It’s been a tough week for classic comic fans as several beloved creators have passed away: Russ Heath, Marie Severin and Gary Friedrich. Each has left behind an impressive body of work that will be celebrated for years to come.
Gary Friedrich, often tagged with the Marvel nomenclature as Groovy Gary Friedrich, was special as he was the Marvel writer who hooked me in deep.
Friedrich had quite an origin to his own comics career. He came into the industry along with his hometown pal Roy Thomas. He shared an apartment with Bill Everett and freelanced on Charlton Comics and Mars Attacks! and Superman trading cards at Topps. Friedrich created Hell-Rider for Skywald, and in retrospect it’s easy to see that this character was a prototype for his signature Marvel creation: The Ghost Rider.
While at Marvel, Friedrich would write quite a number of titles, but beyond The Ghost Rider, there was something special about his writing on one title in particular that grabbed me: Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos.
“There was an order of titles through which new writers would progress at Marvel,” Friedrich remembered in 2008 during an interview with The Oklahoman. “You’d start out with Millie the Model, then progress to western titles like Kid Colt and Two-Gun Kid, then came Sgt. Fury. But after I’d gone through that progression and written a few issues of Fury and was deemed ready to move on to the superhero big time, I didn’t want to let go of Fury and his Howling Commandos. I’d grown fond of the ol’ Sarge as well as of working with Dick Ayers and inker John Severin, so I talked Stan and Roy into letting me continue writing the title, which I did for several years and probably more than 50 issues.”
Sgt. Fury was a ostensibly a war comic about a tough-as-nails leader and his special ranger team of elite specialists. But it wasn’t like any other war comic out there.
This “elite team” just happened to also be lovable goofballs. The characters embraced a wise-cracking can-do attitude. The Howling Commands were optimistic in the most dire of circumstances and never afraid to pepper their adventures with corny one-liners and pseudo Borscht Belt comedy. Saving the day was important to characters, but if they didn’t get a couple of good jokes in along the way you just knew they’d be disappointed in themselves.
These were manly adventures, to be read with one’s tongue firmly planted inside one’s cheek, with an invisible “No Girls Allowed in the Clubhouse” sign seemingly pinned to each cover. Unlike the under-cover-of the night special mission teams in the movies who stealthily slink about at night, Sgt. Fury and his teammates, the Howlers, would announce their arrival with a boisterous southern yell: WAH-HOO!
But in each issue, characters would utter more than that one battle cry. Lots more. Despite being an action war comic, Friedrich created a lot of clever dialog. Sometimes it seemed as if the word balloons were crowding the characters off the page. Reading Friedrich’s Sgt. Fury took longer than reading other comics because there were just so many words on each page.
This series was created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Soon the writing chores were passed to Roy Thomas and the pencilling duties to Dick Ayers. Gary Friedrich took over as writer, and he and Ayers were soon joined by the superb John Severin as inker.
Together Friedrich, Ayers and Severin gave young fans a lesson in what is now known as world-building. Friedrich was able to create compelling stories, threaded with soap opera elements throughout, creating a self contained little universe. Sure, it all took place during World War II (and in the Marvel mythology beyond that) but even little boys realized it was pretty different from the real war. This was the fraternity version of the war : a bunch of guys having the time of their lives and laughing all the way.
As a young reader, I noticed that it was Friedrich who was driving the bus. (Or is that tank?) Once in a while, a guest writer , like Arnold Drake or Bill Everett would step in for an issue and it seems flat. With Friedrich, all the air was let out of the balloon.
For me, the timing was just right. While writing Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos, Gary Friedrich showed me how great authors create intriguing worlds and then how they keep them going. WAH-HOO! It was quite a ride, and I’m grateful for it.