Each week, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic book of significance. This week, it’s Secret Avengers #8. Written by Ales Kot (Zero, Iron Patriot) with art by Michael Walsh (Comeback, The X-Files: Season 10) and colorist Matthew Wilson (Swamp Thing, The Wicked + The Divine), this M.O.D.O.K.-centric issue spotlights the title’s bold ideas, atmospheric artwork, and multidimensional characterizations. (Note: This review reveals major plot points.)
M.O.D.O.K. is not the traditional superhero-comic leading man. He’s a giant floating head with tiny limbs—one of those bizarre designs that could only come from the mind of Jack Kirby—but in the pages of Secret Avengers, writer Ales Kot and artist Michael Walsh have turned the egomaniacal terrorist into a complex central character. In July’s Secret Avengers #5, the “Mechanized Organism Designed Only for Killing” opened up to S.H.I.E.L.D. director Maria Hill about his tortured past, ending his sad speech with a phrase that summarizes Kot and Walsh’s approach to the villain: “I am not just a caricature.” The key word there is “just”; the creative team recognizes that M.O.D.O.K. is a caricature by design, but that doesn’t mean he is limited to that exaggerated characterization.
M.O.D.O.K. was brought onto Maria Hill’s covert Avengers squad at the end of the last volume of Secret Avengers, and the latest incarnation of the series has reached new heights by pitting M.O.D.O.K. against S.H.I.E.L.D.’s director in a constantly twisting game of cat-and-mouse. Hawkeye, Spider-Woman, Black Widow, Phil Coulson, and Nick Fury Jr. round out the cast, but this title is really about the battle between Maria Hill and M.O.D.O.K., with those other players serving as pawns in the intensifying battle.
Secret Avengers regularly delivers intricately staged action sequences that balance dynamic superhero motion with more brutal, realistic fight choreography, but this week’s issue moves away from the fisticuffs to dive into M.O.D.O.K.’s labyrinthine plot. Maria Hill suspects that her big-headed new hire is behind S.H.I.E.L.D.’s recent problems, and as she fills Spider-Woman in on her reasoning, the issue flashes back to show the steps M.O.D.O.K. took to put his plan together. An exposition-heavy talking-heads issue poses a challenge for a title that is heavily defined by its white-knuckle action, but Kot, Walsh, and colorist Matthew Wilson keep up the momentum with humor, tension, and just a dash of spectacle.
Kot has been adding layers to his story with each issue, taking inspiration from a huge range of influences—Alan Moore, Tony Scott, Jorge Luis Borges, and Jacques Derrida to name a few—to create a dense superhero story that delves into surprisingly philosophical territory while commenting on the current U.S. military-industrial complex. It may sound like a lot to take in, but those weightier aspects of the series are balanced with the aforementioned action and a considerable amount of comedy, making the meat of the story easier to digest.
That sense of humor is what sets Secret Avengers apart from the rest of Marvel’s Avengers line, a group of titles that isn’t necessarily humorless, but rarely evokes legitimate laughs. There’s something inherently silly in the idea of people putting on bright costumes to fight the forces of evil, and Kot understands that humor is an essential part of the DNA of superhero comics. The genre initially gained popularity because it provided an escape from the horrors of the real world, and a sense of joy was an essential part of that appeal, even for darker characters.
Kot doesn’t shy away from more serious subject matter in Secret Avengers, but he always leaves room for those comedic moments as a way to hold on to that fundamental joy. Sometimes it takes the form of humorous captions, like this week’s opening two-page splash featuring a description of M.O.D.O.K. as a “Mindlessly Obsessive Deadly Occult Kinkster!” and “Mortally Oppressive Dangerously Obsessive Killer!” So many exclamation marks are used on the splash that Kot devotes an entire caption to the exclamation mark, which serves as a character in its own way.
That opening splash is an explosion of energy given magnificent impact by Walsh and Wilson, who recognize the importance of this bombastic event in an issue that deals with more grounded character intrigue. Wilson pumps bright purples and pinks into M.O.D.O.K.’s lab as Walsh fills the room with Kirby crackle, starting the issue off with cosmic force before the plot dials down to a more tense mode. Walsh’s subtly expressive characters and moody use of shadows would be enough to make the expository conversation between Maria and Spider-Woman engaging, but he plays around with the layout to turn Maria’s explanation into an immersive sequence, visualizing certain parts of her speech and making them important design elements on the page.
The weight of Michael Walsh’s artwork is what makes him such a great collaborator for Kot, amplifying the power of his fight sequences while lending gravitas to the character-based drama. It’s an especially important element when it comes to this book’s depiction of M.O.D.O.K., who needs to overcome the obstacle of his appearance and prove himself as a sympathetic character. Walsh mines immense emotion out of the character in this issue, and his exaggerated design allows Walsh to amplify those feelings even further.
Seven months ago, M.O.D.O.K. was a howling madman working for A.I.M. and completely confident in his superiority. Five weeks ago, he began his employment with S.H.I.E.L.D., full of devious ideas that he fully believed would put him in command once he outsmarts Maria Hill. Before he got the chance to connect with Hill on a personal level, M.O.D.O.K. thought that he had everything figured out, but his plans didn’t account for one unforeseen variable: love. He thought he was better than Maria Hill, but now that he’s seen just how good she is, he’s completely enamored with her. It’s a twist that drastically alters his relationship with the woman who is trying to take him out, and the creative team builds to that reveal with a rigid nine-panel, each panel counting down to cliffhanger showing M.O.D.O.K. in his best romance comic pose and screaming, “I’m in love with Maria Hill!”
Matthew Wilson is quickly rising in the ranks of Marvel’s colorists, taking over for Javier Rodriguez on Daredevil with this month’s horrifying issue #8, and stepping onto the creative team of next month’s Thor #1, the start of a new volume spotlighting a female incarnation of the thunder god. A glance at this week’s Secret Avengers reveals why he’s so in demand, showcasing his acute understanding of how to heighten atmosphere and add style with color. He makes strong differentiations between past and present by using more saturated, high-contrast shades for the past sequences, beginning with the pink and purple opening scene before moving into more diverse color combinations.
When M.O.D.O.K. has a conversation with the assassin he hires to attack Maria Hill, the tension is heightened through the harsh contrast of bright red against a deep blue background. That relationship between warm and cold colors shifts dramatically for a later scene showing M.O.D.O.K. and his lab helper Snapper on a beach on A.I.M. Island, staring at a cloudy sunset lit with a calming blend of orange and yellows that smoothly transition into the blue of night. There’s a romanticism to that image—which is itself a callback to a similar shot from the final issue of the previous volume of Secret Avengers—and that romance carries into the following sequence, which takes those same warm and cold tones and changes the balance to show how M.O.D.O.K.’s plans for the future have been affected by his love for Maria Hill.
Tradd Moore has delivered consistently eye-popping covers for this series, but he outdoes himself with this week’s matryoshka M.O.D.O.K. image, distilling the major themes of this issue in one psychedelic, hypnotic visual. M.O.D.O.K. is struggling with his identity in the story, a development represented by the various hats he wears on the cover, and the sinking sensation created by the sequence of M.O.D.O.K.s is a brilliant way of visualizing how the character is trying to escape the pull of the black hole at the center of his being. Moore hits these story beats while creating a hilarious image that highlights the inherent humor of M.O.D.O.K.’s goofy design, because a book starring a giant floating head really shouldn’t take itself too seriously.