F U R Y
Of The Past
A Nick Fury Hero History
by Lou Mougin, Amazing Heroes #26, July 1, 1983
Make the time 1965-1968. Scoop up a handful of Strange Tales from the newstand and there, hogging the covers from his mate Dr. Strange, is Fury, the eye-patched, two-fisted, gun-toting "secret" agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., fighting to save the world from Hydra a dozen times in a year, his storyline transforming from rock-solid conventionalism to rococo psychedelia in the hands of Jim Steranko. When the chips are down, when humanity is threatened by the Betatron Bomb or the Death Spore or the Ultimate Annihilator, Fury is there. He may have to take out all of Hydra Island with just his own bare knucks, but he'll come through.
Now... make the time 1972-1982. Nick Fury doesn't headline his own feature any more, so you'll have to look a little harder for him. When his girlfriend makes a play for his old crony Captain America, he attacks Cap with a robot armweapon. When he wants to try out some new offensive-gimcracks, he dresses as a masked villain and nearly kills the Fantastic Four, and then teleports away before the Thing can express his gratitude with a fist. When the government decided that Tony Stark should start making munitions again, he buys Stark International right out from under his former weaponry chief. And that's just the beginning.
How did it happen? We can make a lot of conjectures, but probably the main reason is that America went through a whole lot of changes in that time-frame. Fury was a war hero from World War II in the "happy" war title, Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos [see AH #22], where everybody with a Kraut accent was a bad guy and no German regiment of whatever size stood a chance against even guys in torn uniforms. He fulfilled much the same role as Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., in his Strange Tales series: he fought with updated technology and a bunch of guys in business suits, but nobody doubted that beneath those bulky green Hydra uniforms there beat the hearts of true sieg-heilers. But this was early on in the first few years of the Vietnam War, when most of us in Middle America, save for the dreaded Hippies and Draft-Dodgers, still believed that somehow, some way, we were going to clear up the mess in Vietnam with no stronger weapon than Will Power. By 1968, we had begun to realize that the only weapon that ran on that commodity was Green Lantern's ring, and it wasn't standard issue. Our concern switched from winning a just peace to getting out with our backsides intact. Fury was hurt somewhat by the philosophical change, but what hurt more was the loss of artist-writer Jim Steranko, who was never equalled by the creators who tried to follow his act. His comic was cancelled. Then came hassles in Captain America, and 1975 CIA revelations, and other stuff not guaranteed to give secret agencies good press in America. Fury was Machiavelli rather than John Wayne, and an inept one at that.
None of this should have marred the luster of those old S.H.I.E.L.D. strips, but it did.
Still, in its time, Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. was one of the most interesting strips to come out of the entire mid- '60s Marvel stable. So it's high time we took a look back at Strange Tales #135, August, 1965, when TV had The Man from U.N.C.L.E., movies had Goldfinger, and Marvel had "The Greatest Action-Thriller of all time! Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.!
THE NEW FURY
Scene one opens with Fury, stripped down to his underdrawers (but still with a cigar in his mouth) inside what amounted to a vertical bathtub full of foam rubber, with electrodes taped to his body. "The only thing missin' is Bela Lugosi waltzin' around!" commented Fury in his best Brooklynese. A techno reported, "Life Model Decoy ready for operation!" while another advised, "Don't move, Fury! Don't even breathe! The slightest error can cause your death!" We'd known of the fact, since Fantastic Four #21, former Sergeant Nicholas Fury had been working as an agent for the CIA with the rank of Colonel. In between that time and this, he'd gained an eyepatch which made him look more dashing, in the manner of an Arrow Shirt ad. We had a clue from the heading of the piece that creators Stan Lee and Jack Kirby had hooked him up with an outfit named S.H.I.E.L.D. -- Supreme Headquarters International Law-Enforcement Division -- and any kid worth his James Bond trading cards could figure it for a spy agency, but the rest was news to us.
Regardless, Fury dresses, and a nameless aide escorts him to street level, where he encounters four Life Model Decoys -- robot doubles of himself, all of which promptly get wiped out by such exotic devices as a gun hidden in a mailbox. When all seems clear, the eye-patched man and his ice-cold escort board a Porsche and are briefly chased by a "foreign fighter jet" which buzzes them at a height of about 20 feet from the ground. It dumps a couple of gouts of napalm at the Porsche, but the vehicle, immune to such tactics, plows safely through before its back fins open up to eject missiles that blow the plane out of the sky. And that's just for starters. "What agency are ya with?" snaps Fury. "You've got my G-2 weapons beat a mile!" Stolidly lighting a cigarette, the driver answers, "I serve the American division of a secret international organization whose code name is... SHIELD!"
That's just before the wheels convert to turbo-jet fans and send the car thousands of feet into the skies, to make an airborne rendezvous. "Our enemies are the most deadly, dangerous fanatics the world has ever known! They call themselves Hydra -- and their sole objective is complete and unchallenged mastery of the world!" But then again, with prototypes such as SPECTRE and THRUSH, that was hardly original. Below the flying car, a motorcyclist stopped and removed his helmet. A TV screen built into the inside of it showed a hooded face. "So! He escaped! The master will be displeased!" it snarled.
(It's interesting to recall that, in November of 1964 -- less than a year before S.H.I.E.L.D. -- Batman and Robin went up against an international spy ring named Hydra in Batman #167. Nobody's ever acknoledged the connection, but it seems to be as substantial as the similarities betwen the X-Men and the Doom Patrol a year earlier.)
The next panel shows the would-be assassin, clad in robes and hood of green, moving down "a long, silent corridor deep within a hidden building..." At the end of his journey, he stands before a uniformed figure in plush chair, whose face is hidden from us just as was Ernst Stavro Blofeld's in the Bond movies until You Only Live Twice. Where Blofeld held a Persian cat on his lap, the Imperial Hydra grasps the leash of a black panther. "You know the penalty for failure! You shall be discarded and replaced by another -- unless you can defeat your replacement in combat!"
