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Thursday, August 13, 2015

Panel Vision - Secret War

Edited by Robert Beach

At time of writing, the Marvel comics universe is still trapped in its mega-event comic Secret Wars.  This Secret Wars is part of the lead up to Marvel’s first universe reboot and the end of the Ultimate Marvel Universe. The reason I say “this Secret Wars” is because this isn’t the first time Marvel has rolled out a major event comic entitled Secret Wars. 

The original Secret Wars was a 1984 maxi-series produced in conjunction with an action figure line from Mattel. Despite its origins as a marketing tie-in it’s still very well regarded and with good reason. Secret Wars 1984 invented the event comic going forward and holds up very well even to this day as blockbuster storytelling. It sold very well too and even received a sequel comic in 1987 with Secret Wars 2, which is generally despised as a terrible follow up; however, there was a third Secret War in 2004 from superstar author Brian Michael Bendis. That’s what I’ll be looking at today. 

Bendis Boom at Marvel 

Bendis’ Secret War comic was the start of a triple punch from Bendis in the mid-2000s that led to his eventual stewardship of the entire Marvel universe.  It marked the beginning of government mistrust for superheroes that would be followed up on in Civil War as well as the slow departure of Nick Fury as a major figure. It also marked the beginning of Luke Cage’s rise to prominence as a key part of the Marvel universe. 

Bendis’ work would follow the series up with Avengers Disassembled in August 2004 as part of the definitive close to the previous era of Marvel leadership. Then in January 2005, Bendis would launch New Avengers, which became the pulse of the Marvel universe for the next 5 years and elevated Luke Cage, Captain Marvel, and Spider-Woman to star status as well as officially making Spider-Man an Avenger. Bendis’ writing would flow through Marvel well past the end of his run on New Avengers, but it all started here with Secret War.

The story of Secret War was that a mysteriously organized group of C-list, tech-based bad guys started targeting a handful of street-level heroes in the lead up to a major attack. It’s eventually revealed that all the people being targeted, Daredevil, Luke Cage, Spider-man, Captain America, and Wolverine, were involved in a secret operation for Nick Fury. 

One year ago, Nick Fury’s team had infiltrated Latveria in a covert operation to assassinate the country’s new Prime Minister Lucia von Bardas. The whole idea had been to take out Von Bardas before she could make a move on the U.S., but when the plan fell apart because the heroes wouldn’t go all the way with it, Fury erased their memories of the event. Now, Von Bardas is back to put her plan in action and take vengeance on the heroes who tried to stop her as Fury’s secret war comes cacophonously into the light.  

New Era of Superhero Story 

The dark and morally compromised tone of Secret War set the standard for Marvel stories for the rest of the decade. This was the start of heroes having to choose the lesser of two evils, an ideological paradigm shift that reached its crest with Civil War and Dark Reign. Nowadays, it’s an approach that seems a little dated and overly serious, though the original story still holds up very well. The key emphasis of Secret War was on Nick Fury enacting the morally compromised action and the heroes caught in the crossfire. 

The underlying message is about the dangers of asking superheroes to act as covert operatives devoid of conscience. It’s a good story and very well paced. Unlike a lot of Bendis stories, the book unfolds very naturally, and the action building to a spectacular finale as more and more of the secret war is revealed. Additionally, there’s none of the “Bendis banter” that tends to punctuate a lot of his stories, a forced comedic edge that ends up deflating a lot of the tenser sequences.

The artwork by Gabriele Dell’Otto is incredibly well realized. Dell’Otto is listed as “Painter” in the credits, and that really shines through in his work. The panels have a uniquely painted vibe to them in the vein of Alex Ross with a much darker and dripping with a foreboding atmosphere. Lastly, when he’s called upon to portray action, Dell’Otto more than rises to the challenge with spectacular panoramas of the final techno brawl at the New York docks.  

Start of the New Marvel Status Quo

Even with how well the story holds up as a dark little spy thriller, Secret War remains far more engaging as a rough draft of everything that was yet to come with Marvel. The plot points set in motion by Secret War affect comic events as recent as last year. For instance, Nick Fury getting displaced as head of S.H.I.E.L.D. in this comic left him adrift as a character for years and years. His absence is what allowed Marvel to elevate his son, the black Nick Fury everyone knows from the films, into the limelight. In fact, the original Nick Fury’s place in the Marvel universe wasn’t conclusive done with until last year’s event comic Original Sin. 

Maria Hill, one of the main characters of Civil War, and a major supporting character in the Marvel cinematic universe was introduced in Secret War. It marked the start of Wolverine and Spider-Man being included as part of the Avengers as well as the return of Luke Cage and Jessica Jones to the Marvel mainstream. It’s the comic that brought Black Widow back into the fold after years of exile, paving the way for her spot as one of the Mighty Avengers in the post-Civil War period. 

The amount of stuff in the Marvel universe that originated with Secret War is frankly staggering. I highly recommend Secret War as a comic to check out, especially if you’re a newer comic fan looking to get into some more recent material. 2000s Marvel is something of a challenging period to penetrate given the near constant upheaval that plagued that era, but Secret War is a good starting point. It set the stage for 5 years of comics impacting everything from Civil War to World War Hulk to Secret Invasion to the Dark Reign. If you want a good litmus test for whether or not you’ll enjoy this era in Marvel’s history, Secret War is a great place to start. 

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