Plot: "Secret Invasion" has passed and Norman Osborn has ascended and now wields absolute power in the Marvel Universe. In these dark times trust is scarce. With this in mind Nick Fury assembles a unit accountable to no one but him. They are the Secret Warriors.
Review: Well, here it is. After a breathtaking debut with The Nightly News, and a handful of great sophomore efforts such as Transhuman and Pax Romana, comes Jonathan Hickman's debut in the Marvel Universe.
Recently, Marvel have made a habit of teaming experienced writers with up and comers, fresh from the indie scene: Brubaker and Fraction on Immortal Iron Fist, Remender and Fraction on Punisher: War Journal and so on. It seems they've done the same here, teaming up Bendis with Hickman. Bendis has been highly vocal about his love for Hickman's work (and rightly so, go and seek out The Nightly News) and one gets the impression he played a large part in getting Hickman over to Marvel in the first place. Ever since Checkmate debuted over at DC, I've had a yearning for a similar espionage style book set in the Marvel Universe. Secret Warriors is that book, and then some.
A lot of people are going to be coming to this book on the back of Hickman's buzz and may not have prior knowledge of Secret Invasion and the fallout from that event. Hickman starts the story wisely with a character moment between Quake and Hellfire, which subtly reveals both of the characters' thoughts and feelings about being recruited by Fury into this new unit. Then before we know it, we're whisked off into an action packed fight between the Secret Warriors, Hydra and the brand new S.H.I.E.L.D replacement, H.A.M.M.E.R.
I was a big fan of Stefano Caselli's work on Avengers: The Initiative, and I'm pleased to see him getting even more work at Marvel. The aforementioned three-way battle is beautifully rendered (combining well with Daniele Rudoni's colours). It's like a vibrant, hyper kinetic version of the Steranko Fury comics of old.
After the action comes another great character moment as we get our first real glimpse at the dynamic between the team and their mentor, Nick Fury himself. The impression that Fury has been schooling these kids for months really comes across. Some respect him, others have a rebellious streak, and then there's Phobos (I won't spoil that scene). Again, Hickman alternates the scenes nicely following all this with another great action set piece (one which shows that Fury hasn't lost his touch) before culminating it all in a great twist worthy of a certain espionage show (you'll get what I mean when you read it).
Once you’ve read the story though, the book is far from finished. One of the great things about Hickman's work is the fact that he incorporates so many elements of his graphic design background into the narrative. Here it's displayed as back matter. I'm such a sucker for this kind of stuff so I was in heaven. Your mileage may vary though. What we get in the back of the issue are some great looking diagrams detailing Hydra hierarchy, details of some of their front organisations, geographical locations of secret bases, details of the "Caterpillar files" used to find the various members of the "Secret Warriors" (and maybe some hints at future team members?), characters journals, etc. As I stated, I have such a nerd-on for things of this nature, Marvel Handbooks and the like, so I adored this back matter.
If you're a fan of Hickman's previous work, you'll feel right at home here, with the added bonus of seeing his impressive design work being used within the Marvel Universe. You can clearly see why Bendis thought Hickman would feel right at home in the Marvel U., and more specifically on this book. Hickman clearly has thought A LOT about the background and the world these characters inhabit and it really does shine through here, as does a real enthusiasm.
All in all, this is a great start for Hickman in the mainstream with a great hint of what's to come and what he's capable of, given the opportunity.
Final Word: A great Marvel debut for one of the best writers to come out of comics in recent years which marries Hickman's design sensibilities with a rip roaring spy tale.
I'll start this review with a statement that may risk the disapproval of comics fandom: I'm not a huge fan of Jonathan Hickman. I read his Nightly News series in its entirety, and although it dealt with some interesting ideas, I didn't think that it managed to tell its story in a particularly compelling manner. Equally, the first issue of Pax Romana (the only issue of that series that I read) didn't inspire me. A big part of the problem is one of Hickman's most obvious stylistic tics: the insertion of large chunks of text into the body of the story, whether as sidebars or as extended captions. Whilst some readers may see this as evidence that the books were more thoughtful or intelligent than your average comicbook, these huge boxes of text completely interrupted the flow of the books for me, making the pacing feel choppy and the storytelling inelegant.
