Oct 11, 2012

A S.H.I.E.L.D. Primer, Including More on Joss Whedon's TV Show

Variety (via Dark Horizons) offers a few extra details on the new ABC S.H.I.E.L.D. TV show, first reported by Deadline a little over a month ago. According to the trade, Joss Whedon told a WGA audience that "the storyline for the proposed series will be largely 'autonomous' from the Avengers sequel feature that is also in the works. The series will revolve around the activities of the top-secret S.H.I.E.L.D espionage [organization] featured in Avengers." Whedon will co-write the pilot with his brother Jed and his sister in law, Maurissa Tancharoen (who's married to Jed). All three previously worked together on Dollhouse and Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog. The Marvel's The Avengers helmer hopes to direct, schedule permitting. If the pilot is ordered to series, the trade reports, the three of them "will serve as showrunners/exec producers with Jeffrey Bell. Marvel TV topper Jeph Loeb, an alum of Whedon's Buffy the Vampire Slayer, will also exec produce."

Zap2It uncovered even more details last week. Apparently the show will deal primarily with new S.H.I.E.L.D. agents created for television by Whedon and his cohorts, rather than focusing on familiar characters from the comics and movies. Here are the breakdowns for some of those new agents, as obtained by the website:

Agent Grant Ward: A gruff, anti-social manly man in his early 30s who's great at his job but not so great at getting along with his coworkers. Ward has a strong moral foundation and isn't without his charm.

Skye: A quintessential Whedon woman, Skye is described as "bubbly and goofy" but "also warm, edgy and witty." She's in her late 20s and can more than hold her own in any situation.

Agent Althea Rice (a.k.a. The Cavalry): A strong, silent type, still damaged by harrowing combat duty, Rice is in her late 30s and is both an ace pilot and a weapons expert.

Agent Leo Fitz and Agent Jemma Simmons: A twosome so connected to each other they're known as "Fitz-Simmons." They're in their late 20s but already highly respected agents. Nerdy yet attractive, they bicker like brother and sister. His specialty is weapons, gadgets and cutting edge technology. Hers is life sciences (both human and alien).
Of course, this breakdown doesn't answer the question of whether Samuel L. Jackson will make occasional appearances as Nick Fury, or Cobie Smulders as Maria Hill (this is rumored to be the last season of her sitcom How I Met Your Mother), but it does sound a bit like the Grant Ward character could be a surrogate for the younger version of Fury from Marvel's Sixties comics. For those unfamiliar with the S.H.I.E.L.D. concept, Marvel has put out all the essential comic book stories in nice collections over the past couple of years. The book began at the height of the Sixties spy craze as Marvel's answer to the popularity of James Bond and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. The company's WWII hero, Sgt. Fury, was aged a few decades, promoted to Colonel, outfitted with an iconic eyepatch, and set up as the director and star agent of a high-tech spy outfit. (You can even read Fury's wartime adventures in an affordable compilation now, Essential Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos - Volume 1.) Some of his wartime Howling Commandos like Dum Dum Dugan and Gabe Jones also made the transition to S.H.I.E.L.D. agents (at that time the clunky acronym stood for Supreme Headquarters, International Espionage, Law Enforcement Division), joined by Atlas Comics veteran Jimmy Woo and new characters Jasper Sitwell and the Contessa Valentina Allegra di Fontaine. While Marvel mainstays Stan Lee and Jack Kirby respectively wrote and illustrated the earliest S.H.I.E.L.D. stories in the anthology comic Strange Tales, it was writer/artist Jim Steranko who really creatively defined the character and the organization for the era. Steranko's issues were artistically bold, combining collage and pop art and innovative page designs into the traditional comic book form. He also dared to draw entire sequences without dialogue or captions, letting the art totally drive the story. While this is common in the medium today, at the time it was such a radical departure that Stan Lee refused to pay him as a writer for those pages, just as an artist! Steranko's issues were also characterized by frequent, artistically stunning psychedelic sequences. It seemed like once an issue Nick Fury succumbed to some sort of druggy gas grenade (or something like it) and found himself suddenly navigating a melting, Salvador Dahli-like landscape. The term "_____ on LSD" is a cliche now, but Steranko's Nick Fury issues really did read like U.N.C.L.E. on LSD. For fans of Sixties spy pop culture, they're as essential as that series, or as Goldfinger for that matter.

