Friday, February 06, 2009

Reign storm: Secret Warriors #1 and Agents of Atlas #1

I tend to stay away from Marvel's big crossover events these days, so aside from how they affect the handful of Marvel universe books I read regularly (She-Hulk, X-Factor, Guardians of the Galaxy, Captain Britain and MI-13), I'm only dimly aware of the details of Civil War, World War Hulk, Secret Invasion and Dark Reign. But this week I happened to pick up first issues of two new series Marvel is launching out of Dark Reign; one (Secret Warriors) thanks to persistent encouragement from the comic-book-store dudes, and the other (Agents of Atlas) because I generally like the writer, and liked at least the first half of the recent miniseries with the same characters.

And in a way these two series seem like textbook examples of how to and how not to draw in new readers who aren't immersed in crossover fever. Reading Secret Warriors #1, I felt like I was jumping into the middle chapter of some endless, tortuous ongoing story, and the experience was very dissatisfying. Yes, technically, scripter Jonathan Hickman (working from a story co-written with Marvel guru Brian Michael Bendis) introduced each character on the new team, and sort of explained what they were trying to accomplish, at least in some scenes. But it all seemed more like a perfunctory re-introduction than a real new start, and although I did learn each character's name, I learned next to nothing about any of their backstory or personality.

Instead I got an insanely convoluted explanation from leader Nick Fury of what the team's real goal with the opening mission was, and a confusing cliffhanger that seems to have left even hardcore fans a little unsure of what it means. Part of the selling point of this issue from the guys at the store was that it turns the Marvel universe on its head, but the final reveal just seems to needlessly complicate years of perfectly good stories, and comes off as another in a long line of cheap "everything you know is wrong!" gimmicks that Marvel and DC have been steadily peddling for the last few years. Furthermore, I think at this point I am just past caring whether the Marvel universe gets turned on its head or not; what I want to read is a mostly self-contained series with its own identity and set of characters that doesn't require an encyclopedic knowledge of several other series being published concurrently. I'm sure all the back-up pages in this issue with detailed lists of HYDRA bases and whatnot are full of really intricate connections to recent issues of various Avengers books or whatever, but to me they were pretty much meaningless. Stefano Caselli's art was lovely, though.

The first issue of the Agents of Atlas ongoing series didn't escape all the pitfalls of Secret Warriors, but it certainly did a better job of explaining its premise and establishing itself apart from other books. I'm sure it helps that I read writer Jeff Parker's Agents of Atlas miniseries and thus am vaguely familiar with the characters, but even so Parker introduced them at least as well as Hickman did the Secret Warriors, plus included enough exposition to encapsulate the plot of the old series and the relevant Secret Invasion/Dark Reign details. I'm not entirely sold on the new angle that ties the Agents to Norman Osborn's new HAMMER agency, but I suppose that's what's necessary to bring in the large number of fans who only care about a book if it's intimately connected to a dozen others.

Carlo Pagulayan's art didn't live up to the great work Leonard Kirk did on the Agents miniseries, but it was perfectly solid superhero stuff, and fit Parker's pulp-adventure tone well (better was the throwback Silver Age-ish art by Benton Jew in the backup story, which fulfills Marvel's requirement to feature Wolverine in 90 percent of their books). Even though my excitement for the Agents miniseries petered out toward the end, this issue was fun and likeable enough that I'll be giving the next one a shot, which is more than I can say for Secret Warriors.

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