In the society of Silver-Age mavens, there are Sergeant Rock fans and Sergeant Fury fans, and seldom does the twain meet. In a nutshell, the Rock fans find DC's World War II stories of Easy Company and its indomitable top-kick to be slices of the grim reality of war, while they regard Marvel's Sergeant Fury and his Howling Commandos as little more than super-heroes in G.I. khaki, not to be taken seriously. To Fury fans, that is the whole point; the escapades of Fury and his Howlers are meant to be romps, lavish exaggerations of old war films, a war magazine for people who hate war magazines.
As with most nutshell descriptions, these are oversimplifications. Not that there wasn't an essential difference in approach to the two WWII series---there was---but you had to boil a great deal away to get to that essence. I suspect that the readers who strongly gravitate to Rock or Fury, one or the other, made their choices after reading only a handful of issues of both series, and after that, their minds were made up.
DC's Sergeant Frank Rock had the virtue of appearing first, but only after the concept went through a few refinements. The prototype appeared in G. I. Combat # 68 (Jan., 1959), as a character nicknamed "the Rock", a professional boxer-turned-soldier who single-handedly held the line against a wave of attacking German forces. The next incarnation was "Sergeant Rocky", who appeared in "The Rock of Easy Co.", from Our Army at War # 81 (Apr., 1959). Here, most of the elements which would distinguish Sergeant Rock were introduced, the most important of which was Easy Company, the band of G.I.'s who would follow the Rock into Hell.
The following issue, Our Army at War # 82 (May, 1959), is generally viewed as the debut of the character as a complete entity, with all of the now-familiar features in place. Even so, it was still considered a series about various soldiers in Easy Company, with Sergeant Rock often simply a background player. This was the case for several more issues, until # 90 (Jan., 1960), when Rock finally emerged as the star of the show.
Marvel's Sergeant Nick Fury, however, underwent no such evolution. He sprang full-blown in Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos # 1 (May, 1963). As author Ronan Ro, among others, relates, Sergeant Fury was the result of a bet between Marvel's editor, Stan Lee, and his publisher, Martin Goodman. Goodman believed that the popularity of the Marvel titles was due to the hype on the covers. Lee insisted it was because of the combination of his writing and Jack Kirby's art. To prove it, Lee wagered that he could produce a war comic---generally slow-movers in the post-WWII era---and give it the worst title he could think of, and under the handling of himself and Kirby, it would sell.
Sgt. Fury debuted with all of the key elements in place: a grizzled, hard-bitten non-com in charge of a mixed band of wisecracking commandos, and taking their marching orders from an even more hard-bitten C.O. Fury and his Howlers sailed through occupied Europe, making jokes and shooting Nazis.
If you just looked at the pictures, there didn't appear to be a whole lot different between Sergeant Rock and Sergeant Fury. Rock was a master sergeant while Fury was a mere three-striper, but they shared the same taste for crewcuts, beard stubble, and ragged shirts. Rock was fond of going into battle wearing fifty-pounds of .30-06 ammo in bandoliers over his shoulders, while Fury was rarely seen without a cigar champed between his teeth. They both were capable of absorbing a staggering amount of punishment with little more than a grimace.
Nor did the men they led look, on the surface, to be all that different. Both Easy Company and the Howling Commandos presented casts of ethnically diverse regular characters, including black men (Jackie Johnson and Gabe Jones), at a time in American history when the real Army was still segregated by colour. Both groups had a big, brawny corporal as second-in-command.
The soldiers in both units tended to have colourful nicknames, such as Bulldozer and Wildman and Little Sure Shot for Easy and Dum Dum and Rebel and Junior for the Howlers. And one could pick out a few non-G.I.-issue "fashion statements" on both teams---the eagle feathers attached to Little Sure Shot's helmet, Wildman's definitely non-regulation beard, and Dum Dum's derby and striped long johns.
No, the difference between Rock and Fury lied in style.
