The greatest secret agents in comic book history

Super spies

Being a superhero? Yeah, its okay for an amateur. But a superspy? Now youre talking! Meet the greatest superspies from the world of comics, some with powers, others not, but all working for this government or that, each with a ruthless streak and a lot of sneak, and every one of them armed to the teeth and ready to do what it takes for President, Queen and country. Here are 30 two-faced, hard-edged comic book heroes who take their adventuring very seriously...

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10.) Winter Soldier

Time was when we joked about comic book death, saying only Bucky, Jason Todd and Uncle Ben stayed down. But then the first two were brought back, with Bucky Barnes turning out to have been a Soviet super-agent all along. Called Winter Soldier, his reappearance was central to a vast spy story that ran through Caps comic in the mid-noughties; the rehabilitated Bucky now works as an intriguing, dark superhero.

9.) Oracle

How much real spying is actually all about bag drops, secret codes, even sitting around in cars watching doorways let alone slipping into an enemy base wearing a sleek black one-piece and a ton of pouches? No, its all Edward Snowden, Wikileaks and the NSA these days, and so a girl sitting in the dark with a bunch of computer screens is as potent an image as any, especially if shes the wheelchair-bound ex-Batgirl, Barbara Gordon. Shes more recently been given herlegs and Bat-cape back, and become infinitely less interesting as a result.

8.) Captain Francis Blake

One half of Blake And Mortimer, Captain Francis Percy Blake is a dashing, trenchcoat-favouring, ex-RAF MI5 officer, in constant conflict with the evil Colonel Olrik and aided by his civilian scientist buddy, the Scottish, red-haired Philip Mortimer. The famous first story The Secret OfThe Swordfish told of the rise of a dastardly Eastern power calledThe Yellow Empire, and the battle to create a super-plane to counter it. Blake is a master of disguise, even fooling his partner on occasion, and one of the few spies on this list to make this classic spy trick an important part of their modus operandi.

7.) Abbey Chase

Hot chicks and secret agents two great tastes that taste great together have rarely been conflated with such bare-faced glee as they are in Danger Girl, asort of Charlies Angels-meet-Bond-girl pastiche with skimpier outfits and a bigger budget, that became a hit for Wildstorm in 2001, and has bounced and jiggled its way through a dozen or so miniseries and a number of one-shots in the years since. Thebrain-chicks of writer AndyHartnell and artist J ScottCampbell, the girls work fora freelance all-female spy network, led by someone who may be a retired James Bond, and boasting Sydney Savage (vivacious Aussie) and main girl Abbey Chase (an ex-Tomb Raider) as keyoperatives.

6.) Lord Peter Flint

The huge British weekly comic book hit of the mid-70s, Warlord, began a combat story revival and early issues revolved around the adventures of Lord Peter Flint (Codename: Warlord), an aristocratic WW2 secret agent with a nice line in white suits, clearly modelled on Roger Moores Bond. His cover is that hes a foppish conscientious objector, giving him something of a Scarlet Pimpernel vibe, too. His boss was the Kingpin and, post-war, hed teach his ward to shoot, drive, fight, et al. The lad would grow up to become another secret agent, this one a very 70s moustache-sporting man-about-town codenamed Fireball in the short-lived Bullet comic.

5.) Mach 1

2000 AD, like Action Comic before it, gleefully raided every popular movie and TV archetype of the time, then added its own dark, violent twists, and so it was with MACH 1 a British take on The Six Million Dollar Man, with agent John Probe (yeah, right) given super-speed, strength and agility by the magic of acupuncture (MACH stands for Man Activate by Compu-Puncture Hyperpower). Arriving with 2000 ADs first issue, in 1977, he shared his brain with a tactical computer he talked to, much like Marvels Deathlok of a couple of years earlier. While Steve Austins TV adventures became increasingly light and family-friendly, MACH 1 got ever darker, not least with the arrival of a broken, Frankensteins monster-like predecessor, the insane MACH Zero.

