Silver Age Showcase: Sgt. Fury and the Howling Commandos

Happy Memorial Day everyone!

For the non American readers of this blog Memorial Day is a day where Americans recognize and celebrate the lives of those who served and died in military service, usually by eating a lot of meat and drinking a lot of booze.

The reason I bring this up is because comic books have a pretty long and storied history when in comes to honoring and talking about American men and women in uniform.  After all, the early days of the modern comic book industry were smack dab in the middle of the biggest conflict in human history and it shows.

Books like these were fantastic wish fulfillment, where writers and artists could end the war with a stroke of a pen and make sure that the Axis powers got what was coming to them.

But comic books didn’t just tell stories about impossible men and women with amazing powers and flashy costumes, they told stories about the actual men and women in uniform as well, and a lot of them weren’t so happy and carefree with their subject matter.

This fascination with actual military exploits and stories about real life soldiers make sense when you consider that some of the greatest comic book creators who ever lived served in the military, including the legendary duo of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.

Author’s note: It should be noted that while Stan Lee served in the Army Signal Corps and din’t see much combat, Kirby was a Private in the U.S Third Army and was awarded the Regimental Bronze Star.

While I don’t know how their military experience influenced their later work I do know that Lee and Kirby would go on to create one of the greatest groups of ordinary soldiers who would go toe to toe with some of the greatest villains the budding Marvel Universe had to offer: Sargent Nick Fury and his Howling Commandos.

Origin and Career

According to Stan Lee himself the idea for the Howling Commandos came about on a bet that Lee and Kirby couldn’t create a successful comic book title with a terrible name.  Lee would go on to state that the inspiration for the name “Howling Commandos” would come from the real life 101st Airborne Division, which called itself the “Screaming Eagles”.

Sgt. Fury and the Howling Commandos first premiered in May 1963, making it a Silver Age comic book created at the height of Lee and Kirby’s creative partnership.

Lee and Kirby would go on to write and pencil the first seven issues until the series was taken over by writer Roy Tomas (who would go on to introduce Conan the Barbarian to the comic book world)

and artist Dick Ayers, who would go on to pencil and ink 95 issues of Sgt. Fury and his squad.

Now, the Howling Commandos would go on to have a pretty successful run.  They appeared in over 150 issues so it’s somewhat difficult to describe everything they did.  So instead, we’re going to have a quick list of some of the most important exploits of the team and some of their biggest contributions to Marvel and comics as a whole.

The group was a multi cultural and multi ethnic.  It even included an Asian American during a time when Japanese Americans were being interned in camps and an African American during a war where the United States Army was still segregated (the U.S Army wouldn’t fully integrate until 1948).  It fact, this was so rare in the 1960’s that Lee had to remind the colorist that one of the Commandos named Gabriel Jones was actually black.

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Besides their commitment to diversity the writers weren’t afraid to kill people off in a time when comic book characters just didn’t die.  Nick Fury joined the US Army with his best friend Red Hardgrove, who would later perish in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.

Fury would go on to form the Howling Commandos and be stationed in Britain where he fell in love with a nurse named Pamela Hawley in Issue #4

only to have her die in a bombing raid before he could propose to her in Issue #18.

Also, despite being a “kid’s book” the adventures of Sgt. Fury and his squad did not shy away from dealing with some pretty complex themes.  Issue #51 was called The Assassin and told the tragic story of a man who was forced to become an assassin when the Gestapo held his family hostage.

And issue #75, titled The Deserter, was an allusion to the real life trial and execution of an American G.I named Eddie Slovik.

And then there are the cameo appearances by other famous Marvel characters.  During their time in the second World War the Howling Commandos would work with the likes of Reed Richards, the future Mr. Fantastic,

and their most famous partner, Captain America and his side kick Bucky.

During their adventures they would also face several of Marvel’s greatest villains, including Baron Strucker,

Helmut Zemo (before his unfortunate accident gave him his trademark mask),

and the Red Skull himself.

