By Andrew A. Smith
Scripps Howard News Service
Two graphic novels set in the past jumped out at me recently, and when I checked the credits I knew exactly why they were so good.
The first is Fury Volume 1: My War Gone By (Marvel, $21.99), starring Nick Fury – not the one in the Avengers movie, but the original (white) one, who fought as a commando in World War II and Korea (See: Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos), was a CIA spy in the Cold War and was the long-running second director of S.H.I.E.L.D. (the first one having been assassinated nearly immediately).
If you’re wondering how one character can have done all that, it’s because Fury is virtually immortal, having been exposed to something called “The Infinity Formula” in one of his many adventures. Nobody really waves that idea around as a “super power” or anything; Fury’s just a constant in the Marvel Universe without anybody ever asking why, or ever knowing where he is or what he’s doing or why he’s doing it. He’s the ghost in the machine at Marvel and a potential (and dangerous) guest star in any book from Avengers to X-Men – which is kind of cool, really.
Oh, and in case you’re wondering, he has a black son also named “Nick Fury,” who has taken his place at S.H.I.E.L.D. to bring the comic books in line with Marvel movies, where Fury is famously portrayed by Samuel L. Jackson. But the white one is still around, with that juicy back story just sitting around waiting to be explored.
Which is exactly what fan-favorite writer Garth Ennis has done, in an adults-only series called Fury MAX. Ennis is the perfect guy for this; he has a real knack for re-creating the world of the ‘40s, as evidenced by previous triumphs such as War Story for DC and Battlefields for Dynamite. He’s famous for disliking superheroes, and for gritty fare such as a well-received run on The Punisher for Marvel that was essentially the basis for the Punisher movies. I didn’t just love those projects; I absorbed them through my pores.
Which is why Fury MAX is so exciting, because it’s to my mind Ennis’ best work yet. My War Gone By collects the first six issues, the first three set in Vietnam around the time of Dien Bien Phu (look it up if you don’t know) and the second three in Cuba during the Bay of Pigs fiasco.
To my relief, Fury is no superman in these stories; in fact, he’s almost incidental and gets banged around quite a bit, surviving for the most part due to luck. Instead, it’s history that’s the story, and these two black eyes in America’s past are something not often covered in high school.
Ennis is ably abetted by artist Gorlan Parlov, who depicts the mud and blood of the battlefield in as gritty a fashion as I’ve ever seen it. There’s only one more volume in the Fury MAX series to come, but I’m salivating in anticipation – and boning up in my early 1960s history.
The second book is The Shadow Volume One: The Fire of Creation (Dynamite, $19.99), starring the famed avenger of pulp and radio, in a 1930s story that begins in New York but very quickly moves to occupied China. This serves a triple purpose: It puts The Shadow at the beginning of World War II (when Japan invaded Manchuria in 1931), it puts a spotlight on the origin of The Shadow (he entered a mysterious Tibetan cult in the 1920s as soldier of fortune Kent Allard, but emerged as – something else) and it gives us the search for Uranium 235 (necessary for atomic bombs) as a Macguffin for all parties to chase.
And wouldn’t you know it, Fire of Creation is written by Garth Ennis. Now, don’t write my opinion off as simple fanboy love; there’s a lot of Ennis’ work I don’t particularly care for. Like, just about anything set in the modern day. Both Preacher and Hitman – famous books that others love – left me a little cold. But I don’t know of anyone who writes a more convincing World War II atmosphere; Ennis re-creates the era with such attention to detail and such amazing familiarity it feels a little like time travel.
Plus, it’s The Shadow the way he’s meant to be. Listen, kiddies, the pulp heroes weren’t your daddy’s superhero! They were a bloodthirsty and murderous lot that make Batman look like a wimp! And the king of them all is The Shadow, who at times seems a bit more than human with his abilities to “cloud men’s minds” and out-think his foes – but he also seems a bit less than human in how he revels in slaughtering his enemies, especially close up with his twin .45s.
Fire of Creation hints at the reasons for all this by alluding to The Shadow’s origins, without completely revealing all. And that’s all for the best, as it preserves the crime noir atmosphere that Ennis is a master at creating and which artist Aaron Campbell portrays very well.
I don’t often gush, but I will on these two Ennis outings. I read both of them at a sitting, unwilling to leave the worlds he had so meticulously re-created. And I still want to go back to them! These are stories the comics medium was made for, in the hands of some people who know how to use it.
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