Shiny Shelf

Secret War #1

By Mark Clapham on 20 February 2004

In comics, good titles don’t go unused for long – even if the concepts attached to them change. Back in the 1980s, ‘Secret Wars’ saw a few dozen Marvel superheroes and supervillains abducted from Earth for spurious reasons, and dropped into an alien environment where they slugged it out. Writer Brian Michael Bendis’ ‘War’ isn’t secret because it’s on another planet – instead he’s gone closer to home, applying the logic of the contemporary intelligence world to the Marvel universe.

Naturally, this being an espionage story, the lead character is Marvel’s own monocular Bond-substitute, Nick Fury. Fury is a character with a dubious history of late, portrayed radically differently in every book he appears in. Here he’s that popular clich?, the reluctant warrior – slightly tortured by his actions, but always making the difficult decisions nonetheless. Stoicism isn’t the most thrilling of character traits, but it doesn’t really matter, as he’s more of an instigator and central point to the story than an identification figure. The titular war is a hidden conflict on American soil that Fury discovers – numerous minor supervillains, seemingly engaging in petty crimes of their own volition, are being funded and kitted out by a foreign power. These souped-up thugs are essentially weapons of terror, causing chaos whenever they rob a bank or fight Spider-Man.

It’s a great idea for a story, explaining as it does how small-time villains can afford hi-tech equipment all the time. It also gives a legitimate excuse to get a load of Marvel characters together – while Fury has done little more than announce an intent to put things right by the end of this first issue, it’s clear that he’s going to use the superheroes as weapons in his personal strategy, deniable assets who can act outside Fury’s official orders. So far the only heroes we’ve seen are either minor characters (Jessica Jones from ‘Alias’, along with her boyfriend Luke Cage and his best mate Iron Fist) or brief glimpses of the big guys (Iron Man on a TV screen, Spidey on the cover but not in the actual comic). This first issue is set-up, laying out the premise and the world that Nick Fury and his SHIELD agency work in. Bendis uses a few time shifts to take us further into the story a couple of times, but the real action is clearly going to kick off next issue. As it stands, Bendis has to be applauded for finding a decent and original excuse for the whole crossover, and that’s enough to make the rest of the series a must-buy.

Complementing such a special, big event is some special, big art. Alex Ross aside, painted art has fallen out of favour in recent years, a natural reaction to earlier overuse of the medium. Gabriele Dell’Otto’s painted artwork falls somewhere between the photorealism of Ross and the more impressionistic, moody tones of a Bill Sienkiewicz. While the art favours impressive images and thick atmosphere over subtle characterisation, it’s an appropriately glossy look for a series like this, the comic book equivalent of the classier blockbuster action movies. The ‘event’ status of the book is confirmed by some DVD-style extras, including a Bendis introduction and a selection of Dell’Otto superhero images, which should whet the appetite for seeing the artist illustrate some all-out action scenes later in the series.

Wrapped in a card, silver-embossed cover, ‘Secret War’ is a sophisticated take on the commercial crossover book, something that would once have been a refreshing oddity. However, with DC wheeling out two miniseries featuring a bevy of heroes and quality creators this year – that’s ‘New Frontier’ and ‘Identity Crisis’, for those not following the hype – ‘Secret War’ will have to deliver on early potential to go down as one of 2004’s major series.

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By Mark Clapham

Mark Clapham is a Devon-based writer and editor. You can find out more about him at the egotistically named

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