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Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Panel Vision - History of SHIELD

Edited by Robert Beach

Let’s talk about S.H.I.E.L.D. Given that you and I are conversing on the Internet, I’m taking it as a bit of a given that you like or at least know of the Marvel cinematic universe. In less than a decade, the Marvel shared universe of films, TV shows, and one-shots have come to dominate the cultural landscape and occupies the same space in the pop cultural psyche that was once reserved for the likes of Star Wars or Lord of the Rings. There are a lot of reasons for that success, but chief among them is how the MCU has used continuity to cross pollinate its various properties, tying the distaff films and show together into a rich tapestry of genres and stylistic affects. 

This has allowed the individual Marvel endeavors to explore their own unique focuses like Captain America’s heavy political metaphors, Guardians of the Galaxy’s emphasis on universe building, or the villain-centric storytelling of Jessica Jones & Daredevil. And at the core of this continuity-driven exploration is S.H.I.E.L.D., the in-universe super spy agency tasked with bridging the gap between the government and the superheroes.  S.H.I.E.L.D.’s had a pretty crazy history in the MCU over the course of the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. TV show, yet an even stranger history in the comic books. And today, we showcase that history.

The story of S.H.I.E.L.D. is inexorably tied to its director Nick Fury, though not exactly in the same way as you might think. Nick Fury in the comics originally sprung up in the early ‘60s as part of Marvel’s growing market share in the comic world. At the time, superhero books were still a bit of a novelty as evidenced by how many of Marvel’s early hits weren’t really superhero comics. Stuff like Hulk and Fantastic Four were B-movie sci-fi, and Thor was much more strange adventure than superhero. 

Given this, Marvel was still testing the waters of non-superhero content, war stories were getting to be big business. DC had been publishing war comics since 1952, though it wasn’t till the late ‘50s that blockbuster war heroes started to emerge from the series. And the king of said characters was Sergeant Rock, a tuff, grizzled war hero with a heart of gold. Desperate to get that war book money, Marvel produced Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos, an action war comic starring the cigar-chomping, tough-as-nails Nick Fury. 

Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos did well enough for Marvel, but they never really managed to compete with DC on the war comics front the way they had initially hoped. So Marvel elected to try and beat DC at their own game by jumping into a different genre that haven't been explored in the comic landscape yet: Spy Action. In 1965, one year after Goldfinger established the Golden Age of Bond films, Marvel published the first adventure of Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., in the pages of Strange Tales #135. 

Strange Tales was being used as an idea test kitchen for stuff Marvel wasn’t sure about yet like Dr. Strange as well as more popular features like a Thing/Human Torch team-up series.  However, Nick Fury and Dr. Strange proved so incredibly popular, they came to dominate the comic, existing as the sole features from #135 up to the book’s cancellation at #168. The conclusion of Strange Tales all followed a solo series entitled Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD under the stewardship of comics’ legend Jim Steranko. 

At the time, S.H.I.E.L.D. and Nick Fury were framed very much as Cold War super spies. It emphasized the goofy, experimental fun that punctuated Golden Age Bond films. This was the era of flying cars, weird gadgets, big evil organizations like Zodiac, A.I.M., and Hydra as well as a close connection to the Captain America series.  Actually, Steranko specifically cited the popular television show The Man from U.N.C.L.E. as his inspiration for S.H.I.E.L.D., which is pretty impressive given the show had already inspired the Adam West Batman show in 1966. 

The major unique feature of Marvel’s S.H.I.E.L.D. stories that set them apart from DC’s non-superhero fair was S.H.I.E.L.D. took place in the same world as the Marvel superheroes. That was always part of Marvel’s grand selling point: their universe was all about characters meeting, cameoing, or interacting in some way.  The decision to extend this to even their non-superhero stories very much shaped how Marvel would approach future trends like the ‘70s boom of fantasy and horror books. 

After the ‘60s, S.H.I.E.L.D. faded out of the public view in a big way. They were still around certainly, but there was just less demand for the gadgets and goofiness of ‘60s spy fiction at that point. In fact, S.H.I.E.L.D. would ultimately end up a dormant part of the Marvel mythos till 2004, not necessarily disliked but in no way integral to following the Marvel continuity or importance.  2004/05 marked the take over of Brian Michael Bendis as architect of the Marvel universe after cutting his teeth on major hits like Alias and helping to craft Marvel’s wildly popular Ultimate Comics line. 

Bendis had a plan for the Marvel U, and at the heart of the plan was S.H.I.E.L.D. The first pin was pulled in that theory with 2004’s event mini-series Secret War. Secret War was the story of how Nick Fury and a collection of superheroes launched a black ops mission to take out the current dictator of Latveria. The mission was a failure and eventually ended up in a super villain attack on New York and Nick Fury being removed as the head of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Normally, when a character so ingrained in a position as Nick Fury is removed from his status quo, there’s the assumption he’ll be back in a week. This was a very different case. It turns out Nick Fury was removed from S.H.I.E.L.D. to make room for 2005’s big, game changer event comic; an event that would shape the course of Marvel for nearly a decade and have repercussions to this day: Civil War. A big part of Civil War was the newly appointed head of S.H.I.E.L.D. Maria Hill, Colby Smolders in the movies, was vehemently anti-superhero and willing to start running anti-superhero “cape killer” squads against Captain America and the other anti-registration superheroes. 

