-S.H.I.E.L.D. Director Maria Hill
Patrick: For all the crap people give the superhero genre for being “formulaic” or “predictable,” the medium of comics is anything but. I really liked Captain America: The Winter Soldier — and that flick does take a lot of big crazy chances — but one of the moments I was disappointed by was the split second we thought we were going to see Nick Fury’s car fly through the streets of D.C. Hot damn, I wanted to see that car fly. “Flying car” is one of those things you sorta just have to shrug at and say “comics are weird, man.” Or, more precisely, “there are no rules.” Ales Kot’s Secret Avengers embraces this philosophy, combining a cast of button-down Special Agents with a band of superhero (…and supervillain) misfits into one cacophonous volume. It’s a buffet of surprises, each one gleefully undermining all the others.
Black Widow, Spider-Woman and Hawkeye rocket through the atmosphere in Widow’s pink Cadillac convertible. That’s our baseline; we’ll get sillier from there. The car goes into space-ship-mode and successfully ferries our heroes to the S.H.I.E.L.D. space station, where they’re able to restore guidance controls to satellites all over the globe. Their method for doing so is ridiculously trite and on-point — one of them has to hold two ends of a busted cable together while the other two throw a pair of switches.
It doesn’t matter what this activity is, it only matters that it took the three of them “working” together to do it. This is a hilarious oversimplification of one of those “team coming together” stories, which have become so common in Marvel comics. Between Thunderbolts, X-Force, Guardians, Invaders, and about a billion X-Men and Avengers series, Marvel is just lousy with team books, and everyone single one requires a reason that these characters should be working together. We’ve engaged in some gentle teasing of Jonathan Hickman’s Avengers that the rallying cry of “get bigger” is maybe a little too stupid to anchor a whole series on.
That’s all in good fun, and every one of these series actually ends up doing a bunch of leg work to justify their teams — the problem being that they’re all somewhat artificial. With few exceptions, these characters are designed as lone wolves, out-sized personalities that can carry a monthly comic book on their own. Why do we insist on seeing them fight alongside each other? Man, who knows — we just do. Kot brazenly acknowledges that we’re expecting a big, meaningful reason for Natasha, Jessica and Clint to put aside their shared history to be bad-ass superheroes, while simply not giving it us. Like, this could be a scenario where the the characters’ specific power and knowledge sets need to be used in careful precision… or they can just push buttons at the same time — same dif’. And then, just to make sure we know he’s making fun of the moment, Kot tosses in the most generic of literary analysis “this is symbolic.” (That’s some sharpshooting, right there. Thanks Hawkeye.)
Our heroes save the day and manage to rescue Agents Fury and Coulson using some stolen M.O.D.O.K. technology. Back on Earth (or, at least, closer to it — the rest of the action takes place on a S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier), Maria Hill is held at gunpoint by a rogue S.H.I.E.L.D. agent bent on revenge. “But revenge for what?” I hear you ask. Kot is again hilariously cagey about the specifics. This issue returns us to the scene way too late to get any meaningful details about why the gunman in there.
“…And that is how they died” might be my favorite piece of throw-away expository dialogue ever. Even as they continue their conversation, it’s clear that S.H.I.E.L.D. is indirectly responsible for killing someone close to the gunman, but the ins and outs of the operation simply don’t matter. We’ve read that backstory a bajillion times, Secret Avengers is profoundly more interested in telling the weird story that’s happening right here, right now.
And actually, some of the more straightforward storytelling in this issue revolves around the Mental Organism Designed Only for Killing. M.O.D.O.K. is an unlikely hero, but he’s pretty well set up to learn humility and the value of teamwork in a meaningful way — like when Director Hill reveals that she’s already found practical applications for that killer nanobot blanket he was developing in the previous issue. In fact, M.O.D.O.K.’s other act of heroism — the rat with a syringe strapped to it — is also foreshadowed in the first issue. Just for funsies, here’s our introduction to M.O.D.O.K.’s lab in issue 1:
Mark, I know that you’ve been digging M.O.D.O.K.’s appearance here, so I’ll leave it to you to highlight how well Kot and artist Michael Walsh convey his egomaniacal personality. And yes, I am woefully omitting any mention of Walsh and colorist Matthew Wilson’s stellar work until the very final paragraph. Mark! This is our contrived call for team work! Bail me out!
Is there a more lovable mental organism designed only for killing in all of comics today? M.O.D.O.K. is one of my favorite elements of Secret Avengers thus far. As written by Kot, M.O.D.O.K. is a villain from something like The Powerpuff Girls. He’s theoretically menacing, but is really just a big ol’ baby. He wrings his hands and schemes, but still throws a temper tantrum when Hill uses his research without him knowing. And drawn by Walsh, with his giant potato head and tiny arms perched on a base of mechanical crab (spider?) legs, he’s a little bit adorable.
Patrick, you already mentioned how silly it is when Widow, Spider-Woman, and Hawkeye restore the satellite controls by simply connecting a broken cable and throwing two switches simultaneously. Crazy-simple solutions to problems that other series would take multiple issues to solve is a running theme throughout. How do the three of them rocket into space? Widow simply pushes the Big Red Button in her Cadillac. What does M.O.D.O.K. use to incapacitate Hill’s mystery assassin? A lab rat with a syringe just strapped to it. We’ve seen some of the crazy things M.O.D.O.K. is building in his lab, but all of those are foregone for the silliest solution.
That sense that fun is priority number one is something I’m really enjoying. You’re right that one of the great things about comics is that they can be anything. Picking up a title featuring the The Avengers, you know that some combination of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes will be teaming up, but depending on the creative team, it could be a Silver Age throwback, a hard boiled detective story, a tech thriller, or any other genre someone wants to explore. And while the occasional Batman: Arkham Asylum-type diversion is enjoyable, the series and issues I remember most fondly are the ones that are having fun with the characters and take advantage of comics as a medium where things don’t have to be grounded in gritty realism.
The only real misstep this issue is the banter between Coulson and Fury as they float in space and consider their demise. I found their exchanges to be pretty inexplicable. Are they supposed to be read as sincere goodbyes? In which case they felt out of place in the otherwise breezy world of Secret Avengers. Maybe they were intentionally overdramatic in a pulpy way? Possibly, but when Fury calls Coulson “Cheese” I did a Liz Lemon-style “Oh brother” eye roll. Now that the pair have been rescued from deep space i’m looking forward to more compelling contributions from them.
Secret Avengers has quickly become one of the series I look forward to most each month. Two issues in, and we still have very little idea on where the story is going. And the highest compliment I can pay Kot and Walsh is that it doesn’t matter at all. Like the best team mash ups, the fun is in watching these characters bounce off of each other.
For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page. Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore. If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to Comixology and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?