The “spin-off” is a peculiar feature of fiction. It isn’t birthed from creative inspiration, except indirectly. The spin-off is designed to commercially exploit a supporting character who turns out to be more popular than expected. The reasoning goes, if “X” character is so popular, then if we give him his own venue, his fans will follow.
Thus, The Andy Griffith Show led to Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C., and All in the Family begat Maude and The Jeffersons. And Gloria. Well, they can’t all be winners---and many times, the spun-off property is not. In fact, the deck is stacked against a successful spin-off. Often, the spun-off character only clicks when he plays off the main character in the parent work and he isn’t strong enough to carry the load himself.
Sometimes, in order to fit the spin-off character into a lead rôle, the writers tinker too much with the basic concept of the character and erase the very qualities which made him appealing to the audience. Another trap is throwing the spun-off lead into a format completely at odds with his established persona, resulting in a premise too absurd for the audience to accept.
Keep those in mind, folks. We’ll be coming back to them further down the page.
Spin-off aren’t unique to television. You’ll find the practice employed in other media. Comic strips, for one. Wash Tubbs met two-fisted adventurer Captain Easy in a foreign prison in 1929, and by 1933, Easy had his own strip---Captain Easy, Soldier of Fortune. (Eventually, creator Roy Crane finally gave up trying to keep Tubbs from being eclipsed by Easy in the parent strip, Wash Tubbs, and just combined to the two series.) Another case in point: over in Buz Sawyer, Sawyer’s comedy-relief sidekick, Roscoe Sweeney, soon received with his own strip.
And then there’s comic books. No flies on those editors, either. In the 1950’s, the suits at National Periodical (DC) capitalised on the popularity of its cash cow, Superman, after he was raised to new heights by the television series starring George Reeves. Thus, two of the Man of Steel’s supporting characters were spun-off into their own titles---Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen and Superman’s Girl Friend, Lois Lane. And in 1964, after four years of loyal service as a recurring character in The Flash, the Elongated Man was rewarded with his own back-up series in Detective Comics.
On the Marvel Comics side of the street, Stan Lee created The Fantastic Four in 1961. Within a year, he gave the FF’s junior member, the Human Torch, his shot at individual stardom---by giving him his own series in Strange Tales.
DC tended to analyse sales figures and do market research before launching a character in his own title. For decades, DC had been the heavyweight of the comics-publishing industry. With a solid customer base, it could afford the luxury of such things as Showcase, a title devoted to testing characters, to see if they were popular enough to carry their own series.
Marvel Comics, on the other hand, didn’t have time to waste; Stan Lee was out to grab every reader he could, as fast as he could. So, if a series proved successful, he would make an intuitive leap, finger one of the series’ supporting cast as a draw, and promote him. And sometimes, Stan’s intuition could be off, which is why the Human Torch’s series in Strange Tales sputtered and died, even after the Thing was thrown in to try and bolster sales.
The Marvel war comic Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos was the result of a wager between Stan Lee and Marvel publisher Martin Goodman. Lee bet that he could take the worst title imaginable and with his writing and Jack Kirby’s art, it would sell.
Stan won the bet.
Billed as “the war mag for people who hate war mags”, Sgt. Fury was the most successful of Marvel’s non-super-hero output. Goodman and Lee kept that in mind when, in the late 1960’s, Marvel finally negotiated its way out of its contract with DC-controlled distributor, Independent News---which limited Marvel to eight monthly titles---and was able to sign on with Curtis Distribution.
With the restriction lifted, 1968 saw a wave of new Marvel titles hit the stands. Many of them were simply the result of cleaving old titles such as Strange Tales, Tales to Astonish, and Tales of Suspense in two. But in one case, a new title was born as a spin-off of the popular Sgt. Fury series: Captain Savage and His Leatherneck Raiders.
The character of “the Skipper” had been a minor player in the Sergeant Fury universe. The salty, bearded commander of the submarine USS Sea Wolf debuted in Sgt. Fury # 10 (Sep., 1964). He would return five more times, whenever Fury and his Howlers would need transportation to or from some overseas destination. It was this character that Stan Lee saw fit to spring off into his own title.
There had to be some changes, though. First, the Skipper was finally given a true name---Simon Savage---and promoted a step up in paygrade, to the rank of captain. And since his title was to be a virtual redux of Fury’s, Savage was taken out of his submarine and put in charge of a team of Marines operating in the South Pacific. Also tossed into the mix was Seaman “Blarney” Stone, a crewman occasionally seen on Sea Wolf. Given the distance between a very junior enlisted man and a senior officer of the line, Stone seemed to be unusually familiar with Savage on a personal basis. That was never explained, and it was one of the many things, as it turned out, badly needed to be.
