Cover of Nick Fury #6
Comic books and comic art has changed dramatically since their debut in the 1930s. While this modernization occurred gradually over the course of the decades, a single book, Nick Fury Agent of SHIELD, by a single artist, Jim Steranko, did more to shape modern mainstream comic books than any other.
Examples of pre-Steranko and post-Steranko Avengers covers His influence is undeniable.
Do you notice the difference in sophistication between those two covers above? The marked differences developed thanks to the comic that changed how comics were made more than any other, a longtime personal favorite of mine, Jim Steranko’s legendary run on Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.LD. Fury would be one of the most revolutionary comic books of all time, Steranko’s run on Fury had the most unlikely of beginnings.
The character of Nick Fury had been introduced in May 1963 by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in their corny Sgt. Rock knockoff: Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos. But things would soon take a drastic turn. Sean Connery’s James Bond and Michael Caine’s Harry Palmer films were packing theaters worldwide and viewers tuned into the Man from U.N.C.L.E. and Secret Agent Man every week on television. Sensing a trending fad, Lee wanted to cash in on the spy movie craze. He and Kirby re-imagined their grizzled World War II sergeant as the director of S.H.I.E.L.D., an international law enforcement organization that used all sorts of wonderful ‘spy-fi’ gizmos to battle Spectre like organizations bent on world domination (like Hydra and AIM) in the pages of the comic Strange Tales beginning in August 1965. These comics were absolutely delightful but were entirely a product of their time; a fun time capsule from the sixties spy craze. If Lee and Kirby had stayed on the book, it’s likely it would have faded into obscurity as the spy craze died down.
In late-1966, Kirby, who had been drawing about half of Marvel’s output, began to step down from the art chores on some of his books, including the Fury feature in Strange Tales. Rather than doing full art, he began to do the layouts while a new artist would finish the pencil work and doing the final inking. To pick up Kirby’s slack, Lee would bring a new artist onto the book, Jim Steranko.
Few creators in comics have the colorful personal history of Jim Steranko. Growing up in working-class Reading, Pennsylvania, Steranko gained a reputation as a tough guy and gang fighter, a juvenile delinquent as quick with his fists as he was with his switchblade and his zip-gun. Rock n’ Roll, motorcycles, and auto theft defined his youth. Jim Steranko was not a man who played by the rules. As Steranko got older, he began to make a name for himself, not as an artist, but as an escape artist and stage magician. He travelled the country with various carnivals and circuses, escaping from deadly traps, breathing fire, and pushing all the limits. Eventually, Steranko settled in New York where he became a freelance artist for ad agencies at the height of the ‘Mad Men’ era. When the art work slowed a bit, Steranko thought he could make some extra money illustrating comics like the short lived ‘Spy Man’ at Harvey Comics. Though not particularly notable, these comics gained the attention of Stan Lee at Marvel, who brought him onboard to complete the finished art over Kirby’s layouts on Strange Tales #151 in December 1966. By issue #154 in March 1967, Steranko had taken over the art chores entirely while also plotting the story which would then be scripted by Marvel writer Roy Thomas. The following month Steranko took over that duty as well, becoming one of the few writer-artists of the era.
Strange Tales #157
In his first story arc, which ran through July 1967, Steranko tied up the loose ends from the Lee/Kirby era as Fury finally defeated the Hydra organization led by his World War II nemesis Baron von Strucker. After that, Steranko brought back the cast from a short-lived 1950s Marvel espionage comic, The Yellow Claw, as Fury faced down the eponymous Fu-Manchu style foe. But it wasn’t the plots that made this comic so special; it was the combination of all the innovative new techniques Steranko attempted. Kirby had been experimenting with using photomontage to draw comics, but Steranko took it two steps further in ‘Today Earth Died’ in Strange Tales #168 in May 1968. The previous month he had blown comic art into widescreen with an unprecedented four page spread of Fury invading the Yellow Claw’s base. Stan Lee apparently loved this touch as readers would have to buy two copies of the issue to get the full effect of the image.
First four page spread in Comics
In the pages of Strange Tales, Steranko transformed how comic art was made. Marvel began to label their books as ‘pop art’ in the corner of the covers, and this book certainly earned the title. Steranko was far from the only artist pushing the limits of comic book art (although he was the most avant garde of his time.) What set Jim Steranko apart from someone like Jack Kirby was an unconventional style that blended influences from all forms of visual media. As much as he drew from comic artists like Kirby or Will Eisner, Steranko brought in the mod stylings of films like Mario Bava’s Danger: Diabolik, Roger Vadim’s Barbarella, Sidney Furie’s Ipcress File in settings worthy of Ken Adam’s James Bond sets. From the traditional art world he mixed mad op art set pieces inspired by Bridget Riley and the like with Dali-esque surrealism. Throw in a dash of psychedelia (as it was 1967 after all!) and you have a book that looks cooler than any other book on the shelves in the Silver Age. His writing consistently challenged the regulations of the Comics Code as it is peppered with sexual overtones unheard of in a mainstream 1960s comic book. Steranko was more sophisticated than any of his contemporaries by an order of magnitude.
