Saturday, September 12, 2015

CBR:Quickies Nick Spencer's Secret Avengers (2013-2014)

With Agents of SHIELD's Season 3 about to start back in a few odd weeks, let's take this occasion to look back at the original comic book inspiration behind the show!

There was an idea called the Avengers Initiative. 
To bring together a group of remarkable people to fight the battles that we never could:

If like me you were a big fan of Secret Warriors, then Secret Avengers is the book for you! It kind of acts as a spiritual successor of sorts to Bendis & Jonathan Hickman's series.

Well, the later Secret Avengers book, that is.

Originally Secret Avengers was a very different book. The original team followed a "secret" team of Avengers formed by our Super Soldier Steve Rogers, formerly known Captain America. You see following the crossover events of Civil Wars, Dark Reign and Siege Steve died... and returned back to life. What he found when he returned was a world in the hands of former Spider-Man villain Norman "The Green Goblin" Osborn as he turned S.H.I.E.L.D. into the H.A.M.M.E.R. and his title of Captain America now in the hands of his friend the Winter Soldier. Steve saw the world needed a new kind of Avengers, some that could act outside the "Superhuman Registration Act" (soon to be adapted into a major motion picture next year!). This version of the Secret Avengers lasted for a pretty long while, it saw numerous creative teams and saw heroes act in secrecy, as a black ops type of team.

That's for the history lesson.

As part of the "Marvel NOW!" initiative that saw several titles relaunched with new creative teams, the Secret Avengers were reformed under the control of SHIELD. After Steve Roger's team being disbanded, Maria Hill recruited a bunch of SHIELD agents into her new Secret Avengers program - Hawkeye, Black Widow, SHIELD Agent Phil Coulson (making his comic book debut!) and Nick Fury Jr.

Nick Fury Jr. had just been introduced in the comics in Battle Scars #1 in 2012 as a way to get the Samuel L. Jackson-inspired Nick Fury from the Ultimate Comics Universe into the mainstream main Marvel Universe. Long story short, he's the original white-guy Nick Fury's long lost son. He lost his eye. Took his proper name as "Nick Fury Jr." and his now seen running in most Marvel Comics instead of his father who ran out of his "Infinite Formula" that kept him young for decades. Honestly I wasn't a big fan of the idea at first, how easily the Nick Fury from the movies/Ultimate Universe was retconned over the original and went through the same loss of an eye, etc. And now every character's calling him Nick Fury as if he's always been there, but the book sold the premise to me. The character's actually pretty different from his movie counterpart, if for one thing this Nick Fury's absolutely not running the show like in the films.

The actual head of the SHIELD, the new S.H.I.E.L.D. director is Daisy Johnson, aka Quake (aka Skye from Agents of SHIELD), Nick Fury's previous protégé from Secret Warriors. There's a lot of tension between her and Maria Hill - both characters also strangely more than strangely similar. (Good thing they gave Daisy a new hairdo and costume..)

This Secret Avengers vol. 2 ran for 16 issues from 2013 to 2014. This new Secret Avengers team did all the dirty work for SHIELD. The book was written by Nick Spencer through its entire run.
It was a fun action-packed thriller with plenty of humor. Sounds familiar? This was set to be the perfect successor to the best SHIELD series in ages.

Comic title: Secret Avengers Vol. 1: Reverie
Written by Nick Spencer
Illustrated by Luke Ross
Format: Trade paperback collecting issues #1-5 of Secret Avengers (2013) as well as material from Marvel NOW! #.1.

So it begins...

S.H.I.E.L.D. is having some trouble containing the explosion of super villain tech finding its way into the hands of terrorists, specially with the 100th dissolution of the Avengers at the time. That's why they came up with the Avengers Initiative. If the government can't regulate the Avengers, the least they can do is brainwash some voluntary Avengers into doing some missions for them without even knowing so.

That's right, the comic book Avengers Initiative is a code word SHIELD can use - Reverie - to clean the memory of their special agents to get some extra help from Avengers members.

The comic opens with the "bonus" issue Marvel NOW! #.1 which introduces us this new status quo. Some mysterious guy from the future tries to blackmail SHIELD and Maria Hill is forced to form SHIELD's own version of the Secret Avengers.

They recruit the only Avengers they could get, former SHIELD agents Hawkeye and Black Widow. They're called upon by Phil Coulson who everyone seems to be super familiar with. They're introduced to our new Nick Fury Jr. Hawkeye jokingly asks how that works exactly, if like James Bond they just got a new guy that apparently inherited the same name and everyone pretends nothing changed...