Under DC editor Robert Kanigher, who also wrote nearly all of them, the Sergeant Rock tales tended to be excerpts from the panorama of war. The mission objective (if there was one---many of the stories seemed to consist of what happened to Rock and Easy Company as they slogged from Point A to Point B) was incidental to the events of the plot. Kanigher seemed intent on bringing to the readers as much of the horror of combat as the Comics Code would permit, and he did that by crafting human interest stories against the backdrop of war. He concentrated on the irony and caprice of human conflict. He showed how man's desires and ambitions, lovings and longings, amounted to nothing on the battlefield, in the grand scheme of fate.
The Nazis didn't always lose, and in nearly every issue, American G.I.'s died. Some of them were nameless and faceless, just as in real war, with only their tin pots propped up on rifles to mark their passing. Other casualties came from that particular story's "guest stars" and walk-on parts. They had names, or nicknames, and sometimes the reader got to know a little bit about them, just enough to feel for their deaths or to take a moral from it. Often, the victories of Easy Company felt hollow.
There wasn't getting away from some conventions, though. None of the hundreds of flying bullets ever had the name of a regular Easy Company character on it. Oh, sure, the Ice Cream Soldier died in Our Army at War # 107 (Jun., 1961), but Kanigher thought better of it (or didn't think of it at all) and the Soldier was resurrected without explanation three issues later.
Overall, though, Kanigher hit the target he was aiming at, even if the grimness seemed relentless.
There sure wasn't anything grim about the first handful of Sgt. Fury stories. They were pure, over-the-top high adventure. In each issue, Captain Sam Sawyer would hand Fury and his men their assignment, and getting there was nearly all the fun. German soldiers were little more than targets, straw foes to be mowed down by the Howlers' machine guns. These were curiously bloodless scenes, too, with little more than an off-panel "Uuuuhnnnnn . . . ." and a German helmet bouncing across the floor to mark another downed Nazi. Near-impossible feats, such as Dum Dum Dugan blowing up a German fighter plane with a hand grenade, were treated as just another day at the war.
It wasn't outright farce. Writer Stan Lee could insert an actual sense of drama into the Howlers' missions, enough to make the reader think, for a few moments anyway, that Fury and his boys could actually be up against it. Lee was also adept at basing events on actual historical fact, which contributed a veneer of believability, and while the rank-and-file German grunts were usually just stupid, the Nazis in command were hissably evil (not that they didn't do a good job of that in real life). So much that when Fury took them down, the readers cheered and overlooked the more hard-to-swallow aspects of it.
Another plus for Sgt. Fury was the feeling of comradery between the Howlers. The regular cast of Easy Company most often came across as just props to move the story along, or sometimes acted as a Greek chorus. But the Howlers had personality. They carried on like a true bunch of buds, and not a little of that came from the humorous wordplay. While the boys of Easy Company might occasionally do some mild kidding, the Howlers were downright funny, thanks to Stan Lee's arch sense of dialogue.
If there was any moral to an early Sgt. Fury tale, it was that Nazis were bad and loutish, Americans were good and decent, and the good guys always beat the bad guys.
If you were a comics fan in the early years of the 1960's, it wasn't hard to distinguish between DC's and Marvel's approach to World War II and make one's choice accordingly. Some readers could appreciate both styles and read both Rock and Fury, but mostly, people preferred one or the other. Pretty soon, though, that choice became harder.
DC had been in the war-comic business a lot longer than Marvel, and Robert Kanigher not only oversaw Our Army at War, but other, similar series---G. I. Combat, Star-Spangled War Stories, and Our Fighting Forces. With so many years of so many war tales, it probably was bound to happen, but Kangiher's plots lapsed into a set formula, one of a three-act play. It usually went something like this: a new soldier would join Easy Company, a newbie with an ambition (to win a medal), or a hobby (drawing comic strips), or a bad character trait (collecting war souvenirs). In act one, the New Guy's quirk would endanger Easy Company, and Sergeant Rock would chide him for it. In act two, again, the same thing, only worse, and Rock would smack the New Guy down hard. But, act three always ended in one of two ways: either the New Guy would learn for himself that what he was doing was a bad thing and cast it off just in time to save Easy Company; or that very thing he did would prove to save the rest of the company's bacon, and Rock would decide that maybe trying to win a medal or drawing comics or collecting souvenirs wasn't such a bad thing after all. As often as not, the New Guy would get killed in the end, driving the revelation home.
