The origins of S.H.I.E.L.D., the clandestine espionage network of the Marvel Universe, have always been kept murky, and have only grown more so over time due to the elastic nature of Marvel history. When the agency was introduced in Strange Tales #135 (August 1965), it was already a going concern with its mammoth airborne headquarters, the Helicarrier, fully operational. The reader’s point of introduction to S.H.I.E.L.D. was Nick Fury coming on as the agency’s second director, the first having been assassinated by their evil counterpart, the worldwide terrorist syndicate HYDRA. Not much in the way of backstory was revealed. Later, The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe merely described the organization as having been created in the 1960s, with little elaboration on its actual origins. Further information has been offered over the years, though often ignored by subsequent writers, and the fracturing of Marvel continuity prevents a clear picture from emerging.
However, in the Original Marvel Universe, the early days of S.H.I.E.L.D. are intertwined with the early days of Tony Stark, and thinking about my forthcoming Iron Man chronology has led me to contemplate how and when and why S.H.I.E.L.D. came about in my OMU timeline. As usual, eliminating the so-called sliding time scale helps everything make a lot more sense, and the story hangs together better within a fixed historical framework. Also, that history informed many of my speculations on the series of events that led to the formation of S.H.I.E.L.D. And so, my own take on the origins of S.H.I.E.L.D. is described below, as well as my reasoning when it differs from what there is of an “official” version.
I started by thinking about the acronym itself. Though revised in recent decades, it originally stood for Supreme Headquarters International Espionage Law-enforcement Division. This always seemed a bit awkward and forced, which is undoubtedly why it was eventually changed to Strategic Hazard Intervention Espionage Logistics Directorate. (The recent Iron Man movie revised it again, to Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistics Division, the least clumsy of the three. Whether that will be carried over into the comics remains to be seen.) Clearly, Stan Lee was inspired by SHAPE—Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe—the central command for NATO’s military forces, originally led by General Dwight D. Eisenhower during the Korean War. But what did the S.H.I.E.L.D. acronym mean within the context of the Marvel Universe?
It seems to suggest that International Espionage & Law-Enforcement is a Division of the Supreme Headquarters: (Supreme Headquarters)(International Espionage & Law-Enforcement)(Division). This in turn suggests that there may be other divisions of the Supreme Headquarters. But the supreme headquarters of what?
It was established early on that S.H.I.E.L.D. was actually run by a shadowy council of anonymous members. These were Nick Fury’s inscrutable bosses, who insisted on communicating with Nick via videophone even though their faces remained obscured in deep shadow. (If you don’t want your face to be seen, why use a videophone in the first place? Why not stick to plain audio? I never understood that oft-used comic book convention.) The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe stated that there were 12 members of this council. With the benefit of hindsight, I see some interesting parallels between this mysterious council, of which Tony Stark may or may not have been a member, and the purported quasi-governmental body known in UFO conspiracy circles as MJ-12 (or Majestic 12 and variants). MJ-12, supposedly a secret council of a dozen science, military, and intelligence bigwigs created by President Truman in the wake of the 1947 Roswell flying saucer incident, is said to oversee, control, and censor all UFO-related activity and information for the government. However, MJ-12 did not really enter UFO/conspiracy lore until the late 1980s, long after the creation of S.H.I.E.L.D. and several years after the Marvel handbooks were written. (The idea was popularized through books and TV shows like The X-Files in the ‘90s.) Still, the story of MJ-12 could serve as a useful model.
The Helicarrier was another important piece of the puzzle. Obviously, such an awesome aircraft would take a number of years to design and build, even with the geniuses of Stark Industries at the helm. I looked at the development of its closest real-world kin, the aircraft carrier, for guidance in constructing a timeline for its creation. Assuming it was launched even a few months before the events in Strange Tales #135 (which occur in March 1963 on my OMU timeline), that puts the initiation of the project around the mid-to-late 1950s—right about the same time that Tony Stark inherited the family business. In fact, the Helicarrier may even have been Tony’s first major contract.
That suggests that planning for S.H.I.E.L.D. began in the mid-1950s. And I had already established that the story in Uncanny X-Men #161, in which Charles Xavier and Magneto meet for the first time and battle Baron Strucker and his nascent HYDRA organization, occurred in the spring of 1956, so the timing was right for the United Nations (or somebody) to decide a new agency needed to be created to combat the threat HYDRA posed. And so, roughly, planning began in 1956, work on the Helicarrier started in 1957, with actual construction commencing in 1960, and S.H.I.E.L.D. officially opened for business on January 1, 1963 under its first Executive Director. The Helicarrier was launched soon after, and in February, the first class of agent trainees was inducted, among them Contessa Valentina Allegra de La Fontaine and Clay Quartermain. (Before their graduation one year later, the agency was staffed entirely by transfers from other intelligence organizations and the military.) When the first director was assassinated, Nick Fury was brought in (early spring 1963) and the stories go on from there. But I still wanted to fill in some of the details.
I liked the idea of there being other “divisions” of the “Supreme Headquarters” of which S.H.I.E.L.D. was one, although perhaps none of the others made it past the planning stages. As I thought about it, it seemed more and more like this “Supreme Headquarters” and its 12-member ruling council were basically a shadow government of the New World Order variety, although perhaps with the best of intentions. Thus, I created the umbrella organization S.H.A.D.O.W.—Supreme Headquarters, Alliance for Democratic Order Worldwide.
