A Comic Expert's Primer to ABC's 'Agents of SHIELD'

Battle Scars Clark Gregg SHIELD - H 2013
Marvel; ABC

Battle Scars Clark Gregg SHIELD - H 2013

ABC will put its fall fortunes in the hands of Marvel and Buffy the Vampire Slayer mastermind Joss Whedon when the network looks to Agents of SHIELD to launch an entirely new Tuesday lineup.

The drama, a follow-up to Marvel and Whedon's The Avengers, is based on Marvel Comics' secret intelligence organization that has appeared in countless titles including Iron Man, Captain America and The Ultimates since being introduced in the 1960s. The military law-enforcement agency's moniker stands for Strategic Homeland Intervention Enforcement and Logistics Division, which has also evolved over time in the comics.

The Hollywood Reporter turned to Los Angeles comic book author/expert Siike Donnelly  for a guide to the must-read comics that fully explain the origins of SHIELD in an effort to prepare the uninitiated for the comics world that awaits in Agents of SHIELD.

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ABC's Agents of SHIELD marks the latest chapter in the Marvel universe -- and the first small-screen story to take characters previously featured in comics and films including The Avengers.

The series, in a way, picks up where Marvel and Joss Whedon's Avengers left off. It features Clark Gregg's Agent Phil Coulson's mysterious return -- dubbed the rare Level 7 clearance -- after having been killed off in the film. How I Met Your Mother's Cobie Smulders reprises her Avengers role as Agent Maria Hill in the pilot.

The first nugget of Agents of SHIELD was planted in 2008, when Iron Man was released. In the film, a secret agent, a seemingly throwaway character, kept hounding Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) for a debriefing about the latter's kidnapping. That man was Gregg's Agent Phil Coulson, and he worked for the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division, with two goals: to get to the truth behind Stark's capture and to find an easier way to say the name of the agency.

Coulson quickly became a fan favorite and went on to appear in Iron Man 2, Thor, The Avengers as well as a series of short films that can be found on Marvel Blu-rays. The character transcended the screen after first debuting in Marvel comics (Battle Scars, Secret Avengers Now), video games (Marvel Heroes, Lego Marvel) and in Disney XD's Ultimate Spider-Man animated series.

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Coulson has become the entry point to the organization known as SHIELD. But for the uninitiated, the SHIELD door was first opened by Col. Nicholas Joseph Fury, who first appeared as Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos #1 in May, 1963. In the comic, Fury led a military squad of the same name -- which some might recall as the men who fought alongside Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) in the 2011's Captain America: The First Avenger.

As action heroes began to evolve in other media, Fury creators Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were inspired to evolve their character as well. In the pages of Strange Tales #135, the duo promoted Fury from sergeant to colonel and put him in charge of something much bigger than a few soldiers.

Originally, SHIELD stood for Supreme Headquarters, International Espionage, Law-Enforcement Division. The group constantly battled Hydra, a terrorist organization that also appeared in Captain America and was led by the Red Skull (Hugo Weaving) in the film, but instead squared off against characters including Arnold Brown and Baron Wolfgang Von Strucker in the comics.

ABC has kept the pilot for the drama, which stars Ming Na, under lock and key outside of screenings at Comic-Con and at the Television Critics Association's summer press tour and is remaining mum on what role future guest stars will have with the series in a bid to create event viewing (or DVR-proof) as the network looks to reinvent its Tuesday lineup. For those who want to be better prepared for ABC's top-secret drama, here's a primer.

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Clearance Level 5
Any issue of Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos is at the top of the required reading list, but might be the hardest title to locate. They feature great stories of Fury in WWII. Jim Steranko's Strange Tales has been reprinted in trade paperback format (SHIELD by Jim Steranko: The Complete Collection) and is currently on the shelves of your local comic book store. This collection re-tells the early missions of SHIELD, as well as the classic "Who is Scorpio" story, where Fury battles an enemy with a close connection to his past.

Marvel Spotlight #31 (out of print) offers the answer to why Nick Fury ages so slowly. Also good is Fury Max: My War Gone, Fury: Peacemaker and Wolverine & Nick Fury: Scorpio, if you want to read great war and revenge tales. The 1988 miniseries Nick Fury vs. SHIELD will also be reprinted in collected form in early October. Two key storylines from the 1989 series of Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD are Operation: Cold War and The Deltite Affair, but might be hard to track down. Also helpful is Howard Chaykin's Fury of SHIELD miniseries that came out in the 1990s. All are great Fury stories, with a focus on how he runs his organization.

The second Ghost Rider, Danny Ketch, fought his girlfriend, who was SHIELD-trained in Ghost Rider: Betrayal, for those who want to see a bit of what SHIELD training entails. Around that time, the Punisher tried to assassinate Fury in Over the Edge, which offers a deeper look into the strategic mind of Nick Fury. For some mutant action, fans should track down Kitty Pryde: Agent of SHIELD to see how someone with unique, mutant abilities is trained by Fury’s group -- a key note as ABC's SHIELD will explore humans with incredible abilities. The still-in-print Wolverine: Enemy of the State features a brainwashed Wolverine, who gets sent to kill Marvel’s superheroes, with SHIELD and Elektra standing in his way. Lastly, the Amalgam Universe one-shot Bruce Wayne: Agent of SHIELD -- where Marvel and DC Comics characters were fused together for a very brief moment in time -- is also a difficult find but a fun read if you’re curious how someone like Bruce Wayne runs an organization like SHIELD.