Sometimes, Kanigher would put a twist on it. Instead, it might be something personal, such as Rock trying to return a dead German soldier's wallet to his widow or searching for the one-armed Nazi tank commander that slaughtered some Easy rookies, but again the pattern of three would assert itself. The first two times, something would thwart Rock's goal, but he would achieve it on his third try.
It was a pattern as relentless as a drum beat. Boom. Boom. BOOM! And, after awhile, just as annoying.
And if you liked continuity, forget it. There was none in a Sergeant Rock story. Company commanders changed with every story. Soldiers died saving the whole unit, earning stirring we'll-never-forget-him speeches from Rock, and then were never mentioned, again. Rock or one of the Easy regulars could be critically wounded in this month's issue and be right back in action the next month, without even a band-aid. Not that it had to be a soap opera, but there was little sense of an on-going narrative, either.
Any given Sergeant Rock story, taken alone, was usually a commendable effort, telling of the reality of war. But the series taken as a whole, with stale pattern in place and no real continuity between stories, began to feel rather artificial.
Sgt. Fury, though, had begun to evolve. It started with quite a shock. At the climax of "Lord Haw Haw's Last Laugh", from issue # 4 (Nov., 1963), Howler Junior Juniper was killed in action. This was a stunner. Silver-Age comics fans had never experienced the death of a prominent regular character before. Moreover, Junior's death was not a moment of spectacular sacrifice, noblely giving his life to save his buddies or a town full of people he didn't know. No, the youngest Howler died the way most soldiers do in wartime, simply by happening to be in the way of a bullet. It could have been the guy standing next to him---but it wasn't.
This started a ripple of realism running through the series, one that slowly gained in effect. Junior was not forgotten by the next issue. Occasionally, the Howlers would mention him, usually bringing the grim reminder that any one of them could be next. That thought occurred to regular Sgt. Fury readers, too. They were now aware that none of the characters were exempt from death. The stories themselves continued to be romp-ish, but Junior's death had added a sense of unease.
Nearly two years later, Lee followed up with another blow, killing off Pamela Hawley, Fury's on-going love interest. Once again, it was a thing not forgotten. Memories of Pam and the tragedy of her death would revisit Fury over the course of his life right up to the modern day. This really marked the end of the "fightning Nazis is fun, isn't it?" attitude in the series. The Howlers were still the Howlers, pretty much tough to beat under any circumstances. But the wisecracks were more subdued; the war had turned serious. Plots began to expand, to explore the effects of Nazi oppression on its victims, depicting the quiet heroism of ordinary people. And, sometimes, their selfish baseness, too.
This change in theme was continued by Roy Thomas, after he replaced Lee as the series writer in 1966. Germans were no longer caracaturised as evil leaders and doltish thugs. Not all of Thomas' Germans were supporters of Hitler and some deckplate German soldiers were shown to be acting out of a sense of patriotism, just as American soldiers were. Fury and his men began treating the war as a grim necessity, rather than a grand adventure.
Fury was beginning to channel Sergeant Rock and was doing it better, now that the Rock series was becoming shopworn. When it came to showing the human interest side of warfare, nobody did it better than writer Gary Friedrich, who took over the Sgt. Fury title in mid-1967. Friedrich left his mark on the series with what became known as his "The __________" stories. "The War Lover" examined the actions of a kill-crazy G.I. and forced the readers to draw a line between justified killing in combat and what is, even in war, murder. "The Medic" presented the conflict between a soldier's duty to country and a healer's obligation to the suffering. "The Peacemaker" showed how someone may be blinded by his own ideals, while "The Assassin" went the other way, telling of a man who ignored his principles at the cost of his family and, ultimately, his humanity. "The Deserter," roughly based on the real-life case of Private Eddie Slovak, studied the nature of cowardice and debated how much bravery can be expected of a man.
By the end of the Silver Age, the difference in attitude between the two titles had narrowed. Sgt. Fury had matured into a more realistic, thought-provoking series. So why did it run out of steam in the 1970's, switching to every-other-issue reprints until its cancellation in 1974, while, stale or not, Sgt. Rock rolled right along, not ending until 1988? I'll leave that question to the Bronze-Age mavens out there.