There has been almost too much build-up to Marvel’s new “Heroic Age”. “Civil War” decimated Marvel’s fictional Earth-616 (the publisher’s go-to universe for its mainstay superheroes and mutants). The following year’s “Secret Invasion”, which saw the inner battles of Marvel heroes attempting to ascertain whether or not they themselves were invading aliens, did little to mend fences. And “Dark Reign”, which had villains posing as heroes, was a last shot at redemption for some, but also, in many senses, the crippling coup de grace to the heroic ideals of the superheroes of Earth-616.
After “Siege” then, after the dismantling of Norman Osborn’s H.A.M.M.E.R. and the elaborate, Byzantine power structure he built, after the righting of ways and the reestablishment of the superheroes in their proper position, The Avengers, Marvel’s linchpin superhero team, once again becomes a focal point the publisher.
Over the next few months, Marvel will be putting out more than one Avengers title. But despite the multiple titles, the ghosts of the past (and the deep schism within Earth-616 that produced a ‘Mighty’, and ‘New’ and ‘Dark’ Avengers) have been successfully exorcised. There is something very reaffirming about reading ‘The’ Avengers, Avengers Prime (both penned by Brian Bendis), Avengers Academy (penned by Christos Gage) and Secret Avengers (penned by Ed Brubaker). While there are different teams, there definitely is one sense of purpose again. Marvel seems to have turned a corner, and things are finally looking up.
Except of course.
Despite the obvious and very necessary shine of the Marvel universe, dangers still lurk. Rogue elements attempt trafficking in weapons of mass destruction, renegade corporations attempt to buy up mineral rights to Mars. With Osborn’s mismanagement of critical resources and assets, global security has been crippled. But Steve Rogers, former Captain America and current Head of Intelligence, has setup an Avengers team to directly interdict these situations before they become threats. Enter the Secret Avengers.
Writer Ed Brubaker seems a natural fit for this kind of book. Since taking over regular scripting duties on Captain America in the early part of this decade, and later regular writing duties for Daredevil Brubaker has been evolving a view on how international crime can easily become international terror. But this is also Brubaker in rare form, Brubaker has his audience has barely seen him. Gone is the somber brooding of Brubaker’s Captain America, gone is the debilitating, pensive melancholy of his Daredevil. While both of these muted characterizations worked perfectly for their single-character books, Secret Avengers is an altogether different animal. Think John Woo’s sprawling epic Red Cliff, rather than Tony Hopkins in the slow, meaningfully-paced Remains of the Day.
Secret Avengers is just rollicking. Fast-paced and awash in a world of danger, the Secret Avengers themselves are the true object of Brubaker’s meticulous writing. And the focus of the story is characterization, above the ample action-sequences. There is a wariness to Marc Spector’s Moon Knight, and a weariness too. Rhodey’s War Machine stands up to authority just as he always does, and Dr. Henry McCoy’s Beast withdraws into a reticence brought about by a flood of scientific information. And despite the character-driven nature of the book, it feels like the old familiar strangeness that makes Brubaker such a darkly beloved fan-favorite. After all, the book opens with Black Widow and Valkyrie posing as escorts to bypass a high-level executive’s security.
The core of Brubaker’s storytelling, the artistic core, seems to be a meditation on characterization by way of action. This project is elegantly carried by the artwork of Mike Deodato. There is a looseness to Deodato’s pencils, a willful untidiness, and sudden, rapid-fire shifts in POV. This murkiness, blended with the almost Eisner-like approach to paneling makes for a visually interesting read, but also an apt visual metaphor for Brubaker’s project.
With the old values being reaffirmed throughout the Marvel universe, and superheroes once again in their rightful place, Brubaker and Dedato’s hard, non-jaundiced look at the damage done by “Dark Reign” seems redemptive of the values espoused by the new Heroic Age, by a far darker path. With as solid a team as Brubaker and Deodato finding and evolving each others’ strengths, Secret Avengers easily gets full marks.