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Secret War (Review/Retrospective)

April (and a little bit of May) are “Avengers month” at the m0vie blog. In anticipation of Joss Whedon’s superhero epic, we’ll have a variety of articles and reviews published looking at various aspects of “Earth’s Mightiest Heroes.” Yesterday and today we’re taking a look at the two Brian Michael Bendis events that kick-started the writer’s work on the franchise.

In many ways, Secret War feels like a companion piece to DC’s Identity Crisis crossover. Both miniseries essentially deconstructed the relatively simplistic nature of those superhero universes – daring to question what might happen if you approached these plot devices with a bit more cynicism. Bendis’ Secret War miniseries not only sets up the status quo and suggests the themes he would develop over the course of his New Avengers run, it also darkens the entire tone of the shared Marvel Universe. You can almost plot a straight line between Secret War and Siege, considering it one gigantic and messy saga adopting a cynical approach to the mechanics of this fictional world.

The war at home…

I maintain that it was always Bendis’ intent to pick the fundamentals of the universe apart only to put them back together in a stronger fashion. More than moving the Avengers franchise to the very heart of the Marvel Universe, the writer also seems to want to explore the universe itself. After all, what do heroes mean in the post-9/11 era? In a world where there seem to be no heroic figures beyond any sort of moral impeachment, how can Marvel’s street-smart superheroes remain relevant? We live in a world where we’re increasingly accepting morally compromised heroes, and what does that mean for these iconic fictional characters? Surely they’re a little bit out of tune with reality if good continues to soundly trump evil, without addressing the shades of grey that must exist?

Bendis’s New Avengersand his work at the heart of the Marvel Universe test this premise. Under his pen, virtually every character is compromised, every icon is fallible. People make terrible decisions, motivated by the greater good – ultimately not all the choices are vindicated. Nick Fury’s unilateral attack on the government of another sovereign state comes back to haunt him, just like Tony’s support of registration would undermine the heroic community and the President’s faith in Norman Osborn would have serious consequences. It seems that everybody in the Marvel Universe loses sight of the greater good in Bendis’ epic saga, and somehow make the wrong choices for what they believe to be the right reasons.

The Devil you know?

And yet Bendis never seems to fully embrace the notion that these flaws somehow make the heroes better people. Tony’s actions are completely indefensible, however much he believes he’s doing right. Bendis seems to reject the notion that compromised heroism should be allowed to pass for heroism at all. Indeed, the superheroes of the Marvel Universe should transcend the swamp of moral ambiguity and stand for some loftier, unimpeachable ideal. There is room for hope, even in the darkest hour. As Nick Fury takes the blame for everything that has gone wrong, he explains why he wiped the memories of those involved, because he believed that he could somehow accept the compromise for them. “You are herrrrroes. More than me.”

It had become, in the years leading up to Secret Wars, to deconstruct and pick apart the notion of the superhero. It’s a trend that stemmed from Alan Moore’s Watchmen, which Bendis deftly evokes here through a collection of impressive and expansive back-material, foreshadowing years worth of plotlines. In that time, Tony Stark turned evil and was replaced by a teenage clone, Professor Xavier became the villain Onslaught, and antiheroes like Ghost Rider, Venom and the Punisher topped the sales charts. It wasn’t helping the industry, which was rapidly shrinking after the explosion in the nineties.

Sound and Fury?

Of course, you can’t really argue that Bendis’ attempt to reevaluate the role of the superhero, reaffirming their virtue and integrity, brought readers back to comic books. Sales have been fairly steadily in decline. However, Bendis’ writing does reflect a general change that was happening in the industry at the time. Over in DC, this attempt to deal with the cynicism and violence of modern comics found expression in Identity Crisis and Infinite Crisis. It seemed like the industry was almost trying to work out its own issues and problems, in the hope of finally exorcising them.

It’s telling that the day is saved when Bendis’ five mind-wiped heroes decide to reach out for help, rather than trying to solve the problem themselves. Captain America summons the Avengers, Nick Fury calls forth the Fantastic Four. Even Wolverine, the ultimate loner, shows up with the support of the X-Men. The implication is clear, and it’s an image that Bendis returns to time and time again in his work: good will triumph because it has a framework and a support structure that evil simply lacks.

Wolverine and the X-Men…

Nick Fury’s unilateral actions have devastating consequences, and it’s only the unquestioning arrival of heroes en masse that helps save the day. In Bendis’ superhero work, the worst thing that a hero can do is isolate him- or herself. We see it in Daredevil and Ultimate Spider-Man, and we see it here too. That’s why Tony Stark’s grand plans never come to anything, but it’s also why Norman Osborn’s evil schemes ultimately fall apart in Siege.

