Writer: Jonathan Hickman
Artists: Zachary Baldus, Kevin Mellon, Nick Pitarra, Gabriel Hernandez Walta, Rachelle Rosenberg, Dan Brown
My, it’s been a while. Suffice to say that this winter was a bit too adventurous for the Department’s tastes, and it’s not quite over yet– I may have a lot more time on my hands this summer to write than I expected, thanks to a bit of unemployment and an impending bout of surgery for a newly-discovered chronic medical issue. (I’m OK, as far as I know; if I’m not, I’ll tell you guys; yes, Wedge is taking care of me and I have very good doctors.)
That being said, I keep seeing reviews of this Marvel one-shot that don’t quite seem to grasp what Hickman’s up to here– which means, yes, spoilers galore below. You’ve been warned.
SHIELD: Infinity is a bit of an odd duck as a one-shot. It’s a little bit inside baseball– if you don’t already know a bit about the Brotherhood of the Shield, its ultimate aims, and the ongoing struggle between Leonardo da Vinci and Isaac Newton as its once and future leaders from the main SHIELD book, you’re not going to pick up on everything going on in these four stories. On the other hand, I hesitate to say that regular SHIELD readers won’t miss anything if they give this pass. There’s certainly a lot of backplot here, and most of it probably won’t be covered in the main title.
Also, honestly, I have a hard time conceiving of a hardcore SHIELD fan, or a hardcore Hickman fan, who’s not going to get this book. You either really dig Hickman’s oblique nods to epic, Kirby-esque concepts, or you don’t. You probably already know if you’re in this book’s target audience.
(If you’re unsure, or, if, like me, you love this book and rarely have the mental bandwidth to grasp everything at once, you may want to read Robert Loss’s excellent review of the series, which I’m using to fill in my own gaps as I write this review.)
New readers will find the basic concepts of the Brotherhood of the Shield– a secret society of legendary historical figures sworn to protect humanity from all manner of fantastical menace, from the Brood up to Galactus himself– laid out as simply as possible in Hickman and Pitarra’s opening story, “Colossus.” Sequential storytelling doesn’t get more didactic than this, with Hickman framing a tale of classical antiquity as a Socratic dialogue between Leonardo da Vinci and his students. In ten lean pages, we’re introduced to Leonardo’s vocation as a teacher and mastermind, his inquisitive apprentices, and their fraternity’s mission statement. It’s tightly-told, with just enough action to leaven the exposition for those of us who are already familiar with the setup.
Folks who are up on their current Hickman news might note that “Colossus” is the first work we’ve seen from his collaboration with artist Nick Pitarra; they’re slated to deliver The Red Wing to Image this year, and have talked about more creator-owned work to come. How does Pitarra measure up? I’m impressed; his angular linework and muted palettes of soft pastels remind me of artists like Moebius. The sense of the fantastical Pitarra provides is well-suited to Hickman’s cosmic-level concepts. Pitarra’s panels provide clear angles on the action, whether it’s an overhead shot of Leonardo’s classroom or a pitched fight between Archimedes and an alien invader. I look forward to more Hickman/ Pitarra work; Wedge is already beside himself with glee about the time traveling fighter pilots of The Red Wing.
Zachary Baldus teams up with Hickman for the second tale, an impressionistic story of Nostradamus called “The Hidden Message.” This story falls down a little on accessibility– if you don’t already know that there’s a guy chained up in a mystical well beneath Rome, that he’s Nostradamus, and that he’s not down there for his own good, you’ll be largely lost here. That being said, the overall tone here is distant, as if this moment in time isn’t something we the readership were meant to see at all, and Hickman and Baldus carry that off ably. If it left me cold, well, I think it was supposed to– but we’ll get to that in a few paragraphs.
Kevin Mellon gets the graphic honors for the only tale of SHIELD’s most enigmatic adventurer, Nikola Tesla. The story rejoices in the Hickmantastic title “Life, the End of the World, and the Key.” The end of the world is a popular topic in the main SHIELD title– Newton thinks he has all the details locked down, and he’s enough of a total madman that he might be just right about that. (After all, he was right about elliptical orbits.) Leonardo, on the other hand, thinks that humanity can ascend and prevail over even the apocalypse– which should sound familiar to anyone who’s read Fantastic Four lately, or Hickman’s earlier Image works Pax Romana and Red Mass For Mars.
