Stan Lee, Jim Steranko, Jack Kirby et al
“Don’t Yield! Back SHIELD!”
Nick Fury. SHIELD. Steranko. Three words that are sufficient to give goosebumps to many a comics geek. Starting life as Sgt Fury, fighting the good fight in WWII, the Swinging 60s and the era of such uber-cool superspy productions like James Bond and the Man From UNCLE saw him become Colonel Fury, the eye-patch wearing, cigar-chomping comics king of the superspy genre. There are wonderfully – sometimes ludicrously to modern eyes – over the top plots, conspiracies, crazy supervillain agencies – notably the green-clad HYDRA (“Hail, HYDRA!!”) – amazing action, sardonic wisecracks, sexy, deadly femme fatales and of course, this being the 60s superspy era, the gadgets.
Oh, the gadgets! From rocket packs to the massive SHIELD Heli-Carrier, oxygen pills concealed inside shirt buttons, wrist video communicators, impeccably sharp 60s suits a Tarantino gangster would kill for and which have bullet-proof linings sewn into them, weapons even concealed inside Fury’s trademark cigars, the list is as long as it is fantastically inventive. Sometimes those gadgets even prefigured something we now have for real today – take a big splash opening page with Fury diving through the sky in a suit with wing membranes between the arms and legs, just like the ‘squirrel’ suits some skydivers use today (of course Fury still holds a lit cigar in one hand while skydiving in this suit).
To modern, adult eyes some of these stories – often quite short, rapid-fire, all-tension and action throughout – may seem a bit on the simple side, but it has to be remembered that when these were penned in the mid-60s they were, like many mainstream comics, aimed at a far younger audience than reads these sorts of titles today. We’ve effectively grown up with these. But you make allowances for this and then simply let yourself go and just enjoy the sheer pleasure and adrenalin rush of these madcap tales of daring-do and international espionage and world saving the same as you do for a classic Bond flick. It was a different era and it sometimes shows – Fury’s cry to his team of “We got us a female to rescue!” may seem sexist to modern eyes, but this was the 60s, and it was the superspy genre…
In other spots though it tackles this sexism of the age, when an irate, wounded Fury shoves a shapely female agent away declaring he doesn’t need any care or help from a dame she sharply tells him just for that he can address her as “Contessa Valentina Allegra de Fontaine”. It may be the sexist 60s, but as with TV’s The Avengers and Mrs Peel there were some female characters who may be sexy and alluring (Steranko’s depiction of the Countess’ rather pert bottom drew the ire of the Comic Code Authority) but they were also quite certainly strong and independent, the equal and often better at some tasks than the male superspies. Long before Xena or Ripley we had attractive but powerful – not to mention ass-kicking – women characters setting the stage for the strong action heroines who would emerge in their wake.
The real joy of this collection though isn’t those crazy 60s superspy stories and mad villain superweapons to destroy the world, or even the relentless action and constant wisecracking comments from Fury. It’s Steranko’s art. This is some of the most influential work in comics, and rightly so. The layouts, the splash pages, the double splash pages, hell Steranko creates a four-page splash scene! Kinetic, colourful, full of dynamic energy, not to mention Steranko gleefully pulling in influences from all around him, from comics influences like Wally Wood to the Pop Art of the 60s, psychedelia, Surrealism, anything which caught his imaginative eye and he thought would work on a page. Steranko doesn’t sit back and think, hey this is a young readership, I should make it simple, he treats the readers in a more mature fashion, trusting them to follow and luxuriate in his art, even if they were too young at the time to get all the references (I wonder how many had their first exposure to a wider art world through Steranko’s references?).
And oh ye four colour comics gods, that art is simply fabulous, from a simple, wordless (save for a few lines in a dialogue box in the first panel) sequence in a cool 60s bachelor pad, man, woman, music on turntable, a rose, romance (it looks like it could have come from Jim Lawrence-era Bond strips) to glowing, colourful, psychedelic effects, montages, and more, astonishing sets for bases that look like Ken Adam’s amazing Bond sets on acid, fabulous aircraft and cars (ohhh, that grand prix racing sequence… incredible bit of comic art) and so much more to simply indulge yourself in here.
The collection includes extras showing some art before it was altered and naturally those covers, including that utterly iconic origins issue cover, Fury, guns in hand, with an visually astonishing black and white Pop Art background that is one of the best bits of graphic cover design of all time for my money (see here for an amazing animated version of that cover by Kerry Callen). This isn’t just nostalgic tripping back to those crazy 60s superspy tales, this is watching a master at work, showing just how far you could push the envelope in terms of how a comic could work, inventing new visual comics languages and styles that are still influencing creators half a century on. Sheer, utter brilliance.
this review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet blog