Pulp Corner: Steranko’s S.H.I.E.L.D.
After falling in love with Jim Steranko’s art work from afar I decided it was about time I check out his (criminally small) comics output on Marvel’s Nick Fury: Agent Of S.H.I.E.L.D. and later the first ever Nick Fury solo series. These have been packaged together many times, but might I recommend the trade paperback for S.H.I.E.L.D. by Jim Steranko: The Complete Collection which basically has ever scrap he’s ever touch on the subject bundled together but more importantly the art is restored to the proper coloring it was when it was originally published.
In the mid 1960’s Stan Lee and Jack Kirby cashing in on recent trends decided to give WWII vet Nick Fury a makeover. They promoted him from Sgt. to Colonel and placed him in control of the S.H.I.E.L.D. organization as America’s Super Spy. His story would be told within the pages of Strange Tales a former Horror anthology series that he would now split 12 pages apiece with Doctor Strange.
Steranko often tells a story that when he went to visit Stan Lee for work and Stan told him to pick any of the ongoing Marvel titles to takeover. So he picked the worst selling one, Strange Tales. Boy, he wasn’t kidding either. The collection here starts with issue #152 which has Steranko working over Jack Kirby’s art lay outs and Lee’s scripting. Which I might add, is the worst. Anything I’ve ever read by him is pretty much unbearable. I know that part of it is obviously the time period but when Steranko takes over the writing chores 4 issues later it’s a breath of fresh air. I’ve always thought that Stan Lee is one of the greatest idea men the industry ever saw, but an engaging writer he is not.
The first few issues are pretty dull, Steranko’s talents are evident but as soon as he gets full control things take a much needed turn for the better. Literally one of the first things he does is add the now iconic white to Fury’s temples ala Reed Richards to better account for his age. He also puts him into a suit with a polka dot tie, which may not seem like much but I wager this is something Kirby would have never done. Why is this important might you ask? Well this is 1967 we’re talking about here, arguably the zenith of the “1960’s culture” and King Kirby was a 50 year old man drawing books aimed at young kids. Steranko on the other hand was almost 30 and had a much better pulse on the youth of America and what was considered hip. I’m willing to bet a little thing like that goes a long way for a reader at the time.
When Steranko was brought on he had to work with the in progress story and with each issue only being 12 pages it really gave it a serialized feel. It involved the head of HYDRA infiltrating S.H.I.E.L.D. who is later revealed to be Baron Von Strucker, a former WWII nemesis to Fury. There’s a nice reversal here that plays out like the opposite of the Captain America: Winter Solider movie. Fury being one step ahead had already figured this all out and actually infiltrates HYDRA himself and brings it down from the inside.
It really feels like Steranko was obligated to finish off the already established story and relishes the fact when he can start fresh. As soon as he does things get a lot more interesting. It shows our heroes taking some much needed time off which really helps add some weight to the previous storyline and how encompassing it was for each agent. It also moves us off the Hellicarrier and into the streets of the city which seem to be a much more comfortable setting for Steranko. It also means that we get to see Nick Fury’s NYC pad (which is strangely a highlight for me) and man is it full on 60’s, it looks like it should belong to Don & Megan Draper. This opportunity is used to introduce some new characters to the book and flesh out S.H.I.E.L.D.’s ranks past Dum Dum Dugan’s glorious facial hair and give Nick a bit of a femme fatale of his own. Contessa Valentina Allegra de la Fontaine possibly has of the lengthiest and craziest names I’ve ever encountered in comics and I love it all the more. She is more or less introduced by judo flipping macho Nick Fury in a training exercise with Captain America. Classic.
As the story continues it allows Steranko to flex his pulp muscles a little more by bringing back an old yellow peril style villain from the 1950’s Atlas era comics ironically enough named Yellow Claw as well as FBI man Johnny Woo. This blends perfectly into the espionage thriller that had already been the Nick Fury mainstay. Add in James Bond type of high tech gadgets and a serious sci-fi bend and you’ve got yourself a very interesting series. Not to mention it’s perfectly suited for Steranko’s mind bendingly glorious artwork. I love psychedelia in any form and this absolutely delivers. So much of these panels are off the wall and not only does it still look amazing, you can tell it must have melted some brains when people saw when it was originally produced. He was creating a visual structure and narrative that comic buyers weren’t use to. Take for example this 4 page spread. Yes, 4 pages long. You had to buy two issues of this comic and have the pages open together to get the full image
Gorgeous. It looks like the definitive action scene in a movie.
Of course this all led to a launch of a Nick Fury solo title but sadly Steranko only stayed on for 4 issues and did covers for 7. It’s a real shame because these ended up being some of his most interesting and iconic covers. He didn’t do much more work for Marvel (and comics in general) after this but his influence and legacy was already cemented as true pioneer of the medium.
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