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Hill hid­den be­hind the scenes, ma­nip­u­lat­ing the su­per­heroes in their bat­tles.

In the early 1960s, when mod­ern Marvel be­gan, we felt real ten­sion be­tween the en­thu­si­as­tic, fiercely in­de­pen­dent am­a­teur he­roes and the mostly-face­less forces of the es­tab­lish­ment – we backed the Hulk against Gen­eral Ross and his “Hulk­busters”; Spidey against the po­lice and the press; the X-Men against ev­ery­one – but now all that’s changed. For all its qual­i­ties, the orig­i­nal Nick Fury se­ries never got over the fact that our hero was a mid­dle-aged pub­lic ser­vant in a suit. To­day we’re asked to cheer such he­roes, and – post 24 and Home­land – revel in their by-any-meansnec­es­sary meth­ods. “The Man” has won.

We first met Nick Fury – gruff, two-eyed, mostly un­shaven – in 1963, when he starred in his

own comic, Sgt Fury And His Howl­ing Com­man­dos, in which he was de­picted as a two-fisted US Army NCO, leading an un­likely gang of rough­necks on clan­des­tine WW2 mis­sions. He was one of Jack Kirby’s more au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal he­roes, and – though Sgt Fury was by no means a real­is­tic strip – plenty of Jack’s own war-time mem­o­ries would crop up in the book; sur­pris­ing tech­ni­cal ac­cu­racy sat along­side near­su­per­hero lev­els of phys­i­cal der­ring-do.

“The War Mag For People Who Hate War Mags” was a mi­nor hit, but Nick Fury’s sec­ond strip was very dif­fer­ent. Though still mus­cu­lar and rough-edged, this Fury was sleeker, more ur­bane – to a point – and sig­nif­i­cantly pro­moted. Now a Colonel, he was the proac­tive leader of a vast and se­cret spy or­gan­i­sa­tion, SHIELD. Its wide-rang­ing mis­sion: to counter as­sorted threats to the state, and to the world.

HY­DRA lives!

As early as De­cem­ber 1963, a Fan­tas­tic

tale had fea­tured a re­vived Adolph Hitler as the vil­lain, and along the way had found time for the first mod­ern-day ap­pear­ance of Nick Fury, here pre­sented as a CIA agent. Around the same time, Cap­tain Amer­ica had cropped up in an is­sue of the Howl­ing Com­man­dos book. Cap and Fury would keep com­pany through the years, for­ever cross­ing over into each other’s ti­tles, the fact that both were relics of the Great­est Gen­er­a­tion lend­ing their tales a cer­tain spe­cial grav­i­tas. The mod­ern SHIELD ad­ven­tures we en­joyed in Strange Tales from the mid-’60s on, and the si­mul­ta­ne­ous Cap mis­sions in Tales Of Sus­pense, al­most seemed to merge at times, to­gether telling one huge su­per­spy story packed with sci-fi para­mil­i­tary out­fits like HY­DRA[ THEM and AIM.

But as Marvel built its now-fa­mous Uni­verse in huge, Hulk-like leaps, Nick Fury was one of its least likely stars. Why on Earth – the cool kids who read Spi­der­Man won­dered – was this blunt WW2 relic be­ing given first one, then two strips, the sec­ond launched in half-book chunks in the pages of Strange Tales in 1965[

Called Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD[ this was a re­place­ment for that an­thol­ogy’s hope­lessly weak the Hu­man Torch and the Thing story. If Fury was 20 in 1941 – un­likely; he seemed far older – he would have to have been at least in his mid­for­ties by “the present day”. Over the years he ap­peared to have learned how to (oc­ca­sion­ally) shave, but he’d lost an eye (a ge­nius twist, al­low­ing him to wear street clothes yet be im­me­di­ately recog­nis­able through his rak­ish eye-patch). And now he was be­ing head­hunted – as two-fisted “ram­rod” for a su­per-sci­en­tific in­tel­li­gence agency highly rem­i­nis­cent of TV’s UN­CLE, but on a big­ger budget. His equally spritely ex­is­tence in two time frames was even­tu­ally ex­plained away by giv­ing him a su­per-serum that kept him young[

A cou­ple of things seemed im­me­di­ately un­likely here – and no, it wasn’t all the fly­ing cars, Life Model De­coys and se­cret bases hid­den un­der bar­ber’s shops. One was that any­one would pick such a rough-an­dready NCO, lick­ety-split pro­mote him to Colonel, and put him in charge of this hy­per-ex­pen­sive out­fit. The other was that – for once, and amaz­ingly, con­sid­er­ing what was go­ing on in strips like Iron Man at the time – the bad­dies here weren’t Stan Lee’s de­fault “Com­mies”. In­stead, the main en­emy was a se­cret ca­bal called HY­DRA (usu­ally capped, though it didn’t seem to stand for any­thing), bru­tal masked fas­cists with a world dom­i­na­tion thing go­ing on.

