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Secret Warriors Omnibus (Review/Retrospective)

There are plans within plans… wheels within wheels. The old order is waking from a deep sleep any my masters… they hunger for knowledge of this new world.

– Leviathan Disciple

Secret Warriors is an interesting ride. It’s a rather bold narrative, crafted with a great deal of skill by author Jonathan Hickman, exploring an interesting underbelly of the Marvel Universe, while providing a pretty compelling exploration of Marvel’s super-spy Nick Fury. It reads like a densely-packed pulpy espionage thriller, with Hickman cleverly layering the story and gradually peeling back the skin to reveal wheels within wheels. While the climax of the story isn’t as strong as it should be, Secret Warriors still makes for an interesting read, a relatively long-running series that was carefully planned out from the beginning and executed with considerable style.

Secret Agent Man!

Note: There will be spoilers in this here review. Don’t worry, I’ll flag them before we reach them, but given the twisty nature of the narrative, I thought I’d let you know up-front.

In a way, Secret Warriors is simultaneously strengthened and weakened by its place in Marvel’s gigantic and convoluted continuity. It seems that every other arc is tying into some event or another. The series was launched in two issues of Mighty Avengers during Secret Invasion, and then gets its own Dark Reign: The List tie-in, before dovetailing through the events of Siege. While answering the demands of these continuity-heavy events, Hickman is tasked with telling his own story quite divorced from anything that Norman Osborn or Captain America might be doing.

Taking a time out…

Indeed, Hickman seems to mock the notion of his tie-in to The List, a high-concept series of one-shots based around a “list” that Norman Osborn had made of things that he had to deal with. Those included events tying into Uncanny X-Men, Daredevil and even The Punisher. It is, as excuses for tie-ins and crossovers go, a pretty flimsy premise, and Hickman goes out of his way to have a bit of fun at the expense of the idea.

When Norman shows Fury his list, Fury responds, “Yeah, I heard about that. I made one of my own.” Fury’s list is a bit more ambitious, a lot more straight-forward and enjoys considerably less intruding on other books in the publishing line. His objectives are:

  • Save the world.
  • Punch Norman in the face.
  • Have a beer.

I will admit that I giggled a little bit, as Hickman seemed to affectionately mock the crossover with which Secret Warriors had crossed paths.

Everybody wants to rule the world…

However, despite the demands of the shared universe occasionally intruding on his narrative (in the same way, for example, they intruded on Ed Brubaker’sCaptain America or Matt Fraction’s The Invincible Iron Man), Hickman does find a way to make this massive shared continuity work for him. In particular, he carves out a niche that allows him to tell a Nick Fury story without having to worry too much about everything else going on.

While it’s clear that Hickman has a lot of affection for Fury’s publication history, he’s actually quite careful to make sure that the reader knows everything they need to in order to enjoy the story. Hickman resurrects classic concepts and characters left, right and centre, but he does so in a way that doesn’t make the narrative feel too exclusive or too narrow. As he reintroduces these ideas, he frequently reimagines them slightly to serve his story, or provides the reader with enough information to make sense of what is unfolding.

Once more unto the breach!

The best part of Hickman’s Secret Warriors, even ignoring the densely layered and carefully structured plot, is the way that he handles the character of Nick Fury. He makes sure to repeatedly describe the H.Y.D.R.A. agent known as the Kraken as “the man that helps others become who they are meant to be”, but it seems like the Kraken mirrors Fury in that regard. As Hickman sees it, Fury isn’t just a spy or a secret agent in his own series (or a convenient plot device in somebody else’s). Fury is a character who exists as a shepherd, to help shape and guide the heroes of the Marvel Universe.

In Secret Warriors, Fury is presented as a father figure, guiding a young bunch of heroes towards their destinies. Many of these so-called “Caterpillers” are the children of super-criminals, and Fury isn’t just training them as an army to save the world – he’s helping them to find their own place in it. Even when Fury is occasionally presented as selfish, callous and cruel, he is repeatedly shown to be considerate and affectionate – just not directly. He only confesses his admiration of the young Daisy Johnson to a dying team mate, and he is sure to make use of a team member he publicly discarded.

What a Baron world…

That’s not to suggest that Hickman presents Fury as an unambiguously heroic figure. While he undoubtedly is doing what he believes to be right, Hickman suggests that Fury has allowed himself to become acclimatised to warfare. He is incapable of trusting others, or of opening up. He recruits youngsters with little alternative to serve as soldiers in his war. (A cynical ploy, given his refusal to recruit more experienced meta-humans like Captain America – arguably because they’d have the self-confidence to stand up to him.)

