Each week, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic book of significance. This week, it’s Secret Avengers #15. Written by Ales Kot (Zero, Bucky Barnes: The Winter Soldier) with art by Michael Walsh (Zero, The X-Files: Season 10) and colorist Matthew Wilson (Thor, The Wicked + The Divine), this issue concludes the series with a quiet story about the roots of a fear-driven culture and the dangers of a government that looks at people primarily as potential threats. (Note: This review reveals major plot points.)

It’s been a big week for superhero comics: Jonathan Hickman concluded his runs on Avengers and New Avengers in preparation for next week’s Secret Wars; Dan Slott and the Allreds delivered an oversized, visually experimental issue of Silver Surfer; James Robinson and Leonard Kirk departed Fantastic Four with a touching send-off for the team; Geoff Johns set up a war between Darkseid and the Anti-Monitor in Justice League; and Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo finished their “Endgame” storyline with a Batman and Joker fight for the ages. But one of the most effective superhero comics of the week benefits by steering away from the big, sweeping genre elements of these other titles, telling a smaller-scale story that speaks to larger real-world ideas.

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The final issue of Marvel’s third volume of Secret Avengers jumps past all the action that has been one of the book’s strongest assets, instead focusing on how the team recovers after saving the world from an invasion of “Cthulhuonic monsters” from the otherworldly realm of Tlön. The creative team has delivered plenty of thrills over the last 14 issues, and taking a quieter approach for this final chapter gives it a lot of emotional depth by placing the emphasis on character development over superhero spectacle. At the root of it all is Maria Hill, and this issue gives the S.H.I.E.L.D. director more dimension than ever while using her to comment on the actions of the U.S. government following the September 11th attacks and the start of the War On Terror.

Writer Ales Kot, artist Michael Walsh, colorist Matthew Wilson, letterer Clayton Cowles, and cover artist Tradd Moore make up the creative team for every issue of Secret Avengers, an impressive feat even before factoring in the title’s monthly schedule. That requires an intense level of commitment, and the work put into the title shows in the quality of this run. This book has established itself as a paragon of consistency by maintaining the same creative team every month without sacrificing any quality in writing and art, and their collaborative chemistry has only gotten stronger with each new issue.

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Kot has done exceptional work juggling genres over the course of this series, incorporating tense spy intrigue, flashy superhero action, madcap humor, and tragic romance into one rich, unpredictable narrative that is ultimately about the power of ideas. Tlön is pulled directly from the Jorge Luis Borges short story “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” which describes a world imagined into existence that begins to bleed into reality. Kot uses Borges’ work as a jumping-off point to explore how imagined superhero universes relate to the real world.

He’s not the first person to do this—Grant Morrison offered his own take on Borges’ short story in his first Doom Patrol arc 25 years ago. There are a lot of similarities to be found between Morrison’s DC series and Kot’s work on Secret Avengers, particularly in how they both go to great lengths to show the deeper emotional ramifications of existing in a superhero world and don’t shy away from the metaphors behind their central concepts. But the two titles have dramatically different concepts, which means the execution of these ideas is very different.

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Readers that want operatic spectacle have plenty of options in superhero comics (see: the aforementioned list of titles), but Secret Avengers #15 offers something very different. The issue begins with a splash page of a sentient bomb named Vladimir falling through the sky while singing Fiona Apple’s “Extraordinary Machine,” immediately establishing that this title is far from the superhero norm, which would dictate that a falling bomb be followed by an explosion. Rather than showing the boom, the next page flashes back to reveal the reasoning behind Vladimir’s deployment. Then the narrative jumps forward in time to show the team members being interrogated after their successful mission. Some may say that jumping past the fallout of Vladimir’s detonation is a cop-out, but Kot knows that the important thing is character, so he quickly wraps up all the action by having the team members recount what happened over two pages rather than devoting more space to showing these events.

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In a recent interview with Badass Digest, Avengers: Age Of Ultron director Joss Whedon discussed the difficulty of creating stakes in a superhero story when the viewer knows that the heroes are going to survive. “The only stakes are emotional,” Whedon says. “The only stakes are moral. Can they get through this unscathed as heroes? Can they still be heroes? Can they call themselves that? Are they actually useful as a team? Or are they going to fall apart?” Those are the questions Kot is concerned with. This book’s main cast is primarily composed of characters that are significant figures in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (Spider-Woman and M.O.D.O.K. are the exceptions), so it’s obvious that team will make it out alive, but how will they be changed? Kot abbreviates the “make it out alive” part so he can get to the transformations, because that’s where the real meat of the story is. As cool as it would be to see some of the events described in the interrogations, the story is better served by devoting those pages to more character-centric material, like a flashback to a formative childhood moment for Maria Hill.

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The last thing Maria remembers before Vladimir lands is a memory of her child self on vacation in Louisiana, where a solo trip to the beach instills a pervasive fear in her that has defined her actions ever since. While swimming out to get closer to a pair of porpoises, Maria comes face-to-face with a shark, but the fright of that experience is nothing compared to the existential terror she feels when she dives back down and sees the massive void that is the dark world underneath the water’s surface. “I never told my dad,” Maria confesses after telling her interrogator about the memory. “What was there to say? ‘I’m never safe’? That’s what I’ve felt like ever since. ‘I hate it. I hate the chaos and the darkness and the void’? That’s how I felt, too. And eventually that’s the way I felt about the entire world.”

