With the TV show making waves, we take a look at Marvel’s elite spy agency and why someone really wanted its initials to spell S.H.I.E.L.D.
YOU can’t claim to be a comics guru until you are able to explain what the acronym S.H.I.E.L.D. stands for – and here’s where I failed, despite being in this hobby for three and a half decades! In researching for today’s review, I discovered a valid “excuse” for my shortcoming – there are actually three definitions (plus a host of foreign translations) to that bewildering abbreviation!
It started out in 1965 as (Phil Coulson voice) Supreme Headquarters, International Espio-nage, Law-Enforcement Division, before being changed 26 years later to Strategic Hazard Intervention Espionage Logistics Directorate.
To further confuse matters, the Marvel Cinematic Universe added its own version – Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division.
What is in the name is not the issue here, but rather why the name?
Spurred by my interest in the new TV series Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., this week’s focus is on the agency’s comic-ology, in step with its own acronym.
S is for SPYMASTER
During the 1960s, a super-powered character was born in every comic published by Marvel. While these were exciting times in the fantasy world, reality continued to bite for most of us as we would never be “lucky” enough to be bitten by a radioactive spider or bombarded with gamma rays.
The “breakthrough” came with the introduction of Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., allowing “98-pound weaklings” everywhere to dream that they still could have a role to play in saving the world!
Jumping on the (then) “secret-spy-agencies-with-catchy-acronyms” fad, co-creators Stan “The Man” Lee and Jack “King” Kirby reinvented the World War 2 veteran as the face and head of S.H.I.E.L.D. in Strange Tales #135 (August 1965). Armed with funky codenames and cool gadgets, the law enforcement agency’s fight against Hydra, Yellow Claw and Scorpio were classic match-ups and offered a diversion from the usual cosmic slugfests.
While Lee and Kirby were his creators, the actual credit for elevating interest in Nick Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D. goes to Jim Steranko, whose groundbreaking run (Strange Tales #151-#168, and Nick Fury Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. (Vol 1)
#1-#7) is akin to James Bond and Mission: Impossible combined.
H is for HEADHUNTERS
You don’t just count on chance meetings with Agent Coulson to become an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. as the agency’s recruitment drive is all-encompassing. While some of us believe that it started with World War 2 veterans (i.e. Fury, “Dum Dum” Dugan and Gabriel “Gabe” Jones), recent developments (based on the 2010 series by Jonathan Hickman and Dustin Weaver) revealed that the “occult” agency of old (yes, espionage did exist during ancient times) had a list of high-profile “Pre-Modern Agents” such as Imhotep, Leonardo da Vinci, Galileo Galilei and Isaac Newton (!).
While the majority of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s agents are normal multi-talented humans, it has also recruited telepaths for its Psi-Division and superhuman agents (for example, Marvel Man, Texas Twister, Vamp and Blue Streak). While these names do not exactly make S.H.I.E.L.D. out to be an “employer of choice”, it makes up for its lack of big-name star power by having strong ties with superhero teams such as the Avengers and the Fantastic Four.
I is for INFINITY FORMULA
I have gotten used to having two Nick Furys, one who looks like David Hasselhoff and the other resembling Samuel L. Jackson, but what used to really puzzle me was the “fact” that a World War 2 veteran could still be fighting super-spies and terrorists in the 21st century! While Captain America has the Super-Soldier serum to thank for his youthful looks, Fury owes it to the Infinity Formula (no relation to the Gauntlet).
During WW2, Fury stumbled into a French minefield while attempting to evade a German patrol. He would have succumbed to that fatal blast if not for Prof Berthold Sternberg’s intervention. The professor saved (or experimented on, depending on how you view it) Fury’s ravaged body with an unknown serum (later dubbed the Infinity Formula), that not only healed Fury, but also slowed down his ageing process.
The “good” doctor’s cure came with a heavy price – as he then went on to extort Fury for the administering of a compulsory annual booster shot. Eventually, the formula fell into even deadlier hands, as Las Vegas casino owner Steel Harris sought to use it for an even greater extortion scheme. Nevertheless, Steel lost the formula to Fury’s girlfriend (at that time), Countess Valentina Allegra de Fontaine – ensuring our super-spy a steady supply of serum in the following years.
In recent years, Fury has gradually weaned himself off the serum and his recent Marvel appearances (such as Daredevil End of Days) portray him as a man in his twilight years.
E is for EQUIPMENT
If you are mesmerised by Coulson’s flying car a.k.a. Lola, which happens to be a standard-issue S.H.I.E.L.D. vehicle, then the assortment of gadgetry and firepower that the agency has at its disposal should leave you dumbfounded. Top of the list is the Helicarrier, which not only takes them from point A to B, but also serves as its headquarters. While there have been countless assaults on the Helicarrier, this airborne leviathan has always come back stronger than before.
To match the uniqueness of the Helicarrier and Lola, the geeks at S.H.I.E.L.D.’s weaponry department even designed
the “Hoverflier” (a mini Avengers Quinjet) and a range of tunnelling vehicles, to ensure that every inch of the planet is within its reach.
From an individual agent’s perspective, the ultimate in spy gear comprises a 300-round .15 calibre pistol designed to fire explosive-tipped needles; teargas boutonnieres; jetpacks; explosive shirts; rear-view periscope hats; camera-phone watches; and cigars laced with flash bombs (not sure if this is a replacement for the usual cyanide suicide pill).
L is for LMD, or Life Model Decoy
Hardcore S.H.I.E.L.D. followers would know that there are no “permanent” deaths in its stories, thanks to the availability of LMDs! The (over-) utilisation of this extremely lifelike android has featured in many of its adventures, especially in plots involving Fury’s “death”! Similar to how Dr Doom uses his Doombots to confront or confuse his enemies, Fury has an army of LMDs at his disposal.
Fury’s enemies had even bigger designs on the LMDs, however. The first time involved Nick’s brother Jake a.k.a. Scorpio who used the LMDs to create the Zodiac supervillian team, which the Defenders eventually defeated.
There was also an incident in which some LMDs gained sentience and infiltrated S.H.I.E.L.D.! Over the years, Fury hasn’t been the only hero with a penchant for LMDs, as the likes of Tony Stark, Thunderbolt Ross, Bucky and even Sharon Carter have at least one LMD each.
Considering the vague hints and mystery surrounding Agent Coulson’s resurrection, I wouldn’t be surprised if he is one too!
D is for DOMESTIC
Although S.H.I.E.L.D. is supposed to be a United Nations-chartered organisation, its focus on global affairs has gradually dwindled in recent years, largely thanks to the US President’s preference that the agency prioritises its resources on homeland matters.
This policy shift resulted in Maria Hill replacing Fury as S.H.I.E.L.D.
executive director. At that time, Fury was involved in Latveria-Gate (the Secret War event), where he led a group of heroes on an unauthorised mission in Dr Doom’s homeland. The incident led to international warrants of arrest served on Fury, paving the way for Maria to take charge of S.H.I.E.L.D.