TFMSR 010: Nick Fury Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. #1 …

Nick Fury Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. #1, June 1968. Cover by Steranko. TM & © MARVEL.

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One of my fondest memories of buying comics as a kid was walking into Moser’s newsstand in downtown Tamaqua in 1968 and finding Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. #1 by Jim Steranko, from here-on indicated as Nick Fury (because I hate typing all those damn periods) and just plain “Steranko,” like Cher or Madonna, because what else do you need with a last name like that? I remember it as a spring day, but the Marvel Database tells me it was released on a very rare February 29, 1968, obviously a leap year, with a June cover-date. Whenever it was, it sticks in my mind so much, I even incorporated into the fifth issue of my self-published comic book, conveniently called Innocent Bystander, like this blog (do you notice a theme here?). That issue was about my first date to a junior high dance and I promoted it in ads as: “Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy buys comics. A love story.” (Click here to read more about it.)

I can’t begin to tell you how revolutionary both Steranko and Neal Adams were when they started doing comics around the same time. Steranko hit both Harvey Comics and Marvel in 1966; Adams first appeared over at DC in 1967, but he had been doing the Ben Casey syndicated comic strip that was based on the hit TV doctor drama before moving over into comic books. Up until that time, DC had their house style, epitomized by the clean, streamlined drawings of artists like Carmine Infantino, Curt Swan, and Murphy Anderson, and Marvel had their Jack Kirby-influenced style, with some variations by John Romita, Gene Colan, and Steve Ditko (who left the company just before Steranko arrived). Steranko created some features for Harvey Comics’ half-assed attempt at creating a superhero line, called the “Harvey Thriller” line, like Spyman and Magicmaster and the Glowing Gladiator. While Steranko didn’t get any offers to draw any of these stories from editor Joe Simon (yes, of Simon and Kirby fame), he promptly made his way over to Marvel Comics where he was given a two-page Jack Kirby-pencilled tryout called “The Man Called D.E.A.T.H.” (there’s those damn periods again), an early Nick Fury concept, which he aced.

Steranko’s try-out piece for Marvel, inking Jack Kirby’s pencils for an aborted Nick Fury precursor to S.H.I.E.L.D. It looks more like Steranko than Kirby! TM & © MARVEL.

He was assigned to the ongoing Fury feature in Strange Tales, finishing Kirby’s layouts with issue #151; by issue #154, he was plotting, pencilling and inking the 12-page story each issue, with Roy Thomas scripting; by #155, he was writing, pencilling, inking and (reportedly) coloring the whole shebang. Eventually various inkers joined him (notably Joe Sinnott, who really made Steranko’s pencils shine (Sinnott did that to just about everyone he inked), but Steranko quickly became THE rising star at Marvel, adhering roughly to the dynamic Marvel house style of Kirby but adding his own spin on it, which included Wally Wood-like machinery and inking and touches of Will Eisner-like storytelling.

In 1966, Jim Steranko was 28 years old. He had been, at various times of his young life, an illusionist, an escape artist, a musician, and an advertising agency artist. He started drawing at an early age and reportedly did some comics work as early as 1957 (when he was 19), inking some pages for Marvel inker Vince Colletta. Roy Thomas was charged with giving Steranko the brush-off when he showed up with his portfolio unannounced at the Marvel offices one day, but Thomas recognized his talent and took him back to meet Stan Lee. Steranko left with an assignment: Finishing Kirby’s layouts for the Nick Fury story in Strange Tales #151.

This could be the start of something big … House ad for the new Nick Fury feature in Strange Tales; the first cover by Jack Kirby; and the third issue cover by John Severin, who briefly pencilled and inked the book. TM & © MARVEL.

Nick Fury, nee Sgt. Fury, formerly of World War II Howling Commandos fame, had just been brought into the modern Marvel Age of Comics in Strange Tales #135, a little over a year earlier, cover dated August 1965. That month saw two new features launched, Fury in Strange Tales, replacing the Human Torch/Thing feature that ran for three years (#101-134), and Sub-Mariner in Tales to Astonish #70, replacing Ant-Man/Giant-Man/Wasp, which ran for an equal amount of time (issues #35-69). Lee and Kirby did the first “modern” Nick Fury story and it was a corker, introducing the S.H.I.E.L.D. concept, along with Tony Stark’s involvement with the super secret spy organization, and the gigantic Helicarrier (a Kirby mega-machine if ever there was one). John Severin joined as artist (over Kirby layouts) with #136, but only worked on the feature for a few issues. Despite some amazing Kirby covers, the Nick Fury strip went downhill pretty fast. Only when Steranko took over full command of the Helicarrier did the storyline have some cohesiveness, making it an A-list Marvel feature, eagerly awaited by Tween-me each month. He introduced some new characters, including agent (and love interest) Contessa Valentina Allegra De Fontaine, agent Clay Quartermain, scientific wizard Sidney Levine (“The Gaff”), and reinvigorated HYDRA, the S.H.I.E.L.D. nemesis, with the reintroduction of Baron Strucker, Fury’s WWII nasty Nazi nemesis, as the head of the evil spy cell all along.

