Friday, February 04, 2005

"Agents of Fortune"

Friday means comic art here at SSTOL — this week, I really wrestled with a number of choices. I have scans in hand of about a half-dozen commissioned pieces that are completed and on their way to me, and trust me, I'll have some fantastic drawings to share with you shortly. But I decided instead to show you something that arrived this week.

This dynamic (pun intended) artwork is the latest of my "Common Elements" pieces that team otherwise unrelated superheroes who share some link in common. Here, former Green Lantern artist Darryl Banks (who also created my Doc and Pat Savage piece) unites Dynamo, from the Tower Comics series T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents, with Marvel's Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. It's a beautiful piece that far outstripped my expectations — thanks, Darryl!

Both T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents and Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. were children of the Cold War 1960s, when James Bond 007 was inspiring imitators right and left, from Matt Helm to I Spy to Our Man Flint to The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (which was actually about two men, Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin — I could never understand why the title was singular).

The two series shared similarities beyond their acronymic names. Both were closely associated with a superstar artist: Wallace Wood was the mastermind behind T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents; Jim Steranko's distinctive style gained attention for S.H.I.E.L.D. Both flashed onto the scene quickly and faded nearly as fast. T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents, despite the allure of its name, was really more about superheroes than espionage and intrigue; Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., though more of a Bond pastiche, remained firmly rooted in the Marvel Universe of superheroes, even though its title character had no superpowers.

Wally Wood is one of the more tragic stories in comics. A phenomenally talented artist, he was mostly known for his work in science fiction magazines published by EC Comics. Later, after EC had been run out of town, metaphorically speaking, by Senator Estes Kefauver's anti-comics crusade, Wood moved on to the last surviving bastion of William M. Gaines's EC empire, Mad Magazine. Wood wasn't especially fond of superhero comics, and he didn't draw many of them, but at Tower Comics he was given free rein to do them as he pleased. T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents and its various spinoff series (Dynamo, NoMan) were the result.

Unfortunately, Tower's finances were shaky, and the company collapsed after about a year and a half. Wood, a man prone to dissolute habits, knocked about the industry for a short while, and eventually committed suicide. His T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents continue to be fondly remembered by those of us who were reading comics in the '60s. Every now and again a small independent publisher acquires the rights to the characters and revives them for a brief time. Later this year, TwoMorrows Publishing will release what looks like a spectacular and definitive book about T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents.

Unlike Dynamo and the rest of his T.H.U.N.D.E.R. cohorts, the character of Nick Fury predated the spy fad. For several years prior to the initiation of the S.H.I.E.L.D. series, Nick Fury had starred in Marvel's only successful war comic, Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos, set in the various theaters of World War II. The Fury of S.H.I.E.L.D. was older than his wartime incarnation, but no less tough or vigorous. Two of Fury's former Howlers, "Dum Dum" Dugan and Gabriel Jones, joined the Sarge — now promoted to Colonel — in his spy-busting adventures.

The man behind S.H.I.E.L.D. was Jim Steranko, a fascinating artist whose resume also included stints as a musician and an illusionist-escape artist. Steranko's style was like no one else's: bold and surreal, perfectly suited to the psychedelic '60s. Although his figure anatomy sometimes suggested that his characters had wandered out of a Salvador Dali painting, Steranko's innovative use of page and panel design and non-traditional effects made his work leap off the newsstand. Too mercurial for the stultifying life of the comic artist, Steranko soon moved on to a successful career in advertising illustration and publishing, and a considerable reputation as a comics historian.

As you can tell, this drawing evokes a horde of powerful memories. Art does that sometimes.

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