Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Sampling Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. in Strange Tales #150-168

Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. begins its second season this week so it's time to sample some of the agency's original adventures..

The Essentials managed to cover nearly all of Marvel's superhero output from the Silver Age. But one strip at the edge of that definition was notably left untouched. It's even more noticeable given the ongoing television series (though that doesn't star the lead character) and there are some other collected editions about. Today I'm going to take a look at one of them.

Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. is a rather generically titled tradepaperback from 2001, containing the strips from Strange Tales #150-168 (plus only the covers that feature S.H.I.E.L.D.), focusing on one creator. The first issue of the series is written by Stan Lee and the drawing sees Jack Kirby doing layouts that are pencilled up by John Buscema. Over the next few issues Roy Thomas briefly takes over the scripting but steadily all the drawing and writing tasks are assumed by Jim Steranko, who is fully writing and drawing from issue #155 onwards.

The book is in colour but it's not the original 1960s colouring. Instead Estudio Fénix provided then modern recolouring that in theory enhances the pages with a more in-depth pallet but in practice can work against the original art and produce a worse result. Computer recolouring was a fad around 2000 but it has fortunately faded away in favour of using the original colours. The digital remastering is also all too clear when looking closely at the art and lettering as it as rather too pixelated, showing the limitations of computing power at the turn of the millennium.

This volume covers the middle period of the strip's run. It had displaced the solo adventures of the Human Torch from #135 onwards and then after #168 it would get its own title as part of the general expansion of 1968, though it only lasted fifteen issues with Steranko departing after issue #5.

Steranko is possibly the comics creator with the greatest reputation per output with Mike's Amazing World of Comics showing just thirty credits, almost all of them in a three year period at Marvel. Maybe there are some missed out but it's clear that this was a brief contribution of huge influence rather than the mass work done by many of the big names. It's even more noticeable that nearly all his contributions are either on this strip or the sometimes-related Captain America.

This collection contains Steranko's first eighteen issues, plus the start of the first storyline, and what's immediately clear is that he took time to develop his style to the point where the art reaches the experimentation of fame. In the early issues he's still working from Kirby's layouts and once he takes over the full pencils he only slowly develops the bold ideas, with much of the impact instead coming from a dynamic style and imagination. But over time Steranko starts using the page as more than just a string of individual pictures, making intriguing use of the panel layout and going for greater sized spreads. The ultimate comes in issue #167 where there's a four page spread as S.H.I.E.L.D. agents storm the Yellow Claw's base. A caption by Stan Lee suggests that readers will have to buy another issue and place them side by side to get the full effect, but even accounting for inflation US $19.99 in 2001 was a rather higher price than US $0.12 in 1968 and so the spread is presented as a gatefold that looks impressive but is also a pain to fold back in without damaging it. The art also makes use of abstract and psychedelic images and photorealism, with the cover to issue #4 of the solo series (reused as the cover for the collection despite the issue not being included) being perhaps the ultimate expression. It's easy to see why this series gained a cult following not just in the States but around the world - indeed this collection originated in Europe.

The story content follows closely with the contemporary fad for action hero spy agencies staffed by amazing heroes with special gadgets that caught the public's imagination then and now. (By accounts the real life spy and security agencies actually despair about this when they have to explain to endless politicians that their work isn't quite like that.) S.H.I.E.L.D. is all the rage with fun equipment like a flying headquarters, colour changing cars, invisibility pills, cufflinks containing weapons and more that all match the likes of the James Bond movies or The Man from U.N.C.L.E. television series. There's even one scene where equipment is issues by a man named Boothroyd. The agency comes with an acronym name that makes no sense whatsoever - at this point in its history S.H.I.E.L.D. stands for "Supreme Headquarters International Espionage Law-enforcement Division" - beyond meaning that someone really wanted the initials to spell out "shield".

Nick Fury himself is the modern day incarnation of the star of Marvel's war comic, Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos, and his comrades "Dum-Dum" Dugan and Gabriel Jones also serve with S.H.I.E.L.D. along with younger agent Jasper Sitwell and various others Fury is physically older, and his hair starts going grey at the temples during these issues, but physically active and brave, going into danger against ridiculous odds and surviving. At first it seems his romantic interest will be Laura Brown, the rescued daughter of the first Supreme Hydra, but later on she's phased out in favour of Contessa Valentina Allegra de Fontaine, a woman who challenges Fury's prejudices about female agents by showing herself just as capable at taking him down and who has the look of a Bond girl a decade before they were regularly presented as Bond's equals.

The villains are also hi-tech organisations, starting with Hydra which has a new leader, eventually revealed as Fury's wartime nemesis Baron von Strucker, and undertaking a scheme to destroy the world with new technology. Following this is a saga with the Yellow Claw, revived from a brief 1950s title, bringing with him both his niece Suwan (who has been given a make-over to become another strong fighting female) and his nemesis Jimmy Woo. The Claw is subsequently revealed to have been a robot, with the implication that the now dead Suwan is also but not before a dramatic moment as Suwan dies saving Woo's life whilst Fury and the Claw are more concerned with fighting each other than rescuing their own. From afar it is revealed that the entire situation has been a living game of chess between Doctor Doom and the Prime Mover. The final issue sees Fury in a bizarre landscape fighting monsters only to wake up and realise it was a dream - but then some real life events copy it...

Being the middle part of the original strip's run this collection lacks some introductions but also lack the early days when any strip is learning what does and doesn't work before settling into a solid run. But as a learning curve for Jim Steranko's work this book achieves its aim even if it is let down by the pixelisation and computer colouring. It's no full substitute for an Essential Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. volume but it does show the series well.

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