Curtains part to reveal a horde of Hydra troops, standing with blazing torches like Klansmen at a rally. Before them are two "H"-shaped pendulums, with a Hydra agent already upon one. The hapless operative, unarmed, dodged the blasts of his opponent's "electric gun" while swinging for his life -- and lost. The killer dismounted, pulled off a hood, and stood revealed as a pretty, blonde girl. In fact, she was the very daughter of the Imperial Hydra, though we wouldn't find out for a few more issues. She stood before her father and pronounced the Hydra Oath, which, by now, most '60s fans have committed to memory:
"Hail, Hydra! Immortal Hydra! We shall never be destroyed! Cut off a limb, and two shall take its place! We serve none but the master -- as the world shall soon serve us! Hail Hydra!"
A tough lot, these. But as long as the good guys had Nick Fury, our money was on S.H.I.E.L.D..
S.H.I.E.L.D. GETS A BOSS
In the meantime, after being checked out by security devices, Our Man Fury is escorted into the presence of a familiar mustached figure from another comic book. "Say! I know you!" said Fury. "You're Tony Stark, the playboy arms inventor!" "I am also in charge of the special weaponry section of SHIELD," commented the alter ego of Iron Man, and, though he never appeared in costume during the series, Stark was very much in evidence through the early issues of the S.H.I.E.L.D. strip. He faded from sight after the initial Hydra sequence, however.
Fury takes his place in a conference room on a circular dais in the middle of a ring of "Some of the most famous joes from every nation in the world!," in his own words, who were audience to his appointment. A globe of the planet Earth, with a Hydra insignia emblazoned on it, is wheeled in. Tony Stark blows a hole in it with a gun, scattering the pieces right past Fury's elbow. "A transistorized gun can smash this globe! But, a human weapon is needed to smash the entire Hydra network! A man... who'll devote his life to it... a man like you, Fury!" It was evident that Stan Lee had taken up much of his free time watching old war movies, but sometimes the straight spy movies could be just as corny. "You have been chosen to lead our world-wide organization! Your mission is -- destroy Hydra!"
"No! Ya can't mean it!" protests Fury. "I'm outta my league! I'm just a bare-knuckles kinda guy! A barroom brawler! They made me a colonel, but I'm still a three-striper at heart!" But, just as he sits down again in dejection, Fury notices a wire connected to his seat. He rips the chair from the floor (no small feat), leaps with it over the heads of the dignitaries, and smashes open a porthole window to throw it outside. The booby-trapped chair explodes as it falls through the air from the window of what amounted to a giant aircraft carrier with helicopter blades, flying miles above the ground. Back indoors, Fury is barking orders at guards and taking command without stopping to realize what he's doing, as the fates would have it, and Stark and the boys gaze on with respect. "Looks like Hydra plays for keeps!" mutters Fury. "Do they really have a chance to overthrow world-wide law and order?"
"It seems that way, colonel!" responds Stark. "They have unlimited wealth, and a secret army of deadly agents in every part of the globe!"
"That means it's them -- or us -- right?"
"Exactly! -- Gentlemen, my work here is done! SHIELD has found a leader!"
"Looks like somebody has to smash Hydra!" allowed Nick Fury. "So, it might as well be me!"
Looking back on it now, from an adult perspective, it's easy to see the unintentional corn in Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. -- at least, in the first episode -- and one is forced to admit that Dr. Strange, done by Steve Ditko, does hold up quite bit better on repeated readings. But if you were all of 12 years old back in 1966 you could overlook all that and go for the excitement. It had the intensity and action that the old Human Torch/Thing series lacked, and if you got bogged down in Doc Strange's dimension warps and levitation cloaks, it was easy to turn back to the front and dig Fury picking off Hydra goons with a .38. That we could understand! Follow that, Strange!!! Much has been made of the Mystic Master's appeal, but by the time Steranko had taken over S.H.I.E.L.D. and the second feature had slipped into an interminable travelogue of alien realms, you only read Dr. Strange in the bathroom. (Just kidding, Cat!)
But that was still a long ways in the future. For now, Fury had to wipe out Hydra with the help of a secret army. This was made difficult by the fact that Fury was never much of a "secret" agent; in fact, with his eye-patch, he'd be as identifiable as Moshe Dayan in a crowd. He was more of a combination of M and Napoleon Solo in one character. Not only did he run S.H.I.E.L.D., he always stuffed a pistol in his shoulder holster and went out after the enemy in person. It didn't make much sense when you thought about it, but then, neither did sending Captain Kirk of the U.S.S. Enterprise down with every landing party on Star Trek. Fury was a commando, not a desk soldier.
The second episode, "Find Fury or Die!" (Strange Tales #136), introduced John Severin, late of Cracked magazine and EC fame, as artist over Kirby's layouts. The story was a fairly straightforward guns-and-gimmicks tale of Hydra's attempt to assassinate Nick Fury, and featured the S.H.I.E.L.D. ground installation for the first time. Since The Man from U.N.C.L.E. hid his environs behind the facade of a dry cleaning establishment, Stan Lee devised a barbershop as the cover for S.H.I.E.L.D.; the barber chairs sank through the floor to admit one to the secret headquarters. In the end, the second unlucky fellow to fail at Fury's assassination was shot to death, and time marched on.