So Secret War sees a surreal intersection of the superhero genre with the real world. The hardcover comes with an introduction from an anonymous intelligence official who vouches it’s fairly accurate “except for the superheroes.” This is a world where the intelligence community traces threats to public security not through colourful aliases and costumes, but through bank accounts and known associates. The miniseries features the fairly brutal interrogation of a low-tier supervillain by the name of Killer Shrike. Normally, one would assume that he just sits idly in a jail cell waiting to escape, but here we witness the questioning he receives.

Secret Warriors…

The villain is detained without trial, repeatedly asserting his rights and demanding his lawyer. He is beaten for his trouble. However, it’s then that Bendis starts to go to town on the fabric of the superhero universe. After all, the superhero fantasy isn’t the most robust of genres. All you need to do is tug on one thread and the whole thing can unravel right in front of your eyes. Bendis spends most his run doing this, as if illustrating how fragile the narrative is – and how asking the wrong questions can undermine it. After all, Civil War arises when somebody give too much thought to the relationship between vigilantes and the government. Secret Invasion arises when you broach the issue of trust in a community of men and women who wear masks.

Here, Bendis attacks a single aspect of suspension of disbelief, but one that has probably occurred to most readers at least once. Why do supervillains with such ridiculous technology settle for such ridiculously petty crime. Nick Fury discusses the near-anonymous villain Jack O’Lantern. “This Jack O’Lantern had robbed a bank, getting away with 11,345 dollars,” he states. “The technology and hardware he used is worth well over three quarters of a million dollars.” Discussing the pathetic Killer Shrike, one interrogator wonders, “How can he afford the maintenance on a surgically implanted anti-gravity generator imbedded in his spine, head-to-toe body armor, or the custom-made twin power blasters he wears on each wrist?”

Are villains electric?

If you probe too much, you have to make up uncomfortable answers to explain it. In this case, Bendis suggests state-sponsored terrorism, in a weird case of what might be termed Schrödinger’s Plot. Logically, this plot hole that Bendis has pointed out has always existed, from the days of the Stan Lee and Jack Kirby adventures. However, since it only becomes obvious now in this era of cynicism, the answer applies to the now. It ignores the fact that such logic must have been a factor when these villains first appeared. It’s only an issue now because the story actually raised it. One wonders if Fury had never followed that line of thought, would there ever have been a terrorist plot at all?

Bendis doesn’t do the sort of mind-bending fourth-wall-breaking meta-references that Morrison excels at, but he suggests an interesting paradox: this deeply sinister and subversive plot is only occurring because we need it to fill in the gaps in a plot hole we’ve just recognised. If we didn’t point it out, the mechanics would be fine, and there’d be no need for the deconstruction. Similarly, if we didn’t spend so much time picking apart these classic and iconic characters, then there’d be no need to so brutally pick apart the Marvel Universe. In a way, Bendis’ meta-narrative affirms the importance of the heroic archetype by demonstrating exactly what happens when you apply too much critical thought to it. The house of cards collapses.

Trouble in Hell’s Kitchen…

And Secret War is full of none-too-subtle observations and criticisms of mainstream superhero comics, demonstrating what happens if you allow logic and reason to restrict the more fantastical elements. The very first page opens with Luke Cage and Jessica Jones discussing Iron Fist’s costume as they wander down the street in their plain clothes. “Iron Fist does not need a new costume,” Jessica insists, as Luke observes that a kid was making fun of it. Kids these days – no respect for the sacred institutions of superhero comics. It provides a mirror to the first scene in New Avengers, which opens with Electro trying to decide whether to do a job in his costume or outside it.

The costumes, to Bendis, are symbolic. The Thing cracks a joke about having to change out of his pyjamas and into his costume to save the day, but that’s what heroes do. It’s telling that Fury has his secret team travel out of costume, and then dresses them in black spy outfits for their night-time attack on the Latveria palace. Superheroes wear their costumes as symbols of virtue, not for practical or logical purposes. That is, after all, the point of these stories, isn’t it?

Logan is Fury-ous…

Of course, Luke Cage’s powers are also subjected to rather brutal and logical analysis over the course of Secret War. “How do you sweat?” a kid asks on the first page, perhaps suggesting some interesting mechanical questions for Luke Cage’s impenetrable skin. It’s a light-hearted point, but it becomes a bigger issue later on, as Cage’s skin makes surgery impossible. With a grotesque assortment of tubes leading down his throat, the doctors “had to find alternatives” to necessary surgery. This is the sort of problem that presents itself if you apply too much rigorous thought to the world of superheroes.

It’s worth pausing to contextualise Bendis’ New Avengers run, and framing it in terms of other changes at Marvel around the same time. Mark Millar’s The Ultimates had made a tremendous impact, featuring heroes against very real-world problems and concerns. You can see the impact of that series in the live action adaptations of various comic books. Bendis took over the title while Millar’s book was redefining the team. While Millar had the freedom to work outside of continuity, Bendis found himself doing just the opposite – he had to craft a new and accessible Avengers book withinthe confines of continuity.

