Today, Spencer and Patrick are discussing S.H.I.E.L.D. 1, originally released December 31st, 2014.
Spencer: Since his premiere in the first Iron Man film, Agent Coulson has been a fan-favorite character, but it was the reveal that he was a dedicated fan of Captain America in The Avengers that truly sent his popularity skyrocketing. Believe me, I was on Tumblr to watch it happen. All of us reading comic books are obviously fans just like Coulson, so there’s just something appealing about a character who shares our enthusiasm and interests. Mark Waid and Carlos Pacheco’s S.H.I.E.L.D. 1 puts this aspect of Phil Coulson front-and-center, showing how Phil’s skills make him an ideal leader but also how those same skills benefit Waid as a writer.
Coulson’s been promoted to S.H.I.E.L.D.’s Special Ops Supreme Commander, which basically means he coordinates missions by choosing and commanding whatever superheroes will best suit the specific mission. It’s a job Coulson’s been training for all his life — even as a young child he was charting and memorizing the stats of Golden Age superheroes — and his first day on the job finds him up against monsters from all ten realms who have fallen to Earth and are wreaking havoc. Coulson gets together a field team — including the indomitable Melinda May, biologist Jemma Simmons, and techie Leo Fitz, all regular characters on the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. show — to tackle the source of the problem, which is a dark force that has possessed Heimdall, protector of the Asgardian Bifrost portal. The mission is a success thanks to Coulson’s quick thinking and knowledge of his assets — he uses the intangible Vision to launch a sneak attack — but Coulson still doesn’t know who or what’s behind the attack, and Coulson hates not knowing things.
The glimpses into Coulson’s past Waid treats us to are absolutely charming, and while I can’t speak for any of our readers, I certainly see a lot of myself in them.
While I was never as thorough as Coulson, I’ve spoken fairly often about my love of compiling lists and super-hero bios like these. Writer Mark Waid is quick to admit that he’s in the same boat — he’s always had a reputation as a walking comic book encyclopedia to begin with, but recently on his Twitter, he revealed that he kept a system almost identical to Coulson’s as a child (check it out, it’s adorable). So when Coulson talks about how fun it is when your hobby becomes your work, it’s clear that Coulson’s enthusiasm mirrors Waid’s.
The same goes for Coulson’s new job. Coulson has free rein with Marvel’s roster of superheroes, able to mix and match whatever combinations will best aid the mission at hand. This isn’t even a metaphor or an allusion — Waid seems to have the exact same freedom as writer of S.H.I.E.L.D., and thanks to Coulson’s reaction, we can see how much of a dream job this must be for Waid. It should be just as much fun for readers, who will get to see heroes crossing paths with characters they may otherwise never meet, and they may perhaps even receive answers to the some of the crazy questions and theories fans always come up with but never expect to see addressed in canon (such as Coulson’s Quicksilver vs. Hulk example):
That said, I feel this may be an aspect of S.H.I.E.L.D. where the potential so far outshines the results. There are quite a few heroes cameoing in this issue, and it’s a joy to see characters like Hyperion or Nightmask, who rarely, if ever, appear outside their own titles, get some panel-time (on that note, is this the new Thor’s first appearance outside her solo?); in fact, I was recently talking to Patrick about how much we need an outlet for newer characters to get more exposure, and S.H.I.E.L.D. looks like it may fill that need quite nicely. Still, that’s a bit of a moot point if the heroes don’t get a chance to show off who they are; Black Knight, Valkyrie, and the Vision all get a spotlight, but we don’t learn anything about their personalities, only their abilities. We’ve mentioned before how treating characters like interchangeable cogs in a machine robs them of personality, and that’s exactly what happens here. Next month promises a Ms. Marvel spotlight, and hopefully her giant-sized personality gets a better chance to shine (I’d love to see her geek out with Coulson).
Waid does better with what I’m assuming will be our regular cast of S.H.I.E.L.D. agents; while none are exactly deep characters yet, there are splashes of personality that match up well with their television depictions. Unfortunately, the art is often a disservice to these characters; Pacheco’s attempts to create lifelike imitations of the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. actors has mixed results (and is often more than a little unnerving), and at a distance it can be quite hard to tell these characters apart. This isn’t helped by the colors of Dono Almara, who can’t seem to decide on a consistent hair color for Fitz or Simmons in particular (her hair seems to be a slightly different shade on every page); at one point Almara gives some of the team’s women the wrong hair colors entirely!
On the left is Simmons, whose hair is normally some shade of brown, while to the right is Valkyrie, whose hair is supposed to be blonde (there are actually no red-heads in this issue at all) — this mistake continues for the rest of this page (showing each character at least twice more), and not only is it confusing, but it also sadly emphasizes how similarly Pacheco draws his female characters’ faces.
Still, Pacheco is much more successful at depicting epic battle scenes with dozens of characters on the page at once, and I have a feeling that will be an essential skill for this title. S.H.I.E.L.D. still has more than a few rough edges, but I believe it has the potential to fill an important niche at Marvel, and to be a lot of fun in the process. Patrick, what about you?
Patrick: The inevitable super-fan feedback loop you mentioned for the next issue is actually where I start to get nervous about what this series is and who it’s for. I’ve only watched a handful of episodes of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., so while I’m not huge fans of Agents May, Fitz and Simmons, at least I know who they are. This issue doesn’t do a lot to express their characters — or to explain why it’s only a fraction of the cast that carries over from TV to comics. That’s such a unique concern to have: if you’re reading the comics tied to Arrow or the Flash TV show, you know that you’re reading an expansion of that universe, not something that is somehow both an expansion of that universe and an active player in a Marvel Comics continuity. As Spencer points out, this series places a premium on familiarity with the characters — that’s Coulson’s superpower for crying out loud — and it seems like the superfans are the only readers that will truly be able to play along.
While reading, I couldn’t shake the feeling that that’s kind of gross, but it wasn’t until I finished that I realized why. The nature of the connections you have to make across different forms of media to understand this comic make it feel as though Waid is rewarding loyal customers, rather than loyal fans. S.H.I.E.L.D. gently prods comic fans over to the show, and gently prods fans of the show back to comic by showing the gaps in the information left by either. And then, just so we don’t feel too bad about the collectorly impulses this stirs in us, Waid gives our hero the same obsessive quality.
Which would irk me a lot more if Waid and Pacheco’s enthusiasm were’t so goddamn contagious. Spencer, I’ve got a lot of the same beefs you do with Pacheco’s art — the design elements that distinguish the S.H.I.E.L.D. agents from one another are not sufficient for comic book — but the dude really does land the big, dumb brawly spreads.
There’s a lot to like about this splash, including the way it drives the reader to a Coulson-esque “gotta name ’em all” frenzy of identifying everyone on the battlefield. When I did that digging, I was sort of delighted to discover that there are only three white dudes this page (one of which is usually green and another is a transdimensional god). One of the opportunities that a series like this has is the ability to highlight the characters that don’t have the spotlight elsewhere, and it’s kinda awesome to see these black characters (Sunspot, Blue Marvel, Luke Cage, Black Panther — both T’Challa and Shuri) reasserted here. It’s weird that the same diversity ins’t echoed in the line-up of main characters, but we’re working from the mold of a TV show, so… you know, what are you gonna do?
The other reason I sorta liked this issue is that I am a good costumer. Even though I had grown highly ambivelent toward Fearless Defenders by the end of its run, I find that I do have a special place in my heart for Valkyrie and seeing her play a key role in this issue got me excited.
I just might be a sucker, and I may just like this book because it’s telling me it’s okay to be a sucker.
For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page. Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore. If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to Comixology and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?