THE FIRST SERIAL
Then the first great S.H.I.E.L.D. serial, a five-part story featuring the resolution of the first S.H.I.E.L.D.-Hydra conflict began with "The Prize is Earth!" (Strange Tales #137). Apropos of nothing, Dum Dum Dugan and Gabriel Jones from the old Sgt. Fury title became agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., with the plotline this time being the race to discover the launchsite of Hydra's fearsome Betatron Bomb. This overgrown piece of dynamite, if activated by remote control or by someone attempting to tamper with it, would cause an explosion great enough to devastate most of the Earth and depopulate the rest by fearsome amounts of fallout. That was the situation, and Stan, Jack and John played it for all it was worth in a genuinely suspenseful opener. A S.H.I.E.L.D. relay team tried to clandestinely pass microfilm of the bomb's launchsite to Fury's headquarters, starting with a double agent (who got shot by a flower-seller) to a passenger on a train (who got ambushed by a pack of Hydra assassins) to two couriers on a triphibious vehicle (who blew themselves up rather than surrender the film to a Hydra underwater demolitions team). S.H.I.E.L.D. was set back crucially, and, despite Fury's best efforts, they arrived at the site only seconds after the bomb had been launched into orbit by missile. Hydra was in a position to blackmail the entire world into submission. And that was only the start.
In the next episode, while Tony Stark labored to construct a mysterious "Braino-Saur" to counter the bomb, worldwide rioting broke out as the public became aware of the Hydra device, and Nick Fury got captured! While Tony Stark angrily swore revenge, Fury, in straitjacket, was hustled off in a pocket missile to a secret (?) Hydra outpost where the Imperial Hydra held court. The mysterious master-spy belted Fury in the kisser and gloated over his newfound fortune while Hydra diplomatic teams put the screws to the U.S. Government in the form of "Capitulate or Die." By this time it was sheer torture to wait another 30 days for the next chapter, and, combined with the upcoming climax of a year-long Dr. Strange serial in the back, not a single red-blooded Marvelite managed to miss the next issue!
Soon enough, Fury began to turn the tide with the aid of the blonde girl, one Laura Brown, from the opening episode. The S.H.I.E.L.D. honcho broke out his cell with aid from a shirt soaked in liquid explosive, and the two of them went up against every security device, mechanical and human, within Hydra HQ. The Imperial Hydra forced himself to make the unhappy choice of setting loose his pack of trained assassins on both Fury and his daughter before he went up to his office and revealed himself as a meek, small, bespectacled male secretary who concealed his identity behind padded robes, hood and voice amplifier. Issue #140 told it all on the cover, as Fury and a wedge of S.H.I.E.L.D. agents traded gunfire with an encircling band of Hydra killers mounted on skateboards! While astute readers used Jan and Dean's "Sidewalk Surfin'" for background music, a cover blurb boasted: "Hang on to your hat! It's... The End of Hydra!" And, for a time, it was, as Tony Stark donned spacesuit to enter his small shuttlecraft, the "Braino-Saur," and gingerly disarmed the Betatron Bomb with a long waldo. At that, S.H.I.E.L.D. broke into Hydra HQ aboard a stolen flying saucer (don't ask where it came from, just go on) and battled to rescue their chief and Laura Brown.
As irony would have it, just as the unmasked Imperial Hydra was about to blow the entire installation to Kingdom Come, he was surprised by two of his own troops who didn't buy his story about being the ruler of their secret organization, and shot him. Hydra was carted off to prison; Fury saw to it that Miss Brown (who could be forgiven her murder in #135 as a harmless prank) made a clean getaway, and the stage was set for "Operation Brain Blast," the next Evil Menace to confront S.H.I.E.L.D..
By this time John Severin had been replaced by both Joe Sinnott and Don Heck, and then Kirby simply took over pencils for two issues. For the rest of his tenure, though -- well into the early Steranko issues -- Kirby stayed on as layout artist, breaking down scripts for Heck, Howard Purcell, Ogden Whitney and John Buscema. Lee continued as a writer through #147, with Jack Kirby doing his first scripting in many a moon for a single issue afterward. Denny O'Neil wrote issue #149, and Lee returned for his last issues in #150-152. In this "bridge" period, Fury and company enocountered the menace of Mentallo and the Fixer, who nearly took over S.H.I.E.L.D. HQ with super-gadgets and telepathic tricks; The Druid, who dressed up super- science gimmicks as magic; and finally, AIM -- Advanced Idea Mechanics -- or THEM, as they were known in the early days. This was a return to the Evil Organization ploy that had served so well as a nemesis in the early days of S.H.I.E.L.D.. It all began with a crossover into Tales of Suspense #75 in which AIM, a "legitimate" business front, was revealed to house a cadre of mad scientists and android-makers who dressed in yellow work-suits with hat-box helmets. Along the way they revived the Red Skull from suspended animation and nearly succeeded in ousting Fury from his job in favor of their agent, the genteel Count Bornag Royale. It wasn't until Strange Tales #149 that we got to see "The End of AIM!" in a reprise of the Hydra-finisher of #140. Fury, Gabe, Dum Dum and a blonde , bespectacled , crew-cut "beaver patrol" type named Jasper Sitwell -- based, some say, on Roy Thomas! -- cleaned out the villains' headquarters in a masterstroke, only to discover that they had only been a branch of Hydra -- and Hydra was still alive!
"Hydra Lives!" (#150) was the title of the next adventure -- and, as in their first serial, they got the drop on the world by fashioning an Overkill Horn, which, when sounded, would detonate every nuclear bomb on the face of the Earth. It looked to be a remake of the first Lee-Kirby S.H.I.E.L.D. saga.
And it might have been just that, had Jim Steranko not been along.
