You know, I could have had the whole run of Jim Steranko’s Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. — all four issues of it! (seven if you include the three he only did covers for) — bought new off the stands, back in 1968. If only I’d had the smarts, or the good taste, or the foresight to buy ’em at the time. Alas, for the road not taken…
Just to clarify — I’m referring here to the titular Nick Fury comic book series that premiered in February, 1968, and not to the whole run of the legendary artist’s work on the “Nick Fury” feature, which began with his providing finished art over Jack Kirby’s pencil layouts in Strange Tales #151. Although, come to think about it, I could have started buying Steranko’s work even as far back as then, if I’d wanted; that issue came out in September, 1966, after all, and by that date I’d already been buying comic books for a little over a year. But Strange Tales was a Marvel comic, and in 1966 I was only buying DC’s books (with the odd Gold Key thrown in here and there). By early 1968, however, things had changed. I had started buying a couple of Marvel comics (Amazing Spider-Man and Daredevil) regularly, and was considering sampling some others. And, as veteran Marvel readers and comics historians well know, 1968 was the year that Marvel Comics finally got out from under the thumb of their distributor (who also happened to be their primary competitor, DC Comics) and significantly expanded their line. Over the first three months of that year, Marvel took their three “double feature” titles — Tales of Suspense, Tales to Astonish, and the aforementioned Strange Tales — and split them up, resulting in six “new” titles — Captain America, Incredible Hulk, Iron Man, Sub-Mariner, Doctor Strange, and Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. Three of the books continued the numbering of the titles they’d been spun off from, while the other three (including Nick Fury) started with brand new issue #1’s. What a great opportunity for a young comics fan to get in on the ground floor of some exciting new series, right?
The thing was, in early ’68 I was only ten years old; and although I was definitely a comics fan by then, I wasn’t yet a comics collector — or, at least, I didn’t yet have the “collector’s mentality”. To put it another way, “first issue” and “complete run” hadn’t yet become meaningful phrases for me; I just bought what I already liked, or, as regarded new titles, what seemed especially intriguing, or appealing, to my ten-year-old self’s tastes and interests — which were pretty conservative, truth to tell. Add to that the fact that the Marvel Universe as a whole was still a pretty new and unfamiliar place to me, and I don’t think it’s too hard to see why I opted not to take a chance on any of Marvel’s six new titles. After all, if these characters were really good, wouldn’t Marvel have already given them books of their own? And if I wasn’t going to start buying Captain America, or Iron Man –– which at least featured guys I already knew from the first Marvel comic I’d ever bought, Avengers #45 — I sure wasn’t going to take a chance on the two odd-looking ducks featured in the house ad shown above. No way, no how.
And thus it was that, outside of house ads, and the odd cover glimpsed on the spinner rack, I did not make the acquaintance of Jim Steranko’s work prior to my purchase of Captain America #110.*
In the intervening months between my decision to pass on the “first” issue of Captain America (which was actually numbered #100, of course — not to mention that Cap’s real first issue had been published some twenty-seven years earlier) and my picking up #110, I had sampled the title a couple of times. As I noted in my post about #105 back in June, I enjoyed my first solo Cap comic, but not so much that I felt compelled to pick up the next month’s issue (the fact that $105 had featured a done-in-one story probably contributed to that decision, as well). But even without buying Captain America, I kept running into the Living Legend of World War II elsewhere — in Daredevil #43, for example, as well as in various issues of the title where I’d first made his acquaintance, namely Avengers. For someone who’d supposedly quit the team in issue #47, Cap seemed to spend a lot of time hanging out with his former cohorts. The most memorable of these “guest appearances” (at least from a Cap-centric point of view) was unquestionably the one in issue #56, which retold (and elaborated upon) the tragic tale of the fatal end of Cap’s partner Bucky Barnes — a defining event for the character which had been alluded to, but not explained, in the single issue of Captain America I had read to date. Perhaps it was this glimpse into the hero’s past — so different from that of any other comic book superhero I’d yet encountered — that encouraged me to give his title another try with #109. Or, maybe it was just that terrific Jack Kirby-Syd Shores cover, and the promise of its retelling of the Star-Spangled Avenger’s origin — a story I was by that time quite eager to read. As it turned out, that issue — the final one by the team of Kirby and scripter Stan Lee — wasn’t just a great primer on Cap’s beginnings and earliest adventures, but also did an excellent job setting up the new direction the series would take with the very next issue — Jim Steranko’s first.
