The Changing Face of Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.

[19 September 2013]

By J.C. Macek III

On September 24th, 2013, the great creator of Buffy, Angel and Firefly, Joss Whedon, will unveil his newest show on the ABC Network: Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.. Fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, as well as Joss fans should be interested to view this interesting spinoff, if only to find out how the hell Agent Coulson came back from the very death Joss himself directed in 2012’s The Avengers. This is, of course, not a show that focuses on “Earth’s Mightiest Heroes” (at least when viewed through the gridded page of the Marvel Universe. This focuses on the amazing Spy network that, after many revisions, now stands for “Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division”.

Indeed this is not the first time S.H.I.E.L.D. has been adapted for television. In 1998, Fox television aired the TV movie Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., starring none other than Baywatcher David Hasselhoff as the most famous Agent ever to walk the Hellicarrier, years before that role was taken over by Samuel L. Jackson for the Marvel theatrical movies. Recent interviews with “the Hoff” indicate that ol’ Michael Knight is more than a little annoyed by this fact, considering himself to be the perfect Nick Fury.

Then again, what is the “Perfect” Nick Fury and what is the perfect S.H.I.E.L.D.? Continuity has (necessarily) changed and evolved for all comics companies and with Colonel Nicholas Joseph Fury being one of the few non-powered famous characters in the Marvel Universe, there is no mystical or super reason he should be immune to the great equalizer we call the “Retcon”. That is especially considering the fact that Nick Fury didn’t start out as an Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. at all.

In Fury’s original incarnation, he was a two-fisted (and two eyeballed) Sargent in the US Army and he wasn’t created to be an icon or a superstar in his own right. He was created to settle a bet. Creator extraordinaire Stan Lee’s collaborations with Captain America co-creator Jack Kirby’s books under the new “Marvel Comics” banner were selling incredibly well and publisher Martin Goodman attributed these successes to part of the trends in the Silver Age of comicbooks. Lee disagreed and bet Goodman that a book in the Lee-Kirby style could sell incredibly well, even without superheroes and the absolute worst title Stan Lee could think of.

Thus, Lee concocted a six word title for this new experiment: Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos. The titular Sgt. Fury was a cigar-chomping, beard-stubbled noncommissioned officer who led the Elite First Attack Squad, a racially integrated special unit that engaged in battles all over the world. This 1963 comic (set in World War II) was so unique in its racial integration that Lee had to send a special note to the colorist that the character of Private Gabe Jones was, indeed, African American (he mistakenly appeared as white as Nick Fury himself in the first issue). In addition to Jones, the Commandos included Private Izzy Cohen, among the first (known) Jewish heroes in comics, Private Dino Manelli, an Italian American actor-turned fighter, Private Rebel Ralston, from the South of the United States, Private Pinky Pinkerton, a British soldier who replaced one of the very few “permanently dead” characters in Junior Juniper.  As something of a precursor to the team from Inglorious Basterds, the Howling Commandos eventually were joined by a Nazi defector named Eric Koenig.

The most famous Howling Commando besides Fury was Irish American Timothy “Dum Dum” Dugan, a former circus strongman known for his big red mustache and his trademark Derby hat. It was Dugan who eventually joined S.H.I.E.L.D. as Fury’s trusted right-hand man… but S.H.I.E.L.D. wasn’t originally envisioned as quite the globe-spanning organization it is today. While not exactly created to settle a bet, S.H.I.E.L.D. was created as a vehicle for Fury to be recast as a James Bond-esque secret agent with his new organization standing in for that of the popular TV show The Man from U.N.C.L.E.. Yes, S.H.I.E.L.D. is Stan Lee’s “U.N.C.L.E.”

Originally Fury didn’t wear his now-common S.H.I.E.L.D. uniform with visible shoulder holster, but a standard business suit much like any secret agent of 1965 might wear. The only real sign in Fury’s outer look that he might be, as we say, “A Man of ACTION” was the eyepatch that he obtained somewhere between his Sergeant ing days for the Howling Commandos and his Colonel Fury days with S.H.I.E.L.D. The idea of Sgt. Fury as a clean cut (albeit one-eyed) secret agent was such a strange tale to fans that it had to originally be published in Strange Tales while Sgt. Fury was still being published. However, this was no joke and both Colonel Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D. were firmly ingrained into the Marvel Universe at large and in 1968, Fury received his own book Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.

As the years between World War II and the then-present Cold War were filled in by the writers, we learn that Fury took shrapnel to the eye which caused him to slowly lose sight in that same eye, eventually warranting the eyepatch. After the war, Fury joined the Office of Strategic Services, followed by the Central Intelligence Agency before being recruited by Tony “Iron Man” Stark to head up the new agency called S.H.I.E.L.D., where he fought the ultra-menace HYDRA.