How do you explain what Jim Steranko was like, without having been there? He hasn't drawn a commercial comic book in over a decade now, and only one artist, Paul Gulacy, ever did a successful swipe of his style. Yet, in his time, he was the most incendiary artist in comics, a marriage of Will Eisner and Wally Wood, and between himself and Neal Adams he helped revolutionize comics. As a writer and as an artist, he shook S.H.I.E.L.D. free from the mundane war-story heroics and transformed it into a James Bond movie on paper, with interesting characters, bizarre villains, fiendish death-traps, cliff- hanger endings, and the most exciting storylines in the business for almost two years. Nick Fury was his magnum opus. After he dropped the strip, he did two fill-in issues of X-Men, a classic Captain America trilogy, a horror quickie, and a romance story. Then, save for a few covers, he was gone, off to write two massive volumes of a history of comics and to publish a primal effort called Comixscene which became, in turn, Mediascene and then Prevue. Besides a digest-sized detective story published by Byron Preiss and an adaptation of the movie Outland, he never came back to comics again.
But he didn't have to. He'd made his statement with Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., which still stands as one of the classic examples of comic book artistry.
Yet on the first few issues one might find it hard to see what all the fuss was about. Steranko worked over Jack Kirby layouts with a Stan Lee script for two issues and Roy Thomas writing for the third. In another retake from the original Hydra serial, not done so suspensefully this time, Nick Fury got himself captured in short order, broke free with Hydra's consent, and almost set off the Overkill Horn himself before it was destroyed in the third issue. The new villain of the piece was the Supreme Hydra, who masqueraded first as Don Caballero (no relation to the head of SCTV, we trust!), a Spanish aristocrat, then as Emir-Ali-Bey, an Arabic Villain, and finally as Agent Bronson of S.H.I.E.L.D., infiltrating Nick Fury's headquarters under our heroes' very noses! During this entire affair we had no knowledge of the Supreme One's true identity, but when it was revealed, all possibility of comparison to the original Imperial Hydra was forever shelved.
STERANKO BUSTS LOOSE!
Roy Thomas scripted issue #153 ("The Hiding Place") after Stan Lee left, wherein Fury, Dum Dum, Sitwell, and Gabe Jones rescued turncoat Laura Brown from a Hydra assassination attempt. Steranko's cover, his first work for Marvel to date without Kirby layouts, proved an exciting precursor to what was to come later. Then, in #154's "Bewared the Deadly Dreadnaught," Steranko took over full pencilling, inking, coloring and plotting chores, experimenting with Ben-Day, reversed images and other special effects. Fury was pitched headlong into an action-packed brawl against a robot assassin, the Dreadnaught, while "Agent Bronson" struck down Laura Brown, the only agent who suspected his identity. Steranko's fight scenes had twice the impact and flow of Kirby's, and he never worked over anyone else's layouts again.
By the next issue (#155, "Death Trap"), Steranko had supplanted Thomas as the full scripter. The only he didn't do was the lettering. This time it was pure bravura, overladen with sleek violence, gimmickry, moles, deadly menace and cliff-hanger suspense. In the space of 12 pages Fury killed two Hydra assassins who had penetrated to his very cabin aboard the helicarrier, uncovered a renegade scientist sworn to kill the ruling council of S.H.I.E.L.D. with a vaporizer ray, got tied to a bomb and escaped the blast, was trapped by hypnotized Dum Dum, Gabe and Sitwell in Hydra robes, barely managed to break free to race a final encounter with the scientist, and saved the Heli-Carrier from destruction when the vaporizer ran wild. And, after all that, Fury was ordered to his quarters under house arrest by President Johnson himself, while Agent Bronson was scheduled to bring a critically-ill Laura Brown to medical aid. It was more action than most Marvels packed into five full issues, in half a comic!
The final three-parter of the Hydra War began in the next issue, "The Tribunal" (Strange Tales #156). Nick Fury hitched a ride unseen with "Agent Bronson" and Laura all the way to Hydra Island, a plastic-domed artificial isle in the middle of the ocean right out of Our Man Flint or You Only Live Twice. At this, it was revealed that Hydra once again threatened to blackmail the world into submission or destruction with a deadly germ bomb hidden somewhere aboard the S.H.I.E.L.D. heli-carrier. Fury attempts to break free with Laura Brown only to get captured and strapped into a death-device in a meeting hall filled with thousands of uniformed agents. And the Supreme Hydra unmasks, to be revealed as none other than "Baron Strucker!", Fury's old nemesis from World War II. In a superb double-page spread, Strucker activates a battery of deathrays to be trained on Fury with his lifeless body to be the model for android warriors employed by Hydra. "Hydra will rule the world... and I am Hydra" shouts the Baron as, ominously, he pulls down the switch.
There was no way in hell we were going to miss the next issue!
Steranko got Fury out of the deathray trap with an invisibility gimmick in #157 ("Crisis") and ran him through a deadly gamut in the heart of Hydra Island. Opposed by a battalion of evil agents armed to the teeth, Fury punched, kicked, shot and zapped his way through, never pausing for breath, always facing a new threat. All the time the Death Spore Bomb was ticking away, and Laura Brown remained in danger. We bit our nails to the quick. In the closing pages of that episode, Baron Strucker appeared, ready to fight his arch enemy hand-to-hand. But this time, one of Strucker's hands bore the deadly Satan Claw, an electrically-charged gauntlet that smashed the hero mercilessly to the floor. Sparks flew from the Claw as Strucker reached for Fury in the closing panel, inches away from electrocuting him. We wouldn't believe Nick would actually buy the farm, and yet... and yet...
Finally, there came issue #158, and, as if to show us no mercy, it bore a Doctor Strange cover, this being his month to alternate with S.H.I.E.L.D. as the advertised feature. To find out what would befall the grand director of S.H.I.E.L.D., we had to hold our breath and turn to "Final Encounter!" Strucker wasn't quite finished with Fury, giving him a body-slam on the opening page, but the battered S.H.I.E.L.D. sentinel fought back, snatched the Satan Claw away with his belt, and downed Baron Strucker with a single punch. From there on in it was a wild and woolly 12 pages to the end, but Strucker was incinerated in an energy chamber, Hydra was dispatched when their own Spore Bomb detonated in their island, and Fury, disguised as Strucker, escaped with Laura, soaring off into the sunrise. Against all odds, the good guys had triumphed, and nobody could deny that Fury belonged among the Good Guys.