So what happened?

The Howling Commandos would have a successful career in the 1960’s and early 70’s, producing 167 individual issues and reprints which started in 1974.  While the group would reunite to carry out missions in Korea and Vietnam the series was cancelled in 1981.

Nick Fury would go on to become a Colonel and a James Bond type spy in 1965’s Strange Tales #135 for a little known organization called S.H.I.E.L.D.

An artist named Jim Steranko would make his name working on Nick Fury’s comics and become one of the greatest artists of the 1960’s and a pioneer in what a comic book could do.

Fury would later undergo a pretty dramatic change in appearance in Marvel’s Ultimate series, an alternate universe continuity to Marvel comics designed to allow new readers to jump on board without having to worry about decades of continuity.

Ironically, this Nick Fury would go on to become the more famous one.

As for the Howling Commandos themselves, they’re still kicking around as a group.  While they’re probably too old to do much in the modern day they’re still very much a part of the Marvel mythology.  They made an appearance in the first Captain America movie,

and they had a cameo appearance in the Agent Carter tv show.

While Nick Fury and his squad of badass commandos performed nearly impossible feats of bravery and valor and were soldiers of mythic skill and ability they were still ordinary humans thrust into a chaotic world of death and destruction.  They are a reminder that sometimes you don’t need a hero, you just need group of ordinary men and women to perform the impossible and can rise to the occasion to be heroes.

Happy Memorial Day everyone.

 

 

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Golden Age Showcase: Archie the Gruesome

So I’m a big fan of Captain America: Civil War and the comic book series it sprang from.

One of the big themes of the movie and the comic book series is how so many of the superheroes fight on Captain America’s side simply because he’s Captain freaking America.

I mean who wouldn’t want to charge the gates of Hell itself if you knew it was with this guy?

The reason I bring this up is because even back in the 1940’s Captain America was an inspiration to countless other heroes and even ordinary people.  I bring this up because sometimes even ordinary people can rise to do great things if they have the proper motivation and inspiration and that is something that comic books are great at showing.

Unfortunately, the person we’re talking about today is NOT one of those great people but dammit, he deserves some respect for trying.  Ladies and gentlemen: Archie the Gruesome.

Origin and Career

We’ve covered some pretty obscure old timey superheroes in this blog series but I think this guy takes the cake.  Archie the Gruesome had one Golden Age appearance as the cover character in 1942’s Comedy Comics #10.

Nobody really know who wrote him, nobody really knows who drew him, and he was relegated to a single five page origin story in the comic.

Archie was a street sweeper who was inspired to become a costumed hero after seeing his idol, Captain America.

He didn’t have any powers, he wasn’t part of some secret experiment, he wasn’t blessed/cursed by some sort of magic, he didn’t lose his parents in a tragic accident, he just wanted to do good and I’m going to show the same cover picture again because that is the only image I can find of him.

As you can see, his costume is a parody of Captain America’s, he’s using his broom as a weapon (clearly in an attempt to “clean up the streets”), and the way he’s drawn and presented is clearly meant to not be taken seriously.  His opponent was a fellow street sweeper named Big Joe who was Archie’s polar opposite, preferring to turn to a life of crime rather than a life of heroics.

So what happened?

Shockingly, Archie the Gruesome did not go on to wild fame and success and he disappeared after his first appearance.

However, he would go on to have a role in a limited comic book series published by Marvel in 2011 called All Winners Squad: Band of Heroes.

All-Winners Squad Band of Heroes Vol 1 2

The comic book series was a World War 2 comic about a group of old school super powered humans who were drafted into the Allied war effort and were placed into a squad known as “Special Unit, Enhanced Humans” but wound up calling themselves “The Crazy Sues”

They were led by Captain America (obviously) and Archie was their medic.

