A Marvel or DC comicbook breaking the mold, in any fashion, deserves some sort of credit. Why? It’s not easy for a mainstream book to push forward. The editorial hurdle stands tall, and it preaches a pattern of slow pace and continuity. Any light of experiment in a mainstream book, especially in these modern times, is, honestly, quite the achievement. While Jonathan Hickman’s S.H.I.E.L.D. stills functions within the Marvel house style, the book does showcase an element or two that make its narrative unique. Namely, the characters and their function.
The cast includes Da Vinci, Issac Newton, Nostradamus, Nikola Tesla, Michelangelo, the fathers of Reed Richards and Tony Stark, and some kid (whose name I honestly forget), and after six issues I honestly feel I know none of them. At least, not as I would expect when reading a Marvel Comic. Hickman characterizes and defines his cast, but he does it in more of a archetypal way. Da Vinci stands in as the good, smart guy with a pocket full of ideals, while Newton functions as the bad, smart guy concerned with selfish development. They go no farther than what the reader would already know; it’s pretty obvious and well-known these guys were smart. The bad and good, the ideals and selfishness are the only new bits. Even those stick to the archetypes. The combination of those specific qualities is nothing new in terms of heroes and villains.
And yeah. Mr. Richards and Mr. Stark are a lot like their sons. Not necessarily archetypes, but they work as stand-ins for characters we already know. Nostradamus speaks the future while burdened by the knowledge he carries. Tesla and Michelangelo are mysteries.
None of it goes farther, but it surprisingly works.
Hickman sacrifices character for idea in S.H.I.E.L.D. There is a cast, yes, and members of it seem to be experiencing an arc, but their “existence” doesn’t seem to mesh in a traditional sense. The characters feel hollow, almost: just shells for concepts rather than actual characters. That’s what Newton and Da Vinci are in this series. Hickman takes entire issues to examine the two to show their concept and not their actual character. Maybe that’s confusing and maybe the book cold better from a strong, developed cast, but to me the hollowness is intentional. For two reasons. One, this isn’t about characters; this is about knowledge, human potential, and more. A writer could write high ideas and character complexity, but leaving the character out helps the reader hone in on the series’ core. Plus, the appraoch gives the book an attitude – an attitude that says, “this is what we’re about.” This is the first volume or prologue after all. To Hickman and the story, it’s important we understand what this is from the beginning.
Second, the hollowness or lack of character centric plot breaks the Marvel mold and helps the book stand out in a sea of simularity. Marvel books center on characters, and S.H.I.E.L.D. does not. It’s simple, but the difference alters S.H.I.E.L.D. in a big way. Many during its monthly release, including myself, said that at some point the book’s plot would come together in a recognizable thread. Truth is it was there all along, just not in a form we expected. The focus on ideas rather than some lead figure changes the way we read it. Comicbook readers, specifically mainstream readers, make a point or just instinctly know to attach to a character. That’s our anchor point and guide; characters are the heart beat of most stories. S.H.I.E.L.D. throws us off when we cannot find a character to grasp onto. We suddenly begin to read differently as we search for a plot thread, and S.H.I.E.L.D. gains a sense of narrative identity by doing something a little different.
I like how Hickman achieves this, and I like the result. I find it smart and stylish. The pacing of S.H.I.E.L.D., however, sticks close to Marvel’s current style. Yeah, I know, I couldn’t let it get away completely. It does, though. The narrative follows a different pattern, but its actual flow plays it pretty safe. Marvel books, excluding Rick Remender’s stuff, share a common ground of slow pace. What do I mean by that? Plots unfold and declare themselves sluggishly. Everything is little drawn out and everything has a wide screen, absorb this kind of tone. Plots and their visuals feel almost a little big for the printed page. Everything feels a little too serious, and specific moments see specific attention. Most would probably call this “decompression,” but I’m not sure what to call it. I just know this exists, and the thread runs all across books by Bendis, Brubaker, Fraction, Millar, Gillen, and probably others. S.H.I.E.L.D. falls into this slump just by its structure.
It’s not a terrible thing by any means, but it is nothing different. On some levels, I feel Hickman does a wonderful job structuring this comicbook. I love how the first three issues unfold. We go from a classic first issue with everything in your face to two issues focusing on two sides of the same coin. Hickman gives you everything in the first half of the prologue; then, everyone meets in issue four to go nuts in the second half. But, as I just typed, it takes Hickman HALF of this first volume to setup his world. HALF. That’s a lot of time, especially when you consider this book’s “every other month” scheduling. Slow pacing: that’s the draw back of most Marvel/DC books.
S.H.I.E.L.D. does enough to break away though, and as stated at the top, the smallest action to experiment is just enough to give a mainstream book credibility. And the writing stands complimented. Dustin Weaver, what can I say? He brings this book home in a lot of ways. There is a certain cosmology that comes when creating a book like this, and Weaver understands that. The big panels and detail he provides echo Hickman’s intended focus, and he gives Hickman’s point a visual look.
I don’t see S.H.I.E.L.D. keeping this chosen style of narrative – the infinity issue makes it clear that Hickman wants to develop his cast as he seeds background and plants motivation- but for what it’s worth S.H.I.E.L.D. volume one feels different enough. The story certainly pulled me in, and I still feel Hickman has something to say. That’s what matters, right?