S.T.E.R.A.N.K.O.

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Before I start, I have to say, I like very few comics written before the mid-80s. There are several reasons for this: the simplest has nothing to do with the talent involved – it was largely a simpler time for comics, which were aimed at a younger audience and lacked the depth of their modern counterparts.

There are some pre-80s comics I like, such as Adam Neal’s Batman work. Likewise, Marshall Rogers’ late 70s Batman run is worth reading. As a result, I go into Jim Steranko’s SHIELD work optimistically.

Steranko is famous for a small, but highly influential, body of work. The majority of this work is on Nick Fury Agent of SHIELD. There are a lot of people out there who will argue (probably rightly so) that Steranko is one of American comics’ most influential artists, bringing together a wide variety of influences to make cool modern comics like no one else, comics which still influence artists today.

I’ve seen Steranko’s art online and love it, but had never read any of it, something I just changed with the complete collection of his SHIELD work. Originally, Nick Fury of Agent of SHIELD appeared in the comic ‘Strange Tales’, a title it shared with Doctor Strange, and as a result it came in half length instalments of 11 or 12 pages. Later, Steranko and Fury were given their own solo title on which Steranko stayed for  4 issues until an apparent falling out with Marvel head honcho Stan Lee which saw Steranko pretty much leave the business.

Okay, the book. So Steranko’s first 3 issues, Strange Tales 151-153, feature art by Jack Kirby which Steranko inks. I like Kirby’s art so these issues look good. The problem is Stan Lee’s writing on issue 151 and 152 and Roy Thomas on 153. For the most part, the writing is, as mentioned above, aimed at younger readers than me. Stan talks to directly to the reader, which bothers me. Also, Stan has a habit of using a dozen words when one will do. Many of these words are found in caption boxes and thought bubbles. One of my favourite developments in modern comics is the demise of the thought bubble. Why fill the panel with dialogue largely describing what we can see through the art? Especially when the art in that panel is by an undisputed master of the medium such as Kirby or Steranko? Just be quiet and let the amazing art do the talking! I can’t totally blame this on Lee though, even with issue 154 onwards, which Steranko writes and draws, some of these issues continue. Nick Fury has a tendency to monologue and worst still he is a bit of a dick – a sexist who wants to do everything himself, even when it’s a bad idea. Most of his interactions with fellow SHIELD agents appear to be a variation on ‘well, duh, dumbass’.

So, Steranko takes over full art duty on issue 154 and takes over scripting duties the following issue. From the moment he takes over, we can see how good his art is. My main issue with Steranko’s first issues is that he joined the book mid-storyline. Strange Tales 153-158 feature the conclusion of a storyline in which Nick Fury hunts down HYDRA.

Story-wise, these issues and the later ones have some issues that bother me. The two biggest issues are the constant death traps. Fury isn’t very good (mostly as he does everything solo) and as a result he is captured at least once an issue. Rather than a bullet in the back of the head he tends to be tied to lasers or bombs, or tied up and thrown in water which, on a least one occasion, houses a giant octopus. The one time a time a villain decides plain old shooting him would be best, he is teleported away!

The other issue for me is all the bloody gadgets. I know it’s spy-fi aimed at kids and gadgets are sort of a genre prerequisite, but there are so many. One issue starts with several pages about Fury’s new invisible car.  Another has a group of secondary characters, who have better things to do, showing us lots of gadgets, including X-ray glasses and an invisibility pill. (Which is forgotten about later when Fury requires an invisibility suit.) With all these gadgets, there is no clever foreshadowing – they are described in detail, slowing down the pace, so that Fury can use them a few pages later. Luckily, the new gadget he has just received is usually exactly the thing he needs.

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The second half of Steranko’s SHIELD run in Strange Tales, issues 159-168, see his art improve, as well as his storytelling. In this new storyline Steranko jettisons most of the supporting cast and introduces his own, when he has Fury team up with Captain America to fight a Fu Manchu style villain, Yellow Claw – a character who by modern standards is more than a little un-PC. Not that I want to accuse Steranko of anything – one of his most prominent supporting characters during his run is Jimmy Woo, a Asian-American FBI agent who eventually joins SHIELD. Jimmy is a positively portrayed minority character in a book that is almost 50 years old. Heck, I can’t really think of Asian-American characters in any of the books I read now, so while the Yellow Claw may be a little iffy, Steranko was pretty much ahead of the times.

