Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Did you ever see a dozen die?

Gary Friedrich is in the comic-related news lately. With the latest Ghost Rider movie not doing spectacularly well at the box office, the lawsuit he brought against Marvel Comics around the time the previous movie came out has been decided against him. Presumably figuring that he'd got nothing to lose, he claimed that the character of Ghost Rider, which he created, still belonged to him in some way and he was due a pile of money from the movie. Marvel counter-claimed that he'd sold them the rights perfectly legally, decades ago, and indeed that since he's sold autographed Ghost Rider pictures at conventions and things since then, he actually owes them a pile of money. Seventeen thousand dollars, in fact, which since Friedrich is 69 years old, in poor health and penniless, is seen as poor form on Marvel's part by most observers, even though they're presumably not planning to demand the money (which he doesn't have) and probably going to settle it in a friendly way.

But that's mainly by the by here, because it just reminds me of something I've been meaning to write about for a long time - Combat Kelly and the Deadly Dozen. A short-lived, unsuccessful, early-seventies war comic, written by Friedrich and drawn by Dick Ayers. I quite like it for some reason - mainly because of its untapped potential rather than the actual stories it told - and there's very little about it on the internet (the Marvel Wiki actually credits Mike Friedrich, an unrelated but similarly-named writer, with it, but it was actually Gary), so it needs some attention.

War comics were pretty much dead by 1972. Vietnam and the nearly thirty-year timespan since the end of World War II had pretty much killed American kids' interest in stories set in the forties about fighting Germans. Superheroes definitely ruled the roost, and Marvel's last bastion of what was once a thriving industry was Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos, now approaching its hundredth issue. The Howlers actually did rather more fighting than the entire American army did in real life, and all over the world too - the series went on for many years longer than the war! But the powers that be (which in those days were still pretty much Stan Lee calling the shots) decided that there was a chance that another regular series might thrive, and so were born the Deadly Dozen.

The logic seems reasonable - Sgt Fury had been running occasional reprints of old stories in its monthly series for some time, and if they made it a regular every-other-month thing and had the regular creative team of Friedrich and Ayers also produce a new bi-monthly comic in between new Fury stories, there might be a healthy increase in sales overall. And someone had apparently seen the movie "The Dirty Dozen" recently, and so...


Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos #98

Cover-dated May 1972 (that's the off-sale date, it was published a couple of months earlier)



Since #94, the Howlers had been involved in a long continuous story fighting in Germany alongside a couple of American pilots. #95 was an old reprinted issue, but that's still three issues of ongoing plot, which was quite unusual for the comic. Fury was seriously injured, Eric Koenig was captured by Nazis and #97 ended with the team struggling to climb a cliff face under heavy fire.

Rather than continuing the story, however, the Deadly Dozen plotline was conceived between issues, and forced into #98, rather jarringly. So instead of revealing what happened to the Howlers at the end of last month's story, we're confronted with this splash page:




This is followed by a scene of "Dum Dum" Dugan, the muscular, moustachioed second-in-command of the Howlers - alive and well and back at base - being shouted at by Captain Sam Sawyer, the man whose regular job it is to shout abuse at the commandos and send them on missions, all the time thinking what a wonderful bunch of soldiers they really are. He tells Dugan that with Eric captured and Fury unconscious in hospital, he's decided that this would be a good time to reassign him and two other Howlers (movie star Dino Manelli - whose resemblance to Dean Martin was presumably picked up more readily by readers in the sixties and seventies - and comedy Englishman Percy Pinkerton) to an all-new commando squad, the rest composed of criminals. Dugan isn't happy about it, naturally enough, and stomps out. But we're given full details of the Deadly Dozen:




These two pages are separated by the classic Charles Atlas advert, funnily enough. Dum Dum Dugan could definitely beat Charles Atlas in a fight, any day.

Now take a look back at the cover, and you'll notice something interesting. Dugan is getting shot through the bowler hat, as happens to him every month - if only the Germans had aimed a couple of inches lower, they'd have won the war in weeks - but he's accompanied by only eight new characters out of the nine. And who's that with the eyepatch?

Well, the answer actually seems to be Ace Hamilton. When drawn in normal size, the Dozen look nothing like those close-up pictures above - they're drawn as generic comic characters with no distinctive features - so they all wear different hats to tell them apart. Hamilton is the one who wears the helmet, and it seems he was drawn with an eyepatch throughout this issue, but then it was tippexed out in most but not all of the panels. Sometimes you can see a stray line on his face where the strap hasn't been properly erased, when he's standing in the background he's fully eyepatched. This is pretty typical of the behind-the-scenes chaos that typifies the Deadly Dozen.

So where's Snake-Eye Simpson? (Or Snakeye, as it's written in this issue?) Well, that will become a regular question throughout the series. He's in this story, wearing a woolly hat and seen occasionally in the background, but never does anything of interest. He must be a last-minute addition, perhaps when someone decided that the Dozen had to have twelve members. Not that it stayed that way for long, as you'll see.

