Originally published in 2000. A 2015 epilogue follows
By Bill Koenig
Jim Steranko’s star didn’t burn long, just about two years. But it was a hell of a ride while it lasted. From 1966 to the spring of 1968, Steranko (b. 1938) was the artist, and then writer of Marvel Comics’ Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.
Fury was Marvel’s answer to James Bond (and The Man From U.N.C.L.E., which was its zenith of popularity). Fury was not only the boss of the super-secret Supreme Headquarters International Espionage Law-enforcement Division, he was its best operative. Like James West, he could fight a roomful of baddies at once. Like Bond and Napoleon Solo, he was a smoothie with the women, despite his common-man roots, growing up in New York’s Hell Kitchen.
Subtle, Fury wasn’t. The two-dimensional comics medium meant bigger guns, bigger humanity-threatening machines, and way bigger-than-life villains. And Steranko’s Fury was a bit of a superman, able to run 2.5 miles in 10 minutes and have enough wind to grab onto a rocket sled to escape an impending explosion. But Steranko’s imaginative art work — his experimental techinques and the comics equivalent of special effects — made Fury something special. Steranko didn’t create Fury but he made the character unforgetable. Marvel has periodically tried to revive Fury in the 30-plus years since Steranko’s heyday. None of them has worked. In many ways, Steranko’s run was the proverbial catching lightining in a bottle. Here’s a look at what all the fuss was about.
Origins: In 1963, Marvel came out with a new World War II title, Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos. Once again, writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby collaborated on a start-up title. Sgt. Nick Fury was the head of a squad that included an Irish American (Corporal Timothy “Dum Dum” Dugan), an African American (Gabriel Jones), a Southerner (Robert “Rebel” Ralston), an Ivy Leaguer (Jonathan “Junior” Juniper), an Italian American (Dino Manelli, a Dean Martin like character) and a Jew (Izzy Cohen who “remembers the fate of his relatives in Europe at the hands of the mad little man with the mustache.”). In real life, the U.S. Armed forces weren’t ordered desegregated until 1948.
Fury was gruff, often unshaven and his shirt frequently tore to reveal lots of muscles, a la Schwartzenegger. One opponent Fury encountered was a German officer, Baron Wolfgang Von Strucker, an aristocrat who had a monocle and a dueling scar. “We Junkers are a proud breed,” Strucker said in cotempt to Fury. “We are gentlemen! Something a savage like you would never understand!”
So what does this have to do with spies? As Stan Lee might write, “Keep reading, true believer!” The Sgt. Fury title hadn’t been out long when a 1960s version of Fury appeared in Fantastic Four No. 17 (volume one). We were told Fury had advanced to the rank of colonel and was now an operative of the Central Intelligence Agency. He still had two eyes at this point and didn’t look much older than his World War II days. And he was just as earthy as he had been 20 years earlier.
By 1965, spies were big business. So Marvel, of course, decided to cash in. But how? Simple: give Nick Fury a second title, the latest about his spy exploits. But instead of the C.I.A., Fury would work for a new futuristic spy shop.
So, starting with Strange Tales No. 135, Fury got a monthly 12-page forum (Dr. Strange, Marvel’s resident mystic shared Strange Tales with Fury). Lee reunited with Kirby to launch the second Fury storyline. This time (perhaps to differentiate the spy stories from the World War II tales), Fury is shown wearing an eyepatch over his left eye. The opening story shows SHIELD recruiting Fury to head up the agency’s war against the mysterious Hydra, a criminal group bent on world domination; shows off a flying car; introduces the mysterious Hyrdra; and ends up at SHIELD’s “helicarrier,” a massive flying headquarters. .
And so, for a while, Fury did OK. Fury’s former Army pals Dugan and Jones joined SHIELD. Marvel kept artist Kirby busy and he soon only did “breakdowns” — rough, uncompleted pencil sketches that were finished by other artists. Fury seemed to have defeated Hyrdra in stories written by Lee and others. But Fury’s best days lay ahead.
A comics version of Orson Welles: Then, Jim Steranko came along.
His first story, in Strange Tales 151, came in the middle of a Stan Lee-written arc where Hydra has returned and an unknown new “Supreme Hydra” is giving SHIELD grief. Kirby was still around doing the breakdowns. Steranko, who had done little comics work up to this point, finished the pencils and then went over everything in ink so the art would reproduce better when printed. (Most comics, because of tight production schedules, have one artist draw in pencil and a second draw over those pencils in ink). The characters still were posed in Kirbyesque poses and there’s only a hint of Steranko’s own style.
Over the next few issues, the Hydra storyline gradually progressed, with Nick and his boys barely escaping various death traps and the Supreme Hydra switching from disguise to disguise. And Steranko’s art continued to develop. By Strange Tales 153, Kirby’s last issue, Steranko is beginning to make changes. Fury’s head, drawn fairly round by Kirby, is starting to look leaner and more like Burt Lancaster with an eyepatch. Also, Steranko is having Fury shave a lot more often (unlike his Sgt. Fury days) and the SHIELD ramrod is starting to look more dashing. .
With issue 154, Steranko has taken over the art entirely and gets his first plot credit (writer Roy Thomas wrote the actual word balloons and captions). The artist-writer also is making lots of references to Bond movies. Fury visits a man named Boothroyd for special weapons. Later (issue 164), he’ll even draw Sean Connery in a one-panel cameo trying to get into a SHIELD front (a New York City barber shop).
Steranko also is making Fury’s adventures even more fantastic than Lee and Kirby. Machines are massive. Guns look like they must weight 50 pounds each. Also, in an apparent move to make Fury look more superhero like, Steranko draws Fury wearing a skintight commando uniform on some missions.
