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S.H.I.E.L.D: Architects of Forever(Review/Retrospective)

April (and a little bit of May) are “Avengers month” at the m0vie blog. In anticipation of Joss Whedon’s superhero epic, we’ll have a variety of articles and reviews published looking at various aspects of “Earth’s Mightiest Heroes.” Today we’re looking at a miniseries exploring the history of S.H.I.E.L.D., the organisation which has played a big role in the Marvel cinematic universe.

Jonathan Hickman is something of a rising star at Marvel, with his acclaimed work on Secret Warriors, Fantastic Four and Ultimate Comics: Ultimates, along with character-centric miniseries like Ultimate Thor and Ultimate Hawkeye. Much like Jason Aaron, the writer has demonstrated a remarkable ability with both the smaller cult characters in the universe, as well as some of its bigger names – it has been argued that Hickman has been doing fascinating things with characters who had stumbled a bit of late in Marvel’s shared universe, like Nick Fury or the “first family” of the company, the Fantastic Four. Hickman has a wonderful talent to combine old established concepts with clever new ideas to produce an interesting result. S.H.I.E.L.D., documenting the history of Marvel’s premiere espionage organisation, demonstrates this quite well.

At least what I understood of it.

The SHIELD protects us...

Being honest, I generally find it quite trite to compare the work of one individual to another – except in the broadest of terms, I find that labelling creators like that tends to box them in, or to prevent the audience from trying to grapple with their work in their own terms. A comparison to another writer or artist creates all manner of expectations, which constrain and limit anything that writer or artist can produce. so, talking in the loosest possible sense, I will concede that Hickman reminds me a bit of Grant Morrison here. Which is, of course, great if you love Grant Morrison – but not if you don’t.

It’s not fair to let that statement stand on its own. I only make it as something of an introduction. There’s a weird non-linear structure to Hickman’s S.H.I.E.L.D., which unfolds (mostly) in 1953 – but also the distant past and the far future. Most of the story is set before the “golden age” of Marvel Comics, that time in the sixties when characters like Spider-Man or the Fantastic Four appeared. Of course, Spider-Man or the Fantastic Four only have about a decade of history at any given moment, relative to the moment the particular issue is published, but Hickman seems to be making a broader philosophical point.

Mankind spreads its wings...

For those in any way familiar with the Marvel Universe, either from their childhood or from the films, the concept of S.H.I.E.L.D. is fairly straight-forward. They serves simultaneously as a world police force, in black jumpsuits, sanctioned by various world powers – usually stepping it to add an espionage angle to any number of superhero plots, and also giving events something of a grander scope. It’s a fairly straight-forward narrative function – when the problem is too big for a person in spandex to deal with themselves, just add S.H.I.E.L.D.! All of a sudden, the stakes are raised, the hero has to deal with a new dynamic and the story gets a little more interesting. The organisation has served as the basis of occasional stories and series (like the well-loved Nick Fury series), but that’s about the height of its complexity.

So, it’s absolutely fascinating to see Hickman take a relatively simple concept and just expand on it so freely. Suddenly they don’t just deal in cool gadgets like floating aircraft carriers, they also dabble in prophecy and mysticism. They aren’t some reactive task force set up to make the world a better place, they’re a masonic order dating back to before the birth of Christ, carrying historical artifacts of great significance). It’s strange to see this institution rendered in such a way, but it’s amazing how well Hickman makes it fit. It breathes new life into an old concept.

Standing up to galactic powers...

I was genuinely struck by the humanism of Hickman’s “secret history” of this gigantic shared universe. The Marvel Universe has a tendency to be a very dark place where horrible things happen to good people. At the mild end of the scale, Spider-Man is constantly bullied by the press and the world around him. On the more serious side of things, mutants typically face racism around every corner (sometimes endorsed and practiced by the democratic government meant to protect them). It can be a horrible place, where the world not only beats down its heroes, but throws in a few extra kicks to make sure they stay down.

And so, I was surprised at the raw optimism of Hickman’s untold history of the secret organisation. “This is not how the world ends,” heroes throughout the ages declare. In reading comics, as our heroes periodically face off alien invasions and potential crises without batting an eyelid, one is thankful that the aliens didn’t happen to land a few years prior – before people like Iron Man and Thor existed to protect us. Hickman turns this idea on its head, suggesting that ancient man fended off these types of events with practiced ease – sometimes with great sacrifice – without the use of any superpowers or mutant genes. Just plain old human resourcefulness and inventiveness. Because that’s what we do, Hickman suggests, we survive.

It's a crossover!

The real heroes aren’t comic book superheroes, though they may dance around and steal the credit. Instead, it’s men with the power of imagination like Leonardo DaVinci or Galileo – we aren’t told that they’re mutants or aliens or any other strange storytelling device other stories might use to suggest these characters are somehow greater than we are. Instead, Hickman suggests, it’s the humanity of these characters which serves to make them heroic. It’s the fact that they have so much to lose and that death and consequences face them which leads them to act so responsibly in the face of such urgent situations.

Indeed, it’s Isaac Newton, drunk on the elixir of immortal life, who is the villain. He will live forever, like some sort of comic book character – immune to the consequences of death and ageing. He fears nothing, has no clock ticking away. Nothing to accomplish, because he has no deadline. Newton believes that he is infinite, and – as such – he understands everything. He believes that, afforded immortality, nothing is beyond accomplishing. Hickman points out the irony of this situation – immortality means a static way of thinking, a mind seeking balance and stability. It’s our mortality which pushes us to make sense of everything, precisely because we know we can’t. “Every question has an answer,” Newton states. “Every equation has a solution.” Perhaps it does, but life isn’t always about figuring out the correct answers – sometimes it’s about asking the right questions.