They're sent on a first mission to Budapest. Hawkguy gets shot as they're trying to stop the supervillain tech from getting into the wrong hands. But it all turns out to be Nick Fury Jr.'s plan all along. So this is how brainwashing heroes is gonna be like?

They're sent after old SHIELD locations not all recovered from the Secret Warriors series. We meet the new head of A.I.M., new AIM Scientist Supreme Andrew Forson. He's been working on a new project of his own through all these AIM facilities all over the world and has reformed the Masters of Evil.

Nick Fury Jr. frees a criminal from a super-villain jail cell, the (ex-SHIELD and ex-HYDRA) mercenary with photographic reflexes - Taskmaster - from being auctioned to the highest bidder. Ol' Tasky's gonna work for the Secret Avengers. The idea is to have him infiltrate AIM without knowing so. Various "ministers" of AIM join this new AIM councel on A.I.M. Island: former Black Widow Yelena Belova, Graviton, Jude the Entropic Man, Mentallo and Superia. But this Andrew Forson might have his own agenda to form a "Cult of Entropy". Mockingbird also joins up our heroes with her camo-tech suit to infiltrate the lower ranks of AIM on that same island.

While visiting a weapon expo Daisy Johnson and Nick Fury Jr. witness the death of Senator Robert Ralston while AIM simply steals an Iron Patriot armor in broad daylight. They're able to design several prototypes from it.

Daisy assigns the Secret Avengers team on a raid mission to AIM Island to kill the AIM Scientist Supreme. The Hulk helps another SHIELD unit to fight the countless army of duplicated sentient Iron Patriot drones. AIM's using those to incriminate the USA all across the world. Coulson gets War Machine to join them as he's the only one able to stop these Iron Patriots.

And Hawkeye has no idea why he joined this "Avengers Initiative" in the first place...

Overall: This is a pretty fun start for this book!

It's not perfect, there's a lot of exposition and the launch of the team was pretty laborious. It took quite a while to get to a point with a good enough momentum, getting all these characters together didn't come that naturally. I really felt like this new version of the Secret Avengers really started of on the wrong foot during this Marvel NOW event. But once the team was finally formed it got a lot better.

The story is complex, trying to be both a great thriller and superhero drama. It's a great spy story with intriguing characters and plot.

The art is lovely. It really captures great the characters, unlike Daniel Freedman's main cover. You can recognize Samuel L. Jackson's Nick Fury and even Phil Coulson for once!

The plotting felt a bit clunky and confusing at first. It was meant to play with the memory lapses but since this was also supposed to establish the tone and pitch of the series these first few issues are not really that clear. The pacing feels pretty speed too, it would have been better to see the team come together more organically to the story.

But when it's all said and done, it's the sort of book that really grows on you. And it can be pretty funny too. (Mostly anything that comes from Hawkeye or Coulson.)

It's a decent premise fun for a spy/thriller/action/espionage series set in the Marvel U.

I give this one a: 2 / 3 Score! 

Comic title: Secret Avengers Vol. 2: Iliad
Written by Nick Spencer & Ed Brisson
Illustrated by Luke Ross, Butch Guice, Steve Epting & Brian Theis
Format: Trade paperback collecting issues #6-11 of Secret Avengers (2013).

We're back where the last volume left us, in the wake of the chaotic attack on A.I.M. Island.

Our Scientist Supreme Andrew Forson was able to fool them all, he's seen alive and well.

The War Machine, James Rhodes, decided to join SHIELD after all. Meanwhile the Iron Patriots are seen continuing to cause a mess all over the world. In Washington, DC, Maria Hill is asked to take over SHIELD instead of Daisy. Daisy herself was kept pretty busy, coordinating her Secret Avengers team on AIM Island. Taskmaster is now a minister on the AIM council, training their scientist to become more capable soldiers.

Rhodey is able to get some control back of the Iron Patriots, he's recognized as "the pilot" while Tony Stark is apparently called "the maker".  He convinces them to turn to the right side, and SHIELD finds itself with an army of Iron Patriots working for them. They even suit Rhodes with a new Iron Patriot armor of his own.

Back on the island Hulk is sent there to help the rest of the team. But Mockingbird is left stranded behind by accident. She's trapped in her failing memories and only her camo-tech keeps her alive there.

Daisy Johnson is suspended for constantly breaking protocols, Maria Hill is put back in charge of SHIELD again. Forced to leave her position, Daisy gets back with a familiar face from the previous Secret Warriors series. The Winter Soldier also joins her new group.