Per­haps it was that Napoleon Solo on TV was bat­tling THRUSH, not a yeast in­fec­tion but a se­cret or­gan­i­sa­tion that be­lieved, as Solo once said, “in the twoparty sys­tem – the masters and the slaves”. (Just to make it clear that THRUSH were in no way Com­mies, he was teamed with

Illya Kuryakin, a Soviet UN­CLE agent.) Or per­haps it was that, by 1965, even 007 was fight­ing in­die out­fit SPEC­TRE in Thun­der­ball, rather than the Rus­sian SMERSH of ear­lier films. Both doubt­less had their in­flu­ence on SHIELD, as did the fact that the cool col­lege kids were all swing­ing left by this point, pulled that way by the re­al­ity of Viet­nam. Com­mu­nist en­e­mies sim­ply no longer stacked up.

What­ever, this change of fo­cus was cer­tainly lib­er­at­ing to SHIELD. It meant Stan and Jack could have fun, and the new strip – Supreme Head­quar­ters, In­ter­na­tional Es­pi­onage, Law-En­force­ment Di­vi­sion was the orig­i­nal, con­vo­luted ex­pla­na­tion for the name – was packed with in­ven­tion: strange tech, weird ve­hi­cles, se­cret oaths and all the rest. The very first story – though only half an is­sue long – was packed with this stuff, the mas­ter­stroke be­ing a dra­matic re­veal that SHIELD’s head­quar­ters was a vast fly­ing airstrip called the Heli­car­rier, held up by gi­ant ro­tor blades and dwarf­ing the Jumbo Jets that con­stantly took off from and landed upon it.

It was gid­dily ex­cit­ing stuff, but po­ten­tially alien­at­ing, so the grumpy Fury and his sup­port­ing cast – chief amongst them be­ing the most pop­u­lar and in­ter­est­ing of the “Howlers”, no­tably “Dum-Dum” Dugan and Gabe Jones – added a work­ing class Man­hat­tan vibe that made the whole thing feel more grounded and ap­peal­ing, and pro­vided a nice coun­ter­point to the snob­bish Bond. It was hard to imag­ine Fury en­joy­ing a Mar­tini with 007 in some South of France casino, but easy to pic­ture him bundling down to a cor­ner bar for a beer with all the other work­ing stiffs. Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD was not ini­tially any great shakes in terms of sto­ry­lines – they soon be­came repet­i­tive, with HY­DRA overused – but the tech made it soar. In time, even Iron Man would move into the high-tech su­per­spy space now be­ing so ably carved out by Cap­tain Amer­ica and SHIELD.

Who is Sc orpio?

The point where Nick Fury, Agent of

be­came great, how­ever, was around 1966-67. Un­der a fire­cracker new talent – Jim Ster­anko, a glam­orous, swag­ger­ing one-time ma­gi­cian, es­cape artist, car thief and mu­si­cian – SHIELD

Ster­anko oozed glam­our like no other

comics cre­ator

was head­ing in a dif­fer­ent di­rec­tion. Ster­anko had worked as art di­rec­tor at a Penn­syl­va­nia ad­ver­tis­ing agency, and oozed glam­our like no other comics cre­ator: he was good-look­ing and con­fi­dent, with an eye for a strik­ing hair­style and a beau­ti­ful woman. He un­der­stood pop cul­ture like few oth­ers, and had a knack for pick­ing up al­most any skill overnight: the Pop Art glam­our of the “Bat­ma­nia” that had sur­rounded the hit Bat­man TV show thrilled him, so here he was, hop­ping aboard comics as the hot new thing. First up, he’d sold a hero called Spy­man to Har­vey, but now he was knock­ing on the door of the in­dus­try’s Ground Zero, Marvel, and swiftly mold­ing his style into a ver­sion of Kirby’s. Stan was bowled over, know­ing the work was crude but lov­ing the raw

en­ergy of it, and had Ster­anko be­gin by pen­cilling and ink­ing the Fury strip over Kirby’s lay­outs. By Strange Tales #155 (April 1967), with Kirby cut­ting back his work­load, Ster­anko was given the en­tire strip to write, draw, do what­ever he wished with – no­body else, since Wally Wood on Dare­devil, had been of­fered such a deal.

