Although Marvel Comics didn’t start publishing until 1939, the Marvel Universe’s history with the superheroic and supernatural go back to the dawn of man.
After showing his mettle on titles such as Secret Warriors and Fantastic Four, writer Jonathan Hickman takes on the secret history of the Marvel Universe in the series S.H.I.E.L.D.. In this ongoing series, Hickman and artist Dustin Weaver are unraveling the origins of S.H.I.E.L.D. and find that it isn’t merely a modern spy organization but a group that traces its history back into the earliest days of humankind. The book will chart previously untold stories of classic historical figures such as Leonardo Da Vinci, Isaac Newton, Galileo and others as they work to keep humanity on track and repel threats from those around them and from the space above.
Although the series promises its fair share of time-spanning stories, the series is primarily set in the fertile ground of the 1950s as Nathaniel Richards and Howard Stark, fathers of modern-day heroes Reed Richards and Tony Stark, are that time’s key figures in the shadowy S.H.I.E.L.D. organization. Yes, Nick Fury is around – but this isn’t his battle to fight. Richards and Stark are carrying on the traditions from their classic counterparts against a conspiracy that spans time – all the while being kept under wraps from citizens of the Marvel U and readers like you and I – until now.
Newsarama: Jonathan, from the preview Marvel released in March, it seems like S.H.I.E.L.D. is jumping all over the place – ancient Egypt, the 1950s, Renaissance times. How would you describe what’s going on?
Issue #1, pg. 2Jonathan Hickman: It primarily takes place in the 1950s, but it’s not that kind of story – it’s not a nostalgic fifties story. If anything, all the nostalgic bits are way back in time – the Renaissance, Egypt, Ancient Rome, and the Middle East at its intellectual height; Ancient China as well.
Time hopping is kind of an understatement – but the narrative is really tight. We’re telling the stories of a lot of different characters – really important men in the history of the world. We’re brining them into the Marvel Universe and sprinkling our Jack Kirby / Stan Lee fairy dust over them and making it bigger.
Issue #1, pg. 3Nrama: How do you go about figuring out who’s capable to be in this time-spanning organization?
Hickman: The general rule is that they are polymaths; renaissance men. People that are disciplined in many fields, not just one. You can argue that if a person dedicates their life to one singular thing than they could get exceptional at it regardless of their acumen, but being able to learn different fields and see how the world works takes a particular kind of genius.
Nrama: It seems like there’s a lot of playing pieces on this proverbial chessboard – but what’s the story about, or at least the first one?
Issue #1, pg. 4Hickman: The first issue is called “The Unholy Resurrection of Leonardo Da Vinci”; the second is “The Internal Combustion of the Eternal Dynamo”.
I intend for S.H.I.E.L.D. to be a finite series – the book may continue after that, but the major story-arc I have in mind is a certain number of issues that could grow or shrink slightly. It’s more a maxi-series I guess than a true “ongoing series” in the traditional comics format.
Nrama: As a designer, I have to ask about the logo – with the periods between each letter emanating out. Did you design that, and what does that symbolize?
Hickman: Yes, I did. It’s intended to be a map of our solar system.
Issue #1, pg. 5Nrama: Interesting – so we’re talking not just global implications, but extraterrestrial influence. And we see it in these first pages, with the Egyptians fighting the Brood, Japanese fighting a Celestial, and even Da Vinci going up against Galactus. What you’re getting at is Earth has been invaded, visited and come into contact with extraterrestrials far earlier than most people thought. What’s going on here?
Hickman: A significant portion of this is about the hidden history of the world. We’ve seen some of this before in Marvel lore, but this really breaks that open. S.H.I.E.L.D. is about a pointed ideology – a single purpose, that is enabling for the continued evolution of humanity. That’s one of the main goals of this secret organization throughout time.
Nrama: Sort of like shepherds to the flock that is Earth’s residents?
Issue #1, pg. 6Hickman: Yes. Their secondary purpose is to push humanity into being something more, which is what the book is actually about.
