Thursday, June 12, 2008

Don't yield! Back SHIELD!

…or Wally frolics among the pages of his favorite statist, Cold War comic book series.

It’s been a slow week. We had a new roof put on the house last week. We’ll be launching into phase three of our “home revitalization” in the next few days — tearing up the lawn, replanting with drought-resistant plants, some flagstone work for the patio. In the meantime, though, a slow week.

So when I saw a package sitting on the front porch yesterday, and it turned out to be my eagerly anticipated copy of Marvel Masterworks: Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD Vol. 1, things started to perk up. I dived right into the book, revisiting old comic book ground I hadn’t traipsed through in more than 40 years.

This very handsome book includes all the Strange Tales pre-hardcore Jim Steranko stuff. Steranko did draw over Jack Kirby’s layouts for the last three stories in this volume, but he didn’t begin to blossom as artist and writer until just after the last story presented here. So this hardcover is made up of 20 short SHIELD stories from Strange Tales #135-153 and Tales of Suspense #78 (technically, a Captain America tale), plus a pre-SHIELD Nick Fury appearance in Fantastic Four, circa 1963. Kirby fully illustrated maybe five of these yarns, although he provided breakdowns for all of them. John Severin, Joe Sinnott, Don Heck, Howard Purcell, and Ogden Whitney picked up the art chores to varying degrees of success on the remaining stories. So all the series’ initial up’s and down’s, and its shaky footing for almost two years before Steranko’s earthshattering run, are here to experience again. The 1965 Stan Lee-Jack Kirby SHIELD debut in ST #135 is just as I remembered it from age 10 — a quick 12 pages of boffo action and excitement, featuring hooded HYDRA baddies, a super-cool airborne Porsche, and that wonderful heli-carrier that’s now survived 43 years with little variation (that’s how cool Kirby was). Classic. From there, though, the SHIELD series doesn’t quite take a full nosedive but it does move into spotty territory. Kirby’s pencils immediately disappear, for one thing, which hobbles the first five-part HYDRA story, although it manages to be fun overall. A three-part story about an assault on SHIELD headquarters benefits tremendously from a partial return of Kirby. But a two-parter about a guy called The Druid is a real low-point, and the multi-part introduction of AIM (the guys with the bright beekeepers’ outfits) is really just a rerun of the earlier HYDRA tale. Things look up with the last four stories, one penciled by John Buscema and the final three by Steranko. These episodes mark the return of HYDRA, which was a very good thing that later became exhilarating when Steranko fully took over the series.

Don’t get me wrong. Despite some weak stuff (most of which I’d forgotten over four decades), this is a pretty solid collection. And for fans of Marvel’s “coming of age” in the mid to late 1960s, the book’s a lot of fun. And it provides essential background for a full appreciation of Jim Steranko’s brief, shining comics career, which should make up all of Vol. 2. Now that, friends, will be a reprint volume to be reckoned with.

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