A Non-Comic Reader's Guide To "Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D."

All of your questions about Marvel's small screen invasion get cleared up.

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Complex Original

Image via Complex Original

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Like the coming of Galactus, Marvel Entertainment has dominated everything in its path over the last five years. The company is number one in comic book sales and puts out movies every year that redefine the term blockbuster. Now the House of Ideas is looking to conquer the one medium that has always eluded it: television. The last time the company has had a top-rated show in primetime was back in the ‘70s, when Lou Ferrigno was stripped town to a tattered pair of shorts and covered in green paint.

A lot has changed since then, and with modern special effects and a new generation of fans, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is ready to bring the company to the small screen on Tuesday, September 24, at 8 p.m. The show picks up where 2012’s The Avengers left off with the skilled members of S.H.I.E.L.D. dealing with a new reality where superheroes are as common in Manhattan as naked cowboys and skyscrapers.

We’re still in the dark about many of the details of the show, but we do know that eagle-eyed comic book fans everywhere will be picking apart the debut episode, looking for easter eggs and clues that only hardcore followers will catch. But what about everyone else? Well, we’ve got you covered.

Even if you don’t know the difference between S.H.I.E.L.D. or S.W.O.R.D., or why Nick Fury is suddenly black, we’ll turn you into an expert with A Non-Comic Book Fan's Guide to Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

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Memorable Storylines

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Since the group’s debut in 1965, S.H.I.E.L.D. has served as a complementary piece to some of Marvel’s larger storylines. But over the past five decades, the organization has also been given the spotlight on occasion. If you’re looking to explore the comic book roots of the show, check out some of these S.H.I.E.L.D. comics to get your fix:

S.H.I.E.L.D.: Architects of Forever

Writer: Jonathan Hickman
Artist: Dustin Weaver
In Jonathan Hickman’s S.H.I.E.L.D.: Architects of Forever, we’re given a look at the secret history of the Marvel Universe and how famous figures including Leonardo da Vinci and Isaac Newtown contributed creating the organization that we know today as S.H.I.E.L.D. As with all of Hickman’s work, this is a heady sci-fi epic with big ideas and widescreen action, courtesy of the meticulous artwork of Dustin Weaver.

Be warned, newcomers, this isn’t a book for lightweights. If you’re expecting a lot of Joss Whedon-esque quips and snark, look elsewhere. If you really want to know what makes S.H.I.E.L.D tick, Architects of Forever should give you the answers you’re looking for, with a touch of postmodern madness to go along with it.

S.H.I.E.L.D. by Jim Steranko: The Complete Collection

Writers: Jim Steranko and Stan Lee
Artists: Jim Steranko and Jack Kirby
If you pick up one S.H.I.E.L.D. book in anticipation for the premiere of the show, make it Marvel’s S.H.I.E.L.D. by Jim Steranko: The Complete Collection. This collection reprints the prominent S.H.I.E.L.D. stories from the '60s, which bring colorful spy action to the page in a way that no other book has been able to replicate since. It’s rare when the work by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby is nothing but an afterthought, but that’s just a testament to how jaw-dropping Jim Steranko’s art is here.

Steranko’s use of double-page spreads and pop-art is still regarded as some of the finest work to ever hit the medium. Think of him like Roy Lichtenstein with an imagination. In this collection, Fury and his agents cross paths with other Marvel heroes like the Fantastic Four and Captain America, while tangling with Hydra and a roster of other villains. This isn’t just the best S.H.I.E.L.D. book to read, it’s a must-have for any fan of Marvel.

Notable Members

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In the 45+ years that S.H.I.E.L.D. has been around, the organization has seen its fair share of members pass through its doors. If you're looking to get into the show but only have a beginner's knowledge of the franchise, it’s important to know the history of some of the most prominent S.H.I.E.L.D. agents from the comics, including:

Nick Fury

First appearance: Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos #1 (1963)
Over the years, Nick Fury has become synonymous with S.H.I.E.L.D. Whether you prefer the original version or the Sam Jackson iteration from the movies, Nick Fury is the preeminent super spy of the Marvel Universe and the most famous leader of the organization. He doesn’t have the super powers of a Captain America or Wolverine, but Fury’s presence alone commands the respect of the entire comic book world. 

It’s simply not S.H.I.E.L.D. without a little Fury, and although nothing has been confirmed as of yet, we wouldn’t be surprised to see Samuel L. Jackson show up at least once during the first season of the show. This would mark the character’s triumphant return to the small screen after the ill-fated made-for-TV movie, Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., starring David Hasselhoff, crash landed in 1998. Yes, that really happened, and, yes, it was just as bad as you're picturing in your head. 

