Phil Coulson stands as one of the most endearing aspects of the Marvel Universe, whether the Cinematic version portrayed by Clark Gregg, or the comic book version currently starring in the recently launched "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." ongoing series by writer Marc Guggenheim and artist German Peralta. Coulson has a deep and abiding love for the superheroes that inhabit and protect his world, but his encyclopedic knowledge of their abilities has been exploited by a sinister force bent on using that knowledge as a weapon against them.
The book's first arc, "The Coulson Protocols," pits the title character and his team against Grant Ward and the forces of Hydra. But while that storyline wraps up on June 8, the conflict is only going to heat up -- not to mention Coulson's affection for Marvel's heroes will be pushed to its limit -- as S.H.I.E.L.D. is thrown headlong into the events of "Civil War II" as the world's costumed heroes choose sides and align with Iron Man or Captain Marvel.
CBR News spoke with Guggenheim about the twists and turns of both arcs, how the developments of the recent "Avengers: Standoff" will impact his series moving into the forthcoming event, and explains his inspiration for the Marvel Universe counterparts of fan-favorite MCU characters like Leo Fitz and Grant Ward.
CBR News: "Avengers: Standoff" had a significant impact on the world of S.H.I.E.L.D., especially when it comes to Director Maria Hill, who still publicly holds that title but we know she no longer has any real power. What does that development mean for your book moving forward?
Marc Guggenheim: It's complicated. But in complexity, I think, there are good stories to be had. I have to be coy to avoid spoilers, but I'll say that, first, no one inside S.H.I.E.L.D. knows that Maria has been reduced to a figurehead. Which means that to the people who work under her -- especially and including Agent Coulson -- she still maintains some authority. In Issue #7 we're going to see her exercise that authority in a very surprising way.
Another part of the fallout from "Standoff" is the Red Skull and Baron Zemo's factions are battling for control of Hydra. In "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." #5 you introduced yet another Hydra faction, the one controlled by Gorgon, which Grant Ward is affiliated with. I understand there's some coordination going on between Nick Spencer who writes Marvel's two Captain America books, editorial and yourself over how Hydra is handled in the Marvel Universe.
That's exactly right. I've been saying from the beginning of this book that it's not a question of if Hydra comes back, but when. We always knew that once we brought Hydra back it had to be in a really huge way. It couldn't be just "Hydra is back in business and everything goes along its merry way." This is all part and parcel of a very long plan that began even before the start of my run on S.H.I.E.L.D. So this has been in the works for a while and I'm a big fan of long term subplots.â€¨Speaking of Hydra, let's talk about the member most connected to your current storyline, the recently introduced Marvel Universe incarnation of Grant Ward. From what we've seen of Ward so far he appears to be a classic case of an undercover operative who's lost his way. Is that correct?
That is correct. I'm a real sucker for undercover cop stories. In fact, I called the operation that had Ward infiltrating Hydra "Operation Wiseguy" as a tip of the hat to one of my all-time favorite TV shows, "Wiseguy," which was about an undercover FBI agent.
I think the reason I'm drawn to those sorts of stories is there's always this temptation of getting too close to your subject; seeing the world too much through your target's eyes. That's the ultimate concern that any undercover cop has, and that's where the underlying tension of the story can be found.
So I thought this would be an interesting way to "corrupt" Ward. What if he was an undercover operative and switched sides? I thought that was an intriguing explanation for him joining Hydra, but at the same time, it actually has a huge payoff in Issue #6. There's a reason why we're telling this particular flashback story right now, and it relates directly to the present day story that concludes in Issue #6. It all comes together in a very tight bow at the end of the first arc.
So there's still more to come about who Ward was before he lost his way, and perhaps how he lost his way?
And the effect him losing his way had on Coulson. That's an important thing to note. This arc is called "The Coulson Protocols," and it's very much centered around Coulson. You'll see why the flashbacks relate to the present day story and specifically Coulson's character in issue #6.
The flashbacks show Ward was one of Coulson's friends, and I wanted to ask about another one of Coulson's Marvel Universe friends, his former army buddy Nick Fury. Do you have any plans for Nick to make an appearance in this book?
That's a great question. Right now, the answer is no. However, this is comic books and no one stays off the table for long.
Ward is a former colleague of Coulson's involved in shady business, but seemingly unbeknownst to him one of his current team members is also involved in suspicious activity. Your take on Leo Fitz seems very different in a number of ways from his Marvel Cinematic Universe counterpart. What inspired those changes?
