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Warren Ellis writes good comics. This is pretty much a fact. From the apocalyptic embedded journalism of Transmetropolitan to the sci-fi deconstruction Planetary, the dude's amassed a lot of fans. That meant that, when Ellis took over Marvel Comics' black ops superhero comic Secret Avengers last August, a lot of people were happy. Thanks to this new hardcover—which collects all six issues of Ellis' contribution to that series—we can see that those guys have the right idea.
Secret Avengers is a comic with a very simple concept: superhero missions done covertly, or as the title of this book reads: "Run the mission, don't get seen, save the world." More than any other writer before or since, Ellis seems to really zero in on that aspect of this book. Each of his six issues are stand-alone chapters where a small team of Avengers (always Steve Rogers/Captain America, with back-up) has to complete a task… quietly… with the very fate of the world hanging in the balance. Ellis' stories mesh superheroes with the world of James Bond, and as a result we get a collection of some of the sleekest, smoothest and coolest mainstream comic books in recent memory.
In this book, the Secret Avengers (led by Rogers) fight an enemy called the Shadow Council, their bad-guy doubles that have all sorts of nasty plans in place for world domination/destruction. Together with War Machine, Moon Knight, Valkyrie, the Black Widow, the Beast and Sharon Carter, Rogers has to stop a series of unimaginable evils courtesy of the Council, like using the city of Cincinnati as a giant bomb or selling drugs that possess their users with ancient demons. It certainly sounds crazy, but Ellis' readers will know that he's never one to back away from insane concepts; he embraces the weirdness of superhero comics but grounds it all in a solid cast of characters, like the no-nonsense military man Rogers and the scientific mutant Beast. This book has a little bit of everything: sci-fi, kung fu, espionage and good old-fashioned superhero brawls. It's pretty great.
The book takes an interesting approach by having a different artist—presumably hand-picked by Ellis—draw each chapter. The results are mixed but mostly quite excellent. At the top of the list are Jamie McKelvie, David Aja and Stuart Immonen, who all have kind of similar, somewhat simplistic but smooth styles that lend themselves really well to gigantic action pieces. The most visually impressive chapter here is probably the third, drawn by Aja, which takes place in an alternate dimension with MC Escher-style architecture. At the other end of the spectrum, Ellis uses three guys—Kev Walker, Michael Lark and Alex Maleev—who favor a sketchier style, Walker distractingly so. Still, the artists on display in this hardcover are (with the possible exception of Walker) all at the top of their game, and the change-up between issues, while jarring at first, actually becomes something to look forward to.
Though it's a shame that Ellis only produced six issues of Secret Avengers—and the ending of the last chapter will probably leave you wanting more—it's probable that he did all he wanted to do with this book. He told some fun stories, got to display some great comic art and really explored the concept of how an espionage team of some of the world's best super-heroes might operate. Currently Rick Remender and Gabriel Hardman are doing quite well on Secret Avengers, but they've yet to produce anything that hits the heights of this. If you like your superheroes with a side of Mission Impossible, give this hardcover a look. A-