In “The Hero That Was!”, Lee and Kirby had Steve Rogers relate the tale of how he first became Captain America, and then teamed up with Bucky Barnes, to his fellow WWII vet, Nick Fury. Here’s how that tale ended:
The next issue blurb trumpets, “Shall Bucky Live?” (which, for the record, will prove to be a perfectly justified teaser line) — but if you were going just by the dialogue in the last couple of panels, you could be forgiven for thinking it should read, “Shall Steve Go Out?”. (And if you were thinking that, just hold on to that thought for another minute or two.)
I don’t recall whether this conclusion left me especially eager to read the next issue of Captain America, back in the fall of ’68. But the next month, when I saw the cover of #110 beckoning to me from the spinner rack, I probably felt I had little choice in the matter. How could any Marvel comics fan pass this one up? Cap, and Bucky (?!?), and the Incredible Hulk — the latter of whom is drawn way too big in proportion to the other two figures, from the standpoint of realism (or, perhaps more accurately, from the standpoint of consistency in how the Hulk is normally depicted) but whose massiveness makes him all the more menacing, so that the illustration works just fine on a symbolic level. A tableau of explosive action and imminent peril, caught and frozen at the moment of greatest tension, and unmarred by any wordage save that required by Marvel’s trade dress — which just so happens to include a spiffy new logo (designed by Jim Steranko, who else?). Then and now, it’s a cover for the ages.
Turning now from the cover to the first page, we find that Steve Rogers has apparently taken Nick Fury’s advice from #109, and left his apartment for an evening out — so that answers that question.
Though one has to say, it doesn’t look like he’s had much luck so far in finding “a few laughs”:
Several things worth noting on this opening page:
First, the approach taken by Steranko in introducing our hero in these first six panels can readily be described as cinematic (and so it has been, by the artist himself as well as by others), but it also clearly evokes the classic work of Will Eisner in his “Spirit” newspaper strips of the 1940s — especially the graphic integration of the story’s title and credits into the illustration itself.
Second, although it’s virtually a critical truism today to state that Steranko’s artistic style was highly influenced by Jack Kirby, there’s actually very little on this page that suggests Kirby in any way. (And that’s in spite of the fact that Steranko’s pencils are inked here by Joe Sinnott, one of Kirby’s most definitive finishers, especially during this period.) As an eleven-year-old reading this story for the very first time in 1968, I hadn’t yet had any exposure to Steranko’s earliest “S.H.I.E.L.D.” work, where (as we’ve already noted) he’d at first followed Kirby’s actual layouts, then proceeded to emulate Kirby’s style in his first several solo art jobs; in other words, I didn’t already know I should be able to make a connection between the two artists, and based simply on the visual evidence of this page (and even the more action-oriented ones to follow), my younger self saw no reason to do so. Today, of course, I can definitely see Kirby’s influence in the later pages, especially in the dynamics of human figures in motion — but I’m still amazed by how much Steranko’s personal style had evolved since his Strange Tales debut, in just a little over two years.
And third — yeah, Steve Rogers really is lighting up a smoke in that last panel. It sure was a different time back then, wasn’t it, folks?
What are the odds that the Hulk would come rampaging though the very New York City neighborhood that Steve Rogers happens to be strolling through? Pretty minuscule, I’ll grant you. But this sort of thing happens in the Marvel version of the Big Apple all the time, right? And besides, neither Steranko nor his collaborator, scripter Stan Lee, intend to allow you, the reader, much time to worry about it.
