Jonathan Hickman is back at Marvel this summer covering X-Men, but have you read his work on S.H.I.E.L.D.? Put back into print today, S.H.I.E.L.D. by Hickman & Weaver: The Human Machine is the second and final volume in Hickman’s epic story, but when it comes to the architectural web of story Hickman is known for, one might question: is it ever over? This time-traveling series featuring characters like Leonardo da Vinci and Sir Isaac Newton in a sci-fi time travel story about the beginning of S.H.I.E.L.D is too trippy to miss.
So what’s it about?
The official summary reads:
A long-awaited modern classic — collected at last! The hidden past of S.H.I.E.L.D. is revealed, courtesy of some of history’s greatest minds! Michelangelo has been pulling the strings for years — but can even he keep Leonardo da Vinci and Sir Isaac Newton from killing each other and destroying the Brotherhood of the Shield? The battle for the Immortal City comes to a climactic conclusion! Michelangelo and Nikola Tesla kick their plan into high gear! Galileo takes on Galactus! The truth behind Nostradamus is uncovered! And Howard Stark lays the foundation for the espionage organization you know and love! But the battle that decides our present will be fought in the future.
Why does this matter?
You have to wonder if this is back in print because Hickman plans to play around with these characters. The most familiar of the bunch to casual superhero comic readers is Howard Stark aka Tony Stark’s dad, but if you have the faintest idea of historical scientists and thinkers you’ll know everybody in this tale.
Fine, you have my attention. What’s good about it?
I’ve known of this story for quite a while due to Leonardo da Vinci popping up in Brian Michael Bendis’ recent Iron Man ending as well as the use of the character as one of the founding fathers of S.H.I.E.L.D., but I’d never read it. Jumping in somewhat blind, it’s a story that’s richly drawn by Dustin Weaver and stylishly colored by Sonia Oback (with Rachelle Rosenberg, Christian Strain, and Dustin Weaver taking up the reins here and there) and these visuals will make it quite easy to carry forward, however confusing it might seem. There are a lot of characters not formally introduced which puts the expectation on the reader to find out on their own. That said, I had a fun time seeing all the ancient locations like Florence and how the steampunk vibe is alive and well here. There aren’t so much super-heroes in this narrative as there are super-minds, who have acquired abilities thanks to their otherworldly intelligence. Sir Isaac Newton ends up being the main antagonist and there are some amazing ideas afoot here. It’s a thriller to be sure as the narrative pushes forward at a good clip, but you may not understand everything. That’s where the sci-fi comes in, helping to further your suspension of disbelief and carry on.
Speaking of ideas, there are many, from a baby that came from the sun and only speaks in math to a great visual idea in regards to alternate timelines. There are elements done here you may have seen in movies or other comics, but not done quite as well. It’s hard to not to admire what Hickman and Weaver have accomplished as there are highly complex and complicated ideas that are easily translatable, even at times without words. It’s not overly verbose either. By the end of the collection, I felt like I had watched something akin to The Matrix trilogy in that it has complicated philosophical ideas that’ll make you think.
Weaver’s art is stupendous and highly detailed throughout. The work Weaver does is incredible thanks to the detail put into environments, clothing, and contraptions. It’s event-level quality, increasing the value of every panel and page. When dimensions split there’s an incredible use of paneling to show multiple dimensions at once that’s breathtakingly well done.
It can’t be perfect, can it?
I would recommend not reading this if you haven’t read S.H.I.E.L.D.: Architects of Forever since most of the characters aren’t introduced in this volume. They all get handy one-page biographies and stat sheets at the end of this collection though, so it’s not impossible to figure things out. The fact of the matter, however, is that this is incredibly dense, thought-provoking, and tricky to wrap your head around. It’s not what you might expect from a Marvel comic, which is at once why it’s intriguing to read and also frustrating. Hickman weaves quite a thickly complicated web here, making it all feel important and well thought out, but at the same time, it’s the kind of ancient story that could be easily ignored when it comes to the current Marvel stories. That makes it hard to care at times, especially when the story gets overly complicated in its own logic.
Is it good?
I enjoyed this mind-bending thriller that has somehow pulled off a great secret that some of our most coveted thinkers in history were all super spies saving the universe. The art is at once incredible and breathtaking, taking you on a ride you may not fully understand, but ultimately won’t care if you do or not. It’s that unique.
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