Saturday, November 28, 2009

Great Moments in Comics: Sgt. Fury's Casablanca

Yesterday I had the good fortune to be able to watch the all-time film classic Casablanca on the big screen. Like most film fans, the scenes and lines form this movie have been ingrained in my mind for decades, even before I had actually seen the movie. Watching it up on the big screen with an enthusiastic crowd proved to be a far superior experience to huddling at home around the tube, and like most of us in attendance, I left the theater thinking about Bogart, Bergman and, of course, Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos.

Okay, so maybe not everyone was thinking about Sgt. Nick Fury and his ragtag crew of mismatched war heroes. But that's only because not everyone has had the unique (and perhaps dubious) pleasure of reading Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos #72 which features a storyline sure to be familiar to fans of Casablanca because it... er... is a complete rip-off of the plot of Casablanca.

Maybe rip-off isn't the right word, but even if you call it an homage, it's still a downright bizarre story, the strangest part of being that it doesn't actually star Sgt. Fury or his Commandos at all. Rather, taking the lead for this issue is Fury's commanding officer, Captain "Happy" Sam Sawyer. The story starts with Happy Sam and the Howlers enjoying a little R & R; a certain tune is played on the piano, sending Sam into a wistful flashback where he recounts an experience in Marrakesh from the early days of the war.

What follows is a heavily edited, but still painfully obvious, rehashing of the Casablanca storyline. Sam, it turns out, has been sent to rescue a defecting German scientist by the name of Professor Steubens who was stranded in Marrakesh. Arriving in the Saharan city, Sam makes his way to "Mike's Chicago Bar", where he meets Mike, an American ex-pat who has no interest in the war and is only out for himself.

Without Mike's help, Sam has to fend for himself, and soon is attacked by the shifty (and obvious Peter Lorre stand-in) Charly Ming, who was sent by his employer, Pasha Bey, to eliminate Sam. Sam escapes this trap, but is arrested by the local French police commandant, Eric Leroux, who mistakenly believes that Sam is actually in Marrkesh to rescue a certain Danish resistance leader by the name of Josef Van de Groot. Van de Groot, you see, is also stuck in Marrakesh, along with a female companion.

Well, to make a long (and really complicated) story short, Sam rescues Professor Steubens from Pasha Bey (who, I might add, is a double for Casablanca's Signor Ferrari), but the professor won't leave without also rescuing Van de Groot. Bey, switching sides when he sees a good deal, arranges to help Sam out by putting him in contact with Van de Groot. But there's a twist: it turns out that Mike, the owner of Mike's bar, is in love with Van de Groot's companion and so he also joins forces with Sam.

Just in time, too, because Leroux has decided to make a name for himself by bagging everyone at once. But Sam and Mike manage to turn the tables on the French captain and are able to help both Van de Groot and the Professor escape. Van de Groots companion, though, stays behind with Mike and we learn that she is, in fact, Van de Groot's daughter, not his wife.


Now, fans of the movie will notice some of the obvious differences, which are explained in a roundabout way by the credits for this issue. The art is, as usual, provided by the team of Dick Ayers on pencils and John Severin on inks, but instead of usual writer Gary Friedrich there's a note from editor Stan lee saying "Gary couldn't make it this time around, so practically the whole blamed Bullpen sat around workin' on this one!"

That, in fact, is only half true. Friedrich, you see, did write the original version of this issue, which is no surprise considering Friedrich was a well known Casablanca mega-fan; in 1972 he would end up writing "As Time Goes By" for an issue of Marvel's romance title My Love #16, where a girl is so in love with Bogart's Casablanca character that she can't be bothered with actual men. So it's pretty unlikely that he would not have been involved with this issue.

The truth, which was explored in some detail in Roy Thomas's fanzine Alter Ego, is that the original version of this issue was basically a scene-for-scene recreation of Casablanca, except with characters from Sgt. Fury written into it in minor roles. One problem: Marvel didn't have the rights to Casablanca, meaning this would be a pretty blatant copyright infringement. When Stan got a look at the finished product just a few days before it was to be sent to the publisher, he apparently hit the roof and ordered that the whole thing be re-written to cover their ass against a lawsuit. This is where the "whole blamed Bullpen" came in, as everyone feverishly worked to re-write the story over a weekend. Thus, while the story and characters are still obviously inspired by Casablanca, it's just different enough to keep the lawyers at bay.

Next up: A look at DC's version of It's A Wonderful Life starring The Spectre. Okay, just kidding, but that would be pretty cool, right?

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