This issue, however, is a complete departure from that style of writing. Hickman (paired here with Brian Michael Bendis as co-plotter) turns in a surprisingly straightforward superhero comic, reintroducing Nick Fury and his team of nascent superheroes to the Marvel Universe in the wake of their Secret Invasion debut. With "Dark Reign" in full swing, Fury has plenty of targets in high places — but Hickman and Bendis take a less predictable route than simply having Fury mobilise his private army against Norman Osborn, instead crafting a more considered and low-key opening for a series that could have a fair amount of long-term potential.
The trouble is, there isn't actually that much to go on in this first issue. There's a sense that we're only scraping the surface of Nick Fury's world here, and that it's going to take a good few issues before we really get familiar with the book's cast. Fury's status as an underground freedom fighter gives Hickman a chance to draw some interesting parallels in his characterisation of the old soldier, with his dogmatic "lessons" and calculated strikes against major government targets, making him feel more like a terrorist than a patriot (and posing the question: can one be both?). Whilst it's a little disappointing that there's no real air of mystery around him — especially after his long-awaited but fluffed reappearance in Secret Invasion — Hickman still manages to make him a compelling protagonist, with a couple of moments that exist to show just how cool Fury can be.
Other characters don't get as much time in the spotlight. The only other truly memorable personality is Phobos, who is given the issue's most entertaining scene. Nick Fury's attempts to deal with the demands of the pubescent God Of Fear provide some welcome comic relief for an otherwise fairly straight-laced book, and hopefully we'll see a little more variation in tone as other characters are fleshed out more fully in future issues.
Even the plot is fairly thin — for the moment, at least. Whilst Fury gets a chance to explore the new status quo of the Marvel Universe in an expository discussio
n with a high-ranking government official, and there's a suggestion that the book might tie together a few plot strands concerning Hydra that Bendis worked into earlier issues of his run on New Avengers, there's not much more to the story than that — except for the surprise ending.
The issue concludes with a compelling "everything you know is wrong" cliffhanger which gives it a certain amount of punch: the only problem is that I just can't believe it should be taken at face value. Not only does the big reveal not really seem to make sense given the history of the Marvel Universe, but the manner in which Fury comes by this secret information seems a little too easy and convenient, too. As a result, I can only assume that the closing revelation may not be all that it seems, and that Fury is being played by somebody else without realising it. (Or perhaps he's playing them. It looks like it's going to be one of those kinds of books.)
The book's artwork is provided by Stefano Caselli, with colours by Daniele Rudoni. I'm familiar with their work from Avengers: The Initiative, and whilst I'm not the biggest fan of the team, their visuals here are generally pretty clear and tell the story adequately. Only one sequence — in which Fury takes out a couple of LMDs and proceeds to break into a secure S.H.I.E.L.D. facility — is a little confusing, due to the similar costumes and designs of the characters involved. Perhaps it's something that could have been made clearer with bolder colours, rather than the pale and slightly washed-out palette that's employed here.
Another problem is that Caselli isn't given many particularly interesting things to draw. The issue is mostly comprised of talking-heads sequences, with only a couple of brief action scenes to add visual excitement. The art team do their best to make the pages as interesting as possible (I enjoyed the grid layout of the page that depicts a tense conversation in the oval office), but there's only so much that they can do to make the book feel lively and dynamic.
In addition to the main story, the issue includes several pages of extras. Alongside some sketches and other artwork from Caselli, there's an extended database section that's reminiscent of the secret files that Bendis included at the back of each issue of his Secret War miniseries. The graphic design and layout of this section is far more reminiscent of Hickman's previous work, and whilst it doesn't add a huge amount to the story of this issue, it at least suggests that Hickman has thought about the book in some depth. I fully expect some of the details included here to become more relevant to the book as it progresses, and it's an interesting addition to the issue, but I'm still not sure that it's worth that extra dollar on the cover price.
This issue provides a good introduction to the world of Nick Fury and his "Secret Warriors," and the amount of exposition concerning the current status quo of the Marvel Universe means that it's a good jumping on point for newcomers to Marvel in general. Unfortunately, it's symptomatic of the current trend in comics towards extended story arcs over more succinct storytelling, as by the end of the issue, there's a sense that things are only just beginning. Whilst there's every chance that this book could turn into something special, there's also nothing here to encourage me to really recommend it. One to watch, perhaps.