S.H.I.E.L.D., by Steranko — a comic book review

This trade paperback collects Strange Tales 151 – 168 & Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. 1 – 3, 5. All of these individual issues, as you may have guessed from the title, feature the art of Jim Steranko, from the period 1966 through ’68.

I never read any of these when I was a kid, although I was familiar with Nick Fury through his guest-appearances in other books I read. This was the Nick Fury of my youth, however. The grizzled, cigar-chomping, eyepatch-wearing WWII vet, who was a white guy in those days. I love Samuel L. Jackson’s portrayal of Nick Fury, who I believe became a bald black guy in the comics in the early-oughts during Mark Millar’s The Ultimates mini-series, a reimagining of the Avengers (I’m told: I’ve never read this, but I did see the cartoons).

Interestingly enough, the likeness of the revamped Nick Fury was based upon Samuel L. Jackson. Likeness rights were negotiated with the actor and Jackson was given the right of first refusal if this version of the character were ever used in films. As we know now, Jackson didn’t refuse the role, which he has played in numerous films and on television.

But, Samuel L. Jackson wasn’t Nick Fury in 1966. As Dylan pointed out, the times were indeed a-changing, but it wasn’t time for that particular change yet.

The horn-playing Gabriel “Gabe” Jones had been with Nick Fury since his Howling Commandos days in WWII, a black man in an elite combat squad at a time when integrated units were unheard of. The U.S. Armed Forces weren’t integrated in real life until Harry S Truman signed an executive order in 1948. Gabe also joined Fury at S.H.I.E.L.D. That was a black man in a support role in a comic book series. We were beginning to see that back then—and, believe it or not, this was progress—but it would still be a while yet before we saw black characters in lead roles.

So, where was I? Oh, yeah. White Nick Fury, a huge part of the 1970s, when I was neck-deep in Silver and Bronze Age comic books. While I never read these particular stories back then, I was somewhat familiar with the artist known as Steranko.

I didn’t like him.

Full disclosure: before picking up this volume at a local Books-a-Million, used but in great shape, the only time I can recall experiencing Steranko’s art was in Captain America #111.

No, I don’t have an eidetic memory. I had to scroll through cover art to find the issue. It’s likely that what I read was a reprint as well, since I don’t recall having any 12-cent Captain America comics. I thought Steranko’s art was odd-looking, too artsy and Madison Avenue-looking. Maybe I didn’t think in quite that terminology, but the feeling is the same. I was looking for a visually dynamic, rock-’em-sock-’em superhero story, not Pop Art or something derivative of the constructivist practices of the Bauhaus. I wasn’t looking for poster art or slick ad copy. And, that’s what it felt like Steranko was doing in that particular comic book.

I should forewarn you that I feel like Steranko’s art takes this same turn about midway through this collection. Now at a more mature age, if not necessarily commensurate level of maturity, I do appreciate Steranko’s artwork more. In fact, there are some pages I wouldn’t mind owning the originals of, and I would hang them proudly in my office.

You couldn’t tell I was away for a minute, but I just checked one site on-line and saw that a Steranko sketch of Nick Fury’s head was selling for about $1300. And this was something that was never even published. I don’t think I’ll be having a Steranko on my wall in this lifetime unless I tear it out of this book.

I don’t mind prints.

After admitting I’m not Steranko’s #1 Fan, you might wonder why I purchased this book at all. When I saw it on the rack, I had just started watching Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., the television series.My intention was to read all this backstory so that I might understand all the references and Easter Eggs on the show. You know what they say about good intentions. I never got around to reading this collection until after I watched the series finale.

Such is life. I can’t count on me for anything.

Jim Steranko is an interesting cat. His biography reads like a work of fiction. I’m not convinced that some of it isn’t fiction, to tell you the truth. According to his biography in this trade paperback, Steranko created the initial production illustrations for Raiders of the Lost Ark and Bram Stoker’s Dracula. He has also worked with Oliver Stone and Tim Burton. During his career, he has been a musician, photographer, male model, magician, ad agency art director, designer and publisher. Comics historian Mark Evanier has suggested that Jack “King” Kirby was inspired to create the escape artist character Mister Miracle for DC Comics by the earlier career of Jim Steranko. Others say the Steranko inspired Michael Chabon’s creation of The Escapist in the pages of the Pulitzer-winning The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.

Even without the storied biography, Steranko’s legend may have been secured when Stan Lee entrusted a relatively unknown artist to write and draw his own comic book, the results being the collection I recently finished reading. Steranko was inducted into the comic-book industry’s Will Eisner Comic Book Hall of Fame in 2006.

In the first three stories in this collection, Steranko’s work was based on Jack Kirby layouts. As a result, the pages look more like Kirby’s work. The inks are perhaps a bit heavier, and Steranko shows a preference for undefined lines and curves where Kirby’s work has always been more standard geometric shapes and a certain blocky-ness. After these three issues, Steranko is unleashed, eventually even taking over scripting chores from Roy Thomas after a brief run.

Steranko’s artwork remains reminiscent of Kirby’s, including the infamous “Kirby crackle.” And still, it continues to move forward to something not being seen in comic books at the time, modern design concepts and the artistic influence of Peter Max, Op Art and Andy Warhol. He factored in the use of moiré effects and photomontages. He was also using creative panel and page designs.

These artistic considerations are secondary to one important question. Did I enjoy the book?

I did. I’m not over-the-top ecstatic about this collection, but I did enjoy it. It is a work very much of its time. Things were changing in race politics, but they weren’t there yet (you may argue they still aren’t “there,” but no one can deny that things have changed, even if not enough, for the better). Then, there is the blatant sexism that was evident in all entertainment from this time. You can see how the spy movies and television shows in vogue at the time, such as the early Bond movies, Dean Martin’s Matt Helm series, and The Man from U.N.C.L.E., influenced these S.H.I.E.L.D. stories, which have the same cool mod vibe.

A.M. Viturtia, in a reprint of an introduction for an earlier collection, suggested that Steranko’s work on Nick Fury influenced the directors who were making spy movies that came afterward. It’s the circle of spy fiction life, I guess.

With Steranko’s guidance, Nick Fury morphed from the WWII commando unit leader to the jumpsuit-wearing superhero spy I was familiar with from my youth. Steranko may have also influenced Rob Liefield with all the gunbelts, straps, buckles and pouches. The man was certainly ahead of his time while being a perfect example of the times.

The stories themselves are nothing spectacular. They feature the likes of Hydra (of course), Baron Strucker, Yellow Claw, Vaengr (who is the spitting image of Ozymandias from Watchmen), Centurius and a villain known as Scorpio. The visuals are out-there, but the stories themselves, even the ones written by Stan Lee or Roy Thomas, are fairly pedestrian. There are the usual cliffhangers and super-villains snatching defeat from the jaws of victory time and again.

If you have an interest in the history of S.H.I.E.L.D. and/or Nick Fury, you’ll find some things to enjoy here. If you’re already a fan of Steranko’s artwork, you’ll love this.

Firewater’s Don’t-Yield!-Back-SHIELD! Report Card: B

This may sound like an unenthusiastic review to you. I guess it is. I’ve certainly read worse, if that means anything to you. Plus, if I actively disliked it, it wouldn’t have gotten a B. In fact, it wouldn’t have been reviewed.

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