When Words Collide: Nick Fury Ain't No Lee Marvin

Mon, April 18th, 2011 at 1:58pm PDT

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer

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SECRET WARRIORS PART 1: NICK FURY AIN'T NO LEE MARVIN

Nick Fury is always ten steps ahead of us.

That's the charm of that character, right? That he's playing a game so deep, and so much more advanced than the reader (or the other characters we're reading about), that he makes for a brilliant comic book character, but a bit of trouble as a protagonist.

Because it's hard to make the conflict all that compelling if your main character knows how it's all going to turn out. If he's playing the long game, and the short-term wins and losses don't matter very much.

That's one reason why we haven't seen a great Nick Fury comic book series for a long, long time. Until Jonathan Hickman came along and did his thing with "Secret Warriors." But I'll get back to that in a second.

A little over a decade ago, Brian Michael Bendis was originally supposed to launch his Marvel career with a Nick Fury series. The project became derailed, and Bendis slid over to launch "Ultimate Spider-Man" and I haven't kept track of what happened with that series, but I think it lasted a few issues. Bendis even wanted to get Jim Steranko involved with the Fury series, supposedly. That probably helped bog things down, since Steranko and Marvel and Nick Fury has always been a sticky situation. Steranko apparently won't even sign copies of the Nick Fury trades that fans bring to him at conventions.

David Hasselhoff was Nick Fury on television. Samuel L. Jackson showed up in a couple of movies, playing a version of the character based on an alternate reality version of himself. Or something. I'm not sure how Ultimate Nick Fury works. But I know he ended up in a parallel world that was a reboot of a serious version of a parody of the Justice League. Written by Howard Chaykin.

Howard Chaykin draws a great Nick Fury, by the way.

That "Squadron Supreme" series didn't feature Howard Chaykin drawing Nick Fury, though. Just writing him. The Sam Jackson version. And it wasn't very good.

Current DC Editor-in-Chief Bob Harras once wrote a prestige format series called "Nick Fury vs. S.H.I.E.L.D." and that wasn't very good, either. But it did feature aliens, so that's something.

The point is that Nick Fury is one of those characters who has been around forever, but he's very difficult to do well. He's great when he shows up with an ominous nod and some kind of high tech gadget. But when he's the star of the book, things tend to get messy. He's a protagonist who's too capable for his own good.

Jim Steranko pulled it off for a little while, but that was mostly because of his fancy artistry. Because it was the height of the Cold War, Nick Fury, agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. could be a Mary Sue for the whole country, what Captain America was for World War II. But Cap didn't have the "Man from U.N.C.L.E." to steal from, so he had to resort to more punchin'.

So, Nick Fury. Great character. Everyone loves him. Everyone who works at Marvel wants to use him. (I suspect the pile of rejected Nick Fury pitches would be tall enough to prop a helicarrier up into the stratosphere.) But it never works. No one has pulled it off since Steranko.

Jonathan Hickman, however, has been writing a Nick Fury comic for the past couple years, and he's made it work like a finely-tuned watch. Maybe his trick was that the comic is called "Secret Warriors" instead of "Nick Fury is So Awesome." That probably helped. (I've heard that Kate Beaton is hard at work on the latter idea, by the way. If she's not, she should be.)

I've been reading "Secret Warriors" since the first issue, and because I've read all the Bendis Avengers comics and all the "Secret Invasion" issues, I suppose that means I've read the entire story of the "Secret Warriors." Oh, I've read Hickman's "S.H.I.E.L.D." comic too, and that's part of the saga as well. And I'll tell you this: "Secret Warriors" is an unabashed Nick Fury comic, even if Hickman drowns him off the page with a million other characters.

And I'll tell you this, too: Jonathan Hickman is Nick Fury.

But first: Bendis.

When the Secret Warriors, as a team, debuted, in the one-two punch of "Mighty Avengers" #13 and "Secret Invasion" #3, Brian Michael Bendis established them to be something quite different from what they would later become. Or rather, he presented them in a straightforward superhero manner, and in their own series they would become something else entirely. They wouldn't even be the main characters in their own title, as it turns out. But in the Spring of 2008, we didn't yet know that.

