For those of us who’ve come to know and love Phil Coulson, the selfless director of S.H.I.E.L.D. and the glue that holds the Avengers together (portrayed on-screen by the always great Clark Gregg), it’s hard to imagine that he first appeared in MCU movies as an unassuming agent, quietly working in the background. We first meet him in “Iron Man,” when he debriefs Tony Stark, but it’s not long before he finds Thor’s hammer, helps to recruit the Avengers and shoots Loki with a ginormous gun (“The Avengers”).
Thankfully Coulson didn’t stay dead, but even before he led the team in “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D,” Coulson was so popular that a comic book character was created after him; a great hero who has saved the world many times. With that in mind, CBR counts down 15 of his greatest comic book moments.
15. HIS CODE NAME IS CHEESE
In “Battle Scars” #1 (Cullen Bunn, Matt Fraction, Christ Yost) we meet a ruggedly handsome and super-buff ranger known only as Cheese, who’s fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan. For the first few issues, he’s mostly playing sidekick to Marcus Johnson (see next item) and it’s not until issue #6 that his real name, Phil Coulson, is revealed. This series is pretty interesting because Coulson isn’t an undercover agent here, he’s just a good guy serving his country. Comic book Coulson closely resembles his movie and television counterpart, with the exception of being six foot and 192 pounds of solid muscle.
In the MCU movies and “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” we see a Coulson who utterly adores Nick Fury. Interestingly, in his comic book debut, he doesn’t have the same amount of respect for Fury, refusing to budge when Fury tells him to shut up. Coulson’s comic book counterpart is just as witty, throwing out cool quips and still being a badass whenever necessary. Writer Chris Yost explained that his strange nickname was derived from his first name, which reminded him of Philadelphia cream cheese.
14. HE HELPS BEST BUD NICK FURY JR.
Not only does “Battle Scars” introduce us to a young Phil Coulson, it also serves as Marcus Johnson’s origin story. While stationed in Afghanistan, Johnson and Cheese are caught up in a massive battle, ignited by Asgardian supervillain, The Serpent. Three days after the battle, Johnson receives news that his mother has been killed and so he returns home to attend her funeral. Being the great buddy that he is, Coulson also returns to the U.S. with his friend.
Upon investigating his mother’s home, Johnson is attacked, but when Captain America refuses to divulge information on his mother’s death and the mercenaries who have been pursuing Johnson, it’s Cheese who comes to his aid, helping him track down his mother’s killer. We find out that Orion is after Johnson for the Infinity Formula in his blood, which he inherited from his father Nick Fury, a formula that also gives him similar powers.
13. HE HELPS DESTROY LEVIATHAN
As his father is being tortured and broken by Orion (“Battle Scars” #6), the nefarious leader of Leviathan (an organization devoted to world domination), Johnson infiltrates the facility by himself — which is always a bad move — losing an eye while taking out Orion’s henchmen. Things go awry when he encounters Agent Left, who is a formidable opponent, and it gets even worse when he tries to goad Orion into fighting him, only to be pummeled by the near-immortal villain.
Who saves the day by coming to his aid? Cheese, of course! The Avengers do a lot of the heavy lifting but it’s Cheese who tracks Johnson’s location with a tracer he previously put on his friend. Joining with the Avengers, Johnson and Cheese take out Orion and are subsequently recruited into S.H.I.E.L.D by Fury at the end of the issue. It’s during this issue that Fury also reveals himself as Marcus’ father and that his real name is Nicholas Fury Junior. Coulson and Fury Jr.’s relationship is also pretty fun in that it mirrors his father and Dum-Dum Dugan’s long lasting partnership.
12. HE CREATES HIS OWN SUPERHERO DATABASE
We’re fed snippets of Coulson’s touching origin story, which focuses on his love for superheroes, in “S.H.I.E.L.D” #1. This issue details how, from his youth (age nine), his poor mother was constantly calling him for dinner, but Coulson was too preoccupied with comics and putting together his own personal database of superheroes, including their powers and identities. This project continues on into his freshman year of college, with Phil avoiding playing college football to jot down precious information on superheroes like Hulk, Iron Man, Thing and the Human Torch.
Next we find him working as a data analyst for S.H.I.E.L.D and unsurprisingly at age 25, he’s still working on his superhero database in the background. Dum-Dum Dugan has to shout at the young agent to draw his attention back to the mission at hand. Finally, we find modern day Coulson, imprisoned and tortured, looking half-starved to death. And what is he doing to keep his mind busy while waiting to be rescued? Working on his superhero database of course! “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D” fans will remember that Coulson compiled a list of gifted humans on the show too.
11. HE RECRUITS THE SECRET AVENGERS
Aside from the fact that he’s one of the most moral guys around, fans of the TV show have also grown to love Coulson for his tactical genius and sneaky ways of getting the job done. In “Secret Avengers” #1 (Nick Spencer, Luke Ross, Matthew Wilson), we’re treated to one of his sneakiest moments when he recruits Black Widow and Hawkeye to the cause, at the insistence of Daisy Johnson, the new director of S.H.I.E.L.D — which is hard to imagine if you’ve been following the show!
