By Patrick A. Reed
By now, you've probably heard the news that ABC has ordered a full season of "Marvel's Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.," the show set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and masterminded by Joss Whedon. But what you might not be familiar with, if you're not a hardcore comic reader, is the background of this mysterious S.H.I.E.L.D. organization. We break it down for you, in MTV Geek's History of S.H.I.E.L.D.
In 1986, news broke that United States government officials had been selling arms to Iran, and funneling the profits to the Contras, a group of anti-communist rebels in Nicaragua. The Iran-Contra Scandal (as it would come to be known) was a defining event in the Reagan administration; the investigations and trials that followed dragged on for years, and gave many Americans a less-than-rosy view of their government and its secretive dealings.
In this environment, the idea of an all-powerful black ops organization in the Marvel universe seemed rather unsavory. While the concept of S.H.I.E.L.D. had stayed fundamentally unchanged through the societal upheavals of Vietnam and Watergate, the knowledge that the real-life CIA was conducting ethically questionable back-room deals suddenly cast things in a different light.
And so, in 1988, Marvel launched a six-issue squarebound limited series, "Nick Fury VS. S.H.I.E.L.D.," wherein Fury discovered that many of his friends and associates had been replaced by LMDs (Life Model Decoys), and his beloved organization was entirely corrupted. So, he proceeded to destroy the agency from the inside out. Much battling ensued, many people died, and many impassioned soliloquies were delivered on patriotism and disillusionment. At the end of the story, the United Nations dissolved the Supreme Headquarters, International Espionage, Law-Enforcement Division. S.H.I.E.L.D. was no more. So, what happened next?
Well, Fury didn't take well to retirement. Before long, a new "Nick Fury, Agent Of S.H.I.E.L.D." title was launched, and the title character, not wanting to waste a good acronym, founded the all-new Supreme High Intelligence Espionage and Logistics Directorate to fend off newer and deadlier threats to democracy. This new series ran for forty-seven issues, from 1989 to 1993, and while it started out attempting to establish a new status quo (a slimmed-down group of agents answering only to Fury, operating independently of any government), by the end of the run, S.H.I.E.L.D. returned to being the huge, globe-spanning team it had been the first time around.
The organization would shuffle and reorganize itself, regain its former place of importance in the Marvel universe, and eventually settle on a new official acronym-able title as the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division. New agents were introduced, old ones were resurrected: Commander G.W. Bridge made regular appearances in the "New Mutants" and "X-Force," one of the X-Men's most popular members was recruited in a three-issue series entitled "Kitty Pryde, Agent Of S.H.I.E.L.D.," and Clay Quartermain returned to working with The Hulk.
And while S.H.I.E.L.D. was everywhere, it seemed that once again, nobody could figure out what to do with Nick Fury. After his series was cancelled, he continued to make guest appearances galore, starred in a number of mini-series and graphic novels, was killed and brought back to life, and had his backstory and history altered at the whims of whoever was writing him at any given time.
Then, in 2000, Marvel launched their new line of "Ultimate Comics," a from-the-ground-up revamp of the entire Marvel universe, in an attempt to tell stories that weren't bound to four decades of already-existing continuity. The S.H.I.E.L.D. in this new world was a more militaristic organization, less super-spies and more elite commandos, the Navy SEALs to a world of superheroics. Accordingly, a new Nick Fury was introduced in "Ultimate Marvel Team-Up" #5, portrayed as younger than the mainstream Marvel character, with close-cropped hair and a swarthy complexion.
The Ultimate Universe took its time finding its feet – trying things, keeping what worked and discarding the rest – and with the first issue of "The Ultimates," a re-imaging of the Avengers concept, they scrapped their first take on Fury and introduced the one that would have a lasting impact. Keeping only the trademark eyepatch, Ultimate Nick Fury now was a tall African-American with a shaved head, who bore an unmistakeable resemblance to a well-known actor.
In an amusing case of life imitating art imitating life, Samuel L. Jackson ended up seeing himself in an issue of the comic, reached out to Marvel, and after some negotiations, ended up taking on the role of Nick Fury in some movies that you might have heard about.
Meanwhile, back in the "real" Marvel Universe, more changes were afoot. The "Secret War" limited series removed Nick Fury from his position as commanding officer, after it came to light that he used superhumans to stage a coup d'etat in a foreign country, then wiped their memories of having done so. A new character, Maria Hill, was appointed as the new director, and after a year or so, she passed the reins of power to Tony Stark (who juggled his directorial duties and Iron Man activity with
his characteristic flair). Then, a Skrull invasion revealed that the agency's security had been compromised, moving the US government to disband S.H.I.E.L.D. again.
But again, you can't keep a good group of spies down, and before long, S.H.I.E.L.D. rose again, with agent Daisy Johnson in charge, and Nick Fury's tacit blessing. Nick Fury himself retired from active duty, after meeting his illegitimate son, also named Nick Fury, who now holds the position of Marvel's foremost secret agent. (And is, like the Ultimate version of Fury Sr., modeled on Samuel L. Jackson.)
And finally, in the last few years, there's been some serious rejiggering of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s backstory: It was revealed in Brian Michael Bendis and Johnathan Hickman's "Secret Warriors" series that the agency had been infiltrated by the evil terrorist organization HYDRA since day one, and in fact, Fury and his fellow agents had been inadvertently assisting the bad guys all along. And then, in Hickman's "S.H.I.E.L.D." series, we've seen that the governmental agency is just the most recent incarnation of The Brotherhood Of The Shield, a world-protecting secret society that reaches back through hundreds of years, and counts among its members Leonardo Da Vinci and Galileo.
These are some crazy revelations, and they don't make a lot of sense when added together with the rest of the accepted history… But they sure do make for entertaining reading, and that's all that really matters.
So, that's the story of S.H.I.E.L.D. – the people behind the superheroes, the agents that make the world safe for everyone, regardless of age, race, gender, or mutant ability. It's been a crazy journey from 1965 to today, and the super-spy agency has changed with the times, and reflected many different views on government and espionage across the generations. S.H.I.E.L.D. is an endlessly versatile concept, one that lends itself to limitless interpretations, and it's produced some of Marvel's most memorable characters. In short, it's the glue that holds the Marvel universe together, no matter how many times it contradicts itself along the way.
Catch up with Parts 1-3!