Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Last Stands and Cowardly Captains

Sgt Fury and the Howling Commandos was created when Stan Lee bet publisher Martin Goodman that he and Jack Kirby could create a successful book even if it was given the worst title imaginable. He was right--Sgt. Fury ran for nearly 20 years and also led to the creation of SHIELD. Without the Howling Commandos, we wouldn't have helicarriers--which would make the world a much poorer place indeed.

Marvel Comics seems to have gotten stuck on the idea that their World War II books needed to have long, cumbersome (though undeniably awesome-sounding) titles, though no other book had the success that the Howlers enjoyed. Captain Savage and his Leatherneck Raiders (later changed to Battlefield Raiders) had a 19-issue run starting in 1968. In 1972, Combat Kelly and the Deadly Dozen began a 9 issue run.

Combat Kelly is an interesting book. Most of the Dozen were introduced in Sgt. Fury #98 (May 1972), when Fury's second-in-command, Dum Dum Dugan, was given command of his own unit. When Combat Kelly premiered a month later, though, Dugan was sent back to the Howlers and we meet Corporal Kelly.

The premise (and title) were rather shamelessly lifted from the 1967 movie The Dirty Dozen.  Kelly was an ex-con, a boxer who had been convicted of manslaughter after killing a man in the ring. Most of the dozen had been recruited from prison as well.

The book was created by Gary Friedrich and artist Dick Ayers, who were also handling Sgt. Fury at the time. I really admire Friedrich's work. His dialogue was consistently overwrought, but he handled the themes and emotions of war with intelligence and compassion. He did great stories about cowardice, loyalty, honor, courage, and the tragedy of war balanced against the necessity of confronting evil.

He delved into these themes in Combat Kelly as well. One interesting aspect of the book was that the regular characters were not immune to death. By the time the book was cancelled, most of the original dozen were dead. (I've always wondered what the future plans for the book would have been if it had been commercially successful.)

Combat Kelly #3 (October 1972) consists mostly of a flashback filling in Kelly's back story. It also sets up a two-part crossover between Kelly and Fury's respective books. Kelly and his men are on the front lines, attached to an infantry company that's about to be overrun by a larger German force.

I'm philosophically opposed to crossovers that force readers to buy something they don't normally buy, but there's no denying the quality of the ensuing story. The tale picks up again in Sgt. Fury #104 (November 1972) and concludes a month later in Combat Kelly #4. Kelly has called for help and Fury answers the radio. Soon, the Howlers are on their way to the front as reinforcements.

But there's trouble afoot in the form of Captain Conner, the scion of a military family who is in charge of the
company. Incompetent and on the edge of panic, he makes a series of bad decisions that place his men in grave danger.

It's an interesting problem for Fury and Kelly. As soldiers, they are obligated to obey an officer whether they agree with him or not. But as veteran soldiers who know what they are doing, they recognize that Conner is going to get them all killed.

It's a honest dilemma. A military force simply cannot operate without a definable chain-of-command. But if one link of that chain is dangerously incompetent, then where does a soldier's duty lie? At what point, if ever, can he refuse to obey an order?

Fury's dilemma is sort of solved when Conner panics completely and becomes a blubbering wreck. Sending him to the rear, escorted by two of the Deadly Dozen, Fury takes command and uses a "don't fire until you see the whites of their eyes" tactic to win the battle.

But in the meantime, the two soldiers with Conner are shot by snipers. Conner, now completely mad, abandons a wounded man and returns to the front with the intention of executing Fury and Kelly for mutiny. Only a rifle shot from the dying soldier saves them.

But that's not the end of it. The general arrives on the scene and assumes that Conner was responsible for the victory. He gives Conner a posthumous medal and gives a speech about how proud the Conner family will be. Kelly wants to object to this, but Fury stops him. It doesn't matter, Fury says. They know the truth and that's what's important.

It's a great story, full of strong action backed by an equally strong story. Like many war comics of the time, the action and dialogue are often over the top--running on Rule of Cool rather than realism. But Friedrich and Ayers (like Lee and Kirby before them) infused Sgt Fury and Combat Kelly with real emotion and some honest-to-goodness humanity.

Facebook Group: DC and Marvel World War II-Themed Comic Books


  1. I agree. Combat Kelly issues 3 & 4 along with SGT Fury # 104 makes a powerful and realistic war story which is similar to the war Movie "Attack" that starred Jack Palance and Eddie Albert. That story takes place in war torn Europe with the story of a cowardly company captain who jeopardises the lives of his men in combat.

    1. I'm familar with Attack, though I haven't seen it in years. It's a great comparison--the themes are very similar. I'm going to have to review Attack for the blog soon.


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