Review: SHIELD: Architects of Tomorrow

Ever had a family member, a bad friend, a boss, a janitor–hell, anybody–tell you they had this amazing story you had to hear? Like, right now? And then after giving you the highlights, and hooking you in on the cool parts of the story, you realize HOURS later that those cool parts were the only good parts of the story?

Well that’s how I felt after reading SHEILD: Architects of Tomorrow, a graphic novel collection of the newish series from Marvel by Jonathan Hickman (writer) and Dustin Weaver (penciller) that feels like the weed-influenced love child of Grant Morrison and Warren Ellis.

I know that seems a little harsh, but you have to understand: this series has a really awesome opening. Incredibly awesome, in fact. Within the first issue there are tons of concepts introduced that reel you in and make you hungry for more, believe me. It does a lot of things right in theory, but a lot of things wrong in execution.

What do you get? In this first issue alone you get to see:

A huge war at the dawn of civilization between a brood-infested great pharoah of the upper and lower kingdom of Egypt facing the Egyptian genius Imhotep, the founder of SHIELD, along with an early avatar of Khonshu (Moon Knight) and even the future X-Men villain, Apocalypse. Imhotep is immediately reminiscent of Captain America, carrying a shield used to protect (and to presumably kick ass with), emblazoned with an icon that would be later be the future symbol of the SHIELD organization. Imhotep also introduces us to the later organization’s motto, “This is not how the world ends.”

“Moses move over: here comes Captain Eqypt!”

114 AD: the famous super intelligent Chinese statesman Zhang Heng talks to a never seen before female Celestial, trying to talk her out of destroying the planet. This also features a nice connection to the series Earth X (in a small way) and also alludes to “The SPEAR in the West” (with he being a part of “the SHIELD in in the East”). This makes us wonder: we know there is SWORD, the organization in the 21st century that protects Earth from extraterrestrial attacks, so is SPEAR a predecessor or another organization?

In Florence, 1495, all around famous Renaissance man Leonardi Da Vinci notices a shape inside the sun and creates a retro space suit to investigate it.

In 1582, Rome, Galileo creates a machine to face Galactus. Yes, Galactus, the “I’m as big as a dozen skyscrapers and hungry for your planet” Galactus, complete with a previously unseen Herald in tow.

Blame the Zagat guides for telling Galactus Florence was the best place to eat.

In the 50s we get to see a badass Nathaniel Richards and Howard Stark (genius fathers of Fantastic Four’s genius Reed “Mr. Fantastic” Richards and Tony “Iron Man” Stark, respectively) face a man called the Night Machine with super advanced guns that reconfigure themselves into various devices in mid-air.

All of this makes you drool and say “Wow, SHIELD is going to be an awesome story that explains how all of history’s famous Polymaths became a part of a modern day organization that touches every aspect of the Marvel Universe!”

And guess what? You’d be wrong.

We’ve seen multi-title or multi-franchise interconnected stories done before: stories that connect a ton of characters with previous unrevealed or unrealized relations in ways that make the reader go “Holy shit! Character X is really the supervillain step-brother of the heroic Character Y and the originator of the program that made Character Z into a superhero cyborg!” But in SHIELD we get more than we expected. Whereas most readers were led to believe that this was an origin story of SHIELD’s that maybe went back a few decades, this is really a tale that stretches back as far as the dawn of time. These parts are what SHIELD gets right: hooking in readers with a tale that connects to the Marvel Universe in ways we never imagined.

The plot gets insane after this. You remember all that cool stuff I just mentioned? Forget it. While those bullet points are important to the story, the real plot really centers around some pseudo-sephirot (kabbalah tree of life) design for “the Human Machine”, some metaphysical concept made up of metaphysical human components with different roles like “The Anchor” and “the Engine”. Each of these roles also comes complete with vague, metaphysical descriptions about their purpose. In fact, you can pretty much package the entire story as vague and metaphysical, so don’t be surprised if you hear those words some more in this review.

