This issue of SGT. FURY AND HIS HOWLING COMMANDOS was the final one I got in my box of Windfall Comics, purchased for $50.00 back in 1988, and it was an interesting issue for reasons that I’ll expound upon later. SGT FURY was a bit of an odd duck in the Marvel line, in that it was promoted and associated more with the super hero titles than anything else, even though it had scant to do with them. The connection became more solid once the Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. series started running in STRANGE TALES. But even then, as time went on, it often felt like the Fury in the war title and the Fury in the spy strip were two different people, rather than the same person at two different points in his life. This also had the Superboy effect of cutting down on the sense of jeopardy in SGT FURY, as it was clear that not just Nick, but a number of his Commando buddies were going to survive the war just fine. I don’t know that it was ever really in doubt, but in the moment, when you’re reading one of these stories, you need to feel as though the jeopardy is real.
The premise of this story is set up entirely on this first page: a spy has infiltrated the base out of which Fury and the Howling Commandos billet, and they’re being called on to locate the intruder before he can sabotage the base. Trick is, the spy is reported to be a master of disguise. Why you need hard-fighting soldiers such as Fury and his crew for a mission like this is a bit of a mystery–surely there must have been somebody in the ranks better suited to the task. But orders is orders, and so Fury and his men race homeward, to see if they can locate the spy positioned among them.
The spy, though, is already ensconced in the identity of Fury’s commanding officer, “Happy” Sam Sawyer (the question of what has happened to the real Sawyer is never addressed in this story). And so he sends Fury out on a solo mission to deliver some classified documents while the other Howlers conduct the search for the spy. The infiltrator then plans to take on Fury’s identity to carry out his mission. It’s here that we get a strange addition to he plot: the spy is revealed to be none other than Captain America’s old nemesis the Red Skull. This clearly is an idea that Stan has added into the story in the scripting, as the spy never dons his skull-mask at any point in this story. Lee must have felt that the tale needed to be jazzed up some, and by making this infiltrator the Red skull himself, that would elevate it.
Quick pause for one of those great Marvel 3-fer House Ads, this one announcing the release of MARVEL COLLECTORS’ ITEM CLASSICS, which will reprint some of the earliest Marvel stories, which were already hard for newcomers to find.
Anyway, the Skull assumes the likeness of Fury and goes about planting the explosives that will destroy the base, while Fury walks into an ambush that he thinks is a secret rendezvous. But of course, a bunch of Nazis ambushing Nick Fury is easier said than done, and all by himself, Fury fights off his attackers and blows up their boat, getting himself to safety. Meanwhile, back on base, the Red Skull finds himself challenged by Fury’s rival, Bull McGiveny. Misreading the situation and assuming that McGiveny would clean up on Fury, the Skull allows himself to be knocked around by the bigger man. This is enough to get Dino Manelli, who comes by just as the Skull is getting back to his feet, suspicious.
The Skull is trailed by the Howlers and seen by the local M.P.’s as he heads for his hidden detonator. But he’s still calm and collected. He makes sure he’s identified as Fury, then races for the nearby beach, where an exhausted Nick Fury is just coming ashore, having made his way back from the ambush. The Skull clobbers Nick, then leaves him to take the rap for his sabotage efforts. Fury is in the soup for a bit here, but he’s able to prove his identity to his men by repeating the winning poker hand that Reb Ralston had in their game on the flight back to base, when he was clearly the real Nick. With that, Fury’s boys break him out of stir, and they all race to locate the real spy before he can carry out his acts of destruction.
Fury and his Howlers are able to catch up with the Skull just after he heads out in a raft for a nearby floating gun emplacement that his men have taken over, and from which they’ll set off the hidden explosives. Despite the danger, Fury insists on tackling the Skull himself, since he’s got a grudge going against the man who impersonated him. The Skull is confident, at least in his thought balloons that indicate that he’s not just some run-of-the-mill Nazi but the genuine Red Skull. But what we see happen here really doesn’t support that thesis: Fury clobbers him rather easily, and leaves him trussed up while he and his men infiltrate and take back the gun emplacement, preventing the sabotage.
So it’s a win for the good guys–except that the Skull has escaped. In a panel almost certainly added in after the fact, we see that he’s escaped the bonds Fury restrained him with and has slipped away. But the base, at least is safe. On the final page, returning home, Fury finds Bull McGiveny boasting about how he flattened Fury earlier. To restore his reputation, Fury swiftly knocks Bull unconscious. And as the issue wraps up, the Howlers receive word that Corporal Dum Dum Dugan, who had been wounded in a prior adventure, is out of the hospital and has been posted to duty on the Ferry Command. And that’s the To Be Continued note on which this outing wraps up. It’s a perfectly fine story, but you can see why Lee might have felt the need to add in the extra layer of the spy being the Red Skull. Fury and his guys pretty much waltz right through this entire adventure without even breathing hard.
And the issue wraps up with the relatively-new Marvel Bullpen Bulletins page as well as a House Ad for Marvel merchandise (not shown here.) The Bullpen Page truly was Stan’s master stroke–he used it not only to promote the other titles in the line, but also the writers, artists and creative people behind the books, making them all seem like fun, free-wheeling fellows all having a laugh making comics. In reality, doing comics was a business like any other for most of these people, but you’d never know it from the picture that Lee paints here. That Mystery Artist he mentions is almost certainly John Romita, who was about to take over DAREDEVIL.
The letters pages in most of the Marvel books of this period are only slightly less entertaining than the stories are. I’m sure that Lee must have been doing a polish on the letters he was receiving, as they all seem vey erudite and thoughtful and fun, and Lee’s responses are similarly animated. But they definitely give the impression that, if you’re a Marvel reader, you’re in good company with a lot of like-minded people who are smart and with-it and together.