A gallery of Steranko Strange Tales Nick Fury covers. TM & © MARVEL.

Steranko (and Adams) were a much-needed breath of fresh air for the comics industry. Steranko especially brought a number of new concepts into comics, alongside his incredibly dynamic figure-work and storytelling. His 12-page stories zipped right along, and he made turning the page exciting … you never knew what you might find next. He did two-page spreads, and—most memorably—the first-ever four-page spread, which of course meant you had to buy two copies of Strange Tales #167 to get the full effect:

Personal note to all faithful SHIELD followers from Jim Steranko: It was absolutely impossible to present this mind-bending super-spectacle in anything less than a powerful, panoramic four-page spread! To get the full effect, of course, requires a second ish placed side-by-side, but we think you’ll find it well worth the price to have the wildest action scene ever in the history of comics!
Darn! Now I have to spend another twelve cents! —Stingy Stan

Steranko’s famous four-page spread from Strange Tales #167. TM & © MARVEL.

Steranko brought a new level of color and effects to his work and an incredible range of design and craftsmanship. He utilized color-holds, patterns and textures, Craftint drawings, psychedelic art tropes, and impeccably illustrated and designed covers. His title lettering approached the level of Will Eisner’s splash pages on The Spirit.

The covers for issues #2-7 of Nick Fury Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., including the original for issue #3 and two new covers Steranko illustrated for a reprint series. TM & © MARVEL.

Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. (there I go again) #1 is an absolutely beautiful book, inked by Joe Sinnott. Underneath a cover that features the above-mentioned psychedelic patterns, concert poster type (“Who Is Scorpio?”) straight out of the Fillmore in San Francisco , and a kids’ blocks motif, Steranko starts the story with a three-page wordless sequence of Fury “assassinating” an LMD (Life Model Decoy), who was already assassinated by someone else, thinking it was Fury. The story segues into a down-on-his-luck comedian, Flip Mason, in San Francisco trying to avoid being fired from his gig while simultaneously avoiding gangsters to whom he owes gambling money. The story moves on to a Formula One event and reveals the winner of the race with a mysterious scorpion tattoo on his wrist.

Fury is once again the subject of an attempted assassination in the middle of the Nevada desert during an ultra-top secret weapons test, and when he narrowly escapes and makes his way back to S.H.I.E.L.D. HQ (in yet another bravura two-page spread by Steranko), he encounters Scorpio, a mysterious figure who brandishes a “Zodiac Key” weapon. Flip Mason, the San Francisco comedian, makes his way to a gig in Las Vegas where he encounters his lookalike: gangland killer Mitch Hackett. The two get confused and both are ultimately killed. Scorpio gets away and if you’re confused by my recap, it’s because I’m just as confused by this story as I was when I read it in 1968 … but man, it sure is pretty.

It ends with a very Eisner-esque touch: a dangling phone cord and handset and an operator saying, “Another fifty cents … deposit fifty cents more, please,” in a beautiful Craftint panel, rendered in stark grey-tones, as Fury walks away into the falling rain. Issue #2 featured a kind of High Evolutionary-type character (Don’t know who that is? You will in May when Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. Three comes out!) on a tropical island that also happens to be the site for a King Kong-like movie shoot. #3 is a play on Hound of the Baskervilles, with an amazing cover (that almost has an Anime-type feel to its young girl character), and finally #5 has Scorpio’s return, where Fury learns—but we don’t— “Who Is Scorpio” in a story titled “Whatever Happened to Scorpio?” (SPOILER ALERT: I believe it was later revealed that he was Fury’s brother.) Steranko did two more incredible covers for issues #6 and 7; in the first he channels Wally Wood at his EC high point, and in the second Salvador Dali. He also did a number of covers for Fury reprints and a painted cover for the 1980s series Nick Fury vs. S.H.I.E.L.D.

An amazing wraparound cover by Steranko for a Nick Fury series in Marvel’s Baxter line of reprints in the 1980s.