As of November, 1968, I’d yet to pick up a copy of The Incredible Hulk, but of course I knew who the character was. And I’d gleaned enough from Marvel’s “Bullpen Bulletins” columns and the like to know that he was considered a menace to society these days — but thanks to books like Avengers Annual #2, I also knew that he’d been a founding member of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes (though of course he’d bailed after their second issue). I’d even read an “Inedible Bulk” story in Not Brand Echh #9 that played the big fella for laughs. Before Steranko’s treatment in CA #110, however, I’d never see the Hulk presented as a terrifying monster. This guy has his own comic book?!
While Cap is still racing towards the scene, the U.S. military goes ahead and fires that “big gun” Hulk was talking about — and knocks the emerald behemoth off his feet and through a wall with “a concentrated blast of pure ionic energy!”
“Rick Jones!” My eleven-year old self never seen or heard of this character before, but Cap’s thought balloons in the next-to-last panel above told me everything that was critical for me to know — at least for the moment.
Still, Rick’s appearance must have seemed considerably more significant, and poignant, to longtime Marvel readers who were aware of the role Rick had played in the Hulk’s origin, way, way back in Incredible Hulk #1 (May, 1962) — a role which would ultimately lead the teenage orphan to feel a sense of responsibility for (not to mention guilt over) Bruce Banner and his gamma-irradiated alter ego:
Such veteran fans would also be aware of Rick’s history with Captain America himself, which went back all the way to Avengers #4 (March, 1964) — the classic tale in which the Avengers had discovered Steve Rogers frozen in ice, thawed him out, and brought him back to New York City — where he almost immediately encountered Rick (who, having more-or-less followed the Hulk into the pages of Avengers after the latter’s own book was cancelled after six issues, ended up hanging around following the Hulk’s abrupt exit from the team):
All of this emotionally fraught history (and a lot more besides, some of which we’ll get to in a bit) lies in the background of Captain America #110’s opening scenes — as we readers watch Cap attempt to convince the Hulk that he just wants to help him, only to find that (big surprise!) the Hulk’s not buying it:
Whoops. So much for the Army’s “big gun”! Now what?
Incidentally, this wasn’t the first time Jim Steranko had drawn the Hulk — besides a one panel cameo way back in Strange Tales #156 (May, 1967), he’d also contributed a cover for Incredible Hulk Special #1, published in the summer of 1968, just a few months before this Cap story. That cover quickly became a classic, even iconic representation of the character — in spite of the fact that the face of the Hulk, as originally drawn by Steranko, was ultimately reworked by Marie Severin (presumably at editor Stan Lee’s direction), to make it more “on-model”.
And Steranko’s Hulk in CA #110 is kind of off-model, in a couple of ways. As noted by John DiBello (in his perceptive online essay about Steranko’s CA), Steranko draws the character’s head and body in more-or-less normal human proportions to each other, rather than using the smaller head-to-body ratio most other comics artists use when drawing him. Additionally, as rendered by Steranko, the Hulk “never looked so handsome!”, to use Pierre Comtois’ phrase (Marvel Comics in the 1970s, p. 21). One might expect these artistic choices to have an effect of making the character seem less monstrous, and more human — but somehow, that’s not the case. To my eye, at least, Steranko’s “handsome”, proportional Hulk is possibly the most fearsome visualization of the Green Goliath to be seen in comics up to that time. This is due in large part to the slick, polished realism with which Steranko and Sinnott render the character’s face and form, which makes both his rage and his uncontrolled power seem more vivid and immediate. The effect is undoubtedly abetted by the modeled coloring, which was done by Steranko himself (at a time when it was virtually unheard of for comics illustrators to pay any attention to the coloring of their work).
