Editor and writer: Stan Lee Art: Jack Kirby (pencils), George Roussos (inks)
It was January, 1963, and Marvel Comics was a title short.
Publisher Martin Goodman had ordered the cancellation of The Incredible Hulk after its sixth issue. The Hulk was one of his editor Stan Lee’s pet characters and Stan argued against giving the Emerald Behemoth the hook. But Goodman wasn’t listening.
The Incredible Hulk wasn’t selling. At least, not up to Goodman’s standards. Under the arrangement Marvel had with its distributor, Independent News, it could release only eight titles per month, and Goodman wasn’t going to waste one of those slots on a title that was underperforming. So The Incredible Hulk was out. But now, something had to take its place.
“What else have you got?” Goodman asked Lee. The publisher wanted something more along the lines of the traditional super-hero, like Spider-Man or the Fantastic Four. Their titles were selling better than he’d had any reason to expect.
Stan felt that the distinctive voice he had given to Marvel’s line of comics was being underestimated by his publisher. That was why The Amazing Spider-Man and The Fantastic Four were doing so well, and not because they were, superficially, super-heroes.
Nonsense, said Goodman. Just give me a super-hero with an adjective like “Amazing” or “Mighty” or “Fantastic” in the title, he insisted, and it will sell.
Instead, Stan issued a challenge.
“I’ll do a war book with the worst title I can come up with,” he told Goodman, “but if it’s done in the Marvel style, I bet it’ll sell.”
Goodman took him up on it.
Two months later, Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos # 1 hit the stands.
That’s Stan Lee’s story, anyway, and he’s sticking to it.
However it came about, Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos was supposedly a series depicting the adventures of a squad of American soldiers in World War II. But, truth to tell, for the first several issues, at least, it came off as something closer to what Martin Goodman wanted. Fury and the Howlers seemed less like G.I.’s and more like super-heroes in khaki.
In terms of characters, Lee certainly didn’t win any points for originality. They were straight out of every WWII movie since the ‘40’s. The growling, hard-as-nails sergeant and a squad from central casting, with the names Dugan, Cohen, Manelli, Ralston (a southerner), Jones (a black man), and Junior (the youngster).
And for them, World War II was a romp. And there was no reason why it shouldn’t have been. Nothing was more than a minor inconvenience to the Howlers. A Luftwaffe plane shooting at them? Dugan blows it up with a hand grenade. Panzer in their way? Izzy explodes it with a burst of gunfire. Entire platoons of German soldiers were mowed down by their seven Thompson sub-machine guns. Probably because they were the Hollywood kind that never ran out of ammo.
Fury and his men certainly had a good time. When they weren’t barking at each other, the commandos tossed off jokes and wisecracks like they were starring in a prime-time sitcom. The Howlers could afford to kid around. They didn’t have a whole lot to worry about.
No matter how much German lead was fired at them, it magically missed or, at worst, inflicted an impotent “just a scratch” wound. Bursting shells shredded their clothing, but never flesh. Brutal hand-to-hand combat never left the Howlers with anything worse than torn shirts and bruised knuckles. Bayonet jabs always missed vital organs and arteries.
In one issue, Fury’s C.O., Captain Sawyer, sends the Howlers to North Africa.
“Me and the Howlers against Rommel’s whole blamed desert army?” Fury replies. “Now you’re talking my language, Cap! Do you want me to take the whole squad, or do you want me to leave half of ‘em here---in case you wanna mop up all of Germany with ‘em?”
From what the readers had seen the Howlers do so far, it wasn't that crazy of an idea. You had to wonder why Captain Sawyer didn't just point the wisecracking super-commandos towards Berlin and let them howl their way straight into Hitler’s bunker.
As fans of DC’s Sergeant Rock are quick to point out, it was impossible to take Sgt. Fury seriously. At the time, the charge was undeniable. Yet, there were indications that Stan Lee realised that he had gone over the top with his “war mag for people who hate war mags.” He had to reduce the farcical nature of the series and one of the ways he did that was with the script that saw print in the seventh issue, in a story titled “The Court-Martial of Sergeant Fury”.
