Monday, 28 January 2019

Next time ... on Marvel's Agents of SHIELD

EVEN EIGHT MONTHS IN to the Strange Tales run of Nick Fury Agent of SHIELD, it didn't seem as if writer and editor Stan Lee really had a handle on the series. The first seven episodes had repurposed ideas lifted from the first four James Bond movies and the first couple of seasons of Man from UNCLE. Some of the blame for these slightly below average comics can be laid at Stan's door, but really, it was Kirby that was floundering.

Strange Tales 142 had one of the best of the early SHIELD covers, but somehow the story inside the comic seemed to be sputtering, despite full Jack Kirby pencils (and presumably plot) and adequate Mike Esposito inks.
Left to his own devices to plot the SHIELD stories, Jack Kirby drew up a storm but the ideas weren't coming together to form a cohesive whole.

Strange Tales 142 (Mar 1966) was the last issue of the title to go on sale in 1965 (9th Dec), with Jack Kirby returning to provide full pencils for Micky (Esposito) Demeo's inks. The episode kicks off with bombast and gunfire as Fury and his SHIELD technicians test a peculiar-looking robo-gunman. The contraption goes haywire until one of the tech guys literally pulls the plug. It's a great action opening, but it has nothing to do with the rest of the story - exactly the kind of thing Kirby does when he doesn't have a solid story idea.

The opening of the SHIELD adventure in Strange Tales 142 is a great slice of Kirby-style action but doesn't actually contribute to the story that follows - in that we never see the Robo-Gunman again. Even more impressive is the underground burrowing machine used by The Fixer, though it does seem a little familiar ...
The real plot kicks off when SHIELD's ESP division reports that powerful mind-reader Mentallo has penetrated the secret lair of The Fixer (a kind of bargain-basement Mad Thinker) and the two have formed a sinister partnership. When it comes time for the villains to attack SHIELD, they arrive in a subterranean tank not dissimilar to the vehicle used by the Hate Monger in Fantastic Four 21 (Dec 1963, which also starred Nick Fury) and the mole machine used by The Rabble Rouser in Strange Tales 119 (Apr 1964). 

Top: The Hate Monger pilots his subterranean tank below the city in a scene from Fantastic Four 21. Above: In Strange Tales 119, The Rabble Rouser admits his sub-surface craft is a smaller version of the one used by The Hate Monger, but doesn't elaborate where he got his from.
During the scene, The Fixer explains that he's had help building his burrowing vehicle from an organisation called THEM, though he doesn't elaborate further. Does this mean that The Hate Monger and the Rabble Rouser (two quite similar villains) also had help from THEM? Or was Marvel just lazily recycling old ideas? You decide ...

Eluding SHIELD's defences, the evil pair are soon inside SHIELD's nerve centre and take on Fury and his security detail. They disable the defending soldiers with "Element Z", a paralysing agent, and capture Fury, planting a mind-control mask over his face.

It's okay as action comic stories go, but I can't help feeling that if Stan had more of a hand in plotting this, he'd have a bit more actual story going on. What is kind of interesting is that the plot crosses over slightly with Tales of Suspense 75 (Mar 1966) which, for the Captain America strip, was a bit of a new beginning, with Kirby back on full pencils after the lacklustre stories drawn by George Tuska, featuring the slightly tedious Sleeper story-arc.

It looks a lot to me like Jack Kirby was doing just the loosest layouts for Strange Tales 143, except for the amazing full-page drawing of Tony Stark's Neutralizer cannon on page 3. 
Strange Tales 143 (Apr 1966) is a bit better, storywise. This time the art is credited to Jack Kirby with an assist from Howard Purcell, and inks by Mike Esposito again. The plotting seems a bit more detailed, with SHIELD essentially having used Fury as bait to draw The Fixer and Mentallo into a trap. With the head of SHIELD strapped to an H-Bomb, the baddies think they can force SHIELD to obey their orders, but of course it doesn't work out that way. Fury is able to send a mental message to the ESP Division, and Dum-Dum Dugan and the other ex-Howlers attack, as The Fixer and Mentallo are disabled with a psychic attack from the ESP team, and disintegrate the H-Bomb with Tony Stark's Neutralizer weapon.

It's a satisfying end to the three-part story, but the pages not fully-pencilled by Kirby are a little bland, despite Howard Purcell's pedigree as a veteran penciller with 25 years experience. The next issue would continue with the same creative team and a new villain, The Druid.


Howard Purcell was born on 10 November 1918. Not a great deal has been documented about his early life. Little is known of his family, but we do know that he attended art classes at the The Art Students League of New York, a school that offers tuition to people from all walks of life at affordable prices. For a while he worked as an animator at the New York City studios, but by 1940 he was freelancing for DC Comics. His very first job was a regular assignment pencilling the Mark Lansing back-up feature from Adventure Comics 53 (Aug 1940) onwards. 

Howard Purcell established himself very quickly at DC Comics during the early 1940s, and was soon drawing several back-up strips before graduating to one of DC's star features with Green Lantern.
Less than a year later, Purcell landing his first cover assignment, with All-American Comics 25 (Apr 1941), drawing lead character Green Lantern. The same month, Purcell began pencilling Red, White and Blue in All-American Comics 25. The following month he picked up the art assignment from Sargon the Sorcerer in All-American Comics 25 onwards and Lando, Man of Magic in Word's Best (Finest) Comics from issue 1 (Spr 1941).

Purcell enjoyed a long run as artist on DC's hit series Mr District Attorney, based on the successful radio and tv series of the late 1940s and early 1950s.
Yet, just as quickly, these assignments faded away and by the beginning of 1944, Purcell was drawing just The Gay Ghost for DC's Sensation Comics. Purcell's comics career picked up after WW2, and in 1947, he became the main artist on DC's Green Lantern, as well as regularly drawing Hop Harrigan in All-American Comics and Johnny Peril in All-Star Comics. In 1949 he was the main artist for Mr District Attorney until 1957. From there Purcell was once again a jobbing artist, working for the DC anthology comics, House of Secrets, House of Mystery, Tales of the Unexpected and My Greatest Adventure, until 1964, when he took over on Sea Devils.