A pair of out-of-print trade paperbacks collect all of Steranko's Nick Fury material from Strange Tales and the secret agent's subsequent, eponymous book. But if you want the best presentation possible for material that really deserves it, you're much better off shelling out for the beautiful hardcover archival Marvel Masterworks editions. Marvel Masterworks: Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. Volume 1 compiles the earliest S.H.I.E.L.D. stories from Strange Tales (mostly Lee/Kirby material, with a little bit of Steranko at the end), as well as a pre-S.H.I.E.L.D. issue of Fantastic Four in which Fury appeared as a CIA agent with both eyes intact. Volume 2 is the true treasure of the batch, collecting nearly all of the Steranko material from both Strange Tales and the early issues of Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. If you only get one Nick Fury collection to sample, this is the one to get! Finally, Volume 3 collects the rest of the original Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. run after Steranko's departure (and these issues shouldn't be underestimated), as well as a fantastic standalone story from the Seventies drawn by Howard Chaykin in which the WWII vet's seeming agelessness is explained away by means of an "infinity formula." Only in comic books! It's all wrapped up in the most iconic of all the Steranko covers. These books are beautifully, lovingly made. They're printed on acid-free paper and they're stitched, not glued, so you can spread them open on the table before you and fully appreciate Steranko's two-page spreads without risking breaking your book's spine. They also include informative introductions and other bonus material. They belong on every Sixties spy fan's shelf right between your Man From U.N.C.L.E. DVD box set and your Donald Hamilton paperbacks. They're great stuff.

Throughout the Seventies Nick Fury made a lot of guest appearances in books like Iron Man, Captain AmericaNova, Marvel Two-in-One, Spider-Woman and others. Unfortunately, these appearances have never been collected together. (I'd love to see Fury get the Essential treatment one day with the first volume covering the Sixties solo stuff and the second one including all of these guest spots collected together.) S.H.I.E.L.D. (but not Fury, who only had a cameo in the first issue) next took a starring role in an unlikely place. They became Marvel's in-house kaiju hunters in a licensed Godzilla comic book! That run, surprisingly, has gotten an Essential collection (it's now out of print, but still easy to get), reprinting the entire series in black and white. I kind of doubt Joss Whedon's TV S.H.I.E.L.D. will hunt Godzilla, though.

In the Eighties, Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D. made a surprising comeback in a high-profile, prestige-format miniseries tailor-made for the Iran-Contra era: Nick Fury vs. S.H.I.E.L.D. This storyline is a perfect case study in how drastically the public perception of spy agencies had changed since the Sixties. (Even the Steranko cover clearly displays the difference in eras; instead of pop art, it looks like a Rambo poster.) Once portrayed as heroic, S.H.I.E.L.D. was now duplicitous and untrustworthy. So much so that even Nick Fury had to go rogue and battle his own organization. (This would become a recurring theme in the ensuing decades.) Marvel recently collected Nick Fury vs. S.H.I.E.L.D. in a nice, high-quality hardcover that makes a perfect companion piece to the Sixties Masterworks. (The spine is slightly different, but the size is the same.)

Around that same time, Fury also teamed up with X-Men's Wolverine a few times. These three team-ups (drawn by the likes of Howard Chaykin and John Buscema) directly continued one of Steranko's Sixties storylines, and were recently collected in the trade paperback Wolverine & Nick Fury: Scorpio. I wish it came in a hardcover edition to match Nick Fury vs. S.H.I.E.L.D., but instead the paperback matches the next chronological collection.

Bob Harras, author of Nick Fury vs. S.H.I.E.L.D., also penned a more traditional continuation in an ongoing 1990s revival of the series Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. Honestly, I never expected to see this run collected, but Marvel surprised me by doing just that this summer! The 272-page trade paperback Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. Classic - Volume 1 compiles the first eleven issues in one satisfyingly massive full-color volume. In this series, Fury assembled a new team of young S.H.I.E.L.D. agents. It kind of reminds me of the 80s/90s TV revival of Mission: Impossible, which paired an aging Peter Graves with a new, young team. If Steranko's Sixties run dabbled in the fantastic, Harras' run fully embraces it. These stories are far from straight-up espionage. In the Nineties, with the Evil Empire dead or dying, Marvel's spy agency found itself countering a growing number of extraterrestrial or monstrous threats. That's not really my cup of tea, but I still like having this era collected and I hope Volume 1 sells well enough to justify subsequent editions. It's kind of funny to think of the Nineties version of a Sixties original branded as "Classic" (at the time, these issues seemed anything but!), but I suppose that label is meant to differentiate the title from the current incarnation of S.H.I.E.L.D.—particularly the popular "Ultimate" version of Nick Fury. Before we get to that, though, there's still another important chapter in the life of Classic Nick.