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Steranko’s art, as is well-documented improves and amazes not just issue by issue, but page by page. Dali-esque nightmares, photos, Escher-like landscapes, four page spreads that require two issues side-by-side to fully appreciate, elements which pretty much all come together in Steranko’s final issue of Stange Tales, a stand-alone issue which features a perfect golden alien arriving in New York.

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After this issue Steranko worked on the first issue of the Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD ongoing series. Given a full 20 pages to work with, Steranko has a lot more room to play with and his storytelling vastly improves. Rather than the usual ‘we have a tip-off, go here and fight before getting caught in a death trap’ structure of the 12-page stories, Steranko follows Fury, Scorpio, an assassin out to kill Fury and a third character, comedian Flip Mason. The issue famously starts with three dialogue-free pages that prove my earlier point – Steranko is a storytelling master who could tell these stories just as well with little or no dialogue, which is why it’s a shame that the writing, mostly earlier on, really slows things down and takes away from the stories.

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With Issue One being such a step up, I was feeling better about the book. Then I read issue two, surely the worst in the book. It starts well, especially the fantastic opening page with Jimmy Woo taking his final test before joining SHIELD. The next three pages are just as good, even if they are just Jimmy escaping from more death traps in a fun house. Page 4 is the famous page with Nick Fury and supporting character the Countessa getting it on. The strict comic code of the day had resulted in Steranko redrawing panels that were considered too risqué with the end result being dirtier than the original page. But from here this issue goes downhill. In the remaining 16 pages, Fury and Woo crash on a hidden island, meet the island’s ruler who plans on using a satellite to kill all life on Earth, fight dinosaurs, stumble upon a movie set which is filming on the island, battle the island’s ruler and crash the satellite into the island. It’s a lot for 16 pages. Too much in fact.

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Then comes Issue 3, ‘Dark moon rise, hell hound kill!’ which is pretty darn brilliant. Basically Hound of the Baskervilles with some Nazi’s thrown in, this is the best single issue in the collection. The story and writing are great here and the art is fantastic. Steranko opens with a full-page spread followed by a fantastic double-page spread which is black and white and, again, dialogue free, with the action talking place within the title. Steranko throws in another double-page spread midway through, which may result in the issue’s only real flaw – there is a lot of text in the last few pages explaining what happened. But I just loved this issue, it feels like the first that wasn’t aimed solely at children. I know today that the primary comic audience is men in their 30s, rather than kids (as was the case in the 1960s) so I don’t know if this was just a sign that Steranko had matured as an artist and was moving away from kids comics. It is also possible that there was now an audience for his work beyond kids and that he was aware of this, which allowed him to push his work further. Whatever the reason this issue is the highlight of the book, in both writing and art.

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Steranko skipped Issue 4, apparently running late with the art for the issue and Stan Lee had a fill-in issue produced. The story I have heard is that this was the last straw for Steranko, who was tired of Lee’s interference. This caused Steranko to walk away, not just from the book, but from the whole industry.

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This is a shame, if not a full-blown tragedy. While Issue 3 is my personal favourite, Issue 5 is also good. The art, again is impressive. The story itself features the return of Scorpio, the assassin from Issue 1. Upon beating Fury in combat, Scorpio decides the best way to kill Fury is not to take him out there and then, but to drug him and substitute Fury for a Life Model Decoy (LMD) a lifelike robot that is about to be tested by, you’ve guessed it, being sent into a room full of death traps! Fury escapes and in the end so does Scorpio. What’s a shame about this is that Steranko has, over the last year, made Fury a far more likeable and interesting character and now he is beginning to lay down the groundwork for future storylines. We get more of Fury’s background, his relationship with the Countessa develops and we learn she has a secret she wants to share with Fury. Fury also has an old friend look into something for him. Also developed is Scorpio’s hatred for Fury, as well as more hints at their shared past. Later, without Steranko, Scorpion would be revealed to be Fury’s brother, something that a few lines here appear to hint at. But with Steranko’s skill as a writer developing, as his skill as an artist had, the big loss is that we never got to see where he would have taken the series. Just a few years later, Neal Adams, with writer Denny O’Neil, would work on their celebrated Batman run that was darker and more adult, a sign of things to come. I think that this may have been what Steranko could have done with Nick Fury.

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Not that it matters, I suppose. Steranko’s work is going to live on as some of comics’ greatest and most influential art, even if I personally feel that the writing in the books never reached that same high level of his imagery.

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