In eight issues, Steranko had turned a mundane strip into an exciting action-thriller. S.H.I.E.L.D. hadn't reached its heights of glory yet -- that was to come during the Yellow Claw sequence immediately following. But, like all the modern "greats" of comic art, Steranko had developed his work in a surprisingly short time.
A CHANGE OF CAST
The cover date of Strange Tales #159 was August, 1967. Jim Steranko, writer-artist of S.H.I.E.L.D., had just put wraps on the Hydra serial he inherited (#151-158). In between that issue and the one at hand fit Sgt. Fury Annual #3, in which author Gary Friedrich and artist Dick Ayers asked us to believe that President LBJ would actually round up the long- disbanded Howlers (now comprising a TV-show celebrity, a U.S. senator, a Playboy Club manager, and a garage owner with a wife and two kids) and send them all, probably in their early 50s, to bop and stomp with the Viet Cong. It was an entertaining story, but really...!
Anyway, back in Strange Tales #159, Fury and his comrades from the previous issues, Gabe, Dum Dum, Jasper Sitwell, and Laura Brown, strode past a movie house on Broadway whose marquee bore the title: "Spy School!" It was a time for rearrangements. Gabe said his goodbyes for the moment, off to take leave of absence with a jazz combo, or so he said. Jasper had a "secret assignment" and got transplanted promptly into the Iron Man strip as Tony Stark's S.H.I.E.L.D. liaison. Dum Dum just dropped out of sight, period; he'd show up as a regular again in seven more issues. And Laura? Well, the gent with the eye-patch had a hankering to tell his life's story to someone, so Miss Brown, daughter to a late director of Hydra, got elected. They strolled through the streets of Hell's Kitchen, Nick's old neighbourhood, while he reminisced about watching old Tom Mix movies, brawling with the Yancy Street Gang, and sneaking food off his plate to his dog waiting under the table. It was a nifty little bit of humanism, and quite welcome after ten of so issues of head-bashing. Laura Brown and Nick ended up back in S.H.I.E.L.D.'s ground installation, with the lady officially pardoned of her shady past by executive order and given a S.H.I.E.L.D. expense account to go on a shopping spree with. And, with that, Steranko wrote her out of his part of the series. The old cast was gone. The new cast was about to debut.
Fury descended once more into the bowels of the S.H.I.E.L.D. ground installation. His journey this time let Steranko delineate, in one-page panel, a typical training session for neophyte agents, which included underwater combat, karate training, and flailing about blindfolded in a maze of hacksaw blades. Some fun! Anyway, proceeding onward, the one-eyed leader of S.H.I.E.L.D. addressed a corps of S.H.I.E.L.D. cadets, meeting in the process the smiling craftsman-technologist Sidney E. Levine, otherwise known as The Gaff, and Valentina Allegro De Fontaine, a countess of sorts (why she had chosen to become an agent we were never told) who dumped him on his backside with a judo maneuver in repayment for some male chauvinism. In this appearance, Val lacked much of the glamour she would acquire with later issues. But, then again, she looked as if she'd just come out of the obstacle course, so we can, as mature chauvinists, overlook that. Somewhere in the middle there we got our violence-for-the-issue as Fury held a mock battle with Captain America, who informed him that the case of "The Big Blackout" had cropped up again. And, with that teaser of an outro, we faded into that issue's Dr. Strange story, secure that -- next month -- we would have our answer.
THE LAST STRANGE TALE
The story that was to run up to Fury's penultimate issue in Strange Tales began in #160, and the layouts and storytelling techniques became more experimental yet. The title, "Project: Blackout," was stenciled across the label of a folder Fury held displayed on page one, and on page two we were introduced to Jimmy Woo, a Chinese-American FBI agent Captain America had brought along. If you had been an avid fan of Atlas Comics back in the 1950s, this might have been the clue you needed to dope out the Grand Villain's identity before the next issue. If not, and most of us young 1960s readers were ignorant of his earlier appearances, you had to wait till the next episode.
The story proper commenced with a flashback to the 1965 New York Blackout, as Fury, clad in a gimmicked up leather suit, teamed with Captain America to investigate reports of costumed invaders on Bedloe's Island in the Statue of Liberty. Those of us who cared about such matters wondered how this could be, since Cap and Nick hadn't re-met in the 1960s before Tales of Suspense #78, in 1966: or that, in the fall of 1965, Fury was just getting into his role as commander of S.H.I.E.L.D. and was busy with the menace of Hydra, not likely to go off chasing super-villains in the middle of the night. But it made for a good story, and we therefore accepted it as somehow canonical.
What the story amounted to, in both #160 and 161, was the battle by Cap, Fury, and their late-coming allies Reed Richards and The Thing to stop the mysterious, quasi-invulnerable mind-slaves from installing a mind-control device in the Statue of Libery to turn New York into an enclave of zombies. The good guys won after The Thing sapped most of the power on the East Coast into a blaster that knocked the baddies for a loop. He also caused one terrible mess of suffering for the civilians involved in the process, but that can be forgiven. No government official wants to explain to a skeptical populace that several hundred thousand people couldn't get home from work because an ID-Paralyzer had to be destroyed.
In the present of 1967, Fury related, "We never located the source of the invasion... or who was behind it!" Jimmy Woo leaned forward. "There's only one man who's capable of such an incredible assault! The one you seek is called..."
Turn the page...