It's worth mentioning that the weird pale yellow colour of Shigeta's skin was an artistic convention of the time, making Oriental characters look different using the very limited colour palette available in the early days of the comic. It looks awful, I know. The Deadly Dozen are impressively diverse, though, considering that the real-life US Army was still segregated in the forties. This was, I think, the first Marvel comic with two different regular black characters (Sgt Fury was revolutionary in having one, Gabe Jones, so this was the logical next step). On the other hand, Bullseye Miller seems to have been transplanted from the 1970s - everything about his appearance and behaviour in his rare moments in the spotlight looks thirty years later than the time period he's supposed to be living in...

Anyway, once we've been introduced to the new characters in this way, Dugan goes to bed and has a three-page dream telling us what happened between last issue and this one - the remaining pilot died, but everyone else got away safely. We're reminded again that Eric Koenig is missing and that Nick Fury is in hospital, and then Dugan, Manelli and Pinkerton go to meet the rest of the team.

Sawyer promotes Dugan to sergeant, asserting that "we can't have a corporal leading a commando squad!" - which will be quite funny when we see the next story - and then we finally meet the rest of the Deadly Dozen. They have a training session in which they get to demonstrate some basic personality traits.

Hamilton, without eyepatch, seems to have also been wedged into this issue at the last minute - this page is typically weird:



From the art, it looks rather like Dugan is talking to Hillbilly throughout, but the dialogue in the first half seems to have been changed at the last minute to make it a conversation with Hamilton. Note the eyepatch in the first panel, and that the man in the cap at the far right of panel two is Shigeta - he's drawn and coloured like a white man if he's not in close-up. I can't help thinking they made a whole lot of late changes to the lineup of this squad while the comic was being drawn by long-suffering Dick Ayers.

Anyway, Hamilton acts lazy and spoiled, Wagner acts like a hillbilly singer, Laurie Livingston is unwilling to get muddy on the obstacle course (but is thrown in the mud by Dugan, who insists there'll be no sex discrimination in his outfit). Dugan then outshoots Miller on the target range, asserting that Miller's reputation suggests he can do much better than he currently is. Why he's underperforming is never followed up on.

There's then a bare-chested wrestling match between Dugan and Hoss Cosgrove, which Dugan wins and Hamilton and Miller bet on. And then there's a call from the hospital - Fury has woken up. In two panels, the nominal star of this series says hello to his colleagues, who then depart with the Dozen on their first mission. There's only four pages left in the comic, so it has to be quick, but we manage to give everyone a moment to show off their quirks.

First off, Laurie Livingston gives a motivational speech (saying ruddy and bloomin' repeatedly), and then the squad go into action against a raft of German spies who happen to be passing. Miller shoots one in what the dialogue assures us is a non-fatal way, Sample gives another a low blow ("here's a Don Sample original... although it's probably not worth as much as my drawings!" - that's his only character moment, and only line, in this issue), Shigeta defeats another with a karate chop (talking about "self-defense", a craze which started in the sixties, so perhaps he's been transplanted from modern days too), Hillbilly hits a German with his guitar, Laurie beats up another, proving that women can do whatever men can do, Hoss Cosgrove impressively beats up half a dozen Germans at once, spinning them around over his head, Hamilton offers another a pack of cards to pick from before punching him in the face, and Jake Jensen goes to steal one man's wallet before headbutting another with the steel plate in his skull.

The baddies are all beaten and captured, and someone who by a process of elimination must be Snake-Eye Simpson offers to go through their pockets to check for weapons but is told to shut up by Dugan. Then Captain Sawyer shows up to shout at them and secretly think that they're a splendid bunch of soldiers, and that's the end of this debut story.

The letters page, though, tells us to look forward to "Combat Kelly and the Deadly Dozen". But is that the same thrilling twelvesome you've just read about? C'mon - you don't think we'll spoil the surprise here, do you? I honestly don't think they know at this point. Because when the series launches next month, there are lots more changes ahoy...


Combat Kelly and the Deadly Dozen #1

June 1972






Yes, Combat Kelly, and not Dum Dum Dugan. That surely can't have been the intention when they wrote the Sgt Fury comic just a month ago, but that's what we get here. Kelly is a revival of the title character from an old war comic, cancelled long before. And while Sgt Fury #99 reprints another old adventure, our new story for the month is this one.

We start with a splash page of Kelly leading the rest of the Dozen as established in the last issue, minus Dugan - Manelli and Pinkerton, plus the nine new convicts. This is the only time we get to see this incarnation of the Dozen all together, but it leads straight into the story itself. It's very confusing. We get another page of the Dozen attacking a new Nazi jet plane, Combat Kelly losing his cool under fire while Manelli and Pinkerton worry that he's not up to the job. The rest of the squad are featureless blobs in the background.

