Review: Siege: Secret Warriors

Siege: Secret Warriors cover by Marko Djurdjevic.

Yeah, that's pretty much what's going on here. No subtlety!

Writer: Jonathan Hickman
Artist: Alessandro Vitti
Colorist: Jose Villarubia
Letterer: Dave Lanphear
Cover: Marko Djurdjevic

I’ve read three of the Siege one-shots now– I skipped Siege: Captain America and Siege: Young Avengers, since I’m not following their home titles– and I’ve been pretty solidly entertained all along. Two of those three issues have played directly to their authors’ strengths. Siege: Loki showcased Kieron Gillen’s grasp of the Asgardian mindset, first displayed in “The Latverian Prometheus.” Brian Reed’s knack for physical comedy got full run of the place in Siege: Spider-Man, including the single best Ms. Marvel panel I’ve ever seen.

Given that, you’d probably expect Siege: Secret Warriors to go straight up the usual Jonathan Hickman alley– weird conspiracies, epic pseudoscience, and portents of disaster at every turn. You’d figure on at least a token appearance by Hydra, and you’d guess that Secret Warriors leader-in-training Daisy might be integral to the plot, as usual.

You’d be entirely wrong, too.

The focal point of this issue is Alex, the extremely creepy boy-genius son of Ares, the recently-deceased god of war. Unlike his dad, Alex is the god of fear… and while Ares can’t possibly have been the best of parents, given his treatment of his charges in books like Dark Avengers: Ares, he did leave a few very specific instructions for Alex in event of an emergency. Alex sets off to fulfill those requests as best he can, and, well, when you’re the god of fear, your best is probably a damn sight better than most people’s.

Hickman throws every bit of his usual carefully-honed subtlety out the window in this issue. I lost count of the number of people Alex chops up on his way to finding out the reason for his father’s (quite temporary, it seems) death. The entire A-plot is pretty much one dirty, protracted fight sequence; there’s not a lot of talking, just a lot of Alex going house on mortals who aren’t prepared for his assault. People who’ve been following Secret Warriors from issue one will be pleased to see Alex finally embracing his father’s amorality, which he displays in flashes throughout the regular series. His actions certainly bring up questions about how much longer he’s going to put up with being the mascot in Nick Fury’s Junior SHIELD Scouts, and I think that’s exactly what Hickman wants the reader to ponder.

If you’re not a regular Secret Warriors reader, though, Alex’s quest for vengeance probably won’t do much for you. After all, you’ve got almost no reason to care about him. You’re not going out and buying, I dunno, Secret Phobos or Ultimate God of Fear or Alex: Origins every month, because he doesn’t have that kind of cachet in the Marvel lineup. For you guys, Hickman’s thoughtfully provided a B-plot where Nick Fury and the reborn Steve Rogers renew their acquaintance over a round of hapless mooks. Vitti does a fine job with this big, sprawling Avengers-style battle, rendering Cap with a brawler’s raw physicality and Nick with the breezy charm of an amiable drunk.

The editorial dictate of the month, if this book and Invincible Iron Man #25 are any indication, is “Get all the major players in the Illuminati/ Civil War plotline back on or near the same page before June’s Avengers event.” Siege: Secret Warriors accomplishes the reunion of Nick and Cap in swaggering style. And, hey, if you’re a fan of Alex’s ongoing quest to attain the full scope of his divinity, there’s a lot to like here too. Essential for Siege diehards who were left hanging by Ares’ death, folks who liked Dark Avengers: Ares, and Secret Warriors readers. You could probably skip it if you’re not in those three categories, but you’d miss a rare atypical Jonathan Hickman story, and I don’t think I’d recommend that.

Understanding Comics Fridays: Chapter Three

Chapter 3 of Understanding Comics gets into the grit of panel-to-panel continuity, the literary equivalent of persistence of vision. It’s probably good that I’m hitting this now, when I’ve been reading a lot of Jonathan Hickman comics lately; I feel like I could use a refresher on the ground rules, since Hickman’s known to break them every which way he can in the space of a book.

Fantastic Four #575’s ending, which I won’t spoil, is a good example of breaking a lot of rules about compressed storytelling. The vast majority of Hickman’s The Nightly News doesn’t even deal in panel boundaries at all; it looks more like a web designer’s anarchist manifesto than a comic book. I picked up the second Secret Warriors HC in the shop last night, flipped it over to the stark back cover with the single emblem and the brief, terse description, and said “Gee, Chad, look! It’s a Hickman book!” Man has a style, and it’s largely based on taking Eisner and McCloud to heart and then proceeding on without further regard.