All we knew was Nick Fury, who had been conspicuously absent from the Marvel Universe for years, had been working, off the grid, to assemble a group of elite-but-otherwise-ignored young heroes to oppose the Skrull threat.

Remember Skrulls? They were a pretty big deal in 2008.

So Bendis gave us a story in which Nick Fury recruits six young men and women with untapped potential (Daisy! Alex! Sebastian! Yo-yo! J. T.! Jerry!) into a kind of "Dirty Dozen" for the superhero set, if the Dirty Dozen were mostly kids, and fought against shape-changing monsters from outer space.

Bendis's version of their story had basically two beats. First beat: Fury bops around the globe, recruiting the gang. Second beat: The gang shows up, guns blazing, vs. the Skrull army in New York City.

That's the extent of the story on Bendis's side. At least, that's what was published. He may have had more planned.

The so-called Secret Warriors didn't really even accomplish anything in "Secret Invasion" besides delaying the human defeat. They held the line, but they didn't come in and save the day. They were minor characters in a story in which almost everything that happened turned out to be minor, until Norman Osborn showed up all of a sudden and became the hero of the beach, Central-Park-style.

So what, then, was the point of devoting an issue of "Mighty Avengers" and a few dramatic pages of "Secret Invasion" to the assembling of a group of kid heroes and their entrance onto the Skrull-laced battlefield? Just to show what Nick Fury was up to, certainly. To emphasize that Nick Fury not only knew what was going on -- always knows what's going on -- but that he was making plans, moving chess pieces around, long before anyone else had even considered that Jarvis was replaced by a green guy with a wrinkly chin.

Yet the Secret Warriors seemed destined for more than that. They seemed, like any group of heroes debuting in an Event comic, destined for a spin-off series.

I imagine the conversations around that topic went something like this:

Bendis: …and then, after Norman Osborn kills the Skrull Queen and becomes king of the Marvel Universe because everyone trusts him all of a sudden…

Marvel Editorial: Norman Osborn? He's barely in "Secret Invasion." How about Hawkeye, instead? Hawkeye's back, right? Everyone loves Hawkeye!

Bendis: Let's save that for "Secret Invasion II." For now, let's go with Osborn. It will be way more hilarious.

Marvel Editorial: We were just teasing. You know that we always let you do whatever you want. You big silly!

Bendis: And the Secret Warriors will become the stars of their own comic, and it will be like "Mr. Belvedere" meets "21 Jump Street" but with super-powers. Nick Fury will be the cranky old man of the house, dispensing wisdom on his young wards, while the kids go off and fight A.I.M. agents. A.I.M. agents who sell MGH-laden crank to unsuspecting high school students.

Marvel Editorial: That's the best idea ever. I don't think anyone could come up with a better idea, even if they spent hours thinking about it.

Bendis: I won't have time to write it, though.

Marvel Editorial: Oh no! Do we even have any other writers?

Bendis: Don't worry. It basically writes itself, honestly. So just put my name on the cover, and get some no-name to come in and put the words in the characters' mouths and tell the artist what to draw. It will be great. I wish I could work on it for you, but I've been writing these imaginary conversations between the early Avengers and myself, and that will probably be my magnum opus, so, you know, get off my back.

And, thus, "Secret Warriors" co-written by Jonathan Hickman and Brian Michael Bendis was born.

Okay, so it may not have happened exactly like that, but from all (actual) accounts, Bendis didn't have a whole lot to do with the actual "Secret Warriors" comic beyond the creation of the characters as they appeared in "Mighty Avengers." Once Hickman came on board, the series became his, regardless of Bendis's name on the cover of the first arc.

Under Hickman's control, "Secret Warriors" became less about the team of young heroes and more about Nick Fury and the wheels within the wheels within the wheels. After all, this is a series that begins with an issue featuring diagrams and flow charts. It begins with an issue that shows everything is not what it has seemed, with the revelation that Nick Fury -- and all of S.H.I.E.L.D. -- has been working for Hydra all along.

Or so it seemed at the time.

NEXT WEEK: Jonathan Hickman's Nick Fury, playing the long game, whether it matters or not.

In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" and editor of "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen regularly at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.

Follow Tim on Twitter: TimCallahan

TAGS:  when words collide, nick fury, jonathan hickman, brian michael bendis, secret warriors, secret invasion

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