Spencer: I’m a big proponent of comics being goofy, and due to my embracing the sillier aspects of comic books, I’ve been a big fan of Secret Avengers thus far. Still, it’s way too easy for “silly” to cross some sort of line, becoming corny or cringe-worthy or sometimes just tonally jarring. I liked last month’s issue a lot more than Drew and Shelby did, but I still have to agree with them that some of the issue’s more bizarre jokes felt out of place amongst the drama of the story itself. That’s not a problem in issue four, though. Gone are the random (if funny) throwaway gags; instead, Ales Kot and Michael Walsh embrace the inherent ridiculousness of their cast and the world they live in without ever betraying the high stakes of the mission itself.
Nick Fury Jr. (Nick Jr., ha) and Hawkeye, along with a handful of S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, descend upon the Kowloon Walled City in search of the Fury, a killer robot that fell from space way back in issue one. There’s one minor problem, though: the Kowloon Walled City was destroyed in 1993! Still, the special unit that doesn’t exist finds the Fury in the city that doesn’t exist and manages to bring him in, mostly thanks to M.O.D.O.K.’s “mushroom gun.” Meanwhile, M.O.D.O.K. and Maria Hill trade witty repartee and oversee the mission, but things go awry when the assassin who attacked Hill in issue one somehow winds up dead.
This issue strikes a fascinating balance; the events are treated as seriously as possible, but that doesn’t stop Kot and Walsh from allowing the more ridiculous sides of the characters to shine through. This is especially evident with M.O.D.O.K., whose bizarre inventions and competitive banter with Hill provides most of the issue’s humor.
Still, while M.O.D.O.K.’s an easy target, the laughs he generates are anything but easy; they don’t come from his crazy looks but from his personality itself, from his giant ego and ridiculous inventions and the way he takes himself so seriously when nobody else (besides poor Snapper here) takes him seriously at all. In fact, Walsh seems to be going out of his way to not to draw attention to how weird M.O.D.O.K. looks, and the fact that he plays this scene so straight just makes it funnier.
It’s also worth noting that I compiled the above image from two separate pages; almost every scene in this issue is split up and intercut, with Fury’s mission and Hill’s commentary on it running concurrently. It’s a smart decision; the seriousness of Fury’s scenes keeps the ridiculousness of Hill’s from becoming overwhelming, and this also works in reverse as well.
The pacing in this issue is aces all around, but it especially benefits Fury’s scenes, which are mostly devoted to the fight between Fury and Hawkeye’s team and the Fury robot. Despite a few typically fun Clint-quips here and there, not much character shines through in this plot — sub in any street level vigilante and not much would change — but what makes this segment sing is the pacing, the way Kot and Walsh devote entire pages to scenery, devoid of copy entirely, establishing a mood and building tension until the Fury finally reveals itself.
When that does happen, Walsh and colorist Matthew Wilson make sure it looks amazing. Walsh’s action and choreography is fun, clear, and brutal, and the color-coded lights Wilson lets trail from the fighters’ goggles provide a sense of movement and dynamism while also keeping it easy to tell the good guys and the bad guys apart.
When the more far-out elements of the title do finally intrude upon Fury’s half of the issue, they of course come via M.O.D.O.K.’s ridiculous inventions, such as the mushroom gun (did he find it by smashing a brick block?) and the tentacled extraction device (which looks like it should be attacking New York under Ozymandius’ orders at any moment).
This page is just so absurd; I love it! Again, the seriousness with which Walsh tackles the concept is half the fun; the blueprints on the previous page are a stroke of genius, and I love the corpse (or simply passed out soldier) being carted by a tentacle in panel 2, completely unnoticed by Clint or Fury. There’s humor, but this is also a surprisingly useful invention, although it’s so tailored this specific situation that it may be useless at almost any other time.