Purcell flirted with superhero comics during the early 1960s, but didn't pursue that course, appearing to prefer adventure titles like Sea Devils and DC's sci-fi and mystery titles.
Purcell's work on SHIELD in Strange Tales was a bit of an anomaly, because straight after he continued with his regular assignment on Sea Devils for DC until 1967. In 1968, Purcell drew romance stories for Young Romance and Heart Throbs, but at the end of that year, he made a brief return to Marvel and drew the first Black Knight solo story in Marvel Superheroes 17 (Nov 1968) along with a couple of Watcher back-up tales in Silver Surfer.

Howard Purcell: 10th Nov 1918 - 24th Apr 1981
Then it was back to DC for intermittent assignments during the early 1970s on Adventure, Detective and Brave and the Bold. By the mid-1970s, Purcell had pretty much retired. He died on 24th April 1981.


Howard Purcell would contribute pencil art for one more episode of SHIELD over Jack Kirby layouts in the following month's Strange Tales, issue 144 (May 1966).

Strange Tales 144 features a new villain called The Druid, who uses a combination of magic and science to threaten the forces of Good. A bit like Dr Doom, then. Or Diablo? Except that I've scoured the comic and I can't see any evidence that The Druid uses any kind of magic at all.
The story starts off with a weird magical ceremony, except that it doesn't seem to be magic at all, just the same old advanced technology. Quite what The Druid's deal is, I'm not sure, but he sure seems to have a grudge against SHIELD. Using "mystical rites combined with modern, sinister science" the Druid and his followers launch a deadly Satan Egg which is programmed to find Colonel Fury and destroy him.

The whole "magic combined with science" schtick does seem to be a bit of a hobby-horse for Jack Kirby. He's used it over and over again, most notably with Fantastic Four foe Dr Doom, and it's a great idea ... but for me it's never been wholly successful. As time went by, the magic component of Doom's abilities was dropped and Kirby moved him more towards super-science - technology that couldn't be explained by our real-world Newtonian physics. That's also my take on the technology in Kirby's Fourth World stories and the follow-up The Eternals. There doesn't appear to be any magic involved in what The Druid does either, unless he's just using the mystic trappings to fool his followers - though that isn't made apparent in the script.

The introduction of Jasper Sitwell was the best thing about this episode and reads much more like a Stan invention than a Jack one. Am I right in saying that it was Sitwell who here first utters the deathless catchphrase, "Don't Yield, Back SHIELD"? I wish they'd say that in the tv show ...
More entertaining in this story is the introduction of boy-scout SHIELD agent Jasper Sitwell. Despite his being subverted as a sleeper Hydra agent in the recent Marvel Movies, I always like the Sitwell character and thought he was more than just a comic foil for Fury and the other agents. Stan treated the character with respect and made him a highly capable agent, despite the buffoonish veneer. There has been some speculation that penciller Howard Purcell based Jasper Sitwell on Marvel editor Roy Thomas, but I can't see much resemblance.

Jasper Sitwell is again the best thing about this issue's SHIELD tale. I really didn't care if I never saw The Druid again, and I thought the Esposito inks swamped the fine-line style of Don Heck, whose pencils deserved better.
There would be more Jasper Sitwell in Strange Tales 145 (Jun 1966). As Fury is drawn into a final confrontation with The Druid, the wily technical wizard forces Fury into hand-to-hand combat. Fury appears to fall into The Druid's trap, but is in reality playing for time to give Sitwell the opportunity to take out The Druid's army of henchmen. The Druid is defeated and unmasked, though SHIELD are unable to identify him. A pretty unmemorable villain, The Druid does show up in some later 1970s issues of Captain America.

A few story points are explained during this episode. There are further references to Them. The Fixer (remember him?) is interrogated by Fury and reveals that he works for THEM, but reveals there is no connection between THEM and The Druid. Stan also includes a caption box to explain that The Druid's "outward trappings suggest a cult of black magic, to impress the unthinking masses, it is a magic founded on deception." So that clears that up, then.

The art is once more Don Heck pencils over Jack Kirby plot and layouts, with Mike Esposito again on inks. Esposito's inks are especially unsuited to Heck's fine pencils and the artwork for this issue has the bland look of shop-created comic strip art, due to the diversity of art styles that just fail to mesh. All of which contributed to the feeling that Stan and Jack almost regretted ever starting this series and were struggling to get some life and energy into it. 

Meanwhile, over in Tales of Suspense 78, further information about THEM is revealed, when Nick Fury and Captain America team up again to battle a sinister combat LMD sent to kill them by the shady beekeepers.
There's also mention of the events in the Captain America strip in Suspense 78 (May 1966), which happen between Strange Tales 145 and 146 and should probably be read before moving on to the next Nick Fury adventure. But briefly, Fury takes the mini brain he discovered on The Fixer's person back in ST145 to Cap to ask if he's come across anything like it and if he's heard of Them. The pair are attacked by a battledroid and defeat it. That's pretty much it.

Strange Tales 146 (Jul 1966) featured a Dr Strange cover for the last Ditko art on the character, so I've used the SHIELD splash page here instead. The story introduced AIM and the iconic yellow uniforms of THEM.
On sale the same day as Tales of Suspense 78 (10th March 1966), Strange Tales 146 featured Them as a full-blown enemy of SHIELD. The story also introduces the outfit called AIM (Advanced Idea Mechanics) who step forward to offer technology to SHIELD after Tony Stark's factories are shut down and Stark himself is under congressional investigation. 

THEM have hijacked SHIELD's LMD technology and have crafted mindless warrior androids designed to fight in any environment. We get to see the underwater version attack a SHIELD swamp buggy in the opening sequence of the story, though they're repelled and SHIELD are able to track them to THEM's HQ.

We're also introduced to Count Royale, a representative of A.I.M., who wants to offer advanced technology to SHIELD. He appears to have the endorsement of some senior military types, though we'll learn later in the story that it seems as though A.I.M. are playing both ends against the middle and supplying advanced weapons to both SHIELD and THEM.

The art is still Don Heck pencils over minimal layouts from Kirby and Esposito inks. The art has much more of a Heck look to it, especially apparent in the design of the THEM uniforms, which definitely have a Heck look about them.

The machinations of A.I.M.'s Count Royale make the senior US military doubt Fury's qualifications to lead SHIELD in this issue. I do think it's a bit unfair for the General here to criticise Fury's unkempt appearance as he has - in fairness - just woken up from a deep sleep. It's also stretching credibility to think that an army general wouldn't be able to recognise the value of a top tactician and fighting man like Colonel Nick Fury. Surely the man's record speaks for itself?
The plot does start to get a little bit richer in Strange Tales 147 (Aug 1966), as the full extent of Count Royale's plan is revealed. In a scene at the beginning of the episode Royale expresses his concerns to the US military generals that A.I.M. feels Fury is not the right kind of person to be leading SHIELD. We then see A.I.M. stage an invasion of SHIELD's barbershop entrance, taking the guarding agents hostage. Fury is forced into a reckless personal rescue mission, reinforcing Royale's claims that he's too reckless to lead such an important organisation. Though Fury and his team defeat the A.I.M. invaders, he plays directly into the hands of Royale and as the episode comes to end, realises that his future as Head of SHIELD is now in the balance.

As much as I thought Mike Esposito's inks were ill-suited to the pencils of Don Heck, I thought that this issue's art was even less attractive than the preceding issues. Was Esposito especially rushed on this issue? No, he didn't even ink it. Despite the credits naming "Mickey Demeo" as the embellishers, turns out the art was inked by Dick Ayers - a fine enough artists in his own right, but probably the one inker I'd think of as even less suited to Heck's delicate pencil work than Esposito.

Strange Tales 148's SHIELD story gave Jack Kirby the opportunity to plot, draw and script the entire 12 page story. It seems an odd development, considering how protective of the Marvel "voice" Stan Lee was. Perhaps he was less concerned because he considered it a one-off as vacation cover ...
It all starts coming to a head in Strange Tales 148 (Sep 1966). After an assassination attempt by A.I.M. that kills an LMD instead of Fury, the head of SHIELD realises that they're under surveillance and plans to thwart A.I.M.'s attempt to discredit him. His nerves apparently frayed by the pressure he's under, Fury snaps at the loyal Jasper Sitwell and tells him to stay out of his hair.

Later, when Fury is summoned before a hearing to determine his fitness for office, he appears to lose his temper again and makes to physically attack Count Royale. But when Sitwell is called to the stand, he begins by saying that there's not a man he hates more than Fury. But of course it's a ruse, and Sitwell reverses the direction of his testimony and Fury leaps out a window to escape.

This is one of the few early Marvel stories that is openly credited to Jack Kirby - both plot and script. The "voice" doesn't sound so very different to that of Stan Lee, so I have to wonder just how much editing Stan did before this issue went to press. That said, there's some inconsistencies and plain old plotting errors that I'd have to point out.

The transition from panel 2 to panel 3 is just wrong. Fury is seen from the same angle in both frames, but the technician mysteriously moves from Fury's left to Fury's right (and back to the left in panel 4) in an eyeblink. His white lab coat also changes to a green suit sleeve. I think Jack got a bit muddled with his angles, don't you?
Firstly, there's a very confusing sequence early in the story where a technician demonstrated a "transparency ray" that works like an x-ray machine that needs no film of screen for the effects to be visible. The big frame in the middle of the page makes it look like Fury's firing the ray - the arm holding the raygun has a green sleeve, just like the suit Fury's wearing. This makes it look like Fury's firing the ray at the technician.

And secondly, why did we need to go through the subterfuge with Sitwell pretending to hate Fury for a minor telling off? It's not like Sitwell's reversing his testimony on the witness stand helped Fury escape. And indeed, Fury's escaping just plays more into the hands of Count Royale. So it comes across as bad plotting. Where was Editor Stan Lee when he was needed? (Oh yes, on holiday, as mentioned in the issue's credits.) But despite these minor carps, it's still a fun issue and quite satisfying to know that Fury and Sitwell had a plan all along. More of that unfolds the following month.

The SHIELD story in Strange Tales 149 featured the first Marvel artwork - for many, many years - of Ogden Whitney. He would contribute this one job, then not work for Marvel again for a couple more years.
Strange Tales 149 (Oct 1966) is headlined as "The End of A.I.M." - and it just might look that way. After a three page sequence where A.I.M. steal an LMD of Fury, but are in reality kidnapping and armed, dangerous and very real Nick Fury, the action switches back to the SHIELD Helicarrier. In the confusion, Count Royale sneaks away to rejoin his A.I.M. co-conspirators, but fails to notice Sitwell tagging him with a tracking device ... with a pea-shooter.

Sitwell is able to follow Royale to a hidden lair inside a mountain, but no sooner does Royale enter than the entire mountain explodes. Alerted that another player in the game must've destroyed A.I.M.'s headquarters, Fury searches the paraphernalia captured by SHIELD the last time they encountered Hydra. Is Fury's hunch correct ... are Hydra behind, THEM, A.I.M. and possible even The Secret Empire?

Well, it certainly looks like these secrets criminal organisations are all working together. Why else would these A.I.M. goons think they'll be safe with a masked driver claiming to be an operative of The Secret Empire?
This episode of SHIELD marked a major re-jig in creative personnel. Stan took a step back and turned over scripting to neophyte Denny O'Neil, at least for this one issue. And while Kirby was still on layouts, the full art was provided by long-time ACG artist Ogden Whitney. ACG was going out of business at this time and Whitney presumably needed work fast. In my view, he was spectacularly unsuited to Marvel superhero work and though he does a professional and tidy job, it lacks the pizzaz that the regular Marvel artists could muster. 