Punch-clock heroism?

Millar attempt to tell a very classic story with modern trappings. After all, while the initial issues are fairly grounded, he eventually establishes quite a lot of the mythology that the regular comics have (including the existence of Asgard). Bendis is trying to do the opposite, taking old plot elements and working them together into something new. That said, I think you can detect quite a bit of Millar’s influence on this work, including a very aggressive characterisation of Captain America. “His patriotism is skewed and out of date,” Fury’s files note. “He rarely deals with his anger issues.” That sounds considerably more like Millar’s alternate version of the character than the established mainstream version.

I think that Bendis’ writing actually works much better here than it does in some of his later, more conventional New Avengers arcs. His David-Mamet-style rhythmic dialogue actually fits this sort of shady espionage world in the same way that it fit quite well with his noir-tinged Daredevil run or his zippy Ultimate Spider-Man work. That said, I do think the writer struggles to find a solid voice for Captain America. It’s strange to hear Steve Rogers describe the Second World Wars as “a billion years ago.”But he writes most of the cast quite well.

The Devil in the pale moonlight…

Indeed, you can spot a lot of his New Avengers line-up here. There’s obviously Luke Cage, who Bendis has shepherded from relative obscurity to the forefront of the shared universe. There’s also Spider-Man and Wolverine, who would be his most controversial recruits to the team. There’s obviously Captain America. There’s also Daredevil, who was originally intended to join the team under the alias “Echo” until an overzealous reporter spoiled that particular plot thread and Bendis had to make a last-minute swap-out.

The miniseries features the work of artist Gabrielle Dell’otto, whose work fell notoriously behind schedule. Instead of leading into Bendis’ other major Avengers-related event, Avengers Disassembled, Secret War ran so far behind that it was published almost as a companion piece. Still, that’s the wonderful thing about reading a book like this in a collected edition, you don’t have to worry about delays and it all looks fantastic. I really love the look of Secret War, with all the shadows and shadings. There are nice touches, like the way Dell’otto shades Peter’s back to indicate bruising – a subtle illustration of how much more brutal this fictional universe gets if you allow yourself to think too much of it.

Fury drives his heroes up the wall…

Secret War sets up a great deal of the status quo to come, and one gets a sense of just how far ahead Bendis was plotting. Wolverine’s profile alludes to House of M (“in a perfect world, he would be a level 10 SHIELD agent”) while the back-up material is sure to include the profiles of various characters who would become important as the run goes on, such as Sentry. That’s even ignoring how it paved the way for Nick Fury’s absence – arguably without the morally compromised “top cop” to make the tough calls, the heroes ended up tarnishing themselves. In many ways, Secret Wars serves as a pilot to Bendis’ Avengers run, setting the tone and the mood for what follows.

I think there’s a case to be made that Secret War is probably one of the strongest works that Bendis has produced using these characters, playing with the Avengers template. It works so well because it’s very clearly the opposite of what we’re used to, putting familiar characters in a very unfamiliar position. Indeed, a lot of Bendis’ run would do something quite similar.

You might be interested in our reviews of Brian Michael Bendis’ other Avengers work:

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4 Responses

  1. Great review–I had not bothered to pick this series up at the time due to the delays. On your recommendation, though, I bought the digital collection. It is an excellent series, so much stronger than much of the Bendis work that followed.

    • Thanks Rob, glad you liked it! I think it’s with Dark Avengers as Bendis’ best Avengers-related material. I think it plays to his strengths more than New or Mighty Avengers does. I’m a bigger fan of Bendis than most (I love the idea of his meta-epic meditation on the nature of superheroes in a post-9/11 world), but I’ll concede that the bricks in that particular wall aren’t as strong as they should be. He feels uncomfortable writing the conventional superheroics of Mighty Avengers and New Avengers is too firmly tied into everything going on in the Marvel Universe to ever really establish its identity. Secret War works because he has all these ideas and themes, but can develop them in a manner that is a bit more shaded and more sinister than a conventional superhero title.

  2. Wow, I never knew that about Daredevil joining the team as Echo. I always wondered why Bendis included him then let him go. Shame, I think I would have liked that more than random Echo girl that’s disappeared now.

    • I believe he had to change at the last minute, which is a shame, because I think that would have worked quite well. Especially as Bendis’ Matt Murdock would have fit the themes of the series quite well – the notion of a superhero who isn’t best suited psychologically to being a superhero on a team of superheroes struggling to find their place in a changing world.

      I added a source. Apologies, this should have been in the original review, sorry I missed it:

      http://goodcomics.comicbookresources.com/2008/06/12/comic-book-urban-legends-revealed-159/

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