The “Caterpillers” themselves are all effectively realised, although Fury is very much the focal point of the series. (In fact, as the end approaches, Hickman rather hastily disbands the team.) Each of the characters is well defined in the relatively limited amount of space provided, with their own quirks and personality brought to the fore. In particular, Hickman manages to give Daisy Johnson, J.T. and Phobos their own smaller arcs within the series – leading them to logical, if not always happy, endings.

The last samurai?

Of course, Fury is getting older – so it seems fair that Hickman presents him as an elder statesman of the Marvel Universe. We repeatedly jump back to the character’s memories of the Second World War with Captain America and we are frequently reminded that “the man was at Normandy.” Hickman presents a Nick Fury who has grown old, and is concerned with legacy. Indeed, Fury is mirrored with two of the people leading the sinister H.Y.D.R.A., Baron Von Strucker and the Kraken. Both are similarly concerned with legacy. “These children today, they have no ambition,” Strucker laments at one point, and Fury would likely agree.

At one point, Fury visits the remaining Howling Commandos. In this uncertain climate, the former patriots have been reduced to soldiers of fortune, “Howling Commandos P.M.C.” When Fury wonders why there are so few officers present, and how so many could have continued serving under Osborn, Gabriel explains, “We left behind good men. Men with families who that had no other choice but to stay.”

It’s H.A.M.M.E.R. time!

Such concerns are alien to Nick Fury. At one point, Eric Koenig, a former SHIELD operative working within the re-branded “H.A.M.M.E.R.”, articulates Nick Fury’s second rule, “Howling Commandos only retire when they’re good and damned ready.” It seems that Nick Fury is highly unlikely to ever retire, a perennial soldier. Despite the fact that Fury is a man forever at war, Hickman suggests that Fury’s world has radically changed around him.

That idea is really the hook of Secret Warriors. “Who are you?” Contessa de Fontaine demands at one point. “Look at you. You’re a poor little boy who’s gone and lost his flag. Nick Fury, an agent of nothing.” By the time Secret Warriors begins, Nick Fury has been abandoned by S.H.I.E.D. and left to his own devices. Fury himself argues, “It’s the world that’s changed — I haven’t. Not one bit.” And perhaps that’s the problem. “That’s why I’m the man for the now and you are a relic,” Osborn explains, as he occupies Fury’s old job, “I don’t have ideological hang-ups… I don’t mind getting dirty.”

Well, at least the night started well…

And it is certainly a “dirty” new world out there. The Marvel Universe has been profoundly affected by the realities of post-9/11 geopolitics, and – although he is describing fictional threats – Dum Dum Dugan’s comments to the United Nations seem powerfully timely. “There is a shadow war going on between organisations that have no allegiance to anything but themselves,” he argues. “They have no nation to defend, so they don’t worry about sanction or retribution. They have no borders, so they can’t be boxed in or contained. Your rules… your laws… mean nothing to them.”

Fury finds himself facing an existential nightmare – the idea that all the work he has done in the past accounts for nothing, that there’s no meaning to anything. The Contessa assures him, “There is no great philosophy for mankind.” It seems like the grandest plans are those sinister schemes concocted by Fury and Von Strucker in an attempt to force an unkind universe to make sense. More than that, though, Fury faces the possibility that this is a world that he has made. Does he reflect the world, or does the world reflect him? “You see, I wonder how much of this is my fault?” he asks the Contessa at one point. “I have questions like: were you always a liar… or did I teach you to lie and now that’s just what you do?”

“… with great anger and Fury-ious vengeance…”

The hook of Secret Warriors is a fantastic one. The series kicks off with the revelation that S.H.I.E.L.D., the secret spy agency to which Nick Fury has devoted his life, had actually been directed by H.Y.D.R.A. the whole time. It’s a premise that effectively turns Fury’s whole world on its head. “I’ve been workin’ for the bad guys the whole damn time,” he states, which plays well into the idea that Fury is a man struggling to make sense of a world much more ambiguous than he may have originally thought.

Secret Warriors is densely plotted. The narrative jumps backwards and forwards (and sometimes sideways) in time. The results are initially disorienting, by Hickman’s story has a certain tempo to it, and pretty soon he’s effortlessly guiding us through flashbacks nested within flashbacks. It’s a very confident way of constructing a narrative and, in the hands of a less talented storyteller, it could become increasingly frustrating.

