Deck Log Entry # 97 War-Horses of a Different Colour

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.

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Comment by Luke Blanchard on January 24, 2010 at 11:24am
Actually, US and Chinese forces fought directly in Korea.
Comment by Commander Benson on January 24, 2010 at 10:49am
" By the mid 60s, readers knew the Fury, Dugan, and the rest survived WWII, which must have taken the starch out of the Sgt. Fury series. Junior Juniper was held up as an example of 'anyone can die', but that was only true for a while; once we knew that the Howling Commandoes were alive in the 60s, they were obviously untouchable in stories set in the 40s. Anyone who died had to be a 'red shirt'."

You're absolutely correct, Mr. Dunbar. I didn't go into it because I thought it would take my article a bit too far afield, but establishing that the rest of the Howlers had survived World War II did, indeed, take the edge off of the series.

Stan Lee himself stated---I believe it was in a subsequent Sgt. Fury letter column---that showing the Howlers in Korea, in Sgt. Fury King Size Annual # 1 (1965), was a major mistake for that very reason. Yes, they got a great-selling annual out of it, but at the cost of diluting the dramatic tension in the parent series. Unlike with Junior, unlike with Pam Hawley, after that, a Sgt. Fury cover blurb of "In this issue, someone dies!" no longer signalled the possible death of a principal character.

All of the edginess that Junior's and Pam's deaths inserted into the series had been squandered away for the sake of one story.
Comment by John Dunbar on January 24, 2010 at 10:22am
Comment by Figserello on January 17, 2010 at 10:45pm

Or perhaps it was seen to be "uncool" to read Marvel war comics at the time, especially considering how much effort had been put in to make Marvel's readership seem like some sort of elitist club where stories that glorified anything about war were passé.

Considering that Sgt Fury and his etc were for years the only comics brought out by Marvel that dealt with recent historical wars at all, it's hard to see where this statement comes from.

And the Cold War was cool enough for Stan to use as a backdrop for a lot of his 60's work. (A very jingoistic, uncomplicated view of it too, rather than an elitist anti-war stance.)

If war in general couldn't have been too passe in this era, as Marvel called two of their biggest stories of the time The Avengers Defenders War, and The Kree-Skrull War.

Rather than a Marvel policy, it was probably the nightly news reports from Vietnam that put people off simplistic war stories.

Oh, I think I get Randy's point (Randy, correct me if I'm wrong). In the 1960s, Marvel (ok, Stan Lee) did go out of their way to make you feel you, the reader, were part of a special club - the Merry Marvel Marching society, the Bullpen Bulletins, Stan's soapbox, etc. - were all, consciously or not, designed to build brand loyalty. The close continuity between titles were part of this, as was the good natured needling of the competition. I felt this when I started reading comics in 1979 and through the early 80's - I felt that buying a DC mag was disloyal (thankfully I grew out of my Zombie phase).

So what does this have to do with Sgt. Fury? Well, yes, you are right, Stan mined the Cold War for characters and stories. And yes, the Avengers Defenders War, and the Kree-Skrull War were major storylines. But Sgt. Fury was set in WWII. The Cold War was not actually America at war - there were spies and proxy nations, sure, but the USA never met the USSR or China on a physical battlefield. The other two were storylines as I said, and not based on actual events in our world, so I disagree that the use of the word "war" indicates some sort of pro-war stance on Marvel's part.

Figs, you're not wrong that reports on Vietnam probably soured readers on Fury, but my opinion is that was only part of it. Peruse 60s Marvel stories and there are several instance of characters commenting on man's inhumanity to man and all that jazz. Commentary on the Cold War evolved from "we're good, they're bad", to the cause of freedom versus the cause of oppression, to those who want peace (us) versus warmongers (them). Look at the 60's Silver Surfer - perhaps Stan's most personal character - and the Surfer is the first, and biggest, emo kid of all time. Compared to that, Sgt Fury, fighting in a war from decades before, (and a war that had been glorified for about 20 years) was an anachronism. By the mid 60s, readers knew the Fury, Dugan, and the rest survived WWII, which must have taken the starch out of the Sgt. Fury series. Junior Juniper was held up as an example of "anyone can die", but that was only true for a while; once we knew that the Howling Commandoes were alive in the 60s, they were obviously untouchable in stories set in the 40s. Anyone who died had to be a "red shirt".
Comment by doc photo on January 20, 2010 at 8:40am
I have a vivid memory of standing at the drug store spinner rack staring at an issue of Sgt Fury and His Howling Commandos. It was my first exposure to the title and the cover depicted Fury, torn shirt and all, machine gun blazing, chasing a Nazi - possibly Hitler himself. The way Kirby drew gun fire I mistook it for a ray gun. This was all too much for my brain - I backed away from the rack with my DC comics in hand and headed to the cashier, wanting nothing to do with Sgt Fury or any of those weird Marvel comics.
Comment by Eric L. Sofer on January 20, 2010 at 7:46am
And one of the toughest choices in these books... Kubert vs Kirby! How the heck do you pick between THOSE two?

