Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Unearthed: Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos #117

Today being Remembrance Day, I want to look at one of my personal favourite military comic books. The subject for today is Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos #117, from 1974. Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos was, of course, the comic book which introduced the world to Nick Fury, who is better-known today for being the head of S.H.I.E.L.D. Stan Lee famously claimed he titled the book "Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos" to settle a bet that he could publish anything and make it a success, but that's probably a tall tale he came up with after the fact to "apologize" for coming up with that title.

The story in #117 is titled "Taps for a Drummer!" and is written by Gerry Conway with artist Dick Ayers and inker Vince Colletta. Although Ayers had been a part of nearly all of the series run, Conway wrote only a handful of issues. Indeed, while the series would trudge on to 1981's #167, issue #120 would be the last all-new story. Even at this time, the series was frequently pre-empted by reprints.

As the story opens, Nick is running the Howlers through an obstacle course and heaps more abuse on them than usual, even performing a barracks inspection. The squad thinks this is related to his recent capture and torture at the hands of Baron Strucker but that piece of continuity will have to be forgotten as Fury and Gabe Jones are summoned to see Captain Sam Sawyer. Sawyer tells the duo about a soldier who was recently captured by the Nazis and prepared to serve as a test subject for a new viral weapon. However, that soldier escaped with a sample of the virus when Allied bombing hit the Nazi base.

Sawyer then reveals the reason Gabe is part of this briefing: the soldier in question is Danny "Drummer" Belllaman, an old friend of Gabe's who used to perform with him in a Harlem nightclub (Gabe on trumpet, Drummer on drums, natch). Sawyer wants to ensure Drummer and the vial are returned safely to Allied hands and is counting on Gabe to use his connection to Drummer to help guess where he's headed. Intelligence has already pinpointed Drummer as being in London - but he hasn't approached the Allies because he's afraid if he gives them the vial, they'll use it as a weapon themselves. Thus, Gabe's friendship will also help convince Drummer to trust them.

Drummer wanders the cold streets of London and begins to reminisce about his past, but ends his introspection by musing: "Can't worry about the past. It's today that means something... and it's tomorrow that counts! That's what they taught you, Drummer. That's what they made you learn." Nick and Gabe ask around for Drummer and eventually learn he was in a club playing the drums. Unfortunately, there are two Nazi agents also in pursuit and they reach Drummer first, opening fire at him in an alleyway. Fortunately, Nick & Gabe aren't too far behind and they battle the agents while Drummer hides amongst some ruined buildings. Drummer is surprised to see childern playing amidst the rubble, life carrying on normally in spite of the war.

Gabe finally reaches Drummer to help him, but Drummer replies, "It's time I did something for number one... and brother, that's me." The fight with the Nazis causes some of the rubble to collapse but Drummer leaps into action to save the children's lives. The collapse separates both Nick & Gabe and the Nazis from Drummer. Gabe explains to Nick that Drummer is someone who was beaten down by failure all his life, which is why his priorities have suddenly shifted. Drummer brings the children he saved back to their parents and muses over the event. "Maybe that's what it's all about... helpin' a pair'a kids... helpin' a lot of kids... If something like this virus ever belonged to either side, some kids would have to die... and the way I feel right now... I can't let that happen... and there's only one way I can stop it-- by getting rid of this junk for good!" So saying, he drinks the vial's contents.

Drummer is soon found by the Nazis, but when they demand the vial he tells them he drank it. Unfazed, they declare they'll haul his corpse back to Berlin with them and recreate the virus from his remains. Nick & Gabe arrive again and Gabe uses the blare of his trumpet to temporarily rattle the Nazis. As they scuffle, even Drummer helps out, shooting one of the agents before he can kill Nick. However, Drummer informs them what he did. "Maybe I haven't proved anything, Gabe... 'cept this: all my life people've been forcing choices on me-- but this was one choice... I made myself! Gabe-- buddy-- the pain's getting bad. Will you help me--- this one last time?" With a tear in his eye, Gabe delivers a mercy kill to Drummer.

Thoughts: This issue was my introduction to the Sgt. Fury series and it made quite a favorable impression. Although Ayers' art looks very crude (not helped in the least by Colletta's sparse inks), Conway delivered a very strong script, one which examined perhaps the most interesting of the Howlers - Gabe. Gabe, of course, is more fictional than most of the Howlers - segregation still existed in the US armed forces of World War II; in some ways, World War II helped encourage segregation in that soldiers in all US states had to lower themselves to the racist laws of the south, rather than challenge the hegemony.

Regardless, Gabe provided a means for Sgt. Fury's writers to comment on race. Few of them took the challenge, but by 1974 there were so many new African-American heroes bursting into comics that it was less provocative than it would have been before. And, race aside, it's ultimately the story of one soldier sacrificing his life for his ideals and his best friend being confronted with that tragedy. All of the moving moments in this story play out on the last page, but that last page makes the entire experience worthwhile.

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