same, and it was regular work for Ayers, one of the founding fathers of the Marvel Age of Comics whose style shifted further and further out of favor as time went on and better, more exciting draftsmen entered the field.
A couple of issues earlier, Kirby had shockingly killed off one of the central Howlers in an unexpected and understated fashion. This was “Junior” Juniper, who never came back, astonishingly enough. As this story opens, the squad gets its replacement for Junior–the cartoonish Percival Pinkerton, who was based visually and stylistically on David Niven. Now, in later years, scripter/editor Stan Lee claimed that Percy was intended to be gay, but that’s honestly a load of crap. He was de[icted as seemingly foppish, a bit of a dandy in the stereotypical American approach to what constituted Englishness, but he was also pretty definitively straight. So let’s put that particular bit of misinformation to bed. Percy never failed to go into action accompanied by his trusty bumbershoot, which he’d use in a number of logic- and physics-defying ways in combat.
This issue features “The Death Ray of Dr. Zemo” and ostensibly featured the same villainous character who was concurrently bedeviling the newly-formed AVENGERS over in their own title, as this house ad illustrates. Having read both stories, I am absolutely convinced that the decision to name teh evil Doctor in this story Zemo and to make him the same guy as was appearing in AVENGERS was a late-in-the-game brainstorm, a way of promotion SGT FURY among the other Marvel books, particularly the good-selling super hero ones. There isn’t anything much in this story (apart from the fact that the scientist creates a death ray) that connects the character here to the Dr. Zemo in AVENGERS. I feel confident that Ayers drew this issue with him being just another random Nazi scientist. But it was a clever bit of cross-marketing for Lee, who was increasingly starting to figure out eh benefit of an interconnected Marvel Universe. Also, just for the record, Zemo didn’t become Baron Zemo until he was later brought back–in all of his early AVENGERS appearances, he is simply Doctor Zemo.
All right, after the preliminaries in which we are reintroduced to the assorted Howlers themselves and Percy proves that he’s got teh right stuff to settle in among them, it’s time to get the story under way. So Happy Sam Sawyer has another mission for the First Attack Squad of Able Company: the Nazis are developing a death ray weapon which might be able to turn the tide of the war. It’s being developed by a Doctor Zemo (who looks markedly different than what we see of him in AVENGERS–another reason why I believe he started out here as somebody other than Zemo.) The Howlers need to sneak into Germany, locate Zemo, and scuttle his research. This is, of course, presented as somewhat akin to just another day at the office. The Howlers make their approach in a PT boat–one that must have a hell of a range given that they’re stationed in England–and they’re spotted by a german U-Boat. But the Howlers ram the sub’s periscope, and then send Dino Manelli (the only man among them who speaks German) quickly ashore to take control of the coastal guns and wipe out the sub before it can reorient itself and sink the PT boat. This, Dino accomplishes, in large part because the enemy is depicted as being about as clueless as a block of wood. Seriously, the Nazis in this series would feel right at home on Hogan’s Heroes.
Making it to shore, the Howlers come across a patrolling tank. Once again, this is a job for just one man, in this case Gabe Jones. Gabe disables the tank by dropping a live grenade down into its innards, but he’s caught in the blast himself and wounded. Rather than leave him behind, the Howlers carry him deeper into the countryside, until they can locate a hospital. There, they threaten a Nazi medic into treating Gabe’s wounds. The doctor is a cowardly black hat, but he does what he is forced to when coerced by Fury’s machine gun. In fact, his work is so good that Gabe is able to rejoin the mission and his wound isn’t really a factor any further. But the delay has given the Nazis the time to locate Fury and his guys and blockade the town. But that isn’t much of a delay for the Howling Commandos. They commandeer an enemy armored car and then race to the stronghold of Dr. Zemo, a medieval castle. They use the captured Doctor as a mediator to get through the enemy lines, informing the enemy commander of teh Commandos supposed location–an ammo dump. The whole town goes up, and presumably any number of civilians are killed along with the soldiers stationed there–but nobody thinks about any of that, it’s another triumph for the Howlers.
In another instance of the Nazis being depicted as the stupidest men alive, once teh Howlers get to Castle Zemo, Percy proves his mettle by approaching teh single guard on duty unarmed. He tells the man that the war is over, and that the Allies have won–and the stupefied guard believes it, giving Percy enough time to get close to him and then drop him into the handy moat that surrounds the place. The Howlers then lure out most of the guards inside the place by having Dum Dum act like a wild man across the drawbridge and then slipping in behind them after the guards race out of the structure to confront Dum Dum–apparently, the range on the German weapons leaves something to be desired. It’s all silly but fun if you can get into the spirit of it.
Another house ad for a pair of contemporaneous Marvel titles, one of which was in my Windfall Comics haul:
As a reader of even years later, I adored these ads and their tantalizing glimpses of other comic books that I desperately wanted to read.
Anyway, the Howlers bloodlessly fight their way through the castle, past Zemo’s own loyal personal guard, wrecking teh place as they go. But Zemo isn’t finished, he’s got a trump card–the eponymous Death Ray that’s been the subject of all this frou ferah. Fortunately, Reb Ralston has brought along his trusty lariat, and he’s able to snare the death ray from out of Zemo’s hands before it can be effectively deployed against the Howlers. It’s Howler Plan “R”, an actual thing that they have worked out ahead of time. Zemo, being a Nazi, immediately turns and runs, his loyal soldiers putting themselves between the Doctor and teh Howlers. Since he’ll go on to appear in AVENGERS, we know subliminally that Zemo is going to get out of this with his skin intact.
Zemo, of course, leaves his loyal men to perish as he triggers the self-destruct device in his castle as he soars away to safety. For no good reason, Fury has Reb leave teh Death Ray prototype behind to be consumed in the explosion–I suppose the mission was to scuttle Zemo’s research, not to capture it. After that, the squad needs to make its way out of Germany, a task so simple that it’s covered in-between panels in the wrap-up. Percy is given one last change to prove his worth when he’s questioned by some other G.I.s about his first mission as a Howler. He humbly deflects all glory to his fellow Howlers, and so it’s clear that he’s a stand up guy and a good addition to the squad. The final blurb indicates that SGT FURY has been promoted to monthly publication, a sign that it must have been selling solidly.
In the back of the book, there’s a letters page–the first one ever assembled for SGT FURY. In the Special Announcements Section, Lee indicates that all of the letters in this installment were actually excerpted from comments directed to FANTASTIC FOUR and AMAZING SPIDER-MAN, up to this point the only Marvel titles that carried letters pages. He also indicates that they’re going to be rolling out letters pages across the line–a bit of a sea change from when he was begging the fans to let him discontinue the letters page in AMAZING SPIDER-MAN because it was too much work. Lee had definitely discovered the power of creating a brand loyalty among his readership, and his growing efforts in this regard would be one of the factors that influenced Marvel’s ascent across the early 1960s.