Shield your eyes, Leonid...

It’s curious how Hickman’s optimistic outlook of the human condition even carries over to the rewriting of some pretty core Marvel history. as of events outlined here, Tony Stark’s father didn’t die in some random accident, nor did Reed Richards’ father just walk out on his family. Both men – and, unlike their children, they were men – were doing something extraordinary, flying around in cars and using crazy futuristic weapons. To Hickman’s imagination, these two characters aren’t footnotes of tragedy in the back stories of two iconic heroes, they are heroes in their own right.

It’s that bold ambition which defines Hickman’s writing. This idea that human consciousness is always expanding. It’s telling that the first words from the strange alien child are “1 + 2 = 3” – building, increasing, expanding, growing. We’re informed of the creature’s development by charting the expansion of elements from the periodic table – each one just a little more complex than the one before (“… and the Hydrogen? It became Helium”). Indeed, DaVinci seems to point to Newton as a threat because he has stopped. His ambition has halted. He is no longer pushing forward – instead, he’s consolidating. “They build walls around what they believe.”

Just an average day at the office...

That’s the core conflict in Hickman’s story, the war between the belief that man’s boundaries are infinite, and that we can expand forever, and the idea that everything is confined within a tightly-organised structure of predetermined fate:

“Once, a long time ago, I led this group. The great men of this place believed in the future– in the infinite human experience. Now, I have been warned that this council — these new men of the S.H.I.E.L.D – believe in something different: a logical conclusion.. inevitability… an end.”

Leonid observes the conflict between the differing ideologies:

“I see clearly now — there are two sides. One full of men who believe that we are exactly who we are meant to be. Who accept the fate they have been given and find enlightenment in the embracing of it. And the other who believe that there is no possibility beyond their reach. That they are masters of their own destiny.”

As he puts it, “On one side, there would be hope. On the other, fate.” Phrased like that, it’s not too difficult to see whcih side Hickamn supports in this eternal philosophical struggle.

An underground society...

It’s fascinating how Hickman seems to return, time and time again, to the importance of three as a number. After all, it’s three factions (SHIELD, HYDRA and Leviathan) that are competing in Secret Warriors, and a large part of the writer’s Fantastic Four run was about the departure of one of the founding four, reducing the team to three members. Here, it’s suggested that Leonid, the miniseries’ central character, will serve as a third force, balancing the conflict between DaVinci and Newton, offering “a third way.”

This focus on the number three perhaps suggests some interesting philosophical ideas. After all, many philosophers suggest a trichotomy, the idea that important concepts come in sets of three. Perhaps the most relevant example is Hegel’s dialectic, a three stage process – combining a thesis and an antithesis to form a synthesis. So, in the most often cited example, the French Revolution (thesis) led to the Reign of Terror (antithesis) led to the constitutional state of the free citizen (the synthesis). So it’s quite possible that the conflict between DaVinci and Newton will find some measure of resolution in Leonid.

Forget Cowboys vs Aliens, it's Aliens vs. Egyptians!

That said, I’m not sure I entirely followed a lot of what was happening quite linearly. I’m not certain, for example, what role the subplot following Agents Richards and Stark is to play (nor why it appears to be Stark recording the narration to the story). I am uncertain how DaVinci managed to land in 1953 exactly when he was needed, nor how he has informers working through the time stream (since he knows all about events long after his death). Of course, it’s more than likely that these plot points will be explained in a later volume of the tale, and – even if they aren’t – Hickman seems to will his audience to ignore questions about basic plot mechanics. Asked how Galileo knows that his device will defeat Galactus, he responds, “because it must… because it will…” Hickman is more interested in the meta-physics driving the plot.

Still, the collection isn’t the best read for those expecting a linear plot. I’d argue it more than makes up for it with its wonderful ideas, and well-developed themes, but I’m not entirely sure that I can see everything I’m meant to of the big picture. I strongly suspect that the series will make a lot more sense when Marvel get around to publishing that inevitable Secret Warriors omnibus, as it seems to suggest a lot of hints of things to come (in particular, I suspect, the fact that the spear rests in the east and the shield in the west).

Galactus' tastes are a little classical...

I’m not normally one taken in by continuity. I often find it distracting, as if I am missing some inside joke, or the plot is being held up for some fan-friendly reference. In credit to Hickman, he makes repeated references to various Marvel institutions. This collection includes appearances from the Brood, Apocalypse, and even the infinity formula that keeps Nick Fury alive. All of these appearances clearly outline the role that these concepts play within the tapestry of the story he’s telling. None of the appearances require any previous knowledge, but instead serve the story just as well without over-burdening it with continuity. Readers who don’t recognise the references won’t be excluded, but they are there for those more familiar with the Marvel Universe.

I like S.H.I.E.L.D. Hickman takes a concept that could have very easily become fodder for a banal attempt to retroactively add a bunch of continuity to the universe, peppering it with none-too-subtle cameos from iconic characters and sly winks at the audience while essentially doing typical superhero stuff in period dress. To Hickman’s credit, his story is something remarkably different. It’s instead a look at what the Marvel Universe must have looked like before superheroes emerged – and how brilliant and wonderful and incredible humanity must have been to survive in a universe so cleverly designed to kill them. It’s optimistic, populated with clever concepts and downright fascinating – even if it is wilfully obtuse at times.

He's a New man...

What’s not to like?

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