Coulson invites the two former Avengers to a meeting at S.H.I.E.L.D. in order to recruit them for a special mission. He sweetens the deal by putting scones on the table (no really, he does!) and offering them revenge on a particular enemy from the past in exchange for their help. Black Widow and Hawkeye quickly agree to sign up only to find out that Coulson has already infected them with nanobots that will wipe their memories of the mission after it’s complete or if they go A.W.O.L. Damn he’s good!
10. HE BECOMES A SPECIAL OPS COMMANDER
In “S.H.I.E.L.D.” #1, Coulson also receives a huge promotion — one that he no doubt deserves — and is given the responsibility of commanding Special Ops. On his first day on the job, he leads the Avengers and S.H.I.E.L.D. agents to combat all manner of threats, including monsters, possessed Asgardians and sword-wielding madmen. Coulson is forced to call in every Avenger he can think of, including the big guns like Vision, Hyperion, Human Torch and even Hercules.
But in true Coulson style, he bravely faces the entity possessing Heimdall and distracts him long enough for the cavalry to arrive, except this time it isn’t Melinda May, it’s Vision, who extracts the black chaos Gem from Heimdall and releases him. “Son of Coul” is the one who receives all the praise from Heimdall, who says that he pities anyone who dares underestimate Coulson’s resourcefulness. There’s also some really great interactions between Coulson, Fitz and Simmons in this comic, which is sure to please fans of the show.
9. HE RESCUES DOCTOR STRANGE
As a comic, “S.H.I.E.L.D.” is also really fun to read because each issue often plays out like an episode of the TV show, except that comics get more room to really push the envelope in terms of the villains that the team encounters. When the mystical being, Dormammu, infects Earth’s population with a magical plague that renders them mindless, Coulson and May spring into action, fighting to save Earth and their smartest teammates, who have already succumbed to the plague, including Fitz-Simmons, Reed Richards and Tony Stark.
Surely this is a case for Doctor Strange, you might be thinking? Well, normally it would be, except that he’s already been imprisoned by Dormammu. This all transpires in “S.H.I.E.L.D.” #6 when Coulson not only rescues Strange but also helps him piece together Dormammu’s secret plans. Coulson also gets to liase with Agent Warrick, an owl-man who gets rather touchy when his work is disturbed. Credit for the creation of this fantastic issue goes to Mark Waid, Carlos Pancheco, Mariano Taibo and Julian Totino Tedesco.
8. HE PARTNERS WITH DEADPOOL
What would happen if the the Regeneratin’ Degenerate partnered with one of the most down-to-earth men in the Marvel universe? It would be insanely fun! Coulson definitely gets to have wackier adventures in the comics, and “Deadpool” #27 (written by Gerry Duggan) certainly doesn’t disappoint. From the very beginning, this issue gets weird, with Hydra Cap in charge of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Deadpool at his beck and call. Add to that super powered hostage-taking time travelers dressed as Captain America and you’ve got a real showstopper.
While Coulson is off rescuing the hostages at the Lincoln Memorial, Deadpool and Rogers take on the time travelers. Coulson returns just in time to see Rogers order Deadpool to shoot the final traveler (after stabbing one to death), leading Coulson to suspect that something fishy is going on. It’s a powerful moment in Coulson’s history because he’s idolized Cap his whole life. Thankfully he’s moral to the bone and puts his personal feelings aside to begin investigating Rogers, unaware of his new Hydra affiliations.
7. HE PUTS TONY STARK IN HIS PLACE
Long regarded as one of the most arrogant superheroes ever, Tony Stark is extra puffed up at a gala in the one shot “Iron Man/Hulk/Fury,” hitting on multiple ladies and throwing cash around like confetti at a wedding. Poor Rhodey is dragged along, forced to listen to Tony boasting to various ladies about his weapons testing program in Afghanistan and how he’s too valuable to enter the hot zone.
It’s not long before the disgruntled boyfriend of a woman he recently slept with punches him in the face and Rhodey steps in to save Tony from being pummeled, which unfortunately does nothing to deflate his ego. Thankfully, Coulson is on hand to burst his bubble, ambushing Tony on the way to hospital — for his superficial injuries — telling him he hits like an inventor and that he doesn’t know how to fight properly. Coulson then walks Tony through a S.H.I.E.L.D. facility, offering him lessons in hand-to-hand combat before recruiting him for yet another special mission. Could Coulson be any cooler?!
6. HE HELPS CREATE THE AXIOM PROTOCOLS
Speaking of Stark, he’s pretty peeved at the beginning of “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” #1 (Marc Guggenheim, German Peralta), making an explosive entrance and demanding to see Coulson; and no, it’s not related to Coulson’s ruthless critique of his fighting style. It’s actually another epic moment in Coulson’s history, only this time it’s one of his major failures. Stark visits S.H.I.E.L.D. HQ looking for Coulson, getting rejected by May along the way (another great moment!) and bringing news of his tech being used by an evil organization.