In his most recent starring ongoing series, Secret Warriors by Jonathan Hickman, Nick Fury once more went rogue, and once more found himself battling his own agency. The first story arc was tellingly titled Nick Fury, Agent of Nothing. Speaking of trends, this incarnation once again found the eyepatched spymaster recruiting a new team of young agents to help him—the titular Secret Warriors. While each arc has been collected in its own trade paperback, Marvel collected the entire run of Secret Warriors (which tells one complete story with a beginning, middle and distinct end) in the truly enormous Secret Warriors Omnibus. It's pricey, but still a better deal than buying all the trades individually. The only drawback is the comfort of reading a six pound, 900+ page hardcover! Make sure you've got a table handy.

Prior to Secret Warriors, Fury made even more guest appearances than ever before during the first decade of this century, including an important presence in Ed Brubaker's epic run on Captain America. But with more bearing on this new TV series was his memorable guest appearance in the first volume of Joss Whedon's Astonishing X-Men, Gifted. Not only did John Cassaday draw a great, Steranko-style jumpsuited Fury, but Whedon proved that he definitely had the character's voice down pat, which bodes well for his TV show, even if that's likely to feature a different version of Fury, should he be on it at all.

In the 2000s, Nick Fury also mutated into a couple of different variations. Personally, I'll always take the classic Steranko version, but Garth Ennis's take on Nick Fury for Marvel's adult-oriented line MAX found a lot of fans and even made Rolling Stone's annual "Cool List." Ennis's first attempt at the character, Fury MAX, was a hyper-violent, darkly humorous look at an old Cold Warrior addicted to war, liquor and prostitutes. He toned down some of the excesses when he brought the character back in an arc of his MAX Punisher run entitled Mother Russia. (He's crude, but the Punisher version of the character is a lot closer to his traditional Marvel Universe equivalent.) This year, Ennis penned another Fury MAX miniseries of a very different tone called My War Gone By. While still very much adult in language and content, this version is also adult in its storytelling, unlike the sophomoric ribaldry of the first Fury MAX miniseries. The 2012 Fury MAX, in fact, is my very favorite take on the character besides Steranko's. It's what I've always wanted to see: Nick Fury in a serious Cold War espionage story. Be careful not to mix it up with its predecessor (that's easy enough, as that one is out of print and consequently pricey as a collection), but make a point of sampling the current Fury MAX if that sounds like your cup of tea.

Another alternate version of Nick Fury worth mentioning from the first decade of the new century is Neil Gaiman's Sir Nicholas Fury from his epic Marvel 1602. Gaiman's story explores a divergent timeline in which the Marvel Universe comes into being during the late Elizabethan age, and he turns the comic book characters into analogues for real historical figures. Fury, quite obviously, fills the shoes of Sir Francis Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth I's famous spymaster. (Walsingham was memorably portrayed by Geoffrey Rush in the film Elizabeth.) The result is true to both the fictional character and the factual one, providing one of my favorite incarnations of the eyepatched superspy at his most Machiavellian.

The third alternate version from that decade is by far the most famous, now, thanks to the Marvel films. That's the "Ultimate" version. In the early 2000s, Marvel decided to create an alternate universe to that in which their primary comics take place so that they could tell stories about Spider-man when he was still a teenager and the X-Men before they got bogged down in decades' worth of impenetrably dense continuity. In other words, comics that someone who had just walked out of one of those movies could pick up and make sense out of. It was a good idea. Some characters were similar to their regular Marvel Universe versions; some were wildly different. Nick Fury was the only one I know of in the initial batch to change race. But he's not just the Nick Fury we know and love with a different skin color. No, writer Mark Millar went further than that and modelled Ultimate Nick Fury on Samuel L. Jackson. The character has played an even bigger role in the Ultimate Universe than he does in the regular Marvel titles, and since the Ultimate Universe has served largely as a blueprint for Marvel Studios' films, it made sense that director John Favreau turned to Jackson himself when the time came to cast Nick Fury for a cameo in Iron Man. Thanks to the massive popularity of the films, this is the version of Nick Fury that mass audiences are now most familiar with, and presumably the one who exists in the world of the Whedon TV show, whether he actually turns up in person or not.  Despite his popularity, Ultimate Nick Fury has never starred in his own solo book, instead playing a major role in The Ultimates, Ultimate Spider-man and other Ultimate titles.