They didn’t give him much to do in the comic.  He was a capable medic, there was actually one point in the book where he was asked to pump a dying soldier full of morphine while another soldier finished him off, and it was widely assumed that he was killed in battle because the comic book series was cancelled after five issues out of the proposed eight were published and that is why we can’t have nice things.

Archie the Gruesome can easily be thought of as a joke character and most of that thinking would be correct.  However, Archie is a special character in comics and deserves way more credit than he gets.  He saw the world around him, he saw his favorite superheroes doing great things, and not only did he think that was awesome, he actively tried to emulate his heroes and make the world a better place.  He had no powers, no gadgets, and no money but he managed to be one of the truest and greatest heroes around.

Crowdfunded Comics that deserve more attention: Hello Earth

Today we’re going to talk about a Kickstarter comic book project called “Hello Earth”.

It bills itself as a “science fiction/horror comic” about a group of aliens who mysteriously land at JFK airport (because as we all know, every alien in fiction seems to gravitate towards New York or Washington D.C) bringing a strange creature known only as “Project Nimbus” who desires to learn more about Earth.

According to the information provided the alien’s human guide eventually uncovers a massive conspiracy and the unseen threat of an alien invasion.

Kickstarter link: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1641791007/hello-earth-a-sci-fi-horror-comic?ref=category_newest

Why I like it

I am a huge fan of science fiction.

I’m not the biggest fan of horror but this is one of my favorite movies of all time.

The reason I bring this up is because both “Alien” and “Hello Earth” understand what makes horror truly effective: it’s not WHAT you see, it’s what you DON’T see.

I want anyone reading this article to really think about “Alien” for a second.  It’s a dark movie, and I don’t mean that it’s gory or violent I mean it’s dark

You’re watching the movie and you can’t quite see what lurks in the shadows, you have no idea what the contents of the crashed ship are,

and when the Alien starts killing people you only see glimpses of the creature.

It is truly terrifying stuff.

Now let’s look at “Hello Earth”.

If you watched the Kickstarter video above you’ll see that the comic is not very dark, it doesn’t bother hiding its aliens, and it’s actually not very scary at all.  If anything it looks more like a “fish out of water” comedy than a horror film.

But if you ask me that’s a point in the book’s favor.  You have no idea what the aliens are doing there, you have no idea what they want, and you have no idea what’s going to happen.  At the same time there are glimpses of something much larger and much more sinister going on.  The video reveals that the landing alien ship was actually on JFK’s flight schedule a few days before it landed.

Who are they?

What do they want?

What are they planning?

Why you should donate

Besides from the intriguing idea, the artwork is fantastic,

and they’ve got a great creative team behind it with plenty of experience.

But besides all of that, I believe that the real reason this comic needs to be made is because we are long overdue for a smart, well written, well drawn, and well thought out sci fi horror comic that knows how to build suspense and lead the reader wanting more rather than throwing everything at the reader all at once and hoping they’ll like it.

I hope you enjoyed this article and please feel free to donate to this campaign and make this project a reality.

Kickstarter link: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1641791007/hello-earth-a-sci-fi-horror-comic?ref=category_newest

Golden Age Showcase: The Blazing Skull

Today I’d like to talk about Ghost Rider for no particular reason.

The character is pretty gosh darn awesome, so awesome that when it was decided that Ghost Rider would have a movie he would be played by one of the greatest actors of our time.

And no, I don’t mean in an ironic way.

If there was one thing that made Ghost Rider iconic it would probably be his face.

Sure the biker look and motorcycle are awesome, but there’s something about a skull wreathed in flames that just screams “awesome”.

That being said, Ghost Rider wasn’t the first superhero (or even the first Marvel hero) to adopt this look.  That honor belongs to a Golden Age comic book hero named the Blazing Skull.

Origin and career:

The Blazing Skull first appeared in Mystic Comics #5 which was published in March of 1941.

Nobody knows who wrote or drew the story and it stands to reason nobody expected him to last very long since he was the last story in the book.

