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How Contessa Originally Tested Marvel’s Limits

The Contessa, Valentina Allegra de la Fontaine, made a big splash when she showed up on The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, but her initial Marvel Comics appearances were also quite a sensation, to the point that Marvel actually censored a number of her early appearances for being too suggestive!

Knowledge Waits is a feature where I just share some bit of comic book history that interests me.

JIM STERANKO TOOK NICK FURY CLOSER TO JAMES BOND

As is often the case for film franchises, while the James Bond films were a success from the start with 1962’s Dr. No, it was the sequels that really started to build the momentum of the property and turn James Bond into a sensation. 1963’s From Russia With Love was released in the United States in early Summer 1964 and was a much bigger hit, and Goldfinger was even more highly anticipated with a Christmas week opening later that year in the States. Bond’s fame led to NBC going straight to Bonds’ creator, Ian Fleming, with the help of their own Bond riff, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (originally, since Fleming came up with the main character, Napoleon Solo, it was going to be called Ian Fleming’s Solo, but since there was a character named Solo in Goldfinger, the movie studio threatened NBC and the network backed down and changed the name to The Man From U.N.C.L.E.)Hot off of the spy craze, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was a total sensation.

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Stan Lee later recalled to TwoMorrows’ Alter Ego #104, “[T]here was a very popular television show called The Man from U.N.C.L.E., sort of a James Bond type of thing. And I thought, just for fun, I’m going to bring Sgt. Fury back again. But it’s now years later and I’m going to make him a colonel, and I’m going to make him the head of an outfit like U.N.C.L.E., a secret military outfit. So I had to think of a name, and I love names, so I came up with the name S.H.I.E.L.D. … [A]nd I think this was Jack’s idea, and it was a wonderful idea — they were headquartered in a floating helicarrier, which was like a super-dirigible….”

The changeover occurred in Strange Tales #135…

While this new approach to Nick Fury was a big hit with readers, it’s interesting to note that Kirby and Lee really only adapted the spy element (and the gadgets) of Bond and U.N.C.L.E. One of the prominent aspects of both series, though, were the love interests for their heroes. Bond’s love interests had already gained the term “Bond girls,” like Ursella Andress as Honey Ryder in Dr. No.

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It wasn’t until Jim Steranko had taken over writing and art duties on the series that he introduced his own version of the “Bond Girl” with La Contessa Valentina Allegra de la Fontaine.

Nick Fury was literally head over heels for the Contessa, but Steranko would soon push the boundaries of what the Comics Code would allow him to do in the series.

CONTESSA’S BODY WAS TOO MUCH FOR MARVEL

The longer Steranko was on the series, the more he tried to play up the sex appeal for the Contessa. This led to an amusing piece of censorship in Strange Tales #168. Here is the Contessa in the issue:

However, here is how Steranko originally drew her…

As he later noted, “There was a page-tall figure of Val seen from the back, and I put a lot of shine on the outfit, particularly on her buttocks. I defined the form on satin material — and they eliminated the shine. Blacked it all in because it was too hot!”

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A similar change occurred in Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. #2, where Fury and the Contessa are alone at Fury’s apartment and the Comics Code specifically requested that Marvel remove the lines on the Contessa that suggested her cleavage. The end result was an absurd look for the character…

Amusingly, less notable characters got away with keeping their cleavage lines, like this young woman in a crowd in Strange Tales #168 (the same issue where the Contessa got blacked out)…

THE MOST FAMOUS HOLSTERED GUN IN MARVEL HISTORY

Probably the most famous case of Marvel editing scenes involving the Contessa was later in that same sequence in Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. #2.

Here is the page as it appeared in the 1968 comic book…

In the middle of the bottom panels, there is a picture of a phone. Steranko originally drew a phone off the hook…

but Marvel had another artist literally draw the phone ON the hook, because a phone off the hook was too suggestive.

As Steranko recalled, “One panel also showed a telephone that was off the hook. They considered it suggestive, and put it back on. Now, every time I pass a phone that’s off the hook, I get horny!”

In the last panel on the page, here is what Steranko originally drew – the Contessa and Fury embracing while clothed:

And here’s the sequence of panels aligned with the original panels…

Instead, though, Marvel had someone on the production staff take Fury’s gun from earlier in the page and copy it and put it into the last panel.

Isn’t that fascinating? Especially because, as Steranko notes, “They reproduced Fury’s holster slung over a chair, which was much more suggestive: a big gun fitting very tightly in a holster, which was a sexual metaphor much more potent than my figures.”

Eventually, Steranko just decided that all of this micro-managing wasn’t worth the annoyance and just left Marvel for good, later noting that if that was what doing comic books was going to be like, then he just wouldn’t do comic books anymore and, for the most part, he really hasn’t been a regular comic book artist since.

So while the Contessa certainly seems like she’s having an impact on the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it’s unlikely she’s ever going to have as much of an impact as the Contessa had on the Marvel comic book universe.

If anyone has an idea for an interesting piece of comic book history, drop me a line at brianc@cbr.com!

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