Yes, I bought this in hardcover; but, it was worth the cash.
Warren Ellis is one of those particular talents who, when he tackles superheroes for the “big two,” you sense that he can’t just write any title. With people like Bendis, Johns, Morrison, and Waid, you get the feeling that not only could they tackle just about anything, they can also bring something special to it as well. Not Ellis. To me, he has always come off as a more practical version of Ennis whose disdain for the superhero genre permeates all of his non-Punisher, non-Fury work. Ellis doesn’t think that the genre’s dominance has done the medium any favors, but he has shown himself to fully embrace its potential when handed the right job. The results, when they work, can be beautiful as seen in “Nextwave: Agents of H.A.T.E.” or “Thunderbolts.” Then there are the jobs, such as “Astonishing X-Men,” where you get the feeling where someone in editorial thought that if they threw enough money at him he’d be able to write a good “X-Men” run even if it was obvious he didn’t have any stories that he wanted to tell.
This brings us to “Secret Avengers” which finds a nice middle ground between these two extremes. I don’t think the writer was dying to tackle the “Avengers” C-team as defined by Ed Brubaker, but it’s eclectic cast and setup clearly gave something for him to sink his teeth into. The format for these stories also echoes his great “Global Frequency” series in its, single-issue-story, each one by a different artist format, and whether this was Ellis’ idea or editorial’s, it was a great one. There’s a real density to all of the stories and none of them feel padded out the way his “Astonishing” arcs did. Though they’re not telling one overall story, they all call back to each other and the Marvel Universe at large in unexpected and welcome ways.
They also have the side effect of making the Shadow Council, the big bad secret organization who the team constantly finds themselves in conflict with, come off as a much bigger deal than they did in Brubaker’s run. Groups with ominous names like theirs are a dime a dozen in the Marvel Universe, and the vaguely Cthonic overtones given to them didn’t really set them apart. However, by showing them to have their hands in half-a-dozen secret plots to spread terror throughout the world we at least get the impression that they’re a much bigger group than first thought and one that probably shouldn’t be ignored. Ellis also seizes upon their most notable aspect, the fact that a sentient Nick Fury Life Model Decoy is working for them, and sets up the idea that getting “broken copies” of notable characters could be their defining trait.
Of course, the real draw here is seeing Ellis’ sharp, tech-savvy plots interpreted by the six different artists in this collection. Jamie McKelvie, Kev Walker, David Aja, Michael Lark, Alex Maleev and Stuart Immonen have all done excellent work elsewhere and (with one exception) continue to do so here. I’ve already sung the praises of McKelvie’s talent for expressive characters, but he also reveals a real eye for detail and action-oriented storytelling in his tale of an assault on the deserted underground empire. Regrettably, Walker’s work is the one exception as the man demonstrated in “Marvel Zombies 3” that he was really good at making ugly things look exciting, with great comic timing too. Unfortunately he simplifies his style here to bring it more in line with the “house” style and winds up making the cast appear distractingly ugly and everything else rather plain. Aja hits his Shang-Chi-centric story out of the park with some vividly brutal martial arts action and some really fun experiments with perspective as the team enters a broken universe to stop Shadow Council mining operations there. Lark gives us the most grounded look of any story as the team heads to Russia to interrupt a deal that may give the Council Super-Soldier quality henchmen. Maleev then gets to illustrate the best story in the book, a twisty time travel story centered around the Black Widow’s efforts to undo a disastrous mission without making it look like she altered the timestream in anyway.
Sadly, the quality of that story does mean that the best isn’t saved for last. Even if it represents Ellis’ reunion with Immonen, the artist of “Nextwave.” His story is a tense race against time as the team infiltrates a building belonging to the Office of National Emergency to find a mole for the Shadow Council. Naturally, they find something much nastier and much glorious violence is involved in making sure it doesn’t escape. You’d think that their collaboration would be closer in tone to “Nextwave,” but that’s not the case as except for a few choice moments of humor, it’s played pretty straight to great effect. That’s a feeling I had through most of this collection as these stories fully embrace the over-the-top setups and ideas of the superhero genre, and I kept expecting the tone to tilt towards self-parody. It didn’t happen, but I don’t think things are any worse off for not having done so.
Now the end result isn’t as good as “Nextwave” or even “Global Frequency” which it clearly owes more too. It is, however, a well-above-average effort from all involved, a great example of superhero fiction, and (now that I think about it) a surprisingly accessible work that doesn’t require an in-depth knowledge of the universe in order to understand. While I was high enough on the idea of this book’s potential to pick it up now, it’s not quite something that demands to be owned in this format. So if you want to wait a couple months to pick it up in softcover, I’m sure it’ll read just as well then.