Before we delve into the backstory of the Blazing Skull we need to talk about a bit of history.  Today a lot of people are taught that the Second World War began on September 1st, 1939 with Hitler’s invasion of Poland and the United States would remain out of the war until 1941.

However, the war in Asia actually started two years before Hitler’s invasion of Poland in 1937 when Japan invaded China in what became known as the Second Sino-Japanese War.

Without going into too many details let’s just say it was a brutal, awful, and often overlooked part of the war that resulted in some of the worst war crimes ever committed and is one of the biggest reasons why relations between Japan and China are frigid to this day.

So what does this have to do with the Blazing Skull?  Well the hero started off as mild mannered reporter Mark Todd, who was sent into China to cover the Sino Japanese War for the west.

Mark Todd (Earth-616) 001

When Mark was forced into  a cave by a Japanese artillery bombardment he was discovered by a race of beings known as “The Skull Men” who have burning skulls instead of faces.

The Skull Men claim that Mark is destined to become a champion for freedom and train the former newsman until be becomes just like them.

In terms of powers the Burning Skull is immune to fire (naturally), has super strength, a healing factor, and can use fire as a long range weapon.

It’s worth mentioning that in his Golden Age appearances The Burning Skull’s origin was never revealed and his origin wouldn’t be hashed out until the 1990’s (we’ll get to that).  He would go on to have a short but respectable Golden Age career appearing in five issues.  In his very first issue he was actually captured by the Nazis, tortured by Hitler himself, and not only survived but insulted the Fuhrer so badly that Adolf was forced to leave the room crying.

He would have one more adventure in Europe where he wound up saving Winston Churchill’s life, and returned to the States where he spent the rest of his days fighting more traditional crooks.  Special mention goes to a Blazing Skull story where he defeated a serial killer named Dr. Fear.

 So what happened?

The Blazing Skull only lasted a year and then disappeared off of the face of the Earth.  However, he must have been memorable enough for someone to think of him because he had something of a resurgence in the comic book boom of the 1990’s.

In Marvel’s 1993 WW2 series The Invaders The Blazing Skull joins the titular superhero group to kick some retro Nazi butt.

This was where his famous origin story was formed and where it was revealed he was a reporter by trade.

He had several adventures with the Invaders, he even helped save Namor the Submariner’s life and helped break up a German spy ring in England.

While not much is known about the Blazing Skull between WW2 and the modern day it was later revealed that the Blazing Skull had been kidnapped by Middle Eastern terrorists and had been tortured for extended periods of time until he was finally rescued and asked to restart his superhero work.

He was recruited into The Defenders who are based out of New Jersey after the Marvel Comic event “Civil War” (hey we actually managed to tie this guy into more familiar stories!) and in his most recent appearance he worked with Howard the Duck as part of a superhero team trying to stop Nazi zombies from attacking other dimensions, only to be ripped apart by zombified goats.

The Blazing Skull may not have had the best beginning but he is a definite case of modern creators taking an idea and making it better.  Plus, he proved that the idea of a hero with a flaming skull for a face is badass and awesome.

Silver Age Showcase: Baron Heinrich Zemo

WARNING: Mild spoilers for Captain America: Civil War.  This article doesn’t reveal any major plot points to the film, it just name drops the villain.

So this little movie just came out.

My opinion?  It’s pretty gosh darn awesome and you should totally go see it right now!

That being said if I were to be nit picky about it I would say there are two slight critiques of the film.  First, Civil War sacrifices a lot of the focus and plot that made Captain America: Winter Soldier so good in the name of world building and introducing new characters.

When you have that many characters who need a chance to have the spotlight you’re going to lose something, even if the movie is two and a half hours long.  It actually bears a striking resemblance to another very long super hero film that wasn’t as well received because it spent a lot of time setting things up for the future.

The difference is that Marvel has EARNED the right to spend so much time world building and setting up future events because it gave us twelve other films to get to know the characters so that’s not really a problem for me.

The second very small issue I had with Civil War is an issue that is more systemic to Marvel films as a whole: the villain.

