Appropriate to the title of this comic, I actually have a secret boner for ops-type comics — stuff like Global Frequency and The Ultimates, where heroes are given mission briefings and deployed instead of just deciding that they need to go out and kick things. I used to write them a lot as a teenager, coming up with organization names and weird gimmicks for each covert organization, not to mention repetitive recruitment scenes. The second comic book script I ever wrote sent the New X-Men on a mission to Sudan. It was a two-parter I never finished. I hope the X-Men made it out okay.
Good thing Nick Spencer writes a lot of those covert ops superheroics. First T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents, then Iron Man 2.0 and now a quick run on Secret Avengers for this Point One issue and a handful of Fear Itself tie-in issues before Warren Ellis and a cadre of artists take over.
While people are still debating as to whether these Point One issues are actually accessible jumping-on points for new readers, some of them are at least making a case for the value of self-contained issues. Uncanny X-Force #5.1 told a story with a beginning, middle and end that established characters, raised the stakes where appropriate and effectively communicated the premise of the book. Secret Avengers #12.1 does the same.
The premise is like Wikileaks meets that supervillain jailbreak from Bendis’ New Avengers: a guy dressed as USAgent takes over some servers and publicly releases classified documents naming hundreds of government informants (all manner of terrorists, criminals and other scumbags) who have snitched on things to the Secret Avengers. As traitors are being killed all over the world, our heroes decide to save only one of them: an A.I.M. crony who happens to be the only stool pigeon who’s singing for moral reasons. If a premise that could justify its own film weren’t enough, Spencer also throws in a surprising twist, as he often does with these books — one that wouldn’t be out of place in either of his other secret agent superhero books.
“Secret agent” is a good word to use there, because, I suppose, my love for ops stories is the James Bondiness of the proceedings, with their decidedly clinical executions: here’s the high-concept plot you must thwart, and you’re going to thwart it because it’s your job. Cue the globe-trotting, the twists, the high-octane finale. There’s almost a meta-ness to it — the mission is the story, and the agents are writers sent out to make sure the story ends.
Spencer’s script is talky where it needs to be talky and quiet where it needs to be quiet. It feels economical, but not forcibly compressed. It also feels longer than 22 pages, but it’s exactly 22 pages. Moreover, for any newcomers, he gives almost every character a chance to shine. Black Widow does some espionage; Valkyrie slays a bunch of dudes; War Machine is all business; Ant-Man won’t stop joking; Moon Knight is, um, Moon Knight; Steve Rogers punches a dude and makes a big speech. The only characters that get short shrift are Beast and Sharon Carter, but six out of eight ain’t bad.
Scot Eaton’s art is effective in its action comic book expressiveness, save for some stiff poses and awkward staging in some panels. For example, there’s a bit where Ant-Man’s entire helmet is tilted back over his head (as if the whole thing were a visor) that looks more like an invisible man is stealing his helmet off of his head without him knowing it. There’s also a full bottom-tier panel close-up on Steve Rogers where Eaton elected to show Sharon Carter in the background, but it looks like an unrelated medium shot floating above Rogers’ shoulder. It’s a bit Rocketman.
Rogers’ big concluding speech about the ensuing moral complexities from his job as “America’s Top Cop” feels vaguely like Spencer talking through his character. Obviously, it’s not a one-to-one ratio between an indie comics guy who quickly and recently became a mainstream comics wunderkind and a superhero turned government agent — there’s less Vonnegut-style time-travel, for one thing — but it feels like both Spencer and the former Captain America are addressing the horrid base criticism of “selling out” (which I don’t really think is possible in the comics industry), but Spencer/Rogers offer a satisfying answer: I don’t know, but I’ll do my best.