Saturday, February 5, 2011
Social History in Comics: Sgt. Fury 56 - "Gabriel, Blow Your Horn!"
While the entire series of Sgt. Fury showcases racial integration, several issues take an active, outspoken stance against racism. Sgt. Fury 56 is one such issue. Written and drawn by the creative team that made the book an award-winner, "Gabriel, Blow Your Horn" focuses on Gabriel Jones, the Howlers' African American member. The story picks up from the previous issue when Gabe was captured by the Nazis, and starts with his escape and the beginning of his trek to re-connect with the Howlers. A sub-plot that gets going early on is Rebel Ralston's anger at Gabe's capture. He blames Fury and tries to start a fight. What Friedrich is doing here, as others before him had done, is to dispel the stereotype that Southerners are all racists. This will return at the story's conclusion. After five pages Gabe has managed to contact the French Resistance, and in exchange for their assistance, he receives orders to rescue an African American female jazz singer whom the Nazis have enslaved.
The Resistance sell Gabe, in the guise of jazz trumpeter Lips Norton, to the Nazis, thus allowing Gabe access to the female singer. The Howlers, also being aided by the Resistance, split up with a plan to rendezvous for their boat trip over to England. It's now that Rebel happens to pass by the club where Gabe is playing, and he recognizes his comrade's style. Rebel gets spotted by the Nazis, however, and has to make himself scarce. By page 10 we see that Gabe is beginning to wonder about the lady he's supposed to be rescuing - she seems happy with her lot and not at all hankering for freedom.
After the show, Gabe takes care of the guard and is able to chat with Carla, the jazz singer. Gabe expects her to be glad to have a rescuer, only to find that she prefers her lot with the Nazis. True for WWII, and unfortunately a situation not fully resolved in the late 60s, African Americans returned home from war to be treated as second class citizens in their own country. Carla reckons she has it better right where she is, where at least the Nazis appreciate her talent. Carla maintains that the situation for African Americans back home in the States is hopeless. Gabe tries persuading her by saying that famous African Americans like herself need to engage in the struggle if equality is ever to be achieved. She's not convinced, but Gabe has his orders - he's going to try and get her out of there anyway. By page 15 Gabe has sprung Carla, Fury and the rest of the Howlers minus Rebel have been captured by the Nazis, and both Gabe and, separately, Rebel are about to discover where they're being held.
When Gabe sees the Howlers prisoners, naturally he wants to mount a rescue. Carla, however, disagrees with Gabe's plan. She sees that none of the Howlers (except for Gabe) are African American, and believes that none of them would risk their lives to save Gabe if their positions were reversed. Gabe isn't interested in her racist views of whites - he sees both black and white as American, and he's going in to help the guys he knows would do the same for him. This sparks a revolt by the Howlers, and a melee ensues.
The Howlers have just about made good their escape, when the Nazi leader returns holding the scared Carla as a hostage. Much to Carla's astonishment, Fury and his men couldn't care less about her skin color, they'll put down their guns and surrender to save her - she's one of them - an American!
The Howlers have gone from the frying pan into the fire, but just when everything looks hopeless Rebel makes his entrance, and that good old Southern boy saves the day. Carla's had a complete change of heart, and is going back to the USA with a revised outlook - not all whites are racists after all, not even all Southerners!
So ends Friedrich's anti-racist tale, one that denounces racism whatever form it takes. It can't have been easy to write and publish such material, racism being such a sensitive topic, especially since it was a comic that featured an African American person in a position of power that resulted in the great EC closing down due to a Comics Code judge's decision in the mid-50s. This story acknowledges the paradox of the United States and the principles of equality and freedom enshrined in its founding documents juxtaposed to the irony of African Americans who risked, and in many cases gave, their lives fighting the ultimate racists in WWII to defend that freedom, only to return home to discrimination because of the color of their skin. Yet not everyone with white skin was or is a racist, just as not everyone with colored skin is free from racism. It's not one particular race that is the enemy of freedom, its the divisive racist mentality that tears society apart and sets human against human.