Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Trade Waiting - Secret Avengers by Warren Ellis and Friends

The coolest kids in school always take the prettiest girls to the dance, such is life. But the coolest kids are usually such for a reason, be it sports, creative endeavours or being just downright gorgeous. When thinking about comics, the cool kids are few and far between; the eager to please jock Bendis, the laidback art student Morrison, the beefcake Ennis. Taking all their girlfriends and laughing in their faces is Warren Ellis, the guy who smokes French cigarettes round the back of the bike shed, skips class and the teachers still love him. For his return to Marvel, (did he leave? Or does he just not need Marvel as much as they need him?) Ellis was tasked to write six issues of ‘Steve Rogers does James Bond’ romp, Secret Avengers, bringing only the prettiest, most popular artists along with him for the ride. Is it a glorious success? Or a spectacular failure? Find out after the jump.

Secret Avengers: Run the Mission, Don’t Get Seen, Save the World
Written By Warren Ellis
Art by (deep breath) Jamie McKelvie and Matthew Wilson (chapter 1), Kev Walker and Frank Martin (chapter 2), David Aja and Raul Allen (chapter 3), Michael Lark, Stefano Gaudiano and Jose Villarrubia (chapter 4), Alex Maleev and Nick Filardi (chapter 5), and Stuart Immonen, Wade von Grawbadger  and Chris Sotomayer (chapter 6)
Published by Marvel Comics

Warning: This is the first Secret Avengers book that this reviewer has read.

Steve Rogers, a man who was shot by his brainwashed girlfriend in what can be argued to be the biggest event of the two thousands has returned from the Kurt Vonnegut book he was trapped in for a few years and does not like what he sees. The Shadow Council are up to no good and Steve decides to fight fire with fire by recruiting a team of more fringe Avengers that have certain skill sets to fight the terrorist organisation. These are psychotic crescent slinger Moon Knight, super spy and on/off girlfriend of Steve, Sharon Carter, even more super spy Black Widow, genius mutant Beast, Heavy hitting Valkyrie, half man half metal War Machine, and master of Kung-fu Shang Chi. What follows is six done in one chapters of Steve and his cohorts stopping the Shadow Council by any means necessary, even at points using morally questionable means. From here the big ideas come thick and fast. The classic city underneath another city (albeit with a Dr Doom time platform based twist,) demon truckers terrorising small Eastern European countries, and Kung Fu hijinks in parallel dimensions are some of the issues that Ellis throws at the team. Like Rick Remender’s Uncanny X-Force the covert nature of the book (the clue is in secret) offers a different aspect to the characters than what fans of the Avengers are used to seeing allowing the book to have its own identity separate from the other similarly named titles on the stands. Secret Avengers is an adult book, not like Omaha the Cat Dancer adult, but adult in its scope. These are big ideas that are being played with and quite a few of them would fly over the heads of some adolescents. Having said that, the ideas are never given priority over the simple want for entertainment and there is a suitable amount of kicking and exploding to keep the eyes pleased.

Sometimes the most basic of concepts, in the right hands, can yield gold. To try and explain Warren Ellis’ run on Secret Avengers in a sentence would do it a grave injustice; Steve Rogers uses recruits of different skill sets to stop the Shadow Councils nefarious plans sounds like a concept that has been beaten into ground. But what it does is allow Ellis to play with the idea of genre conventions, often twisting and amalgamating genre’s to fit the needs of the story. One of Ellis’ greatest strengths is utilising large complex ideas and making them palatable to the layman without pandering and talking down to the audience and he does it often here. In other hands, the time travelling madness of chapter five would have been an impenetrable mess but Ellis, with help from Alex Maleev makes the story intelligent and easy to follow at the same time, no easy task. Make no mistake, Ellis devotees will see this book exactly for what it is, Global Frequency season two. From the done in one format and the use of multiple characters with one (Steve in this, Miranda Zero in Global Frequency,) being the anchor down to the hand picked artists being utilised for their strengths, this is without a doubt a Warren Ellis book first and a Marvel book second. This is not a bad thing though as Global Frequency is quite possibly Ellis’ most underrated book for one of the big two. It can be argued (and often is) that all Warren Ellis characters all sound like the same, essentially like Ellis. This is true but if that is all you are taking away from reading a book by him you are sorely missing the point. His books are first and foremost about big science and what the near future holds for us all first and then the characters second. Having said that, Warren Ellis is one of the few writers in the industry that can sell big purely on name alone so there is a strong chance that the readership know, expect, and anticipate this when going in.

