The History Of S.H.I.E.L.D. Part One: The Off-Beat Origin

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.

It was 1965. Spies and secret agents were all the rage. James Bond ruled the box office and the bestseller charts. “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” and “The Saint” were the hottest things on TV, and they would soon be joined in prime-time by fellow spy shows “Get Smart,” “Secret Agent,” “I Spy,” and “The Avengers” (no relation to the Marvel super-team of the same name).

With a well-received guest appearance in “Fantastic Four” #21, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby brought their WWII hero Sgt. Nick Fury into the modern-day, as a CIA agent working to quell an uprising in South America. So it was only a short hop in logic to make him into a full-fledged secret agent, and create a super-spy agency for him to head up.

And thus, “Strange Tales” #135 arrived on stands with a new cover feature: Nick Fury, Agent Of S.H.I.E.L.D.

By this point, Fury has jumped a few ranks (from Sgt. to Colonel), and gained an eyepatch. His personality had also been smoothed out a bit, moving away from the hard-nosed brawler of his army days – he was now dressed in a smart suit, and though his speech patterns were still full of colorful idioms, he was far closer to the archetype of a suave and proficient secret agent than any previous appearance would have hinted.

The story jumped right into a whirlwind of espionage, evil terrorist organizations, android duplicates, and missile-launcher-equipped flying cars. Nick Fury was confused and struggling for his footing, and we learned about the top-secret agency that exists to defend against terrorist threats: the Supreme Headquarters, International Espionage, Law-Enforcement Division – SHIELD, for short. After he found a traitor in S.H.I.E.L.D.’s midst, Fury accepted the offer to led the new agency.

For the next couple years, Nick Fury continued to traipse around, battling S.H.I.E.L.D.’s evil counterpart organization HYDRA, and other threats to democracy. Lee and Kirby largely moved on to other projects after the introductory issue, leaving Fury and his operatives in the hands of a constantly-changing line-up of artists and writers, each putting a slightly different spin on the concept, creating new high-tech gizmos and gimmicks, searching for the magic formula to make the feature hold its own.

“Strange Tales” struggled to find its audience, though S.H.I.E.L.D. was fast becoming one of the threads tying together the Marvel continuity. Fury and other agents appeared in Fantastic Four and The Avengers, conveying the sense of a shared universe, becoming an essential part of an increasingly vast tapestry.

And at a certain point, it began to look like S.H.I.E.L.D. and Nick Fury would be just that – supporting characters, providing a bit of grounding for the far-flung cosmic adventures of sorcerers, monsters, gods, and gladiators that made up the Marvel Universe, but never becoming stars in their own right.

Until a certain young man walked into the Marvel offices, looking for work as a comic artist. Nobody knew it then, but the world of comics was about to change forever.

(Continued tomorrow in “The History Of S.H.I.E.L.D. Part Two: The Steranko Years.”)