Then we move into a flashback, which a caption assures us is to the end of Sgt Fury #98 - however, instead of Captain Sawyer showing up personally to greet the commandos, a messenger in a jeep summons Corporal Dugan to go and see him. Yes, he's wearing corporal's stripes again and addressed as such - his promotion is never mentioned again. Hoss Cosgrove grumbles at being bossed around by Manelli and Pinkerton while Dugan is gone, but Shigeta (coloured caucasian throughout this issue rather than that horrible pale yellow) reminds him that it's better than jail.

At HQ, Sawyer shouts abuse at Dugan again but tells him he's done a good job, then shows him the file on Michael "Combat" Kelly - used to be a heavyweight boxer, but recently killed a man with his bare hands (we're not told why) and is now serving a life sentence. Sawyer assigns Dugan back to the Howlers ("Fury will be out of the hospital in a few days now... and with Manelli and Pinkerton in the Dozen, he's gonna need you more than ever!" he says, explaining this weird and sudden change of heart) and invites Kelly into the room. He's got a chance of a pardon if he serves his country well and leads the Deadly Dozen, apparently. He's also a corporal, but it seems that now it's okay for a corporal to lead a commando squad. We're introduced again to the team...



Same artist, but several of them are drawn quite differently this time, aren't they?

I love Sample's line here! It turns him from a common crook into a free-thinking idealist who plays by his own moral code and is quite up-front about how he'll do it again given the chance. This, and the fact that he used to be an officer as established last issue, are never mentioned again, but there's real potential to do a good story with him. Likewise, Snake-Eye Simpson, now that he's drawn as a cool-looking, cigarette-smoking man rather than a tracing of a Jack Kirby face, seems to be showing signs of interesting personality too. I wonder what happened to him? As we'll see - or rather not see - he doesn't appear again, apparently forgotten about completely. Too bad, really. And Hoss Cosgrove's downright refusal to do anything is fun too, albeit rather at odds with his exuberant Nazi-bashing last month.

Kelly takes issue with a woman serving on his team, and Laurie responds with "We need a leader... not a blimey brute with no brains!" 'Blimey' isn't an adjective, you know. She's not really British, I can tell. Not like brolly-carrying Percy Pinkerton, who's as English as they come!

Captain Sawyer intervenes in the argument, telling the two of them they'll have to work together. Interestingly, he remarks in passing that "I'll give you a replacement for Cosgrove - because I don't think he'll work as a team member --"

And that's it for Hoss Cosgrove. He disappears from the story completely from here on in. Why feature him in the first couple of pages if he's not going to appear? Why write him out in the first place? I really don't know what was going on during the production of this series, but this is one of the reasons why I find it so fascinating. Snake-Eye Simpson also doesn't appear after this point, barring one background scene that's probably him, and is never even mentioned again. Likewise, Don Sample disappears for the remainder of this issue except for one panel, but at least he shows up again later down the road.

So we need replacements, I guess - luckily, Kelly knows a couple of people he's planning to recruit, and they get two whole panels to introduce themselves:



Jay Little Bear, as the caption tells us, was a regular character in another now-cancelled Sgt Fury spin-off a couple of years earlier. We're never told how he ended up in prison, how he came to be friends with Combat Kelly or how he's now a commando - Captain Savage was a comic about marines - or given any more detail than this about Doc Watson's crime. Then the new-look squad (seen in silhouette so we can't really tell who's there) are sent off on their mission - to destroy a Nazi jet plane and kidnap the scientist who built it.

As mentioned above, Simpson and Sample play no real part in the mission, and neither does Doc Watson - after his introduction, we don't see him again this month. But I guess they're all there, because Kelly frets that "twelve people are gonna die" if he gets things wrong and the narrator tells us that "two ex-Howlers and eleven convicts" are going on the mission. The "Dozen" now excludes Kelly, it seems. We don't really ever get to see a full Dozen in action as the series progresses - I guess so many characters is just too many to juggle in one comic.

The others get their moments, though - Manelli and Pinkerton complain to Sawyer about following a criminal's orders, but he shouts at them and sends them back into action.

In Germany, Bullseye Miller guns down a lot of Germans (unlike last issue, where for some reason they were under orders to take everyone alive, killing Nazis is okay again now) and the ex-Howlers pitch in too. Percy throws his trusty brolly at one. A survivor is pressed into service to lead them to the plane. Kelly is drawn in one panel with no fringe, just a balding head - he looks actually like he might be Cosgrove, coloured wrong, but it's hard to tell.

But the shining moment goes to Ace Hamilton. Sneaking up on a guard, he thinks to himself "Man, I can't wait to feel his neck break in my hands!", laying the groundwork for the sadism that will go on to define him later. There's been no mention of it before now, but it's his personality from here on out! Meanwhile, Little Bear shoots a guard with his bow and arrow (no, really), Jensen and Shigeta remind us briefly that they exist and assert that they're not inferior to the master race, while Miller disables the alarm. Then Hillbilly Wagner distracts the Germans by singing folk songs over the PA system (again, really, this is how the Americans fought the war, apparently) and a bit more fighting ensues.

