Steranko swipes only from the best. Artist: Jim Steranko after Salvador Dali.


Medium: Comic books
Published by: Marvel Comics
First Appeared: 1965
Creators: Stan Lee (writer) and Jack Kirby (artist)
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Marvel Comics, always ready to jump on any bandwagon that might sell comic books, responded to The Man from U.N.C.L.E., The Girl from A.U.N.T.I.E., etc., with an …

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… initialized spy agency of its own. Also always ready to recycle any old character that might rope in a fan or two, they drafted a guy from another genre to play the lead. Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., starring an older version of Sgt. Fury (now up-ranked to colonel), started in Strange Tales #135 (August, 1965), replacing The Human Torch.

Like most of those 1960s acronymic agencies, S.H.I.E.L.D. stood for words that make sense by themselves, but don't go together very well. In fact, "Supreme Headquarters International Espionage Law-enforcement Division" parses even less comprehensibly than The Higher United Nations Defense Enforcement Reserves, comics' second-most prominent representative of the genre. In 1989 it was changed to Strategic Hazard Intervention Espionage Logistics Directorate, which makes only slightly more sense, but either way, making sense wasn't its purpose. As long as it provided an excuse for high-tech, high-glitz, high-profile international shoot-outs with rival agencies, readers weren't too worried about the niceties of the name.

The main rival agency, in this case, was Hydra, a world-spanning bad guy organization with the motto "Cut off a head and two more will take its place" (a reference to the many-headed mythological water serpent of that name). It lived up to the slogan, too — every time readers thought it was finished, sure enough — another unknown little pocket of it would pop up, and a reconstituted Hydra would turn out to be just as great a menace as always.

S.H.I.E.L.D.'s creators were Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, who had created the original version of Sgt. Fury, as well as The Fantastic Four, The Incredible Hulk and most other characters Marvel was publishing at the time, all the way down to The Two-Gun Kid. As with the majority of their creations, tho, they stayed with him just long enough to get the series well launched. A succession of writers and artists followed, the most prominent of whom was a newcomer to the field named Jim Steranko.

Steranko made an instant hit with fans, but apparently had trouble keeping up the pace. In 1968, the two Strange Tales features (the other being Doctor Strange) each got a full-length monthly comic. With twice as many pages to draw, Steranko began missing issues. He retired from comics after a few years, but is still remembered as the definitive Nick Fury artist. In fact, despite his short career in the field, he's considered by many to be among the couple dozen or so most influential artists in comic book history.

Fury wasn't the only established Marvel character to work with S.H.I.E.L.D. Captain America, Iron Man and The Black Widow were affiliated with the organization at various times over the years, and The Yellow Claw, Marvel's 1950s version of Fu Manchu, became a recurring villain (if that counts as "working with"). In fact, years later, when the publisher licensed Godzilla for a monthly comic, it used S.H.I.E.L.D. as the big guy's regular antagonist.

Nor was Fury the only S.H.I.E.L.D. agent featured regularly in the series. His second in command back in the Howler days, Dum Dum Dugan, turned up early on. Among the many created just for the series were Countess Valentina Allegro DeFontaine (aka Val, whose main function was to add sexual tension) and Jasper Sitwell (who may have been intended as the sort of comedy relief many superheroes had in the 1940s, e.g., Green Lantern's Doiby Dickles or The Spectre's Percival Popp).

Possibly because of constantly shifting art styles as Frank Springer (Phoebe Zeit-Geist), Johnny Craig (EC Comics) and others filled in for Steranko, and possibly because the public was starting to get tired of the genre, the Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. title ended after only 15 issues, the last dated November, 1969. It was back a year later with Kirby reprints, but quickly gone again. It's had sporadic revivals over the years, but like Ka-Zar, The Inhumans and other non-major Marvel stars, never hangs onto a series for more than a few years. A film version was made in 1998, with David Hasselhoff as Fury, but it didn't make much of a splash.

Still, Fury and his agency lurk constantly in the background of the Marvel Universe. Eventually, it became necessary to give him a youth restorer, the so-called "Infinity Formula", to explain how he can remain active after having served as a sergeant in World War II. Tho it doesn't always headline a regularly-published magazine, S.H.I.E.L.D. is liable to turn up unexpectedly in just about any Marvel comic.


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Text ©2002-04 Donald D. Markstein. Art © Marvel Comics.