“Ev­ery­thing I could pos­si­ble ap­ply from my back­ground, in­clud­ing the magic I’ve done, goes into ev­ery comic story,” said Ster­anko. “Nick Fury be­came Ster­anko.”

And so he did. This was a no­tably slim­mer, more el­e­gant Fury – more James Coburn than John Wayne – and much more a ladies’ man; a young, el­e­gant Amer­i­can Bond who hung out with su­per­model looka­likes and en­joyed some of the most bla­tant im­plied sex any­one had dared slip past the Comics Code. Ster­anko threw ev­ery­thing at the strip – you felt he wasn’t tak­ing it es­pe­cially se­ri­ously, and new con­cepts and gad­gets were aban­doned al­most as soon as they’d been in­tro­duced, but it was a giddy, end­lessly in­ven­tive ride nonethe­less, cy­cling be­tween mood pieces and messy but vis­ually stun­ning ex­plo­sions of stylised tech­no­log­i­cal vi­o­lence. This SHIELD was very aware of its own in­nate ridicu­lous­ness – but al­most painfully thrilling all the same.

But though Ster­anko’s writ­ing was fun – ex­celling at end-of-is­sue cliffhang­ers, of­ten re­vealed in vast two-page splashes – it was his art that got fan­dom talk­ing. Ini­tially it wasn’t per­fect, with some weird anatomy and painful per­spec­tives, but it al­ways had style – and seemed to im­prove from is­sue to is­sue. There was a vis­ual punch here, surely born of his ad­ver­tis­ing days, that few older artists could hope to com­pete with. A psy­che­delic whirl­wind of flashy ef­fects, bod­ies in bizarre mo­tion and out­ra­geous ma­chin­ery, there was an in­ven­tive­ness to the lay­outs that meant you never knew quite what you’d find when you turned each page. Ster­anko had fol­lowed Kirby in the use of col­lage, but added his own Op Art mono­chrome graphic ef­fects and weird strob­ing too – a con­stant use of spi­rals, con­cen­tric cir­cles and such gave it some­thing of the hip feel of The Avengers TV show. Un­like most comic book artists, he threw him­self into the colour­ing too – here was a guy con­cerned, not just with his in­di­vid­ual job, but with the whole pack­age of “his” comic.

Some were baf­fled – how was es­tab­lish­ment-boy Nick Fury sud­denly cen­tral to its trip­pi­est, most psy­che­delic comic since early Dr Strange?[ But the smart kids loved it, feed­ing off all the ref­er­ences to fine art – those Dali-es­que melt­ing clocks and the rest. And the ladies did too: here was a cool comic book hero they could ac­tu­ally fancy.

Ster­anko was still not yet 30, and feed­ing off a friendly com­pe­ti­tion with an even younger artist called Neal Adams. But work­ing like he did took time, and time was some­thing comics didn’t have. “He couldn’t care less about dead­lines, he did it his way,” said an ex­as­per­ated Stan Lee – and soon Adams was act­ing in a sim­i­lar fash­ion. Ed­i­tors hated it, but what could they do? These two had fan­dom by the balls, and Ster­anko had the lux­ury of a high-earn­ing day job too – comics were a hobby, the fi­nan­cial re­wards unim­por­tant. Plus, he had no fam­ily, no chil­dren – just a de­sire to ex­per­i­ment with the form.

In 1968 Marvel ex­panded yet again, and Strange Tales was split into two reg­u­lar

Sgt Fury led his mot­ley crew on one doomed mis­sion af­ter an­other. Kirby’s take on SHIELD’S Heli­car­rier. Ster­anko’s cov­ers were spec­tac­u­lar too. Fury’s un­mis­tak­able black eye patch.

Multi-panel magic from ‘Who Is Scor­pio’.

Ster­anko was hugely in­flu­enc ed by Op Art and psyched elia. Was Grav­ity’s Al­fonso Cuarón a Fury fan? “What Ever Hap­pened to Scor­pio?”: Ster­anko’s swan song. Ah.... those handy vor­tex beam de­vices.

Ground­break­ing op­ti­cal ef­fects. The sexy Contessa, Fury’s own Bond girl. A stun­ning Ster­anko dou­ble-page splash.

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