Roundtable Review: ‘S.H.I.E.L.D.’ #1
Laura: David, you want to catch us up?
David: This is Jonathan Hickman’s first new ongoing for Marvel, building off of his work on “Secret Warriors” and tying into his representation of the Richards family in “Fantastic Four.” It deals with, basically, the secret history of the Marvel Universe, and the organization that allowed humanity to progress on a similar path to our history, despite what should be constant invasions by alien species and rogue gods. As a result, Hickman’s created this title, which is part Marvel History continuity wank (in a GLORIOUS way), and part history nerd’s wet dream, basically melding together those two narratives. For obvious reasons, the facts uncovered in this series could have serious implications on not only his own work in the Marvel Universe but other peoples’ as well. It’s an important book for Marvel, which is why it’s all the more impressive, in my opinion, that this has such a personal voice.
Chris Sims: I have to say, I’m usually very leery of stories that do retcons like this, because I think it takes away some of the specialness of a character like Reed Richards if he’s not, like, the first guy in history to ever stop Galactus. It’s one of his defining moments, and going back and saying stuff like “oh yeah this guy did it first” sort of detracts from that, even if it makes perfect sense that Galactus wouldn’t wait until we had a cosmic rock monster and a Thunder God hanging out on the planet before he tried to eat it. So as much as I love Hickman’s work on “Fantastic Four” and “Secret Warriors,” I’ll admit to going into this one a little warily.
Laura: So this is continuity?
David: Yes, this is totally, 100% an in-continuity Marvel Universe book. There’s tons of fun nods in there, like Apocalypse hanging out with the other Egyptian warriors preparing for the Bloody Brood Beatdown.
Chris Sims: That probably makes this the best comic Apocalypse has been in ever. Also, the Egyptian Moon Knight is in there! How awesome is that?
David: I still have a soft spot for “X-Cutioner’s Song,” and you just made Louise Simonson cry, but yeah, it probably is.
Laura: It’s interesting, Chris, to compare what you’re talking about — undermining existing heroes with ancient retconned stories — with what Geoff Johns just did in Green Lantern, by elevating existing heroes with ancient retconned stories.
Chris Sims: You’re going to have to explain that one.
David: Green Lantern #52 basically had the Bible reinterpreted as the origin of the emotional spectrum mascots. The Book of Genesis, specifically. It was this absolutely bizarre but fascinating but bizarre fusion of creationism, evolution and superhero nerdery.
Chris M: See, the life beginning with the Green Lantern emotional spectrum, as much as it elevates Green Lantern characters, undermines a lot of the rest of the DCU in the way Chris explained.
Caleb: It’s like the Star Wars prequels.
David: I don’t really mind retcons like this as long as they make sense. I mean, the “EVERYTHING YOU KNOW IS WRONG” rug-pull can be terrible when done wrong, but when done right it never fails to completely kick my ass.
Chris Sims: Well, not to get into How This Stuff Works too much, but I think Morrison did a good job of that in “Final Crisis” and “Superman Beyond,” where Superman wasn’t just Superman, he was the idea of super-heroes that was created to protect the world of fiction itself. I love that, but it works for him in a way it doesn’t always work, because c’mon, he’s Superman. He’s first.
Laura: The fact that “S.H.I.E.L.D.” #1 i called “Chapter One: The Unholy Resurrection of Leonardo Da Vinci” makes me concerned about zombies.
David: Laura, you have nothing to worry about. I really hope I never see a zombie in a comic book again, though.
Chris Sims: Man, “Marvel Zombies 5″ hits this week too and it is fantastic. Zombie cowboys. By Fred Van Lente.
David: Aw crap, there goes that.
Laura: OK, so, this kid Leonid gets picked up and taken to a secret subterranean city.
Chris Sims: Are we supposed to know who Leonid is? He’s a new character, right?
David: This is in the ’50s, mind you. And Leonid is totally new, I think. The S.H.I.E.L.D. sketchbook that went up a bit ago basically had Hickman saying he was our point-of-view character. With that starfield effect, though, I wonder if he’s gonna turn into something we recognize. It definitely ties into the Starlin “cosmic awareness” effect.
Chris M: Man, they have every “This is the ’50s” visual cue except a bunch of kids playing stickball. And I love it.
Chris Sims: Maybe he’s Quasar’s predecessor as Guardian of the Universe? Or did I just totally nerd out, even for ComicsAlliance?
David: Maybe he’s a YOUNG ETERNITY!
Chris Sims: I love this Egypt scene. Apocalypse and Moon Knight. This double-page spread is boss, and that’s all there is to it. And the line “Everything begins with an image. There was a fire in the sky.” When Galactus comes to earth in “Fantastic Four” #48, the Watcher makes an image of fire in the sky to try to keep him away.
