Secret Agent Man

The Marvel Age of Comics was firing on all cylinders by 1963. So much so, in fact, that legend has it that Marvel Editor-in-Chief Stan Lee and then-Marvel publisher Martin Goodman got a little wager going. Stan, heady with Marvel’s success, put forth that they could put out any kind of comic book, not just the popular superhero stuff, infuse it with the patented Marvel style, and make a hit out of it. Goodman took him up on the challenge, and requested a WW II-era war comic. Not only that, to make things even more difficult, the project was given a truly godawful name, the worst they could think of:



Marvel’s varsity team of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby tackled the new project, combining the standard combat heroics of war comics with the trademark Marvel characterization, humor and wisecracking editorial voice, and — no surprise here — it was a hit. Helping to cement its status as a Marvel-Universe book were some familiar faces in guest appearances, such as a young Reed Richards (previously established in FANTASTIC FOUR as having been a WWII veteran) and even Captain America. The Howling Commandos, known for their battle cry “WAAA-HOOOOO!” were certainly the most diverse unit in comics, and probably in the U.S. Army as well. Slogging through the battlefields of Europe were derby-wearing Irishman “Dum Dum” Dugan, Southerner “Reb” Ralston, Italian-American Dino Manelli (modeled after singer Dean Martin), Black trumpet player Gabriel Jones, Izzy Cohen (probably the first clearly Jewish hero in comics) and prissy Ivy Leaguer “Junior” Juniper, who would swiftly be killed in action and replaced by the even prissier Percival “Pinky” Pinkerton. Finally, the Howlers were under the command of Sgt. Nick Fury, a tough-as-nails, gruff topkick ready to take out the Third Reich one Nazi at a time.

Lee and Kirby only stayed on SGT. FURY AND HIS HOWLING COMMANDOS for just over a year, but the series was a considerable success for the company; even with a steadily rotating creative team, the book stayed viable and remained in publication until 1981, lasting a more-than-respectable 167 issues. However, the most significant thing to come out of the series was its protagonist, who would go on to take a much more familiar role to Marvel readers: Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.

By 1965, SGT. FURY AND HIS HOWLING COMMANDOS had been published for a couple of years, and according to Stan Lee’s introduction in SON OF ORIGINS OF MARVEL COMICS, Lee was getting a lot of fan mail requesting a contemporary update on the WW II-era hero Fury, whether or not he survived the war and what he was doing if so. Before long, Lee decided to capitalize on the secret-agent craze that was sweeping the country in movies and T.V. at the time. The James Bond series of films was smashing records at the box office, while the biggest hit on television was THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E., a decidedly Bond-inspired action-adventure spy series. This kind of high-octane setting seemed the perfect world for an older, more experienced but still ready-for-action ex-war hero like Fury. Once again enlisting his ace artist Jack Kirby, Stan debuted his new, modern version of Nick Fury in STRANGE TALES #135 (August 1965), in “Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.”


The tale begins with Nick Fury (now bearing the rank of Colonel, and sporting an eyepatch from an assumed wartime battlefield injury), reporting for a battery of high-tech tests and experiments. Fury soon discovers that more is afoot than he had first believed, as he is met with the sight of five exact robotic duplicates of Fury (later given the designation of LMD, or Life Model Decoy), all of which are swiftly assassinated within minutes of their departure from the hidden compound.


As Fury is whisked away in a Porsche, the attempts on his life continue, but are quickly dispatched by the superscientific armaments built into the car, which ultimately converts into a hovercraft and takes to the skies. The car’s driver confides to Fury that that he works for a secret international organization codenamed S.H.I.E.L.D.


Fury’s escape is met with much displeasure at the headquarters of Hydra, an international crime network bent on world conquest, who was behind the attempts on Fury’s life. When the middle-management Hydra guy responsible for the “kill Fury” project has to report his failure to the Supreme Hydra, let’s just say his performance evaluation could have gone better:


Having disposed of the dead wood, the newest Hydra assassin takes the official Hydra oath. Sing it if you know it:


Meanwhile, Nick Fury has been taken to yet another undisclosed location, where he meets up with famed arms inventor Tony Stark, who, it turns out, is in charge of ordinance and weaponry for S.H.I.E.L.D. Stark, in the company of a roomful of world leaders, explains that S.H.I.E.L.D. is missing one thing: a leader, and that Fury has been chosen to lead the organization in its mission to destroy Hydra. Fury is hesitant to take on the responsibility, and in his momentary weakness notices a telltale wire leading from his chair. Moving on instinct, Fury grabs the booby-trapped chair and forces it out a nearby porthole, where he realizes for the first time exactly where he is: thousands of feet above the surface, aboard the enormous Helicarrier, S.H.I.E.L.D.’s mobile headquarters.


