Glenn H. Morrow:
Strange Tales #150-168 (Nick Fury)
Issue(s): Strange Tales #150, Strange Tales #151, Strange Tales #152, Strange Tales #153, Strange Tales #154, Strange Tales #155, Strange Tales #156, Strange Tales #157, Strange Tales #158, Strange Tales #159, Strange Tales #160, Strange Tales #161, Strange Tales #162, Strange Tales #163, Strange Tales #164, Strange Tales #165, Strange Tales #166, Strange Tales #167, Strange Tales #168 (Nick Fury stories only)
To be fair, the trade paperback that reprints these stories is very high quality and even makes the first two issues look pretty amazing. The introduction in the trade tells the story behind the art credits in the first issue: John Buscema received Jack Kirby's layouts, but erased them to draw the issue from scratch in his own style.
The next three issues are Steranko doing finishes over Kirby's layouts...
... and then starting with #154, Steranko is drawing the book himself, usually doing the inks as well. Also with #154 Steranko is credited with co-plotting, and starting with #155 he is also writing the book. This would all just be a curious footnote if the work was of the same quality as other Marvel books from this time period, but it is in fact quite good and quite different. Not, to be clear, that Kirby's art hasn't been amazing, but this represents a totally new style at Marvel. Steranko's work will have a big impact on Marvel's house style during the late 60s and early 70s. Other artists will start dropping traditional panel layouts and experimenting with psychedelic styles. It won't always work - often it will feel like the superficial aspects of Steranko's style are being mimicked without a real understanding of how it worked - but there's no doubt Steranko's art was influential.
The first story in the book details the return of Hydra. SHIELD learns that Hydra still exists (and even have deadly Hydra-pillars!) and hunts them down...
...rescuing Laura Brown in the process.
The big reveal (not for us, of course) is that Hydra has really been run all along by Baron Strucker, not that dopey guy Arnold Brown.
Fury fights Hydra agents and a Dreadnought and a Satan Claw-wearing Strucker and in the end destroys Hydra Island. Strucker, who was trying to launch a Death-Spore virus is (seemingly) killed (and won't be seen again for a long time, although there will be some appearances by a character that will later be ruled an imposter).
In the next arc, Nick Fury and Captain America team-up...
and, with the help of Jimmy Woo...
... and some minor support from Mr. Fantastic and the Thing, fight the menace of the Yellow Claw.
We also meet some major re-occurring SHIELD agents Contessa Valentina Allegra De la Fontaine and Clay Quartermain in this storyline. The Contessa was a member of a European resistance group (presumably Italian and during during World War II, but it's not specified) who was subsequently recruited by SHIELD. Fury shows some chauvinism in her first appearance. Quartermain's gimmick is that he's big-jawed and always has a goofy smile on his face, no matter what the situation.
The Yellow Claw turns out to be a robot controlled by Dr. Doom, who is engaged in a 'chess' game with a robot calling itself the Prime Mover.
Fury and co. never find out Dr. Doom's involvement. In the battle against the Clawbot, Suwan, Jimmy Woo's love, is killed. This Suwan will later also be revealed as a robot, but neither Woo nor Fury know that now. Woo holds Fury responsible for Suwan's death and swears vengeance.
The last arc in the collection is a single-issue story where Nick Fury has a bizarre dream about an alien invasion.
As Steranko gains full control of the art, Fury becomes younger looking: slender and less gruff.
The idea was to make him more of a James Bond type of character. The series already had many spy story elements; Steranko just gives them a greater emphasis.
I probably didn't realize it the first time i read this trade as some of the techniques used (such as having a large blow-up of a character standing on one side of the page) are now fairly common, but reading through the books in order really shows how different this was than what came before.
Even with a jaded modern eye, much of the artwork is quite unique - there is a lot of psychedelia and weirdness that you don't see in modern mainstream super-hero comics.
Issue #167 has a 4 page splash 'panel'- impossible to reproduce well here - with this note:
The trade paperback presents the splash on fold-out pages, allowing us to experience the intended effect without having to buy two trades.
The art itself (as opposed to the layout/design) is sort of a hyper-Kirby. It's worth making the point that despite the fact that there's an obvious departure from the early Silver Age here, there's also a lot of love and respect for Kirby in this art. Actually, the use of the Yellow Claw as a villain is an interesting, as it reminds me of some of the unusual work that Kirby did in the old Yellow Claw comic (and you have to love the fact that Fury's still smoking his cigar while making the jump in this scene).
In the same issue, Fury navigates the Yellow Claw's psychedelic headquarters.
The panel layout is at times incredible.
