Back in September, in his first weekly recap of the new ABC series Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. for the Hollywood Reporter website, Jim Steranko seemed unimpressed.
"SHIELD needs to be much tougher, much stranger, much edgier to reach its potential!" he wrote.
He should know. Steranko didn't create S.H.I.E.L.D., Marvel Comics' long-running international super-spy agency, but his three-year run chronicling the adventures of S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury in the late 1960s is considered one of the character's definitive iterations—and it was definitely tough, strange, and edgy.
Between 1966 and '68, Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. stood out as one of the most technically daring and imaginative mainstream comics of the Silver Age; it's still remembered for Steranko's innovative use of contemporary design, pop art, James Bond-inspired spy gadgets, and censor-baiting sexual innuendo. Marvel, never shy about cashing in, has just republished Steranko's entire run—18 stories from the anthology title Strange Tales and four issues of the 1968 Nick Fury solo comic—in a new trade-paperback collection timed with the premiere of the TV series.
Shameless cash-in or not, though, it's a worthwhile read, and a handy reminder of the over-the-top thrill power that Joss Whedon's new show has failed to deliver so far. The TV series, hampered by a couple of anonymous lead characters, feels directionless and mushy. It's an unsatisfying compromise—there's been a little bit of cosmic awe, some superheroics, and some espionage, but the balance hasn't been right. (Worst of all, there's been almost no evidence, aside from a few references to the Battle of New York, that the show takes place in the same world as the Avengers or Iron Man movies.) Steranko's S.H.I.E.L.D., on the other hand, nailed it from the start with a perfect mix of elements from spy thrillers, sci-fi epics, superhero comics, and classic cliffhanger serials. Almost 50 years later, it's still a great adventure story.
S.H.I.E.L.D. was created in the mid '60s by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby to capitalize on the popularity of Bond, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., and the BBC's The Avengers. Lee and Kirby promoted their World War II character Nick Fury from sergeant to colonel, gave him an eyepatch, and made him head of the spy agency. The second-tier series pitted Fury and his colleagues against the international terrorist organization HYDRA in by-the-numbers Bond-style globe-trotting hijinks. (In the original comics, S.H.I.E.L.D. stood for Supreme Headquarters, International Espionage, Law-Enforcement Division. In 1991, that changed to Strategic Hazard Intervention Espionage Logistics Directorate. In the Marvel Cinematic Universe that includes Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., it's Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division. None of them make any sense.)
Steranko, who turned 75 this week, had already worked as a magician, sideshow performer, rock 'n' roll guitarist, and advertising artist when he turned to comics work in the mid '60s. After brief stints at DC and Harvey, his first job at Marvel was as inker on the Lee/Kirby Fury feature in Strange Tales. After just a few months, he was writing and drawing the whole thing. (In his first issue as the sole artist, he gave Fury his trademark graying temples.)
The results were eye-popping. Steranko immediately upgraded the brute dynamism of Kirby's art into something far more cinematic. (There aren't many people who can say they improved a comic by replacing Kirby on it.) He threw out the old nine-panels-a-page layout and borrowed techniques from Will Eisner, psychedelic rock posters, head films, and magazine ads to give the series a radical sophistication, at least by Silver Age standards. There's even a four-page action spread in one issue—evidence of how much Steranko was pushing against the formal limits of comics.
His high-tech science fantasies—a giant helicopter hovering at the edge of the Earth's atmosphere, a man-made island fortress, "life model decoys," giant robots, alien invaders—were borrowed from Kirby's Fantastic Four and Thor, but Steranko gave them a modern sheen that still looks and feels alien and futuristic. (You might even be able to argue that Kirby's own Fourth World sci-fi sagas from the '70s for DC Comics were influenced in turn by Steranko.)
Steranko has only fitfully worked in comics since the early '70s. That's a shame, but it's easy to see that the monthly workload would have been unsustainable. But he produced one of the concise classics of early Marvel. If the new ABC series has disappointed you, this collection is the place to turn.