1. As I prepared to write about the Marvel character Nick Fury, agent of SHIELD, I tried to recall the first comics story in which I encountered him: As that tale begins, he lies in an open, casketlike container, carried (it seems) by evil beekeepers who are themselves trapped in what fashionistas might call a rut of a color story. In my inaccurate recollection the Fury-bearers were the green-cowled goons of Hydra, an organization that spent its time trying to destroy SHIELD in general and ol’ Nick in particular. Once I managed to track down the image, though, I saw Fury on the shoulders of AIM agents, who wore infundibuliform helmets with mesh faceplates. Their anonymous interchangeability made them antlike—ridiculous—and their pale yellow uniforms made them the antithesis of stealth. Nonetheless, they seem to be trying to sneak away with a sleeping Nick Fury. Silly villains. Even though Fury is minus one eye and has the other closed, he sees all.
2. I discovered the notion of race in my parents’ kitchen. After having had a dream about the freckle-faced, strawberry-blond boy depicted on a calendar in the kitchen, I described my “experience” to my mother: I had been that boy. Years would pass before I could distinguish dreams from memories. At the time, though, my mother informed me (in more blunt terms) that, No, your memory is false because you would have to be a white child for it to be true, and you are a black child. Only now, decades after the episode, do I pause to marvel at the exchange for the confusion it did not breed: In her youth, my mother resembled the actress Susan Sarandon. Her best friend, Eva Drew, looked like Ava Gardner. And yet they were both black women—Creole, in the wording of some. I suppose my lack of confusion stemmed mainly from being surrounded by people who loved me and were related to me, and whose complexions were at every stop along what Redd Foxx so elegantly termed the chocolate rainbow. (Click here for the 1977 interview.) It helped that I came of age in Mobile, Alabama, as the phrase “Black is beautiful” came into vogue.
Despite the racial consciousness blossoming around me, it took me years to notice how few people who looked like me or my kin ever showed up in the comic books that, back then, I read almost nonstop. It took not long at all, though, for me to decide that I wanted to be Colonel Nick Fury when I grew up. Hey, he wore an eye patch, the coolest fashion accoutrement ever.
3. In recent years, most people know about Nick Fury through Samuel Jackson’s portrayal of the character in such Marvel Studios films as Iron Man 2 and Captain America: The First Avenger. But I grew up with a different Fury, one whose complexion was counterfeited via the printing technology of the 1960s and ’70s with a pattern of tiny red dots. Considered in conjunction with his straight hair, old-school Nick was pretty clearly intended to be a white guy (unless he was Creole …).
Marvel always leaned progressive in the diversity of its characters, though, so when the comics division decided to retell some of its early superhero stories in a twenty-first-century setting less naïve than the original one, a major difference was a black Nick Fury. The character underwent a redesign after his early appearances in the so-called Ultimate line; by the time he was organizer-handler of a team known in its 1960s incarnation as the Avengers, illustrator Bryan Hitch was clearly basing him on actor Samuel Jackson. According to an interview in August of 2007, Jackson’s likeness was incorporated without the actor’s knowledge. Thereafter he approached Marvel as its cinematic program got going. You already know where that encounter led.
4. In his Paris Review interview, author William Gibson calls “all history [speculative]—endlessly subject to revision.” Superhero comics have regarded their own internal history that way for more than half a century. Having to tell fresh (or freshlike) stories about the same handful of interrelated characters over the course of multiple decades is one reason dead superheroes—and, more regularly, their foes—won’t stay dead. (The Green Goblin was killed in the Spider-Man comic every other month, it seemed. A more recent example is the death and rebirth of Captain America.) A bunch of other reasons behind these endless stories wriggle together in a can I’ll label corporate intellectual property—but let’s leave that topic undisturbed on the shelf, for now.
Marvel does something a little more radical in its recently compiled comics series SHIELD: Architects of Forever. Nick Fury is nowhere to be seen in these pages, though part of the story occurs during the colonel’s fictitious lifetime. Instead, writer Jonathan Hickman and illustrator Dustin Weaver focus on the origins of SHIELD … in ancient Egypt … under the later leadership of Isaac Newton and Galileo … and, later still, during its struggles against someone whose real-life rival was Thomas Edison. I don’t wish to seem dismissive of Hickman and Weaver’s efforts, but this book constitutes chapter one of a story that promises to stretch over what might be years to come. I do, however, wish to praise Weaver’s loving depiction of machinery and to express my hope that a similar sentiment toward Hickman’s characters manifests in the writing as the tale unfolds further.
5. Novelist Milton Davis recently shared with me his frustration over the other shoe that dropped, he felt, as multiculturalism ramified through popular literature. To paraphrase his argument, he said that diversity brought with it a grittiness among characters who once would have been portrayed as unalloyed heroes. A moral grayness seemed to dominate recent popular forms, even as the faces of onetime heroes took on a greater breadth of tones.
Davis could easily have been sketching old-school Nick (a veteran of WWII, a friend to superheroes, a spy combating enemies whose origins reach back to Nazism) alongside Ultimate Fury (a spymaster who conscripts unwilling vigilantes into SHIELD’s black ops unit, a serial philanderer, a WWII soldier who sidesteps court martial for looting by “volunteering” as an experimental test subject). Can the injection of a bleaker verism be linked causally to multiculturalism like the kind Marvel practices, though? Perhaps. Part of the naiveté that consumers of pop culture outgrew in the late twentieth century (thanks in large part to Southern recalcitrance in the face of civil rights protesters) was the notion of whiteness being equivalent to moral purity. Watergate, the Tuskegee experiments, assorted postwar okey-doke deals with Nazi scientists, the Vietnam War, and too many other appalling episodes in U.S. history alone hobbled notions of nationalist right(eous)ness.
All that baggage noted, we’ve had both Fury’s recently involved in the execution of a foe (old-school Nick shot a longtime Hydra chief in the head, whereas Ultimate Fury oversaw the same thing done to the Red Skull). We’ll be waiting awhile, I suspect, before we see Old School portrayed as a coup-counting horn dog, though.
6. My mother was known, during her years in Jim Crow-era Washington, D.C., to go wherever she liked, despite the racial bans. Her method of what I like to think of as piercing or needling—but which others might consider passing—was to curse out in French any doorman who tried to bar her. The result, in an embassy town, was that she usually entered. Little wonder, then, that ethnic and racial indeterminacy are bound in my mind to ideas of spies and spying.
A comic that addresses just such an intertwining in brilliant fashion is Mat Johnson and Warren Pleece’s Incognegro, inspired by onetime NAACP president Walter White. The real White posed as Caucasian to investigate lynchings. The character Johnson and Pleece create photographs lynch mobs in situ and publishes the criminals’ pictures in the black press.
My advice? Let the new SHIELD book finish baking and go read Incognegro today.
Alabama escapee Ed Hall writes journalism, poetry, and fiction. His work has appeared in Newsweek, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Code Z: Black Visual Culture Now, and the Dictionary of Literary Biography.