John Ogden Whitney was born in 1918, in Stoneham, Massachusetts, to father Ethan and mother Alberta. Little has been recorded about his early life. In 1932, Whitney's father died, so the Whitney children - Ethan, Helen and Ogden then aged 17 - took jobs to support the family. After working in a print shop for a while, Ogden landed work with DC Comics, drawing his first strip, a Cotton Carver story "The Land of Thule" for Adventure Comics 41 (Aug 1939). Whitney only stayed with DC for few months, working exclusively on Adventure Comics. For the last two months of his tenure, he also drew the Adventure lead feature Sandman, taking over from incumbent penciller and then-DC-superstar Craig Fessell.

Despite only working for National Comics for a few months, Ogden Whitney rose from jobbing artist on backup strips to drawing the star feature in Adventure Comics, Sandman.
Just as suddenly, Whitney jumped ship to Columbia, a comic book offshoot of the McNaught and the Frank Jay Markey newspaper syndicates, where he took up residence as chief artist on Columbia's launch title Big Shot Comics, co-creating Skyman with another DC superstar Gardner Fox. He would also draw Rocky Ryan for the same comic, and would continue with Columbia until the end of the 1940s.

It's unknown why Whitney left National abruptly and joined Columbia Comics ... but it was probably an opportunity to be a big fish in a small pond. He would work for Columbia all through the war years.
But in January 1943, he joined the US Army, driving an army truck for a while after basic training. He soon found himself in the same art department as fellow comics artist Fred Guardineer, drawing signs and posters. He also found time to continue with his comics assignments for Columbia. Later in the war, he served in the Adjutant General's office in the Philippines. He was honorably discharged in early 1946 with the rank of Master Sergeant, and returned to his mother's home in Woodside, Queens, NYC.

Whitney also found work at Magazine Enterprises on a variety of genres from horror to romance and humour. 
In the post-war years, Whitney continued to contribute art to the Columbia titles, but also began selling to Magazine Enterprises, which was founded by former Columbia editor Vin Sullivan. Whitney would provide covers and internal strips for A1 (teen humour), Manhunt (crime) and several other titles. At the beginning of 1950, Whitney did a few jobs for Ziff-Davis, pencilling and inking stories for Amazing Adventures, Famous Stars and Kid Cowboy. But by The spring of 1950, he began his long-term relationship with American Comics Group (ACG), when he drew a strip for Lovelorn 5 (Apr-May 1950) for long-serving ACG editor Richard Hughes. Very quickly Whitney was drawing war, westerns, romance and mystery for ACG, but still found time to pencil and ink strips for Quality, Magazine Enterprises and, for a brief period in 1952, Atlas/Marvel. 

Whitney enjoyed a long run at ACG drawing stories for pretty much every comic the company published, as well and the lion's share of the covers as well. The mild mystery and horror stories seemed to suit Whitney and later was drawing exclusively for ACG.
Quality went out of business in 1956, leaving Whitney more and more reliant on his ACG account. Not that Whitney had much to worry about. As a favourite of editor Hughes, Whitney was drawing one or two stories apiece for the main ACG mystery titles Forbidden Worlds and Adventures into the Unknown and quite a few of the covers. Hughes would add Unknown Worlds in the summer of 1960, so Whitney had three regular magazines that featured his art. But in the 73rd issue of Forbidden Worlds, Whitney drew a throwaway comedy character from a Richard Hughes script, Herbie. Completely unaware they'd just started a cult, both turned their attention back to the innocuous ACG trademark mystery titles. It would be a year and a half before Herbie appeared again in Forbidden Worlds 94 (Mar 1961). Readers clearly responded, because Herbie went on to turn up in Forbidden Worlds 110114 and 116, then graduated to his own title in April 1964.

There's not a comic character stranger than Herbie. It really wasn't my cup of tea, but the character enjoyed (and still has) quite a fervant following.
As the 1960s drew to a close, ACG floundered and went out of business. Richard Hughes went on to write a few scripts Jimmy Olsen and Hawkman at DC Comics and Ogden Whitney had to look elsewhere for work. He sold some art to Tower Comics, then did some work on Two Gun Kid and Millie the Model for Stan Lee at Marvel around 1967-1968.

At the tail end of his career, Ogden Whitney returned to Marvel to draw a few stories. I do wonder why he never tried DC Comics again.
MAD Magazine editor Ferry de Fuccio was probably one of the last comics people to see Whitney alive. In a letter to a friend he described visiting Whitney at "40 Park Avenue South ... Naturally, I gushed about Whitney's Golden Age work when I visited his apartment. His wife, Anne, was quite lovely and refined but Whitney wasn't anything like the svelte characters he used to draw. Fat and obviously addicted to liquor ... Anne seemed troubled by her husband's state. She supported the family with her private secretary job in the area of the Empire State Building. Richard E. Hughes, editor at American Comics Group, was especially helpful to 'old-timers' [and] gave Whitney work, though Ogden seemed absorbed in trying storyboard continuity samples to crack the advertising field. I saw him working on the special pads imprinted with rows of blank TV screen. He couldn't qualify. ... I passed Whitney's apartment house [circa 1972-1973] and asked the doorman: 'Does Ogden Whitney still live here?' The doorman spoke in a hush, 'No! His wife died and his condition became extremely irrational. He was finally evicted — carried bodily — from his apartment.'"

John Ogden Whitney: 1918 -13 Aug 1955
Pulp historian David Saunders reported that Ogden Whitney died at the age of 56 at Saint Barnabas Psychiatric Hospital in the Bronx on 13 August, 1975.


With Strange Tales 150 (Nov 1966), Stan Lee was back on scripting duty, with trusty Jack Kirby on layouts and a not-so-new Marvel newcomer John Buscema pencilling under Frank Giacoia inks. 