Unfortunately, the name attached to the organization happens to be Lola Daniels, Coulson’s former fiancee, and after a romantic rendezvous, Coulson hacks into her computer to find out what she knows. Lola points a gun to his head before revealing that a device known as the Quantum Drive has been created, a database that contains info on how to take out every superhero on Earth; information that Coulson unwittingly provided when Lola used her secrets powers to read his mind!
5. HE IMPERSONATES WOLVERINE!
In order to make up for both of their perceived sins — Lola for stealing the info and Coulson for creating it in the first place — Lola and Coulson’s team work together to discover when and where the Quantum Drive, containing the Axiom Protocols, will be sold. This all takes place in “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” #2, and despite his mistakes, it’s still impossible to hate Coulson, whose only real crime here was, in his words, “being a superhero aficionado”.
Coulson atones for his mistakes by rewarding us with his convincing impersonation of Wolverine in “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” #3-4. He does this to infiltrate the auction site on Barbuda, aka A.I.M. Island, after being informed that a rival government organization has sent its own operative to secure the Quantum Drive, which turns out to be Captain America himself! In true super-spy style, Coulson flirts with a hot lady, subdues Cap and retrieves the Quantum Drive, all in record time!
4. HE TAKES DOWN GRANT WARD (AGAIN)
Remember how we said Stark makes an explosive entrance at the beginning of “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” #1? Well, it turns out that it’s not actually Stark, it’s fan favorite villain Grant Ward! In the Marvel comics, Grant Ward is actually Coulson’s former partner, and his origin story also differs from the TV show in that he betrayed S.H.I.E.L.D. after being won over by Gorgon (“Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” #5), a mutant master samurai, high-ranking member of The Hand (“Wolverine” #26) and Hydra agent.
After capturing Coulson, Ward reveals that he used Iron Man’s armor to steal the Quantum Drive and then killed Horus to prove the legitimacy of its contents. After S.H.I.E.L.D. reclaims the Axiom Protocols, Ward forces Lola to extract the knowledge from Coulson’s mind again, then vaporizes her. Coulson responds by kicking his butt — sound familiar TV show fans? — but chooses not to kill him. Ward is locked up (always a mistake) and Coulson’s team struggle to trust him after discovering that his database also contained information on their weaknesses. We still love you, Phil!
3. S.H.I.E.L.D. FIRES HIM
Believe it or not, he wasn’t fired for his part in creating the Axiom and Coulson Protocols, possibly because in the Marvel universe every superhero seems to have some kind of database detailing their allies’ weaknesses in case they go crazy and eat the world for breakfast. One of the best things about Coulson is that most of the time, he’s incorruptible, always doing what’s right, even when it costs him a lot. And this time it costs him his job.
At the beginning of “Civil War II,” Coulson’s team is sent to arrest Iron Man after he invades New Attilan and abducts an Inhuman who can predict the future. Never a “shoot first ask questions later” kind of guy, Coulson hears Iron Man out, deducing that Maria Hill has conveniently left out some of the key details in her report. Coulson chooses to let Iron Man go, in defiance of Hill’s orders, after being challenged by Stark to consider the cost of Carol Danver’s actions. In response, Maria Hill kicks him out of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Coulson leaves knowing that he still won the moral victory (“Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” #7).
2. S.H.I.E.L.D. LOCKS HIM UP
After being dishonorably discharged, Coulson refuses to give up on S.H.I.E.L.D., despite the nasty direction that Hill has taken it in. He learns through his spybot S.H.E.R.B.I.E. (and Fitz) that S.H.I.E.L.D. is still arresting heroes before they have a chance to do anything wrong. Coulson ends up causing so much trouble that S.H.I.E.L.D. puts out a warrant for his arrest and a team led by Elektra — accompanied by an explosive collar-wearing Ward — is dispatched to bring him in, dead or alive.
In “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” #9 Coulson is lured into a trap when he’s fed false information about a catastrophic event that Jonas Graymalkin will cause in the near future. Coulson allows himself to be captured by his former teammates so that Daisy and Fitz can escape. His fate is left uncertain until he proves his worth as a valuable asset, by convincing a scared Simmons, who has recently received life-saving Deathlok enhancements, that everything will be okay; that, in itself, is also an unmissable Coulson comic book moment!
1. HE DESTROYS THE AVENGERS AT POKER
In perhaps his greatest comic book moment to date, Coulson finally manages to use all of the information compiled in his superhero database to do something great, destroying the Avengers and Nick Fury at Poker! This takes place in “S.H.I.E.L.D.” #1 where Nick Fury decides that he’s had enough of his ass being kicked and asks Coulson if he’s ready to call it a night. The Avengers at the table jokingly accuse Coulson of being a telepath when in fact he’s actually semi-cheating, using his knowledge of them to exploit their psychological weaknesses.
This Coulson comic book moment is also particularly powerful because it really demonstrates that Coulson has truly risen above being a fanboy; he’s no longer seen as a lowly agent that could never reach the heights of superhero greatness. In fact, he’s seen as one of their own, a beloved friend and ally. No wonder Fury chooses to resurrect him in “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” Phil Coulson is indispensable not just to S.H.I.E.L.D. but the entire Marvel universe.
Got another amazing Coulson comic book moment? Let us know in the comments!