S.H.I.E.L.D. by Lee & Kirby: The Complete Collection

By Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Roy Thomas, Denny O’Neil, John Severin, Don Heck, John Buscema, Joe Sinnott, Howard Purcell, Ogden Whitney & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-9901-4

Veteran war-hero Nick Fury debuted in Fantastic Four #21 (December 1963): a grizzled, world-weary and cunning CIA Colonel at the periphery of the really big adventures.

What was odd about that? Well, the gruffly capable everyman was already the star of the minor publisher’s only war comic, set twenty years earlier in (depending on whether you were American or European…) the middle or beginning of World War II.

Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos was an improbable, decidedly over-the-top and raucous combat comics series, similar in tone to later movies such as The Wild Bunch or The Dirty Dozen and had launched in May of that year. Although Fury’s later self became a big-name star when espionage yarns went global in the wake of popular sensations like The Man from U.N.C.L.E., the elder iteration was given a second series beginning in Strange Tales #135 (August 1965).

Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. combined Cold War tensions with sinister schemes of World Conquest by a subversive, all-encompassing, hidden enemy organisation. The saga came with captivating Kirby-designed super-science gadgetry and, later, iconic imagineering from Jim Steranko whose visually groundbreaking graphic narratives took the art form to a whole new level (but that’s a subject of another Complete Collection…).

For those few brief years with Steranko in charge, the S.H.I.E.L.D. series was one of the best strips in America – if not the world – but when the writer/artist left just as the global spy-fad was fading, the whole concept faded into the background architecture of the Marvel Universe…

This astounding full-colour paperback compendium, however, deals with the outrageous, groundbreaking, but still still carefully wedded-to-mundane-reality iteration which set the scene. Here Jack Kirby’s genius for gadgetry and gift for dramatic staging mixed with Stan Lee’s manic melodrama to create a tough and tense series which the new writers and veteran artists that followed turned into a non-stop riot of action and suspense…

This stunning hardback omnibus gathers those early days of spycraft; comprising Fantastic Four #21, Tales of Suspense #78 and Strange Tales #135-150 – spanning December 1963 to November 1966 – and providing timeless thrills for lovers of adventure and intrigue.

Fantastic Four #21 introduced the latter-day Fury as a CIA agent seeking the team’s aid against a sinister demagogue called ‘The Hate-Monger’ (by Lee & Kirby with inks by comics veteran George Roussos, under the protective nom-de-plume George Bell) just as the 1960s espionage vogue was taking off, inspired by James Bond films and TV shows like Danger Man.

Fury craftily manipulated Marvel’s First Family into invading a sovereign nation in the throes of revolution in a yarn cracking with tension and action.

The main event starts next as Strange Tales #135 (August 1965) saw the Human Torch solo feature replaced by Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. – which back then stood for Supreme Headquarters International Espionage Law-enforcement Division

In the rocket-paced first episode, Fury is asked to volunteer for the most dangerous job in the world: leading a new counter-intelligence agency dedicated to stopping secretive subversive organisation Hydra. With assassins dogging his every move, the Take-Charge Guy with the Can-Do Attitude quickly proves he is ‘The Man for the Job!’ in a potent twelve-page thriller from Lee, Kirby & Dick Ayers.

Even an artist and plotter of Kirby’s calibre couldn’t handle another strip at that busiest of times so from the next issue “The King” cut back to laying out episodes, allowing a variety of superb draughtsmen to flesh out the adventures. Even so, there’s probably a stunning invention or cool concept on almost every page that follows…

‘Find Fury or Die!’ brought veteran draughtsman John Severin back to the company; pencilling and inking the Kirby’s blueprints as Fury becomes the target of incessant assassination attempts and we are introduced to the masked Supreme Hydra

The tension ramps up in the next instalment as a number of contenders are introduced – any of whom might be the obscured overlord of evil – even as S.H.I.E.L.D. strives mightily but fails to stop Hydra launching its deadly Betatron Bomb in ‘The Prize is… Earth!’

Despite the restrictions of the Comics Code, these early S.H.I.E.L.D. stories were stark and grim and frequently carried a heavy body count. Four valiant agents died in quick succession in #137 and the next issue underscored the point in ‘Sometimes the Good Guys Lose!’ with further revelations of Hydra’s inner workings.