But then Ace Hamilton finds the scientist, who surrenders, but Ace kills him anyway for the fun of it, laughing heartily. Little Bear suspects he wasn't firing in self-defence like he claims, but can't prove anything at the moment. Then all that's left is to destroy the plane, run for it, and give Laurie her turn in the spotlight, proving again that a woman can fight and arguing with the chauvinist Kelly. Yes, she says 'chauvinist', another very seventies expression. And so our heroes escape back to base!

In Ace Hamilton's personality shift, we really get something different in this comic - he's one of the very few Dozen members who consistently gets a personality, and it's an interesting one. On the one hand, we're supposed to disapprove of his cold-blooded killing, but on the other hand he's a really awesome bastard. And his ideological conflict with Jay Little Bear gives us a fascinating subplot to follow as the series progresses.

Of course, it'll be a long, long time before we get back to it...

Combat Kelly and the Deadly Dozen #2

August 1972



Sgt Fury #100 was a special celebration story, set in the present day, in which the Howlers (including Manelli and Pinkerton) get together at the Marvel Comics office to celebrate a hundred issues. The creative team also appear - Nick Fury observes that Gary Friedrich looks like a blasted hippy, and indeed he's drawn with long hair, groovy moustache and big peace-sign medallion. Seeing him in modern photos, he doesn't look a bit like that, and I feel quite cheated. #101 was another reprint - I guess Fury needed a lot of recovery time.

Meanwhile, this issue of "the Deadly Dozen" is a bit different. Kelly, Little Bear, Manelli and Pinkerton tunnel into a German prison camp to rescue three brave native Americans and a bunch of more apathetic white prisoners. A later letters page prints a letter asking why they didn't just go back through the tunnel with the prisoners - the answer is that they were worried it might collapse, but that's not mentioned here - so they blow their way out and have to run for cover. The brave Indians sacrifice their lives so that the others might escape. However, back home, Captain Sawyer refuses to give them the medal of honour, saying that all three were accused of cowardice before they were captured, and the best he can do is stop their families finding out about it.

Jay Little Bear is left to soliloquise "They kill off our race, let those who remain starve, then ask us to fight for them! And when three of us show great courage, they refuse to acknowledge it. Still we remain proud, and we will continue to remain proud - but for how long!? How long...?"

So, to sum up, all the new characters don't appear in this issue at all - the four established ones take part in a story about American Indians. Which is very noble, but it's clearly not what the readers of this war comic were expecting, judging by the letters pages, and it really slows down the plot of this bi-monthly comic to have most of the stars not showing up in this one. And there's more to come...

Combat Kelly and the Deadly Dozen #3

October 1972



Sgt Fury #102 returned at last to the war, and featured the only Sgt Fury comic without Dino Manelli or Percy Pinkerton, with a mission for the recovered Nick Fury and his depleted squad of Howlers. It also printed a letter listing the many spectacular failures that had attempted to use the "Dirty Dozen" concept since the movie came out a few years previously, which got a reply assuring us that Combat Kelly would be very different and not consist of 'tired old war stories' like those other examples. #103 goes back to reprints again.

Meanwhile, Combat Kelly #3 once again uses the convict concept by ignoring them completely, presenting us instead with the story we apparently demanded, "the origin of Combat Kelly!"

As a framing sequence, we're told it's January 1945, after the Battle of the Bulge - I guess they weren't planning on this series going on much longer, because the war's almost over! - and the Dozen and a bunch of other soldiers are running for cover in snowy wilderness. Manelli and Pinkerton are the only ones definitely identifiable, but there are brief lines given to characters who might be Hillbilly and Ace as the squad ask Kelly to tell his origin.

And so he does - back in 1940, it seems he was already in the army, but also a boxer in the army championship. He kills an opponent who has been drugged, but is released to fight the German champion, because he's the only American who can possibly beat him.

However, the German is a nasty piece of work, and his thugs beat up Kelly before the fight and break his ribs. Nonetheless, Kelly bravely fights anyway, and wins. Yay. Back in the war, he observes that the charges against him were dropped, although he was forbidden to box again, then at a later date "I got in trouble, and was convicted of manslaughter! Now that's where my real beef with the army comes in, and believe me, I've got one!"

So we don't even get the story of Kelly's manslaughter conviction, now or ever in the future! He's about to tell the story, when the Germans attack again, and they have to run for it. We're told that it'll be continued in Sgt Fury #104!

This is a weird series, isn't it? There are characters with potential to be interesting in a way that war comics hadn't done before, and instead we get a standard boxing story? Once again, the Deadly Dozen aren't in it at all - were the creators stalling for time or something, trying to agree on how to do something with this series?

Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos #104

November 1972



Crossover excitement! This is the normal marketing strategy - promote the new comic with another appearance in the parent title, then move the second part of the story over to the new one. It doesn't necessarily mean that the Deadly Dozen was doing badly in sales at this point.

Continuing from last issue of CK and the DD, our heroes have joined up with a new officer, Captain Conner, an untested captain who's coasting on his father's record, and the troops are worried he's not up to the job. Dino Manelli calls his old friends in the Howlers for reinforcements. Nick Fury persuades the general in charge that this would be a good idea, overruling Conner much to the latter's annoyance, and they set forth to turn the tide of the battle.

Interestingly, Eric Koenig is back with the Howling Commandos, without explanation. There seems to be a bit of uncertainty as to who he is - his name is never mentioned and his hair is often the wrong colour, but it can't be anyone else. And from the next new Sgt Fury story, he's a member of the team again. Must have escaped the Germans in an adventure too boring to include in the series.

Of course, the real explanation is that with reprints every other month, the creators (Roy Thomas has taken over as editor by this point, with Stan Lee moved upstairs) must have worried that readers were confused. With Eric, Dino and Percy among the Howling Commandos in odd-numbered issues - reprinted from old stories without any explanation that they weren't new - it doesn't make sense to have them absent in new material in the even-numbered stories. This also has to be why Manelli and Pinkerton return to the Howlers after this story. The crossover would be a good time to put in a line or two of dialogue explaining that this has happened, but they don't.

And so the Howlers join forces with the Dozen and fight off the German tanks. There's reunions all round - Shigeta, Miller and Little Bear get a line each, just to justify the 'guest starring the Deadly Dozen' label - and then Fury has a falling-out with Conner and is sent out on a suicidal scouting mission. Manelli and Pinkerton join up with the Howlers for it, and they come back to report to Kelly and Conner that a huge enemy army is approaching. This makes Conner crack up completely, at the worst possible time.

This, unlike the Deadly Dozen comics, is classic war story from Gary Friedrich - complete with healthy disdain for the officer class and a general distaste for war itself. Again, there's very little contribution from those new characters created for the series, so I can only assume the intention is to force Fury fans to buy the next issue and make them like the new characters then...

Combat Kelly and the Deadly Dozen #4

December 1972



Continuing straight on, our heroes are facing imminent death, and their officer has gone barmy. Fury takes charge and sends Miller and Wagner to escort Conner back to HQ. Jensen (with his skin coloured pink), Sample (hey, Don Sample's still alive!) and someone who's probably Ace Hamilton get a line each, tensely waiting as Fury enacts his plan to wait until the last possible moment, make the Germans think they've gone, and then strike suddenly with everything they've got.

It works quite spectacularly, giving Jay Little Bear a chance to get in a stereotypical remark about taking scalps back to the reservation. Meanwhile, Hillbilly, Bullseye and Conner are caught by a sniper who's got through the American lines. Hillbilly Wagner is killed stone dead and Bullseye Miller seriously wounded, but Captain Conner is still alive, albeit more unhinged than ever. He vows to get back to the battle and teach those traitors Fury and Kelly a lesson.

Fury calls his army off when the Germans are in full retreat, and we get a full and extensive look at the horrors of war on the battlefield - something we don't normally get in war comics. Then Conner shows up, insisting on executing the traitors who tried to mutiny against him, until he's shot in the back by Miller, who's followed him all this way before dying himself.

At Fury's insistence, they don't tell the general what happened, leaving him to believe Conner was the hero who masterminded the victory, but they pay tribute to Hillbilly and Bullseye, saying "get on with the war - and to HELL with heroes!"

Saying 'hell' in comics was frowned upon in America at the time, so it seems even more emphatic if you take it in context. This is a good one, Friedrich combining his hippy ideals with battle action in a way that goes further than his usual Sgt Fury stories.

So we say goodbye to four of the Dozen - Miller and Wagner are dead (a letter in a later comic points out that Hillbilly is alive again in Sgt Fury #105, and the editor apologises for the mistake, but that comic is a reprint of a much older story - the letter writer is confusing Hillbilly with Howling Commando Reb Ralston, who looks and sounds very similar and is occasionally called 'Hillbilly'), and Manelli and Pinkerton, we can only assume, return to the Howlers after this story - they're not seen or mentioned in the Deadly Dozen comic again. But, after a lengthy period when they don't appear in their own comic, in two months' time we get a story featuring our heroes!

Combat Kelly and his Deadly Dozen #5

February 1973



The title undergoes a subtle change this issue - from "Combat Kelly and the DEADLY DOZEN" to "COMBAT KELLY and his Deadly Dozen", with the Dozen name now in much tinier letters. Coupled with the cover highlighting Kelly in a big way, you'd think the emphasis of the comic had shifted away from the commando unit to its leader, but actually it's the opposite - despite the cover, Kelly barely features in this story, and certainly doesn't appear in the scene shown here!