When it comes to the art this book is one Bachalo short of being the very best that Marvel has to offer in 2012. Like Steve Rogers, Ellis (or Marvel,) has recruited the artists for their strengths to tackle the subjects he is playing with. A weird mash up of 2000AD, Duel, and The Twilight Zone? Kev Walker can do that. A done in one issue about one of the most beautiful women in the Marvel Universe hopping through time to save the rest of the team? Alex Maleev of course. The whole team fighting big monsters in a corporate skyscraper? Immonen is your man. Straight up spy eastern bloc intrigue? Get Michael Lark on the phone. Whilst every issue looks completely spectacular and suits the needs of the writing to a T, there are two chapters that deserve particular mention for being hallmarks as to how modern comics should look. First up is the opening chapter by East London’s finest, Jamie McKelvie, and regular colouring collaborator Matthew Wilson. There was a point where it felt like the era of over rendering and dark muddy colouring would never end but what McKelvie and Wilson do is the antithesis of that. McKelvie has a bold, clean line that puts him up there with the best working for the big two at the moment. His men are handsome and women beautiful, (arguably the most beautiful women in all of comics,) yet they always look like they could exist in the real world. Couple that with the lush, vibrant colours that Wilson brings to the table and you have a complete recipe for success. Secondly, and possibly even more beautiful than the McKelvie/Wilson issue is chapter three, from now on to be known as a masterclass in sequential storytelling from David Aja with assists from Raul Allen. Basically tasked with drawing a Kung-fu film inside an M.C. Escher painting, Aja takes the concept and runs with it, creating some of the best panel to panel transitions you will ever see. Every page is a delight, and just when you think it can’t get any better you turn the page and there is something else to blow your mind.

Verdict – Buy it

For a book that’s the fourth volume in the series, with a different artist on each issue; Run the Mission, Don’t Get Seen, Save the World is surprisingly accessible. In fact, this would be the perfect book to give to someone who wants a snapshot what Marvel is all about and what it does best in the modern era. Six artists and not a dud in the bunch, a writer who is both intelligent and fun without being impenetrable, and a great cast from top to bottom. Honestly what more do you want from your superhero comics?

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Steve said...

Unless something very bizarre and unexpected happens, I'll buy anything David Aja draws from now on. Period. I loved his work on Immortal Iron Fist, and it's only gotten better. I'm thrilled he'll be on an ongoing series again (Fraction's Hawkeye), although I take that announcement with a grain of salt as I know he'll need plenty of fill-in help.

I liked these Secret Avengers issues, although I did have one complaint. There was no Ant-Man! When it was announced that Ellis would be writing the team, I was super excited to see how he'd handle Eric O'Grady. Unfortunately, he handled him by apparently forgetting he was on the team...

Taylor Pithers said...

If I'm being honest, I didn't even know Ant-Man was on the team. I think Ellis is one of the few writers in the industry to do exactly what he wants and not hear a peep from the publishers.

CombatSpoon86 said...

Have to add this to my wish list

Kevin Tam said...

Wait, what makes Ennis the beefcake? I really love the analogies you made with these guys.

Anonymous said...

Didn't he give Captain America a pistol that shoots tiny shields? And Moon Knight a pistol that shoots tiny crescents? I quit this series after those little additions. Plus, they nuked a whole bunch of villains with no due process.

Naymlap said...

I thoroughly disagree with you anonymous #4. I think Ellis's run was the best on Secret Avengers. And I think your objections are kinda off base.
The tiny shields were like tranq darts, horrible horrible tranq darts. They didn't kill people, but they did give them terrible hallucinations. Beast described them, and I can't remember the exact wording except that it was pretty creative. I thought it was one of the more inspired/disturbing things Ellis did.
And the nuke was the only way to stop an imminent terrorist attack. If I remember correctly Beast detonated the car to take out one of the pillars from the time platform. The casualties were collateral damage, and Beast was not happy with all that killing anyway. People did die throughout Ellis's run but it was never indiscriminate. And he did give weight to it.

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