It's good - very good - with very detailed panels and wild action shots, but it still looks a little dated. Everyone's got a sort of stony expression, except during the more human downtime moments. It wouldn't pass as current artwork, but there is no denying its quality.
There is a sequence in #156 where we have some major event with global impact (in this case it's a threat from Hydra to release a bio-logical weapon), and we get a few panels of the Marvel Universe's various super-heroes reacting to it.
I love those panels! I think this is one of the first times it was done.
Overall this is a major highlight in Marvel's publishing history. It is a shame that Steranko did not have any other major runs at Marvel.
Steranko actually began his comics career working for Joe Simon at Harvey Comics. When Simon told Steranko he didn't have the chops to draw, Steranko walked in off the street to Marvel and made his way to Stan Lee, who hired him for his "raw energy" and let gave him a choice of books to take over. My info here is from Sean Howe's book Marvel: The Untold Story and he ends this segment noting that this was the first time since Daredevil #10 that Lee allowed someone to both write and draw a book and then writes, "Jack Kirby, unsatisfied with his own lack of writing credits, took notice."
Quality Rating: B
Chronological Placement Considerations: The group shots in #156 should be treated as conceptual (e.g., the Hulk probably wasn't hanging out with the Avengers when this happened), but at the least we'll place this while Professor X isn't kidnapped by Factor Three - before Uncanny X-Men #32-33.
Since this is the first appearance of the Dreadnought, a note on the spelling. Apparently both Dreadnought and Dreadnaught are considered correct, with the O being used more in Britain and the A in America. The title of issue #154 uses the O, but i think more creators use the A over the years, and the MCP tag the character with an A. I've done the same.
Continuity Insert? N
My Reprint: Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. #1 (Aug 2000 TPB)
Inbound References (18): show
At first I thought it was strange that the Prime Mover was massaging its own nipple (it does this in later appearances also). But then I realized that if I were playing SHIELD-Chess with Doctor Doom, I would be pretty excited, too.
Posted by: James Nostack | September 15, 2011 5:19 PM
Hi, What is the trade paperback called reprinting these stories, and where can i get it?!
Posted by: alex | August 26, 2012 9:35 AM
Posted by: fnord12 | August 26, 2012 11:16 AM
Clay Quartermain was supposedly based on Burt Lancaster.
Sean Connery is being turned away at the fake barbershop door in #164.
Posted by: Mark Drummond | July 5, 2013 4:09 PM
Regarding that Sean Howe quote, wasn't Jack Kirby credited for script and layouts in #148?
Posted by: Mortificator | November 27, 2014 3:43 PM
One thing I'm wondering about- how old is Strucker supposed to be in this story? Because the X-Men:True Friends series had Strucker as a veteran in the First World War and Gambit 10 had Strucker as a soldier in 1916, suggesting he was at least 18 at that point. Now both of these stories were written after Thunderbolts came out and Busiek revealed that Zemo invented a compound that retards aging to explain why none of the big Nazi villains aged as much as they should have. But I'm wondering, was Strucker supposed to be that old in the '60's Strucker stories? Because if Strucker was 18 in 1916, he should be 69 in 1967 but he's treated like a physical threat in these stories.
Posted by: Michael | October 31, 2015 9:20 AM
It's so weird to see the Dum Dum Dugan from these classic stories now tagged as an LMD. What a bizarre retcon.
Just curious, fnord... At what point in Marvel chronology do you personally consider to be the moment that the real Nick Fury realized the Infinity Formula was no longer working, he was aging again, and so he activated an LMD to permanently replace him on Earth while he went off into outer space to become a interstellar assassin?
(I cannot believe that I just typed that last sentence. It's so damn ridiculous, even for comic books!)
Posted by: Ben Herman | March 12, 2016 2:55 PM
Ben, my preferred answer to your question is "As close to the revelation in Original Sin as possible", but i will wait until i actually cover that story, unless a Marvel handbook comes out with something definitive or the MCP reaches a consensus or something like that.
Posted by: fnord12 | March 14, 2016 8:00 AM
Wonder if First Modern Jimmy Woo merits Historical Significance mention?
Also possibly an early example of Roy Thomas's Canon Welding, assuming that was his doing?
Posted by: cullen | March 22, 2016 2:40 AM
Several more elements of this that also stand out:
-- Steranko's not just taking over the art and writing, he's also involving himself in the production process itself, making heavy use of stuff like Zip-A-Tone and getting more involved with the coloring process to get those psychedelic effects onto the page. We've seen Kirby experiment with photo collages, but he still prefers to use standard pencilling and inking to achieve most of his "special effects" at this point in time.
