US: May 2010
In “The Unholy Resurrection of Leonardo da Vinci”, the opening issue of S.H.I.E.L.D., Jonathan Hickman begins with the very familiar. Familiar for both modern readers (the opening page’s 1953 treads exactly the same path as Cap’s story in Millar and Hitch’s Ultimates), and for the traditional Marvel superhero story.
It’s yesteryear in New York, and Leonid, the son of supervillain Night Machine, is abducted in broad daylight. Already beginning to evidence a form of superpowers, it is no surprise that Leonid will be the subject of observation by intelligence services. The specific agency in question, S.H.I.E.L.D., contacts Hickman’s protagonist in the persons of Agents Stark and Richards, the fathers of the more familiar Marvel superheroes Iron Man and Mr. Fantastic.
But for all the familiarity, and usualness, the journey into mystery is really just about to begin.
Leonid is taken to S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters in Rome, the Immortal City, and discovers there beneath the edifice of ‘50s culture, ‘Urbis Immortalis’ is more than a classical sobriquet of the city he finds himself in. The Immortal City is a living, working city, centuries old, where science has become so advanced it is indistinguishable from magic.
It is here that Leonid encounters the Undying Ones, the High Council of S.H.I.E.L.D., and here that he is admitted into their ranks. S.H.I.E.L.D., the intelligence agency, is itself nothing more than an edifice. In truth, S.H.I.E.L.D. is a millennia-old conspiracy, secretly guiding human civilization, ensuring the progress of humankind, defending against threats to human evolution.
Tracing their lineage back to the moment Egyptian warrior Imhotep pushed back a Chitauri invasion on the banks of the Nile nearly 5,000 years ago, Hickman and series regular artist Dustin Weaver take readers on a tour of the organization’s secret history.
Hickman and Weaver work in a perfect two-step. Tapping the notion of the social complexity of ancient civilizations first proposed by Renaissance philosopher Giambattista Vico, Hickman nevertheless attempts a clear linear narrative for the history of the ultimate conspiracy. This is an intricate process. How easily could a writer communicate social complexity of ancient times, yet produce a sufficiently concise story that does not exceed 22 pages? It is here that Weaver finds his opportunity.
With the 100-foot-tall alien robots parading through the Imperial Palace of Han Dynasty Emperor, Zhang Heng, 5,000-year-old battle scenes on the banks of the Nile and Galactus himself gracing the streets of 16th century Florence, Weaver articulates social complexity in the mass of detail accumulated in each panel. Yet, the panels themselves are regularized, linear, clear, clean and easy to follow. Scenes within the panels are viewed through easy, head-on perspectives. The meaning in Weaver’s art is abundantly clear. While the societies themselves are complex, the story is easy to follow.
Yet, with the Rome of 1953, that magically scientific place that cedes itself as the perfect locus for a millennia-old conspiracy of human progress, Weaver’s art changes dramatically. Birds- and worms-eye views abound. Images are tilted within panels. The human world of 1953, which should be the most familiar, becomes the most disconcerting, the most unstable, and perhaps even mystical. Even without Hickman’s gift for storytelling on a grand scale, Weaver’s lyrically seductive artwork is well worth the cover price.
Hickman’s capacity to weave a story of this scope should not be underestimated. When his tale does seem to plateau, even this is only a ruse to introduce deeper themes in the overarching story.
One problem that emerges after the lionizing of S.H.I.E.L.D.‘s history is that of Leonid’s lineage. In this magnificent conspiracy of progress, why would the category of hero and villain still apply? This sense of vague disappointment is exactly the same felt at George Lucas’ over-simplistic rendering of Jedi and Sith in his Star Wars franchise. After millennia of evolution, why would the best of minds simply revert to an us-versus-them pack dynamic?
Hickman however, addresses this problem with true skill. Just as Leonid begins to settle into a routine in the Immortal City (three years have passed since his arrival), The Night Machine reappears. It is this father-son interaction that has become such a powerful thematic in Hickman’s work that fuels the story onward. The Night Machine is here to destroy the Immortal City, and to give his son the key to roof of the city. The Night Machine has arrived to force human evolution and remove it from the artificial calendar set by the Undying Ones.
But this too, is just the beginning.
Between Hickman and Weaver, the reinvention of S.H.I.E.L.D. is in capable hands. The story is majestic in its scope, attempting to grasp the full distance of human civilization, over the long march of time. Marvel’s S.H.I.E.L.D. comes with the highest praise.