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Here’s the most depressing — and most spectacular — comic you’ll ponder this Memorial Day – Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos #75

May 26, 2013

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Memorial Day is a much-needed time for all Americans to pause and reflect on duty and sacrifice, and pay tribute in ways large and small. Surprise — it’s not just about parades, big box sales and firing up the grill. This is a comic book blog, so any tribute made here is necessarily diminutive, but the emotional scope of today’s subject matter is anything but. We’ve looked at several Gary Friedrich/Dick Ayers/John Severin Howling Commandos books over the few years of this site’s existence, and they’ve all been superbly crafted exemplars of the medium, credits to both their creators and the industry in general. And what comic character better embodies the tough, stubbly persona of the 20th century G.I than Nick Fury? Cover your eyes and pick any of the old Fury books out of a longbox, and you’re going to be A-OK, both in terms of quality and content. So we’ll go with one again this Memorial Day.

Today’s book, though? Today’s is something special. Truly. “The Deserter,” from issue #75 of Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos, is one of the better comic stories you’ll ever read. It packs a whopping double punch of layered psychological storytelling and supremely refined artwork. It harkens back to familiar historical incidents, both dramatized and all-too factual. It features a layout presentation far ahead of its time, presaging benchmark works like Watchmen. It’s emotionally searing in a way only the best tales can be.

It makes you proud to read and enjoy comics — if not, in this one instance, proud to be American. Not because of any shame heaped upon that nationality, but because of the frailty of the overall human condition and our inherent, nonsensical need to hurt each other. Without further ado….

The story begins with the Howlers gathered together for the most solemn and tragic military ceremony you can imagine: the execution of one of their own by firing squad. A Private Wilson is against a wall, his hands tied behind his back, and none of the Commandos is happy about it, though they understand and ultimately accept why it’s happening. The bulk of what follows is a Fury flashback, as he remembers the day Wilson joined his squad, and the long, winding road that led this young, fresh-faced kid to his sad end. Indeed, from the first moment he entered the Commandos’ sphere, Wilson was bursting at the seams with enthusiasm — just look at how this introductory scene is punctuated by the somber panel at the bottom, set in the story’s present:

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If you need more proof of Wilson’s ardor to get out and start bashing the Boche, there’s this sequence — note the narrow panels, drawing your attention to his face and its full range of irrepressible expression:

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In a way, the very mutability on display doesn’t augur well for his resolve under fire.

All goes well at first, as Wilson fits right in with the Howlers’ frontline fighting and daring raids. Again, just drink in this layout, which is an action buffet with a downbeat centerpiece:

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Then it all starts to go wrong. After one particularly rough battle, with artillery shelling that shakes the very ground beneath their feet, Wilson comes apart. Check out the shift from the silent, surprised Fury to his big meat hook slapping the (literally) shell-shocked Wilson, who’s not so bright-eyed anymore:

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Do we fault Fury for his harsh treatment? Is this on par with Patton slapping a crying, hospitalized soldier? Do we cut Fury slack for trying to buck up a young man’s courage in the field, where all their lives are in each others’ hands?

The Howlers, including Wilson, all put this incident behind them, or at least try to. They have another mission at hand: infiltrate a Nazi facility and rescue a prisoner of war. The silent panels that follow represent the pinnacle of graphic storytelling — you might find their equal, but you won’t find better:

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I mean, seriously….

The Howler’s complete their mission, but they realize that Wilson had abandoned them on the way in. When they reach safety in the woods, he emerges from the trees and explains how he just couldn’t take it anymore. He doesn’t try to sugarcoat it, he admits what he did: he deserted. He ran and hid. He was scared, and just couldn’t stop his legs from running. He knows what could be coming, as do the Howlers, and tries to explain the giant moral vise in which he finds himself squeezed:

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Whatever words Fury, Dum Dum Dugan and the rest can put in before the military tribunal aren’t enough to save his life or mitigate his death sentence. The court-martial sentence is death, and there’s no last-minute, cinematic pardon to save poor Private Wilson:

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Fin.

This story is based largely on the sad end of Private Eddie Slovik, the only American soldier executed for desertion in all of World War II. There are differences, sure: whereas Wilson is a bright kid from a solid background with excellent postwar prospects, Slovik had a rough life prior to his military service, with frequent brushes with the law. They share the same fate, though, the ultimate punishment for a psyche unable to cope with the hellish gauntlet of war. And what Friedrich, Ayers and Severin do with this story invests the incident with drama few could replicate. (Frank Sinatra tried and failed to get a Hollywood film about Slovik off the ground in the 1960s.) Friedrich’s story architecture was never better, posing but not answering this moral dilemma in the fog of war, and deftly shifting from verbose word balloons to eerie, arresting silence. Ayers’ layouts were never more ornate, moving from pattern to pattern with the bobbing grace of a featherweight boxer, all the while constructing faces that covered the gamut of human emotion. Severin’s inks brought levels of detail and depth to every page that grab the subconscious — the shadows never delve too deeply into overwhelming noir.

Have you ever watched an episode of Antiques Roadshow? People are always bringing the most god-awful stuff on there, most notably giant bulky furniture that most of us wouldn’t even use to start a bonfire. But the appraisers go absolutely nuts for the good stuff, ogling a chest of drawers like it’s a buxom, nubile blonde. They go on and on about the craft involved, citing names of artisans long dead, names that are only known to the small collectors niche that’s internalized what period armoires are good period armoires. They gush till they can’t gush no more.

This comic is like those antique, hideous, pricey sets of drawers. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. For those of us who know the names Friedrich, Ayers, and Severin, it’s indeed a thing of beauty. And, frankly, it probably would be to laypersons as well.

I could go on and on about this book.

I looked online and could find no trade that reprints this comic, which seems such a shame. It and its Friedrich/Ayers/Severin kin deserve to be seen by today’s reading audience just as much as the capes and tights fantasies. For shame, Marvel. Oh well. (And if there is one out there that I missed, apologies.)

Enjoy your Memorial Day, and remember those who have fallen, especially the many who were caught up in something that scared the living daylights out of them. Them most of all.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. Sam D. O'Brien permalink
    May 26, 2013 2:16 pm

    Thank You for all the work you do for this great blog.
    It’s a must read every day.
    -Sam

  2. m.l. post permalink
    May 26, 2013 11:29 pm

    You struck an unusually solemn tone on this post…rather appropriately I think, on this memorial day. I was a soldier once, like many in my family. I have never seen combat nor do I wish to. I find myself struggling with the idea of duty and responsibility in face of what Jack Kirby, himself a combat veteran, once described as organized murder. I’m willing to cut Pvt. Slovik some slack, and consider him one of the millions of victims in that fucking genocidal war. Most people my age or younger forget how truly horrific it was. What we need to do now is take steps to prevent something like that from ever happening again.

  3. Gary permalink
    May 27, 2013 12:28 am

    I just picked up a small run of Ayers/Severin Sgt. Furys (60-68 and Ann.1 & 4). I was actually a little surprised at how good they were. I’ve always been a Severin fan but Friedrich’s writing and Ayers layouts blew me away too. Good stuff.

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