Review by Karl Verhoven
Considering his formidable creative reputation, Marvel appeared to have missed a chance to line their coffers by long delaying the issue of Jim Steranko’s work on S.H.I.E.L.D. in book form. Before their hardcover Masterworks and Omnibus editions, the content was split across two paperback volumes in 2000, over thirty years since the work was created and over a decade into the graphic novel era.
It’s the content of Who is Scorpio? that’s most fondly remembered and the most adventurous, while Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. is almost a collection of preliminary sketches, detailing the creative progression to that material. In 1966 Steranko became the artist, first working over Jack Kirby’s layouts, of a strip that if not exactly floundering, was hardly setting the world alight either. The early episodes show why. Kirby’s interest in spy stories appears to be waning, while there’s barely a panel not groaning under the weight of Lee’s dialogue. Surely neither required much persuasion to relinquish the strip to the always confident Steranko.
He concludes the Lee/Kirby Hyrda story without straying from their template, but had Steranko not flourished it wouldn’t be remembered as there’s barely anything remarkable about it. It’s with the following lead-in to S.H.I.E.L.D. facing the Yellow Claw, a clever integration of 1950s Marvel continuity, that the changes begin. Steranko introduces new agents with distinctive appearances and personalities, begins experimenting with more decorative page designs, and brings in the trappings of James Bond movies. Smaller touches also abound. Nick Fury begins wearing a suit and resembling Burt Lancaster, cars are modified versions of expensive 1960s sports cars, and the awkwardness Steranko initially experienced in giving his cast physical weight evaporated.
A tendency to over-write, inherited from Lee, is a flaw Steranko doesn’t excise. Toward the end of this collection when he’s pleased with a page design there’ll be less dialogue, but otherwise page after page is plastered with stuff we just don’t need to know. Yes, it was the style of the times, but Steranko so fought against that with his art. A full page just after the midway point features a lovely illustration of a Chinese dragon statuette. Fury’s declaration of “I got a hunch whatever this thing’s hiding is gonna mean the difference between winning and losing this little skirmish” is all we need to know in combination with an extensive caption leading off the page. Steranko employs a further ten speech balloons essentially repeating himself. That’s not an isolated example.
Episode by episode Steranko introduces more changes, experiments more, and the difference between his introductory work and the concluding pages is vast. The final tale of an alien arriving on Earth isn’t great, but the art is. Steranko is supremely competent now, and this is a fantastic looking ten pages from a man about to enter what became a very brief career peak. There’s photographic collage, pin-up art, an imaginatively designed alien, some psychedelia, and great use of sequences of small panels with minor alterations. That Steranko also colours his art is evident from early in the book with the bold, bright selections way ahead of their time, and he’s not afraid to use grey as the background colour on occasion.
The 21st century is more sensitive to racial stereotyping, so the use of power crazy Chinese villain Yellow Claw is far likelier to cause offence today. There’s no excuse for the bright yellow skin tones, but as presented here is his attitude really very different from that of Lex Luthor?
Art lovers will take more from this collection than readers, but it all comes together in Who is Scorpio?