Brian Michael Bendis’ Secret War caught my attention from the first time I read it as a ten year-old kid. Everything about this event screamed “cool” to me. All of the biggest heroes came together for one giant event, including Spider-Man, Wolverine, Daredevil, and Captain America. To me, this was the ultimate superhero battle against a large group of villains. I remember Gabriele Dell’Otto’s artwork quite fondly as well. The character designs were sleek and stylized, striking the perfect balance between edgy and heroic. I’d never seen artwork quite like Dell’Otto’s, which visually hooked me into the story. Of course, all of the political commentary in Secret War was completely lost on me as a kid. Yet I loved the darker, espionage-based approach of this storyline. Re-reading Secret War for the first time in years, there’s certainly a lot to love.
Much like Bendis’ earlier work on Avengers Disassembled, Secret War acts to tear down the old status quo. In this case, Secret War clears the stage for a new era of S.H.I.E.L.D., one which no longer tolerates the unilateral action taken by superheroes. The actions of Nick Fury, the director of S.H.I.E.L.D., and a band of heroes result in a greater focus on accountability in the Marvel Universe. Focusing more on the political consequences of superheroics, Bendis uses Secret War to establish a long-running conflict between the American government and the superhero community. This conflict will extend to later story arcs, such as Civil War, Secret Invasion, Dark Reign, and Siege. Grounding superheroes in real-world politics plays very well to Bendis’ strengths, combining the down-to-earth storytelling of the Pulse with the over-the-top action of Avengers Disassembled. The combination of grounded issues with high stakes action will become some of the strongest points of Bendis’ Avengers run. Additionally, Secret War is the first time that Bendis gets to write all of the big name characters which he enjoys writing, such as Spider-Man and Wolverine. Bendis’ character interactions in this story are very entertaining, another strength which he will later bring to titles such as New Avengers.
Indeed, the premise of Secret War plays well to both Bendis’ grounded plotlines and dynamic characterization. During Secret War, Nick Fury assembles a covert team of superheroes to assault Latveria, a country formerly ruled by Doctor Doom. Latveria’s current ruler, Lucia von Bardas, is complicit in funding US supervillains with dangerous weaponry. While Fury knows that he must stop von Bardas, the president of the US does not authorize an attack on Latveria, making Fury’s assault an illegal operation. Despite horifically destroying Latveria’s palace and seemingly killing von Bardas, Fury believes he acted for the greater good. One year later, however, Fury’s actions come back to haunt him and New York’s superheroes. Von Bardas is revealed to have survived the assault, attacking New York alongside a large group of supervillains. To compound this dire situation, Fury previously mind-wiped the events of the assault from the heroes who helped him. Even though the heroes stand together to defend New York, none of them even remember why they are under attack in the first place. All of the heroes suffer physically and mentally, such as Luke Cage, who is placed in a coma by von Bardas. Throughout the chaos, only Fury understands what is happening, acknowledging his responsibility for these events.
Bendis writes Fury as a man who is willing to get his hands dirty. As director of S.H.I.E.L.D., Fury shoulders a heavy burden, acting for the safety and security of the whole world. Much of what Fury does, including his covert assault on Latveria, is done so that no one else has to. The weight of responsibility is routinely highlighted by Bendis throughout his Avengers saga, as anyone in charge of S.H.I.E.L.D. is burdened by his/her duties. Fury’s sense of responsibility leads him to make several mistakes, such as unilaterally assaulting foreign soil and windwiping the heroes involved in this operation. While he believes that he is acting to protect others, Fury’s actions have significant consequences, which Bendis demonstrates well during the story. Yet Fury accepts the responsibility and the consequences of his actions, knowing that he must do what he does so that the heroes’ hands can remain clean. At the end of the day, Fury believes in superheroes, knowing that they can be the champions of morality that he can never be.
Heroes such as Captain America embody the pure morality that Fury cannot afford to practice. Bendis depicts Captain America in the stalwart, heroic manner for which the sentinel of liberty is known. Captain America initially agrees to help Fury invade Latveria because he believes that von Bardas is a threat to the world, and because he is loyal to Fury as a friend. Yet when Fury crosses the moral threshold, destroying the Latverian palace and mind-wiping the heroes, Captain America is outraged. The uncompromising morality inherent in characters such as Captain America contrasts Bendis’ morally gray take on Nick Fury. When Fury commits morally compromised actions, heroes such as Captain America are free to be the unwavering champions of freedom that the public adores. Indeed, during the big battle of New York at the end, Captain America acts as the face of the heroic community, leading them in battle and keeping the heroes on the right moral track. Bendis champions traditional heroism through Captain America, despite the morally questionable actions of characters such as Fury.
