HYDRA at its most lethal
This issue is a landmark among early HYDRA storylines with the introduction of a new supreme leader and Hydra island . Their master plan, based on germ warfare, is a Cold War classic and still resonates with some real fears. All with some spectacular artwork by Steranko. But let us take a closer look at the issue.
Events follow directly from the previous issues. Laura Brown, surviving daughter of the previous Imperial Hydra, has defected from the organization. HYDRA targets this "traitor" for assassination, with Fury in charge of keeping her safe. In the previous issue, HYDRA agents infiltrated the Helicarrier. Their plot resulted in severe damages to the structure while Laura was left in need of immediate medical attention. Fury was blamed for the breach in security and confined to his quarters by Presidential order.
#156 begins with the Dyna-Soar, the most advanced aerial vehicle available to SHIELD, entrusted to Agent Bronson. Along with the mission to transport the unconscious Laura to a medical facility. The twist being that "Bronson" is the identity used by another HYDRA infiltrator, the Supreme Hydra himself!
This development would arguably be enough to provide plenty of suspense for the reader. Laura is the main love interest to Fury at this point and a pretty sympathetic character. Whose life is now in danger. But then a few major twists add to the reader's interest.
The Dyna-Soar has barely left when the private quarters of Fury are completely destroyed. The result of an incendiary bomb going off. Only "a handful of black ashes" stand in place of its contents. The death of Nick Fury is proclaimed by Dum-Dum Dugan. This scenario actually sounds pretty realistic since this particular Marvel character is not superhuman.
The scene shifts to the Dyna-Shore arriving at Hydra island. The headquarters of HYDRA are finally revealed as an extensive metallic structure, full of architectural innovations. The Supreme Hydra exits the vehicle and reveals that he had played another trick on SHIED. And on the perceptions of the reader. Laura is not actually injured. She has been drugged and only need an antidote to escape. You got to love this Hydra's ability to deceive and manipulate the rival organization for his benefit.
From here the plot diverges for a while to two separate subplots.
Subplot 1: The Supreme Hydra proudly announces to his agents that Fury is dead and SHIELD leaderless. Then HYDRA starts broadcasting a message all over the planet. Mentioning first that SHIELD has failed in its mission. Then that HYDRA will now retaliate "upon the entire world". Laura Brown will be placed on trial for treason but also serve as a "representative of all mankind". When she is sentenced, her fate is to be shared by the entire planet.\
How? By using the Helicarrier to unleash "billion of germs into the Earth's atmoshphere". Germs that will spread a plague all over the Earth. The would-he heroes are warned not to interfere. Any attempt at deactivation will only prematurely activate the weapon. The only alternative is for nations to surrender to HYDRA in hope of being spared. Cameos reveal the reactions of various heroes, stunned, rendered speechless, etc. Except the Hulk who looks pissed. But I guess that is normal for him.
Pretty chilling stuff as an entire planet is condemned "to doom or to slavery". I have to say this is easily stands out among the best HYDRA plots. Cold efficiency, complete ruthlessness and burning ambition definitely suit Marvel's best terrorists and subversive agents. My only nit-pick is this: how do you immunize any particular area of the planet if the weapon is transferred in the air?
Subplot 2: Nick Fury had suspected something was off with "Bronson" and infiltrated the Dyna-Soar prior to the explosion. He is loose on Hydra island, trying to find out what is going on. In the most entertaining scenes of the issue, Nick uses his unarmed combat skills to take down various guards.
With a hilarious assessment of the fighting skills of the average HYDRA agent: "You jokers musta took your boxin' lessons from Mickey Mouse!" Nick manages to spy on the Supreme HYDRA just as the mysterious leader removes his mask. He is too preoccupied to notice other guards approaching him. He is easily captured. At this point we know that the identity of the leader is a shocker.
The final splash page has Fury waking to find himself in the custody of the Supreme Hydra. An old enemy who reminds Fury that they haven't seen each other since 1943: Baron Wolfgang von Strucker. The issue ends with this pretty impressive cliffhanger.
Strucker was naturally not a new character. He was a main antagonist of Fury in "Sgt. Fury and the Howling Commandos", a series which took place back in World War II. But Steranko finds a way to bring him to the then-modern Marvel Universe, involve him in the HYDRA-SHIELD saga and upgrade him to a major villain. It really works here and it worked in the long-run. Strucker has went on to hundreds of appearances. His predecessor Arnold Brown remains mostly forgotten.
The Dr. Strange story of the issue also has gorgeous art, provided by Marie Severin. Along with some pretty impressive scenes. Unfortunately the whole story leads to a climactic battle ... which never really takes place. Frustrating, isn't it? So what happens?
Umar has recently gained control of the Dark Dimension along with the full powers of Dormammu. She is bringing the battle against Dr. Strange to Earth. So we find, Umar walking the streets of New York City. She banishes common New Yorkers to unknown locations, turns heavily-populated areas to abandoned places and seems to destroy the Sanctum Sanctorum. With loyal Wong still inside. Then starts interfering with the electricity and telecommunications systems on a global scale. While challenging the Ancient One to a duel.
These are easily the most impressive scenes of the issue and a pretty good way to establish Umar as a global threat. I was impressed and left expecting more.
Meanwhile, the Ancient One prepares to face her. While instructing Strange to release Zom, some kind of powerful demon only defeated by a past alliance of cosmic beings. There quite a few hints that this cure could be more lethal than the disease.
So the final pages have Umar and the Ancient One in Stonehedge, fighting out. When Strange arrives with the released Zom. I would expect a cliffhanger ending and the set-up for a great battle for the next issue. Instead Umar pretty much runs away. Leaving Zom searching for new opponents. What a let down.
Readers wouldn't even see Umar again until "Dr. Strange" vol. 1 #172 (September, 1968). which left her plot unresolved. A good issue brought down by its resolution.