Besides the two Navy men, Savage and Stone, the rest of the Leatherneck Raiders were Marines, right out of Hollywood central casting. There was Sergeant “Yaketty” Yates, the twenty-year lifer. Then you had Corporal Jacques LaRocque, matinee-idol handsome and an inveterate skirt-chaser. He was intended to be the Raiders’ version of Dino Manelli. Rounding out the squad were Private Jay Little Bear, an American Indian complete with mohawk haircut and the bow and arrows he took into battle, and Private Lee Baker, your basic non-descript character, who had been a teacher in civilian life.
Clearly, the Raiders were clones of the Howlers, distinguished by stereotype, even down to the fact that they all wore different headgear. The “hook” intended to differentiate Savage’s squad from Fury’s Howlers was that the Raiders were disrupted by the intra-service antagonism between the Navy men and the Marines. Much of the ill will came from hard-bitten Captain Savage and the equally tough-as-nails Sergeant Yates, often leading to disputes in the field, always won, of course, by Savage, by virtue of his superior rank.
Captain Savage and His Leatherneck Raiders # 1 (Jan., 1968) kicked off with a routine Howler-like mission to destroy a Japanese base on Tarawa, intended to introduce the Raiders to the readers. It ended with the Raiders meeting up with Sergeant Fury and his guys, to provide a sense of familiarity for their debut.
The next three issues, however, pulled out the stops. This three-parter depicted Savage and his men pitted against the crew of a “phantom submarine” that was sinking both Allied and Japanese ships. The Big Reveal of the story was that the agency behind the phantom sub-attacks was Hydra, the subversive organisation which gave so much grief to the modern-day Nick Fury in Strange Tales. This was not the only tie to Fury to come out of this saga. Here, the readers learnt the origin of Hydra (the first version of its origin, anyway) and who should turn out to be the Supreme Hydra? None other than old Fury foe, Baron Strucker.
It was as if Stan Lee and writer Gary Friedrich had no faith that the Raiders could stand on their own as characters, so they included as many references to Sgt. Fury as possible. For the Hydra story, Friedrich even tossed in a concurrent plot of a Japanese squad also sent to track down and destroy the phantom submarine. The Japanese team was composed of analogues to the individual Raiders. More accurately, it was a copy of a copy. The idea of a counterpart force on the enemy side had already been done in Sgt. Fury, with the Blitzkrig Squad, the German version of the Howling Commandos---which had been initially commanded by Baron Strucker.
Nevertheless, this was the high point for the series. Despite its derivative nature, the story succeeded on two fronts---in depicting the origin of Hydra in great detail (furthering the continuity of the Marvel universe) and in the plot twist which forced the Raiders and their Japanese counterparts to work together. The enemies-united-against-a-common-foe trope is an old fictional device, but the story pulled it off admirably.
The problem was, after hitting its peak so early, there was no place for the series to go but down. The next few Raiders stories were routine stuff that the Howlers did every month, and Friedrich still didn’t trust his new series enough to stop including ties to the title that birthed it. Issue # 5 (Aug., 1968) included occasional Sgt. Fury supporting character Rolfe Harrison, of the Australian Army. And in # 6 (Sep., 1968), Friedrich concluded a months-long Sgt. Fury sub-plot in which Howler Izzy Cohen had been held captive in a Japanese prison all that time. The Raiders rescued Izzy, leading to a lot of “our group is better than your group” sarcasm between the Howler and Savage’s men.
In the following issue, Friedrich dispensed with the Fury references, but included an even more prominent link to the Marvel mainstream---Marine Corps aviator Lieutenant Ben Grimm. Yes, that Ben Grimm, who had been established in Fantastic Four as having served in the Big One. Savage and his men are assigned to rescue him from a Japanese camp. (Rescuing P.O.W.’s was something which the Raiders did a lot over the brief course of their series.)
Issue # 8 (Nov., 1968) almost gets by with no Fury ties, until the last page, when it mentions that the events of that issue was preparatory training for an upcoming mission where the Raiders will work alongside the Howling Commandos.
Even to continuity mavens, the constant references to Sergeant Fury grew wearisome. It felt like Marvel was pushing too hard to convince the fans that Captain Savage was just like Sgt. Fury. When that was the last thing it needed to be.