Fury’s questionable actions throughout Secret War take many forms, including his recruitment of teenager Daisy Johnson. A mysterious new superhuman, Johnson has the power to create seismic disruptions, going by the codename Quake. During both the assault on Latveria and the battle in New York, Quake plays a pivotal role, using her powers to turn the tide in the heroes’ favor. Bendis seems to enjoy writing a new character like Quake, giving her a snarky wit and a mysterious aura which throws off the heroes throughout the story. Quake is the only character in Secret War who remains loyal to Fury throughout, following orders like a good soldier. Despite a few key characteristics, Quake is not fully developed yet. In fact, there is a bit of a slow character progression for Quake throughout Bendis’ run. Secret War may be her first appearance, but Quake receives a lot more attention later on, especially when she and Fury form their own covert team, the Secret Warriors. For now, Quake merely seems a bit like a plot device with an attitude.
Some of Bendis’ best characterization manifests in his street level heroes: Spider-Man and Daredevil. The most fascinating part of their roles in Secret War is how out of their depth Spider-Man and Daredevil truly are. In the face of a major international catastrophe, street level heroes such as these would normally be quite out of place. Yet Bendis does an excellent job addressing their awkward position this major event. During the initial covert meeting to raid Latveria, Spider-Man is constantly wondering why he is even there, and the battle of New York nearly overwhelms Spider-Man and Daredevil. Spider-Man, specifically, acts as a great “everyman” for the heroes. Bendis’ inner monologue for all characters is fantastic, but Spider-Man especially provides a great voice for the relatable, down-to-earth kind of hero. Both Spider-Man and Daredevil are clearly favorites of Bendis, as he gives them a lot of great interactions and focus during the scenes in New York. The witty banter and grounded characterization of both characters seems like an indication of things to come, such as Bendis’ New Avengers series.
The last major hero included in Secret War is Wolverine, who Bendis still seems to be getting a feel for at this point. To his credit, Bendis does understand that Wolverine is the one hero who is willing to comply with Fury’s nastier methods. Indeed, in the assault on Latveria, Wolverine is the hero who advocates the most for simply killing von Bardas and being done with the whole affair. Wolverine’s willingness to kill is a character trait which will be important later on, specifically in Bendis’ New Avengers run. Still, there is some mis-characterization of the X-Man on Bendis’ part. For example, on the plane to Latveria, Wolverine is shown getting drunk and flirting with the flight attendant. This serves as a light, comedic moment, but one that is particularly out of character for the stoic, silent Canadian. Additionally, in the end, when Wolverine finds out he has been mind-wiped, he goes berserk and attacks Fury. After years of getting his rage under control, it seems hard to believe that Wolverine would suddenly snap after finding he has been mind-controlled for the billionth time. I also would have liked to have seen more of Wolverine with the other heroes in New York, considering he doesn’t really appear until right after the big battle. Overall, however, including Wolverine is a good precursor to the diverse cast of Bendis’ Avengers saga.
Secret War introduces several important themes which will be explored throughout Bendis’ Avengers run. The invasion of Latveria, for instance, demonstrates the many physical and political consequences of unilateral action. By taking matters into his own hands, Fury brought the wrath of a foreign power into the US. Furthermore, Fury’s actions led to significant political consequences, losing his place as director of S.H.I.E.L.D. The consequences which Fury and the heroes face for their actions highlight the importance of responsibility and accountability in Bendis’ Marvel Universe. Fury, by mind-wiping the heroes and accepting sole responsibility for the assault on Latveria, keeps political heat away from the heroes. Yet the consequences of the assault are still felt by everyone, as Fury is no longer the director of S.H.I.E.L.D., meaning that he can no longer protect the heroes from the pressures of the government. Overall, Bendis begins his long-running question of what heroism means in the 21st century. In times when potential threats can be preemptively stopped, should they? Should the punishment come before or after the crime? Should unilateral action be taken, and do the ends justify the means? All of these questions recur throughout Bendis’ Avengers saga. In this case, Bendis seems to advocate for a more defensive stance, illustrating the consequences of overreaching and taking unilateral action. The true heroic moments of the story come during the battle of New York, when classic heroes such as the Fantastic Four arrive to help the others defend their home. The assault on Latveria, on the other hand, is shown as an ill-advised, overly-ambitious, morally compromised battle. There is a line, Bendis argues, that must not be crossed. Heroes should not be judge, jury, and executioner of every potential threat. Rather, heroes should only act to stop existing, known threats.
