Sunday, March 26, 2017

The Howlers - Court Martial!

In the seventh issue of Sgt. Fury and the Howling Commandos, the creative team of Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and George Roussos knock a comic which gives us a glimpse, a secret origin of sorts for the bombastic top kick of the Howlers.

Sergeant Nick Fury and his Howling Commandos are on a mission deep inside the European theater. They finally get to their rendezvous which it turns out is with an officer named Parker that Nick Fury knew in as a kid. But personal affiliations are put aside as the Howlers fall under his command and they prepare to attack a Nazi installation. At the last moment Fury objects and tries to stop the attack but the Parker is not listening and Fury has to punch him to stop the attack but a bomb drops and the entire team is blow up.

When Fury awakens days later they are back in London and he is accused of failing to follow orders and striking an officer and a court martial is planned. Standing in the way of his defense is that Fury is suffering from amnesia due to the blast. The trial begins and Captain Sam Sawyer gets Fury the best military attorney he can find. Nonetheless the charges seem pretty straightforward and Fury and his team see that he will at best be imprisoned if not shot for his actions. During the trial much is revealed about Fury's background, his boyhood as an orphan and rough and tumble upbringing in a tough part of New York City.  But at the last moment an enemy attack rocks the court room and Fury regains his memory and reveals that the Nazis had set up a trap for the team that night and his actions were to save everyone. He is returned to his post and he and Parker come to a friendly accord.

This story was interesting from a few perspectives, not the least of which was the insight it gave into our titular hero. But it also came across to me as a bit too pat, as it was evident from the get-go that there was some secret which informed Fury's behavior and would ultimately clear him of the charges. Why that information couldn't come forward within the chain of command is unanswered and a warrior of no small consideration is left dangling. The contrivance of the story hurts the effectiveness.

More to come.

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Saturday, March 25, 2017

The Howlers - Fangs Of The Fox!

The sixth issue of Sgt.Fury and the Howling Commandos brought the realities of war front and center when the fictional Howlers are ordered to capture Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, the notorious Nazi war leader dubbed "The Desert Fox". It's a potent story by Stan Lee with exquisite artwork by Jack Kirby and George Roussos (Bell). It's also a story which speaks directly to bigotry and racism, something comic books were only beginning to address in 1964.

The Howlers lose the services of Private Dino Manelli, their resident actor and fluent German speaker. His replacement is a name named Stoneman who comes across strangely when introduced to the Italian-American Manelli and the Jewish-American Izzy Cohen. But when he meets African-American Gabe Jones his bigoted attitudes erupt and he is put on notice by Nick Fury that such nonsense will not be tolerate inside the Howlers. The team, still smarting somewhat from the dust up head of to the deserts of North Africa complete their nearly impossible mission to capture the notorious Rommel. They find some help from local Arab nomads and eventually locate Rommel's camp. Against nearly impossible odds they sneak into Rommel's camp but the plan is upset when Stoneman's racism precludes him working with Cohen or Jones and he ends up creating a firefight. The Howlers escape with their lives barely and Stoneman is saved first by Izzy who carries him off the battlefield and later by Gabe when his rare blood is the only match for the racist soldier. The Howling Commandos are disappointed they failed in their mission but heartened when they learn that their mission had been cancelled soon after they left because it became known that Rommel was part of a secret plot to kill Hitler. The Howlers dismiss Stoneman quickly when they return to base but some clues indicate he might have learned something from his interaction with the team, but it's suggested that such bigotry takes time to recover from.

The forward thinking evident in this story was no inconsiderable improvement for a comic book industry which has a tough history with portraying race. Even the earliest issues of this comic itself foundered in regard to this as the debut issue actually failed to show Gabe as a black man on the interior, though this was corrected in reprints. But as it turns out it was the military which in the late 1940's under Harry Truman did lead the way to eventual desegregation throughout a reluctant nation with the an order to desegregate its own forces going forward. The team portrayed in Marvel's comic was not possible in the war itself. This country's greatest shame is its ongoing fundamental racism which continues to permeate the society in all sorts of ways even though its legal foundations have long been struck down. We can only hope books like Sgt. Fury helped in some small measure to lead the way.

More to come.

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Friday, March 24, 2017

The Losers - The Major's Dream!

Our Fighting Forces one hundred and sixty-one sports another Joe Kubert cover but again Jack Kirby is the man responsible for the story and art inside. D. Bruce Berry is back as inker.

"The Major's Dream" tells the story of Major Geoffrey Soames, a British officer who has seen some potent action in the Asian theater. He is assigned to help The Losers with some mapping of possible targets. Along with is loyal aid Sim he shows The Losers how to reach a particular temple where Soames had lost comrades before, and they are required to take shelter there when Japanese forces get too close. But this temple holds a deadly secret and that secret provides nightmares for Soames who dreams he is under attack by the deadly goddess Kali. As the enemy forces are eliminated by Allied bombing the Losers survive in the shelter of the temple,  but Soames loses control and weirdly makes his dream come true as the statue of Kali falls on him and kills him weirdly allowing him peace as he joins his men.

This story seems to be Kirby's response to the classic story of the noble Gunga Din as first imagined in poetry by Rudyard Kipling in late nineteenth century and later adapted to film by Hollywood in 1939. That yarn which tells the rousing story of three friends who fight with gusto and bravery seems almost to have been the story of Major Soames (who looks a bit like Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) and what we see in this Losers story is a more realistic portrayal of what the rigors of war might inflict.

More to come as Kirby's tenure on the title comes to a close.

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Thursday, March 23, 2017

The Losers - Ivan!

Joe Kubert takes over the cover art chores on Our Fighting Forces one hundred and sixty, but beneath that lush cover is another Jack Kirby effort, again inked by Mike Royer.

