Secret Warriors # 1–6 by Jonathan Hickman and Stefano Caselli (with Brian Michael Bendis on plot)
Although I haven’t read Hickman’s Image works, I’ve been enjoying his Fantastic Four run (even if it has turned into a pawn-moving exercise in the latest issues) and the first issue of S.H.I.E.L.D. was a very interesting look at a legacy concept for Marvel. I’m also a fan of espionage stories when done well – Greg Rucka’s Queen and Country and Ed Brubaker’s Captain America are good examples – so I was more than amenable enough to take a chance on this book.
This is a very good book – even though the secret warriors were created by Bendis, and he is responsible for the story, Hickman does the heavy lifting and does a great job. The necessary elements are present: clandestine wars, conspiracies, double-dealing, undercover agents, hard choices, sacrifices and secrets. Nick Fury has returned from the cold and is now fighting a very specific war – the reveal at the end of the first issue is perhaps a little extreme (everything he knew is a lie) but is also extremely plausible and a great set-up for a series. There is a lot going on in the series but never to the detriment of the storytelling or the clarity of the narrative (unless when being deliberately obtuse); there are also a lot of characters in the book – in addition to Fury, there are his secret warriors, his allies of old (the Contessa, Dum Dum Dugan and Gabriel Jones from the Howling Commandos), not to mention the bad guys: Baron Strucker, Kraken, Madame Hydra, Viper, The Hive and Gorgon). However, everyone is clearly identifiable and recognisable.
A good espionage story needs a good artist to help keep things on track, and Caselli is just the man for the job. He is an Italian artist, which means he has that European vibe to his superhero work, sort of like a funkier Carlos Pacheco, with a big and bold style that fills the page and really good facial work. This is important for the dialogue scenes – he and Hickman make this aspect of the book just as important as the action – but his muscular style does a great job on the fight scenes, with a real sense of dynamism and power.
I really like this book, not only for the espionage angle, but also for the characters themselves. The secret warriors are an intriguing and likeable bunch in the middle of something much bigger than anything they knew before. I particularly liked the latest addition, Eden Fesi from Australia (a nice touch that he was being mentored by Gateway), who has a great attitude: ‘Total mayhem – I kicked a guy in the face! Best day ever.’ Another good aspect of the book is the dialogue – Hickman has a great sense for a good line (‘Howling Commandos only retire when they’re good and damned ready’; Gabe: What are you going to feel when you put a bullet in one of those men, Nick?’ Nick: ‘Recoil.’; Fury to the president on respect for the White House: ‘That !#$%’s lost its luster.’). Another thing I like is the explanation of elements of the book – we see Strucker self-destructing a base containing over 15,000 loyal servants of Hydra, demonstrating his ruthlessness, but Hickman also talks about how Hydra is constantly recruiting, especially from college campuses, where their indoctrination techniques work well on those with a ‘do-gooder mentality’. It’s nice touches like this, fleshing out the story, which help to make this a complete package.