Monday, June 13, 2016

I recently reread Secret War for the first time.

Brian Michael Bendis and Gabriele Dell'Otto's five-issue, 2004-2005 Secret War miniseries was, in retrospect, probably a pretty important, or at least important-ish, comic for Marvel.

The series featured some of Bendis' first writing of many of Marvel's top-tier characters after having spent some years writing Ultimate Spider-Man, Daredevil and Alias, including non-Ultimate Spider-Man, Wolverine and Captain America, all of whom would form the nucleus of his new Avengers team (along with Luke Cage, who also co-stars in this series). Immediately preceding the 2005 launch of New Avengers and House of M, the book could be seen as a sort of warm-up for Bendis' assumption of Marvel's Avengers franchise, which he would rather quickly transform into the publisher's top franchise, making it more important (and better-selling) than the X-Men, and his role as Marvel's chief writer-of-line-wide crossover events (In addition to House of M, he also wrote Secret Invasion, Siege, Age of Ultron and contributed to Avengers Vs. X-Men. His Civil War II just launched).

Secret War introduced the character Daisy Johnson/Quake, who would remain a minor character, but a minor one who has reappeared in various places in the years since, including TV series Agents of SHIELD (in an odd, roundabout way, from what I understand), and it half-introduced more prominent new character Maria Hill, who appears in the last issue as the new commander of SHIELD succeeding an AWOL Nick Fury...but she is never actually named.

What I remember most about the series, however, is how angry it made me while reading it.

The sources of my anger were three-fold. First and foremost, it was as written-for-the-trade ("decompressed," we used to call it) as all of Bendis' scripts generally were, and it suffered incredible delays between issues, particularly between the penultimate issue and the final issue: It took 22 months for Marvel to publish those five issues.
Secondly, and worst of all, when the final issue did see release, much of it consisted of two characters in conversation–Daisy Johnson and unnamed Maria Hill–and Dell'Otto kept recycling the same handful of images of Daisy, fan-cast as Angelina Jolie with her Hackers haircut (see below), over and over again in one of the most transparent acts of making as little new art as possible I've seen before or after. I counted 28 individual panels featuring Daisy seated at a table being interviewed by Hill in that issue, but only four-to-six different paintings of her, occasionally framed differently to try and disguise the fact they were just being re-used over and over (He also recycled imagery from the earlier issues, with new Bendis narration atop them, meant to serve as flashbacks to events that were only about a few issues past).
Thirdly, it was over-priced at $3.50, and the 22-ish page stories were followed by a bunch of lame filler in the form of transcripts of interviews between characters presented as SHIELD files...outtakes of Bendis' script, for the most part. (Ah, those were the days, when $3.50 seemed like far too much to pay for a Marvel comic book!)

By the time the final issue did come out, I could barely remember what happened in the others. Nick Fury recruited a rag-tag band of superheroes, many of the comic book-selling variety, to help him invade and do something illegal in Latveria, and then we wiped their minds so they forgot about this "secret" war.

Some co-workers–both of whom were regularly watching Agents of SHIELD at the time–were reading the series for the first time some months ago because of the Daisy Johnson connection, and they were discussing it. I realized then that I had never actually read the story in one sitting, just 20 pages at a time over the course of almost two years–you know, the way Marvel published it–and the book had hit the ten-year anniversary of its completion last year. So it seemed like a good time to revisit it, and see how it aged.

The storyline is itself incredibly disjointed, jumping around in time, stopping where things get interesting, re-starting via flashback at the climax of the secret/forgotten war, and then skipping over the next bit. Basically, the story mechanics of getting from A to B to C to D are jumbled up; we get those points in the story, albeit out of order, but explanations of how we get from one to the other are missing. To be generous, I think this is simply a matter of Bendis placing a lot of faith in the reader–too much faith, probably, given the interminable months-long wait between chapters–and his attempt to create a reading experience evocative of what the heroes themselves went through. They don't actually remember what happened, only bits and pieces, and they are eventually just told what happened. They themselves are missing large parts of the story, and therefore so is the reader.

On the other hand, it could just be poorly structured and written. When one looks at Bendis' entire body of Marvel work, the latter actually seems more likely. He's great at writing scenes, but no so hot at writing stories.

And this story? There's a pretty clever idea in it. At some point, SHIELD starts running the numbers and realizes that the economics of low-level super-villainy in the Marvel Universe just doesn't make any goddam sense. Millions of dollars are spent on high-tech gadgetry like goblin gliders and super-exoskeletons and special chemical weapons, but the villains wearing those costumes and wielding those weapons are primarily using them to pull-off bank heists that generally net them no more than tens of thousands of dollars at a time (This discrepancy has been pointed out repeatedly before; I want to say primarily regarding The Flash villains, most of whom use fantastical weaponry for bank robberries and jewel heists. Were Captain Cold to simply sell his freeze ray technology to an arms manufacturer, he could legally make millions or billions, and not have to constantly worry that someone is going to punch him out at super-speed).

