Last night, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. received its UK premier on Channel 4. Once the cutting-edge, Left-wing chatterati channel of the 80s and later, a brash, vulgarian “Yoof” channel for much of the Nineties. Now, it’s all cookery and property shows, having aged with its audience, perhaps. A strange place for a US family drama, in the high-tech espionage vein.
I seem to be in a minority, finding the first episode a sophomoric affair, with snarky high-schooler dialogue and a scattering of cutesy references to Marvel Comics, (including a wincingly precious nod to Journey Into Mystery.) The characters were one-dimensional and the wacky British pair of science nerds were especially exasperating. I don’t remember if I’ve ever expressed any interest in the Agent Coulson character but I found him quite smug here.
An unfunny, laboured US take on Torchwood, S.H.I.E.L.D. also had links with Iron Man 3, a loud, tiresome film with crass, racist imagery that seems to have generated little criticism. I may give the tv series another look next week to see if it’s less coy and wearing but it’s more “Agents of Sheesh” in my book.
One Marvel reference which appears in the final scene of the show is Coulson’s flying car, a piece of hardware that recalls the stunning psychedelic Jim Steranko era of the Sixties comic. I was exposed to two installments of the original Nick Fury series in the 60s- the first in a largely DC Double Double comic. Later, I read the whole Steranko sequence in the Super-Spider-Man/ Titans landscape UK weekly and then in mind-snapping colour in the 1976 Captain Britain Weekly.
In the last few weeks, I’ve read trade paperback reprints of the series- which morphs from Stan , Roy and John Buscema’s muscular, European spy thrillers to the sci-fi wonders of Hydra Island; the return of Nazi super-villain Baron Strucker and a cavalcade of far-out weaponry: The Satan Claw; The Aphonic Bomb: the Death Spore.
There follows a sci-fi invasion guest-starring Captain America and the Joe Maneely/Jack Kirby Oriental villain, the Yellow Claw. Steranko blends pulp fiction and Kirbyesque hardware in a dazzling Sixties take on the death -trap movie serial. The climax of the story completely wrongfoots the reader with a jaw-dropping and bizarre reveal.
The first collection ends with an apocalyptic alien invasion tale which employs that old Gerry Anderson trope “It was all a dream…or was it ?!!” The second volume continues with a series of standalone stories, each exploring a different genre: hard-boiled noir; gothic romance; and Pop Art spy thriller.
There is something of a story-arc in the motivations and origins of the super-villain, Scorpio, who seems to have cosmic-level powers and a particular grudge against Fury. When the series was cancelled, Roy Thomas and Gary Friedrich developed the Zodiac crime cartel and the mystical powers of the Zodiac Key. Possibly at once solutions more prosaic and yet spinning off whole new sagas at Marvel.
The bizarre villains, inescapable traps, drone-like armies and sensual romantic interludes, I realise now, completely inform and shape the Gulacy/Moench era of Master of Kung Fu. It’s revealed as an extended homage to Steranko’s Fury.
The one criticism I have of volume 2 is the Centurius story, which is a hallucinatory re-telling of the High Evolutionary saga in Thor. The mastermind has the same Noah’s Ark plan and even wears identical armour. Interestingly, Centurius returned as a cast member in Jeff Parker’s recent Dark Avengers. He’s also the third villain in the S.H.I.E.L.D. series to proclaim the mysterious “Parable of Doom”. Was Steranko building to a story arc here or did he just forget he was re-using a melodramatic phrase? In any case, I wish Joss Whedon had channeled some of the bravura style of the visionary artist: the original Mister Miracle.
Coming soon: A Flash of Silver
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