Anyone care to take a guess as to who the villains might be in Strange Tales 150's SHIELD tale?
The story opens with Fury testing a new weapon called the Overkill Horn. SHIELD are speculating that someone else has a similar weapon and it's come as no surprise to any reader just who that other party might be. Then, when Fury is invited to a hedonistic party by international playboy Don Caballero, he astonishes his SHIELD partners by accepting the invitation. It's doubtful that Caballero's true identity will surprise anyone, either.

What stands out most about this episode of SHIELD is just how good Buscema's drawing is compared to the revolving roster of artists that has lead up to this point. His skill with characterful faces and action figurework is superb, and it's a real shame that he didn't stay on SHIELD. But if he had, then we probably wouldn't have had the incredible work of the artist who would arrive with the following issue of Strange Tales.

In the meantime, John Buscema would go on to draw three fill-issues of the Hulk series in Tales to Astonish before getting the regular gig as pencil artist on The Avengers ... a series he would draw for the next 30 issues or so, as well as branching out as the main artist on The Sub-Mariner and The Silver Surfer during the same period. 

Overall, this early run of SHIELD tales feels a little unsatisfactory, but I can't make up my mind whether this is because I now know how good the subsequent run - written and drawn by Jim Steranko - would be. On balance, that's probably not the case, because I wasn't mad about these comics at the time, either.

At some point in the future, I will take a look at Steranko's sublime run on SHIELD, a job that will not seem like a chore at all.

Next: Marvel Bullpen Bulletins

Sunday, 30 December 2018

Previously ... on Marvel's Agents of SHIELD

THE SWINGING SIXTIES was a brilliant time to be growing up. Popular culture was suddenly being driven by young customers who wanted their music, fashion and movies to be different from their parents'. But it didn't happen overnight. It took a few years - from the 1962 release of The Beatles "Love Me Do" to around 1966 - to take hold properly.

For this 10-year old, Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD epitomised just about everything I was fascinated by at that age - Secret Agents; check. hi-tech intelligence organisation with cool acronym name; check. Sinister enemy organisation with menacing costumes; check. I couldn't have been happier.
During those formative years, the things most important in my life were The (tv) Avengers (from series 4, 1965), The Man from UNCLE (1965) and Marvel Comics. So you can imagine how happy I was when Stan and Jack debuted Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD - Supreme Headquarters International Espionage Law-enforcement Division - in Strange Tales 135 (Aug 1965) ... though that wasn't the first episode I saw. I came into the series with Strange Tales 139 (Dec 1965), and was at a bit of a loss to figure out what was going on. I recognised Tony Stark - who seemed to be SHIELD's chief technical officer - as Iron Man from sister publication Tales of Suspense.

My first issue of the Agent of SHIELD strip at least had a few familiar faces, but I couldn't figure out why Dum-Dum and Gabe looked little different from how they appeared in the (two decades earlier) Sgt Fury series. I did think Hydra was pretty cool, though ... a villainous organisation cast from the same mold as UNCLE's Thrush.
I also recognised Dum-Dum Dugan and Gabe Jones from the Sgt Fury comics, though I was puzzled as to how they looked so young 20 years after WW2. Clearly I had to go back and fill in the gaps, by tracking down the earlier issues of Strange Tales.


Of course, the SHIELD series wasn't the first time Nick Fury had appeared in a contemporary Marvel Comics setting. I was already aware of his guest-spot in Fantastic Four 21 (Dec 1963), which I'd seen the previous year. In that, Fury - by 1963 a colonel in the CIA - is the catalyst that brings the FF back together after the Hate Monger's ray makes them hate each other. 

Nick Fury and Reed Richards are reunited in Fantastic Four 21, some twenty (Marvel) years after their first encounter in Sgt Fury 3. Fury had not, at this point, taken to wearing his eyepatch, despite the incident that cost him the sight in his left eye having occurred earlier in WW2 (see Sgt Fury 27, Feb 1966).
A few months earlier, Stan had told the story of how Fury had met Reed Richards - then a major with the O.S.S (Office of Strategic Services) - during WW2 in the pages of Sgt Fury 3 (Aug 1963). The incident was more of a cameo for the future Mr Fantastic, though it is referenced in FF21.

By the time Fury is being inducted into SHIELD, he seems to have transferred from the CIA to G-2, the intelligence arm of the US Army. Or maybe he's just being security-minded and not revealing to these ordinary soldiers that he's a CIA operative. You can't take anything at face value in the intelligence community ...
By the time Fury shows up in Strange Tales 135's inaugural SHIELD tale, the CIA colonel has acquired his eyepatch, if not the security clearance to be forewarned of the SHIELD initiative.

From the creation of the LMDs in the opening scene to Fury's spectacular escape from unseen assassins in the flying Porche 904 - Bond would have loved one of those - "The Man for the Job" overspills with startling creativity from the first page. Particularly scary was the way Hydra managed failure. I loved the Death Pendulums at the time and I still think it's a dark and disturbing way of dealing with under-performing staff.
That first SHIELD story is brimming with brilliant ideas. Though it does owe a debt to the James Bond movies Goldfinger (1964) and Thunderball (1965), and something more to the Man from UNCLE tv series, the mis-en-scene of Agent of SHIELD averages one fabulous concept per page across its 12-page running time.

The story begins with a befuddled Colonel Nick Fury undergoing a body scan in an undisclosed location. It's part of the process of creating LMDs (Life Model Decoys), lifelike androids designed to draw fire from an unknown but expected enemy. And draw fire they do ... as Fury is whisked away in a sporty Porsche, headed for the next phase of his induction. But Fury and the unnamed driver don't get far before the enemy renews its attack, dropping napalm from a fighter jet on top of the car. To Fury's astonishment, the car sails unharmed through the inferno then the driver takes out the jet with a pair of rear-mounted Sidewinder missiles and finally the Porsche converts to an air-car and flies upwards. The driver explains that these devices have been created by an international organisation called SHIELD and the assassins work for a group of criminal fanatics called Hydra.