By Strange Tales 156, Fury finds Hydra’s top-secret headquarters, a man-made island in the Pacific Ocean under a rotective dome. By issue’s end, Fury confronts the Supreme Hydra — it’s none other than Baron Strucker, his old World War II nemesis. The story ends with Fury facing almost certain death by “alpha particle exposure” — not to mention a two-page spread of intricate art work. The story line continues in 157, with a fanciful escape (Fury has taken an invisibility pill that lasts 60 seconds). The issue also includes Steranko’s first experimental art. Fury uses a “hallucination cube” that causes a horde of Hydra operatives to have the equivalent of a bad LSD trip.
Eventually (issue 158), Strucker is vanquished and Hyrdra Island sinks as Fury escapes. But Steranko isn’t finished, he’s just getting started. After a one-shot story in 159 showing SHIELD’s training school, Steranko goes on a massive epic. He digs up a Fu Manchu-like Marvel character from the 1950s called the Yellow Claw. By issue 161, Steranko’s art is smooth and his own style is firmly established. Starting with issue 162, he yields the inking to other artists but it doesn’t matter. Steranko’s pencils dominate every page. He also brings in new characters, including a love interest for Fury, the Contessa Valentina Allegro de Fontaine, the world’s sexiest mature woman.
Each issue of the Yellow Claw storyline is similar. Fury makes a daredevil escape, SHIELD regroups, Fury tries to attrack the Claw again and gets captured.
Steranko’s imagination begins to run overtime. By the end of 164, the Claw has a flying fortress over Manhattan, ready to obliterate New York City. But that’s only a warm up for 165, featuring an airborne assault by SHIELD from its heli-carrier. Steranko later in the same issue begins to dip into new techniques when the Yellow Claw kills some SHIELD commandos with his “hyper-psionic brain-wave emanations.”
The story climaxes in Strange Tales 167, published in January 1968. The cover (Fury and Dr. Strange alterated having the cover, with Fury getting the odd-numbered issues) features Fury and his agents with a huge American flag in the background.
The issue kicks off with a four-page spread showing another SHIELD assault on the Claw. But the Asian mastermind escapes yet again. This time, he’s gone off to “hyper night” (whatever that is) and Fury has to use a “warp vest” to catch him. Then begins the final duel, which Fury wins thanks to what Fury calls “a mind-amplifyin’ gizmo” under his eyepatch. Surely, even James Bond’s Major Boothroyd would be jealous.
And then, Fury discovers he’s been fighting a robot. We cut to another two-page spread to find out Marvel’s Dr. Doom was behind it all, making a bunch of robots to go up against SHIELD as a kind of game. For a nine-year old (like I was when this story came out) it was a mind-blowing experience. All these years later, the story doesn’t hold up quite that well, but Steranko’s art still is as impressive to an adult eye.
Beginning of the end: After a one-shot in issue 168, Fury got his own title in March 1968. Steranko packed more in 20 pages than most artists and writers do in three or four. Each issue now had fancy, special-effects art. Could it get any better? .
No, because the ride was about to end.
Perhaps the Yellow Claw epic exhausted Steranko’s imagination. Perhaps doing regular comics now seemed boring. Whatever the case, Steranko was running out of steam. There were still the in-jokes. Nick Fury No. 3 was a takeoff of the Hound of the Basketvilles, including a character drawn like Peter Cushing. Steranko took issue No. 4 off (a different artist and writer did an expanded version of the Fury story by Lee and Kirby in Strange Tales 135).
Steranko made his final bow with No. 5, which included a Senator Irksome, drawn to look like Sen. Everett Dirksen of Illinois and a mysterious character drawn like Sidney Greenstreet who is helping Fury with some personal search. Fury struggled for several more issues but the magic was gone and the title was canceled. Spies were no longer popular by 1969 (with even Bond’s box office down). Fury has appeared periodically since but with nowhere near the impact of the Steranko days. .
However, for a couple of years, Jim Steranko showed how one man’s creativity could keep an audience coming back for more. The action is preposterious, of course. Looking back as an adult, you couldn’t take it very seriously and it’s doubtful Steranko meant us to do so. But it was a wonderful marriage of character and artist. For whatever reason, Fury brought out something in Steranko, and Steranko’s tenure on the title was never equaled. And for people of a certain age, these stories are a cherished memory.
In May 2000, Marvel reprinted Steranko’s run on Strange Tales in a trade paperback costing $19.95. Initially, Steranko was to get no royalties (because the book was printed in Europe apparently). This caused Marvel a lot of bad publcility and Steranko ended up collecting royalties. More about the creation of the Fury character can be found in Son of Origins of Marvel Comics by Stan Lee (originally pubished in the 1970s and a revised edition apparing in the 1990s as well as Marvel Universe, a 1996 book by Peter Sanderson).
2015 epilogue: In 2008, Marvel got into the movie business. Nick Fury ended up having a major presence, but it wasn’t the Lee/Kirby or Steranko Fury. Marvel had come out with an “Ultimates” line where new versions of existing Marvel characters existed in a parallel universe. The “Ultimate” Nick Fury was drawn to look like Samuel L. Jackson.
That, in turn, encouraged Jackson to pursue Marvel and its movie operation. The actor ended up with a nine-picture deal and he was last seen in 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier. ABC also airs a SHIELD series. Steranko is still around. In 2014, he wrote in The Hollywood Reporter how the SHIELD series could be improved.
UPDATE: By coincidence, Steranko went to Twitter to discuss his early SHIELD work on the evening of Feb. 8.
Copyright © 2000, 2015 William Koenig