With those glimpses at the battles you’ve seen in the preview, we’re looking at different events through time and how representatives of the organization are there to protect Earth against extraterrestrial forces and threats, or at the least navigating Earth through a situation into an acceptable resolution.
Nrama: When people hear the acronym S.H.I.E.L.D., the first thing that comes to mind is Nick Fury. But from what you’re say, S.H.I.E.L.D. is more than that.
Issue #1, pg. 7Hickman As I said, this predominantly takes place in the 1950s with flashbacks to earlier times, and as we all know Nick Fury was definitely part of that era – the Infinity Formula and all that – but he’s not the main character in this book.
Nrama: Who would you say are the key players in S.H.I.E.L.D?
Hickman: In the 50s you have Nathaniel Richards and Howard Stark, the fathers of Reed Richards and Tony Stark. Going back through time you have Da Vinci obviously, as well as a little Michaelangelo, Isaac Newton, Galileo, Imhotep and a bunch of Middle Eastern polymaths.
Nrama: Very interesting. So how’d you go about re-envisioning these classic figures in a more superheroic guise?
Hickman: Well, a lot of that was artist Dustin Weaver and I going back and forth playing with the visual. It starts with me throwing some ideas at him, and Dustin’s great – he threw them right back with his initial conceptions of them. We would then get more or less convoluted until we reached something we were happy with. All these classic historical figures have a very specific role to play in the Marvel, and their outgrowth is part of that. It’s all related to their purpose.
Issue #1, pg. 8Nrama: In the S.H.I.E.L.D. sketchbook you reveal two new characters named Leonid, the Eternal Dynamo and the Night Machine. I don’t see them in my history books or Marvel Universe manuals, so who are they?
Hickman: I don’t want to say much at this stage, but Leonid will act as the reader’s eyes into everything going on. And Night Machine – he’s a very important character, and I’m particularly proud of how cool he looks.
Nrama: When it comes to anything before the 1940s, the history of the Marvel Universe is relatively unexplored. Why do you think no one’s gone here before, and what kind of challenges and opportunities does that present to you writing this?
Hickman: I think people have done stuff – important stuff – but in comparison to the huge body of work Marvel has that’s infinitesimal. One of the powers of the Marvel Universe has been it’s modernity, back when it was first introduced and to this day. Marvel takes place in the here and now, and the stories are so resonant often because of their immediacy.
But going back into previous ventures into the Marvel U’s history, there are certain landmarks that other people have made that you can’t get away from. The Eternals, the Deviants, the Inhumans and the visits by the Celestials – all obviously stuff that’s happened. There’s a laundry list of specific stories already told that act as keystones – little markers – as we explore Earth’s history.
The key for what I’m doing here is to take it all and massage what you can into a cohesive dynamic – if something is going to conflict horribly with what’s plan, you try to steer clear of that particular hurdle. One of the tricks that we’ve been able to use to make this work is that this history has all been very secret – even to the big modern players in the Marvel U.
Nrama: A really neat thing I saw in the preview was in the line-up of Egyptians squaring off against the Brood, a very young Apocalypse in their midst. Is that just a little easter egg, or will you be exploring that further?
Hickman: How can I best explain that?
When Dustin’s drawing a page, he puts three pages’ worth of work into every single page. You’d be surprised at what shows up in the background.
While some of the stuff may not be scripted, the cameo by Apocalypse and Moon Knight – did you catch that? – was asked for. You can also look at Da Vinci’s lab in the first issue – there’s all kinds of stuff that matters.
Nrama: Speaking into back-story, I see some possible overlap between the roadmap to S.H.I.E.L.D. and what you’ve laid out in recent issues of Fantastic Four and Secret Warriors. Is there a solid connection there?
Hickman: You don’t need to read any of the other books to understand and enjoy S.H.I.E.L.D., but if you do there are things that pop up that give you some additional meanings. I like to include extra stuff for people that dig my work to see how it all connects together. If you’re that guy or gal, you get rewarded.