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For Memorial Day, the senses-shattering origin of Combat Kelly. (But not his Guy Gardner haircut.) – Combat Kelly #3

May 28, 2012

It’s Memorial Day, and that means a stateside comic book blog is duty bound to honor the fictional soldiers who fought for this country, who in turn honored the real soldiers that made the ultimate sacrifice for this country. That means that this post is a roundabout tribute to the real men and women who fought and died for their country. Nevertheless, it’s heartfelt. An honor to honor, if you will. On this day (if you’re in the United States), take a moment to remember sacrifices, and, if so inclined, rip off your shirt, wave it above your head and chant an appropriate jingoistic slogan. Oh, and take a second to read about a dopey comic book character.

So. Combat Kelly.

For those of you unfamiliar with this burly red-head and his unflattering bowl cut, here’s a primer. Like much of fictional co-traveller Nick Fury’s early run, he spewed from the typewriter and pencils of Gary Friedrich and Dick Ayers (and, in this issue, Mike Esposito inks). Unlike Fury, who’s had a long, LONG shelf-life, and just made an appearance on the big screen in The Avengers, Kelly’s title only lasted for a run of nine issues in the early 1970s. Also like Fury, he had a squad of colorful grunts at his side (the Deadly Dozen), but in this case they were rough parolees getting a second chance at life by robbing Nazis of theirs. Got all that?

Deadly Dozen. Hm. Sounds like “Dirty Dozen.” THAT’S THE POINT. This comic stole from two places (Fury and film) and created a rather forgettable combination in the process. A product that’s less than the sum of its parts. Not to say that it’s bad, but…

This issue has a fairly entertaining look at how Combat Kelly got into his wartime predicament. (Sort of. More on that in a moment.) And it has boxing. Boxing from the days when no one gave a rat’s ass about concussions. “Rub some dirt on it and take a salt tablet.” And not only boxing, but boxing against a towering, devious Nazi opponent, dredging up shades of the Cold War’s Rocky IV and its gloriously stupid fight. (Not to mention a slice of the real life Baer/Schmelling and Louis/Schmelling fights.)

It’s not often that you get a senses-shattering origin that actually lives up to that sobriquet, but this one does. Will Kelly triumph over whatever impossible odds are thrown in his path? Will he prove to be more resilient in the ring than the indomitable Ben Grimm? LET US SEE.

Kelly, during a break actual “tanks, guns and bullets” combat, submits to the appeals of his comrades to tell them all about his past (I get the feeling they were all curious about him, like Tom Hanks’ squad in Saving Private Ryan). He gives in, and starts telling the tale, which starts with him in the ring pounding the living hell out of some tomato can — but there’s something sinister afoot:

You have to love his corner man’s bow tie. Boxing folks have the wackiest — and best — sartorial sense.

Kelly succumbs to his baser instincts and inadvertently puts his foe down for the permanent count:

Bad enough to die, but to die in that position. IGNOMINIOUS, to say the least.

Then:

A quibble: The man died in the ring from the blows he sustained to the head. In a boxing match. This happens in boxing. If Kelly had been the one to drug the guy, then that would be a different story. But he didn’t. So this doesn’t really make sense.

Dubious legality or no, Kelly soon gets a reprieve when the Army finds itself in need of his boxing skills. The German forces champion, Schroeder, has issued a challenge, and Kelly is let out of the clink to fight him. But — surprise — the Nazis don’t play fair, and when an attempt to bribe Kelly to take a fall goes awry, Schroeder and his goons work him over like a slab of meat:

BUT THEY ONLY MADE HIM MAD. (Also, not often you see a non-blond Nazi champion. Different.)

The fight goes on as planned, and Kelly, bruised ribs and all, and despite a first round knockout, goes for the kill in the second. Kelly at last puts an end to this sumbitch, laying his opponent out so that he looks all but coffin-ready:

Look at Schroeder’s right hand. Having read any number of articles about the concussion issues that are roiling the NFL and the sports world in general, I know that one of the signs for a severe concussion is that an arm will stand erect as the concussed individual lies prostrate. It’s called the “fencing response.” Long story short, Kelly really rang this Nazi’s bell. U S A! U S A!

All well and good. A decent story. But, I need to point out, NOT an origin story. Kelly (back in the non-flashback World War II present) indicates that he was acquitted of that earlier boxing-related manslaughter charge and that it was another crime that had him run afoul of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which was what subsequently put him in his Dirty Dozenish predicament. An origin story has something that directly leads into the our hero being a hero. This doesn’t. This therefore isn’t an origin story. It’s more like a “random something that happened to the main character in the past” story. I get the feeling between this and the whole manslaughter business that there wasn’t a lot of editorial proofing going on when this book came out.

Whatever. Combat Kelly, we salute your fictional service, including savagely liquefying a dirty rat Nazi’s brain pan. And we salute those who have made the ultimate sacrifice at the call of a grateful nation. Happy Memorial Day. Don’t eat too much.

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