Nick Spencer, of course, wrote the book for the Fear Itself tie-in issues, and has done some other work at Marvel, which, imho, hasn’t lived up to the promise of his indie stuff. Luke Ross has drawn Natasha before, he was one of the artists of Brubaker’s Captain America run, but I think his stuff looks better when he’s not trying to line-up with Epting. So, let’s start off with the thing that rings alarm bells:
S.H.I.E.L.D. brings the biggest twist in their approach to the team — using similar technology to what the original Nick Fury employed in 2004-2005’s Secret War, the team’s memories of their adventures will be erased following each mission. Thus the existence of this Secret Avengers a secret to even the Avengers that are a part of it.
“Avengers make for terrible S.H.I.E.L.D. agents. They’re used to calling their own shots, you can’t really trust them with high intel because one of them goes bad every week, or turns out to be a Skrull,” Spencer said. “At the same time, they have mindwipe and memory implant technology. The trick is, the last time they did it, it blew up in their faces and basically set off a chain of events that brought down S.H.I.E.L.D. Of course, they’re going to try it again — the temptation to get their hands on weapons like the Hulk is just too great.”
This is the exact kind of abuse Natasha left espionage to escape, why she actually defected to the Avengers and not SHIELD, and why she would up quitting both for a time. That is her superhero origin story, through every needless retcon— she reclaimed her humanity from people who thought of her as a tool. So, any way you slice it, this is a giant leap back for her.
That’s not, intrinsically, a bad thing storywise; there’s always fertile ground in returning to the point of origin. There’s a reason Steve loses the Super Soldier Serum every now and again. Origins tend to get renewed, restated and thereby reinforced. And something like this certainly sets up a story like that. But the interview describes everything from SHIELD’s point of view, and my faith in Marvel re: Natasha is sort of at an all-time nadir. I’m honestly beginning to wonder, in my hyperbolic cynicism, if they think the point of her character is cleavage. And fighting. And cleavage. (I can’t actually look at Secret Avengers right now.)
You also have to wonder: Natasha doesn’t make for a terrible SHIELD agent, she’s actually the best they’ve ever had, the only one to be promoted to Level 10 besides Nick Fury Original Vanilla and Daisy Johnson, who only attained that rank on a gambit by Fury. Why would they want to brainwash her, or Bobbi, for that matter?
The new line-up is Natasha, Clint, Bobbi, Taskmaster, Maria Hill, “Iron Patriot”, Fury Jr, Hulk, and Coulson— with Fury Jr. and Coulson mentioned as quasi-leads. I like most of these characters and dislike any of them, but it’s still an odd duck of a line-up. The usual way to build a superhero team is to collect different skillsets. This makes some practical sense, but it also means, ideally, that no character feels useless because they all have a built-in role. One character can plan the missions, one character can smash things real hard, one character can turn invisible and sneak into the enemy base, &c &c. When all the characters have the same skillset, i.e. “SHIELD agent with minimal powers”, you have to find other ways to differentiate them. This can be done, either by specializing further (i.e. all the members of Bobbi’s WCA team had stated expertises) or by putting the focus elsewhere, making relationships and characterization really driving forces. I think Gail Simone’s first run on Birds of Prey worked this way: Helena and Dinah could easily feel redundant, but they didn’t, because it was as much about how they worked as personalities as how they worked as heroes.
The members of the team that play against type: Iron Patriot & Hulk, just contribute to the feeling that this is a hodge-podge decided by editorial committee for maximum MCU exposure, rather than a cohesive motivated whole. But that’s the twist. None of these characters want to be here, none have their own motivations for joining, they were, indeed, selected by a shadowy backroom. How this will jive with Spencer’s stated desire to mess around with character dynamics in true Avengers soap-opera style, I’ve no idea.
One character I’m particularly worried about is Bobbi. I’m a huge Mockingbird fan, to no one’s surprise but those people in the tumblr tracked tags who think about everything in terms of ships. And, well:
Mockingbird: “Also known as Bobbie Chase, Hawkeye’s Ex-Wife. So we have some fun dynamics to play with there,” deadpans Spencer.
Bobbie Chase is an editor at DC Comics. (They’ve since amended it to read “Bobbie Morse”, which is an improvement but still wrong.) To make my eyebrow furrowing deeper, even in subsequent interviews where they get her name right, she’s overwhelmingly described in terms of her status as Clint’s ex. Don’t get me wrong, I like the relationship dynamics stuff as much as anyone, and I think you can write a really well-rounded treatment of Bobbi with Clint still in the picture. (See also: McCann’s Hawkeye and Mockingbird.) But there’s a lot more to her— her past as a SHIELD agent and biologist, her weird sojurn in the Savage Land, her constant flitting between identities, her very uneasy Avengers status, her recent injection with superstuff, her still-dangling family drama— that should get just as much interest as “used to date Clint”, but doesn’t. Spencer does say that he really loves the character and wanted to get her on a book, and more pagetime is a definite plus. Hopefully the actual comic won’t be as one-dimensional as two sentence blurbs.
Anyway, I was talking to a friend about Secret Avengers yesterday and described it as a “legacy of unrealized potential.” Even while I’ve liked this book I’ve felt it hasn’t been as good as it could be— the action and payoff too slowly paced, the characterization just slightly off, the random tie-in arcs featuring completely different characters. The exception was maybe the Ellis run, tragic mostly in its brevity. Hopefully the relaunch breaks that trend.