We then switch scenes to Hydra's secret headquarters where the failed assassin is reporting to his boss, The Imperial Hydra. Understandably, the chief is not best pleased his people failed to kill Fury and orders the assassin to fight for his life, unarmed, on the Pendulums of Doom.

Top: Compared to Hydra's hidden headquarters, Thunderball's SPECTRE HQ looks more like the board meeting of an accountancy firm. Bottom left: The War Room in Dr Strangelove (1964) was obviously a big influence on the interview room aboard the SHIELD heli-carrier (see below). Bottom right: As cool as Goldfinger's Aston Martin was, I think SHIELD had it beat with their flying Porsche 904.
Meanwhile, Fury is welcomed to SHIELD HQ by industrialist and weapons manufacturer Tony Stark. Stark reveals that Fury is needed to head the fledgling SHIELD. Though Fury is doubtful, Stark points out that his lifetime of exemplary service qualifies him as the only man for the job. At that moment, Fury notices a wire protruding from the base of a chair and, ripping the seat from its moorings, heaves it out a handy window. Turning the page, we finally see SHIELD's headquarters - a battleship-sized airborne carrier, hovering a mile or so above the ground. It's one of Kirby's greatest moments and one of my all-time favourite "reveals" in a Silver-Age Marvel comic.

At this point in the story, it seems that Tony Stark (whose Iron Man identity isn't mentioned here) is the principle ambassador of SHIELD. Meanwhile, over at Hydra HQ, it appears that the evil criminal organisation is leading the field when it comes to diversity and equal opportunity ... no glass ceiling at Hydra. And finally, the money shot. Who knew that SHIELD headquarters is actually a giant heli-carrier, stationed at the edge of the stratosphere?
Instinctively, Fury takes charge, barking orders to have the heli-carrier secured so any would-be assassins can't escape. It's this that finally convinces Fury. "Someone has to smash Hydra," he observes. "It might as well be me."

For the most part, the first episode of the SHIELD series feels like a Kirby production. It's brimming with super-cool concepts, taking the best from Bond and UNCLE and giving the whole mix an injection of storytelling steroids. This was both a blessing and a curse. Everyone, including Stan, seems to be in an all-fire hurry to cash in on the spy craze without a clear direction on where to take Colonel Nick Fury next. As a result, the next instalment of SHIELD was a bit of a placeholder.

Strange Tales 136 (Sep 1965), "Find Fury or Die", had finished art by industry veteran John Severin over Jack Kirby layouts. Stan made a bit of a fuss about having Severin back, who'd been one of his mainstay artists at Atlas back in the 1950s. 


John Powers Severin was born on 26 December 1921 in Jersey City, New Jersey. While at The High School of Music and Art in New York City, he contributed cartoons to The Hobo News (an early version of The Big Issue), receiving payment of one dollar per cartoon. As Severin explained in a 1999 Comics Journal interview: "I was sometimes selling 19 or 20 of them a week. Not every week, naturally. But I didn't have to get a regular job to carry me through high school. It was almost every week—not every week—but almost every week. I didn't have to get a job. I hated to work, I'll tell you. I didn't have to get a job then, because I was in high school." Severin's schoolmates were Harvey Kurtzman, Will Elder, Al Jaffee and Al Feldstein.

Severin graduated high school in 1940 and managed for a while on his income from The Hobo News, but needed an actual income, so took a job making munitions for the British and French war effort. But after the US was drawn into the war, Severin joined up and served initially in the US Army, ending up in the Army Air Corps where he failed the test to be a pilot due to colour-blindness and found himself working in the camouflage unit.

When he got out of the army in 1946, Severin set his sights on a career as an artist. "I had decided to exhibit some paintings of mine in a High School of Music and Art exhibition for the alumni," he told Squa Tront magazine in 2005. "Charlie Stern was in charge of it, so I went to see him at his studio. He was the 'Charles' of the Charles William Harvey Studio, the other two being William Elder and Harvey Kurtzman. They asked me if I'd like to rent space with them there. I did, and started working with them. When Charlie left ... I became the third man, but they didn't want to change it to John William Harvey Studio, so they left the name ... Harvey was doing comics, Willie and Charlie were doing advertising stuff, and I just joined in ... design work, logos for toy boxes, logos for candy boxes, cards to be included in the candy boxes."

But it was actually at Crestwood Comics that Severin started drawing comics. Thinking that comics were easy money, he worked up some samples with Will Elder and went to see Joe Simon and Jack Kirby.

John Severin's first few comics jobs were a strip in Timely's Lawbreakers Always Lose 3, a cover for Justice 5 and a strip in Simon and Kirby's Headline Comics 32, all around the summer of 1948. It's hard to say which was drawn first.
Yet the Grand Comicbook Database has Severin's first strip work as the six-page story "My Hobby ... Murder!" for Lawbreakers Always Lose 3 (Aug 1948), a Timely Comic. The next credit is the cover for Justice 5 (Sep 1948), also Timely. So WIKIpedia's claim that Severin's first published work was for Simon and Kirby at Crestwood looks to be in some doubt - though it's perfectly possible that the story in Headline Comics 32 (Oct-Nov 1948), "The Clue of the Horoscope", was drawn before the Timely jobs.

Severin would continue drawing for both Crestwood/Prize and for Timely/Atlas into the early 1950s, tackling every genre thrown at him - war, romance, western and crime. He drew his last Atlas story of this period for Black Rider 10 (Sep 1950), and a few months later drew his first breakthrough story for the legendary EC Comics for editor Harvey Kurtzman's Two-Fisted Tales 19 (Jan-Feb 1951) ... the terrific "War Story!"