Lee and Friedrich started tinkering with the basics. In issue # 9 (Dec., 1968), for reasons forced by an implausible plot permutation, Simon Savage shaves off his beard. The idea behind this was to make Savage appear more youthful, on the notion that teen-age readers would more identify with a hero who didn’t look so mature. Here, Lee underestimated the readership. Savage’s beard was one of the few things which made him distinctive as a war-comic hero, and fans wrote in, demanding that he get it back. (Eventually, he would.)
Also with this issue, the title would change to Captain Savage and His Battlefield Raiders, for reasons never elaborated upon.
Issue # 11 (Feb., 1969) brought the long-awaited joint Howler-Raider mission, which would conclude the following month, in Sgt. Fury # 64. Most notable, though, was that this first half featured the death of a Raider. Obviously, Friedrich was hoping for the same kind of emotional resonance that resulted when Howler Junior Juniper was killed. In fact, the script even has Fury's men comparing it to Junior’s death. However, given the fact that the doomed Raider had been the one given the least development over the course of the series, his death didn’t have the impact hoped for. (Let’s see . . . the antagonistic sergeant, a romance-driven Frenchman, a doughty Irishman, a noble Indian warrior, and a generic white guy with no distinctive personality . . . gee, I wonder who gets it?)
The title was bombing, and Stan, probably embarrassed that he couldn’t duplicate his earlier feat of making Sgt. Fury a success, tried to save it.
In issue 13 (Apr., 1969), Arnold Drake replaced Gary Friedrich as writer. That brought a marked improvement in the scripts. Primarily due to Drake’s strength with dialogue, the characterisation improved. There was no more “Navy versus Marine” nonsense, and the Raiders’ interaction seemed more natural and believable.
On the down side, Drake’s stories seemed to completely ignore the fact that there had ever been any Captain Savage stories before he took over. He stepped all over continuity, especially in issue # 14 (May, 1969). Supposedly presenting Savage’s first mission with the Raiders, this story was rife with continuity errors. It was set in 1942, when the earlier Sgt. Fury tales had established that Savage was still a sub skipper ferrying the Howlers around at that time. It showed Savage as clean-shaven, when he should have had his full beard, and it didn’t include the Raider who was killed back in issue # 11. You better believe Captain Savage fans---the ones that were left---let Marvel hear about this.
It was enough, I guess; after only two more issues, Drake was gone and Gary Friedrich was back as writer. A couple of stories later---# 18 (Jan., 1970)---Friedrich laid the seeds for what was going to be a sea change for the series. While on yet another mission to rescue a big wig from a Japanese prison, we discover something about Captain Savage that made him stand out from most comic-book World War II heroes---he’s married and has two children. Unfortunately, the reason we learn this is because he has received a letter from the missus, informing him that she is seeking a divorce. She can no longer stand the waiting for him, not knowing if he’s alive or dead.
It was an attempt to revive interest in the series by saddling the hero with some classic Marvel-style emotional conflict. But it unwittingly created an unpleasant situation that even fans who generally didn't care about continuity couldn't ignore. You see, during Friedrich’s first run on the title, Savage had been shown heartily enjoying female companionship during his off-duty time, including one particularly amorous interlude with a Navy nurse named Michelle.
To establish now that Savage was married turned him into an adulterer. Never mind that such things occurred regularly with real G.I.’s during World War II; cheating on one’s wife was too unsavory for a Silver-Age comic-book hero. Fortunately for Marvel, the Comics Code Authority missed it. Friedrich probably hoped the readers would, too.
The next issue shows most of the Raiders celebrating New Year’s Eve, as Captain Savage receives a letter from home informing him that the divorce is final. While Yates, Stone, and the rest guzzle suds and sing “Auld Lang Syne” (and that’s the last we see of them in the story), Savage persuades the brass to give him temporary command of his old sub, Sea Wolf, for a mission. What follows is a standard “Silent Service” tale of submarine versus surface ship. Most of the sub-plots are taken straight from Run Silent, Run Deep, while Savage anguishes over his personal loss.
Can you say “format change”? I’m sure you can. Friedrich plainly said so on the last page, when he asked the readers:
Should the Skipper return to his sea-faring shenanigans . . . or would you rather see him continue as leader of the block-bustin’ Battlefield Rangers? Let us know as soon as you can though . . . ‘cause if anyone can give Savage a helping hand in this turning point in his career . . . it has to be you!
Apparently, nobody cared enough, one way or the other, because there would be no issue # 20 of Captain Savage.
That wasn’t quite the end of the line for a couple of the characters. Private Jay Little Bear would be handed off to Marvel’s third try at a successful war mag, Combat Kelly and His Deadly Dozen. Although it is mentioned, it is never explained why he was no longer with the Raiders. In any event, Little Bear should have stayed where he was, for he is killed in the last issue of that title.