Maria Hill

First appearance: New Avengers #4 (2005)
Many of you probably know Maria Hill because of Cobie Smulders’ portrayal of the character in 2012’s The Avengers, but Hill also happens to be one of the most important female Marvel characters in the comics over the past decade. She first made an impact after being named interim Executive Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. in the wake of Fury’s exile following the events of Secret War. Since then, she has played a big part in Marvel storylines like Civil War, Dark Reign, and Siege, including a stint as Deputy Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. under Tony Stark.

While word on an appearance by Nick Fury in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. hasn’t been confirmed, we do know that Smulders will make a cameo in the show’s pilot. We’re not expecting her to have a big impact on the series, but Hill will be making her proper return in Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Tony Stark

First appearance: Tales of Suspense #39 (1963)
That’s right, comic book newbs, not only was Tony Stark, a.k.a. Iron Man, at one time a member of S.H.I.E.L.D., he was actually the director of the entire organization for a while. You see, after the heroes of Marvel ripped each other limb from limb during Civil War, the people of Earth viewed Stark as one of the only Avengers they could trust. He was quickly appointed as the head of S.H.I.E.L.D. and was in charge of overseeing a group of government-sanctioned Avengers on Uncle Sam’s payroll.

This was the beginning of the organization’s most prominent stretch of dominance in the Marvel storylines. Stark’s militaristic and overbearing work with the group eventually led to its undoing, climaxing with S.H.I.E.L.D. temporarily being taken over by Norman Osborn, a.k.a. the Green Goblin. After Osborn was ousted, the group was re-organized with Stark no longer involved, but still working alongside it from time to time.

Phil Coulson: The Conscience of the Marvel Universe

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New Agents

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Superhero Guest Stars?

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Potential Villains

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The heroes of this show are only going to be as good as their villains, and thankfully, Marvel still has dozens of foes left for S.H.I.E.L.D. to battle during the course of the series. Here are three villains that non-comic fans should get acquainted with, because we have a feeling they will make a big impact on the show at some point:


First appearance: Strange Tales #135 (1965)
It would be a sin against the comic book gods if HYDRA doesn’t rear its ugly venomous heads at some point, especially considering this was the first terrorist organization S.H.I.E.L.D. ever fought. In the comics, HYDRA is a cult led by Baron Strucker that is dedicated to the destruction of freedom and democracy. With the screams of "Hail, HYDRA”, this global threat would share some real world similarities with real terrorist organizations we see on the news every day, which would help give the show some gravitas.

An appearance by HYDRA would also tie into the Marvel Cinematic Universe even more because the group first appeared in Captain America: The First Avenger. However, their movie debut left much to be desired, so we would hope they get a facelift for S.H.I.E.L.D.


First appearance: Strange Tales #146 (1966)
We know that A.I.M. (Advanced Idea Mechanics) technically made its debut in Iron Man 3 this past summer, but it was such an inconsequential disappointment that we wouldn’t mind if the folks behind S.H.I.E.L.D. ignored it altogether and gave us a fresh look at this terrorist organization. In the comics, A.I.M. is a group of genius scientists who use their brilliance to build sophisticated weapons of destruction in order to overthrow the governments of civilized society.

We could see A.I.M. being a constant threat to S.H.I.E.L.D. that lurks in the background of the entire series. Unlike HYDRA, their plans aren’t as bombastic and public. Instead, A.I.M.’s goals are slow and meticulous, and we would love to see the conflict boil over during the course of a season or two.


First appearance: Avengers #72 (1970)
Alright, so we chose the first two S.H.I.E.L.D. threats because they were classics from the comics and they are more grounded in the real world for a TV budget. Zodiac is none of those things, which makes this group a whole lot more interesting. In the comics, Zodiac is the name of multiple groups of villains based on the astrological signs of Taurus, Aries, Virgo, and the rest of the horoscope standards. Armed with advanced weaponry and gaudy costumes, the members of Zodiac are the perfect foils for the S.H.I.E.L.D. agents because they would bring that trademark Marvel action to the small screen.

Obviously some much-needed updating would be necessary for Zodiac to be considered legitimate, especially since the group’s most diabolical scheme in the comics involved them bullying some farmers out of their land. But with the right tweaking, this could be a serious threat for S.H.I.E.L.D. to face. 

Influence in the Marvel Cinematic Universe

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