David: Oh, wow. I figured it was this.
Chris Sims: So with that line, Hickman’s not just setting up what’s literally happening on the next page, it’s also a good callback to Lee and Kirby and the beginning of Marvel doing this type of big Earth vs. the Cosmos story.
Caleb: Next Johnny Storm’s ancient ancestor will leave for college.
David: This is how you do continuity porn, kids.
Chris Sims: Yeah, this scene alone makes me really think that this has the potential to be something like the next “Marvels,” you know? Threading all this fun stuff through the Marvel Universe.
Chris M: Okay, so what other references to heroes are in there? And why does Imhotep remind me so much of Cap?
David: It’s the shield, man. Who other than Cap rocks a sweet shield so well? Also I’m totally geeking out over ancient Moon Knight.
Caleb: Is that Blue Beetle?
Chris M: Even the face, though. The face is kind of Steve Rogers-esque, or is that again just me?
Chris Sims: I think he’s designed to evoke Cap. I mean, look at the scene: That’s totally an Ancient Egypt Avengers lineup.
David: A bit TOO Steve Rogers-esque. Did you see the David Brothers/Dustin Weaver thing? Brothers called the book out for having a whitey white Egyptian emperor, and Weaver said basically that he screwed up and they’ll recolor for the trade. And yeah, agreed on the Cap thing. But it’s interesting that Cap doesn’t wield a spear. It’s that because he’s too western? Is there a big Egyptian sort of captain character that wields a spear? If not, I imagine Hickman will have to create him.
Chris Sims: Well, later in the book they talk about the Spear. Which makes me wonder if we’re going to get S.P.E.A.R. Now that we have S.H.I.E.L.D. and S.W.O.R.D.
Chris M: And A.R.M.O.R.
Caleb: I want S.H.O.E.
David: S.P.E.A.R. is Hydra. There’s a line in the first arc of Secret Warriors where Von Strucker goes, and I’m paraphrasing, “they have always been the shield and we the spear” to the rest of the Hydra council members.
Laura: So Imhotep “was the first of us” and they “honor him with our name.” Shouldn’t S.H.I.E.L.D. be I.M.H.O.T.E.P. then?
David: They keep saying “this is not how the world ends.” So is it safe to say that the S.H.I.E.L.D. *does* know how the world ends?
Laura: Or when it might? Leonid is being asked to join and “stand in the gap.”
Caleb: “Stand in the Gap…and fold shirts for $8 an hour.”
Laura: Also, this “every question has an answer… every equation has a solution” really seems to call back to Hickman’s “Solve Everything” run on “Fantastic Four.”
Chris M: It’s a theme Hickman hits in a lot of his stuff that I really like.
David: It’s a theme, yeah, but in this case I think it’s actually a connection to the Fantastic Four run.
Chris Sims: I think it’s interesting that we got at least two characters we recognize in Ancient Egypt, but we don’t get anyone we know in China. No Iron Fists or Shang Chis.
David: Is that poem Zhang Heng recites a real thing? This entire thing is so Doctor Who.
Chris Sims: I think the poem is a play on the word “Celestial,” which is both the name of an alien race and an Olde-Timey term for the Chinese. So the poem about the beauty of a Celestial woman, while one of the Celestials (which is maybe a woman? It’s hard to tell what with being a gigantic space god) is totally wrecking his place. And I really love the way Weaver and Strain switch up styles for every era — how everything EXCEPT the Celestial has that washed-out, watercolor look to it, while the Celestial looks just straight up comic book shiny. It’s a nice effect that would only work in comics.
Laura: What is the golden ball Da VInci is carrying around that’s supposed to save the world?
David: I think it’s totally new. Whatever it is, it must have had something to do with the sun. A lightspeed device, maybe?
Chris Sims: It’s an iPad. Da Vinci’s going to save the world by allowing them to read fine Marvel Comics digitally for only $1.99 each!
Chris M: I just noticed — Imhotep’s headgear features prominently in several of the DaVinci panels
Chris Sims: Yeah, he’s got it and one of those crazy HR Giger Immortal City helmets.
Chris M: Can someone explain Night Machine for me?
Laura: Who is he? And why does he make doves go flying like a John Woo action movie?
David: Yeah, who the hell is this guy? This is some Voldo in Soul Calibur levels of WTF.
Laura: The whole “he used to come with the setting of the sun. The dark man… My father” has some creepy child abuse undertones, for me.
Chris Sims: Yeah, there’s not a lot about the Night Machine that’s not creepy.