That being said, Hickman’s work-for-hire books look more like conventional comics (aside from the awesomely clean, shiny, Jonathan Ive-tastic backmatter) than his creator-owned works do. I’ve got the first eight issues of Secret Warriors sitting here with me, and I’m in a mood for less theory and more application this week. I’m going to break out McCloud’s six types of panel transitions and grab some examples from those issues, as Secret Warriors is arguably the Marvel book where Hickman is the most conventional with his scripting and Caselli is the most straightforward with the layouts and panel setups.

If you’re not familiar with Secret Warriors, I recommend it, by the way; it’s a tight thriller about the secret history of SHIELD and HYDRA as seen through the eyes of a team of teenage super-agents. It’s got that edge of weird that one expects from super-powered counterintelligence action, and if you’re not really into Hickman’s more experimental works, it’s conservative enough by his standards to be reassuring. Now, onto the transitions!

1. Moment-to-Moment

Nick Fury and the President, from Secret Warriors #1

No walking and a lot of talking: Hickman and Caselli redefine Sorkin's style.

The 12-panel grid on page 20 of issue 1 is a fantastic moment-to-moment that also spans eight major plot points, demonstrating incredible economy of storytelling in a confined space. A Sorkin-style walk and talk where the viewer’s eyes are doing all the walking while Fury and the President do all the talking.

And, uh, then there’s issue 4, page 15:

Nick Fury has a moment about massage, Secret Warriors issue 4.

Don't we all? Nick Fury has a moment.

It’s just barely McCloud’s version of a moment-to-moment transition– Fury doesn’t actually move here, although he does speak– but, um, AAAAA. Too much information, thanks, sir.

2. Action-to-Action

There’s two great examples of this in issue 1. First off:

Nick Fury tackles and injects a goon in three panels from Secret Warriors #1.

Three panels, one goon, no waiting.

Page 16, bottom three panels. Fury grabs the goon and injects him in three quick moves. Hickman and Caselli love this three-panel layout for fluid action, breaking out one scene into its component movements, as seen a couple pages later in the same issue when Fury accesses the Datacore.

Nick Fury accesses the Datacore, in Secret Warriors #1.

"This is a UNIX system! I know this!"

3. Subject-to-Subject

Nick Fury and Contessa Allegra Valentina face off.

Before we kill each other, Mr. Fury...

Issue 3, page 12. Nick, Allegra, the gun showdown. Cut to cut to cut, Tarantino-style. The suspicion between the SHIELD agent and the superspy hangs in every space between panels. Nothing is explicit, but everything is laid out for the reader.

4. Scene-to-Scene

Nick Fury's flashback ends in confusion for Daisy Johnson.

Wrapping up the flashback.

Issue 1, page 21. From the White House to the Coccoon, from Fury to Daisy.

Secret Warriors does a lot of jumping from locale to locale—from Australia to Inside Straight in issue 4, from Fury in New Mexico in issue 3 to Daisy and her team at Red Worm—but it’s almost always split across pages, which just makes it a change of locale and less of a narrative hook between two parts of the plot. This one, however, bridges a timespan, as Fury briefs Daisy on his infiltration of the White House. The dark wood and midafternoon lighting of the Oval Office contrast starkly with the hyper-tech blue lighting of the Warriors’ base (remember, kids, as Kenneth Hite says, all comforting technology glows blue).

5. Aspect-to-Aspect

The Secret Warriors review security camera footage.

HYDRA knocks over a 7-11.

Issue 3, page 5, the security camera dump focusing on what HYDRA has been up to—the different aspects of the idea that HYDRA has subverted SHIELD and is now stepping up their plans.

I find the aspect-to-aspect transition the hardest one to get my head around. This could also play as subject-to-subject—different HYDRA agents being focused on within the framework of the plan– but I think it works better as a tense overview of entire HYDRA plan. McCloud focuses heavily on anime and atmospherics when he discusses aspect-to-aspect transitions; it’ll probably take me longer to get a handle on its use in Western comics as a result.

6. Non Sequitur

…for once, there’s not a non sequitur in a Hickman book. So, uh, I’ve taken it upon myself to make one. See you next week! (Author runs for the exit.)

The soldiers of HAMMER, uh, don't discuss Fin Fang Foom's mating habits.

...he did NOT tell you that. Tell me he didn't tell you that.