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Maria Hill has been a stand-in for the real-world U.S. government throughout this series. With her character, Kot has criticized anti-terrorism measures like unrestricted surveillance and remote drone strikes in foreign countries. These are drastic measures taken out of fear, because there’s a whole world of potential threats out there, and safety must be guaranteed at all costs. September 11, 2001, was the day the United States faced the void, and since then, it has been operating in fear of the dangers that the void contains. Yes, there are bloodthirsty predators hiding in the darkness, but there are also plenty of harmless people, like the shark Maria sees first.

That shark is as scared of Maria as she is of it, but that initial surge of fear is what determines Maria’s perspective of the void. The dark expanse is just a mirror, and when she saw it after being frightened, her emotion was amplified. After being shaken by the September 11th attacks, the U.S. government looked out at a big world of potential threats and the fear became stronger, inspiring policies that have intensified resentment toward the U.S. It’s a vicious cycle, and at the end of Secret Avengers, Maria Hill realizes that she needs to break out of it if she’s going to live a happy, fulfilling life.

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After deciding that a vacation would be nice, Maria visits M.O.D.O.K. in his small home in rural Ohio and thanks him for dropping the bomb that helped her come to this life-changing discovery. The relationship between Maria and M.O.D.O.K. has been the most intriguing aspect of this entire run, and their final scene together is a touching coda to the strange friendship that blossomed between these two former enemies. Kot injects some humor into the story with M.O.D.O.K.’s blowhard personality, but as has been consistently the case in Secret Avengers, the big-headed, tiny-armed character is far more than a joke. When M.O.D.O.K. clarifies the central idea of Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias” for Maria (a throwback to an earlier conversation between the two), he reinforces one of this comic’s major themes by stating that the poem is about the inability of dictators to have full control. Maria Hill is starting to realize this, and decides to trade in a life dictated by fear for one dictated by mercy.

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This is an issue with a lot of talking heads (an especially large one in M.O.D.O.K.’s case), which gives Michael Walsh the opportunity to show off his talent for character expression and emotional storytelling. In the interrogation scene, each character’s attitude is reflected in their body and face, and a small detail like Black Widow sipping from a cup of coffee as she provides a detailed summary of events is a quick way of establishing that Natasha has been through many of these debriefings and knows the routine well. The interrogation ends with two panels of Maria with one arm across her chest clenching the other at the bicep, a physical tell that she is seeking comfort after a distressing event, and that solemn visual is a stark contrast to the wide-eyed joy of the young Maria that shows up immediately after.

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Beaches are a recurring motif in Ales Kots’ work—both his creator-owned Zero and past issues of Secret Avengers have heavily featured beach imagery—marking big moments of change by placing characters in a transitional location. The ocean is a great metaphor for the vast unknown beyond an individual’s comfort zone, and there’s a lot of flexibility regarding the emotions that can projected onto the water. For Edward Zero, the ocean represents his guilt over the violent acts he’s had to commit in his life; for Maria, the ocean represents the fear of a dangerous world that poses countless threats to her safety.

Because beaches are places where two worlds meet, the colorists on both Zero and Secret Avengers amplify the contrast between land and water. But where Jordie Bellaire uses a stark combination of icy blue for the sand and blood red for the water in Zero’s vision, Matthew Wilson uses a more varied palette of warm and cold tones to make Maria’s flashback less severe than Edward’s haunting dreams. The contrast in Wilson’s coloring introduces a tension to this scene that isn’t found elsewhere in the book, highlighting Maria’s internal struggle as her depressing new discovery shatters her naïve innocence.

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Secret Avengers is a book that begs to be judged by its covers, because Tradd Moore’s cover art is not only beautiful, but reflects the tone of the book incredibly well. From his very first cover, Moore has had a firm grip on the humor of this series, presenting a fairly traditional group shot of heroes posing that is interrupted by M.O.D.O.K. pushing his way into the lineup. Moore creates a huge range of images, and different covers emphasize different things: #6 is a dynamic snapshot of Black Widow and Lady Bullseye in action; #8 is a silly take on the different sides of M.O.D.O.K.; #11 is an homage to Andrea Mantegna’s “Lamentation Of Christ”; and #14 offers a different take on the standard group shot as it shows the cast falling through the air attached to a bomb.

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So much of Secret Avengers #15 is about learning not to fear the void and simply going with the flow, and that idea is perfectly represented in Moore’s cover, which shows the cast members gleefully swimming amongst the dense underwater wildlife. It captures the off-kilter perspective of this book’s creative team with a goofy, yet breathtaking image, and makes a great companion piece to the final page of the issue, which features Phil Coulson and Nick Fury Jr. enjoying themselves with a surfing session. The cover gains extra weight after the reader has finished the issue, detailing Maria Hill’s character shift with an image of joy and freedom that turns the void of the ocean into a gorgeous environment teeming with life.

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