Some comics feel like homework, and in general, that's not a good thing. In the case of this title, it really is essential.
I tried to pick up this book and start reading late at night, but after reading the first issue, I couldn't tackle all those charts and maps. I can appreciate how much work Jonathan Hickman spent setting up this title, but I couldn't do it. So I sat down earlier in the day and plowed through them; I recognized a lot of names from previous runs of SHIELD, and I LOVED that Hickman refers to the Deltite Affair. (For those who don't know, that's talking about the Nick Fury vs. SHIELD limited series from the early 90's.) I can totally understand Fury being pretty darn careful after that story.
I also had a misconception about what this book was about. I thought it was about the Caterpillars, Fury's team of fresh-faced heroes as they get some experience. And that is here. But there is a ton more. This first trade has whole issues dedicated to Hydra and the Howling Commandos. SHIELD mainstays like the Contessa De Fontaine, Gabe Jones, and Dum Dum Dugan all get panel time. Hickman is weaving a complicated tale using a ton of elements of SHIELD's history.
I'm not sure how I feel about the huge revelation from issue 1. Fury discovers that Hydra is so big, so long-term in its thinking, that they control governments, criminal groups (like AIM and the Secret Empire), and SHIELD. That's right, Hydra has run SHIELD, sending them after certain targets and generally manipulating Fury. Doesn't that sort of ruin some old stories?
I love how Fury creates such loyalty in his troops. Not only did over a thousand walk out on HAMMER when SHIELD went down, but Fury gets even more HAMMER folks to throw in with him here. Hickman has created a story with enormous scope. We've got the old guard and the new guard of SHIELD in the same book. The Contessa is important. This book is huge. In fact, it's about as huge a Marvel story as I've ever seen.
Stefano Caselli's artwork is great. The Caterpillars have great expressions, although I wouldn't mind some more distinctive costumes on Quake and Stonewall. I also love how the original Howlers still look so good, that Infinity Formula is good stuff.