Fury, already barking orders, agrees to take the job (probably realizing that any operation lax enough to so easily allow a bomb on board could probably use a change in leadership), and S.H.I.E.L.D. had found its leader. By the way, in case you wondering, it was later revealed that S.H.I.E.L.D. stood for Supreme Headquarters International Espionage Law-enforcement Division. Catchy, if meaningless.

While Kirby was the best choice to draw the book at its debut, with its high-tech machinery and larger-than-life action right up his alley, the Nick Fury strip didn’t really hit its stride until STRANGE TALES #151, with the arrival of artist (and later writer) Jim Steranko, whose unique and unmistakable style would inform and influence the character for decades to come. Steranko came to Marvel a virtual neophyte in the comics business, having done some work in advertising and for Harvey Comics, in addition to burgeoning careers as a musician and magician/escape artist (in fact, the Jack Kirby character Mr. Miracle was in part inspired by Steranko’s exploits as an escape artist). The fact that such an inexperienced artist was immediately given a monthly series speaks to immediately impressed Stan Lee must have been by his work.

The Lee/Kirby run had already brought Fury’s old Howler buddies Dum Dum and Gabe out of retirement and back into action, and introduced top SHIELD agent Jasper Sitwell.


Once Kirby left, the series was given even more of a “James Bond” feel under Steranko, as evidenced in this sequence, in which Fury is given a Bondian array of tricked-out gadgets to go with his new civvies.


Steranko also introduced the Dreadnought, a massively powerful Hydra robot that would appear time and again over the years.


Within a few issues, Steranko was both writing and drawing the book, which was practically unheard of at Marvel in the ’60s. With Steranko at the helm, the book began to take weirder directions, with a much more psychedelic, harder sci-fi feel, which began to really come through in the art, such as in this sequence conveying the brainwashing of Agent Sitwell:


Steranko would also be the one to reveal the identity of the long-hidden Supreme Hydra: none other than Fury’s old Nazi enemy Baron Strucker.


The battle with Strucker allowed Steranko to do some of his first really experimental work, such as this full-page panel of Fury using the Hallucination Cube on his opponents.


However, he always balanced the more out-there work with more traditional Kirbyesque action, such as this sequence of Strucker and Fury engaging in hand-to-hand combat.


Steranko also continued to introduce new characters, such as “the Gaffer,” S.H.I.E.L.D.’s new head scientist and engineer.


Also introduced was a long-overdue love interest for Fury, in the Contessa Valentina Allegro de Fontaine, or “Val” for short. Steranko’s affinity for pin-up art quickly became apparent, as Val grew more statuesque and gorgeous with every appearance.


The art was like nothing else Marvel was publishing at the time, thanks to Steranko’s innovative use of collage techniques, and found media.


Steranko also made use of representational art much more often, with images that weren’t strictly straightforward action, as evidenced in this moment from Fury’s cosmic battle with the Yellow Claw.


By the end of Steranko’s run in STRANGE TALES, any notion of Fury as a plainclothes secret agent had gone right out the window, with the emphasis instead being on nonstop quasi-military action and commando-style heroics. Over time, a jumpsuit-style uniform was developed for the character, the familiar navy blue number with shoulder-holster and pouch belt that has become Fury’s standard-issue costume.


Eventually, this would become the standard uniform for all S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, with the color of the shoulder holster, gloves and boots demoting rank. (Fury, as S.H.I.E.L.D.’s supreme commander, would be the only one wearing white.)

Nick Fury was given his own series, NICK FURY, AGENT OF S.H.I.E.L.D., in 1968, once again with Jim Steranko both writing and drawing the book, and here he continued to experiment with the form, going even further than he had in the STRANGE TALES series. In his first issue, Steranko opens with a clearly Eisnerian reference in the splash…


And then utilizes three pages of silent storytelling, a trick not often seen in the Marvel comics of the era.