Leo is probably the most controversial character in my run on S.H.I.E.L.D. because he's the one who's furthest away from his television incarnation. That was a very deliberate choice on my part. I wanted to plant a flag in the book early on that said, "This book takes a lot of direction from the TV version in that it has the same characters to a large extent, but it is the Marvel Universe not the Marvel Cinematic Universe version of the characters." I wanted to dramatize that in one specific character and I picked Leo. He's actually become one of my favorite characters to write just because he's so deliciously snarky. I do love to write snark.
What do you think is more controversial for fans of the "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." TV show: having him be a mole for the U.S. Defense Department or him having eyes for Agent May?
[Laughs] That's a great question. Just judging from the Internet response I guess that him having eyes for May was more controversial. I'll be honest, though: who wouldn't have eyes for May? I think the real question though is it controversial that he has eyes for May or that he actually vocalized that and was willing to take action on it?
Just like the other storylines we've talked about the tale of Fitz and the D.O.D. is a long form one. It also feels like you're having a lot of fun developing it and adding characters to it, including John Walker who showed up in "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D" #4.
One of the things I've definitely enjoyed is pulling from all corners of the Marvel Universe. Whenever possible I ask myself, "Do I create a new character here? Or do I try to use an existing character?" Whenever possible I like to bring in different corners of the Marvel Universe; not just characters, but locations, ideas, and circumstances.
Generally speaking, I try to use existing characters unless it's a case where to use an existing character would involve a significant retcon. For example, there hadn't been a girlfriend of Coulson's that had been established as a telepath. So I had to create Lola Daniels. For me though, this book offers up plenty of new opportunities to bring new characters and ideas into our stories.
It was fun to tie-in with "Standoff," but we would have referenced it anyway. Not just because it was a S.H.I.E.L.D. story, but one of the things that's fun for me about writing "S.H.I.E.L.D." is it's an opportunity to make a nod to everything that's going on in the Marvel Universe right now.
It was fun seeing John Walker who, to my knowledge, hasn't appeared in a while.
Yeah, I'm a huge fan of that character and Mark Gruenwald's run on "Captain America." So little opportunities to make nods to those characters rather than creating brand new characters all the time is one of the perks of the job.
Your immediate plans for "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." involve a conclusion to "The Coulson Protocols" arc. From what I've read, it sounds like issue #6 will be a very star-studded issue.
Yeah, "The Coulson Protocols" ends with issue #6, which features about as many Marvel characters as I was able to cram into it. It's a real big, epic finale to the arc, but it also tees up the next arc, which ties directly into "Civil War II."
That's super exciting because it's keeping with what I feel a tie-in should do. It will feature not just a strong connection to the main "Civil War II" event, but it will also feature a few status quo changing developments for our comic. So we're not just tying in for the sake of tying in. It's a tie-in that will leave the book fundamentally changed.
What's at stake for Coulson and his team in your "Civil War II" arc? Will they have the freedom to make a choice in the ideological schism driving the conflict?
Our first issue begins with the team being tasked with bringing Tony Stark into custody for his actions early on in "Civil War II." In the process, Coulson is going to discover that there are two sides to every story, and he's going to get to hear Tony's side. That's going to set in motion a course of events that Coulson is not going to be able to walk away from.
What's also nice is that the tie-in is a brand new storyline. You can pick up Issue #7, which is the start of the new arc without having read the first arc, but readers of the first arc will clearly see the connections to the second arc. "The Coulson Protocols" definitely lays a lot of the groundwork for what comes into play in the second arc, which is titled "Under New Management."
Artist German Peralta has been really great with the book's guest stars and the big emotional reveals in the book. Would you say everything coming up is right up his alley?
He's terrific. I email him all the time to say so, but it really bares saying for the record between his pencils and inks, and Rachelle Rosenberg's colors this is just about the best looking book I've ever worked on. It's just outstanding week in and week out.
It's also been wonderful that we managed to keep the team together. German is starting in on Issue #8 as we speak. It's great. We haven't had a conversation about fill in artists. So I love the fact that we've got this gorgeous looking book with incredible consistency even with double shipping. It's a book I'm very proud to be associated with.
Our first arc of "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." arc set up a lot of things and we really go crazy in the second arc. Issue #7 is the perfect jumping on point for new readers because it is tying in with "Civil War II." I'm super excited. I think it's going to be a really fantastic tie-in to that event. We'll have a lot of unexpected moments and surprises that I don't think the readers are going to see coming.
"Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." #6, the final chapter of "The Coulson Protocols," goes on sale June 8 from Marvel Comics.