Back SHIEL D!
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.
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
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