THE YELLOW CLAW
Jimmy Woo, Captain America and Nick Fury are limned on the shapeless view-crystal of a mad, metal-clad mandarin with a world globe in his long-fingered hand. Beside the fiend, within his super-scientific lair, stood an Oriental beauty named Suwaan and a cruel ex-Nazi (there were never any nice ex-Nazis except Eric Koenig) called Fritz Von Voltzmann.
"... The Yellow Claw!" finished Jimmy.
Heir to the throne of Fu Manchu and the Mysterious Wu Fang, the Yellow Claw brought the Yellow Peril motif back to comics in a small fashion. In his original run of Yellow Claw Comics back in 1956. China's mysterious mastermind had allied himself with the Communists for his own purposes to dominate the West. Opposing him were Jimmy Woo, the chief good guy. Suwaan, the Claw's daughter and surrogate of Fah Lo Suee in Fu Manchu, and Phil Kane, Jimmy's boss. During that four-issue period, Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Joe Maneely put the good guys and bad guys through an increasingly weird gamut of gimmicks, including tales of mutant telepaths, electrified aliens from Alpha Centauri, miniature armies and thousand-foot-tall Samurai robots (this many, many years before Shogun Warriors hit the screen). By 1967, the Claw favored less outlandish gimmicks but still sported enough science-fiction weaponry and costumed minions to turn United Artists green with envy.
Why the Yellow Claw? No telling. Steranko obviously read comics in the 1950s, and probably remembered the Yellow Claw books with more than a little nostalgia. And who else would do for a villain? Hydra had been disposed of for the moment. The mundane Fixer and Mentallo wouldn't do, and AIM, having been "destroyed" a couple years back, was just getting back on its feet in Captain America's strip. A "class" act was needed, and the revived Claw filled the bill. So Steranko revived him.
Or did he? Read on.
Strange Tales #162, "So Evil, the Night!" escorted Captain America out the side door, allowed The Gaff to design a transparent automobile for Fury, and gave Val and Nick time to start a romance properly. Val explained that her parents had been members of the French Resistance and had been executed by the Nazis. "I thought if I could carry on in their places, perhaps their death (sic) would not be in vain! Eventually, I was contacted by your people!" "I know how ya feel!" sympathized Fury. "An' so does every Joe who ever lost a buddy in a war!"
The S.H.I.E.L.D. ESP division and Jimmy Woo successfully located the Claw's hideout in Chinatown, making it convenient for S.H.I.E.L.D., based only a few minutes drive away. Fury went it alone in his leather jumpsuit; in the new age he was less of an administrator and more of a man of action. After a rousing five-page batle atop a Yellow Claw vehicle in the streets, Fury forced information from the dying driver and approriated his suit. He even made it to the Claw's hideout in the back of a curio shop, but his disguise was less than convincing. The Claw let him play out the pretense for several minutes before dumping him feet-first into the underwater lair of giant octopus. Or, as Steranko would have it, "A writhing nightmarish form, a monstrous mass of swirling death." The last caption read, "To be continued... hopefully!"
"And the Dragon Cried Death!" (#163) continued the cliff-hanger gambit as Fury managed to bayonet the monster to death and escape, minutes after his new nemesis and Voltzmann had hotfooted it. In a new hideout, the master of villainy plotted the theft of a "new ultra-weapon" from the hands of AIM while Voltzmann leaned on his cane and provided moral support. Suwaan waxed melancholy in the corner. Again my heart grows heavy with guilt -- for I must witness more of my uncle's malevolent designs! Yet, can I blame him? Is it not his way, just as it be the nature of the scorpion to sting?" That did not keep her from ratting to Jimmy Woo about the Claw's plan, just as she had done all through the 1950s, but it sounded good in print.
Clay Quartermain, a blond-haired, fast-talking, grinning Burt Lancaster clone, came into the S.H.I.E.L.D. troupe, and he and Fury engaged in a waterfront fight against a horde of AIM agents, recovering an artifact that led them to four physicists in the pay of AIM. The Claw got to three of them before S.H.I.E.L.D. did, murdering each in turn after taking part of a weapon all had worked on. But, as the Claw neared the stooped figure of Po Chin Ling, his final quarry, the "victim" whipped off a plastic mask and pulled out a blaster. Fury was on the job.
It mattered little. There followed a hugh close-up, in negative, of the Yellow Claw's monstrous, staring, hypnotic eyes. Fury tried to resist their power in a series of six vignettes as the color went from light yellow through orange to red, and then immediately to white as he slumped to the floor. The Yellow Claw trained his newfound weapon on him and, in the last panel, stood alone in the room. "You see, Fury-san," he explained to the smoking spot where Fury had stood, "You simply cease to... exist!"
THE GRAND ILLUSION
But fate was on Nick Fury's side. As we learned in #164 ("When Comes... Black Noon!"), Suwaan had pulled Fury out of the way through a teleporter just as the Ultimate Annihilator was being activated, and, though Nick was shaken badly, he remained alive. Suwaan teleported him back into the S.H.I.E.L.D. barbershop, where two of the good guys bundled him into a hydraulic chair and lowered him into the heroes' headquarters. At the barbershop door, Sean Connery, seeking a haircut, was turned away.
Back in the Yellow Claw's workshop, everybody's favorite villain was disintegrating a space capsule with the Ultimate Annihilator and raving of his triumph. "I could even destroy the sun upon a whim! The stars... the cosmos... now, all mine! The Yellow Claw... master of the universe!" Even Voltzmann, who reminded him of the continuing danger of S.H.I.E.L.D., was taken aback by the Claw's power-lust. A new companion for Doctor Doom had been added to the field. And that was no idle comparison, indeed...
