Thursday, July 29, 2010

Trade Waiting - Secret Warriors Vol 1, Nick Fury: Agent of Nothing

I first heard about Jonathan Hickman when it was announced that he was going to be co-writing Secret Warriors with Brian Bendis. Since Secret Invasion hadn't turned into a massive disappointment when I learned of this, I went ahead and checked what little of his creator-owned work was out and was blown away by it (you can check out my earlier reviews of The Nightly News and Pax Romana). 

By the time Secret Warriors was out in trade though, I had lost most of my interest in the title because I had been constantly disappointed by the Marvel output of several up and coming creators who impressed with their earlier work, mostly writers like Matt Fraction or Rick Remender, so I initially passed up on the title. Eventually, I did get my hands on a copy so hit the jump to see my review for the first volume of Secret Warriors.

Written by Brian Michael Bendis and Jonathan Hickman
Art by Stefano Caselli
Collects Secret Warriors #1-6 and material from Dark Reign: New Nation

Secret Warriors Vol 1 was a frustrating read at times because while the concept behind the series is mostly good, it is still plagued by the many problems that generally afflict superhero comics as a whole and it's a let down to see that Hickman fell into those traps.

The basic concept behind Secret Warriors is that the world has been turned upside down and Nick Fury believes it is his responsibility to correct it and do it all on his own. This is a pretty good idea to base a series on since it works well with the past few years of stories in the Marvel Universe but it's undercut by the big twist revealed at the end of the first issue that Hydra has been secretly controlling  S.H.I.E.L.D. from the beginning. This pretty much highlights what is wrong with Secret Warriors - for every good idea Hickman has, there is bad one to go with it that weights it down.

The Hydra reveal doesn't work for me on a couple of levels. First, Marvel's decades old characters, teams, organizations and groups have accrued reputations, as it were, over their existence and, like every other overused villainous organizations in the Marvel Universe, Hydra's is that of a punching bag, a group that simply exists so that heroes have some faceless minions to wail on when needed. The idea that they could be secretly in charge of  S.H.I.E.L.D. is just absurd on about every level and requires the reader to basically ignore everything that has ever happened with Hydra.

The other main reason why I dislike it is because it's a massive retcon and the kind of retcon I have a specific hatred for - the "secret history" retcon. I hate it because it is something that should have come up a thousand times before but hasn't since no one has used it before. To me, it signals a lack of creativity on the part of the writers since they can't think of anything new and have to tamper with the past in order to do something and if that's all you've got to base the story on, then you shouldn't even bother. There are a lot of other little things as well that bug me. A supporting cast that screams "cannon fodder," resurrections, WWII vets that don't look a day over 50, and some other similar stuff that usually clogs up superhero comics. But, as I said earlier, Hickman does enough good things to balance it all out.

One of the better things Hickman does is that he never focuses on the Hydra reveal and mostly uses it as a launching pad for his story. It is still the foundation of the series's though and, after the second issue, it's never brought up again since the story focuses on the escalating war between Fury and Hydra as lead by Baron Strucker.

Hickman also introduces a couple of new Hydra characters (Kraken, The Hive and a new Madame Hydra) which helps to alleviate the whole Hydra/punching bag problem since they are new characters and Hickman can characterize them however he wants. The Gorgon, from Mark Millar's and John Romita Jr.'s Wolverine: Enemy of the State, is resurrected (his second for those keeping track) and added to Baron Strucker's inner circle as well, which also helps with Hydra/punching bag problem since he was a legitimate threat when he was originally introduced. This does help make Hydra actually feel like an actual threat but the fact Hydra has rarely been portrayed as one still lurks in the background.

The best thing about the comic though is the war between Fury and Strucker and when Hickman focuses on that, the potential of the series does shrine through. Fury's part of the story is one of the rare times I've enjoyed anything resembling the black and white morality of superhero comics combined with a worldview that is less so. Hickman portrays Fury as someone who does believe in absolute right and absolute wrong but doesn't carry the self-righteous and hypocritical baggage that often accompanies such characterization. Hickman makes it work because he writes Fury as a pragmatic idealist rather than a naive optimist. There are two particularly effective scenes that work together in this regard. The first is the opening sequence in the collection, which is from Dark Reign: New Nation, and lays out Fury's worldview where there is absolute good and absolute evil with a flashback to World War II. The other is at the end of issue #5 when he is talking with the Howling Commandos. In it he is asked about what he'll feel when killing all of the S.H.I.E.L.D. agents who stuck with H.A.M.M.E.R. because they needed the jobs and gives a chilling response  but one that fits the character.

Hickman's Baron Strucker was an enjoyable take on the character as well. He's played as a megalomaniac bent on world domination but Hickman characterizes him as someone who is enjoying it as well. It's a nice change of pace from the average villain in most superhero comics who tend be gratuitously evil for no particular reason. The rest of Hydra's inner circle isn't particularly well developed though given that they are supporting characters in an ensemble book. Hickman gives you the basics for them though but the reveal of who the new Madame Hydra is was actually a nice surprise and a strong way for Hickman to end the arc, especially since the opening reveal is so weak.

The collection has a curious relationship to Millar's and JRJR's Enemy of the State arc. It's obvious that Hickman read the arc since he not only resurrected Gorgon but borrows a couple lines of dialog from it as well. One of the weird things about it is that Strucker is actually killed in Enemy of the State but is not only alive and well but missing an eye. Now, I'm not a "continuity matters" kind of reader, I'm very much a "light it on fire and throw it off a cliff" reader when it comes to continuity, and he could have been resurrected sometime after Enemy of the State, but if you are going do something like this it would be nice to inform the readers about the character's changes. It's not essential or anything and doesn't come anywhere close to ruining the story but I thought it was odd that it went unexplained.