Steranko also utilizes an Eisner-style storytelling device at the end of the first issue, with a regular guy who accidentally gets involved in a criminal payoff, and winds up paying the price:


Steranko went back to the silent storytelling to express this tender moment between Fury and Val, conveying through mood and image a feeling of passion and intimacy that would be difficult to portray through dialogue, without sounding trite and cliche.


Steranko would continue to show his Eisner influences in the splash pages, such as this spread from issue #3…


Or this full-page splash from issue #5:


You can also see some of his experiments with color in the lighting of this sequence from his gothic thriller “Dark Moon Rise, Hell Hound Kill!”:


The stories in these issues tended toward overdone potboilers mostly used as a vehicle to allow Steranko to do the kind of artwork he was interested in. For example, take a look at this gorgeous collage piece, which from a storytelling standpoint is fairly useless, as all it illustrates is Nick Fury checking in with the office. Man, is it pretty, though.


As for the book’s covers, Steranko was in rare form, with one winner after another:


Steranko left comics for good in 1969, feeling constrained by the limits placed on his work by both the Comics Code and Marvel editor Stan Lee. Jim Steranko has more than made his mark in a variety of other fields, including magazine publishing, book illustration and movie posters, but the comic book as an art form is all the poorer for his absence.

As the years went by, Nick Fury’s WWII origins became a problem, as unlike Captain America, Fury didn’t spend decades in hibernation, and should therefore be showing some signs of age. The solution was provided in a 1976 issue of MARVEL SPOTLIGHT by Jim Starlin and Howard Chaykin, in which it was revealed that during World War II, Fury was critically wounded in a French mine field, and was taken to a nearby surgeon to save his life. However, the surgeon also saw Fury’s injuries as an opportunity to test out a chemical process he’d been experimenting with, which he called “the Infinity Formula.”


As it turns out, with regular booster shots of the serum, Fury would perpetually retain his youth and vigor. However, if he misses his annual dose of the serum, he can expect to age decades overnight, and die not long after that.

In recent years, Fury has remained a vital part of the Marvel Universe; however, with the introduction of “Nick Fury, Jr.”, a character designed to play off of the characters cinematic appearance, have we seen the last of Nick? Only time will tell…


One Response to Secret Agent Man

  1. Jeff Nettleton August 8, 2012 at 9:09 am #

    Nice article; but I would add one key step in the evolution from Sgt. Fury to Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD: Fantastic Four #21. There, Fury makes his first modern appearance as a colonel in the CIA, who aids Reed Richards in reuniting his team and defeating the Hate Monger (an Adolf Hitler clone). However, it caused a problem after the SHIELD debut, since Fury now sported the eyepatch, but was missing it in the FF story. This led to a Sgt. Fury story to reveal a shrapnel injury to his eye, that would eventually deteriorate until he lost vision in the eye. Thus, he could still see out of it in the FF tale, but lost it by the Strange Tales debut.

    One other trivia note. In the early SHIELD stories, everyone wore suits, with a variation of standard commando attire (in blue) for battle sequences. Steranko modified things a bit, giving Fury his jumpsuit (black at first, but altered to dark blue soon after) and the SHIELD grunts first yellow, then orange jumpsuits (reversing the previous color scheme of yellow suit with orange accessories to orange suit with yellow gear). He even gave the SHIELD guards a dressier uniform, complete with jodhpurs. Over the years, various artists seemed to flip back and forth between the yellow and orange suits for the grunts and officers, sometimes using just the blue, until it was standardized in the 80s (Official Handbook is where I first saw it). Then, the Fury-only white accents became everybody (at least after Ed Brubaker, though I didn’t read much Marvel just prior to that, so someone else may have started that earlier).

    Finally, though the original SHIELD moniker didn’t exactly make sense (not that the renaming improved it much) the idea was to reflect the title of Eisenhower’s command in WWII: SHAEF (Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force).

    As for the Sgt. Fury rotating teams, the longest serving, and best for my money, was Gary Friedrich, Dick Ayers, and John Severin.

Welcoming the Future, Treasuring the Past.