Still, the Marvel Universe is a strange place, and Maria Hill has no problem embracing it, recruiting M.O.D.O.K. into her fold and using his tech to pull soldiers out of dead-serious, life-and-death battles no matter how weird said tech may be. Kot hints several times that this may come back to haunt Hill later on — much like Starscream, M.O.D.O.K. barely even tries to hide his ambition — but in the meantime, the organism designed only for killing has no trouble rubbing Hill’s nose in her own actions and moral relativity. Does Hill really care about the soldiers she sends to their deaths, soldiers whose sacrifices can’t even be celebrated because their missions were so secret that they “never happened,” or is she as cold and manipulative as M.O.D.O.K.? We’re not likely to discover the answer — if a definitive one even exists — for quite a while yet, but the question certainly seems to have Maria rattled.
While I’ve certainly enjoyed Secret Avengers up to this point, I found this issue’s change of tone and pace to be quite refreshing, and I appreciate the moral quandaries it’s raising by exploring Maria Hill. Drew, did this issue work better for you than last month’s? Do you think Hill cares about her soldiers? Do you think the mystery of the walled city will ever be resolved, or is it just another bit of the weirdness that is the life of a Secret Avenger? Why didn’t Hawkeye get purple goggles for this mission? (It’s discrimination I tell ya’!)
Drew: I’m all but certain this isn’t the last we’ll see of the walled city — we’re still talking about the mouse with the syringe on its back, which I thought for sure was a goofy joke when it was introduced in issue 1. More importantly, M.O.D.O.K. specifically asks Fury to bring back “a few pieces of random matter” from the city as samples, so I suspect the answer to the question about what’s up with the walled city will be addressed directly going forward.
To answer your first question: yeah, this issue worked A LOT better for me than last month. A big part of this is the lack of cheap nonsense jokes — all of the laughs here feel true to the characters — but another key criticism from last time was how abrupt the tonal shifts were. This issue also alternates between its goofier and more serious story lines, but manages to pull it off with much more grace. Part of that may be because the tones of the story’s switch at the end — suddenly, the covert team is being extracted via tentacles, while M.O.D.O.K.’s teasing finally struck a chord with Maria — but I also think it has a lot to do with the return of this series’ greatest asset: M.O.D.O.K.
The thought of the Avengers having super-secret missions is kind of cool (making them more than just the public face of S.H.I.E.L.D.), but it becomes much funnier — and much more entertaining — when those super-secret missions give them the weapons and tactics of a supervillain. I mean, come on, who uses a mushroom gun? It’s no coincidence Spencer sees a hint of Ozymandias in that extraction plan. For me, that’s the real genius of this series: it can take its missions seriously, but their resolution is ultimately going to be pretty goofy. It allows Kot to have it both ways — we get a straight-faced spy-thriller up front, but it closes with the most absurd silliness comics can come up with. Kot excels at coming up with M.O.D.O.K. inventions, and this issue did not disappoint on that front.
But as I mentioned, Kot also counters that “spy thriller becomes supervillain quirk fest” arc with it’s mirror opposite, as Maria attempts to reign in M.O.D.O.K.’s most villainesque tendencies. The result is an issue shot straight through with humor and seriousness, but they coexist brilliantly here. None of the fury stuff feels so serious that a little humor feels out of place (heck, Hawkeye jumps through a window for no apparent reason besides being a glutton for punishment — one of the more well-observed character moments this issue), and that the M.O.D.O.K. stuff never feels so goofy that emotional repercussions don’t fit.
Moreover, I think the alternating between the two settings actively enhances the storytelling, forcing us to pace ourselves through the largely wordless mission sequences. It’s too easy to breeze through sequences like this, and peppering dialogue in throughout forces us to slow down and really soak in Walsh’s art. It’s a simple, counterintuitive trick, but it works wonders here.
This series continues to be goofy, but it’s balancing that goofy with emotional honesty, giving a series that’s just as “real” as anything Marvel publishes. More importantly, I feel like I now get the joke, and am ready for more laughs, while at the same time, I’m now emotionally hooked, and am ready for more Maria Hill soul-searching. Few series handle both ends of the spectrum so well, making this one all the more remarkable.
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?