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Writer. Penciler. Escape artist. Bon vivant. Possessor of amazing hair. There are many titles one can lay at the feet of Jim Steranko, who was a staple of Marvel Comics’ Silver Age in the ’60s and ’70s, but the most enduring is, Creator of Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD. OK, to be fair, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby first transformed the WWII hero Nick Fury into a spy in a 12-page feature in a 1965 issue of Strange Tales. But, by April of 1967, Steranko was writing and drawing the book, adding the style of James Bond, the pop-art sensibilities of Andy Warhol or Peter Max and all the suspense of John le Carre.
(Last week, Marvel released a new SHIELD collection — featuring the complete Steranko adventures for the first time — to coincide with the Agents of SHIELD premiere, in case anyone out there wants to go deeper than the movies and bone up on Fury and his ultra-high-tech investigative organization.)
Now 74 years old, Steranko is uniquely qualified to assess Marvel’s new Agents of SHIELD TV show, as so many of the original ideas flowed from his pen. So he’s going to take part in our weekly recaps, starting tonight. But first, a few words of introduction from the man himself.
Can you explain, for the uninitiated, how SHIELD first came into your orbit? What were you doing for Marvel at the time?
I was an ad agency art director and simply walked into the Marvel offices at five to five one afternoon. I asked to see Stan and [receptionist] Fabulous Flo Steinberg laughed at me. “Nobody sees Stan,” she said. I wasn’t in the comics biz, but I had samples with me and tucked them under her arm. “Stan will see me!” She vanished for a couple minutes, returned somewhat stunned, “Stan will see you!” We hit it off immediately, and, after about 15 minutes of non-comics chatter, he turned to the rack of monthly comics behind him and said, “Pick one!” I could have had Spider-Man or the Fantastic Four or Thor, but I picked SHIELD, their weakest title because they simply didn’t know what to do with it. It was so bad, it had nowhere to go but up! The rest is history.
Nick Fury had been a WWII soldier beforehand — where did the idea to make him a spy come from?
Stan prompted Jack Kirby for a take on The Man from U.N.C.L.E. TV series, and he generated two sample pages of The Man Called D.E.A.T.H. — the precursor of SHIELD. And why not a WWII vet? If General Eisenhower could move up in the ranks, why not Fury?
Looking back at Marvel in the ’60s, it was a place of great invention, of crackling ideas flying fast and furious. But for all of the iconic characters that were developed, there were a ton of concepts that didn’t survive the crucible of time. Why have Nick Fury and SHIELD endured?
When I charted the series, the title had wretched sales, so I created a myriad of devices — literary and graphic — to make Fury compete with the superpowered, costumed heroes. Apparently, it worked! That’s my story and I’m sticking to it!
Fury himself has changed quite a bit over the years — of the character traits that have remained, what are you proudest of?
I gave Fury my tailor’s address — and my attitude!
Had you been watching the Marvel movies when SHIELD was introduced? What was your take on how they’ve been portraying it?
There were no Marvel movies before 1965, when SHIELD was intro’ed in Strange Tales #135. To date, the secret organization has been a minor aspect in the Marvel movies — but all that’s about to change with Agents of SHIELD.
How do you feel about Samuel L. Jackson playing Nick Fury? Does he capture the essence of the character, in your eyes?
Jackson’s a fine actor, but I’m deferring judgment until his solo feature. He looks good in an eye patch, but I recommend he abort that black leather coat. Laughable!
Finally, what do you hope Agents of SHIELD gets right, in the portrayal of extraordinary humans dealing with extra-human threats?
The one thing I always expect from SHIELD is the unexpected. And it has to kick ass with imagination and style. That’s Fury’s rule, not mine!
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