Secret Avengers #s 17 & 18
“Beast Box” & “No Zone”
Writer: Warren Ellis
Artists: Kev Walker (#17)/David Aja & Raul Allen (#18)
Colors: Frank Martin (#17)
Letters: Dave Lanphear
Cover artist: John Cassaday
Editor: Tom Brevoort
Publisher: Marvel Entertainment
Price: $3.99 US each
I stopped reading this series a few months ago. Despite my appreciation for previous writer Ed Brubaker’s work, I lost interest in the characters. But more importantly, I’ve lost interest generally in regular-sized comics priced at $3.99. I was lured back, though, and the reason can be summed up with two words: Warren Ellis. Every now and then, he revisits the super-hero genre that helped to establish him as one of the industry’s strongest writers (and beyond), and he almost always does something novel with the concepts. His recent brief stint on Secret Avengers hasn’t been an exception. The appeal here isn’t to sample Ellis’ take on Marvel’s various super-heroes. No, instead, they’re tools that allow him to explore science-fiction concepts that challenge the intellect and even send a couple of shivers up the reader’s spine. Adding to the experience is how Ellis has been teamed with some top artistic talent that are well matched to the subject matter of each individual story.
Commander Steve Rogers leads the Secret Avengers, a team of hand-picked superhuman champions to undertake secret missions to oppose and eliminate deadly threats without ever letting the world know the horrific and impossible dangers that lurk in almost every corner of the globe. One such locale is Serbia, where intel passed along through back channels indicates some kind of monstrous (literally) truck is wreaking havoc and abducting innocents. Another is a bizarre artificial structure containing a confusing Escher-landscape and a seemingly endless supply of Shadow Council soldiers.
Kev Walker was an excellent choice to bring to life the twisted amalgams of flesh and machine that serve as the threats in Secret Avengers #17. His grittier, dark style suits the horror the cyber-organic villains. His depictions of the weird mechanized monsters reminded me of the disturbing merging of tech and life from the cheesy but entertaining B-movie Virus. Walker’s work here reminds me at times of Kevin (League of Extraordinary Gentlemen) O’Neill’s angular style. Walker tends to craft his characters with simple shapes. The square shapes of his characters’ faces convey their toughness and determination.
It’s clear why David Aja was selected to illustrate the 18th issue of this series. As the cover image suggests, it serves in part as a spotlight on Shang-Chi, master of kung fu, and Aja is best known for his contributions to the defunct Immortal Iron Fist series from a few years back. Aja boasts a simple style that puts me in mind of the work of such other noted industry talents as Cliff (Wonder Woman) Chiang and Michael (Daredevil, Gotham Central) Lark. He meets the challenge of the physics-defying backdrop throughout this issue, conveying the impossible wonder of it all while maintaining a stark, industrial look at the same time. His inventive panel layouts aid that effort. I also appreciated the use of muted colors to convey a key flashback sequence in which the entire plot is explained.
Ellis’ scripts acknowledge a simple fact about this series: that Steve Rogers (the former Captain America, who’s become the current Captain America once again in other Marvel titles) is ill-suited to be the commander of a spy organization. Espionage isn’t about doing what’s right but doing what’s necessary. In other words, a master spy also has to be a killer, which runs contrary to the character. There’s an inherent problem in using Rogers in that role; in SA #17, he seems willing to cross the line, and in the 18th issue, we see Rogers task (through inference) Shang-Chi with killing their opponents. Of course, in that same issue, Ellis acknowledges the character conflict with a single bit of dialogue: “Never let me play spymaster again.”
Of course, the point isn’t to see what Ellis does with Marvel’s heroes. The characters are secondary to the story — required only as part of the framework through which Ellis can explore mad but oddly convincing ideas that, if not rooted in science, certainly seem as though they are. The hook in SA #17 is his acknowledgement of the political hot potato/international blind spot of Serbia. Less than two decades ago, the world’s attention was focused on that corner of the world, but Ellis suggests here it’s been cast aside, like the military industrial complex’s old toy in which it’s lost interest. Ellis shows us such ignored places serve as ideal locations for horrible things to occur to the ignored people who live there. The notions at the heart of SA #18 are less grounded in reality. Instead, Ellis explores dimensions physics — or to be more precise, the absence of physics. It’s a tremendously fun story, and adding to its appeal is how Ellis addresses something other writers on the series hadn’t: that Shang-Chi is something of a fish out of water among these more traditional super-hero characters. 8/10
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