In addition to their paramilitary peacekeeping force S.H.I.E.L.D., they also envisioned the S.H.O.P.P.E. (Supreme Headquarters, Operations & Public Policy Evaluation) to handle socio-political / legislative matters and S.H.E.R.I.F.F. (Supreme Headquarters Economics, Risk-management, International Funding & Finance) to manage the world economy for the benefit of all. Sadly (or perhaps fortunately), these two agencies never came to fruition. However, they did manage to launch S.H.A.R.D. (Supreme Headquarters Advanced Research & Development) and S.H.R.E.W.D. (Supreme Headquarters Radical & Experimental Weaponry Division), although these were both folded into S.H.I.E.L.D. under the revised, scaled-back plans. [Ah, I love acronyms!] So, ultimately, the Supreme Headquarters International Espionage & Law-enforcement Division was the only part of the plan to succeed.
But where did S.H.A.D.O.W. come from? It grew out of the 12-member council established by President Harry S Truman in 1947, following the crash of a Skrull scout ship in Roswell, New Mexico. (I can do without the rest of the claptrap from Marvel: The Lost Generation, thank you very much, and I don’t believe the Skrulls were running rampant on Earth prior to Fantastic Four #2, either. Sorry, 3-D Man.) Anyway, they called themselves the S.H.I.R.E. (Secret Headquarters for Investigation and Repulsion of Extraterrestrials), and a prominent member of the group was Howard Stark, head of Stark Industries and father of boy-genius Tony Stark. It was because of Howard Stark’s involvement in the group that Stark Industries got the Helicarrier contract, despite 21-year-old Tony’s inexperience. [On a more sinister note, perhaps Howard Stark (along with his wife) was killed by the group to silence him? He was a known alcoholic, like his son, and perhaps couldn’t deal with the stress of being in a secret cabal out to dominate the world for its own good. Depends on how conspiratorial you want to get.] Another member of the S.H.I.R.E. may well have been Dr. Vernon Van Dyne (father of the Wasp, he was a wealthy scientist known to conduct experiments involving outer space). The other ten were certainly unknown to Marvel readers except as historical personages. So, for nine years they grew in power and influence until the threat of HYDRA, as well as extraterrestrial menaces, convinced them to evolve into S.H.A.D.O.W., an organization accountable to no government and free of the constraints shackling the United Nations. The group would have continued as S.H.I.E.L.D.’s executive council until they were all murdered by the Deltite and replaced with androids (Life Model Decoys, to be precise), as seen in the Nick Fury vs. S.H.I.E.L.D. mini-series of 1988.
Later, Fury would form a new S.H.I.E.L.D., the aforementioned Strategic Hazard Intervention Espionage Logistics Directorate, from the ashes of the old. This was originally a more streamlined (and less corrupt) taskforce, but Marvel has since built it back up into the byzantine organization it was before the Deltite Affair. (Although those events occur outside the scope of the Original Marvel Universe under discussion here, and so are not relevant.)
Nick Fury may well have been the only identifiable Marvel character to know the true and complete history of S.H.I.E.L.D., which accounts for why the above information was never revealed in any canonical story.
In 2001, the first Executive Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. was revealed to be a man named Rick Stoner. With all due respect to writer Barry Dutter, “Rick Stoner” is a really stupid name, especially for the first Executive Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. And since my attitude toward any and all information revealed in stories set in subsequent Marvel universes (post-1991) is ‘take it or leave it,’ I’ll definitely leave it. For purposes of the Original Marvel Universe, Rick Stoner is non-canonical.
There is some textual evidence that can be taken as suggesting the involvement of both Howard Stark and Vernon Van Dyne in such a group as described above. Iron Man #28 contains a flashback to a disagreement between Howard Stark and his teen-aged son over Tony’s choice of girlfriend. Howard Stark says, “I’ll see you married to a Martian before the daughter of my number one competitor!” As this scene occurs in the summer of 1953 on my OMU timeline, it definitely shows Howard Stark had extraterrestrials on the brain at that time, as he would were he a member of the S.H.I.R.E. Vernon Van Dyne pays a visit to Dr. Henry Pym in Tales to Astonish #44, ostensibly to ask for Pym’s help with a research project. However, as Pym immediately points out, their specialties do not really overlap. Pym at the time was best known as a biochemist and cellular biologist, whereas Van Dyne was a noted astrophysicist and pioneer in gamma-ray astronomy. It is far more likely that Van Dyne’s true purpose was to recruit Pym into S.H.A.D.O.W., which would also explain why he brought his flighty socialite daughter along with him. While vetting Pym, Van Dyne would doubtless have noticed the resemblance between Janet and Pym’s deceased wife Maria, and counted on his daughter to at least get Pym’s attention. Thus, if Pym rebuffed Van Dyne’s initial approach, as he ultimately did, his interest in Janet might give Van Dyne another chance. Hank and Jan’s meeting, therefore, was no coincidence. Of course, Vernon Van Dyne’s plans for Henry Pym were cut short when he was murdered by a monster from outer space. Both Howard Stark and Vernon Van Dyne were dead by the time S.H.I.E.L.D. actually opened for business, and had certainly been replaced on the 12-member governing council.
Next Issue: The Invincible Iron Man!