Fury and fellow Howling Commando war heroes Dum-Dum Dugan and Gabe Jones meanwhile played catch-up after Hydra assassins invade S.H.I.E.L.D. and almost eradicate Fury and munitions genius Tony Stark: the only man capable of destroying the nuclear sword of Damocles hanging over the world. Although Nick saves the inventor, he is captured in the process…

Tortured by Hydra in #139’s ‘The Brave Die Hard!’ (with Joe Sinnott replacing Severin as finisher) Fury finds an unlikely ally in Laura Brown: Supreme Hydra’s daughter and a young woman bitterly opposed to her father’s megalomaniacal madness.

Even with only half a comic book per month to tell a tale, creators didn’t hang around in those halcyon days and #140 promised ‘The End of Hydra!’ (Don Heck & Sinnott) as a S.H.I.E.L.D. squad invades the enemy’s inner sanctum to rescue the already-free-and-making-mayhem Fury, just as Stark travels into space to remove the Betratron Bomb with his robotic Braino-Saur system. The end result left Hydra temporarily headless…

Strange Tales #141 saw Kirby return to full pencils (inked by Frank Giacoia pseudonymously moonlighting as Frank Ray) for the mop-up and ‘Operation: Brain Blast!’ as Mentallo – a renegade from S.H.I.E.L.D. ESP division – joined with technological savant the Fixer to attack the organisation as the first step in an ambitious scheme to rule the world.

The raid began in ‘Who Strikes at… S.H.I.E.L.D.?’ (illustrated by Kirby with Mike Demeo – AKA – Esposito) with the deadly rogues hitting hard and fast: seizing and mind-controlling Fury before strapping him to a mini-H-bomb. None too soon, however, Dugan and the boys come blasting in ‘To Free a Brain Slave’ in #143 with Howard Purcell & Esposito embellishing Kirby’s layouts.

A new and deadly threat emerged in #144 as ‘The Day of the Druid!’ saw a mystic charlatan target Fury and his agents with murderous flying techno-ovoids. Happily, new S.H.I.E.L.D. recruit Jasper Sitwell was on hand to augment the triumphant fightback in ‘Lo! The Eggs Shall Hatch!’ by Heck & Esposito over Kirby.

As Marvel continuity grew evermore interlinked, ‘Them!’ saw Captain America team with Fury in the first of the Star-Spangled Avenger’s many adventures as a (more-or-less) Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Taken from Tales of Suspense #78 (June 1966: scripted by Lee with Kirby full pencils and Giacoia inks), the story saw the WWII wonders battling an artificial assassin with incredible chemical capabilities after which Nick sought the creature’s mysterious makers in Strange Tales #146 ‘When the Unliving Strike!’ (Kirby, Heck & Esposito).

As technological Special Interests group Advanced Idea Mechanics courted Fury’s governmental and military masters, promising incredible weapons if only they sacked that barbaric slob Fury, the S.H.I.E.L.D. supremo was getting close to exposing A.I.M.’s connection to “Them” and an old enemy thought long gone…

A concerted whispering campaign and “briefing-against” seemingly sees Fury ousted in ‘The Enemy Within!’ and put on trial in ‘Death Before Dishonor!’ (scripted by Kirby with Heck & Esposito finishing his layouts) but it’s all part of a cunning counter-plan which results in a shattering conclusion and ‘The End of A.I.M.!’ in #149 (with script from Denny O’Neil, and art by Kirby & Ogden Whitney).

As depicted by Lee, Kirby, John Buscema & Giacoia, a malign and devilishly subtle plan is finally uncovered in Strange Tales #150 as Fury’s team put together clues from all the previous year’s clashes and come to one terrifying conclusion: ‘Hydra Lives!’

This sets the scene for the bombastic debut by Jim Steranko, but that’s to be seen in another collection at another time…

Here the epic espionage extravaganza wraps up with appetising Afterword ‘Against the Hordes of Hydra’ by Lee and a treasure trove of original art pages comprising covers, pencils and inked pages – and even try-out pages – by Kirby, Severin, Whitney and Buscema, plus a rousing 1965 House Ad plugging not just the Espionage elite but the simultaneously debuting Sub-Mariner strip in Tales to Astonish #70.

Fast, furious and fantastically entertaining, these high-octane vintage yarns are a superb snapshot of early Marvel Comics at their creative peak and should be part of every fanboy’s shelf of beloved favourites.
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