While Jonathan Hickman’s “Secret Warriors” is an epic, high-energy espionage caper, and his “Fantastic Four” reconfigures its classic elements into something new, this first volume comes off as an attempt to tell one of the “big idea” stories that made him famous at Image in the context of the Marvel Universe. The high concept here is that before S.H.I.E.L.D. was the Supreme Headquarters, Intelligence, Espionage, Law-Enforcement Division, it was an organization that stretched back to the time of the Pharaohs to protect the world from the forces that would threaten it. Some of the brightest minds of the time, including Leonardo Da Vinci, Isaac Newton, and Galileo have been/are still a part of it as they have stepped up time and time again to show that “this is not how the world ends.” After reading this, I definitely want to see how it ends, though I’m at a loss as to seeing why it needed to be set in the Marvel Universe.
That’s not to say that Hickman doesn’t make good use of his setting. We get to see crazy things such as Chinese ruler Han Zheng negotiating the fate of the Earth with a pregnant Celestial and Galactus menacing late 15th century Italy. Famous fathers Nathaniel Richards and Howard Stark also have prominent supporting roles. I know why Hickman is using these characters as their familiarity helps ground these events, and longtime readers will also get a kick out of seeing them used in unconventional ways.
The problem is that, at this point, the story’s core has very little to do with the actual Marvel Universe. One could probably be forgiven for thinking that with a title like this, that we’re going to be getting the “secret history” (read: rectonned) history of the organization but that’s not it at all. Instead, we’re introduced to Leonid, a boy who is also a source of unimaginable power, being initiated into the group and then finding himself in the middle of a war of ideas between Newton and Da Vinci. I like the use of these historical characters in this manner, as Hickman notes in the backmatter that their histories are legendary enough to have turned them into larger-than-life/iconic comic-book characters, but this is their story and not one of superheroes.
I guess what I’m getting at here is that Hickman has shown that he can work well within the confines of the Marvel Universe with his work on “Fantastic Four.” Not only is the exploratory nature of the group perfectly suited for his epic imagination, it also has plenty of old concepts ripe for reinvention. He also doesn’t have to spend too much time developing the characters as the cast is full of established personalities who only need to be pointed in new directions, not rebuilt from the ground up. That’s not what’s happening with “S.H.I.E.L.D.” as the “big ideas” and famous characters stand noticeably apart from the concepts of the Marvel Universe. It could be that their integration is Hickman’s ultimate purpose with this series, which would lead to the Nick Fury-led incarnation of the group we’re all familiar with, but for now I wonder if this would’ve been more interesting if he hadn’t had these concepts to fall back on.
What isn’t up for debate is Dustin Weaver’s art. As I’ve said, Hickman is a man of epic concepts and imagination, and Weaver proves himself to be the perfect artist to bring these things to life on the page. The detail he packs into every page is astounding, and he even tweaks his style to give each era it’s own particular look. So when you’re seeing Imhotep take on the Brood in ancient Egypt, Nathaniel and Howard exploring the Earth of the far-future, or the war in the Immortal City in the 1960’s, it all stands out. Really, the amount of work the man put into each page is staggering and while I’ve said before that I don’t buy comics just for the art -- his effort here is amazing.
So even if you’re not a fan of the writer, appreciators of great art will want to add this collection just to see what Weaver does here. I’d go so far to say that it elevates the material, but even though the storytelling here is flawed, I’m still compelled to see how it will end.