Sometimes I think it’s fashionable to question the writing skill of Stan Lee. Many want to credit him for his marketing and promotional skills, but not his writing. We all know that The Fantastic Four changed the comics industry. But often the credit goes to Lee’s co-creators and not Lee. But for me, I have often argued that Lee was someone who was creative and artistic and partnered with other fantastic creatives to make great things.
Marvel Masterworks Presents Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos, Volume 1 collects the first thirteen issues of the 1960s comic written by Stan Lee with art by Jack Kirby and Dick Ayers. The stories depict the fictional United States Army Commando Nick Fury and his band of seven Howling Commandos. They are sent on secret missions in the European Theater of Operations, once to the Pacific. The missions are generally the same, something fantastical for non-superheroes to complete. And generally, Fury and his Howlers win the day (okay there are more volumes) through teamwork and fierce dedication to duty.
The stories are as good as any military action movie not based on a true story. Lee deals head-on with issues of class and race which were prevalent in the discourse of the 1960s. He does not hide from it but instead gives a very traditional conservative military landscape for these issues to be played out. And in the heat of battle, as one would expect, right often wins out. And while Kirby may have framed the action, we cannot forget that these messages were scripted with words given by Lee and are very consistent with his other writings on social issues.
There is a reality to this writing. This is a war story, not a superhero one. And yes, Captain America and Bucky do make a co-starring appearance. Yes, Baron Strucker is a villain, but he is one on par with Sargent Fury, not Captain America or future Agent Nick Fury. This volume reminds us that while Marvel is known for superheroes, we cannot forget comics including multiple genres including military, horror, and romance, formats that Lee, Kirby, and Ayers were all familiar with. A constant complaint about comic stories is that they often lack weight. If you are not Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben, you can be killed and return again. But here, characters are killed, and we know they have passed. As a reader, you can feel the grief. Lee and his artists crafted tales they felt were real.
I have an unpopular opinion. Jack Kirby draws really ugly people. Often in comic books, this doesn’t work for me because superheroes are well pretty. Kirby’s art works perfectly here. This Fury is ugly. He is a dogface, unpretty, and not yet Marvel’s super spy. Dino Manelli, the pretty boy in the group and former actor, looks very different from the gruff squad leader. And of course fan favorite Dum Dum Dugan looks differently than both of them. Kirby’s art works perfectly for me, and Ayers when he picks it up matches pencil to pencil. They created a group of separate models that differ and do not merge.
I’d say don’t sleep on Marvel Masterworks Presents Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos, Volume 1. I found a kindle version for less than a dollar. Kindle Marvel collections often are put on deep discounts. Lee, Kirby, and Ayers were all veterans of World War II and clearly were passionate about telling the story of Fury and his men, giving it more realism than one expects from a Marvel title. The collection also reminds us why Lee and Kirby really were the masters of their industry, especially when collaborating together.
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