Yep, this is SHIELD’s version of the “Solve Everything” problem that’s underlaid Reed Richards’ entire arc in the old Fantastic Four and the new FF books. It shouldn’t be in the least bit new to anyone who has any prior familiarity with Hickman’s favorite concepts. That being said, if Hickman wants a constant touchstone to return to across his works, “the aspiration of man and his technologies against inevitable entropy” beats the hell out of either “smartphones” or “mind-controlling dinosaurs.”
Mellon’s work is pulpy and spare, playing in an extremely limited colorspace provided by Dan Brown. It works well to illustrate just how much of an engineer– of machines and people– Leonardo really is. Leonardo brings Tesla back to life not out of any real concern for Tesla himself, but for the sake of Tesla’s son Leonid, the protagonist of SHIELD. (In comparison, Tesla’s apparently named his only begotten son after Leonardo. I think Tesla’s really getting the raw end of this friendship.) This is a story about stark necessities, and the high-level maneuvering that characterizes the entire game Leonardo and Newton are playing out in their quest to immanentize the Eschaton. Hickman’s choice of Mellon’s strong visual style to underlie that unnerving message points back to his previous career as an art director; this is a writer who knows how to convey a visual concept, and an employer who knows how to bring his best talent to the project at hand.
The fourth story is where I took some exception to prior reviews of SHIELD: Infinity, though; I feel they somewhat understate the case for this book’s characterization of Isaac Newton. Gabriel Hernandez Walta pairs off with Hickman for “The Apple,” and this is where the book goes somewhere most mainstream Marvel comics never approach in this sort of detail. Simply put, “The Apple” is as much of an origin story as we’re going to get for Sir Isaac Newton, the dark mirror of Leonardo and the nominal archvillain of SHIELD. Not so simply put, well…
…Newton the historical figure was not well-liked in his time, and was, at best, what one of my friends calls “a class-A weirdboy.” He was extensively learned in both conventional sciences of the day and in eschatology, alchemy, and other occult specialties. (Wikipedia goes so far as to speculate that he came by all the science secondary to his love for the occult.) He thought he was among an elect group who could actually know the mind of God via Biblical study and interpretation; he was very secretive; he was combative with his colleagues and driven by a sense of vengeance. Hickman’s done the reading– more than I have, for sure– and he’s brought all of that to the fore here. How does he capture the mercurial, brooding genius of the historical Newton and align it with the chthonic, ideological evil of the 616 Newton?
Well, uh, Newton beats Gottfried Leibniz to death (mostly off-panel; this isn’t a MAX book) with the Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica. That all goes down after Leibniz reveals that, yes, he has rather noticed that Isaac Newton is a god damned serial killer who’s been murdering all of his intellectual rivals.
Needless to say, this is entirely not what I expected from my SHIELD one-shot purchase. “The Apple” is about a step shy of that whole buggering-to-death business with Hyde and the Invisible Man in League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and it’s pretty stunning to see even in a T+ Marvel book. Hickman’s Newton isn’t so much a scientist, or even a mystic, as he’s a full-on Criminal Minds-style unsub, psychopathically driven to exterminate everyone who fails to find accord with his thanatic vision. Leibniz is no Batman, either; while he carries off his investigation, there’s nothing he can do to stop Newton from making him the next victim.
It would be easy to say that “The Apple” only has one purpose– to make you hate Hickman’s version of Newton, and, conversely, like his Leonardo all the more. I’d actually be happier if that was all it was supposed to do… but, like every Hickman story, it’s not that simple. Sure, Newton is certifiably beyond redemption, a spree killer with no thought for anyone or anything beyond his own intellectual glory, coldly driven to torture and exterminate his foes (as we saw in “The Hidden Message”)…
…but he might also be right about being the smartest man that ever lived. He might be right about everything, in the end, and that’s what SHIELD: Infinity wants you to wonder about as you close the covers. What hope can even the original Renaissance Man hold out against the annihiliatingly precise, logical vision of the end of the world held within Newton’s apple?