Following the money, SHIELD finds that these low-level, tech-powered "theme villains" (as they call them) are being funded by a foreign government, Latveria, making that fictional Marvel Universe country a state-funded sponsor of terrorism...just three years after 9/11.

Fury takes this info to the president (George W. Bush, whose face is in shadow), and Fury is told by the president and his team that they'll handle it without SHIELD, thanks. Fearing they won't, Fury goes through a fun but long putting-together-a-team process (Cage, Wolverine, Spider-Man, Captain America, Daredevil, Black Widow and a mysterious 18-year-old girl that looks like Angelina Jolie from Hackers). Together, they travel to Latveria, kick a bunch of villains' asses, execute the Prime Minister (not Doom, who is oddly absent) and destroy her castle in an earthquake to "send a message."

Then Fury somehow erases everyone's minds. But one year later the villains come gunning for them all with a terrorist plot to destroy all of New York City in an act of massive blowback. Timely intervention from the Fantastic Four–maybe the bad guys should have attacked D.C.? Or any U.S. city that is not home to 99% of all superheroes?–stops the explosion from leveling the city, but Fury is forced into exposition, and everyone gets mad at him. Wolverine flies into a berserker rage and tries to kill Fury, but Fury turns out to be a Life Model Decoy, so it's all cool.

The storyline is something of a precursor to Mark Millar's dunder-headed politics in Civil War, as Bendis' Fury tries to articulate a post-9/11 view of superheroics that raises more questions than answers. Fury regards heroes as soldiers, which is what they would soon become thanks to the super-draft that the heroes all fight over in Civil War, but they're not willing ones...exactly.

Fury could probably have pulled it off without tricking and brainwashing the likes of Captain America, Spider-Man and Daredevil. Black Widow seems cool with it, Daisy (who kills the Prime Minister and destroys the castle all by herself anyway) isn't brainwashed, Wolverine says he would have done it if just asked, and there have gotta be enough Wolverine-like characters among the anti-heroes and mercenaries of the Marvel Universe to do it. Of course, that wouldn't sell as many comics. Fury's justification for using the heroes is...murky at best. He explains that the Latverian PM was using American criminals, trying to "punish us by funding our criminals--use our criminal system against I had to use our heroes against her."

He wanted the action to be "loud" and "total." The language these people–terrorists? Latverians?–understand was superheroes killing people and destroying castles, and he wanted to send a message that wouldn't just stop the Latverian plot, but stop some other state from executing something like it at some later date.

But given the "secret" nature of the secret war, it's not like the example is widely seen. In fact, Fury covered it up in the media, so no one is actually aware it occurred, not even the brain-washed heroes who participated, just maybe a few survivors of the attack in Latveria. Who exactly is it supposed to scare/send a message to? Doctor Doom? Has Doctor Doom ever been scared that if he doesn't straighten up and fly right the Avengers might come after him? (Further confusing the matter is that the heroes all wear special "stealth suits" during the attack, so, for example, Spider-Man and Captain America don't even look all that much like Spider-Man and Captain America. Of course, I wasn't even aware they were wearing stealth suits until the back of the book, however, when they show Dell'Otto's designs for their mostly-black suits; the parts of the story in which these suits appear are all colored black and white...which, in Dell'Otto's painting, means gray and gray. I wonder if there was a change made to this aspect of the story during publication, when an editor noticed it didn't make any goddam sense, and perhaps the black-and-white coloring was a way of covering up the contradiction of wanting to send a message using sueprheroes, but then disguising the superheroes).

Things get extremely murky after Fury's visit to Bush and his cabinet, when he is furious to find that they now know about a terrorist plot to attack the American homeland and are going to do nothing. I'm honestly not sure what this scene is supposed to refer to.

I imagine Fury was referring to 9/1l, but then, that doesn't quite make sense, because Al Qaeda was a non-state actor, and it's not like we ever followed rules of diplomacy with them before their attack on September 11, because they were a non-state actor.

And it's weird to hear Fury making that speech about the Bush administration, since they did just attack and overthrow a government during the invasion of Iraq, a year before this series launched, without any real evidence that Iraq was a state sponsor of terror. Essentially, Bendis has cooked up a fantasy version of what the Bush administration wished they had after the 9/11 attack–proof that the leader of a hostile nation we weren't terribly fond of was funding a coordinated terror attack on the U.S.–but in the Marvel Universe the Bush administration decided to not attack that country.

I know it's "just" superhero comics, but why drag in all of this real-world geo-politics if you're not going to deal with them realistically or logically, or just play the "it's just comics" card...?

Fury's nonsensical plan doesn't actually work, anyway, as it just causes the Latverian prime minister–who survived having an earthquake in her heart and a castle knocked on top of her–to gather all her tech-enhanced villains for a big chain reaction bomb meant to destroy New York City. Her plan kinda sorta almost works, or at least seems to maybe work at the climax of the fourth issue, but it's difficult to tell just what on Earth is going on. Invisible Woman Sue Storm is in the middle of trying to use her invisible force field powers to break the chain and/or contain the blast, and Dell'Otto just draws it like this, so, um, who knows what's happening.
Is that an explosion? An explosion caught in a forcefield?