While Neal Adams kept a comics career going for the rest of his life (he died last year at 80 years old on April 28, with Batman vs. Ra’s Al Ghul his final work), Steranko burned bright and fast and left Marvel after just a few brief, shining runs. At the time he started, Nick Fury was a 12-page feature in one of Marvel’s “split” books; he shared the monthly Strange Tales title with Doctor Strange. In 1968, Marvel changed distributors and was liberated from the shackles of Independent News, owned by DC Comics’ parent company, and could publish more titles than the restrictive number they had for the past seven years. All the split books became individual ones, and that is where—I think, at least—trouble began. Steranko insists he was never late with a book, but he also admits to handing them in at the very last minute so Stan and company couldn’t make changes. Twice Stan scheduled a fill-in issue when he thought Steranko wasn’t going to make it: Nick Fury #4 (drawn by Frank Springer) and Captain America #112 (reportedly drawn over a weekend by Jack Kirby). I think Steranko got into a rhythm with those 12-page stories every month, and almost doubling them up to 20 pages was a little too much, schedule-wise. The four issues of Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D he did are absolutely beautiful and pretty much as different from each other as night and day, but to me, at least, they don’t have the breakneck speed and wonderful pacing of the Strange Tales stories. Steranko eventually left Marvel, having done only a handful of books, including Strange Tales #151-168, Nick Fury #1-3, 5 (and covers for #1-7), Captain America #110, 111, and 113; X-Men #50 and 51 (and the cover for #49), and memorable stories in Tower of Shadows #1 and Our Love Story #5. He continued to do covers for Marvel for a short while, and then created their new fan club, FOOM (Friends of Ol’ Marvel) and produced its first few magazines and premium items, before moving onto his own publishing endeavors. He started his own company, Supergraphics, in his hometown of Reading, PA. One of the first publications he did was called The Steranko History of Comics, a two-volume, tabloid size book, with incredible covers showcasing characters from all across the … well, history of comics. Chock-full of new illustrations by various artists and Steranko’s own interviews, this really deserves to be reprinted in some kind of high-quality format. The Supergraphics editions are just one step above newsprint, and their large format doesn’t make storage easy. It was the first of a number of eagerly-awaited projects that Steranko teased or produced part of, but never finished.

The cover to the first volume of The Steranko History of Comics, 1970. © Steranko.

At this time, he also became a paperback cover artist, producing a memorable run of covers for The Shadow series from Pyramid Books, which reprinted the old Shadow stories from the pulp magazine of the same name, written by “Maxwell Grant” (Walter Gibson). He also did three G-8 and His Battle Aces covers, and a number of sci-fi and fantasy ones, too. In 1972 he created Comixscene, a regularly published tabloid newspaper about comics; it quickly morphed into Mediascene, incorporating movies and other media into the content mix, and eventually became Prevue, a large-format magazine that lasted for a combined run of all three titles (which continued its numbering from title change to title change) from #1 in 1972 through #92 in 1994. In 1976, he produced what he will tell you is the first graphic novel (even though he didn’t call it that), Chandler, published as part of Byron Preiss’s Fiction Illustrated line. Chandler is amazing; Steranko came up with a whole new illustrated format for this book, which had two panels per page with corresponding text blocks beneath each panel. He did pre-production artwork on Raiders of the Lost Ark around 1981, providing paintings of Indiana Jones, and for Francis Ford Coppola’s 1994 film, Bram Stoker’s Dracula. One of his last big comics projects was an adaptation of the Sean Connery science fiction movie, Outland in 1981, which was published in Heavy Metal (issues #51-55 and 58), in the U.S., but never completed here (there is a complete graphic novel collection of it in a French version, I believe). Outland, like Chandler before it, convinced me once again what an amazing talent Steranko was, a one-of-a-kind creator who has never really been equaled.

Steranko produced 30 new painted covers for Pyramid Books’ reprint series of The Shadow pulp stories. Art © Steranko, The Shadow TM & © Conde Nast Publications.

Top row: From Comixscene to Mediascene to Prevue, Steranko’s magazine lasted 92 issues spanning two decades. Bottom row: Chandler was the first graphic novel, according to Steranko; the artist also produced pre-production paintings for Raiders of the Lost Ark and a comics adaptation of the movie Outland, appearing in Heavy Metal. © Steranko; Star Wars and Raiders © Lucasfilm Ltd.; Outland © Warner Bros.

He lived about 35 miles away from me, in Reading, PA, and once on a whim I wrote him about a possible job with Supergraphics. He did write back and I’ve kept the postcard to this day, because his handwriting—which is becoming more and more faded each time I look at it—is a work of art in and of itself. I think this was before I attended the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, so the answers to all his questions are a big fat NO, not to mention my mother saying, “You are NOT going to work for some stranger in Reading!” For some reason, there’s no postmark on the postcard, but I’m guessing it’s circa 1970 to 1972; it may even be 1973 after I graduated high school.

My brush with greatness … a postcard from neighboring Reading, PA circa 1972 or so.

I’m still waiting for Steranko’s remastered version of Chandler, called Red Tide, which was announced around 1999 from Dark Horse Comics. And his second Artist’s Edition from IDW, which would feature all the rest of his Nick Fury original art and art from Captain America, too. Oh, and I keep hoping for The Steranko History of Comics volumes 3 through whatever. At almost 85 years old, he’s still with us, active on Twitter (@iamsteranko), and still a force of nature, I’m sure. And even though he had a way-too-brief career at Marvel—he certainly left while he was on top— next to Kirby’s Fantastic Four run, Steranko’s Nick Fury stories are my favorite Marvel Comics stories, a run I feel contains some of the best comics ever created.

FOOM cover #3 by Steranko; at least we got one Artist’s Edition out of him; and the still-to-be-seen Red Tide graphic novel. FOOM and Artist’s Edition art TM & © MARVEL, Red Tide © Steranko.

Next time: Harvey Comics brings back Will Eisner’s The Spirit with two giant issues in 1966!

To read all the “Tales from My Spinner Rack” posts, click here!

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