Finally in Brooklyn the explosion of a terrigen mist bomb (which would also create the All-New Miss Marvel by the way) creates all these new Inhumans running around. We meet this former-regular SHIELD agent turned into a superhero, Sarah Garza. She's equipped with improvised Iron Man tech to help SHIELD in the city. Coulson being the huge superhero nerd he is proposes her this ridiculous superhero persona - "The Invigilator!!". At first she seems happy about it, but after fighting another new Inhuman she doesn't seem that interested anymore...

Overall: This was a great step up from the previous book.

The mix of big on-going plots and smaller isolated chapters (such as James Rhodes' Iron Patriots issue or the Inhumans chapter at the end) are a great break from the big serious storyline that helps keep the pacing a lot more bearable than in the previous volume.

The story itself is also much slower-paced this time. Better told. Taskmaster really steals the show for me, he's such a great character! Although Luke Ross has a very strange way to picture the character as if the skull-shaped masked was actually his weird Ghost Rider-like normal face.

All in all, a great volume featuring some great captivating sequences and great tension all the way through. A step up in the right direction.

I give this one a: 2.5 / 3 Score! 

Comic title: Secret Avengers Vol. 3: How to MA.I.M. a Mockingbird
Written by Nick Spencer & Ales Kot
Illustrated by Butch Guice & Luke RossFormat: Trade paperback collecting issues #12-16 of Secret Avengers (2013).

Mockingbird is forced to play along in her AIM scientist disguise to survive. But she's quickly discovered by Andrew Forson.

A bunch of AIM scientist come to SHIELD to turn themselves in, all they were ever interest in was the science itself but it seems the new AIM is now slowing turning away from this for their weird cult and obsessions.

We see how Mentallo and Taskmaster formed this bond, the two of them being two strange outcasts compared to the other crazy members of the council.

M.O.D.O.K. himself defects, the "Mental Organism Designed Only for Killing" (seriously...) has gone rogue and he wants to make a deal with SHIELD to help them take down Andrew Forson. Taskmaster tries to get Mockingbird out but he's also discovered to be a traitor and executed.

AIM Research Facilities MODOK led SHIELD to are destroyed. Bobbi Morse, aka Mockingbird is having problems recollecting her past. She has now completely forget who she was actually working for in the first place, mixing fake memories, erased memories and real memories. Who was she infiltrating to begin with? Andrew Forson plays mind games with her and reveal to her how she had been working for the Cult of Entropy all along.

The Secret Avengers team are sent back to rescue her. MODOK is still trying to bargain with the infallible Maria Hill. It all comes crashing together at the same time as our heroes go back to the island, cleaning the evil headquarters. Mentallo gets Taskmaster back on his feet, somehow. And Andrew Forson himself kills Yelena thinking it was Bobbi, in what appears to be the ultimate gamble.

It is the end of AIM Island. And Mockingbird is finally seen joining Daisy Johnson's new team in the end.

Overall: This was definitively the perfect way to end this storyline. It all ties in nicely together at the end, the main plot ends logically.

It made sense from beginning to end. And this self-contained chapter was perfectly closed in this series without any remaining threads (not counting Daisy Johnson's).

The art was pretty good. Dark. Gritty. And moody.

This last volume also contained significantly more humor than the previous issues combined, but it just worked for me.

All in all, it was a great series with a perfect conclusion at the end of the day.

I give this one a: 2.5 / 3 Score!

Nick Spencer's Secret Avengers was a great. An awesome title and it could even be pretty funny at times.

The story was intriguing. The art was great through the book. And it even contained some pretty funny scenes.

All in all, it was a great series while it lasted. Highly Recommended to any fans of SHIELD or good espionage series.

Along Secret Warriors, this comic was the main inspiration behind the TV series Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., most of the plot from the show actually taking some direct cues from it. Only replacing HYDRA for AIM. Including the addition of Mockingbird, playing with double agents infiltrating the different players (which is probably why a lot of people have speculated Agent Grant Ward might turn out to be Taskmaster some day).

This is the only series that has been able to sell me Phil Coulson being brought over from the movies in the comics. Although I still find Nick Fury Jr. kind of forced, but I bought it in this book.

The series would be directly followed by a third volume of Secret Avengers as an "All-New Marvel NOW!" title. But despite the title and a similar premise that new Secret Avengers book is not a great direct successor, instead that role goes to the current SHIELD on-going series which is closer in tone and cast to the TV series set in the MCU.

That's all for this time's Quickies!

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