Re-reading Secret War, the plot is quite strong. Bendis gives a nuanced look at the political concerns and consequences with which large peacekeeping organizations such as S.H.I.E.L.D. have to deal. There are a lot of similarities between the assault on Latveria and the 2003 Iraq War, lending a sense of realism to the story. Bendis also uses a lot of fun storytelling devices to tell the tale. For example, the story is quite non-linear, gradually telling the story of the assault on Latveria during flashbacks, while the main plot takes place during the present day. Interspersing flashbacks throughout the story gives Secret War an air of mystery and intrigue. Additionally, the reader is allowed to discover the truth behind the assault alongside the mind-wiped heroes, putting the reader in the characters’ shoes. There is also plenty of internal monologue from characters, getting into their heads a lot more than in Bendis’ previous work, such as Avengers Disassembled. While both Secret War and Disassembled clear the board of major players, Secret War was given a much more thoughtful execution. With Secret War, Bendis found the right mix of the grounded realism from the Pulse and the blockbuster action of Avengers Disassembled. Once all of the characterization is established and the mystery of the plot is revealed, Secret War is free to become an all-out brawl in New York.
Overall, Secret War is the first time that Bendis found his voice in the larger Marvel Universe. After wiping the slate clean in Avengers Disassembled, Bendis was free to tell stories with the characters he wanted in the way he wanted. Spider-Man and Wolverine were free to join Captain America and Daredevil in a high stakes battle in the middle of New York. Secret War is also an excellent exploration of the consequences which heroes and leaders such as Nick Fury face for their actions. Bendis’ Marvel is not a world in which anyone can just march up to a castle and knock things down without some kind of retaliation. Accountability is the foundation of Secret War, as Fury and the heroes have to answer for their actions. The one major point which bothered me was the X-Men’s sudden appearance at the end, when the battle in New York was already over. Allegedly, the X-Men had been under attack at the Xavier Institute during the fight, but none of this was actually shown. It would have been nice to see Wolverine and the X-Men more, either fighting at the school or alongside the other heroes in New York. As it is, the X-Men felt left out of the story, and kind of tacked on to the ending. I’ll concede that there is only so much room for story in a big event like this, so maybe there just wasn’t space to include the X-Men.
Secret War was only the beginning of a long-running domino effect in Bendis’ Avengers saga. S.H.I.E.L.D. was the organization to suffer the largest consequences, since, for the first time, Nick Fury was no longer in charge of S.H.I.E.L.D. Maria Hill, a new character, was given the title of director, taking the organization in a whole new direction. S.H.I.E.L.D. was no longer friendly towards superheroes, creating a new set of problems down the line, specifically during Bendis’ New Avengers run. Hill’s appointment as director began a long-running series of regime changes, as the climate of the Marvel Universe changed drastically each time a new director of S.H.I.E.L.D. was appointed. As for Nick Fury, his disappearance at the end of Secret War is only the beginning of a larger story for his character. Both Fury and his agent, Quake, play a major role later on, forming the covert Secret Warriors. This team will be quite important during events such as Secret Invasion, Dark Reign, and Siege. For now, however, Fury is off the board, leaving the heroes unprotected from political scrutiny. The larger question of accountability raised in Secret War continues, especially with a new director of S.H.I.E.L.D. Heroes who act of their own accord, with no system of accountability, will become a larger issue, reaching its breaking point during Civil War. Bendis’ Secret War is only the first in a long line of incidents questioning the system of accountability around superheroes. With Nick Fury no longer around to defend them, the heroes of the Marvel Universe became vulnerable to further political scrutiny.
That’s all for today. What did you think of Secret War? Is it as cool as I say, or am I just imagining things? Share your thoughts on Twitter, @book_column, and share this blog with your friends! Be sure to join me tomorrow, when I talk about the non-Bendis comic, Young Avengers!