Fury continued in his two incarnations until Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos ended its run in 1981, leaving the S.H.I.E.L.D Director persona his only one for some time. In this guise, Fury was a middle aged man in great shape with greying temples, beard stubble and that omnipresent eyepatch. He kept this look (something like Reed Richards with one eye) throughout the years, up until the aforementioned David Hasselhoff TV Movie from 1988.

Back on the gridded page, Marvel was experimenting with a new imprint called “Ultimate Marvel”, which redesigned and reestablished the superheroes we thought we knew. For example, Wolverine was famously 5’2” in the comics but Ultimate Marvel redesigned the little hairy guy into the tall, romantic type that someone like Hugh Jackman might play in a movie. For the first time, Nick Fury was redesigned as an African American, paving the way for Samuel L. Jackson’s casting in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In his initial appearance in 2001, however, Ultimate Fury didn’t look much like Jackson, but like a slightly darker skinned version of the Nick Fury we knew with short black hair and an eye patch with little facial scarring. However, upon obtaining permission from Samuel L. Jackson, Ultimate Nick Fury’s look was altered to resemble that actor much more than, say, the guy from Knight Rider.

Well, that’s not exactly true… Marvel made the change before consulting Jackson and even featured a scene in which Fury indicated that should a movie be made of him, Sam Jackson would be the ideal actor to portray the Agent. In fact, when Jackson heard about this change to the character he contacted Marvel and gave his consent on the condition that Marvel make good on that hint in the comics.

When the Marvel Cinematic Universe was finally launched with 2008’s Iron Man (a full decade after the Nick Fury TV movie) S.H.I.E.L.D. was represented by none other than… Clark Gregg as Agent Coulson.

Okay, then…

But those audience members astute enough to stay through the credits did get their first glimpse of Sam Jackson as Nick Fury in the, well, ultimate scene in the film. Jackson continued to cameo as Fury in Thor (2011) and Iron Man 2 (2010), but it was Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) that expanded the role of Nick Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D. as the force behind the modern-day resurrection of Captain America.

In that Captain America, the World War II hero was originally resurrected in the early 1960s, it was perfectly reasonable for Nick Fury to be his slightly older contemporary. However, having Samuel L. Jackson believably fight in World War II and still look like Jules from Pulp Fiction by the second decade of the new Millennium is a stretch worthy of seventy times seven seventh inning stretches. Thus Fury remained a younger agent born well after the days of World War II, however Captain America: The First Avenger did feature S.H.I.E.L.D.’s nemesis organization HYDRA as the main villains of that war (even worse than the Nazis, it seems). Thus when the titular avenger has to assemble a team to attack them, who does he recruit? None other than the Howling Commandos themselves, complete with Dum Dum Dugan and Gabe Jones.

Coulson, Captain America (Chris Evans) and Jackson’s own Nick Fury returned to the screen for the Joss Whedon-directed The Avengers, setting the stage for the new TV show Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., in spite of the fact that, again, Coulson seemed to be very much the doornail before that film’s end. However back in the pages of Marvel Comics’ main continuity some changes were happening to Nick Fury once again… this time, however, he was just getting older.

How old? Old enough to have a grown son named Marcus Johnson, who is half African American, has a shaved head, facial hair and an eyepatch just like dear old dad and dear old dad’s Ultimate namesake. Johnson is a former Sergeant who teamed up with the comicbook version of Agent Phil Coulson and eventually became an Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. just in time for him to revert to his birth name of Nicholas J. Fury, Jr. and take his father’s place on the Hellicarrier. Why the change here? Simple, Sam Jackson had proven so popular as Nick Fury that Marvel had to find a way to give the people what they want.

Unquestionably fans would love to see Fury appear in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., but will he, considering Jackson’s stature as an actor? Possibly, possibly not (stranger things have happened). However, just as S.H.I.E.L.D. has had many changes throughout the years (the initials originally stood for “Supreme Headquarters, International Espionage, Law-Enforcement Division”, were changed to “Strategic Hazard Intervention Espionage Logistics Directorate” and now read as “Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division”), so has Nick Fury and now the big and small screen as well as two versions of the Marvel Universe all surround one version… and he looks a whole lot like Samuel L. Jackson. Stay tuned for “Snakes on a Hellicarrier”.

J.C. Maçek III is the creator of, has acted in film, television and on stage and holds a degree in English Literature from LSU. Follow him on Twitter @Kneumsi.

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