This is really where S.H.I.E.L.D. starts to matter to the overall Marvel universe, going through a cavalcade of changes in a shockingly short amount of time. During the events of Civil War, S.H.I.E.L.D. acts as a fascist police force, going after heroes like Human Torch, Captain America, and Daredevil with ruthless efficiency. Thankfully, it didn’t last.

After Civil War ended, Marvel looked to establish a new status quo by branding their books under the title of The Initiative, named after Tony Stark’s push to revolutionize superhero/government relations and defense. At the crux of The Initiative was one major title: Iron Man, Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. That’s right, Tony Stark was once put in charge of S.H.I.E.L.D. He even built a brand new red and gold painted helicarrier to tool around in, though it was eventually blown up by the Red Hulk (it was a weird time.) 

Tony’s tenure as the leader of S.H.I.E.L.D. was a weird time and not terribly distinguished. His team of registration heroes, The Mighty Avengers, never really found their feet as a team comic, and the Hulk books really came down like a ton of bricks on the whole thing. A big problem was that a lot of fans were still mad over how evil Tony was in Civil War, so we felt desperate to see him brought down a peg. As a result, when Marvel brought back the Hulk in World War Hulk, pretty much everyone was rooting for Tony to get smashed. The only great thing to come out of that era was the Iron Man, Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. book itself that recast the Mandarin as a creepy, all-powerful cybernetics villain in one of the best Mandarin stories ever penned. 

However, even that couldn’t save the concept from fan dislike, so Tony’s time in the director’s chair proved decidedly short.  Following the 2008 event comic Secret Invasion, Tony was considered compromised and removed from his position, actually needing to go on the run, as the world believed he was a Skrull. In his place, the American people demanded that Norman Osborn, who was running the Marvel version of the Suicide Squad at the time, be made head of S.H.I.E.L.D. Osborn’s takeover was a weird concept, especially given how much Marvel had started using S.H.I.E.L.D. as a way to try and set the tone of the universe while also reflecting the popular consensus about government at the time.  

Osborn was obviously still evil and chose to discontinue the S.H.I.E.L.D. name and start a new organization called H.A.M.M.E.R. in its place. Additionally, Osborn put together his own team of Avengers called the Dark Avengers, a team made up of villains posing as heroes and Osborn in the Iron Patriot armor that popped up in Iron Man 3. The whole thing ended up another branding exercise like The Initiative. Only, this time it was entitled Dark Reign and revolved around the villains posing as heroes. 

Dark Reign proved even shorter lived than Iron Man and the Initiative as the whole thing came collapsing down in 2010 with the event comic Siege, in which Osborn’s Dark Avengers and H.A.M.M.E.R. laid siege to Asgard. A big raucous smack down ensued in which Osborn was revealed as a crazy super villain on national TV, and the original Marvel trinity of Thor, Captain America, and Iron Man reformed.  

This kicked off another brief lived branding exercise entitled Heroic Age, which Marvel was essentially using to build up the Avengers brand in preparation for the upcoming film. This also saw Captain America retire from his title and allow Bucky to take up the mantel while Steve Rogers was appointed new head of S.H.I.E.L.D. Of the many shades of S.H.I.E.L.D., Cap’s tenure in the heroic age is easily the shortest and least interesting. 

The entire Heroic Age branding initiative fell to pieces almost immediately as attention shifted from whatever was planned to simply providing a test kitchen/extend universe framework for the growing film franchises. 

Which brings us up to the modern day. Though not currently run by Nick Fury, S.H.I.E.L.D. in the comics now isn’t too terribly far removed from its original ‘60s conception or its framing in the first run of pre-Winter Soldier Marvel movies. It’s a vast espionage agency tasked with liaising, aiding, and cleaning up after the various superheroes of the Marvel universe and tied to the control of the United Nations. Though currently led by Quake, most everything else falls into place with the films: Maria Hill provides deputy support, Agent Coulson leads the connection to the Avengers, and there’s even a black Nick Fury just like the movies. 

As for what the future holds for S.H.I.E.L.D. I’m honestly not sure. As I mentioned, S.H.I.E.L.D. has become a barometer for the Marvel universe tone overall, but that hasn’t really translated into a successful or even that interesting focus within the comics.  They’ve been relegated to supporting cast for the Avengers more than anything else, and I honestly don’t see that changing any time soon. 

A lot of that just has to do with what S.H.I.E.L.D. was originally imagined to be and the state of both espionage fiction and non-superhero comics today. However, given the success of recent books like Winter Soldier, Deathlok, or Black Widow and how well they managed to embody the espionage action aesthetic of stuff like Homeland, maybe there’s a revival waiting in the wings even now.  Then again, Stephen Spielberg and Tom Hanks made a spy movie together last year and nobody seemed to care. If those two can’t get people to care about espionage, maybe no one can.

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