My additional comment is one that I heard through a friend of a friend, but sounds pretty true. If y'all cast your memories back to the Amalgam comics - the DC and Marvel "mash ups" of characters - you may recall a combination of Easy Company and the Howlin' Commandos in Mark Waid's Super-Soldier (Superman and Captain America.) The best one - which, sadly, never actually got mentioned on the pages - was the combo of Izzy Cohen and the Ice Cream Soldier.

Yes, Mark Waid actually created "Ice Cream" Cohen. I'm still laughing at the one.

Comment by ClarkKent_DC on January 18, 2010 at 7:21pm
"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."

* * * * *
"And I do remember that the bald-headed, bespectacled captain appeared frequently. I recall one exchange of dialogue where the skipper remarks to Rock, "What is the men's nickname for me---the Bald Eagle?" And Rock replies, "No, sir---the Eagle." (With a virtual wink to the readers.)"

I recall another exchange between Rock and the Skipper in which he asked Rock about those bandoliers: "Those belts are .50s -- the wrong caliber for your TG." Rock said he felt naked without them. It could be that Frank Redondo drew .50 caliber ammo where Russ Heath and Joe Kubert drew .30-06 ammo. In any event, the Skipper is right; neither .30-06 nor .50 caliber rounds would work in Rock's .45 caliber Thompson submachine gun.

So why did he wear them? I figured he was maybe doing Bulldozer a favor, as he carried a Browning water-cooled machine gun that did use .30 cal rounds. But, of course, the real reason is to make Rock stand out among a bunch of guys all dressed exactly alike in olive drab uniforms and helmets.
Comment by Jeff of Earth-J on January 18, 2010 at 11:36am
I enjoyed reading this article quite a bit, Commander. When I was younger, I didn’t particularly care for either Sgt. Rock or Sgt. Fury (or war comics in general for that matter), but these days I like them both, mostly for the reasons you highlighted in your comparison/contrast. I haven’t read much beyond DC’s Sgt. Rock Archives and Marvel’s Sgt. Fury Masterworks, but now you’ve got me eagerly anticipating future releases in each respective series.
Comment by doc photo on January 18, 2010 at 9:29am
Spot on analysis, Commander! Having an entire line of war comics was both an advantage and disadvantage for DC. With Easy Co.,The Haunted Tank, Johnny Cloud the Navajo Ace and of course The War That Time Forgot DC had a variety of "combat happy joes" to choose from and I always enjoyed the 80 Page Giants that collected stories from each of the different series. But, as you mentioned, each series eventually fell into a fairly rigid formula. Over at Marvel, other than a brief run of Captain Savage, the focus was entirely on the Howling Commandos. Early on my preference was for the more realistic DC fare, Fury being a bit over the top for my tastes. Still, the Friedrich, Ayers, Severin run on Sgt.Fury was as good as anything that had come from the competition. If I had to choose one company over the other in regards to war comics, my choice would be DC - I'm a sucker for Joe Kubert art. In my book, Kubert is the best war comics artist period. Even if the stories were a bit weak, Kuberts art saved the day.
Comment by Commander Benson on January 18, 2010 at 4:20am
"Marvel's product was probably more driven by what the writers wanted to do than DC's. (Before Shooter took over the company's editors and writers were largely the same people, while DC had a distinct editing staff.)"

An excellent point. In fact, as I recall, it was that "editor = writer" approach at Marvel that led to some of the more excessive flights of fantasy---some of them worked, most of the didn't---that Shooter reigned in when he became E-i-C. Having the yoke put on them led to resentment from a number of the writers. Boo hoo.

The fact that, while DC introduced the "young Turk" writers in the late '60's-early '70's, the editors were still from the "old guard" (except for Dick Giordano). Robert Kanigher probably nixed anything getting too near to a political statement in DC's military titles.
Comment by Luke Blanchard on January 18, 2010 at 4:02am
I'd note that Marvel likewise stopped producing new westerns and newsstand anthology horror comics, while DC stuck with them. Also, that DC persevered with other war series - The Haunted Tank, The Losers, The Unknown Soldier. I guess both companies produced comics in the 70s in a range of genres, but DC may have been more committed to this approach. Marvel's product was probably more driven by what the writers wanted to do than DC's. (Before Shooter took over the company's editors and writers were largely the same people, while DC had a distinct editing staff.)

Steve Englehart has written that he contributed to the scripts for Sgt. Fury #94 and #97.

Incidentally, for those who don't know, Marvel tried two new war titles in the 70s, Combat Kelly ("and his Dirty Dozen") in 1972-73, and War is Hell, which started off as a reprint title but ran new stories in 1974-75, in the second half of its run.


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