"Ivan" tells the story of a repulsive Hitler youth who cold-bloodedly kills those trying to escape the clutches of the Nazis. Ivan is a Nazi himself, someone who fully believes the tenants of the Nazi movement and who with the aid of his mother prey on those running from Hitler's forces by taking money to hide them but then turning them over anyway and even participating in their execution. Ivan is as ugly a character as I've run across in comics. The Losers have pretended to be Nazis and have infiltrated Ivan's town on a mission and discover Ivan's scheme. They free the refugees and help them to freedom while leaving Ivan and his odious mother to face Nazi justice in a firing squad.

This story is one of the more disturbing in this run, offering a portrait of a young sociopath who seeks the praise of a culture which promotes and celebrates murder. The depravity of the Nazi culture is well recorded, but in this story I found myself compelled to follow a young man who lies and cheats and kills and who seems to feel that this is the way a man lives, and the fact his mother is right there to assist makes it even creepier. The Hitler Youth ,a nightmare version of the Boy Scouts remains one of the truly frightening parts of a very frightening regime. And again we see that Kirby is able to present death in war with an emotional truth and power which often escaped comic book storytelling.

More to come.

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Wednesday, March 22, 2017

The Losers - Mile-A-Minute Jones!

In Our Fighting Forces one hundred and fifty-nine Jack Kirby and inker Mike Royer give us the story of Mile-A-Minute Jones, an African-American soldier who has to run a deadly race not only to survive but  to win a victory of sorts for his country. This is the final issue of the run which will feature a Jack Kirby cover. In fact Joe Kubert steps in to do all the covers for Kirby books this month and will continue to do with a few exceptions right through the end of Kirby's tenure.

The story begins with Henry "Mile-A-Minute" Jones attempting to elude Nazi soldiers who have attacked and largely wiped out his comrades. Using surprise and his speed he does manage to escape the Nazis, all save one named Bruno Borman who some years ago had been a runner and had competed against Jones himself at the Olympics in Berlin. The Losers show up and save Jones as they make their way into a town to capture a Nazi leader. While the Losers take their captive Borman escapes his bonds and races after them to warn a Nazi company some distance away. Jones sees him and tries to overtake him, and the two essentially recreated their race from years before but this time with life and death on the line. Borman given a head start wins, but as he leads the Nazis back to attack they run into a minefield and are destroyed. Jones had missed the mines because he followed a white line which showed the safe path through. So the Losers fly out with their captive and Jones as Borman's body lies on the battlefield.

The little fable here of Henry "Mile-A-Minute" Jones is of course inspired by the real life saga of Jesse Owens, the African-American Olympian who showed up Adolph Hitler in the 1936 games.

Owens famously won four gold medals in the Berlin games as a sprinter and long jumper, the first to do so and the most by any American until the 80's. The success of Owens put to lie the execrable nonsense about race superiority promoted by Hitler's noxious and properly defunct regime.

Kirby does a pretty good job here of recreating a contest and pits two old competitors against one another, this time for all the marbles.

More to come.

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Tuesday, March 21, 2017

The Losers - Bombing Out On The Panama Canal!

The Losers return in the one hundred and fifty-eighth issue of Our Fighting Forces and Jack Kirby's story (inked by Mike Royer) picks up right where we left it last time with the Losers facing imminent death by firing squad.

A hidden cell of Japanese soldiers have hidden a bomber in the interior of Panama and now are planning to bomb the crucial Panama Canal. Meanwhile The Losers are about to be shot by Panama Fattie's henchmen but at the last moment they find a way to start a fight which frustrates the plan. After a terrific battle in which Fattie refuses to shoot Captain Storm, a man she has fallen for on first sight, the Losers gather up the hoods and then chase down Fattie's truck as she heads off into the jungle and she refuses to drive down Captain Storm. She drives to the secret Japanese compound and the Losers follow her. In the final shoot out she is killed but enemy plane is stopped and the Panama Canal is safe.

As it turns out the Japanese did indeed have plans to destroy the Panama Canal. It involved an enormous submarine named the Sen-Toku which could potentially launch aircraft. To read more about that unsuccessful plane read this.  It's a plan which in pure concept is even zanier than the scheme outlined by Kirby in this colorful yarn.

More to come.

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Monday, March 20, 2017

The Losers - Panama Fattie!

the one hundred and fifty-seventh issue of Our Fighting Forces by Jack "King" Kirby is the only two-part story in his often overlooked run on The Losers.

"Panama Fattie" begins right where you think it might in the country of Panama, specifically the crucial Panama Canal which is vital to the U.S. and its prosecution of the war in the Pacific. We meet a rotund smuggler named "Panama Fattie" who is the head of a gang of hoods who it turns out work for the highest bidder, this time that happens to be the Japanese government. The Losers are attached to the Navy and sent to investigate the smuggling and undercover as sailors are waylaid by Fattie's men. A ferocius fight ensues but unexpectantly Fattie grows fond of Captain Storm before she reveals her role as leader of the gangsters. Despite Fattie's affections the Losers seem destined to die by firing squad as the story closes.

Kirby always seems to find a way to work gangsters into all his series and given its historical nature The Losers would be a relatively easy mileau to introduce such concepts. Putting the gangsters in Panama is a neat twist and continues the wide-ranging world hopping The Losers are accustomed to. While it's easy at this distance to imagine that everyone in the western world was a loyal supporter of the war effort, it doesn't take much awareness of human nature to know that there will always be types who seek to make hay off the suffering of others. Profiteers exist in every war and usually are the characters who will never themselves take up a gun in defense of their country.

More to come as we find out more about the threat to the Panama Canal next time.

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