Jonathan Hickman, writer/artist
Dustin Weaver, artist
Marvel, April 2010
36 story pages
Supremely confident superhero comics-making from Jonathan Hickman here. In fact I’d say there hasn’t been a debut issue this sure of itself, this willing simply to throw its audience headlong into what the writer has cooked up, since the Nu-Marvel golden age of Morrison & Quitely’s New X-Men, Bendis & Maleev’s Daredevil, and Milligan & Allred’s X-Force. Who knows where it’ll all end up, who knows if it’ll hold up or make sense or not be really stupid or something. But within the context of these 34 pages of comics and two pages of Hickman designiness, I found it extraordinarily invigorating.
S.H.I.E.L.D. purports to tell the secret history of a Marvel Universe (I’m not comfortable using the definite article for reasons that will become apparent), in which a blend of fantistorical figures like the Pharaoh Imhotep and actual real-world Great Men like da Vinci and Galileo have banded together over the centuries in an ancient secret society called the Shield (I’m not comfortable using the acronym for reasons that are a little nebulous at this point). The Shield has quietly protect the world from assorted apocalyptic threats familiar to us from Marvel’s outer-space material, including Galactus, a Celestial, the Brood, and (I think) the Phoenix. You are perhaps at this point tuning out: Secret histories and secret societies and super-awesome science heroes who protect us both from threats and knowledge of those threats are obviously a pretty shopworn concept at this point, and the influence of Hickman’s mad-idea-mongering predecessors Grant Morrison and Warren Ellis is unmistakable.
But it’s not the size of the boat, it’s the motion of the ocean, and Hickman and artist Dustin Weaver keep things moving at breakneck speed. You get a grand total of one page to ease into the action, with main character Leonid slowly and silently walking toward the viewer, and then BOOM, he’s whisked off by a pair of suited agents in a sweet ’50s car, he’s revealing that his body is made of stars or something, he’s flown to Rome and shown a gigantic underground city–by page four. Most comics today might get that far by issue four. I’m not one to complain about decompression, or at least I didn’t used to be, but obviously the technique has gotten so common as to become predictable; most anyone who’s read enough superhero comics could write a new series’ first story arc in their sleep, knowing exactly where each beat would fall. With Kirkman and S.H.I.E.L.D., I’m kept dancing to a different beat, one where world-ending threats are introduced and thwarted in the space of two to three pages, only for a jump of centuries to bring us to the next one; where a character learns his great destiny and then a three year lacuna reveals him stuck in place, bored and staring at the ceiling; where villains are introduced for the very first time anywhere as if we have the same lengthy history with them that the characters do; where names of great import to Marvel fans are dropped in, precisely calibrated to do that whole “everything you thought you knew was wrong” thing; where Leonardo da Vinci flies into the sun, All-Star Superman-style. In my favorite panel, a council of elders just starts rattling off omgcrazy terminology like they’re reading the specials at the Cheesecake Factory: “The Greater Science.” “The Quiet Math.” “The Silent Truth.” “The Hidden Arts.” “The Secret Alchemy.” Rat-a-tat-tat!
I know he’s being singled out for a lot of praise, but I think Weaver’s the weak link here, to an extent. He’s doing great things with the designs of the Shield’s unique armor and architecture, in a fashion that reminds me of similarly impressive filigrees by the likes of Steve McNiven and Mike Choi. But his characters sit awkwardly among the splendor: Their scale is off at times, and but for a blink-and-you’ll-miss it caption and school bus it’s impossible to tell that this is a period piece and that Leonid’s in high school at the oldest. I’d love to see as much attention paid to the mundane aspects of establishing the story’s world as the mind-blowing ones. But this is sort of small beer. Call it supercompression, call it simply a return to the no-nonsense pacing of the Golden and Silver Age superhero origin stories, but S.H.I.E.L.D. comes across as a book that knows what it wants to do and can’t wait to show you. It’s a delightful feeling.