[Welcome to the Hickman Files, a weekly column where I go through an arc of Jonathan Hickman’s Marvel work in semi-chronological order, until the end of his most recent work – Inferno, in anticipation of Ultimate Invasion and G.O.D.S.]
To begin this column, I thought it’d be a good parallel to start off with S.H.I.E.L.D., given that G.O.D.S. is starting in September. Before you start reading – I recommend you go back and read the first S.H.I.E.L.D. run by Hickman and Weaver as well as the Infinity issue, and then jump right in!
S.H.I.E.L.D. – by Jonathan Hickman, Dustin Weaver, Christina Strain and Todd Klein, is a book about the secret history of the Marvel Universe. It plays with concepts of real world history and twists them so that they fit within the fictional tapestry of Earth-616.
This book expects you to have some knowledge on the Marvel Universe, as well as some real world history. It depends on you being aware of the pre-existing lore that builds up the Marvel Universe as we know it, while adding on it, giving explanations, and thus giving birth to the organization we know as “S.H.I.E.L.D.”.
This book’s central character- Leonid – is not so much an active protagonist as he is the reader’s POV, passively learning about the world as we do. It’s not until the very end that he’s involved in the narrative, but for good reason. As in classic Hickman fashion, he builds up the beat and lets it drop when it’s absolutely perfect.
This book is a hidden gem, in all honesty.
When you enter the fifth page, Leonid is being taken down to the secret city beneath Rome, the Eternal Place. It’s there that a man tells him something, which functions as the mission statement of the book:
“Science. Magic. How do you define one without the other? It is the hidden history of the world. This is the home of the undying ones… the immortals… the high council of the SHIELD.”
If you look at the press release for Hickman and Schiti’s G.O.D.S., something similar is said in the blurb:
“It’s the beginning of a breathtaking epic at the crossroads of science and magic, one that will shatter our understanding and open our eyes to ideas beyond all that we perceive.”
It begs the question of whether or not any of this will be addressed in G.O.D.S., but knowing Hickman and how much he builds off his previous work in later projects, it most probably will.
Onwards, we start to slowly find out the history of S.H.I.E.L.D., an organization that has existed since the early days of history, back since 2620 BC, when the Brood originally invaded the Earth. We’re then shot over two thousand years in the future, where we see the first meeting with the Celestials, and then even further, when the humans first saw Galactus.
From an artistic standpoint, it’s really cool to see Weaver maintain the aesthetics of the eras, rather than just make them look like modern day technology. The tech of the 1500s and 1600s looks as “steampunk” as it should, while also evolving within that time. The tech when the book takes place – the 1950s, looks as it should – down to the cars, the elevators, and even the typewriters!
Textually – it doesn’t fall into the pitfalls a lot of other Big 2 comics do where it becomes more like a book filled with “lore” and “references” to events that take place in the future. Rather it treats itself like its own thing: another book that exists in the vast expanse of the Marvel tapestry. It’s treated as it is, a story about history – about a secret organization that shaped what we know – and it does it well. There’s a point to its secrecy – there’s a reason why none of this is referenced or called back to in other books – and for good reason.
Eventually within the first issue, we get two more references to the wider Marvel lore – that being the two agents who brought our protagonist, Leonid, into the fold. Those two? Howard Stark and Nathaniel Richards. It’s an interesting choice to have them very much situated within a specific era, because it gives a timeframe of things, such as when Tony and Reed were born. Of course,those dates don’t really matter because the floating timescale is always in flux to give these characters a sense of ‘timelessness’, but ignoring that nonsense and sticking to the idea that these guys were adults in the 1960s – the time their solo books started – really does make things line up in a way that’s fascinating to nerds like me.
From this point on – the book sets up its questions. Who is Leonid’s father? What history does he have with Richards and Stark? Why is Leonardo Da Vinci here? What is Leonid’s place in all this?
As the series progresses, the issues are structured the same way. Conversations in the present lead to flashbacks in the past, all of which add up to the wider narrative. All of this history is present only in this title too, thus allowing you to treat S.H.I.E.L.D. as something standalone, rather than fall into the pitfalls a lot of comics like this do where you feel the need to read more for further context.
“And tomorrow is nothing but the promise of possibility.”
Being one of the earlier works of Hickman’s at Marvel, this isn’t filled with data pages. Rather, they’re used sparingly – once per issue, in fact! Yet, just like his data pages to come, they’re filled with information that you’ll keep flipping back to and referring to constantly as you read. It’s one of the things I love about his work – the fact that it’s bold, and always makes the big ask to keep reading, keep pushing, even as it gets narratively denser and self referential. It asks you to make lots of mental notes as you keep reading. Or there’s always the more fun version, where you go off the vibes like you’re watching a Nolan movie and just having a damn good time. Either way, it makes all his work entertaining and a worthwhile read throughout, even if you’re going to sometimes get lost in the way Hickman ties his narratives together.
Throughout the series, we’re introduced to more historical figures and the way they tie into the secret history of the Marvel Universe – Leonardo Da Vinci, Galileo Galilei, Michel de Nostredame, Sir Isaac Newton, Nikola Tesla, and Michelangelo. In fact, the conflict of the present lies between Leonardo da Vinci and Sir Isaac Newton – which turns into the physical manifestation of a war of ideas, with Newton believing that there is an end to everything – and to believe in that fate – while Da Vinci believes in the idea of making our own fate and to keep making strides.
It’s within these ideas where Leonid’s own conflict lies. He’s unsure of what side to believe in – what truth to believe in – until he figures out what that “third” way is. It’s very interesting storytelling, and thematically something that Hickman revisits a few years later in his Avengers and New Avengers titles, making it the central focus.
On the other end, we see Howard Stark and Nathaniel Richards in the future after their fight with Nikola Tesla, where they need to find a way to save him and return to the ‘present’ (that being the 1950s). Nathaniel Richards is a character that does return in Hickman’s Fantastic Four run, where he has a big role to play in the story.
The Infinity issue that came out after the main series is a set of four stories that fill in blanks that the six issues intentionally tease but never follow up on – and for good reason. Within the narrative of the six issues itself, diving into these details would break the pacing, but in the Infinity issue they get their breathing room to truly shine.
In true Hickman fashion though, this book ends just as it gets interesting, just as the pieces on the board are finally lined up to make for a very intense game. Next week, we’ll be returning with S.H.I.E.L.D. volume 2, that picks up right where #6 of this left off.