In fact, after two and a half pages of the Dozen running an obstacle course under the orders of a tough sergeant - Little Bear and Kelly are the only ones who we see, the former getting his bow and arrow (yes, he still carries it around with him) caught on barbed wire - Kelly bows out of the main action for once. Then Laurie Livingstone shows up for the first time in ages, reminding Shigeta and Doc Watson that it's time for their date. Why she isn't involved in the obstacle course isn't revealed, but maybe it's her day off.

Hilariously, Kelly assumes the 'date' is a romantic liaison between Laurie and Howard, and wonders "but why drag the old Doc along on their date?!" I dread to think what he's imagining, to be honest. But he shrugs it off, and the three of them go off to a pub, where Laurie observes that it's the first ruddy chance they've had to talk since they were reunited in the Dozen.

This is a bit strange, really - the three of them have barely been seen, especially Doc Watson, who was in two panels of #1 and never showed up again, so you'd think they would have found a moment before now to have a quick chat. Shigeta, sadly, is drawn with slitty eyes and coloured that horrible pale yellow throughout - his sparse cameos in the previous four issues have coloured him like the white characters, and not really shown him with obviously Japanese features. Strangely, it's the same artist as always, Dick Ayers. Doc Watson, too, doesn't look much like he did in his one brief previous appearance.

The three of them chat about their first meeting - kidnapped by German spies in London, they are shipped to the prison on Devil's Island, and become friends along the way. They're all a bit mystified as to why they're there, all being civilians with no government connection, and the reason why Shigeta and Watson are kidnapped is never revealed (perhaps they were just in the wrong place at the wrong time, although I'm not sure what kind of parallel universe we're in when German spies wander the streets of London and kidnap people at will).

Laurie, though, is informed by evil Major Strasser that they have her father, whom she's never met, a prisoner, and she will persuade him to spill British government secrets. Meanwhile, an evil sergeant bullies and tortures Shigeta and Watson. But eventually, the three of them enact a plan to escape, Strasser is killed by the evil sergeant, who in turn is killed by Laurie - the first time she's ever killed anyone. Strangely, her father goes unmentioned after that one line.

Back in the pub, Kelly and the sergeant show up and offer to buy the three a drink, but they take the view that they've had enough sergeants for one day, and leave.

So that's that - a pretty conventional story, but at least it reminds us that three of the Dozen still exist and have stories to tell. I suppose we could have built on that if the series had lasted a bit longer. Maybe we'd even have got an explanation as to how these people ended up back together in the Deadly Dozen, because it's a pretty wild coincidence - they all were assigned there separately after committing individual crimes, after all. Still, we're back on track now, and from here on out it's actual stories featuring Combat Kelly and the Deadly Dozen!

Combat Kelly and his Deadly Dozen #6

April 1973



Just like the cover shows, we start with Combat Kelly leading an army to attack a fortress. He's accompanied by people who later in the issue are revealed to be Little Bear, "Johnson", Hamilton and Sample, but it's honestly not possible to tell from the art. Sample's characteristic moustache is shorter and more normal-looking than before and he's now wearing a red beret, Hamilton is drawn throughout this issue with black hair instead of his previous brown, and as for "Johnson", as he's repeatedly addressed throughout, he's either Doc Watson, or Jake Jensen coloured wrong, or an all-new character. It's impossible to tell.

You can recognise Jay Little Bear from the mohawk, at least.

The attack doesn't go well, the fortress is impenetrable, and they exchange views with the regular soldiers that their pilot has lost his nerve again and done a runner. Then we go on flashback to a USO dance, where Kelly and Laurie do something about the sexual tension that's supposedly been between them all along - although they haven't spoken since #1, so it comes as a bit out of the blue - and dance. Perhaps to flatter Kelly, she calls him "sergeant" several times, although he's still wearing his corporal's stripes.

But before they can kiss, they're interrupted by Captain Sawyer, who orders everyone back to barracks and tells Kelly to come with him. Ace Hamilton reminds us of his love of gambling, and how it's surpassed only by his love of killing krauts. Yes, that storyline hasn't been forgotten after all this time!

Meanwhile, Kelly is introduced to Jack "Mad Dog" Martin, amazing pilot who lost his nerve in the middle of battle, but has now been assigned to the Deadly Dozen. Kelly doesn't want to work with him, but Captain Sawyer is insistent. And when they return to the barracks, Hamilton picks a fight, but Martin - a small man - stands up for himself fiercely. Kelly orders Hamilton, Little Bear, Sample and Johnson (whoever he is) to get ready and come with him on the mission.

Strangely, the barracks is full of nondescript white men - are they members of the Dozen too? Have there been more recruits to replace the casualties and keep the name numerically accurate? There is an unidentified man who whines "Aww, sarge, can't you talk to 'im?" at the dance - it might even be the rarely spotted Snake-Eye Simpson, although by this stage I think it could be anyone. And yes, everyone's calling Kelly "sarge" now - it persists throughout the issue.