-- Steranko also has a very different way of handling things like expo-speak and narrative captions, much more of a first-person character perspective. Technobabble is not played up as melodarama, but dropped casually, as in one of the scans above: "The pellets... disintegrated...didn't even faze 'im. Must have some kinda anti-force charge." No soliloquies about how "anti-force is the deadliest power of all!" or whatever; it's just Fury noticing some advanced gimmick he's already familiar with and then immediately trying to figure out what he'll do next. For the reader, it's esoteric technobabble nonsense; for Fury, it's just a difficult problem.
Strange Tales #159, a downtime issue -- and that's notable in itself int his hypercompressed era of storytelling! -- has some beautiful sequences with Fury reminiscing about his childhood. This is setting up his old war buddy Cap's appearance later in the story, but it's a thematic setup, not Fury flashing back to an adventure with Cap. That's a kind of relatively subtle exposition and setup we don't see in Marvel or DC in this era, something borrowed more from the more literary pulps.
More broadly, I feel like Steranko pulls in a slightly wider range of influences: in addition to hints of Chandler and Hammett, we're seeing more Will Eisner influence in the narrative's tone and perspective, and a more direct understanding of psychedelia than the usual superficial imitation that happens elsewhere (and as fnord notes, afterwards when Steranko himself becomes an influence.)
-- Steranko's use of the Marvel Universe is also interesting; he treats guest appearances as background color or as a way to break out of the standard narrative as much as anything. It gives the feel of a more cohesive universe, the sort of place where characters themselves aren't surprised by the fantastical elements because that's just their world. Doctor Doom might be messing around and causing trouble without anyone knowing it; the Fantastic Four might not be major guest-stars where a meet-and-greet scene is mandatory for plot and pacing purposes. Here, they're just specialists you call in to solve a particular problem.
Steranko is partly playing up Fury's "connections" and matter-of-factness about all this stuff as the ultimate insider to the world of super-crazines. But he's also relying on the reader's familiarity with the bigger-name characters as a kind of shorthand, treating the FF and Captain America as stuff the reader should already be familiar with. Something similar happens with the raid on AIM partway through the Yellow Claw story, where it's just sort of a given that the Yellow Claw would steal from the mad scientist gang of the MU.
The characters interact more as parts of a world with lots of moving parts than as players in a drama. One character's major personal or professional problems may be another character's afterthoughts or distractions. This is actually used as a red herring down the line of the Scorpio stuff, where Jimmy Woo is very bothered by Fury's willingness to to let "Suwan" die, but to Fury it's only on his radar even slightly because Woo might be upset about it, and there are plenty of other things to deal with in the present. We're shown that Fury doesn't really think much of it -- OK, a robot "died," get over it, Jimmy! It's a clever way to show how jaded Fury is by things in his [like the death of Pam Hawley, and also the degree to which he's an officer and collateral damage is just part of the deal. (Steranko of course has to use robots to do this; between Stan Lee, the readers, and the CCA, I doubt Steranko could have gotten away with so unsentimental a depiction of a protagonist character otherwise. And curiously, he has Jimmy Woo behave as if it was the real Suwan anyway. Was Steranko's idea that the Claw and Suwan were always just Doom's robots?)
-- The Yellow Claw story might also be the first modern Marvel example of using a comic-book event to "explain" a real-world event, in this case the Northeast blackout of 1965. It's very heavily implied in issue #161 that the blackout was caused by the electrical weapon the FF and Fury use on the Claw's troops, with the "official" explanation being just a coverup. That, too, is a more cynical take on things than the Marvel Universe of this period normally presents.
Gardner Fox, John Broome, and other members of Julius Schwartz's writing crew at DC liked to use the science fiction literature twist of having a real event of historical figure turn out to have a sci-fi explanation, but their take on it was much less conspiratorial and anti-authoritarian than Steranko's is here. Another hint of the counterculture influences being taken seriously, I suppose.
Posted by: Omar Karindu | May 28, 2016 9:18 AM
Whoops! I'm forgetting Blackbeard the pirate from FF #5!
Posted by: Omar Karindu | May 28, 2016 9:22 AM
Steranko was smart to get out of comics when he did, he could see that there was no money in it for artists or writers at that point in history. If he had broken into comics at a later point in time, when an artist could have some hope of making real money at it, maybe he would have stayed in the game. As it was he made a name for himself at Marvel and then jumped to publishing the two part tabloid-sized Steranko History of Comics, which was the first widely available major mainstream work on comics history I had ever seen, and which I would hope was much more lucrative for him personally. It was an excellent primer on super hero comic book industry history up to that time.
Posted by: James Holt | September 24, 2016 1:59 AM
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