Secret Avengers: Run the Mission, Don’t Get Seen, Save the World

by deerinthexenonarclights

As the subtitle of this collection suggests The Secret Avengers are in theory an extremely intricate and incredibly efficient team – the exact inverse then of their more bombastic brethren in the mother ship of the franchise – and through his take on the comic writer Warren Ellis wrings this characteristic out completely, allowing it to spill out into the style and storytelling of the book itself. I’ve never read an Avengers book before, let alone a spin-off title and so I have no idea how the group formed, in which way they are so secret or even why it would be so bad for them to be seen in the first place, hell I didn’t even know who some of the characters I was seeing were thanks to the risky constant recycling of the roster, but thankfully having the answers to those questions is entirely inessential to enjoying the experience of this book.

Yes, perhaps some of the events within would have played better or held more personal impact had I read the prior issues in which those things may or may not have been explained, but I doubt that it would have made much of a difference or else Ellis would have included them. I say this not out of any personal faith in the man – as I’m also yet to read any of his other works – but instead solely base it on the evidence of the book, as he proves himself here to be a master of information management. So that he doesn’t bother to address these issue suggests that they are superfluous and that is obviously not a word that he wanted to have associated in any way with his run on this previously second-tier title.

Each single issue that Ellis scripted tells its own individual story and does so in a singularly strong manner, one that mirrors the missions of the men and women of the team itself. He pares the plots down to their most primary elements and then presents these without wasting a single panel. We start always extremely in media res, the mission already underway or close to over, almost as if we had opened on the third act or closing issue of a lengthier arc; the comic itself is all climax, the set-up left to lone ‘previously on’ flashbacks to briefings that are intercut throughout the issue. Though this would suggest that this is a set of incredibly slight stories, the depth usually being doled out in those earlier acts and all, this brevity does not at all equate to shallowness; the stories are as strong as any superhero fare that I’ve read only they take none of the time getting to the good stuff that most modern tales do.

In a way the stripped back nature of the writing actually lends the missions an importance, or at least the illusion of one, far beyond that which one would imagine given the time spent setting up the stakes. This is mostly due to the fact that because the book is so strictly stripped back of bulk we know that every element which is left on the page is there for a reason and so we have to pay special attention to it. Everything is vital every vehicle, every line and every weapon, every minute mention is likely to return in a later movement to massive effect and so nothing can be ignored or taken for granted. I guess I would equate it in a way to the minimalistic branch of modern art; when all that sits on the canvas is a simple set of shapes, colours or lines then it is every brushstroke rather than every bush or miller on the busy street that you stare at; it’s a tightening of focus, a narrowing in on what it is that we want from the form. In essence these are Rube Goldberg stories that Ellis has constructed and not only that, he’s made them on a microscopic level.

Of course he didn’t do so alone. No, like Steve Rogers himself Ellis assembled a super team of artists too sketch out this set of stories, with each issue allocated to a different name. Given the nature of the project this makes perfect sense, since they are already vignettes why not distinguish the stories further by experimenting with looks? While it is nice to see all these different styles on display in one place I think that for me it was perhaps the final individual straw for my over-ordered mind and the cause of my one sole criticism: I brought these stories as a trade, one single book, but I don’t think that is the best way to read them. Each issue contains not only its own entire story, but one built around a bizarre high-concept idea and the players in these plots are entirely different each time thanks to the aforementioned assortment of characters, add in the alternating art and the experience becomes somewhat schizophrenic, a seismic shift of style every six or so minutes without any kind of serialization – the sole call-back to a conversation on time travel not counted of course –  to support it. Of course you could still read each issue in a separate setting, re-create the experience of the monthly release schedule, but they’re so damn fun that no-one in their right mind is ever going to stop at one.

I’m speaking of this book as if it is something revolutionary and new, a complex renaissance in comic book writing, but I’m not sure that is entirely true. Though I’ve basically only been a comic book geek for a few months now I couldn’t help when reading this book but feel that this is what comics used to be like, or at least what the lesser action titles would have seemed of like when read by someone still young. There’s a great dialogue early in the second story that hints at this: “It’s kind of old-school,” Rhodes says of a robotic truck that they are watching harvest villagers via tractor beam (yes, you heard me), to which Rogers replies “’Old-school’ is cracking someone over the head and dragging ‘em out by their feet. This, this is kinda different.” While it is without a doubt a little different, for me Secret Avengers fits that definition exactly: it is simple, direct and violent in its approach, with an impact to match. It’ll hit you hard, knock you out and leave you reeling, but it won’t once wipe the smile off your face.