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Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.

December 14, 2013

With Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Captain America and most importantly The Avengers ruling the silver screen and S.H.I.E.L.D. a regular series on TV, more people today know who Nick Fury is than at any time in Marvel’s impressive history.

While these new fans know him primarily as the eye-patch wearing leader of S.H.I.E.L.D., they are slowly discovering his long history with the Marvel universe.

Many are surprised to find that in 1963 Nick Fury was an Army sergeant who led the Howling Commandos, a ragtag band of World War II soldiers fighting the good fight.

When they debuted in Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos #1 (May 1963), the Second World War was still a living subject for many readers. The title proved to be a popular one, for it lasted until #167 (December 1981).

As time went on the series became known for its strong moral attitude towards war. This may be one of the reasons that lasted a surprisingly long time, it often hit a clear note of dignity, compassion and respect in a loud and cacophonous world.

During that long run Nick Fury led two lives. A few months after he debuted leading a group of soldiers in WWII a more modern incarnation of Fury debuted in The Fantastic Four #19 (December 1963) as a CIA Agent.

This was the era of James Bond. A massive success in both print and on screen, his influence spread across the creative community. Both Kirby and Steranko have admitted they saw what Bond (and spies) meant and let it influence their work.

It didn’t take long for Fury to become something more than an agent. In Strange Tales #135 (August 1965) the Colonel quickly morphed into a super-spy. That same issue saw the introduction of S.H.I.E.L.D. Jack Kirby handled the art while Frank Giacoia did the inks.

Strange Tales #151 (December 1966) saw a new inker named Jim Steranko on Kirby’s pencils. His early life had been spent as a magician, escape artists and musician. By 1966 he was working at Harvey as an artist and writer. While there he created Spyman, Magicmaster and a few other heroes.

In Strange Tales #153, (February 1967), just two issues after his debut inking and penciling over Kirby’s layouts, Steranko took over as artist on the feature. Two issues after that, in Strange Tales #155 (April 1967), he took over the writing as well.

His first cover art for Strange Tales #167 (April 1967) saw Fury and his crew leaping off of the cover against a solid white background that had the colors of the American Flag imposed overtop the background. They just flew at the reader with absolutely no explanation other than the look in their eyes. They meant business, but they were also having fun.

The cover was as modern and cutting edge as you could hope to find on a comic cover of the day. But it only served as a warning shot across the bow for what Steranko had in his pocket next.

Steranko’s style in the world of comics “blew a lot of minds.” He built on Kirby’s explosive layouts and took them to the next step. He went across pages with a single scene and incorporated movements such as psychedelic art, surrealism and pop-art into his work.

As a magician, he had built a life on illusions and had no problem incorporating that love of the unreal into his work. He also drew some incredibly risqué women for the time.

All of this is a matter of history and can be easily found in a dozens of reference titles. Any fan who loves the art of comics should actively seek out the work of Steranko.

After Strange Tales #168 (May 1968) the title changed to Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D and all creative hell broke loose.

Issue #1 (June 1968) features a battle across stacked, life-sized cubes. Decked with cursive writing, optics that look at home in an psychologist’s office as a test for sanity, a scorpion and colors often flowing in waves like water, the art is still as exciting today as it was when it first appeared in 1968.

More traditional cover art followed on issues #2 and #3. But #4 (September 1968) found Steranko placing Fury over a collage of black and white images, each one filled with danger, action or something to trip the mind into thinking. #5 built on the method of collage and added color to the work, giving it a new, deeper dimension. With Fury relegated to the bottom right corner, Steranko let the villain Scorpio take center stage.

Among the early run of Steranko’s work on Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., #4 is the one cover that tends to get singled out when people discuss his work. But there was one cover more coming that shows how deep the man researched his work and how he let what he saw influence him when he created. This cover paid direct homage to one of the most controversial and well known artists of the time.

Despite the fact that Salvador Dali had worked with Walt Disney, the majority of the public had a problem. His work was often obscure, hard to understand and more often than not, disturbing. He worked in shadows and made them come to life. He would show the disconnected condition of everyday objects inside the state of normality and he was in the habit of letting time dissolve before him as objects and life melted away.

(You can view a collaboration between the two. In 1999 Roy Disney took recently discovered storyboards from Walt and Salvador’s collaboration as well as journals kept by Dali and his wife and built a six minute cartoon called Destino around them. It was released in 2003.)

Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D #7 (December, 1968) took what Dali had laid out and built on the premise that reality is fluid. And he did while still staying in the acceptable world of what is real inside comics.

The meaning is all there for those who care to take the effort to look. After all, if Dinosaurs on the covers of DC and Marvel could walk among men or a Gorilla had the mind of a man transplanted into his body, why couldn’t Fury literally run out of time? Steranko asks the reader to understand that the world of comics can bend as far as anyone wants it to.

On the cover Fury races across a dissolving floor that has shadowy figures rising through its boards. One of his feet is about to slip of into unknown space. Behind him clocks appear hanging in air with no visible means of support. Sheets of a torn newspaper form a wall behind him and certain words jump out in bold, black color among the smaller print.

“Secrets”, “Nowhere” and despite that the beginning and end of the words are cut off, we know that another says “Accused Killer”. Below it all there are little mechanical pieces such as you would find in a clock, falling into space. To Fury’s left sits a skull, alone and a clear indicator that this world has caused death before. And by implication, that world could not care less about Fury’s dilemma.

Time and life are chasing Nick Fury into oblivion and he is about to fall into eternity.

Steranko never went this far on a Fury cover again. Some, like maybe #13 (July 1969) came close. #8 saw a standard villain standing triumphant over the body of Fury and others featured relatively standard comic fare.

Still, it is issue #7 that challenged readers, vendors, and probably drew in more college kids as it gave them something to take to their art professors to prove that they were on the right path with comics.

Steranko’s brilliance lay in that he could look out into the world during a period of conformity and make both the conformists and the rebels grow, change and see something new. Maybe even something they were afraid of.

Both Marvel and DC had house styles and strong editors who had their own rules. Stan Lee trusted Steranko and as a result the artist changed what publishers, editors and readers accepted as commercial art in the world of capes and heroics. He made Marvel an exciting and important part of culture of the day.

Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. #7 is one of the big reasons why.

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