Monday, November 10, 2014

A S.H.I.E.L.D. mystery -- or: How did Jim Steranko know...?

Okay, I'm a little late with my weekend non-political post. Sue me.

These days, everyone knows who Nick Fury is, and everyone can recognize the acronym S.H.I.E.L.D. But when I was young, only kids understood the meaning of those names.

I recently found an online copy of the very first Nick Fury story ever to come into my possession. This issue was dated August, 1967, which means that it appeared on newsstands a few months earlier. Back then, Fury was white, and he shared a title with Dr. Strange (who is also scheduled for a big-screen appearance -- played by Benedict Cumberbatch, no less).

The writer/artist for the Nick Fury series was an incredibly talented young man named Jim Steranko, one of the most famous storytellers in the history of the medium. Steranko had a mysterious past: He had been a professional escape artist, as well as a fire-eater, a gymnast, and a rock-n-roller. Rumor has it that he did some other things that one does not normally put on one's resume.

As we shall see, Steranko also appears to have known things that one does not normally put into a comic book.

This particular Nick Fury adventure was a short, villain-free interlude set in a S.H.I.E.L.D. training facility. Fury -- having survived a massive, multi-issue battle with Hydra -- was about to embark on a massive, multi-issue battle with the Yellow Claw. (The Yellow Claw was every bit as politically incorrect as you might suspect. The fact that he turned out to be a robot doesn't make him less cringe-worthy when viewed through modern eyes.)

In this "transition" issue, Fury switches girlfriends: All-American blonde Laura Brown gets an unceremonious heave-ho -- her parting gift is a New York shopping spree, charged to Fury's expense account -- and Fury immediately hooks up with the eurotrashy Contessa Valentina Allegro de Fontaine. In the final panels of this story, she beats him up right after he makes a sexist remark. Pretty soon they are shacking up. I think that Nick Fury was the first comic book hero to shack up with someone. (No, Batman and Robin don't count.)

The most mysterious panels in this story are the ones reprinted below. Nick Fury meets a new cast member: "The Gaff" -- or the Gaffer, as he was later called -- who functions as the equivalent of Q in the Bond movies.

Reading this book again, nearly fifty years later, I felt the shock of recognition. "Sidney Levine" bears a strong resemblance to the man who held pretty much that exact same job in real life -- in the CIA.

I refer, of course, to Sidney Gottlieb, the head of the Agency's Technical Services Staff (sometimes called the Technical Services Division). He is best-known as the architect of the outrageous MKULTRA project, which used drugs, hypnosis and other arcane methods of influencing the mind.

Here's the thing: Gottlieb was "outed" to the public only after MKULTRA was revealed to Congress in the mid-to-late 1970s. Testifying before a House subcommittee, Gottlieb -- who had retired from the Agency in 1972 -- expressed his annoyance with the CIA for blacking out all names except his own from the surviving MKULTRA documents. He seemed to think that someone intended to make him notorious.

Maybe I'm wrong, but I believe that the press did not mention Gottlieb's name at all during his years with the Agency. The CIA is not an organization one joins if one seeks fame. That fact was even truer in 1967 than it is today.

So my question is simple: How did Jim Steranko know?

The "coincidence" theory isn't easy to accept. The comic book character strongly resembles the actual man. Both are white-haired and balding. Both wear glasses. Both are named Sidney. Both are Jewish. Both run the technical divisions of spy agencies. And from what I understand (having talked to a writer who interviewed Gottlieb), Steranko's rather stereotypical dialogue -- "Excuse I should be speaking up like that" -- captures the way Gottlieb actually spoke.

H.P. Albarelli's superb book A Secret Order contains a compelling profile of Sidney Gottlieb. For now, I'll leave you with this paragraph from Wikipedia's entry...
Gottlieb retired from the CIA in 1972, stating at the time that he did not believe his work had been effective. He nonetheless received a Distinguished Intelligence Medal from the U.S. government. Visited in retirement by the son of his late colleague Frank Olson, he was residing in an "ecologically correct" home in Culpeper, Virginia, where he raised goats, ate yogurt and advocated principles of peace and environmentalism.[5] He and his wife spent 18 months running a leper hospital in India and he spent his final years looking after the dying at a hospice. He died in Washington D.C. in 1999.
As for Jim Steranko: We should all look that good at 76. The Hollywood Reporter publishes his reviews of the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. television series. He's also on Twitter. As most of you know, I Twitter not. If you are a Twitterer, maybe you could ask Mr. Big Deal Comic Book Artist about that whole mashugana Sidney Gottlieb/"Sidney Levine" thing? Excuse I should be nosy like that, but...
He looks like a replicant. He is also very, very, very fond of exclamation marks!!!
I believe the verb form is "tweet".

I've never seen an American comic book. English comics are actually comic: they are humourous. They normally follow the childish antics of the youthful main characters. I used to read them all, the Beano, Dandy, Whizzer & Chips, Beezer, Topper, and of course the Buster. Reports that the title character of the latter, Buster Capp, is "cumming to the big screen" in an adult romp entitled "Buster Capp: In Yo Ass" remain sadly unconfirmed.

Bananaman, on the other hand, is coming to the big screen, and about time too.
Props for Steranko having Fury drive a Porsche 904, which would hardly be out-dated today.
moshe: Early comics were printed badly, and little details -- such as periods -- would sometimes disappear. Circa 1940, an unknown editor laid down a rule: Writers were not to use periods, just exclamation marks and ellipses. The rule took hold throughout the industry, and was not abandoned until the end of the 1970s.
Joseph: that's very interesting, I hadn't thought of that. I was, however, referring to his use of exclamation marks on his Twitter "feed". Taking into account the bit of info you provided, I think he seems to be reflexively following the editor's advice even there, even now. Call it perhaps a "vestigial organ" of his writing persona.
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