Off they fly, and Don Sample uses his photographic memory to examine the fortress from above, planning to analyse his blueprints in detail once he's got it down on paper. And yes, apparently Sample's got a photographic memory. Not been mentioned before this moment, but it comes in useful here. Meanwhile, Ace has fun shooting down planes, and is aiming for an ejected pilot when Little Bear punches him in the face, annoyed by his bloodthirsty attitude. Being Jay Little Bear, he phrases it as "I thought we'd seen the last of your kind at Wounded Knee!"

The five members of the Dozen then parachute out, leaving Martin to avoid the German fighter planes, spot the weak point in the fortress and come back for the others. Or will he lose his nerve again and fly away?

After our heroes have a little character moment each - Hamilton exults about the joy of fighting and killing, Sample laments that his photographic memory and amazing draftsman skills are being put to use shooting things and Johnson, whoever he is, thinks he must be nuts for giving up his nice safe cell for this - Mad Dog Martin returns and crashes his plane into the fortress, giving the soldiers their chance to break in. The others admire his sacrifice, but then it turns out he ejected in time and is just fine. The six commandos leave the soldiers to it and go on their way, welcoming Martin to the Dozen. "I ain't said I'd join... yet!" he quips. Actually, it seems to turn out he didn't join after all, because after they return home in the next issue, we don't see him again!

Combat Kelly and his Deadly Dozen #7

June 1973


Now this is a classic. The moment where the series really comes together, as highlighted by the new slogan "the war-mag for people who hate war!"

Our heroes are returning home from the last story, annoyed that they have to walk a long way back to their rendezvous and the army can't spare them a jeep to take them. Technically, "Johnson" should be with them, but apart from one early picture showing six figures walking from behind, he's entirely absent from this story. Maybe he died. So our lineup here is Kelly, Hamilton, Little Bear, Sample and Martin. Ace and Jay continue their fight, until Kelly forces them to keep away from each other.

Meanwhile, four Germans have been trapped behind the lines, and take shelter in a house owned by a nun, with four children of varying ages. Sister Angelique is a very forceful pacifist, and she makes the Germans go and wash their hands before inviting them to dinner. They agree - they're stuck behind enemy lines and with nowhere to go, and there's no sense in fighting for the sake of it. Impressively, they have individual personalities (if not names) and all feel that Sister Angelique is right in her views.

Then the Americans arrive, and the increasingly unhinged Ace Hamilton wants to shoot all the unarmed Germans dead, until Jay manages to stop him. And he's not keen on the nun and kids collaborating with the enemy either. Nonetheless, Sister Angelique manages to persuade the two sides to sleep without fighting each other, and night falls.

Kelly goes out for a smoke, and meets the German leader, who's in reflective mood and has been tired of fighting for a long time. But when you're in the army, what can you do but follow orders? However, Ace Hamilton has got his trusty knife and plans to kill all the Germans in their sleep. He's beaten to the punch, though, by a German who figures if he's going to be locked up without women for the rest of the war, this would be a good time to have his way with the oldest girl. It all turns into a mass brawl, until Sister Angelique comes along with a rifle. She orders the soldiers out of the house, and they leave, the Dozen with their prisoners.

It's a really beautiful story, properly exploring all the different points of view. It's very properly clever, and if you're going to read one of the wildly inconsistent nine-issue series, I'd recommend this one. And now we move on to the final act...

Combat Kelly and his Deadly Dozen #8

August 1973



Well, the end is nigh - writer Gary Friedrich obviously knew the series was being cancelled by now, so it's high time we got Kelly and Laurie together. Or Laura, as she's called throughout this issue.

The Dozen are on a training exercise scuba-diving, when Laurie gets her foot caught in a net. Annoyed with herself and fearing Kelly will be angry with her, she tries to get loose herself before he can rescue her, and just makes things worse. Kelly's annoyed all right, but back on the surface he finds himself taking the blame for the delay.

The Dozen are, once again, composed of a lot of nondescript white men. They really must have been recruiting, but the new bugs are gone by next issue! Kelly invites "Laura" out to the movies, and they see Humphrey Bogart, and eventually kiss. But then it's time to go on their next mission again - Kelly doesn't want Laura to go, but Captain Sawyer points out that she's an integral part of the plan.

And so they set off. The dinghy they're in seems to contain sixteen people, and only one sailor remains behind after everyone's jumped out. Who are these extras? And where do they go to after this issue? But they're going to bring down evil Doctor Sweikert, who's performing nasty medical experiments, and is expecting a high-ranking Dr Lola Steimle to visit. The plan is for Laurie to impersonate her and infiltrate the hospital.

The squad get up to the beach and successfully carry out the plan. Jay Little Bear gets a brief moment to himself, but otherwise it's very much Kelly and Laurie's story. She doesn't remotely resemble Dr Steimle, but they carry on anyway in hope that nobody's seen her before. It doesn't work, the Germans have a photo, and both Kelly and Laurie are captured.