Compare this 1968 Steranko Cover to a contemporary comic cover.
In 1968, Marvel was expanding rapidly. Characters that had been forced to share books like Captain America, Iron Man, the Hulk, the Sub-Mariner and Doctor Strange were given their own titles. Other characters that had been floating around for a while without a title of their own like Silver Surfer and Captain Marvel were given solo titles, and Spider-Man even got a second solo title – in a magazine no-less. Because of Steranko’s revolutionary style, Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD was relaunched as a solo book in June 1968 in a story called, “Who is Scorpio?” Plotted, Scripted, Penciled, Inked, and Colored by Jim Steranko, this comic sprung fully formed from his brain, and is one of the single most perfect comic books ever created. The tale intertwines two stories. The first is in the mod psychedelic style that Steranko had made so familiar to SHIELD fans for years and showcases Nick Fury facing a mysterious new foe named Scorpio. In the other intertwining plot the readers see a pulpy crime story about a down-on-his-luck comedian named Flip Mason who finally gets his big break in Las Vegas. It was in this plotline that Steranko showed another of his great influences, 1930s and 1940s film noir. The contrast between the psychedelic and noir aesthetics creates one of the most stylish and uncompromisingly ‘cool’ comic books ever made.
Cover of Nick Fury #1
Steranko’s innovation bleeds through on every page, from the entirely wordless three-page opening to the telephone receiver hanging ominously over the last panels, a revolution occurs, and comic books would never be the same again. Old comic industry rumors claim that Martin Goodman, the Marvel publisher at the time, tried to avoid paying Steranko for writing the first three pages as there was no actual dialogue, a move which brought out Steranko’s inner criminal as he allegedly threatened to dangle the publisher out of the window.
Opening Splash of Nick Fury #1
After the first issue, Steranko continued to explore other stylistic influences. Issue #3 of Agent of SHIELD was done in the style of a Hammer Horror film, with the likeness of Peter Cushing almost jumping off the page. In the fifth issue from October 1968 he penned a sequel to “Who is Scorpio?”, called “Whatever Happened to Scorpio?” That issue brought the reader one step closer to Scorpio’s true identity. Unfortunately, Steranko would leave the book with that issue. At the time most expected it to be a temporary absence, he had already skipped the fourth issue, but he continued to draw covers for the series until issue #7 in December of 1968. Steranko would move on to many other great comics, but none reshaped the world of comics the way that his run on SHIELD did.
Cover of Nick Fury #5
The great shame of his departure was that there was still so much he had planned to do but never had the chance to complete. He had introduced the mysterious new villain Scorpio, but never proclaimed his true identity, only revealing that it was someone Nick Fury knew. Years later in the pages of the Avengers, writer Roy Thomas would ‘solve the mystery’ revealing Scorpio to be Fury’s previously unmentioned brother Jacob, but it seems unlikely that this was what Steranko intended. Some claim Scorpio would have been divulged to be Fury’s old archenemy Baron Von Strucker, returned from the dead. Others think that Steranko would have taken a cue from Patrick McGoohan’s equally revolutionary television show, The Prisoner, and revealed Scorpio to have been Fury himself. In truth we will never know the answer to the question “Who is Scorpio?” because Steranko never finished his epic.
Another missed opportunity was an ominous reoccurring phrase, “the Parable of Doom” which was never explained. In Strange Tales #156 in May 1967, Baron Von Strucker says, “Only I can deliver to the world what shall come to be known as – the Parable of Doom!” Over a year later in Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD #1, Scorpio confronts Fury and says, “This time there is no escape, Fury! The Parable of Doom has been spoken!” The very next issue, Centurius, a human scientist bent on wiping out human civilization and creating a new Garden of Eden with himself as god, tells Fury, “Mankind is already hell-bent on its own destruction! As my Parable of Doom strikes from the heavens, so will it also give this planet a second chance for regeneration.” No connection between these three villains or their plans were ever revealed by Steranko or any subsequent creator. The reoccurring hints about an inevitable apocalyptic event hint at some planned grand conclusion, a conclusion that Steranko was never able to bring about.
Two-Page Spread in Nick Fury #1
Not only was Steranko’s departure from SHIELD a tragedy for fans and for comics as an art form, but it also signaled the end for Nick Fury. The series would shamble on until issue #15 in November 1969, but all of the subsequent creators had an impossible act to follow and, truth be told, none of their attempts were particularly good. The series would end with the assassination of Nick Fury at a Country Joe and the Fish concert, an ignominious end to a comic which defined an era. Nick Fury would, of course, be resurrected time and time again, but no other run featuring the character, no matter how good has proven as unique and iconic as Steranko’s.
The influence of this run can be seen throughout virtually all comic book art. Unconventional panel layouts, cinematic storytelling, and daring storytelling all trace back to Steranko. He midwifed the creation of modern comics in a short – less than two year run – on one comic. His influence on comics is comparable to that of the Beatles on Rock music: he made a mainstream comic book into art, a feat which was virtually unheard of in that era, and has influenced the creative efforts of comic book creators for generations.
Closing Page of Nick Fury #1