The villain for this movie is a man named Helmut Zemo and here he is:

Without me getting into spoilers let me just say that Zemo is a good villain for the movie, he does his job and he sets up one of the most devastating emotional payoffs I’ve ever seen.  That being said, as a comic book villain Zemo is pretty boring, and in a cinematic universe that has only really managed to produce one great villain,

it’s unfortunately par for the course.

Don’t get me wrong, I still adore Civil War, but when the bad guy is changed to this,

from this,

then I feel the need to step in and talk about.

Today we are going to look at one of Captain America’s oldest and greatest foes and one of Marvel’s powerhouse villains: Baron Heinrich Zemo.

Origin and Career:

Within the Marvel Comics Universe, Baron Zemo was an old enemy of Captain America and made his first appearance as a flashback in The Avengers #4 in 1964.

Avengers Vol 1 4

The issue was written and drawn by the legendary creator team of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby and was the issue where Captain America was thawed out of his ice nap and decides to join the Avengers, it’s a pretty important issue in comic book history.

Baron Heinrich Zemo was one of Nazi Germany’s greatest and most dangerous scientists.  It should be noted that while he knew Captain America’s other enemy the Red Skull, they didn’t get along very well and they were more allies of convenience against Captain America.

Baron Zemo was the twelfth person to carry that name.  He was brilliant scientist,

an expert combatant,

and a sadistic bastard who was so evil he was hated by everyone, even his fellow Germans.

During his first appearance it was revealed that he was actually the one who sabotaged the plane that would throw Captain America into the sea and place him into a state of suspended animation and apparently kill his sidekick Bucky Barnes.

When I said Zemo is an important part of Captain America’s history I meant it.

Now you’re probably wondering about the mask.  Well, there’s a pretty cool backstory behind it.

Back in WW2 Zemo decided to wear a purple face mask in order hide his identity.  It turns out that testing weapons on your own people insures you aren’t going to make a whole lot of friends.

Unfortunately for Zemo he was doused in one of his experiments, a super strong glue known as Adhesive X, by an errant throw from Captain America which permanently bonded his mask to his face.

Zemo would spend his post war years doing what a lot of real Nazis did after the war, hiding out in South America.  Zemo continued his super villain ways, at one point he attempted to spread Adhesive X over the island of Manhattan but was stopped, when he learned of Captain America’s revival.

Naturally Zemo was a bit upset and he attempted to lure the Captain into a trap to defeat him once and for all.  Unfortunately, Captain America was too good for him and Zemo was killed in a rock slide.

So what happened?

Heinrich had a son, a gifted and brilliant boy named Helmut Zemo, who would take his father’s place and become one of the most dangerous and well known villains in the entire Marvel cannon.

Like his father Helmut was a scientific genius and was soon capable of duplicating many of his father’s inventions and schemes.

Helmut idolized his father despite a shady and abusive past.  When Captain America tried to convince Helmut that his father was evil Helmut didn’t take it very well.

Also like his father, Helmut would fall victim to Adhesive X.  In 1973’s Captain America #168 Helmut disguised himself as a villain named the Phoenix, kidnapped Captain America, and attempted to drown him in a vat of the chemical.

Captain America Vol 1 168

Fortunately Cap was rescued by the Falcon and Zemo fell into the boiling vat and was presumed dead.  However, Zemo survived and while he was able to find a solvent that could dissolve Adhesive X he was permanently scarred.

I could go on to list the many schemes and accomplishments of Baron Zemo but there simply isn’t enough time.

Baron Helmut Zemo and his father were, and still are, two of the most dangerous super villains in the entire Marvel Universe.  Cunning, brilliant, and sadistic, the Zemo name is one that gives Captain America and the heroes of Marvel nightmares and while Zemoe is the most memorable villain in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, he deserves a place as one of the most capable and tortured villains to face the Avengers.

Golden Age Showcase: Namor the Submariner

Today I would like to talk about the original super hero trinity.