Laura: There’s gotta be something going on with the birds.
David: Something I also just realized: in the mural behind the High Council or whatever, the S.H.I.E.L.D. shield is the sun. There’s a big reaching high to the sun/Icarus and Daedalus thing going on here.
Chris: There’s also a Sun on the floor of Leonid’s room.
David: I think it’s safe to say there’s a sun motif going on.
Laura: When they go to the door — which is called “Iter,” which means road or way in Latin — it has a sun coming out of a ball or something. Maybe the same ball that Da Vinci had?
David: I mean, Da Vinci flies towards the sun with that ball, too.
Chris M: Da Vinci is opening the ball on the last page, and there does seem to be a glowing sphere coming out of it
Caleb: Maybe he built a containment unit for the sun’s energy? And it’s an ultimate nullifier?
Chris Sims: Oh man, the Steampunk Ultimate Nullifier. The Internet is going to have a fit.
Chris M: Honestly, I hope it’s not an ultimate nullifier. I’m hoping it’s something entirely new.
Caleb: DaVinchi’s time/space/dimension hopping makes me wonder if this story will retcon itself at the end, which is why it will be a “secret history,” as if Galactus had never come, or the Brood. Like these guys pull something off to stave off all of it, in effect making the swinging ’60s at Marvel the “true” timeline or something. And all of this will be a noble sacrifice that corrects time.
David: Caleb, that’s an interesting idea, but I dunno how it’d line up with the direct references to the founding of SHIELD in Secret Warriors and how it was in Egypt. I think all this stuff happened, for reals, we just didn’t know about it.
Chris Sims: I think we’re going to see a rift between the guys in the Immortal City who say they’re going to protect the world “until” that day, and the guys like Imhotep and the Fist of Khonshu and Galileo and Reed Richards and Iron Man who are going to fight no matter what day it is.
Chris Sims: Actually, reading it again? They DO know how the world ends, and we can assume that when that time actually comes, are they going to just accept it? I think that’s probably going to be a focus of this story.
David: Yeah, Chris, that was how I took it. Maybe that event — the end of the world — is Nathaniel’s son shooting a rocket. Like, the end of THEIR world, you know? The point of the Brotherhood of the Shield is to get humanity to the point where Reed Richards begins the Age of Marvels. That’s THEIR endpoint.
Chris M: DaVinci saying “I hold the rescuing of all things” makes me think they’re not going to accept it
Laura: Also, that would be a massive copout. Especially since all of these people facing world-ending threats are using “This is not how the world ends” as a defense.
David: Yeah, it’s like, “I KNOW we gotta get out of this okay, because I know what the REAL end is.” If you know someone’s alive in season five of a TV show, you aren’t scared by any threats to their death in seasons one through four.
Laura: Because, c’mon, even if the earth survives, Galactus attacking could totally be the end of your “world” or “age.” Also — maybe the whole “this is not how the world ends” is a reflection on how we all kind of feel about shared superhero universes when there’s a massive “world-ending” threat. We know it’s not really the end.
Chris Sims: Oh, that’s a good point. We know that’s not how the world ends because we didn’t hear that Marvel went out of business.
David: I loved how Final Crisis totally traded on that, too. We all knew things were gonna continue, and so did Superman, TO BE CONTINUED on the tombstone and all. It’s hard to discuss Hickman without drawing Morrison comparisons. Especially with his approach to superhero work.
Chris Sims: And there’s also the concept that no matter what happens to us, Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four are still going to be around.
Laura: No matter what happens to SPIDER-MAN, Spider-man is still going to be around.
Chris Sims: I like the idea of treating fictional characters like fictional characters, in that they’re really the only thing that endures, you know? We’re always going to have Robin Hood and Sherlock Holmes and Batman and the Thing. Which, incidentally, is my dream roster for League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.
Laura: Can anyone name the constellations prominently displayed at the end?
Chris Sims: The big dipper!
Laura: I see Cassiopeia, Aquarius, Sagittarius.
Chris M: Draco’s there, the big one lower left.
David: Please, just because Nightcrawler’s going to soon be dead doesn’t mean Draco won’t still be a dirty word in the context of Marvel Comics.
Laura: Aw, I was hoping for Hercules. But coming up the stairs, there’s Pegasus and Leo.
Chris Sims: Maybe a reference to Leonid himself! HOW FAR DOWN THE RABBIT HOLE ARE WE GOING HERE, HUDSON?!
David: I love comics like this. They’re like puzzle boxes just begging to be opened. There’s no way you can get everything the author meant to put into it in one reading, or even without later issues.
