The On-Screen Heroes
When one of the characters in the debut episode of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. called their world weird, they weren’t lying. But that’s why fans love the inter-connected world that makes up the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And after they deal with years of movies, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is taking viewers like you and I on a tour of the greater MCU and showing that you don’t have to be super to be a hero. Agent Coulson (played by Clark Gregg), whom Joss Whedon calls Marvel’s quintessential everyman, leads a cast of elite secret agents in Marvel’s premiere spy organization as they work to stay ahead of the curve as superhumans in all shapes and forms, dubbed “gifted,” pop up all over the globe.
Mixing the classic fiction tropes of a police procedural with the supernatural elements of X-Files on the playground that is the Marvel Universe, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has quickly racked up the fans, charting 11.9 million viewers on its first outing, becoming television’s highest rated debut since 2009. And with the track record Marvel’s films have had from Iron Man to Marvel’s Avengers and the talents of Joss Whedon behind the show, it looks like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. will be hard at work for years to come. And although most fans of Marvel Studios can trace back the origins of S.H.I.E.L.D. to Coulson’s first appearance in 2008’s Iron Man and Tony’s recruitment by Nick Fury (played by Samuel L. Jackson), S.H.I.E.L.D.’s true origin is much, much older.
Comic Book Origins and Influences
Long before Marvel started making movies, S.H.I.E.L.D. was the quintessential and key espionage organization for Marvel Comics. With its long-time leader Nick Fury, S.H.I.E.L.D. acted as the police, protector and enforcer of things behind the scenes – and sometimes on the big stage – not only in the United States but all across the globe. Created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby back in 1965 and inspired by the likes of James Bond and The Man From U.N.C.L.E., S.H.I.E.L.D. starred in Marvel’s Strange Tales series for several years and followed the cat-and-mouse game between Fury’s organization and their adversaries in HYDRA.
It’s All About Fury
In many ways, the story of S.H.I.E.L.D. is the story of Nick Fury. Nick Fury came of age in World War 2 as the leader of a U.S. Army special forces squad called the Howling Commandos, who he debuted alongside in 1963, also at the hands of Kirby and Lee. Many of those same soldiers (sans Fury) were seen fighting alongside Captain America in Captain America: The First Avenger, but in the comics Fury led “Dum Dum” Duggan and the rest of the squad – sometimes even working alongside Marvel’s super soldier. But after the end of World War II, a new war began – the Cold War – and Fury was called into service once more, but as a super-spy to launch S.H.I.E.L.D. Through stories in Strange Tales and later his own series like Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., Fury was the point man as the United Nations-sanctioned organization fought Nazi holdovers, terrorists, and organizations like HYDRA.
Similar, but Different
Although the differences between the live-action version of S.H.I.E.L.D. and the original in comics are slight, they are noticeable. In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Agent Coulson is an integral part of the S.H.I.E.L.D. organization but in comics he was only introduced after his appearance in the Iron Man movie. And the most notable difference between the Nick Fury on screen and that of the comics is the fact that comics’ original incarnation is Caucasian rather than African-American. The idea of Nick Fury being black only came about fairly recently when artist Bryan Hitch drew him to look like Samuel L. Jackson in the 2000 series The Ultimates which was part of a new offshoot line of comics Marvel published called the Ultimate line, designed to be a twenty-first Century introduction to Marvel characters and concepts. Jackson is a long-time comics fan and approved of the use of his likeness, and it played a small-but-pivotal part in his casting as Fury in the surprise post-credits scene of Iron Man some years later. In the mainstream Marvel Comics continuity, the elder and white Nick Fury was revealed to have a previously-unknown son named Marcus Johnson that eventually takes over his father’s role in S.H.I.E.L.D. along with his name.
The comics have also opened up the idea that S.H.I.E.L.D. is not just the superspy organization we know, but also one that dates back centuries as a secret society that includes amongst its members Galileo Galillei, Imhotep, and Leonardo da Vinci.
Regardless of these changes, there are many touchstones within Marvel comics for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. fans to reach for to better know this secret spy organization and its agents. They are:
Secret Avengers: Although it says “Avengers” in the title, this is a S.H.I.E.L.D. book through and through. This currently ongoing series stars Fury (Jr.), Coulson and Maria Hill as the lead agents in S.H.I.E.L.D. in their ongoing efforts to police, patrol and protect Earth. In this book, the trio recruits other heroes like the Hulk, Black Widow, Hawkeye and War Machine to work in different capacities to fit the needs of each mission. So far the series has tackled real world threats like Al-Qaeda, Marvel classics like the Masters of Evil, and even the scien-terrorists known as A.I.M. that movie fans were introduced to in Iron Man 3. A collected edition of the first arc, titled Secret Avengers, Vol. 1: Reverie, is on-stands now and the series is also available with new single issues each month.
S.H.I.E.L.D. by Jim Steranko: The Complete Collection: Although it’s Lee and Kirby that created Nick Fury and the organization known as S.H.I.E.L.D., it’s the evocative work of writer/artist Jim Steranko that really catapulted the concept into being a major force in Marvel Comics. Mixing the artistic energy of Pop Art with legendary comics artist Will Eisner, Steranko told stories of S.H.I.E.L.D. in the 1960s that cemented Fury as a hard-luck, smooth talking super spy. James Bond he’s not, as Fury’s shown that he isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty – although he shares Bond’s penchant for female companionship.
Nick Fury vs. S.H.I.E.L.D.: Fury is best known as the leader of S.H.I.E.L.D., but in this epic 1980s 6-part story he’s out in the cold and on the offensive as he’s fighting back against the corruption that led to his departure from the spy organization. This series, written by Bob Harras with art by Paul Neary, holds up well as a spy vs. spy type thriller showing S.H.I.E.L.D. acting in a rare negative light.
Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. airs Tuesday nights on ABC