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Fifty-Three Years Ago in Comics: Nick Fury Blasts Into Action!

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War hero. Secret agent. Government stooge. Machiavellian mastermind. Washed-up antique. Ageless warrior. Man out of time. Roughneck brawler. Unyielding patriot. Intergalactic assassin.

Nick Fury has been all these things, and many more, since his first appearance on March 5th 1963. He’s a universal plot device, a character that can be adjusted and adapted to fit whatever a given story needs. He’s been young, he’s been old, he’s been dead, he’s been everywhere at once, he’s been in hiding, he’s been blindsided by corruption, he’s been dead again, and he’s been secretly behind the scenes the whole time. He’s even been replaced by robot duplicates more times than anyone can remember.

In short, trying to make sense of Nick Fury is a fool’s errand. He’s the connective tissue of the Marvel Universe, and as such, he’s an endlessly contradictory entity with a history that’s constantly being rejiggered. His motivations and backstory change to fit the cultural climate, and to reflect the attitudes of each new creative team.

In fact, only a few surface elements of his outward personality have remained constant throughout: his resourcefulness, his gruff temperament, and his boundless determination. No matter what else changes, Nick Fury remains a hard-bitten fighter with a no-nonsense attitude, a man of action who makes the tough decisions and backs them up with the straightforward savvy of a kid that grew up in the rough-and-tumble streets of New York.

 

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A 1963 Marvel house ad

 

In early 1963, Marvel Comics was still very much a work in progress. The company had begun its transformation with the introduction of the Fantastic Four just a year-and-a-half earlier, and over the previous year had begun to convert the bulk of its line to superhero-centric titles, introducing the Hulk and Spider-Man in their own titles, and converting their monster-themed anthologies into showcases for Thor, Ant-Man, Iron Man, and the Human Torch. Sales were rising, and Stan Lee and his associates were beginning to build the various series into a cohesive fictional construct: the Marvel Universe as we now know it.

So it must have looked a bit odd when the first issue of one particular new title landed on newsstands on March 5th. It was clearly a Marvel title (with the distinctive “corner box” logo), but instead of brightly-colored heroes, it featured a battalion of soldiers in full combat mode, firing machine guns and hurling grenades, fighting Nazis in World War II. And the series’ name was, to put it politely, unwieldy. Sgt. Fury And His Howling Commandos.

The blurb at the bottom of the cover advertised that this comic came from the same team behind “the famous Fantastic Four”, and sure, it all looked very action-packed and exciting, but it still seemed a bit of a sidestep from everything else Marvel was doing, creating a complex and interwoven modern-day world of costumed crazies.

Writer Stan Lee later claimed he and Jack Kirby created the book to prove that their unique collaborative style could make any type of comic successful, even one based in a moribund genre and saddled with a lousy title – but as with many of Lee’s hyperbolic rear-view pronouncements, it’s difficult to verify the accuracy of this telling.

Still, however it happened, the series soon won readers over with its blend of Kirby action theatrics and Lee soap-operatic characterizations. The lead character, Sergeant Nicholas Fury, was a cigar-chomping soldier with a penchant for colorful idioms and an ever-tattered wardrobe, and he led a squad of combatants named for their habit of unleashing celebratory shrieks in the heat of battle.

 

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Despite his title being set two decades prior to the rest of the company’s line, it didn’t take long for Nick Fury to be tied into the larger Marvel Universe. Sgt. Fury #3 featured a cameo from Major Reed Richards, who encountered Fury and the Howlers on a battlefield in Italy. Two months later, Lee and Kirby revealed Fury to be active as a CIA agent in the modern Marvel U, giving him a guest appearance in Fantastic Four #21.

And in a truly headspinning tie-in, in May 1964, Sgt. Fury #8 and Avengers #6 simultaneously introduced the World War II and present-day incarnations of Nazi scientist Dr. (Baron) Zemo. Both issues appeared on newsstands the very same day, and established a twenty year span of continuity in one fell swoop.

 

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October 1964’s Sgt. Fury #13 guest-starred Captain America and Bucky, establishing a Fury/Cap friendship that would play a part in many stories over the ensuing decades. This thread was followed up shortly thereafter in Avengers #15, when Lee and artist Don Heck depicted Cap writing a letter to Fury, seeking a position in employ of the US government – a letter that led off with “you won’t remember me, but we met in combat”, which, even for the exceedingly modest Steve Rogers, seems a pretty ridiculous statement. (I’m a guy in a red-white-and-blue outfit, who carried a shield and could outfight an entire division of Nazis single handedly… Ring any bells, Mr. Fury?)

Despite this somewhat absurd overture, the subplot built over the next few issues, and though it ultimately came to nothing, it created an anticipation among readers that paid off in a big way when the contemporary incarnation of Nick Fury graduated to leading man status.

 

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Lee and Kirby had taken note of the secret agent craze that was taking the world by storm, and in an attempt to catch a piece of the action they relieved Fury of his CIA obligations and gave him his own starring feature.

Strange Tales #135 featured the formerly unkempt Sergeant, now recast as the eyepatched, suit-wearing director of a top-secret agency: the Supreme Headquarters International Espionage Law-Enforcement Division, better known as SHIELD. (The eyepatch caused much consternation among readers and went unexplained for a few months, until Sgt. Fury #27 showed our hero suffering a wartime injury that would, years later, cost him the use of his left eye.)

