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:
“SGT. FURY AND HIS HOWLING COMMANDOS”
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.