The oddest thing about the two stories though is how the portrayal of Hydra works for Millar but not for Hickman. Millar's style tends toward the over-the-top and bombastic so when he presents a group like Hydra, and the Hand, as a serious threat it seems kind of silly but it works for him because it cancels out the more "serious business" aspect of his stories and makes it easier to kick back and enjoy them. With Hickman though, he has a more straight forward style so when he presents Hydra as a serious threat it's hard to take serious since his writing lacks that over-the-top quality that Millar has.

The art by Caselli is the best thing about the collection, given Hickman's weaker efforts. Like a lot of artists whose Marvel work that I like right now he puts more effort into making the characters "act" by focusing on things like facial expressions and body language instead of having them pose or show off. This is a nice change from the usual kind of art you would find in an average superhero comic. He also handles the action focused parts of the story perfectly fine and manages to keep them clean and uncluttered despite the large number of characters that usually populate them. The coloring, by Danielle Rudoni, deserves special mention as well. Many of the scenes look like they were put through a color filter and are tinted. As a basic example, most the Hydra scenes have a green hue to them. Rudoni uses this to also give some scenes a specific tone or mood, which helps out Hickman's script, in addition to just giving the art a distinctive look from most other Marvel or DC comics. Overall, the art team put together some very strong work that definitely overshadowed much of the writing.

Verdict - Check It. An uneven collection where the bad is balanced out by the good and visa versa. Hickman's idea are weighed down by his lackluster execution but never overwhelmed by it which does allow the more intriguing ideas to possibly entice a curious reader into checking out further volumes.

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Ivan said...

What would you feel better about: if SHIELD was revealed to be controlled by a new, never seen before organization that Hickman could set-up as a more credible threat, or if there was no reveal at all and the book went straight to Fury vs. Hydra?

Anonymous said...

Hello Kirk - First off thank you for allowing anonymous posting! It seems rare these days but is much appreciated!

Blaming Hickman for the Hydra retcon is a little unfair in my POV. Bendis is credited with plotting for the first few issues, right? So likely this is not Hickman's mess only.

Ive only been reading marvel for a couple years so I dont have first hand knowledge of hydra's past. However, it seems to work for me that they would want to appear inept if in fact they were controlling SHIELD. If you are fighting an enemy and they know everything about you, then you start to suspect a mole and start digging and find out Hydra really is behind SHIELD - so that doesnt bother me too badly.

This book does start on a slow burn but for my money the second arc is really great as more plot lines are raised and the world gets even more complicated.

staredcraft said...

To be fair, about Enemy of hte State, it's been revealed in Thunderbolts, after that arc happened, that Strucker was NOT the real one. That was a clone made by the Gorgan and Stucker's wife to fail so they can take over. the real one was forzen and released afterwards. That is why Strucker was so ineffectual during Enemy of the State

Eric Rupe said...

Ivan - I'd prefer if the only situation wasn't in the book. Fury vs. Strucker is the best part of the book and the reveal just adds an unnecessary complication that doesn't bring anything worthwhile to the series.

Anon2 - Whether or not Hickman or Bendis came up with or pushed for the idea doesn't really matter to me that much since Hickman is in charge of writing most of the story and the actual issues so he probably some say in it. He also does around ten pages of info-graphics on it so it's not as though he didn't put some though in the idea. Plus, there is no way of knowing who came up with it anyway and Hickman is the main writer on the series.

staredcraft - As fine as that is, it's not explained in either EoTS or SW so I still consider it a problem, more so on the SW side since Hickman seems to be assuming that most readers would be familiar with that story when there is no reason to make that assumption.

Wez said...

I enjoy Secret Warriors.

It always feels like its on the edge of something incredible. Im waiting for the 3rd or 4th Arc to really pull out all the stops.

twobitspecialist said...

I actually agree with that anon2. It makes sense for Hydra to hold back if they are in fact pulling all the strings, in order to keep appearances.

I-VAN the Crippler said...

i really dont mind the whole HYDRA reveal....becus then it shows u jow credible of a threat HYDRA really have been pullin all the strings all these years without fury ever findin out is pretty more thing ...hickman FUCKIN RULES!!! teh first arc reallly blew me away...this series is the only MARVEL comic that is permanently on my pull list...

Eric Rupe said...

twobitspecialist - But you are still relaying on a massive retcon in order to subvert years of Hydra being portrayed as ineffectual. Relaying on a retcon like that is a sign of writing to me.

TimD said...

As somebody who eagerly awaited 'Secret Warriors' since it was announced (I've been a fan of the caterpillars since their intro by Bendis/Maleev) I LOVED the ending to the first issue. It set up the series perfectly, and honestly, it was alot better having it in the first issue, rather than the sixth which Bendis originally planned.

Steven said...

There is nothing wrong with the "secret history" retcon. They generally do not directly contradict things that actually happened. I hate the retcons that tell you that stories you read and they published no longer happened, or didn't happen the way the story was shown.

You are mixing up the differences between Millar's writing and Hickman's. Millar is an awful, shallow, all glitz, absolutely no-substance writer who writes some of the most juvenile books on the market. Hickman is an intelligent, well researched writer, who plays with complex, mature writing.

James said...

Eric, do you ever get tired of always being so wrong? Your opinions couldn't be more off base. (Well, most of it is off base, but that sentence comparing Millar and Hickman is practically incomprhensible, so it's hard to say all.)

Plus you contratict yourself. You complain about Hickman not explaining Struckers resurrection, and state that he shouldn't assume that people have read Thunderbolts. However, in order for this to be an issue, you assume that the reader is familiar with EotS. Sounds a bit hypocritical to me.

Not a well done review.

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