It should be noted that there will be a modicum of spoilers in this article, mostly about the first three issues of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Hickman’s run on Fantastic Four. You have been forewarned.
I should have read Jonathan Hickman’s work before he came to Marvel and started writing Secret Warriors. It’s not like I didn’t know about The Nightly News. I did. The guys from Comic Geek Speak wouldn’t stop gushing about it. And I was actively trying to read more indie comics at the time. Seemed like an obvious fit. I easily could have bought the trade. I had the time and the means to do so. But I didn’t. If I recall correctly, this is mostly because I picked up a random single issue or two in the 50 cent bargain bins at a convention some time along the line (presumably at a Wild Pig sale or Wizard World Philly a few years back) and decided to get the singles instead of the trade. No double dipping for me. Problem with that, though, is it also turned into no single dipping either, as it’s over two years later and I still haven’t read it. I’m still short two or three issues. Stubbornness can get you into trouble sometimes.
What I have done, however, is read every single piece of comic goodness he’s devoted to the page under the banner of Marvel Comics. I’m smart enough not to miss out on someone twice if I can help it. I think Marvel is in a very good place right now, and a lot of that strength comes from willingness to target indie (often indie is synonymous with Image here) comic creators and bring them into the fold, cultivating them until they become big time writers. Since Joey Q took over Marvel, he’s done just that with Brian Michael Bendis, Matt Fraction, Rick Remender (to some extent), Fred Van Lente, and now Jonathan Hickman. The scary thing is the fact that Hickman’s only been at Marvel for a short time, and he hasn’t written a whole hell of a lot of books, but he’s managed to catapult himself past just about everyone except maybe Matt Fraction. His hit rate is insane. It’s astoundingly good stuff.
I did begin my Hickman career reading Secret Warriors, and it was good, but his Fantastic Four work was truly what got me hooked for life. I bought Dark Reign: Fantastic Four because Hickman was writing it, and was shocked by what I saw on the page. Hickman’s strength is that he is a BIG IDEA THINKER. Just look at this FF run. Staring with the Dark Reign mini, his first major move is to have Reed Richards create a machine that can extrapolate outcomes of alternate universes, eventually leading to his discovery of a cabal of Reeds from various alternate futures patrolling the multiverse and all armed with their own personal INFINITY GAUNTLETS. You read these plot progressions, you flip pages and get smacked in the face by crazy ass visuals, and you get goosebumps from the madness. And this is only about five or six issues into his run. Fast forward a few months and you get the story that involves a fully grown future Franklin Richards coming back in time to send Valeria a message from her future self to warn her of an impending war that seems to involve Namor, Dr. Doom, and the Inhumans. He also gives current Franklin his world and reality altering powers back. Just for kicks, it seems. And an amazing final panel. Now, had all this happened in issue one with an unknown writer, I may have been concerned by the writer’s ability to follow up on all the disparate threads. But Hickman had already established himself as a BIG IDEA THINKER. Wasn’t worried in the slightest.
This reputation is what made me immediately latch onto S.H.I.E.L.D. when it was first announced. The announcement included a teaser image (eventually confirmed as the cover to issue one) that included, among other things, a drawing of Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man. But it wasn’t a man. It was Galactus. SOLD!
To be honest, I didn’t know how sold I actually was going to be until I read that first issue. Keep in mind that I haven’t read as many comics as most comic fans (I’ve only really been immersed in the culture for about four years or so), but I’ve still come across my fair share. I read a lot of books, and I do my best to delve back into the history of the medium and read the classics. This book, to me, is revelatory storytelling. It probably has one of the best first issues I’ve ever read. It grips you immediately and shows a level of ingenuity and excitement that you don’t see very often. Every panel is just overflowing with creativity. It’s such a simple concept. If we operate from the perspective that Marvel is the “real” world as it were, or at least a universe more rooted in potential reality than DC, for example, then it follows logically that the people who represent the foundation of the superheroes of yesteryear would actually be some of the more notable luminaries and inventors of the pre-World War 1 human race. We’re three issues in and we’ve already seen Galileo, Isaac Newton, and Leonardo Da Vinci (the de facto main character), among others. Once you read it, you can’t imagine SHIELD forming any other way.
Of course, there is more to S.H.I.E.L.D than the choice of character, as there is such extreme quality in all aspects of this comic world. The art is incredible. The dialogue is obscenely good. The blocking and pacing of the scenes is perfect. Just watching Galileo calmly wheel a massive renaissance-era gun/contraption/thing onto the balcony of his workshop only to reveal Galactus in the far distance slowly advancing on Florence. When his assistant asks him if his scheme will work, Galileo responds with this killer line:
“It will work. It must work. Don’t you see? This is not how the world ends.”
You can’t deny that it’s an affecting image. That line of “this is not how the world ends” serves as the backbone of the first issue, and similar word play is just throughout the other two books in order to give the book such a specific and almost otherworldly feel. Everything that could possibly matter is handled with extreme precision and perfection in mind.
This is, without doubt, the best North American comic book that has been released since Casanova. Granted, Casanova was not released very long ago, and they are very different books, but no comic book has affected me the way these two books have. I love the way the immortal city of SHIELD is painted in such sterile, cold, unfeeling colors, with its dark blues and blacks, which allows for the dual purpose of simply conveying that this is an underground city, as well as establishing the environment as an emotionless controlled city-state (1984 style). No detail is added unless it is fully developed and used to its maximum storytelling capability. Thus, when Night Machine shows up to wreck the place, and suddenly Nathaniel Richards and Howard Stark seem to be chasing him in some kind of zero-gravity gunfight out of the last parts of Inception, it disrupts the sterility in a real and serious way. The same is true for when Da Vinci shows up at the end of the first issue. You can always tell when the balance is upset by a surge of color penetrating the dark. It’s another example of a simple storytelling device used with incredible sophistication to create total immersion into the story. Throughout this, our intrepid main character Leonin is just as baffled about the proceedings as the reader. It’s another way to create an innate connection to the world and its characters. It works wonders for total immersion.
The only detriment to S.H.I.E.L.D. is that it only comes out bi-monthly. I’m perfectly content waiting, but there is a little twinge of pain when you consider that we could have had six issues of magic over the past half year instead of three. Still, it must be necessary considering the overall quality, and I’m perfectly fine with Hickman, Weaver, and Marvel taking their time on this one considering the absurd quality of what we’ve had the pleasure of reading so far. They can take as long as they need to. I’m fine waiting. Unless, of course, they pull a JMS and never finish The Twelve. Then I’d be annoyed.
Everyone should read this. It’s that simple.
This post was written to the tune of Tori Amos’ From the Choirgirl Hotel