No, not that one.

Back when Marvel Comics was known as Timely Comics the company had their own Trinity of superheroes: Captain America, the robotic Human Torch, and the hero we’re going to talk about today: Namor the Submariner.

Origin and Career

Namor was supposed to premiere in a magazine called Motion Pictures Funny Weekly in April of 1939.

It was supposed to be a giveaway promotional project that would be handed out to movie theater owners.  Unfortunately the idea fell through so Namor’s creator, the legendary Bill Everett,

decided to send the project to another client, Timely Comics.  Timely liked the idea and in December of 1939 they published Namor as a part of their first ever comic book Marvel Comics #1

Fun side note: Bill Everett would later go on to help create the modern day Daredevil for Marvel Comics so…there’s that.

Namor is an important part of comic book history due to the fact that he was the industry’s first anti hero.  In his very first appearance Namor was actually a bad guy who had a short temper and decided to declare war on the surface world of man.

Namor was the child of a human father named Leonard Mckenzie and a princess named Fen who was the daughter of the king of Atlantis.

the man grew up as the heir to the throne of Atlantis and had a rather nasty temper.  Things would come to a head when he battled the Golden Age Human Torch in 1940 while threatening to sink New York under a tidal wave.

In another historical first this was the first fight between superheroes in all of comic books.

Despite his hostility towards the surface world and his seemingly villainous behavior Namor was well received by comic book fans in the 1940’s.

Despite everything Namor did, no matter how cruel or vicious, he did it in the name of protecting his people.  He was viewed as less of a savage villain and more as a noble anti hero and in February of 1940 he made his first cover appearance in Marvel Mystery Comics #3.

I think it’s pretty obvious whose side Namor was on during the Second World War.

From 1941 to 1949 Namor would remain one of the biggest heroes in Timely Comics’ lineup.  He kicked his fair share of Nazi butt during WW2 (it should be noted that during the Golden Age he was much more of a solo act and only during the 1970’s was it revealed that he had worked with Captain America and the Human Torch),

and like all superheroes he suffered from a lack of interest after the war had ended.

However, unlike many superheroes Namor actually survived the 195o’s and experienced something of a revival.  However, his home would be destroyed and his family killed when a villain named Paul Destiny,

used a magical helmet to destroy Atlantis and give Namor amnesia.

So what happened?

Namor was too popular and too important to the Timely Comics Universe to disappear for long.  After Stan Lee revived the superhero genre for the newly named Marvel Comics with his 1961 comic The Fantastic Four,

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the new Human Torch discovered Namor the Submariner living as a homeless man in the middle of New York.

Namor would regain his memory and return to his home of Atlantis, only to discover that it had been destroyed by nuclear testing.  Naturally the man was a bit…upset and attempted to conquer the surface world with a giant worm named Giganto.

Thankfully the Fantastic Four were able to defeat him and it even turned out that Atlantis hadn’t been completely destroyed.

Over the next several decades Namor would continue to play a major role in the Marvel Comics Universe.  Despite the attempts of his people to bring him back as their king Namor would continue to wage war on the surface.  This led him to several team ups with some pretty shady characters like Doctor Doom, Magneto, and the early Hulk.  All of them ended poorly.

In a rather interesting bit of history, Namor’s adventure with the Hulk led him to discovering the frozen body of Captain America, who was being worshiped as a god by a group of Inuit.

Over time the Submariner would abandon his villainous ways and become a true hero, using his vast wealth and power to help create the superhero team The Defenders,

and became heavily involved in the business of superheroics with his self funded company Oracle Inc.

Namor is still going strong as a superhero and is an integral part of the Marvel Comic Book Universe.  He’s so prolific that to describe his entire history would take way more space and time than we have here.

Namor is one of the most fascinating and enduring characters in all of comic books.  As the industry’s first anti hero and literal King of the Seas he is interesting, complex, and a definite force to be reckoned with.