It’s a tale that is anything but a farce. There’s no way to know that right off, though, because it kicks off with the usual Howler heroics for the first three or four pages, as our boys wind up a mission already in progress. Instead of heading for home, though, Fury is handed orders assigning the squad to join up with a section of the French Underground commanded by a U.S. Army first lieutenant.
The name of the officer in charge---Spencer Parker---gives Fury pause.
"Say, could that be ol' 'Skinny' Parker, who I went to school with?" he wonders. The grizzled sergeant smiles at the memory. Skinny Parker was that one kid in every class who raises his hand on a Friday afternoon and says, “Teacher, you forgot to give us our homework.”
Here, the reader gets an inkling that maybe this Sgt. Fury tale will be a little different.
When the Howlers reach the rendezvous point, Fury discovers that, yes, indeed, the first looey is ol’ Skinny Parker from P.S. 138. The hard-bitten non-com and the austere, patrician Parker get along no better now than they did as boys. Except that now, Parker is an officer in the United States Army, and Fury has to endure his starchiness.
The mission, Parker explains, is to blow up a German ammo depot a half-mile away, and he expects Fury and his men to follow his orders to the letter.
When they reach their target, Parker distributes his force among the concealment of hedgerows with the intention of making a surprise assault. There are no German soldiers in sight, and when the veteran Howlers suggest to Parker that something isn’t right, he waves it off.
It means something to Fury, though. Just as Parker is about to give the order to attack, Nick restrains him. Before the Howler ramrod can explain, Parker shoves him aside. The two men grapple for a moment, then Parker orders the men to assault the depot.
Nick countermands the attack and orders the men to take cover. Unfortunately, a passing Messerschmitt has spotted the commotion from the air and drops its single-bomb payload on the frantically diving soldiers. The bomb explodes, and Fury, the only one still on his feet, bears the brunt of the blast.
Days later, Fury awakens in the base infirmary in England. Besides the usual starched sheets and bedpans, he sees something not so usual has been added to his hospital room---a couple of burly military policemen, manning the door.
Captain Sawyer informs Fury that he’s under arrest. And the charges are serious. Striking a superior officer. Refusal to obey a direct order. They’re even considering cowardice under fire.
“Why’d you do it, Nick?” demands Sawyer.
Fury searches his memory---and comes up blank.
“I---I can’t remember any of it!” he replies.
Now, the reader knows this is going to be a different kind of Sgt. Fury story.
A week later, Fury is well enough to stand trial and the court-martial begins. The prosecution calls its first witness, First Lieutenant Spencer Parker.
After Lieutenant Parker recounts the events of the ill-fated mission, the prosecutor asks him to detail his boyhood history with Sergeant Fury. They grew up in the same neighbourhood, Parker relates, so they knew each other, but they were never friends. He characterises the young Nick Fury as a hot-tempered brawler from the wrong side of the tracks. And, yes, they’d had a few run-ins.
The prosecutor suggests that, perhaps, the reason for Fury’s actions on the mission was that he has held a grudge against Parker since their youth. The defense objects and it’s sustained, but the damage is done.
On cross-examination, Fury’s lawyer asks Lieutenant Parker one simple question . . . .
“But that has nothing to do with it!” protests Parker. “Maybe I’m not the swashbuckling hero that he is, but I was doing my job! I was leading my men, carrying out my orders! Because of him, the mission failed!”
Inwardly, Fury agrees. Being privy to his thoughts, we know that Nick isn’t faking amnesia; he truly cannot remember his actions, nor the reason for them. But the fact of it agonises him. He knows Parker isn’t lying. Fury did what they all say he did, but there’s no justification for striking Parker or refusing to obey his orders.
After questioning the medical people who treated Fury’s injuries, the prosecution rests.
Fury’s lawyer shifts uncomfortably in his chair. It looks as bad as it can get for his client and he tells Nick as much. No matter who he calls to the stand or what questions he asks, they have no valid defence.
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