It's not always easy to forge a clear and concise opinion of "S.H.I.E.L.D." It's one of the more challenging and different titles published by Marvel in a year that saw more "Strange Tales," "Spider-Man: Fever," and "Deadpool MAX" hit the stands. Jonathan Hickman has a large story to tell and is still in the process of setting the mood and context. But, does that mean we just ignore the lack of plot? Or the fragmentary storytelling that doesn't actually provide a context? We're five issues in and I can't really say what "S.H.I.E.L.D." is about beyond a vague description about the secret organization and some historical figures. It's a comic you have to give a large benefit of the doubt to and, as it approaches the end of its first volume, how much longer should that benefit be extended?
Much of this issue focuses on Howard Stark and Nathaniel Richards, transported into the far future after an encounter with the Night Machine, as well as a flashback to when they both joined the organization full time. These scenes are broken up by a few two-page spreads providing a quick overview of the events within S.H.I.E.L.D. during the late '50s, narrated in elusive, vague language. If you were asked what actually happens in this comic, there isn't much to tell. But, that's not all that makes a comic worth reading, of course. Still, even putting this issue into the larger context (at least what context we have), it doesn't hold up as much as previous issues. Increasingly, there's a sense that this could be a comic that takes far too long to actually get going. All of the promise of the initial issues is wearing thin.
The interaction between Stark and Richards in 1951, though, is very well written as they discuss the price of devoting their lives to S.H.I.E.L.D. For Stark, the idea of faking his death and leaving his family behind is a necessary cost, one he's prepared to pay, because anything else would be too cruel. Better to simply remove himself from their lives than tease the possibility of meaningful interaction when he has more important things to do. Richards doesn't seem convinced. It's one of the more thoughtful and intriguing ideas raised in the series so far, exploring what it means to be the secret guardians of the planet.
Like Hickman's writing, Dustin Weaver's art continues to show massive potential in this series while never quite reaching it. He's capable of breathtaking images on large scales, but his panel-to-panel art is very inconsistent, shifting between detailed, striking figures and flat, misshapen ones straight out of a third-rate X-Men spin-off comic from the middle '90s. The two-page spread montage pages in this issue feature a bold design, but the detail of the line work often falls apart. It's hard to know what version of Weaver you'll get on any given page or any given panel.
"S.H.I.E.L.D." isn't like any other comic on the stands, but that isn't just a good thing. There's almost appalling lack of plot or consistent character work, focusing more on hints and allusions to a larger picture. It drifts in and out of events, and delivers powerful and affecting scenes when it focuses like the discussion between Stark and Richards here. But, do those fragments add up to anything? That remains to be seen. For now, this is another piece of a puzzle that's beginning to not seem worth the effort.