Monday, April 30, 2012

Storytelling Engines: Sgt. Fury And His Howling Commandos

(or: "The Play's The Thing")

When we talk about assembling a storytelling engine, it's always illuminating to look at the work of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Because frankly, these guys were two of the best there ever were, and probably the best there ever will be. They had to come up with title after title, tossing together protagonists and supporting cast members and settings and goals and styles and villains and getting it all to work on very short notice, and they did such a good job that fifty years later, we're looking at a massive blockbuster movie designed around not just adapting individual stories of theirs, but the entire storytelling engine of the Avengers, complete with five movies of set-up.

So if you were to ask the question, "Where to start setting up a continuing series? How do you go about setting up a coherent fictional universe that will generate plot ideas easily for a writer?" ...well, Stan and Jack are the guys to go to. And when they went ahead and started writing 'Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos', all they really had to work with was the title. (Which, according to Stan Lee's recounting, was part of a bet to see if Stan and Jack could get any title to sell, no matter how stupid it sounded.) So where did they go from there?

The military aspects of the title led them to a war comic; back in the 1960s, war comics were still extremely popular, with many of the creative staff at both Marvel and DC being vets themselves and more than a little familiar with the last war. As previously mentioned in this series, World War II offered a wide variety of diverse fighting environments, a ready-made set of villains, and a historical backdrop that created easy inspirations for a comic about a squad of fighting men. But as previously mentioned, war comics at the time were extremely popular. Comics about a squad of fighting men littered the shelves. So how to set up a storytelling engine that offered inspiration, while still being different from everything else on the market?

Lee and Kirby began with tone. They decided to create a war series similar in tone to what they were already doing with their superhero comics, with larger-than-life heroes and villains fighting larger-than-life battles. This style, which has sometimes been described as "widescreen" or "cinematic" (although both definitions post-date Lee and Kirby's work, which was nothing like the war movies of the time and didn't make much use of the massive splash pages now associated with "widescreen" comics) relies on the understanding that it differs deliberately and vastly from a real-life depiction of war. Nobody involved in the series really thought that it was as easy as the series depicts it to sneak into Axis territory, snatch Hitler from under the noses of the German High Command, and spirit him back to Britain (as actually happened in one issue, although it turned out to be a double of the Nazi leader.) Likewise, nobody really assumed the series to be accurately depicting the final fate of Lord Haw-Haw (we hope.) 'Fury' takes place in an alternate universe where Allied super-commandos easily trounced hapless Germans on their way to achieving the impossible, time and time again.

This difference in tone is crucial. It guides all the later decisions made on the book; the personalities of the commandos have to be more colorful in order to make them fit into a larger-than-life world. Fury can't simply have a tough, strong corporal (like 'Sgt. Rock' and his corporal, Bulldozer.) He has to have a former circus strongman who can single-handedly whip six men in unarmed combat. He doesn't just have a solider who likes to whistle (like Canary, in Easy Company.) He gets a full-fledged jazz musician who plays solos on the bugle during combat. This over-the-top philosophy even extends to the villains of the book; it'd be absurd to imagine a group of "evil opposites" that return to challenge Easy Company, but the Howling Commandos face off against the Blitzkrieg Squad three times over the course of the series. And somehow, it doesn't seem out of place, even though two groups of hardened soldiers are fighting each other in a military engagement repeatedly with no casualties on either side. We are not dealing with reality in 'Sgt. Fury'.

This almost risks closing off opportunities for drama; after all, in a larger-than-life world where larger-than-life characters easily defeat hordes of dimwitted, gullible, cowardly foes, it'd be easy to assume that the heroes never risk anything. And without risk, it's difficult to sustain the kind of excitement necessary for great adventures. But 'Fury' takes care of this early, by demonstrating that the volume of all the elements of the story are equally loud; characters die in dramatic fashion, and revenge is taken in equally dramatic fashion. (He says vaguely, not wanting to spoil some of the better stories in the book.) Nobody is immune to death or sorrow; they just feel it on a larger, more operatic scale than in your traditional war story.

The result is miniature epic after miniature epic, as the Howlers fling themselves into battle after battle that would chew up lesser soldiers and come out with one dramatic triumph after another. It's nothing like the kind of war comics that other people wrote or drew back in the 60s; but then again, nobody else was publishing a title like 'Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos'.

Guess Stan Lee won that bet.


Dougie said...

The deaths of two major characters in the early issues are, I think, among the most poignant ever told at Marvel.

Anonymous said...

I always find your Storytelling Engine posts fascinating. Thanks for this.

Anonymous said...

This explains rather well why Sergeant Fury was able to transition so effortlessly from World War II military adventure to superspy James Bondian adventure to superhero adventure.

Anonymous said...

It has been said that one of the key markers of Marvel comics that differentiates it from DC comics even now
is the bombastic tone of its characters and storylines.

Even DC's The Spectre and The Batman never approach the bombast and smack talk of Marvel.

And that key marker seems to extend even to their World War II titles.