The rest of the issue proceeded with Fury, checked out and endangered by fainting spells induced by his ordeal, penetrating alone into the airborne lair of the Claw. The Sky-Dragon, a technological triumph hovering above the skies of Manhattan, was poised to hurl a deathbelt from the Annihilator towards the millions below. The Yellow Claw ordered his minions to kill Fury, but nothing less than a blackout brought him low in the end. Our hero wound up strapped to a rack directly under the Annihilator, ready to be vaporized. Buster Crabbe couldn't have played it better.
Of course, by now you've realized that Fury could pull off a last-minutes save even at St. Peter's Gates, so the rescue at the beginning of #165 ("Behold the Savage Sky!") shouldn't be too surprising. For one thing, Dum Dum Dugan was back. And, clad in Kirbyesque battle-armor, he led a massive boarding party from the Heli-Carrier into action against the Claw's airborne stronghold in a two-page spread. Interrupted, the Claw stopped the execution, and Dum Dum unstrapped his chief in time to let him unleash a decisive smash at Voltzmann. Meantime, the Claw hypnotized his way through a cordon of S.H.I.E.L.D. boarders, and even smashed his way past Fury himself, clad in spiked body-armor. As the Claw took off, we knew that a reckoning was in the offing.
The reckoning came right on schedule in the final two-parter, found in Strange Tales #166 and 167. Fury tracked his enemy to his hidden lair, drawn in maze-like and spiraling configurations by the experimenting Steranko. Jimmy Woo was kidnapped by the Claw and strapped to a fiendish device with the loyal Suwaan watching. "Nothing can stop your beloved Jimmy Woo from being the victim of the Thermo-Frigid Intensi-Ray Machine in which he is now helplessly confined! Seconds from now, he will be polarized to death!" Whatever that meant!
Into the breach leapt Fury! With blaster at the ready, the agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. charged, as the Claw, snarling, triggered the machine. Suwaan bolted to free Jimmy from his bonds. The Claw and Fury both were in favor of stopping the machine, but neither could force themselves to break from their fight. And, while Jimmy recovered, Suwaan took the blast from what appeared to be a battery of industrial fans, and promptly froze into a human popsicle. Angrily, Jimmy Woo accused both of the antagonists of killing his love, and swore twice over that they would both pay.
But the final chapter was yet to come, in #167, complete with a fine cover of Nick, Val, Dum Dum, The Gaff, Clay and -- probably -- Gabe Jones miscolored charging against the backdrop of an American flag. The story of "Armageddon!" commenced with the Calvary charge of a S.H.I.E.L.D. attack squad composed of all the supporting characters in the book, laying Yellow Claw troops low with every shot, while Fury blazed away at a dematerializing Claw with his ineffective blaster. It called for an unprecedented four-page spread, which left six pages for Nick to get the goods on him. And two of those pages made up a double-page spread. All this, you understand, took place before the age of portfolios.
At any rate, Fury phased into the Claw's dimensional-travel sphere with the help of his foe's own gimmicks, turned his foe's mindstorm back upon himself with the aid of a mind-amplifying cybernetic eyepatch ("You're thru, Claw!") and then pulled out Baron Strucker's Satan Claw and ripped through his fallen foe's armor.
Within the armor was a metal framework protecting the machinery that lay within, filling the "body" of the fallen Yellow Claw.
Fury recoiled in surprise. The "Yellow Claw" he had faced was -- a robot!
THE END OF STERANKO
And, in the final pages of the story, we found out who had created him. The chesspieces were fashioned in the images of Fury and his agents (white, played by the Prime Mover computer) and black (Doom's robots, in the form of the Yellow Claw and his allies). In short, the entire story of issues #162-167 had been a farce and a sham, manipulated by the master villain of the Marvel Universe.
Brilliant? Satisfying? Each reader, ultimately, had to make his own judgement. For myself (to put my opinions squarely on the line here), I enjoyed it... yet many questions remained. Had the villains of the Project: Blackout piece, in 1965, been Doom's robots as well? It seemed hardly likely. More importantly, was the ending fair to the readers who, after six issues, had been (probably) expecting a confrontation with a real-life Yellow Claw? Well, such questions were academic after Strange Tales #167, and at least Jimmy Woo could console himself with the thought that his lover Suwaan had not really been fresh-frozen at all. By the second issue of Nick Fury's own mag, he became an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.
(Of course, the real Yellow Claw did eventually return, in Captain America #164-167, courtesy of Steve Englehart. As it transpired, the real Claw had never left China at all, and attacked America for real in 1973 with weird giant insects more reminiscent of his Jack Kirby days. He recovered the robots from S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters, but never did find out who constructed them. And Suwaan attempted to shoot her father to death, only to be killed by him in turn. Whether Jimmy Woo who knows this or not has not yet been revealed, ten years later.)
"Today Earth Died!" (Strange Tales #168) finished up Nick Fury's run in Strange Tales and inaugurated Jim Steranko's run of one-part stories which continued to the end of his tenure. Fury fell asleep at his desk and, in essence, dreamed that an alien invader, pretending peaceful ambitions, succeeded in murdering Dum Dum and Val and laying waste to Planet Terra. Fury was wakened by Dum Dum, who informed him that something that appeared to be a spacecraft had landed in Times Square. Fury began to sweat a lot, but we never found out anything more about the alleged alien visitor.
By that time, Marvel was well into the first of its expansionary periods. Iron Man and Captain America had moved into their own books from Tales of Suspense, while the Sub-Mariner and the Hulk vacated Tales to Astonish for their own titles. Fury and Dr. Strange were the next to move up in March of 1968, and Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. #1 featured the finest on-shot tale of them all, "Who Is Scorpio?" This one proved to be the most Eisner-like of all Steranko's offerings, leavened with the sun-plots of Flip Mason, a down-and-out nightclub comic, and his lookalike Mitch Hackett, a gangster from Vegas, as well as the full-throttle action of Fury vs. the mysterious Scorpio. It still remains one of Marvel's best single issues.