After last issue's heights, we're back to a more by-the-numbers war story, although Dr Sweikert is genuinely scary, and his experiments are nasty. But this is setup for our final issue slaughter...

Combat Kelly and his Deadly Dozen #9

October 1973



And now all that's left is to kill everyone. Well, it had been long established that Sgt Fury and his team would survive the war, so it's only fair to bump off the Deadly Dozen, right? Or maybe the decline in popularity of war comics had put everyone in a bad mood. Anyway, this issue is death to everyone!

Or at least, everyone who shows up. The remaining members of the Dozen are clearly identified - Doc Watson, Jake Jensen, Howard Shigeta, Don Sample, Ace Hamilton and Jay Little Bear. They've been waiting for some sign from Kelly and Laurie, it hasn't come, and now they're moving in to rescue them.

So, Snake-Eye Simpson has definitely gone AWOL. So has Mad Dog Martin, for that matter. And Hoss Cosgrove? Doesn't he want to join his old friends for one last fight? Not a mention of any of them. Or of Dino Manelli and Percy Pinkerton, who are safely back with the Howlers.

They make what it has to be said is a pretty poor job of breaking in - Doc Watson, with his very limited grasp of German, is sent to distract the guards (thinking to himself that he's too old for this and doesn't want to be involved any more), and is killed - possibly because Ace is getting into position with his knife and not just firing his gun, though it's not entirely clear. Jake Jensen pronounces Doc dead and then is killed too.

The others break into the building and find themselves penned in with no time for Sample to pick the lock (he's a lockpicker now? Ah, all those hidden talents, what a waste) so he nobly sacrifices his life by blowing the door up with a grenade, sheltering the others with his own body. Hamilton is staggered by such a stupid death, but then, as Jay points out, he wouldn't know anything about real heroism.

The adversaries come to blows again, and Shigeta has to tell them to stop fighting and get on with the mission. His reward for that is being shot dead himself. So our two surviving heroes split up, and Ace goes on another killing spree, including Red Cross nurses. Jay is furious and vows to settle things once and for all, but Ace is then killed when his gun jams, leaving him open to be shot by the Germans. Dumb luck, he muses to himself - if his love of gambling had been mentioned more often, it might count as an ironic death, but as it is, we're rather expecting his comeuppance for his sadism. He doesn't learn his lesson at all, dying with the words that "You ain't gonna have old Ace to bail you out any more..."

Jay Little Bear finally manages to rescue Kelly and Laurie, but by this time she's had her legs permanently crippled by evil Dr Sweikert. They get to an ambulance, where Jay is shot and killed, leaving only Combat Kelly and his disabled lover to survive the series.

Kelly goes to Captain Sawyer and angrily resigns, saying he's never coming back to the army. Sawyer muses that Kelly will change his mind, but that's the last we see of him, ever.

Sgt Fury and his Howling Commandos limped on for another few months, until #120 had the last original story. It went on for another eight years or so as a bimonthly reprint title, but then that was the end of war comics for Marvel.


And so that's that. It's a great series to read, really. If you like something different, anyway. There's some really good moments in there, and a lot of characters who they could do so much more with if ever anyone saw fit to bring them back in a new series. It needs to be reprinted in a collection, at least - come on, Marvel, this could mend fences with Gary Friedrich! Or get him to write a new Deadly Dozen series! And get Dick Ayers out of retirement to draw it - according to Wikipedia he's still around, aged 87!

6 comments:

Geoff said...

So THAT's what you've been doing for the last week and a half!

Surely it must be possible to make a living reviewing old comics?

Zoomy said...

You'd be surprised how small the market is for extensive reviews for early-seventies war comics that nobody has heard of. Or even for reviews of "cool" comics - the sad fact is, practically nobody reads the things any more.

But this is a useful exercise in writing, if I want to do that generally for a living, and so it's and entirely necessary and relevant use of my time!

Mike said...

Isn't it wonderful that a man with a bow and arrow can take on the machine-gun guard in the watchtower!

Not only does he notch an arrow but he simultaneously makes a speech about how he will die trying.

It must be devastating to be a watchtower guard and, in one's dieing moments, to reflect that one's 20 rounds a second weapon was no match for a determined huge target archer.

By the way Ben, is it just me or have CAPTCHAs become really tough in recent months?

Zoomy said...

I'll have to see if I can make it stop doing that. I don't have to prove I'm not a robot as long as I'm logged in here, and I don't seem to have had any robots come by lately...

Rod said...

Well, at least one more person wants to read these kinds of things! Had just read the first issue in Marvel Firsts "The 70's" Volume 1 and wanted to learn more about the characters. Enjoyed your commentary on the wild inconsistencies of the title. Thanks for the series recap!

Zoomy said...

Wow, thanks! I appreciate it! I can see I'll have to write more things like this now!