And with that, the Hulk takes his leave of our story. As I recall, my eleven-year-old self was a little bummed that the Incredible One — who, after all, had visually dominated the book’s cover — was altogether out of there after only eight pages. But, as I also recall, I got over my disappointment pretty quickly.
Returning downstairs, Steve stands for a while by the picture window of his very nice Avengers HQ apartment (and by the way, why the heck is Cap still living with the Avengers when he left the team months ago? But I digress) moping by himself in the dark — until he hears a footstep behind him, and swiftly turns…
Though my younger self didn’t know it at the time, Stan Lee had written a very similar scene some four years earlier, in Avengers #7. And while one doesn’t have to have read the earlier comic to understand what happens in this one, any more than one has to have read the earlier stories featuring Rick Jones in Hulk and Avengers, being aware of what has transpired between these characters in their shared past does enhance one’s appreciation of the current tale’s events, I believe.
Here’s how things went down the last time, courtesy of Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Chic Stone:
After this dressing down, Rick Jones continued to hang around Avengers Mansion, and was even referred to as Cap’s “sidekick” on occasion — but he never again put on Bucky’s costume (or any other one, either). Then, in Avengers #17 (June, 1965), after grousing in one panel about Cap still not letting him be “a full-fledged uniformed Avenger,” even after three “Johnnie-come latelies” (i.e., Hawkeye, Quicksilver, and the Scarlet Witch) had been admitted to membership in the previous issue, Rick Jones dropped completely out of sight — at least so far as the Avengers title was concerned. Actually, Lee simply moved him back over into the revived “Hulk” strip in Tales to Astonish, beginning with the issue published the same month as Avengers #17 — and there he remained, pretty much up to the time fate once more brought him into the company of Steve Rogers
Now, once again, Rick Jones has dared to cast himself in the role of Captain America’s junior partner — and this time, facing a somewhat older and more confident Rick, and perhaps feeling even more isolated than he did when first revived by the Avengers, Steve Rogers makes a different choice:
I really wish I had some way here of replicating online the effect of turning the physical comic’s page from 11 to 12 for the very first time. Readers who were already familiar with how Steranko paced his stories, and how he dropped in two-page spreads (and even one four-page spread) where they’d have the maximum impact, might have been able to anticipate what was coming; my eleven-year-old self most definitely could not.
I hope you have the option of clicking on the image above and seeing it full-screen on a big-ass monitor, because it deserves it. And also because otherwise, I’m not sure you can fully appreciate what an outstanding piece of work it is. So much movement, so much detail, and yet it doesn’t feel cluttered or chaotic at all. Indeed, it’s a remarkably elegant composition, with the figure of Captain America in the center (as of course he should be) given visual focus by the arrangement of the figures around him, the angle of the Hydra goons’ weapons, and so on.
Of course, even my gobsmacked younger self in November, 1968 eventually had to turn the page. And just as I was beginning to wonder if this Rick Jones guy, who’d been a costumed hero for all of three minutes, had a prayer against this horde of heavily armed bad guys…
Of course, several Hydra operatives immediately go after Rick; meanwhile, another gets the drop on Cap, felling him with a stun-ray blast:
And here we have the debut of the first (and for my money, the most memorable) Madame Hydra, later to be known as Viper. (According to the afterword Jim Steranko wrote for Marvel Masterworks – Captain America, Vol. 3, he based her on one of his girlfriends. All things considered, I’m not sure if that bit of information should make me feel envious of the guy, or sorry for him.)
Steranko didn’t actually invent Hydra, itself — Lee and Kirby had introduced the secret global terrorist organization in the very first “Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.” story, back in Strange Tales #135 (August, 1965) — but he’d used them extensively in his own “S.H.I.E.L.D.” stories, and his bringing them on here was inspired (again according to his Marvel Masterworks afterword) by what he saw as a need to move past the use of Nazis as Captain America’s primary adversaries, replacing them with a more contemporary threat. Of course, Hydra already had (and would continue to have) associations with Hitler’sThird Reich, due to the involvement of unregenerate Nazis like Baron Wolfgang von Strucker (originally a WW II-era Sgt. Fury and the Howling Commados villain) in its origins and leadership — but those connections were pretty much invisible in our present story. Never having seen Hydra before, my eleven-year-old self probably thought of them as being similar to THRUSH from The Man from U.N.C.L.E., or KAOS from Get Smart (FYI, I was still a year or two out from making the acquaintance of James Bond’s SPECTRE).