Laura: Oh, and then there’s some Nightly News-y stuff at the end from Hickman with The Human Machine pages.
David: There’s a real sort of Sephirothic thing to that diagram of the human machine, huh? He’s been doing it in Secret Warriors, too. First off: Section FOUR: THE SOURCE (the human genitalia)
Chris Sims: The text behind is written backwards like Da Vinci’s notebook. So you have to hold it up to a mirror to read it. It starts with the lines about iron and stagnant water that are actually in the text.
David: I figured that text was just random reproductions of his actual notebook.
Chris Sims: Nope — it actually has to do with the book itself, and “The Human Machine.” Which I think is a big clue: We’ve got Da Vinci creating something “unique” that will save the world and then hits notes on “The Human Machine.” And then we’ve got the Night Machine, who looks like a pretty bad dude, and seems to be in opposition to all this sun imagery we’ve seen in the book. Of course, a lot of what’s written on those pages, I can’t really make out.
David: I figured the human machine was the combined effect of humanity. Oh crap, good call on Night Machine versus the sun stuff.
Caleb: I flipped the notebook and enhanced it in Photoshop to try reading it.
David: If that turns out to be the secret inspiration behind SHIELD I will publicly kiss Hickman.
Caleb: I’m going to let it all be a mystery.
Laura: No, I’m curious. Show me the flipped page.
David: It’s still pretty far from generally legible. I don’t think the res on the PDFs is that high, though.
Chris M: Did you try saying “Enhance” out loud to your computer?
Chris Sims: “Zoom in. Enhance.”
Laura: Guys, I know what this is. These are definitely quotes from Da Vinci’s notebooks.
Chris S: Oh, from his actual notebook?
Laura: Yes, here’s the whole bottom half: “These rules are sufficient to enable you to know the true from the false–and this aids men to look only for things that are possible and with due moderation–and not to wrap yourself in ignorance, a thing which can have no good result, so that in despair you would give yourself up to melancholy. Among all the studies of natural causes and reasons Light chiefly delights the beholder; and among the great features of Mathematics the certainty of its demonstrations is what preeminently (tends to) elevate the mind of the investigator. Perspective, therefore, must be preferred to all the discourses and systems of human learning. In this branch [of science] the beam of light is explained on those methods of demonstration which form the glory not so much of Mathematics as of Physics and are graced with the flowers of both. But its axioms being laid down at great length, I shall abridge them to a conclusive brevity, arranging them on the method both of their natural order and of mathematical demonstration; sometimes by deduction of the effects from the causes, and sometimes arguing the causes from the effects; adding also to my own conclusions some which, though not included in them, may nevertheless be inferred from them. Thus, if the Lord–who is the light of all things–vouchsafe to enlighten me, I will treat of Light; wherefore I will divide the present work into 3 Parts.”
Chris Sims: There you go. Light and dark. I don’t think we’ve ever seen that in comics before, have we? Light and dark?
Laura: The top has another notable Da Vinci quote: “Iron rusts from disuse, stagnant water loses its purity and in cold weather becomes frozen; even so does inaction sap the vigors of the mind.”
Chris Sims: Yeah, that’s used in the book itself too. I guess I was wrong: They actually are pieces of his notebook that just have a lot to do with what Hickman’s doing.
Laura: “Human subtlety will never devise an invention more beautiful, more simple or more direct than does nature because in her inventions nothing is lacking, and nothing is superfluous. “
Chris Sims: But isn’t that what the story’s about? I mean, we know that in the Marvel Universe, Galactus is basically a part of nature. And yet we see them trying to outclass him with giant cannon-lookin’ telescopes and stuff.
Chris M: Yeah, that one actually kind of runs counter to a lot of Hickman’s writings
Laura: “It is easier to resist at the beginning than at the end. Necessity is the mistress and guardian of Nature.”
Chris Sims: Is that in S.H.I.E.L.D. or just from Da Vinci?
Laura: Da Vinci.
David: I love how it’s difficult to tell the difference.
Chris Sims: Interesting… Because that implies that — like I was worried about — things keep getting harder. So Reed IS still special. Oh man, I really like that. The further time goes, the more threats arrive that Earth has to deal with.
David: Not just threats, though. That’s the end of the shield and the spear, you know? The maturity of dealing with other species on an equal ground, instead of being a victim.
Chris Sims: We go from Ancient Egypt to 114 AD to 1495, and then you fast forward to the modern Marvel Age and it’s like every week.
David: But to grow up enough to deal with other cultures on that level, you have to survive long enough to grow up. It’s like the necessary xenophobia to develop, almost.
Chris Sims: So basically, Da Vinci wrote the exact same way as the RZA.