Severin truly came into his own drawing for EC Comics. For a glorious four-year period, he worked tirelessly for Harvey Kurtzman's Frontline Combat, Two-Fisted Tales (issues 37 and 38 were wall-to-wall Severin) plus a few jobs for Mad. And he still managed to find time to contribute steadily to Prize/Crestwood as well.
Severin continued to draw - mostly war tales - for both EC and Prize right through to the summer of 1954 ... contributing his most memorable work for Frontline Combat, Mad and Two-Fisted Tales which he edited for the last six issues of its run (36 - 41). Then perhaps sensing which way the wind was blowing, started drawing for Atlas again not long before EC was going out of business. "Although I considered myself a freelancer, EC had come very close to being home to me," Severin told The Mirkwood Times in 1973. We all felt the loss of camaraderie which we'd had for one another. But most of all losing a bossman like Bill Gaines overnight was a fairly sorrowful event." By the time EC sputtered its last breath in mid-1955, Severin was drawing exclusively for Atlas.

Stan only allowed his best artists to draw covers during Atlas' golden years from 1955 - 1957, and John Severin certainly drew his share of Atlas covers, across all the genres, including for the cult favourite Yellow Claw.
For Stan Lee, Severin worked on staff in the Bullpen, drawing war and westerns, horror and humour in an unbroken stream from 1955 to 1957. "I ended up in this big bullpen sitting next to Bill Everett and Joe Maneely. And across was Carl Burgos, Sol Brodsky," Severin told The Comics Journal. "Joe Maneely and I used to swap artwork back and forth. He would draw a page with all this stuff and leave out the backgrounds ... And I would sit there and draw in the saloons and all this stuff in simple outlines. In the meantime, he's doing the same thing with one of my jobs. Sometimes we'd have the same story! He'd be doing one page and I'd be doing the other. He'd do the first; I'd do the second. He'd do the third, and so on and so forth." Then came the great Atlas Implosion and Severin was out of a steady job again. He must have thought he had the worst luck.

After the Great Atlas Implosion of 1957, John Severin had to scramble for work a bit, drawing romance and westerns for the poverty-row publisher Charlton and a couple of war fill-ins for DC before landing safely at Cracked magazine.
Fortunately, Severin still had his Prize work. In early 1958 he picked up some fill-in jobs for Charlton and DC, then landed his next major client in the Mad knock-off Cracked magazine, to which he would contribute regularly for the next 27 years. 

As Stan Lee's line of comic began to recover from the catastrophe of 1957, Severin was once again contributing covers and interior stories for the pre-Marvel line, but soon stopped working for Marvel to concentrate on his lucrative contract with Cracked.
Then, as 1959 hoved into view, Stan Lee was commissioning work once more for the fledgling "MC" comics he was editing under Martin Goodman. Severin was a natural for the surviving Kid Colt and he did a few jobs for the Marvel Westerns before concentrating his efforts on Cracked magazine into the early 1960s.

In the mid 1960s, Severin branched out again and started working for both Stan Lee on the SHIELD series in Strange Tales and for Jim Warren on the horror mags Creepy and Eerie,  contributing some magnificent stories to Warren's Blazing Combat. Then in 1967, Severin settled in as the regular inker on Sgt Fury, working over Dick Ayers pencils, delivering the best-drawn run on the character. He would go on to ink a marvellous run of The Incredible Hulk (141-157) over Herb Trimpe's pencils and draw Kull the Conquerer with his sister Marie.

Severin brought some class to the titles he worked on as inker for Marvel Comics during the 1970s, then at the age of 83, drew 2003's controversial re-imagining of Kid Colt Outlaw.
John Severin continued to draw for Marvel, Warren, Charlton and most importantly Cracked through the 1980s. "When I win the PowerBall I think I might [retire]," he told The Comics Journal in 1999, "but until then I'll just go right on. No, I enjoy doing things. I don't like to sit around doing nothing. Once in a while, I love to.

"I don't really have any real regrets or anything, but I don't know whether I've accomplished anything or not. Since I can't remember much of the time ..."

Severin received an Inkpot Award in 1998 and was inducted into the Will Eisner Award Hall of Fame in 2003.

John Severin: 26 December 1921 - 12 February 2012
John Severin died on 12 February 2012 at the age of 90. He was survived by his wife Michelina, his six children and his sister Marie.


Like the first SHIELD episode, the second instalment was another Kirby catalogue of terrific ideas in search of a story. Dastardly agents of Hydra monitor Nick Fury's every move, dogging his steps all the way to his ground-based HQ, a barber shop (a nod to the tailor shop in Man from UNCLE).

While Strange Tales 136 still had Kirby on layouts - and probably plotting - duties, the finished art was by Atlas and EC Comics veteran John Severin, his first work for Stan Lee since the 1950s. The above splash pages looks like it might have more than just Kirby layouts.
Once in the barber shop, Fury alerts the SHIELD operatives that he's being followed, and an elaborate defence protocol is set in motion. Outside, the Hydra operatives are calling for backup, and a squadron of airborne Hydra goons is soon jetting towards the barber shop.

The barber shop scene in Strange Tales 136 manages to channel both The Man from UNCLE, where the entrance to  the secret offices is through a dingy tailor shop, and the James Bond movies, where Bond always tosses his hat onto the hatstand when he arrives in M's office.
But while waiting for the Hydra goons to arrive, Fury and his team capture the trailing agents, hypnotise them, then turn them loose. The hypnotised Hydra men tell the flying goon squad that the real SHIELD HQ is down the road, inside a fake warehouse.

Leaving no stone unturned in his quest to swipe from every contemporary spy series he could, Jack Kirby manages to squeeze in James Bond's iconic jetpack from Thunderball.
The Hydra goons then try to use a truck-mounted laser cannon to cut through the warehouse door, but are trapped inside a giant steel cell that erupts out of the ground.

And while we're at it, let's have the equally iconic laser gun from Goldfinger. We can use it to burn our way into the SHIELD warehouse, just like Goldfinger uses his to burn his way into Fort Knox.
The threat averted, Fury then reflects on how this war isn't going to be over any time soon.