 

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Fury was now the star of two separate series, set in two different time periods. But while Sgt. Fury had settled into a groove almost immediately upon launching, the Strange Tales SHIELD serial took a while longer to find its feet. Despite the initial excitement, other series were already occupying the bulk of Lee and Kirby’s attention, and neither creator seemed inclined to give the series the attention it deserved.

A number of artists rotated through the feature over the first fifteen installments (usually working from Kirby’s plots and layouts), and the spy-by-numbers stories, while not awful, couldn’t hold a candle to the hallucinatory weirdness of Strange Tales co-star Dr. Strange, let alone the rest of the ever-expanding Marvel Universe.

But that all began to change with Strange Tales #151, an issue that featured a young artist named Jim Steranko doing finishes over Kirby’s roughs. By issue #154, Steranko was not only handling the full art duties, but also plotting out the story, and with the following issue, the Nick Fury feature was effectively a one-man show, as Steranko embarked on one of the most thrilling and groundbreaking runs ever seen in mainstream comics.

Lee and Kirby’s square-jawed warhorse had now undergone a further transformation, a chiseled and swashbuckling super-spy locked in combat with international terrorists, immersed in a world of brain-twisting layouts, photographic collages, and pop art effects.

 

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Though Steranko’s Fury stint would only last for another year and a half, it left an indelible imprint on not just the character, but the entire comics industry. Through the remaining fourteen Strange Tales issues and the first few installments of Nick Fury’s ensuing solo series, Steranko remained in a state of constant innovation, reinventing the language of visual storytelling in service of tales that spanned gothic horror, noir intrigue, widescreen cast-of-thousands action, slice-of-life human interest, and psychedelic sci-fi.

 

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Ever-restless, Steranko moved on after issue #5 (though he provided the covers for issues #6 and #7), and the series quickly ran aground, despite a number of creators’ best efforts. The title was cancelled with 1969’s #15, an issue that saw Fury felled by an assassin’s bullet.

The character would be resurrected a mere three months later (in the pages of Avengers #72), but he would become a shadowy presence for most of the next two decades. Aside from a one-shot story by Jim Starlin and Howard Chaykin in 1976’s Marvel Spotlight #31 that attempted to retroactively explain how he maintained a youthful appearance and demeanor, and a few co-starring appearances in Marvel Team-Up and Marvel Two-In-One, he remained mostly in the background of various titles. His characterization also varied wildly, as a generation rocked by Vietnam and Watergate became ever less inclined to portray secretive government agencies in a favorable light.

 

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Meanwhile, Sgt. Fury And His Howling Commandos continued to roll merrily along, featuring new material until 1974, then converting to an all-reprint format, finally wrapping up at the tail end end of 1981.

1988 brought the first new contemporary Nick Fury-headlined project in a long while, a six-issue Prestige Format series by Bob Harras and Paul Neary that channeled the unease of the decade into a first-rate political thriller  – a story of Nick Fury discovering that SHIELD was corrupted from within, and embarking on a one-man war to destroy the very organization he’d devoted his life to building. Nick Fury Vs. SHIELD was both a critical and commercial success, and lead to an ongoing series that would run for just over three years.

 

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Nick Fury has continued to grow, evolve, and adapt to each new era. He’s been killed by The Punisher at the height of the “grim-n-gritty” ’90s, brought back shortly thereafter, served as the master manipulator of Brian Bendis’ Secret War, and gone into deep cover for long periods, emerging only to ward off alien attacks.

He was played by David Hasselhoff in a best-forgotten 1998 TV movie. Garth Ennis wrote him as a cold-hearted warmonger in a pair of out-of-continuity mature readers miniseries, and Mark Millar and Bran Hitch re-imagined him as a Samuel L. Jackson lookalike in the Ultimate Marvel universe, which led to the real-life Jackson taking on the role in Iron Man and other blockbuster Marvel films.

Back in the regular Marvel Universe, 2014’s Original Sin miniseries revealed Fury to have spent decades working as an intergalactic black ops agent (as a sideline to his SHIELD duties, apparently), and ended with him chained on the moon and given the cosmic powers of The Watcher while his newly-introduced son, Nick Fury Jr., replaced him as SHIELD’s top field agent — a move meant to streamline Marvel’s various media depictions, and ensure that all Nick Furys everywhere would henceforth bear Sam Jackson’s steely visage.

 

Nick Fury, Jr. – the eyepatch is, of course, hereditary
Nick Fury, Jr. – the eyepatch is, of course, hereditary

 

It’s been a long, convoluted, and not-always comprehensible road for Nicholas Joseph Fury, with his history getting ever more complex as his roots in World War II fade into the past, and increasingly muddled justifications are offered to reconcile his actions through various eras and creative teams. Yet he remains one of Marvel’s most iconic and important characters, and a vital element of the company’s shared universe.

And it all started with one silly comic that appeared on this day in 1963, the story of a square-jawed Sergeant and his elite fighting unit, who were known far and wide for their battle cry.

 

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