Making Marvel Mine: Essential Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos Vol. 1 (and 1/2) (Sgt. Fury #14-23 and Annual #1)
Face front, true believers! Ah, yeah, Howlers! I got myself the Essential trade, so that we could fix the minor chronology glitch in my Marvel Essential read. That means two things: 1.) pretend this came before all that puttering I did on Dr. Strange; and 2.) In a surprise move, (and on a technicality to boot) Sgt. Fury beats the Fantastic Four to finish line and becomes the FIRST SECOND ROUND on my Essential read. Weird. First time I don't have to introduce all the characters. Crazy.
So let's talk about the second half of this book, and see how it compares to issues 1-13. Well, it's still pretty innovative and awesome. There's no issue that compares to #6's "The Fangs of the Desert Fox!", but there are a few that come close. Issue 18 comes to mind, but I'll get into that in a bit. Point is, the whole series seems to be all action, all the time, and still presses the boundaries of what comics could be in the early Silver Age.
Right off the bat, in issue 14 we're greeted with the concept of war time escalation in a totally comic book way. Turns out, Adolf Hitler has had enough of all this commando bullshit, and he orders Fury's personal nemesis Baron Strucker to capture the Howlers to be publicly executed. Strucker isn't a huge fan of der fuhrer, but hey, orders are orders, and he decides to fight fire with fire. He storms the Third Reith looking for suitable candidates, and forms his own commando squad to take out the Howlers. Thus, the Blitzkrieg Squad of Baron Strucker is formed! Ludwig, Fritz, Otto, Siegfried, Ernst, and Manfred! And they all wear adorable hats! These guys are here to stay, and while they're no Masters of Evil, it's good to have some more reoccurring villains.
Also added is Mayor Rooten, who is mayor of... Holland? Somewhere in Holland, anyway. Everyone thinks he's a Nazi sympathizer, even his own son, but it's all a ruse, as he's the top secret Allied Agent named Agent X. Not the greatest codename, but whatever. Fury figures it all out, but the deception must stay. To protect his son Hans, Rooten has the Howlers bring the boy with them back to England, becoming their new mascot. (It was a different time.) Also added to the cast (if you're paying attention) are too privates named Stan and Dick, who both are pretty keen on the Howlers exploits. I love how Stan Lee writes himself as an insufferable asshole to everyone around him, and especially being dickish to his artists (he did it in Amazing Spidey Annual 1, too). I appreciate that, for some reason. :)
In the Annual, we get a tale from the Korean War, where we learn that a battlefield commission made Fury an officer, which of course would lead to his eventual promotion to Colonel. Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. had just started over in Strange Tales, so obviously they wanted to explain the continuity of those stories. I hope they release an Essential of Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. soon...
Anyway, Issue 18, "Killed in Action!" lets you know right on the cover that "Someone dies!" and remember, this is Sgt. Fury, probably the first mainstream American comic where death was an actual, legitimate threat for a main character. Most of the issue is standard Howler flair, but with the added ominousness that you keep waiting for "who's gonna die?", because you know someone will. But you've been duped; Lee and Ayers have subverted your expectations for the comic, because the person who dies isn't one of the Howlers themselves. It's Nick's girlfriend, Pamela Hawley. And it is heartbreaking.
It's clichéd to the point of being stupid nowadays, but it was incredibly innovative at the time. The story begins as a bombing raid is occurring in London. Fury's with Pam, and he insists that she get to protection. But she refuses, she's a nurse, and she needs to take care of those injured and dying in the air raid. She's just as much a hero as Nick Fury is, and Nick realizes that's one of the reasons why he loves her. After he single handedly blows up a German bomber from the ground (What? This is Sgt. Fury, after all; it's page 2, time to make something explode!), he calls her ambulance unit to make sure she's okay. She's fine, but there's wounded, she can't talk long, she'll see him soon. Fury's realized just how much she means to him, and buys an engagement ring for her.
Then it's the mission. Whatever, punching Nazis is great and all, and for a moment Fury almost loses the ring, but he catches it, so moving on. Fury is so freakin' happy when he gets back to England that he won't give anyone a chance to talk to him. He's got business to take care of, asking Pam to marry him. No one has a chance to tell him the awful news until he gets to her father's estate and asks him for his permission to marry his daughter. Lord Hawley can't believe no one told him, and is forced to tell Fury the awful news: There was another air raid. Pam was tending to the wounded as the bombs continued to fall, and this time she was killed in one of the blasts. In grief and horror, Fury drops the engagement ring, and slowly walks away in sorrow. Fade to black.
Holy shit, people. This is some heavy stuff in a funnybook. It's shocking and awful, and well, that's the whole point. War sucks, and people die, sometimes just for doing the right thing. For trying to help others. Man, this comic is a master class at not just subverting the audience's expectations, but doing tragedy really, really well, in one friggin' page.
But don't worry. Next issue Fury vents his rage at literally every Nazi ever by disobeying orders, single-handedly invading a Nazi airbase, and punching a Nazi pilot to death while said pilot is IN MIDAIR WITH FURY STANDING OUTSIDE THE AIRPLANE! This comic is so awesome you guys.