Whatever happened, New York City was not destroyed, and who knows how many of the villains even died. (Best guess? The bomb went off, but the damage it caused was reduced severely by the Fantastic Four's various unintelligible actions.)

Dell'Otto's character designs are awfully sharp, and I really liked his Luke Cage, who has a full head of hair, rather than shaving it bald or wearing that dumb beanie David Finch always drew on him in New Avengers. I also really liked Dell'Otto's Wolverine, whose sideburns extend into devilish goatee.

His storytelling leaves a lot to be desired, and that may have something to do with the pressures of the deadline, which obviously completely broke him by issue five. The action scenes are all dark and contain many similar-looking villains, so it can be difficult to tell the players apart, and his Fury is as gymnastic and agile as his Spider-Man or Daredevil.

And then there's this weird scene, where I think The Thing tries to break the ground, and then just holds the pose for a few panels...? Rather than beating repeatedly on the ground...?
Seriously, I've got no idea what's supposed to be going on there. In context, Thing is trying to destroy the pier to stop the chain reaction bomb some how but I just read it again, and I can't figure the imagery out. It looks like he's just holding the pose and waiting for the pier to crumble beneath him for some reason.

I kinda liked the new Goblin design,
and Spider-Man's patter with the Goblin (in general, Bendis is a pretty good Spidey-patter writer).

I did not like seeing SHIELD Agents getting physical with the captured villain Shrike. The torture of enemy combatants is a black, black stain on America, and while they don't torture him to the extent that real-world enemy combatants have been tortured, they do kinda beat the shit out of a helpless man they've already denied due process, and it's just a little too evocative to the collective sins of Global War On Terror-era America, and not exactly something I'm comfortable seeing in my superhero comic books.

Especially since one of those guys is post-Godzilla, pre-Agents of Atlas Jonnhy Woo, one of my favorite SHIELD Agents!

I re-read this not in the form of the single issues, which are buried somewhere in my comics midden, but in the form of a trade collection, and damn, was I surprised to find that the story ended about two-thirds of the way through the book, which contains an incredible amount of filler, in the form of SHIELD files on many Marvel characters who don't appear in the book (almost 60 pages worth of them, taken from some a one-shot entitled Secret War: From The Files of Nick Fury, and then another 30 pages of process stuff).

It certainly reads better in trade, and it's certainly interesting to read a decade later, after we've seen where Brian Michael Bendis went with these characters (and his career) during that decade at Marvel, but it's still not any better than mediocre. One of Bendis' many interesting, ambitious failures (albeit with plenty of fun moments, my favorite of which is probably Ben Grimm's battle cry, above), featuring some of the most obviously phoned in art I've ever seen in.


Jer said...

At some point, SHIELD starts running the numbers and realizes that the economics of low-level super-villainy in the Marvel Universe just doesn't make any goddam sense.

Can I just say that this trope needs to DIE DIE DIE!

No, it doesn't make any sense. So don't dwell on it or try to explain it. It's a superhero trope - accept it and move on. Supervillains need to do villainous things. Stealing money is a villainous thing - and more fun than making every villain a psycho murderer or a terrorist out to destroy whole cities. So just roll with it and assume that in the Marvel universe their economics are sufficiently different to make it worthwhile to use your gadgets and power to knock over a jewelry store instead of selling out to Tony Stark or becoming a Hollywood stunt man.

It's like the secret identity trope - does it make a lot of sense that nobody knows who the superhero is? That his/her closest friends and family are fooled by a mask stuck to their face with a bit of spirit gum or a pair of thick glasses? No, of course it doesn't. So don't sit there shining a spotlight on it - ignore it. The readers will ignore it if you don't bring attention to it.

(The only place I've seen this trope dealt with well is in the old White Wolf Aberrant RPG. That wasn't supposed to be a superhero world - it was a world of people with superpowers. There's a difference between that an superheroes - and a world with Captain America in it is a "superhero" world, not a world of "people with super powers").

Eric Lee said...

I think that scene of the Thing breaking the ground is not him hitting the ground multiple times in a strange pose, but rather one act of him hitting the ground and the camera pans out to see the extent if the aftershock. Confusing, but a lot better than what you thought was happening.

Caleb said...


In that case, I think there shouldn't be different "RUMBLE" sound effects in each panel, as the panning out process would take a few seconds of time, and the repeated rumbles divide and extend that time into a couple of different beats, doesn't it...? At the very least, I would think in the third of those panels Thing would have relaxed his pose and begun to react to the ground crumbling around him...

David Charles Bitterbaum said...

I read, "Secret Wars," for the first time not too long after it came out in trade and found it to be an odd, odd book. I don't have much else I can say, it just is a weird read.

Aussiesmurf said...

I read it as it came out, and the delays killed any real chance of following the narrative, unless you re-read each previous issue before reading a new one.

I think the 'new Goblin' design was in fact the Hobgoblin.

I really enjoyed the art, up until the issue 5 schemozzle.