Retrieving his shield, Cap smashes Power Vest Hydra Guy through a wall, and then follows him into the dark. Meanwhile, Rick realizes that his would-be partner has “suckered” him. “He just wanted me in the tunnel so I’d be safe!” Rick then doubles back the way he came, only to realize that the passage is now blocked by the Hydra agents pursuing him. Luckily, our young Mister Jones is a clever young fellow:
Is it possible? Can Cap actually have been defeated and killed by Power Vest Hydra Guy?
(According to Steranko’s Marvel Masterworks afterword, he originally drew Madame Hydra wielding a whip, but the Comics Code Authority forced Marvel to change it to a simple length of rope. That ruling seems entirely inconsistent with the Code having allowed DC to depict Catwoman wielding a cat-o’-nine-tails throughout an issue of Batman published the previous year, but it’s hard to imagine Steranko drawing a rope rather than a whip for any other reason. Who knows — maybe Steranko’s Madame Hydra just packed that much more of a sensual punch than Carmine Infantino’s (or Frank Springer’s) Selina Kyle, at least so far as the Code administrator was concerned.)
And that’s that. A new direction for Captain America has apparently been set, as our story concludes — a story which appears to have been wrapped up fairly tidily, even if the main baddie, Madame Hydra, managed to get away.
But, of course, the story wasn’t over, not really — as fans would discover next month, when the lethal lady and her green-clad hordes would return to cause more problems for our red, white, and blue hero and his brand new partner, in Captain America #111.
Well, some fans would discover that. Not me, I’m afraid. Due to the reasons I’ve detailed in many (probably too many) earlier blog posts — mostly having to do with my lack of reliable weekly transportation to any of the stores where I bought my comics, exacerbated by the vagaries of late-’60s newsstand distribution — I missed that issue. And so, I wouldn’t learn until the following issue, #112, that Captain America had, well, died at the end of #111. And since #112 was a fill-in — a recap of Steve Rogers’ career illustrated by Jack Kirby, slotted in at the last minute by editor/scripter Stan Lee when he thought Steranko might blow his deadline — I wouldn’t find out for another whole month how Cap got better.
And since issue #113 itself — the third, and, as it happened, final issue produced by the team of Steranko and Lee — more than deserves its own post, you’ll have to wait until February, 2019 to hear me say any more about that.
Hmm. Y’know, I just realized. Maybe I wouldn’t have been able to buy all of Steranko’s S.H.I.E.L.D. issues back in ’68 after all. It’s quite possible that, as with Captain America #111 (and Fantastic Four #79, and Thor #159. and…) that I could have missed one or more of those books on the stands, even if I’d been looking for them.
Huh. Maybe I should go back and rewrite the first three paragraphs of this post?
This post was updated on Nov. 5, 2018, to correct its original identification of Steve Rogers’ nicotine delivery device as a cigarette (it’s actually a pipe). Thanks to reader Chris Green for the catch!
*I should note that I did have a chance to sample Steranko’s wares between his departure from Nick Fury and his debut on Captain America, when he illustrated the 50th issue of X-Men, published September, 1968. But, as readers of my X-Men #45 blog post may recall, I wasn’t completely blown away by Marvel’s merry mutants following my first encounter with them earlier in the year, and so didn’t deign to give them another try until the spring of1969 — my return at that time being prompted by another hotshot young artist coming on board (though this time, it was one whose work I was already familiar with) — namely, Neal Adams.