Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

If WW II were this easy, we’d have won it in 1942

When I signed up for the Marvel app to help with my Silver Age rereading, I discovered it included Sgt. Fury. Even though I wasn’t a fan, I added it to the list — if the app had Patsy Walker I’d be reading that too. By the time I started my app subscription I was reading 1965, but I finally found the time to look at an earlier issue: Sgt. Fury #5 in which the dauntless commando finds himself “At the Mercy of Baron Strucker!” I’ve always been curious to read Strucker’s debut, and there it was in digital form, so …

We open with Fury pushing his men to the limit: Ivy League-educated “Junior” Juniper bought the farm on the last mission and Fury’s not going to let it happen again (for the record, it was one of comics’ countless Well It Was Only Him not-so-tragic deaths. The loss of Fury’s girlfriend Pamela Hawley in #18 packed much more of a punch). Meanwhile, Hitler sends an envoy to Strucker, a deadly hand-to-hand combatant and commando leader (surprisingly his elite SS team, the Death’s Head Squadron, never appeared anywhere until a flashback story in 1990). Strucker’s new assignment is to score a propaganda victory by defeating the legendary Nick Fury man-to-man. Strucker is unimpressed—— but orders is orders. When Nick hears about it, he barges in on his CO, “Happy Sam” Sawyer, to arrange it.(There are a couple of scenes of a soldier cringing from Fury in terror this issue. They make him look less like a tough guy and more like a bully). Sawyer informs Nick that’s not how soldiering works in his army. Fury, undeterred, takes leave, then heads over to meet Strucker on one of the Nazi-occupied Channel Islands. It doesn’t go well because Strucker cheats, doping Fury’s toast before the match. Not that Strucker doubts he can win, but a Nazi never passes up any opportunity to have the upper hand.

As it turns out, it’s a smart move: even drugged, Fury almost wins. But he’s only human so the drug takes him down. The Nazis milk his defeat for all the propaganda it’s worth  and that’s a lot; Fury’s rep in the series seems roughly equal to Captain America’s. A furious Sawyer busts Nick down to private — not the first time, they note — and “Dum-Dum” Dugan takes charge of the Howlers. But not to worry: on their next mission, by complete coincidence, they run into Strucker again and they agree to a rematch. Strucker dopes Fury’s drink a second time but Dino Manelli, movie star turned commando, recognizes that trick from a couple of his adventure movies. Turns out that facing a clear-headed Fury, Strucker doesn’t stand a chance.This issue sums up why Sgt. Fury was crap. Not completely crap, because Kirby’s action sequences are dynamite (Dick Ayers wasn’t Kirby but he was competent), but mostly crap. There’s an old saying a hero is measured by his adversaries; what does it say that Fury’s archenemy couldn’t come close to holding his own in a fair fight? Heck, he can only just barely hold his own when Fury’s whacked out on knockout drops. Strucker later created the Blitzkrieg Squad as Nazi counterparts to the Howling Commandos and they looked like even bigger losers, clumsy lummoxes hopelessly outmatched by the Howlers.

And that’s the way Lee, Kirby and Ayers always wrote the Nazis. The Nazis constantly blather about the superiority of the master race, then turn into sniveling cowards whenever things get tight. For all the outstanding character work Lee did in the Silver Age, he writes Germans like the over-the-top mustache twirling Nazis of the Golden Age. It would have been more interesting dramatically if Strucker had insisted on fighting fair — he clearly doesn’t think losing to Fury a possibilit — and one of the other Nazis doped him anyway. Then Strucker would jump at his chance for victory when they meet again, only to get his ass handed to him.

While I tend to think of Sgt. Fury as modeled on bad WW II movies, even bad movies from WW II never treated the Axis as pushovers. They wouldn’t dare: Hollywood, like the rest of us, didn’t know for sure we’d win. Lots of filmgoers had lost friends or family, or worried they were going to; portraying the war as a cakewalk wouldn’t have gone over well. The government had a lot of say over what was shown overseas during the war and they’d have frowned on it: they wanted Americans to see the war was a serious struggle and not to expect a quick win (George Roeder’s The Censored War is one of several good books on this topic).

Writing long after the war, of course, Lee and his collaborators didn’t have to worry about that. And obviously they weren’t writing gritty realism. But thinking about that stuff could only have helped.

#SFWApro. Art by Kirby.


  1. Jeff Nettleton

    Sgt Fury was hardly “crap,” and was never intended to be realistic. Stan wanted to apply the same formula from the superhero books to everything; so, this was superhero commandos. Kirby hated the book; because, unlike Lee, he had actually been in combat. When he got to write his own war comics, at DC, with the Losers, the result was vastly superior and far more realistic (within the confines of being a DC war comic).

    Those early stories are nothing to write home about, for the most part, because Stan threw the nonsense in there. Kirby got off the book as soon as he could and Ayers took over. Roy Thomas raised the stories a bit during his tenure; but, the issues worth reading are the ones from Gary Friedrich, Ayers and John Severin. Those do no treat it ling some gung-ho fantasy. They aren’t at the level of Kurtzman & the EC artists, Kanigher & Kurbert (or Kanigher and Heath) or Will Franz & Sam Glanzman; but, they are pretty good stories.

    1. Clarifying, my problem is the writing of the enemy, not “unrealism” in general. Having Percy battle Nazis with an umbrella is silly but it doesn’t bug me the same way. Having a black guy in the unit I’m fine with, even though it’s not historically accurate.

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