The History of S.H.I.E.L.D. Part Two: The Steranko Years

By Patrick A. Reed

By now, you’ve probably heard the news that ABC has ordered a full season of “Marvel’s Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” the show set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and masterminded by Joss Whedon. But what you might not be familiar with, if you’re not a hardcore comic reader, is the background of this mysterious S.H.I.E.L.D. organization. We break it down for you, in MTV Geek’s History of S.H.I.E.L.D.

In 1966, Marvel was setting the standard for the comic industry. Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and their contemporaries were breaking all the rules and making comics hip for readers young and old. Stan Lee had begun to give lectures on college campuses, the “Marvel Super-Heroes” cartoons were being shown on TV, Lee and Kirby’s Galactus Trilogy storyline in “Fantastic Four” had introduced cosmic awareness into comics, and John Romita Sr. was beginning his run on “Spider-Man.”

But in the pages of “Strange Tales,” Nick Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D. were treading water, sharing cover billing and space with co-headliner Dr. Strange, each month’s episode using increasingly ridiculous gadgets to fight the evil organization HYDRA, and searching for a direction.

Enter Jim Steranko. This young man, only twenty-seven years old, had already enjoyed successful careers as a musician, a graphic designer, an escape artist, and a sleight-of-hand magician. That summer, he walked into the Marvel offices, looking for a gig illustrating comics – and walked out the same afternoon, assigned to ink Nick Fury stories over Jack Kirby’s pencil layouts.

Three issues later, Steranko had taken over full art duties. And with the issue after that, he took over writing, becoming single-handedly responsible for the series’ direction, creating the work that would make him a comic book legend. For the next two years, Steranko guided S.H.I.E.L.D.’s top agent through bizarre and innovative adventures, reinventing the comics vocabulary with each new issue. Robot doppelgängers and conspiracies and aliens and mind-control and hallucinogens filled the stories, and the art kept pace – Steranko incorporated collage and pop-art techniques into his cinematic pages, invented new styles of layout, and even included a four-page panorama in “Strange Tales” #167. (Along with an editor’s note that, to get the full effect of the sequence, one needed a second copy of the issue to lay side-by-side.) He expanded the supporting cast, creating new agents, bringing old characters into the fold, reinforcing the idea of a vast network of spies, operating behind the scenes of the Marvel universe. The audience noticed, and Strange Tales’ sales rose steadily.

In fact, the series became so popular that Marvel spun Nick Fury off into his own series in the spring of 1968. And Steranko, no longer bound by twelve pages per issue, used the additional room to tell even more grandiose and ground-breaking stories. Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D. took on phantoms and saboteurs in Scotland; saved humanity from a megalomaniacal genius bent on returning the world to prehistoric times; and battled Scorpio, a mysterious masked villain armed with the all-powerful “key to the zodiac”.

Sadly, after issue #5, Steranko moved on to other titles (though he contributed a few more covers for issues six and seven, and featured S.H.I.E.L.D. prominently in his three-issue run on Captain America). And though many other creative teams did their best to follow in his footsteps, the series floundered, and was cancelled within a year. As the 70s dawned, Marvel’s super-spies had fallen out of the spotlight, and would stay largely in the shadows for the next two decades.

(Continued tomorrow in “The History Of S.H.I.E.L.D. Part Three: The Seventies and Eighties.”)