4.) Modesty Blaise

We were unkind to 007, knocking him off this list because comic strips dont count. Well, welcome to our hypocrisy: Modesty Blaise charts much higher, despite being a daily newspaper strip character (also, novels, comic books and a little-loved film too). How come? Well, perhaps because 007s newspaper strips, no matter how good, are a minor add-on, whereas theyre core to Modesty Blaise. Or maybe because shes been so very influential on the wider comic book world, her origin stolen for Marvels Storm, her look and methods by half the female agents on this list. An orphan who rose to head a criminal organisation, then retired to the London highlife, she and tough East End sidekick Willie Garvin keep boredom at bay by accepting freelance missions from the British Secret Service. Supervillains, beware! Modestys strip ran in the London Evening Standard and across the world from 1963 until 2001, and most have been collected in relentlessly excellent Titan Books albums.

3.) Shang-chi

After talking about all his buddies, we finally get to the star. The only MI6 operative to ever go into action wearing only red silk pyjamas (even TVs Jason King wouldnt have risked it), Shang-Chi was the extraordinary martial arts hero of Master Of Kung Fu, Marvels most consistently excellent comic of the 70s, and possibly the best spy story ever put out by a major American comic book company.

Written largely by Doug Moench, with art from a number of inventive, detail-orientated star pencillers notably Paul Gulacy and the excellent, tragic Gene Day it told of a small band of agents in hot pursuit of our heros father, the evil Chinese criminal mastermind Fu Manchu. Shang-Chi was an incredible fighter but a peaceful soul at heart, and its this conflict plus the machinations of a vast supporting cast that drove the book. Packed with heart, intelligence, crazy page layouts and the most dramatic fights, it was a series like no other rights issues concerning Fu Manchu make reprints impossible, sadly.

2.) Black Widow

Unlike many superheroes whove had spy careers pressed upon them, Natasha/Natalia Romanoff/Romanova somewhere late in the day, Marvel learned how Russian names really work actually started out as one. Initially a villainous Russian agent in Stan Lees Iron Man, and then a superheroine who never quite shed her espionage background, she bounced between superhero antics and undercover missions for SHIELD, Secret Avengers and others. Now one of Marvels premier heroines thanks in no smallpart to Scarlet Johannsons turn in Iron Man 2, The Avengers,et al its to be hoped that her latest ongoing series has,at last, staying power. First seen in Tales Of Suspense #52 (April 1964), Natasha really came into focus after she defected to the US, and especially with the redesigned John Romita version of her costume, first seen in Amazing Spider-Man #86. Lightly enhanced by the Soviets in Captain America-like fashion, shes fought off her late 90s replacement a blonde second generation Black Widow to reign as comics top female agent.

1.) Nick Fury

There could only be one, and of course its this guy: the blue-collar war hero turned elegant superspy, the gritty cold warrior-cum-international power broker, the only comic book character who could be played by both David Hasselhoff and Samuel L Jackson with similar conviction (though, of course, we all know a young Clint Eastwood circa The Eiger Sanction would be heavens casting choice).

Weve banged on enough about the joys of classic Jim Steranko Fury elsewhere in this issue, but the genius of Nick Fury is that he works in so many places and so many ways: as the gruff, unflappable spymaster in Elektra: Assassin; as the master manipulator in The Ultimates; as Queen Elizabeths intelligence chief in 1602; as the dashing romantic lead; as Basil Exposition. Perhaps the most under-rated version of late has been the Marvel MAX take, a more realistic character detailed by Garth Ennis and assorted artists in Fury MAX, assorted Punisher stories, and especially the brilliant miniseries Fury: My War Gone By, one of the most underrated comics of recent years. For real-life Cold War spying from the Bay of Pigs to Nicaragua and beyond its hard to beat, and as a sort-of send-off to classic Fury (for now, at least, sidelined to make space for the Marcus Johnson version) its stunning.