Comics

Published on October 24th, 2014 | by Michael

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The List of Shame – Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD

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Back before Marvel dominated the blockbuster schedule, before Joseph Sitwell was a backstabbing, treacherous Neo-Nazi piece of shit, before SHIELD was staffed almost entirely by nice, white Abercrombie and Fitch models, there was Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD. With the second series of Agents of SHIELD nearly upon us here in the UK, I thought it was high time to revisit the comic where it all started.

In 1965, Marvel grand maestro Stan Lee noted that superspies such as James Bond, the men from UNCLE and Britain’s The Avengers were dominating the big and small screens. Thinking that comics needed their own horse in this race he decided to extract Nick Fury from his days as leader of the Howlin’ Commandos, scourge of the Third Reich and place an older, grizzled Fury at the head of his own spy organisation. Fury brought with him Howlin’ Commando stalwarts Gabe Jones and Dum Dum Dugan to help him but it was the personnel choices Lee made on the creative side in those early days that helped the book become the classic it is today.

The first Agent of SHIELD story appeared in Marvel’s Strange Tales #135 in the summer of 1965. The book was drawn by the legendary Jack Kirby, nicknamed King by Lee who has a much recorded penchant for that sort of thing.  The man who inked over Kirby’s drawings though was the man who would make the book and Nick Fury his own, the one man renaissance that was Jim Steranko. Steranko soon took over both writing and drawing duties and managed to create a colourful clash of style on the book despite being almost solely responsible for its artistic direction. His art was sensual, frequently psychedelic and very arresting visually but his characters were straight talking, no-nonsense action men who wouldn’t have stood for any of this arty crap. Fury was barely changed from his days as a commando, just a little more rugged and battle-worn, now sporting his familiar eye patch. He was the sort of man who gave the men under his commando no respite and expected none himself – the first scene features the SHIELD director personally taking part in a potentially deadly equipment test. Also in the cast early on is Dum Dum who has a similar hair trigger to his erstwhile Sarge and the altogether more level-headed Gabe Jones. Newer faces include stuck-in-the-mud Sitwell, a stickler for duty with a heart of gold who acts as Fury’s ramrod and Valentina Allegra de Fontaine, SHIELD’s star agent and love interest for Fury

Unlike its anaemic Television counterpart, Nick Fury was a comic infused with vibrancy, character and grand spectacle from the outset as the Director and his team battled egomaniacal villains hatching diabolical plots in outlandish secret lairs. As you might expect, the first issue has the newly minted Director Fury battling Hydra and its own new leader, Don Caballero. The story takes in killer statues, radio watches, jet packs and fist fights. Even among the comics Marvel were churning out at the time, this one stands out as particularly action-packed. It is clearly made by people who love the spies stories of the big and small screen but with the added advantage of being unrestricted by budgets. In contrast the current TV series, made nearly 50 years later, looks vanilla in comparison, featuring as it does some bickering on a plane. It is unfair to compare directly of course – not everything that Kirby and Steranko can depict on the page can be brought to life on screen, even now, but the contrast between the swashbuckling action of the comic and the safe, bland story of the week that made up early episodes of Agents of Shield is stark.

Nick Fury 2

The first story concludes with Fury rescuing the daughter of the deposed former leader of Hydra, the astonishingly blandly named Laura Brown, who would go on the serve SHIELD with distinction. Steranko now had complete control over the book and created thrilling sequences as well as striking artistic choices. In one picture, Fury is tormented by his own fears, composed of clawing hands, skeletal faces and a disembodied brain and nervous system, rendered in black and white, the drawings almost looking like pencil outlines waiting to be inked and coloured. All this while Fury is making a bold escape from a HYDRA lair. This juxtaposition was typically atypical of Jim Steranko. As a child he had suffered from tuberculosis, leaving him as small and a target for bullies until he learned self-defence from his YMCA. Then as a teen he learned stage magic from his father and spent his summers working at carnivals as a sleight of hand man and a fire eater. He went on to learn fencing, compete at gymnastics, work as an illusionist and escape artist and form a Rock n Roll band. It is no surprise then, given the myriad influences and wide skill set that Steranko had that his career would prove to be equally diverse. His art career started with him working designing flyers and working for an ad company before he got his first comic job at Harvey Comics. The company specialised in anthropomorphised animals but Steranko gamely attempted to add variety, creating the characters Spyman, Gladiator and Magicmaster for the Harvey Thriller line. Alas, the venture was short-lived. However, now armed with a decent sized portfolio, Steranko approached Marvel, met with Stan Lee and the rest is comic book history. The writer Steven Ringgenberg said that Steranko’s work on Nick Fury became a benchmark of ’60s pop culture, combining the traditional comic book art styles of Wally Wood and Jack Kirby with the surrealism of Richard Powers and Salvador Dalí. Steeped in cinematic techniques picked up from that medium’s masters, Jim synthesized … an approach different from anything being done in mainstream comics

Jim Steranko’s short lived Spyman.

Steranko wasn’t content with merely inspiring a generation of artists and cementing Fury’s position as the Marvel Universe’s go to spymaster, though. Due to a heavy schedule and clashes with editor Stan Lee, Steranko left Marvel. He earned a living as a painter and as a designer of paperback covers while still finding time to write. In 1976 he wrote and drew Chandler: Red Tide, an early example of a graphic novel, though his forays into actual comics have been relatively rare since leaving Marvel.

Nick Fury 3

While comics represent only a relatively short part of Steranko’s career it is undoubtedly where he made his name and where he is best remembered. After the threat of HYDRA is, temporarily, dealt with, the pace doesn’t let up as Fury and SHIELD are flung headlong into conflict with Dr Fu Manchu analogue the Yellow Claw, a throwback ‘yellow peril’ character whose racist portrayal lets down an otherwise excellent story. The action doesn’t let up – one scene has Fury battling a giant octopus – and the final comic in the sequence includes an extraordinary picture of the final battle which is four pages across (cleverly necessitating the buying of two copies to see it in full). The battle itself looks just like the denouement of You Only Live Twice or, more recently, Scorpio’s lair in The Simpsons. Once defeated, the Yellow Claw is revealed to be a robot, a mere pawn in the hands of Dr Doom. Doom has a chess board set up with the key players as pieces, and his reaction to the Claw’s defeat is the character in a microcosm. Aloud he says ‘Even a monarch such as myself is deserving of occasional droll sport. So then never let it be said Dr Doom was a poor loser!’ Internally though, Doom’s thoughts go thus ‘Blast those swine. I loathe failure!’ As usual Doom likes to portray himself as a noble leader and man of principle but in reality his defeats eat away at him.

Nick Fury 4

Steranko’s epic four page Battle scene

By this stage of the ongoing comic, Fury, Sitwell, Gabe and Dum Dum have been joined by the Countess Allegra, all-American boy Clay Quartermain and middle aged boffin type Gaffer, who creates and invisible car for Fury (far better than the risible bond effort in Die Another Day). This fairly diverse cast proves effortlessly superior to those in the first series of Agents of Shield with its several flavours of grim, emotionless determination, livened only by the portmanteau science duo of Fitzsimmons, played by British actors Iain De Caestecker and Elizabeth Henstridge. No-one else in the TV cast has the personality of the comic’s characters, even if Lee and Steranko’s versions are very much archetypes, as was the way with 60s comics. Fury was the gruff action man, the Countess the seductive and highly effective agent going toe to toe with the men, Sitwell was the stick-in-the-mud, coldly capable of making the hard call, Dum Dum the hothead who would swing at anyone suggesting Fury might not make it. Steranko wrote of the TV series that it had ‘no menace, no tension’. It would be easy to dismiss Steranko’s views, after all authors often don’t like radically new adaptions of their work. But Steranko is no stickler or grouch when it comes to SHIELD. He said that Samuel L Jackson’s cameo at the end of the pilot was ‘an electrifying reminder of what the series could and should be.’ Jackson’s Fury is of course African American, as well as no longer being a WWII vet, so Steranko clearly has no issues with liberties being taken with the source material as long as the potential for the series is reached. It is this idea of ‘could and should be’ that made most of the first series so disappointing. The potential for a superspy series set in the Marvel universe was astounding; that potential was largely squandered although the final episodes offered some promise, as did the retooling of the cast between seasons one and two.

The comic itself was far from perfect of course. The relentless action allowed little time for character nuance and the book has dated badly in a few respects, chiefly with the Yellow Claw. But the stories remain exhilarating, the artwork still stands out and it remains a tantalising glimpse of what a SHIELD story can be.

Michael

Michael comes from the middle ground between light and shadow, between the pit of man's fears and the summit of his knowledge. He will write on comics, TV and film, plus anything else that might occur to him.

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