Even Nostradamus has trouble understanding this plot.

Worse yet, the main character Leonid (said by Hickman to be a stand-in for the reader) is thrust into this world that neither he or we ever truly and completely understand, even until the end of the storyarc. He’s useless. He asks all the wrong questions, offers very little, incomplete observations, has a limited grasp of his world, and generally is even more confused than we are. It instills not curiosity for the reader, but frustration, in that Leonid feels like a waste of space.

Leonid is obviously integral to the overall plot, but his role seems superfluous in an already jumbled, convoluted narrative that features far too many characters in such a small space to begin with. We have everything from an imprisoned Nostradamus with glowing tattooed glyphs on his arms to a weird, spectral woman who, like Alpha Flight’s superheroine Snowbird, is only useful in turning into a pigeon and being that weird girl who hit on at a party and later regret when you find out she has your number and won’t stop calling you about the movie the Crow and cutting her wrists. I often feel that the space reserved for Leonid’s part of the story could have been used far better–like making readers understand a little more about the series.

Jonathan Hickman seems like he has this glorious tale that in his mind makes perfect sense.Too bad on paper it doesn’t. His enigmatic characters and choppy non-linear plot leaves much to be desired. This may sound harsh, but his story seems to have an inability to properly pace itself, and a lack of faith in drawing in the readers. And what I mean is that every time someone says something vague and mysterious, it’s like it’s saying to the reader “please, please, please keep reading and I’ll give you just a morsel more to make you come back!” The problem with this method is that something has to be really good and really compelling to keep readers faithful, and after the pretty fantastic first issue there really isn’t much to keep readers truly interested.

This is the kind of stuff you see for a few hundred pages.

I’d be remiss in not mentioning that Weaver’s art is amazing and there are a lot of beautifully drawn action scenes. But in between Hickman’s scripting, it’s like watching a documentary in a foreign language that randomly cuts to a Japanese robot TV show action scene. It’s cool but ultimately it fails to serve its purpose in understanding the plot.
Overall, this is a great premise wrapped inside an unnecessary plot that still may give a rewarding ending down the line. I’d be a liar if I didn’t say I’m curious about how this story ends and connects with the modern, less occult-based SHIELD. But if Hickman expects a faithful reader in yours truly, he’s going to have to stop teasing the audience and give up the goods soon… before we don’t want it anymore.

5 Responses to “Review: SHIELD: Architects of Tomorrow”
  1. It’s sad to hear that “S.H.I.E.L.D.” has turned out this way. The initial concept really suggests that it’s going to be a story as epic and surprisingly complex (yet sound) as “Earth X”; it’s unfortunate that we get a buzz kill instead. If only there was some way to balance the foreign language film with the mech anime… : )

    Regardless, a solid review here. I think I may have to check it out anyway though–at least see those things it did right. If anything, that Galactus cover is seriously begging for a closer look!

  2. Vicarious says:

    It’s comforting to know I’m not the only one who felt that way on reading the book. It does read like Grant Morrison at his most pretentious and deliberately indecipherable (see ‘The Filth’), which just leaves the reader feeling frustrated, confused and ultimately a bit stupid. I expected better from Hickman, particularly after his excellent Secret Warriors series.

    • My thoughts exactly. The premise of this series was epic and the promise behind the concept was extraordinary: just seeing Galactus in the Renaissance or a sort of proto-Captain America looking warrior starting the whole shebang was enough to get my excitement up. But I fear when some writers attempt things a bit more metaphysical a lot of the intent gets lost in translation because the ideas themselves are barely constructed intelligibly, so the execution into comic book script makes it even more incoherent. The entire Human Engine idea was lost on me by the end of the book, and I felt what could have been a really good origin story and mythological take on SHIELD became less of a legendary story and more of baby babble/old man conspiracy theory gibberish.

  3. G says:

    It’s Architects of FOREVER. How can anyone respect your review if you can’t even get the title right? smh

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