BEFORE DELVING INTO this review, I’d like to take a moment to discuss the concept of benchmarks.
Benchmarks are, by definition, the goal one aims for or establishes. In healthcare, quality patient care is
considered a benchmark. When a hospital or agency establishes a certain level of care, other agencies must
meet or exceed that level of care to remain competitive. In air travel, passenger safety, comfort, and on-time
arrival are all benchmarks. If Delta Airlines establishes a benchmark of “always on time arrivals,” it is
imperative that its competitors strive to match this level of service. In comics and sequential art, the
benchmarks are quality and proficiency.
The problem with benchmarks is once they’ve been established it’s not always an easy task to meet (or beat)
them. For those who set the benchmark, life is easy. They’ve established the gold standard; the best anyone
can hope to do is favorably compare (or reinvent the benchmark, adding their own indelible imprint). In the
Silver Age of Marvel comics, the artistic benchmarks were set by three individuals: Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko,
and John Romita. More than any other artists, these were the ones who dictated the look and style at that
time. Ditko’s grids were filled with power and imagination; Kirby’s heroes and villains literally jumped off the
printed page; and Romita’s pencils sang jazz and incorporated a sense of hip action.
I purposely excluded two other artists from this list, namely, John Buscema and Neal Adams. And why, during
the season of good tidings and holiday cheer did I impose such a grinch-like exclusion? Here’s why:
“Big” John Buscema entered the madness of the Marvel bullpen somewhat AFTER the standards had been
set. His pencils (on AVENGERS and THE SILVER SURFER [and later, CONAN]) held a powerhouse style that
was part Kirby and part Romita, but he was basically working from the template already established by these
craftsmen. Neal Adams’ contributions to Marvel’s Silver Age, while both breathtaking and groundbreaking,
were rather limited in volume, consisting mainly of a brief run on X-MEN, and various issues of THOR,
AVENGERS, and a few other titles scattered along the pathway of the late ‘60s. His style was remarkable,
though his influence upon Marvel’s house style was far less pronounced than it was at DC, where artists such
as Jim Aparo had clearly caught the fever for the flavor of Neal’s pulsating pencils. Jim’s work on titles such as
PHANTOM STRANGER is replete in its Adams-esqueness. But I think it’s a fair assessment to note that during
the Silver Age it was Kirby, Ditko, and Romita who were furnishing the rooms of the Marvel house style.
And of course I neglected to mention one other artist from this era: James Steranko.
Steranko’s career at Marvel began in the pages of STRANGE TALES, initially doing finishes on Kirby’s layouts
for NICK FURY, AGENT OF SHIELD. But he soon began not only penciling the SHIELD strip, but scripting it as
well. But (and believe me, this is a big-ol but)…Steranko did not follow the template established by Kirby. In
fact, he dissected it, built upon it, then smashed it into a billion pieces and rebuilt upon it. And I don’t need to
tell you that he smashed it good. Steranko brought to SHIELD a power and dynamism not seen before or
since in the world of four-color comic book illustration. He twisted and reconstructed the medium like the
magician he was, pulling rabbits out of hats and placing his characters in larger-than-life death-defying
situations worthy of Houdini month upon month. And, unfortunately, it all ended much too soon. As editor of
the SHIELD comic that would later grow from the pages of STRANGE TALES, Stan Lee (editor on the SHIELD
title) and Steranko eventually reached an impasse. Steranko walked away.
Steranko established what SHOULD HAVE BEEN the status quo in sequential art at the dawning of the Bronze
Age, demonstrating his skills not only in the SHIELD title but in a trio of CAPTAIN AMERICA stories considered
by many fans and critics (myself included) to be among the best issues ever published. Unfortunately, such
was not the case. I’m not implying that other artists did not aspire to such Steranko-like greatness, but like
Houdini, he was truly in a league of his own.
Which left those who were assigned to continue the SHIELD series following Steranko’s departure with a near
impossible task. But the template (ie, Steranko’s work on those first few issues of SHIELD as well as his work
on STRANGE TALES) was there. All that was needed was a creative team that could, somehow, work and
learn from it.
Which brings us to this week’s chestnuts-roasting-over-an-open-fire-holiday-themed review:
Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD 10 (March 1969—street date December 1968)
Writer: Gary Friedrich
Penciller: Frank Springer
Inks: Johnny Craig
Editor: Stan Lee
To their credit, Friedrich and Springer make a decent attempt to channel the mystical energy of Steranko into
this stand-alone holiday tale entitled, aptly enough, “Twas the Night Before Christmas.” The splash page is
worthy of both Steranko AND Will Eisner, incorporating a text treatment containing artwork within the lettering.
Unfortunately, the Steranko-inspired force rapidly fades by page two, at least as far as the story layout is
concerned. The panel construction is standard (and in some instances, substandard) fare and centers
around an attempted X-mas eve mugging of Fury by a trio of would-be hoodlums who fail to snag themselves
a one-eyed Christmas goose. Nick continues home and finds a buxom blonde in his apartment, dressed head
to toe in mistletoe, and waiting to deliver a bit of holiday cheer. However, Nick has barely put Sinatra on the
turntable and mixed up a couple of “Christmas Daiquiris” before he is summoned away by SHIELD. It seems
the Hate-Monger is back in action. He’s got to keep Christmas from coming, but how?
Fury high-tails it to the SHIELD helicarrier and is debriefed—and the news more sour tasting than the insoles
on an elf’s wooden shoes. The Hate-Monger plans to deliver an extra special Christmas present to the
residents of New York, “in the form of a germ bomb…which will wipe out the entire population” of the city.