And we knew that Captain Savage survived World War II because he had made an appearance in the Howling Commandos’ Korean-War mission, in Sgt. Fury Annual # 1 (1965).
‘Way back in the introduction of this piece, I mentioned two missteps which would sink a spin-off attempt: too much alteration of the spun-off character; and placing the character in such an unlikely premise that it’s difficult for the fan to swallow. Captain Savage was tainted with both of these sins.
The Leatherneck Raiders were never more than Howler wanna-bes, as much as it pains me to say it, given that their leader was a Navy man. Plausibility was the first casualty. With any WWII comic-book series, one accepts certain things with a bit of salt; in the case of Sgt. Fury, in particular. But Captain Savage just took too many liberties from military SOP and common sense.
Let’s start with the way the supporting character of the Skipper was pushed and pulled beyond reason, even for comic books.
As presented in Sgt. Fury, he was the commanding officer of a submarine in the European theatre of operations. Suddenly, he’s detailed to lead a squad of Marines in the Pacific!
Captain Savage had been depicted as an exceptional sub commander; however, the skill sets required to successfully command a sub don't translate to the abilities needed to lead a squad of men in ground warfare. This is especially true in the case of a Marine squad, where any number of exceptional Marine Corps officers or non-coms would be much better trained and experienced in combat tactics, hand-to-hand combat, marksmanship, and reconnaissance.
It’s even problematic to suggest the excuse that Savage had commando training earlier in his career. As a submariner, Savage would have spent his career learning seamanship, command at sea, and, particularly, the intricacies of commanding a submarine (not something one masters in a day or two of study). That means coming up the ranks as a division officer, a department head, an executive officer, and then, finally command of his own. It’s an intensive career path and it commences as soon as the sub-bound officer receives his commission as an ensign. There is no gap to realistically insert commando training for Savage.
Even the series itself admitted this implausibility. In Captain Savage # 1, Sergeant Yates reflects, “Ain’t no ex-sub commander got the fightin’ know-how of a life-long Leatherneck!” And he’s right.
Then, as a Navy captain (equivalent to a Marine Corps colonel), Savage was much too senior to lead a squad. This would usually be the province of a senior enlisted man or, at most, a second or first lieutenant. Putting a Navy captain in charge of a squad would be like detailing me to lead the alpha working party.
I attribute this to the confusion most non-military types (and even some in-service members) have over the rank of “captain”. In the other services, a captain is a junior officer; in the Navy, he’s just under God. Gary Friedrich, as I recall, was not a veteran, so he might have easily made a mistake like this. Stan Lee should not have, though. Several readers wrote in to complain about the same thing, but their comments were brushed aside.
Even the artists were unclear on just what kind of captain Savage was. More than once was Savage depicted wearing the “two bars” rank of a Marine Corps captain, when he rightly should have been wearing the eagles of a Navy captain.
Now, let’s take the basic premise. Anyone with any degree of military experience can tell that the set-up is wonky.
In order to squeeze Navy man Savage into a Howler-like squad, the premise called for an “elite team” of Marine Corps and Navy personnel. Both are branches of the Department of the Navy, and joint efforts do occur---under a circumstance which makes more sense: amphibious landings.
But it’s inconceivable that there could be any logic in mixing the two branches into one attack squad. A team composed of members of a single service would have had more cohesion and less internal conflict as a unit. No motive, within the series, was ever offered for why Savage was assigned to ramrod a Marine squad. Consequently, common sense kept screaming to me that there should have been a Marine in charge.
Outside of needing to put the Skipper in the Sergeant Fury rôle, the other reason, most likely, that Captain Savage writer Gary Friedrich combined Navy men and Marines into a single unit was that he wanted to be able to mine conflict out of “Navy versus Marine Corps” antipathy.
I can’t give Friedrich a downcheck for this. In the modern services, any rivalry between Navy and Marine personnel comes in the form of good-natured jibes, and only immature swabbies and gyrenes express the kind of resentment that was on display in Captain Savage. However, during the time that the series was set, such antagonism was much more prevalent. So, as much as it galled me to read it, Friedrich was accurate on that point.
Still, it was the only twist in what was otherwise “Sergeant Fury and the Howlers in the South Pacific”. All the warping of believability to give the Skipper a star turn made it difficult to accept the Raiders’ adventures, even on the level of Sgt. Fury. As it was, the missions of the Leatherneck Raiders were simply more of the same old same-old, which Fury not only did first, but did better.