Hasn’t history taught us anything about invading Russia in the Winter?

Hickman effortlessly weaves the story through all corners of the shared universe offering the Marvel equivalent of a globe-trotting spy adventure. He draws in secret cults, ninja death squads, ancient conspiracies. It spans from modern America to renaissance Europe to the clans of Japan. There are creepy mind-controlling parasites, cursed boxes holding impossibly ancient evils, family feuds and jet packs. It’s a rather comprehensive tour of the rich fictional landscape, and Hickman does an excellent job navigating it.

While this incredibly dense and layer narrative could potentially alienate or confuse readers, it works well as a means of carefully and gradually revealing information to the audience. There are plans within plans, lies within lies. Yet, somehow, most of it ends up fitting together surprisingly well. Hickman famously plotted 60 issues of the series, to the point where his ambitions could be fairly accurately plotted using a fairly sophisticated diagram. Reading through this wonderful gigantic collected edition, it’s easy to believe that Hickman had that many issues meticulously planned out.

In the Nick of time…

Characters seem to disappear, only to return issues later in a position that makes a lot of sense, while still being unpredictable. Objects are referenced in passing, only to become more and more important as the series progresses. We see scenes and sequences that mean one thing, only to be reimagined when we discover the context for them. Hickman is crafting and ambitious comic book epic, and it’s hard not to get swept along by a writer who has an engaging confidence in the story that he is plotting.

Unfortunately, the sales didn’t support a sixty-issue run, so Hickman was forced to truncate his master arc down to under thirty issues of content. The result is a final act that feels quite a bit rushed, as the final two or three issues revolve around bucket loads of exposition, bluntly revealing twists that – one presumes – would have been more gracefully revealed had the series ran just a bit longer. Still, Hickman manages to make these info-dumps compelling in their own right, and it does wrap up the series in a satisfactory manner – it just can’t help but feel a little rushed.

Note: Remember how I said there’d be spoilers above? Well, I meant it. After this here screenshot, everything is fair game, so consider yourself duly warned.

He ain’t kiddin’ around…

There is a bigger problem that I have with the reveal, however, is the fact that it essentially robs Nick Fury’s character arc of some of the pathos that Hickman established in the very first issues. The final revelation features Nick effectively breaking Baron Von Strucker by explaining that S.H.I.E.L.D. hadn’t been secretly controlled by H.Y.D.R.A., but that Fury had secretly been controlling H.Y.D.R.A. all along. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a major moment of awesome for Fury, revealing him as one heck of a chessmaster playing a very long game, but it also takes the edge off the basic premise of the series.

After all, part of the appeal of Secret Warriors was seeing Nick Fury so profoundly out of his depth when dealing with the situation. While Hickman makes sure that Fury suffers some significant losses (including his own son), the revelation that Fury was completely in control the whole time sacrifices that sense of a man truly lost for a simple fist-pumping moment. It feels a little unfair, and something that harms the whole of what came before. While Fury was undoubtedly still playing a game with high stakes, it seems like he was in much firmer control of the ball than it initially appeared.

Oh god, what’s he done now?

It’s a shame, because I suspect that this reveal will harm the series on a re-read. I am quite looking forward to jumping back into the series to read it from the beginning. I’m sure that a lot more will make sense this time around, and I imagine that Hickman’s complex and well-plotted structure is the kind of writing that rewards a second (and, probably, a third) read-through. However, that final reveal retroactively changes the story so that it loses a great deal of its charm and its central hook.

Still, there are worse problems – I suppose. It’s still an immensely well-written series that was clearly crafted with a great deal of skill and care. Hickman has established himself as something of a talent to watch at Marvel, and I am very much looking forward to the inevitable omnibus collection of his well-regarded Fantastic Four run. (And, hopefully, his significantly shorter Ultimates work as well.) I do like that there’s a very clear link between Secret Warriors and his S.H.I.E.L.D. work. I like when writers construct their own corners of continuity, much like Grant Morrison has done with Superman.

Meet the new boss… not quite the same as the old boss…

Secret Warriors is an enjoyable and sophisticated omnibus, one collected a run pretty much designed for the format. Hickman’s work is so tightly-plotted that I can’t imagine reading it one month at a time, and it reads fluidly in this singular gigantic tome – broken down to chapters within. It does have some significant flaws, but it also has a surplus of ambition and it executed with considerable skill. If you are interested in densely-plotted content-heavy comics, or even just in Nick Fury, it comes highly recommended.

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