Jimmy Woo was back in "So Shall Ye Reap -- Death!" (S.H.I.E.L.D. #2) and joined the guy with the eyepatch to defeat Centurius, a mad biologist determined to depopulate Earth. Then Fury went it alone for "Dark Moon Rise, Hell Hound Kill" in issue #3, in a Hound of the Baskervilles pastiche that pitted him against a modern pirate ring. By that time, though, Steranko was close to severing ties with Marvel, despite an enthusiastic fan following. Ergo, S.H.I.E.L.D. #4 was a fill-in by oy Thomas and Frank Springer retelling in expanded version the origin of S.H.I.E.L.D. from Strange Tales #135. Steranko provided a nifty cover for this issue, and was back with #5 for his swan-song, "What-Ever Happened to Scorpio?" With a new costume, Scorpio returned to place Fury in a deathtrap under the very noses of his best friends. At the end, Fury unmasked his enemy, shouting "You!" -- without giving us a chance to see who it was before Scorpio dived through a window into the bay. It would be another year before we'd learn whose face was behind the mask -- or, at least, who Roy Thomas said was Scorpio.
And that was the end for Jim Steranko. He contributed covers to the next two issues, but he never returned to Nick Fury, preferring to craft two issues of X-Men, a classic Captain America trilogy and a couple of short stories before retiring to his own publishing company. The jolt hurt S.H.I.E.L.D. immeasurably. It lasted but ten more issues and, despite the efforts of Archie Goodwin, Gary Friedrich, Steve Parkhouse, Frank Springer, Barry Smith and Herb Trimpe, Nick Fury was one of Marvel's first casualties. The flameout of the '60s spy craze also did its part, and, thanks to the '70s disenchantment with conservatism and CIA-like agencies, S.H.I.E.L.D. remains as one of the few 1960s titles yet to be revived.
There was one more Nick Fury solo-comic, Marvel Spotlight #31, written by Jim Starlin and illustrated by Howard Chaykin, but in this one Fury came off as more of a private eye character. His saga revolved around finding another supply of the hitherto-unrevealed Eternity Formula which keeps him physically fortyish and prevents him from becoming a decrepit old codger of 65 (!). Yet, since Dum Dum and Gabe manage to wing it pretty well without such encumberance, the Infinity Formula saga may have to be regarded as apocryphal.
FURY AS JUDAS?
But even though Fury had lost his own comic, he's rarely been out of action in current comics fare. He was shunted almost immediately into Captain America, where Stan Lee and Gene Colan kept him as a supporting character for years to come. In this series we find the first inkling of Fury as Judas, when he deceives Captain America into battling a deadly android as a test of the latter in Cap #127. Their quarrels were patched up soon afterwards, but, during the tenures of Gary Friedrich and Gerry Conway on Cap, Countess Val soon found herself vying for the affection of the man with the shield, and Fury went after Cap with a jealous rage, wrapping it up in issue #153 under the aegis of Steve Englehart. Since then, under different writers, their relationship has remained rocky, with the two heroes either at each other's throats or clasping hands depending on story requirements.
Two of Fury's most memorable moments of nastiness came in Fantastic Four #154 and in Iron Man #118-124, in 1975 and 1979, respectively. In the former, he caught the FF returning from a dangerous mission in the Fantastic-Car and to test out some new gimmicks, attacked them in disguise and put their lives in jeopardy. When he revealed himself, the Thing nearly punched him through a wall. The foursome didn't get so much as an apology. In the latter, Fury masterminded an economic takeover of Stark International so as to make it produce weaponry again. This, mind you, despite the fact that Tony Stark had been one of his close associates during the early days of S.H.I.E.L.D. and had helped him dismantle Hydra's Betatron Bomb to save the Earth. In the end, Tony Stark took him to the cleaners, but it certainly wasn't the act of a between- friends misunderstanding. It was more like severing a relationship.
One could ask why Fury's behavior patterns become so erratic in later years. Of course, the real answer is that he has no series, and different writers interpret him as a tyrant or hero in accordance with their attitude towards government agencies. But it offers an unflattering portrait of a guy who ramrodded a valiant commando squad through scores of hazardous and important missions in the Big One, laid it on the line in Korea, and then saved the world twice from conquest and at least once from destruction. Once, in a Roger Stern-scripted Captain America, Fury, reconciled the Cap, explained that sometimes even the director of S.H.I.E.L.D. had to "follow orders"... but it sounded too much like a disclaimer at Nuremburg to be satisfying. One of the rare instances of heroism in the latter-day Fury saga came in Daredevil #120-123, when Fury, the Man Without Fear, and the Black Widow teamed up to save New York from Hydra; another came when he befriended the Tyro superhero, Nova, in a four-part fight with the Yellow Claw; and the latest episode involved a lengthy Marvel Team-Up epic with Fury, Shang-Chi, Spider-Man, and the Black Widow massed against the Viper and a renegade horde of S.H.I.E.L.D. agents. But it still leaves one wondering what changed the gruff but kind leader of a heroic organization into an evil Machiavelli lording it over a bunch of amoral double-dealers.
If Marvel scripters can answer that question, then this writer, at least, can be satisfied. If not, then it may be time to put the old warrior out to pasture.
Once upon a time, Americans were good guys. And Nick Fury, in some eyes, was the most American hero in his league.
If the situation's changed, then let's set Fury to rest. Good memories are at least worth that much.
Copyright © 1983 Lou Mougin < firstname.lastname@example.org > / Amazing Heroes Magazine, and for all images: Jim Steranko.
Thanks to Kyösti Koskela for salvaging this article for me from his vast archives. - ER