Given today’s current climate of fear, the premise would seem to be decades ahead of its time. Don’t worry—it’
s not. SHILED has learned that the Hate-Monger will be deploying the bomb at the stroke of midnight from his
nearby orbiting satellite, after which he will be visited by three spirits—the ghost of Christmas dumb, the ghost
of Christmas dim-witted, and the ghost of Christmas really, REALLY stupid.
Speaking of really, really stupid: Rather than taking a squad with him, and rather than simply blasting a few
holes in the satellite (thereby destroying its artificial atmosphere and killing all those onboard), Fury goes it
alone, and is soon engaged in fisticuffs against odd-looking adversaries dressed in blue and purple skin-tight
body suits. I found their attire strange until I realized they were most likely actors in the Hate-Monger Royal
Theatre Group, no doubt rehearsing for an acid-trip version of BIRTH OF CHRIST: THE MUSICAL.
Springer attempts a two-page splash at the center of the comic, and while the layout is workmanlike, it lacks
the verve, clarity, and draftsmanship of the Steranko double-page splashes that doubtless were its
inspiration. Johnny Craig, an astonishing artist in his own right, maintains clean, well-delineated line work on
the spread and all throughout the story.
Fury is eventually beaten blue and purple by his adversaries in purple and blue. At which point the Hate-
Monger reveals his underlying motives in dropping the germ bomb on Manhattan. You see, HM believes that
“the obliteration of New York’s populace will set all the nations of the world against each other…and the
resulting nuclear holocaust will purge Earth of all living beings—save those of my new colony who safely orbit
the Earth in my satellite! Then, when the fallout has cleared, we will return to our planet—and establish a new
population…” HM apparently never stopped to consider that, because SHIELD (a government agency) knew
of his plans, the government and media coverage would clearly point to terrorism as the source of the
destruction. If anything, the disaster would likely rally the support of the United Nations (assuming that most of
the UN council members would have been out of New York visiting friends and loved ones during the holiday).
He also failed to consider what total nuclear holocaust might do to the planet’s livestock, its plant life, and
oceans and rivers. For example, an additional byproduct of radioactive blasts is iodine 131. When absorbed
by vegetation that is consumed by cows, contaminated milk can result. Ingesting contaminated milk can
increase one’s risk of thyroid cancer. Perhaps HM prefers green tea to milk, but I digress.
Like all fanatics, the Hate-Monger wishes Fury a Merry Christmas, straps him inside a craft originally designed
for manned flight (the germ bomb is housed in the craft’s nose cone, natch!), and launches it toward our
favorite planet. Fearing that Fury might escape his fate, HM sends two aircraft to monitor Fury’s death-ship
just to be extra sure he really goes boom along with the rest of the Big Apple. Long story short: One of the two
henchmen crashes into the tip of Fury’s craft, deploying the germ bomb high above the sky. Fury parachutes
to freedom and is found by harbor police in the East River. He lands on Tiny Tim, fracturing the child’s thorax,
but sparing him a lifetime of hobbling about town. The US government agrees to pay the Cratchett $1.5 million
for their loss.
This comic poses an interesting question: What caused the henchman to crash into the nose cone of the
death-rocket? Fury remarks that, “Something zipped between us…goin’ so fast it was almost invisible.” It was
this object which diverted the attention of HM’s pilot, and lead to the deadly collision. The tale ends with Fury
in deep contemplation: “I sure do wonder what it was that caused the Hate-Monger’s pilot to hit me…Maybe
there IS a SANTA CLAUS!”
It’s not a bad tale. But had I been pulling the editorial reins of this one, I’d have likely altered a couple of the
Fury attacking the satellite alone, while demonstrating his well-regarded bravado, is a bit too similar to the
actions his 007 contemporary of the day would have taken. The problem is, although the title of this comic
indicates Fury is an “Agent” of SHIELD, it’s well established that he is, in fact, the Director of SHIELD. As such,
his function is more akin to overlord than soldier. Heck, even Captain Kirk was usually smart enough to take
along a few fellow personnel with him on dangerous missions, just so the green-skinned aliens would have a
few targets aside from his bloated self to fire upon.
Likewise, the Hate-Monger’s initial plan—to wipe out New York on the holiest night of the year—is pure
terrorist. The plan itself was enough, requiring no further explanation. Yet the plan falls into the quagmire of
cartoon-super-villainy when he extrapolates on a scheme, the success of which is dependant upon all civilized
nations of the world engaging in mutually assured destruction via nuclear weapons. However, in 1969 only a
few nations had nuclear weapons, and I doubt that the US would launch a strike against the USSR or Great
Britain knowing that the attack on New York originated from an orbiting satellite under the control of a known
terrorist. Additionally, given that there were no women visible on the Hate-Monger’s satellite, one is left to
ponder how he would be attempting to “establish a new population.” I doubt seriously the irradiated, mutated
survivors of Earth would be considered worthy of birthing his dream of a “master race.”
Lastly, despite the apparent closure in this tale a few disturbing questions remain unanswered: What
ultimately happened to the Hate-Monger? Will he be brought to justice? Is he left free to strut about in his
satellite, getting drunk off of spiked eggnog and bastardizing the lyrics to FROSTY THE SNOWMAN and other
holiday standards? If so, he’s the comic book equivalent of IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE’S Mr. Potter, and will,
apparently, face no repercussions for all his evil deeds. I guess the moral of this tale is, evil never wins, but it
doesn’t necessarily have to taste the bitter fruit cake of defeat, either.
N i c k F u r y , A g e n t o f S H I E L D 1 0 (M a r c h 1 9 6 9)
d a v i d y u r k o v i c h