Thanks to the success of the films, Marvel has even felt pressure to work a more Samuel L. Jackson-y version of Nick Fury into the primary Marvel Universe. This summer, they introduced a black Army Ranger character named Marcus Johnson in a comic called Battle Scars. By the end of the story, he'd lost an eye, gained a patch, shaved his head, and been revealed to be the illegitimate son of Nick Fury. Thus he was rechristened Nick Fury, Jr. He seems poised to take over his father's job as the director of S.H.I.E.L.D., and the elder Fury will be slowly retired to the background of the Marvel Universe. I'm just glad he'll still be around at all, and not completely replaced!

If Fury does show up on Whedon's S.H.I.E.L.D. show, it won't be his first foray into television. He previously appeared in the form of David Hasselhoff in a 1998 FOX TV movie written by future Batman Begins/Dark Knight Rises scribe David S. Goyer. It's not awful (but it's not great either), but I'm afraid Hasselhoff was no more suited to playing the classic Fury than Jackson. (Decidedly less so, in fact--though he did manage to look the part thanks to some savvy costume and production design.) He apparently thought he was, though, and recently made headlines for resenting the fact that he wasn't asked to play the role in the bigscreen Marvel movies! Well, perhaps he can take some solace in the knowledge that the out-of-print DVD of his Nick Fury movie now commands prices upwards of $60 on Amazon... Fury also made semi-regular appearances on the animated Spider-man series of the 1990s. (He even ended up immortalized in plastic for the first time in the toy line based on this show, though there have been better Fury figures since.) Fury's Ultimate-based, Samuel L. Jackson-styled incarnation plays a fairly major role (not voiced by Jackson, though) on the current kid-oriented cartoon Ultimate Spider-man.

There have been some other famous agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. over time, too, foremost among them (thanks again to the films) the sexy former Russian spy Natasha Romanoff, aka The Black Widow. Three Marvel Premiere hardcovers (again, beautifully produced) collect this secret agent's most essential adventures in matching volumes. Black Widow: The Sting of the Widow presents the character's first appearance (in a silly costume in an issue of Iron Man) and earliest solo adventures from the early Seventies, after she'd gotten an Emma Peel makeover, ending up in the black catsuit with which she's still most closely associated. These early Black Widow comics will surely be of interest to collectors and hardcore fans, but casual fans looking for a great introduction to the character are better off picking up the second volume in the series, Black Widow: Web of Intrigue first.

Black Widow: Web of Intrigue offers an excellent primer on the character containing some of her classic appearances from the early Eighties, including an excellent comic drawn by my second-favorite spy artist (after Steranko), Paul Gulacy.  (Look for a cameo appearance by Michael Caine!) Black Widow: Web of Intrigue contains this and several other seminal tales of the red-haired Russian superspy. A third volume, Black Widow: The Itsy Bitsy Spider collects a pair of Marvel Knights stories from the late Nineties (including one by Queen & Country scribe Greg Rucka).

My two favorite modern-day Widow storylines have yet to receive the hardcover treatment, sadly, but are available in a pair of out-of-print trade paperbacks. Richard K. Morgan's Black Widow: Homecoming and Black Widow: The Things They Say About Her put the focus on espionage above superheroics and are among the very best Marvel spy stories of recent vintage. I hope they end up in the next Premiere volume. Other recent Widow stories include Black Widow: Deadly Origin, Black Widow and the Marvel Girls, Black Widow: The Name of the Rose and Black Widow: Kiss or Kill. Most of the character's adventures with Daredevil from the 1970s are included in Essential Daredevil: Volume 3. The character currently appears in the ongoing series Winter Soldier, Secret Avengers and Captain America.

They may be more famous for their superheroes, but the Marvel Universe actually contains a nice little niche of superspies as well. And they're worth reading up on before they become more famous than ever in a new Joss Whedon TV show! (And if you do decide to take the plunge on any of these titles, please feel free to support the Double O Section by using the Amazon links provided.)

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