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Saturday 17 May 2014

Fortean Agent of SHIELD

When I was talking about Fortean Comics a couple of weeks ago, I mentioned that a namesake of Fortean Times founder Bob Rickard appeared in an early issue of Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD. That wasn’t something I knew from direct experience, but it’s mentioned in the current issue of the magazine (FT 314). Since then, however, I’ve acquired my own copy of the comic in question – issue 12, dated May 1969.

Believe it or not, this was a genuine impulse buy. I suppose I could have tracked down a copy on eBay if I’d wanted to, but it never occurred to me. But last weekend while I was skimming through a comic dealer’s box of back issues (as I do every now and then) I saw that selfsame issue – in v.g. condition, for the very reasonable price of £4.75. So naturally I had to buy it.

There’s nothing particularly Fortean about the comic except for the “Robert Rickard” name. I’ve already explained how this came about – Bob was a friend of the two British comic creators who were responsible for this issue (see the credits on the splash page above). The writer was Steve Parkhouse, who as far as I know did very little other work for U.S. Marvel comics besides this issue. On the other hand the artist, Barry Windsor-Smith, rapidly rose to “big name” status, thanks to his pioneering work on Marvel’s version of Conan the Barbarian the following year.

I originally assumed the Rickard character would just be a minor cameo, but in fact he’s the main villain of the story. When he first appears, he’s posing as an investigator from another government department who has been sent to evaluate SHIELD’s effectiveness. He quickly focuses on Nick Fury as a “weak link” in the organization, aided by some planted evidence which appears to show Fury consorting with enemy agents. He manages to turn the rest of SHIELD against Fury – but by this time the reader knows that Rickard is really an agent of Hydra.

The villain is referred to simply by his surname “Rickard” (or his Hydra codename, “Agent U”) until the very last panel on the last page (see photo below), when his first name is revealed to be “Robert”. Throughout the story he is depicted wearing a green suit and matching green fedora, together with dark glasses... until his hat and glasses fall off on the last-but-one page. For some bizarre reason his hair turns out to be dyed blue!

As you can see from the pages reproduced below, Rickard dies at the hands of Nick Fury at the end of the story. That’s a pity, because otherwise “Bob Rickard” might have gone on to become a household name like the Red Skull, Doctor Doom and other recurring Marvel villains.

For the benefit of younger readers, it’s worth pointing out that the SHIELD of the 1960s was a rather different organization than the SHIELD of today. It originally stood for “Supreme Headquarters, International Espionage and Law-Enforcement Division” rather than “Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division”. In other words, the emphasis was proactive and outward-looking (international espionage) rather than reactive and inward-looking (homeland security). In British terms, that’s the difference between MI6 (the covert branch of the Foreign Office) and MI5 (the covert branch of the Home Office). Call me old-fashioned, but I’ll take the first over the second any day!

The emphasis on “international espionage” was almost certainly a homage to the then-popular Man from U.N.C.L.E. TV series (which was a favourite of mine – see Cult TV and Autoerotic Asphyxiation). In fact, now I come to think of it, that’s probably why I automatically gravitated towards SHIELD as soon as I started reading Marvel Comics at the end of the 1960s!


Kid said...

I think I've got a Marvel Western mag which has a story written by Steve Parkhouse and drawn by Barry Smith, but I've not seen much else written by Mr P for Marvel U.S. Interestingly, his wife, I believe, is ace lettering artist Annie Parkhouse (nee Halfacree) who letters for 2000 A.D.

B Smith said...

I suppose someone's already mentioned Doc Rickard from the Department of Fortean Studies in that Judge Anderson "Shamballa" story from 20 something years ago?

Andrew May said...

Kid - I had a look on Comicvine yesterday (and again just now), but the only other Silver Age Marvel credit I could find for Steve Parkhouse was the Ka-Zar story in Marvel Super-Heroes #19 (March 1969)... but I can believe a Western might have slipped through unnoticed.

B Smith - No, I didn't know that and it's a really interesting piece of information. The juxtaposition of "Rickard" with "Fortean" is an even more explicit homage than the SHIELD story! Looking on Comicvine again, I see the story was written by Alan Grant and originally ran in 2000AD in 1990 starting with Prog 700, and was subsequently reprinted in 2008 in "Judge Anderson: Psi-Division" volume 2. I will have to get hold of a copy! I'll also pass the info on to Fortean Times, since it's something they missed mentioning in their special comics issue.

Kid again - I notice that Annie Parkhouse is credited as letterer in the aforementioned Judge Anderson TPB!

Kid said...

That's exactly what must've happened, Andrew. The tale is called 'The Outcast!' (Or 'There he is! Here comes The Outcast!') and was published in Western Gunfighters #4 (Feb '71 issue.)

Andrew May said...

Gosh, that's an obscure one! It's on Comicvine but the credits are incomplete: