Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Nick Fury Goes Nuts.

Both the DC and Marvel war books more often than not gave us over-the-top action that bore little relationship to realism. But both publishers managed to hit some very effective and honest emotional notes all the same.

Perhaps one of the most effective gut-punches in this genre comes from Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos #112 (July 1973), with a script by Gary Friedrich and art by Dick Ayers. It starts us off in the middle of the story, in which we quickly learn that most of the Howling Commandos are dead, while Fury is being hunted through an African jungle by natives.

How did Fury get in this situation? We learn that in a flashback. In response to information that the Nazis are stirring up trouble in the Congo, the Howlers are sent in. The intention is to drop them into the region via parachute, but a sudden encounter with anti-aircraft fire brings them to earth much more abruptly.

The pilots and the rest of the Howlers are killed. Fury is the only survivor. And it's not a mistake on Fury's part--there are bodies for him to see. In fact, its only after he pulls Dum Dum Dugan out of the wreck that he realizes the big Irishman is dead.

The resurrection of supposedly dead comic book characters hadn't yet become quite the cliche it would become over the next few years, so this must have had quite an impact on readers. Especially older readers who remembered the deaths of Junior Juniper and Pamela Hawley. Howlers had died before. So the possibility of the bulk of the Howlers getting killed now would not have been shrugged off.

Anyway, the natives catch Fury and their leader turns out to be Baron Strucker. With Fury finally in his power, Strucker decides to play a Most Dangerous Game with his arch enemy, letting the American get a head start while armed with just a knife. Strucker then follows while armed with a long-range rifle and scope.


Fury manages to fake his death, but when he stumbles back across Dugan's grave, he breaks down in despair.

And then--all of a sudden--he's back in Strucker's camp, still a prisoner. The entire issue has been a drug-induced hallucination, leaving Fury angry and confused over what had really happened. Are his friends really dead or was it all just an illusion?

It's not often that the "It's all just a dream" cliche is actually used effectively. More often than not, it always comes across as a bit of a cop-out or Deus Ex Machina. What we have here is one of those rare occasions where it is used effectively and is dramatically appropriate. We ourselves still don't know if the Howlers are dead (though most readers at this point would guess they probably weren't). That the hallucinations were being used as a mental torture device by Strucker adds a lot of emotion to the story. We know that Fury is one of the toughest men in a Comic Book Universe full of tough men, but here we can really believe that Strucker has hit on a method to break his spirit.

Issue #113 was a reprint, which must have driven readers at the time up the wall. One of the best cliffhangers in recent history is followed by a reprint? Gee whiz, Marvel. It probably wasn't planned, but it must have seemed like Strucker was mentally torturing the readers has well.

Also, if you were reading the Marvel superhero books as well, you were processing the death of Gwen Stacy in Spider Man that exact same month!

Anyway, we get to Sgt. Fury #114 (September 1973) and immediately learn the Howlers are indeed alive. They've made it back to an Allied base, where they are having funeral services for Nick Fury. He thinks they are dead and they think he's dead.

We actually get two more flashbacks in short order. One in which we see the plane crash again, learning that the Howlers survived, but that they think Fury was killed when the plane exploded after the crash. Then another flashback shows us how Strucker's men sneaked an unconscious Fury out of the plane.

It might be argued that so many successive flashbacks (three, including the one in the first issue) is a flaw in the story construction. But I think it actually works to highlight the mental stress and confusion that pretty much all the good guys are operating under.

The Howlers return to the jungle to try and complete there mission. Fury, in the meantime, is being driven closer and closer to insanity by Strucker. When the Germans and their Congo native allies ambush the Howlers while the commandos are crossing a river, it seems like they are doomed. Their weapons are lost and the bad guys have them pinned down.

But Fury hears the battle, rips loose the straps holding him to a bed, takes out some guards and then--while duel-wielding Schmeisser submachine guns--drives off the bad guys.

But he's not doing this with a "gotta pull it together and save my friends" attitude. He's doing it because he has now gone over the edge and is operating in a mode of insane rage. When he sees the Howlers, he assumes that they are another hallucination. Not knowing what it real and what isn't, he just begs to be shot and put out of his misery.

I don't own issue #115 (which involves Nick being treated by a psychiatrist that the Howlers have to first rescue from the Germans), though I'm going to try to track down a copy and eventually review it. But these two issue are worth looking at on their own. Nick Fury's mental breakdown arguably represents Gary Friedrich's high point as a writer, delivering a series of emotional blows to the readers and creating a situation in which we believe and accept that Sgt. Fury--of all people--can be broken.

That's it for now. Next week, we'll return to our look at the Micronauts.

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