Secret Warriors was a title that spun out of the massive Marvel event of yesteryear, Secret Invasion. It could have been the usual dreck, a spin off title with the usual creative team but instead it became a massively different beast. Secret Warriors became a good comic, possibly even a great one, and as it nears the halfway point of Hickman’s finite four year plan I thought it only sensible to look at why this comic is a little different from the standard monthly Big Two storytelling structure and delivery, and why you should go out and get yourself into this longform tale of spies and secret histories.
I don’t think many people had hopes for this title. It’s hard enough to launch a new title in this economy, but coming out of a major event this seemed like it might only be a tie-in series that wouldn’t handle any of the big story and would only serve to progress the bigger ideas of the core Marvel U, which nowadays can mean whatever story Brian Michael Bendis is cooking up. The first tip that this series might have been something different on the horizon was the placement of Jonathan Hickman as the writer. He was hot off the success of The Nightly News and other Image think pieces and was ready to hit the big time, if the big time audience was ready for his very different style.
It transpired that Bendis had a rough guide to the series but not the time to scribe it himself so he lobbied for Hickman to come on board, and the prodigy of the field detailed a multi-year plan for the title. He didn’t want to do the usual stuff, he wanted to carve history into the face of the past with a rusty straight razor. The first issue hit stands and surprised many as it was actually quite good, and ended on quite a cliffhanger; Nick Fury finds out that S.H.I.E.L.D. (the espionage agency he’s dumped years into) was actually a hidden arm of HYDRA, the terrorist organisation that he’s spent just as many years fighting. It was a great set up and it’s been a launching pad for two years of great storytelling.
Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created the Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. mythos in the pages of Strange Tales in the 1960’s. They did this in answer to James Bond, having a spy as a lead and plenty of acronyms to decipher and understand. Lee created a more schticky tone to the tales, as most comics were back then, but he also opened up the future towards comic tales of spies and espionage.
Over the years, Nick Fury has appeared as the ultimate spy in the Marvel U. Whenever secret information needed to be fenced or attained, Fury was the man; if there were people you were unsure about, Fury had the hook up; if you thought you were alone, Fury had your back. He was the perfect man for any job, so after a few decades he had been played out, to a degree. He’d fought HYDRA in every incarnation, even fought S.H.I.E.L.D., and he was always used to kick start missions by appearing with a file and charging someone with a task. It was old hat, and Bendis was right in taking Fury off the table for a while, creating a spy vacuum in the world which was given time to be sorely missed. Fury made his return proper under Bendis’ pen in Secret Invasion but he’d really roll out his tale in Hickman’s Marvel debut title.
Hickman writes Fury as a smart bad ass. He’s brutal and uncompromising and you actually believe this man is closing in on a century of battlefield honours. Even if the title is named for the team of young and promising soldiers Fury has cultivate, there is no mistaking this is Fury’s book. Fury takes centre stage, but the most impressive aspect is that Hickman writes Fury’s world in such vivid details and with such glorious ideas that you can’t help but see he has one foot in the old camp and one in the new. He’s got the tropes of the old dust-loved paperbacks that built us pulp heroes of crime and espionage as well as some concepts of insanity that could only be believed in comic form, as strange beings and men of power interact within the parameters of this tale. Hickman’s world is a twisted spy-fu tale where anything can happen and it’s this spontaneity of possibility that makes the ride through the unknown delight the reader as double plays of understanding and intent are staged and analysed.
The world might start with Fury as a spy but he has super-powered teens under his command, as well as old Howling Commando buddies from the old war. He’s got secrets, and lies, and no one knows anything; only smart people are the ones who know they don’t know so much of Fury’s plans. He’s a between man for the worlds we think we understand and the words we know we don’t. That’s our main character and those around him spiral out in waves of equal coolness and craziness.
HYDRA is the main enemy of the series, kind of, and Hickman plays them for keeps for a change. He’s not out to show us the faceless drones and henchmen who simply provide cannon fodder for splash pages and will never be given the hero’s funeral they never deserved. Hickman, instead, takes us into the conference rooms that control HYDRA and shows us the minds that make up their leaders. Baron Von Strucker is an old man who has always controlled HYDRA and simply wants to see his first and most pure plan come to fruition. He’s old school and provides the most solid base of the HYDRA heads of evil. The others, however, are not so simple.
Gorgon is a man whose glance will turn you to stone and his blade will turn you to slashed ribbons. He’s a noble warrior who is simply following the wrong path as he sees his curse as a reason to rail against the world. Watching him toy with innocent girls and then freeze them in stone as they realise their need for fear is a sick moment where you realise just what this guy is capable of. Hickman writes a twisted villain but one with a purpose in this world; to watch it burn and take out everyone in it. He started with his family and you can’t help but think he’ll end with himself.
The other villain who massively interests me and shows that Hickman is out to push boundaries is The Hive. This strange melding between man and squid (perhaps) is the perfect example that Hickman doesn’t want to just stick to one genre, he wants to make his own. The Hive was an experiment by HYDRA to have a weak-willed man overrun by these strange pod creatures; the eventual outcome was the cold and calculating Hive. He’s a fascinating character study but more so an impressive visual presence on the page. Hickman plays this hybrid as simply part of the group and it instantly makes sense. This is the sort of bizarre business HYDRA peddles in constantly, and you could completely see King Kirby definitely digging on. It’s out there but it doesn’t stop it from being efficient and deadly.
Over the course of roughly two years, Hickman has plotted Fury and his teammates against HYDRA and slowly detailed a dense and intricate back story between the two agencies, as well as introduced a third. Hickman postulates that S.H.I.E.L.D. was the ultimate American force to stem from the Second World War, and HYDRA stemmed from the Germanic influence within that war. He now introduces Leviathan as the Russian counterpoint to these two historical superpowers. It’s a smart way to drive a wedge between the staid S.H.I.E.L.D./HYDRA rivalry as all three groups equally hate each other. This isn’t a dog pile on the good guys, this is true war dealings where everyone is out for themselves and anyone against you is your sworn enemy.
Secret Warriors jumps off the stands as one of the few Marvel comics that reads like an independent title in that it’s not exactly beholden to any golden status quo. It’s extremely smart, most of the time, and it’s epic in scope of action and concept nearly all of the time and it knows if it shakes the snow globe then nothing will resettle where it started. And if the snow globe breaks then the story will just progress further into the new unknown. It’s also refreshing that many of the characters are new and so their tenure on the pages doesn’t feel definite or assured. Anything can and often does happen in this title. Hickman doesn’t aim down with this title or talk to his audience like fools, he races through his characters and plot pieces like he’s jumping hurdles in one race to get straight into his next race, and he’s going to win both. It’s a genre mash up that works nearly always, excluding his second arc that was editorially forced to tie into core Marvel U events a little too much, and there’s plenty to keep the reader stimulated in plenty of different areas.
If you haven’t tried Secret Warriors but you think you’d like a good set of spy tropes doled out across a broad sci-fi platform and mixed together with some great writing and moody art from Stefano Caselli then you need to give this a try. The opening trade, Nick Fury: Agent of Nothing, is pretty damn good but I fell in love with the third arc, Wake The Beast, where Hickman really unravels the scroll that contains the meat to be found in his four year plan. I am certainly sold on this series and cannot wait to see Hickman spend the next two years grabbing all of his loose ends and weaving a gorgeous tapestry of destruction and espionage one piece at a time.