As much fun as the episode is, it really doesn't amount to anything very much. All we're seeing here is Kirby - lacking direction from Stan Lee - filling the pages with ideas swiped from other spy shows and movies. There's no progression of the story. We don't find out anything new about the characters. Even the scene where the failed Hydra operative pays for his failure with his life is taken from the scene in Thunderball where Blofeld electrocutes a subordinate who fails to deliver - and we'd already had that schtick in the previous SHIELD episode.

Strange Tales 137 is the third instalment of SHIELD in which not very much happens. If Stan truly wanted this series to click with the readers, he was going to have to take a hand and do something. Like maybe, have a plot.
Strange Tales 137 (Oct 1965) didn't do any more for progressing the plot than issue 136 did. There's some tradecraft in which some microfilm is passed from SHIELD agent to agent - on a train then on to a car which turns into a submarine - as Hydra goons close the net. The microfilm contained the location of the Hydra base which is due to launch an orbiting bomb, the Betatron, and thus hold mankind to ransom. Then Fury decides to take a hand and fly to the Balkans personally to find and destroy the bomb.

We finally get a glimmer of the plot for the first SHIELD adventure ... Hydra plans to launch an orbiting nuclear weapon - the Betatron - which will give them command over every nation on Earth. Fury and Tony Stark try to retrieve a microfilm that contains the location of the Hydra launch site, but fail. So Fury has to take the fight to Hydra personally.
However, Strange Tales 138 (Nov 1965) picks up the pace a little and we see the bigger plan behind Hydra's seemingly pointless attacks on SHIELD. It's as if Stan had learned his lesson from those first few Captain America solo stories where he'd left Jack Kirby to his own devices a little too long. Fury arrives in the Balkans just a little too late to prevent Hydra launching the Betatron and now is left trying to figure out how to bring the orbiting bomb down without drenching the entire planet in deadly fallout. It turns out Tony Stark has an answer ... the Brainosaur. But before he can reveal its secret to Fury, Hydra goons invade the factory and capture Fury. The episode closes with the intrepid head of SHIELD dragged helpless before the Imperial Hydra.

My suspicion is that Stan had realised that simply having Hydra constantly attacking SHIELD, with SHIELD brushing it off like it's nothing, wasn't the way to generate a sense of danger and get the fans rooting for the good guys. Placing Fury in actual jeopardy feels more like Stan's idea and makes me think that this was the point where Stan started earning his co-plotter credit.

There's a hint that John Severin's departure was sudden and unexpected, as the cover for Strange Tales 139 in actually just a reproduction of the inner splash page with a Marie Severin-render Dr Strange as a framing device. Previous issues had been pencilled by Kirby and inked by Severin.
As I mentioned earlier, Strange Tales 139 (Nov 1965) had been my first experience of SHIELD. And all in all, it's a pretty good place to join the story, if a little confusing. With Fury locked up in a Hydra cell and fed dried rations that fizz like fireworks when exposed to the air, it seems there's no way out. Until Fury uses his exploding shirt (revealed in Strange Tales 137, thought I wouldn't have known that) to blast his way out of the cell, and is helped by the Imperial Hydra's beautiful assassin daughter. I was more able to forgive that cliche back in 1966 than I would be today. At the same time that Tony Stark is preparing the Braino-saur - a robot spacecraft that can disarm the Betatron in orbit - the ex-Howlers are invading Hydra's base in an attempt to free Fury. In the final panels, The Imperial Hydra wrestles with his conscience, hoping his own daughter won't be collateral damage in the ensuing battle.

With Kirby again on layouts, John Severin is gone and new addition to the Bullpen Joe Sinnott is providing finished pencils and inks. Sinnott had taken over inking Fantastic Four from Vince Colletta the same month, so Stan was looking to fill his spare moments with additional work, I'm thinking. Stranger was that John Severin didn't stick around, despite the build-up Stan had given him in Strange Tales 136. He wouldn't return to Marvel for two years, when he began inking Sgt Fury with issue 44.

Hydra assassins on skateboards? No, Jack Kirby didn't invent skateboarding. The pastime had been covered in mainstream media as early as 1963. I wonder, though, if it's the safest and most stable way to attack and bunch of angry SHIELD agents.
Strange Tales 140 (Jan 1966) was more Tony Stark's heroic moment rather than Fury's. Piloting the Braino-saur, Stark disarms the Betatron Bomb in space, rendering it so much space junk. Fury, on the other hand, doesn't do a great deal other than keep the Imperial Hydra's daughter - Agent G - company while the Howlers and the Agents of SHIELD clean out Hydra HQ.

In the ensuing confusion, the Imperial Hydra escapes and it's revealed that he's not in reality the CEO and chief stockholder - Leslie Farrington - of Imperial Industries as we've been led to suspect, but actually Farrington's lowly assistant, Arnold Brown. The episode ends with Brown's finger poised over the destruct button of Hydra HQ, even though he knows his daughter is there with Fury.

The Imperial Hydra's poor preparations and the careless lack of a "safe word" means that he's mistaken for an intruder by his own guards and shot. How sad ... But once that plot thread's been resolved, we can crack on with the next adventure, "Operation: Brainblast".
Strange Tales 141 (Feb 1966) is a bit of a strange entry in the early SHIELD adventures. The first half mops up the last few details from the Imperial Hydra saga and the remaining five pages kick off a new adventure, "Operation: Brainblast", introducing SHIELD's ESP Division in the process.

This first SHIELD story arc is nothing special and, despite Jack Kirby back on full art chores on Strange Tales 141, it would only be for a couple of issues and then he'd be back on layouts for another new (to Marvel) artist.

Looking back now, this is probably why back during the 1960s I liked the SHIELD series well enough, but I never loved it. Overall it lacked a cohesiveness, and it desperately needed a firmer hand from Stan to bring it under control and give it some direction. Ironically, it wouldn't be Stan that would later take SHIELD from a "b" series to a world-beater, but that's a story for another time.

Meanwhile, the series would continue with a revolving door of pencil artists for the next few issues ... we'll cover those next time.

Next: More spy stuff and John Buscema's first work for Marvel Comics