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Clearance Level 6 (all still in print)
Marvel's big Civil War series was a precursor to Iron Man taking over as the new director of SHIELD, with Maria Hill (Smulders) by his side. Hill's first appearance is in the New Avengers graphic novel Breakout, which featured the rebuilding of the Avengers during a massive breakout by dozens of villains from their maximum security, Alcatraz-like prison, known as The Raft. The character plays a major role in the first nine volumes of New Avengers and leads up to a showdown between her and the Skrull aliens in Secret Invasion.

Following those events, Spider-Man's greatest villain, Norman Osborn (aka the Green Goblin) saves the world and becomes the Iron Patriot. Iron Patriot was also the identity Tony Stark's ally, Col. James Rhodes, took in Iron Man 3 and was loosely based off the Osborn design. Osborn then creates his own Dark Avengers and renames SHIELD to HAMMER, and leads his new army to battle Thor's home of Asgard in the comic Siege.

Secret Warriors features a great story called "Nick Fury, Agent of Nothing" that has Fury build a team made up of the children of super-villains. SHIELD: Architects of Forever is a story that reveals the organization has been around for generations, with its first members being Leonardo Da Vinci, Isaac Newton, Imhotep, Zhang Heng and Galileo.

For his part, Whedon -- who serves as an executive producer on ABC's series -- also contributed a piece to SHIELD history in the pages of Astonishing X-Men by creating a counterpart agency called SWORD, whose purpose is to deal with extraterrestrial threats to Earth. They hang out in an orbiting space station called the Peak.

Secret War by Brian Michael Bendis and any of Ed Brubaker's Captain America run -- especially the books featuring the antagonist from the next Cap film, The Winter Soldier, are essential. Still, in all of these stories, readers will notice that Nick Fury looks more David Hasselhoff and less Samuel L. Jackson (who played Fury in Marvel's Iron Man, Thor, Captain America and Avenges features). Luckily, for those who prefer Jackson, you're covered.

The Ultimates series features an alternate universe version of Fury (Gen. Fury) that inspired the Marvel feature take on the character. These comics also feature the Chitauri, the alien race from The Avengers film, who are an alternate universe take on the Skrulls. In the main Marvel universe, Battle Scars introduces Nick Fury's son, Marcus Johnson, as the new Fury, who also strikes a resemblance with Jackson. Also in the pages of Battle Scars, readers are introduced to an agent that fights alongside Marcus on his rise to the top as the new Nick Fury -- that agent is Phil Coulson (played by Gregg on ABC).

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Clearance Level 7 (all monthly titles)
Secret Avengers Now features Coulson, Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson in the features), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and the new Nick Fury, Marcus Johnson, in charge of a revolving door of teammates that get their memory erased after each mission. Captain America Now features Cap working with SHIELD -- in and out of his own dimension. Indestructible Hulk Now sees Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) going to SHIELD with a new concept on how to aim his big, green, dark side at things that need smashing. (Hulk is briefly seen in some of the teaser trailers for ABC's SHIELD, though there's no word on if the character will appear.)

For X-Men fans, Wolverine Now introduces readers to a far more vulnerable Logan as his journey brings him to SHIELD's doorstep after his healing factor vanishes. Also, Savage Wolverine: Kill Island sees Logan stranded in the Savage Land with Shanna the She-Devil and a few SHIELD agents on a survival mission with the Hulk.

Infinity, Marvel’s current big summer event, features SHIELD, SWORD and every version of the Avengers in a battle against Thanos, that giant purple creature at the end of The Avengers film that sent Loki and the Chitauri to Earth.

The Ultimate Spider-Man all-ages comic, based on the popular animated series, is also a place to see the web-slinger and SHIELD agents fight side by side.

Finally, Iron Man 3 is out on DVD and includes a bonus short film starring with information about Extremis. Hayley Atwell reprises her role as Agent Peggy Carter from Captain America and takes on an assignment that puts her on a new career path. This information cannot be missed by anyone wanting to learn more about ABC's SHIELD.

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Ultimate background
For the quick way into SHIELD, Marvel in November will release Agents of SHIELD #1, which reprints Strange Tales #135 (the first appearance of SHIELD); Battle Scars #6 (the first appearance of Coulson and the new Nick Fury); Secret Avengers Now #1; and Avenging Spider-Man #20-21, where Spidey fans can see a Doctor Octopus-possessed wall-crawler interact with Fury, Hulk, Black Widow, Hawkeye and Agent Coulson.

ABC's Agents of SHIELD premieres on Tuesday, Sept. 24 at 8 p.m.

Siike Donnelly is a comic book expert, published author/artist who can be found on Twitter (@explodingbullet) or shopping and sharing his nerd knowledge at Golden Apple Comics in Hollywood.