Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The Cheese Stands Alone: Secret Avengers #20

The Cheese Stands Alone is a semi-regular column featuring examinations of single issues that can be understood and appreciated on their own, without reading any of the preceding or following issues of the series.

As much as, in my heart of hearts, I want every issue of every series to stand on its own and tell a complete story, I recognize that fitting something wholly self-contained into a mere twenty comicbooks pages is far easier said than done. Similarly, it's no simple task to tell a satisfying time travel story, even though in theory it's a fascinating topic. Fiction, science and otherwise, has explored the questions/problems inherent in time travel fairly extensively by now, and we often get little more than some slight variation on the typical character-accidentally-displaced-in-time-tries-to-find-a-way-back story. In Secret Avengers #20, Warren Ellis scripts a tale that begins and ends entirely within the single issue, and also one that takes a fresh, fun approach to the time travel narrative. Black Widow doesn't move through time by accident, and she isn't simply attempting to return to her own time. She wants to change it without changing anything about it. She needs to save it, but worries her attempts to do so may end up destroying it. Yet even in the face of such a daunting, apparently contradictory mission, Natasha remains always the perfect picture of a level-headed heroine. Anyone else in her position would doubtlessly have a moment of pure freakout, but not Black Widow, not under Ellis' pen, and her attitude toward the whole situation may be the most important component of the issue's ultimate success.
     It's worth noting that any one of Ellis' six Secret Avengers issues would be a worthwhile topic for this column. Each of them is an exceptional standalone issue, and the whole run was recently released as a trade, so I highly recommend tracking that down. But there are several factors which make Secret Avengers #20 the creamiest of that very creamy crop, not the least of which is the detailed, moody, pitch-perfect artwork by Alex Maleev.
     In the opening scene, it is Maleev more than Ellis who grabs our attention with a four-page shitstorm of a fight scene. A small team of Avengers battles a much larger group of Shadow Council operatives in front of a massive, bright, gaping portal of some kind, and though we don't understand exactly why this is taking place, Maleev makes one thing painfully clear: the good guys are getting their asses kicked. Right in the first panel we see Captain America being blasted through the air like a rag doll, and we know then and there that the situation is dire. This is quickly followed by a two-page spread of mad, explosive action---Black Widow against the horde. Already, she is the last hero standing, and already she demonstrates composure under fire. Even as she takes the "Escape Hatch" device from War Machine as a last ditch effort to save the day, she is calm, determined to help her friends but not frantic or scared because of the insanity surrounding her. And honestly, while it surprises her for a minute, even showing up at a safe house five years in the past doesn't phase Natasha.
     It is after this time jump that Ellis' script kicks into gear and becomes the issue's driving force, but Maleev's work continues to enhance the effects of the story and highlight the best parts of Black Widow's character. Because his linework lies somewhat closer to the sketchy side of things, there is a natural feeling of chaos to the art, a sense that everything is only tenuously held together. This goes hand-in-hand with the notion that Natasha wants to alter the future without upsetting the time flow, and it adds to the disorientation both she and the reader feel. She races through her mission, jumping around in time and location, unable or unwilling to take any pauses because of the seriousness of her work, and the story moves at the same dizzying pace. Maleev's drawings amplify that rapidity, but there are also a lot of carefully chosen visual details, like the Escape Hatch's text or the intricate pieces of technology in Harry Evans' lab, and these remind the reader to pay close attention to each and every panel, even while the larger narrative rushes over us. Also, Maleev, along with colorist Nick Filardi, creates a general mood of unsettling, dark creepiness (just look at their take on Dr. Druid!) and this helps to underline Black Widow's cool, collected demeanor. There are things at work which she perhaps does not fully understand, and the hypothetical consequences of her failing are incalculable, but she never loses her head or, even, her humor. In an awesome sequence set forty-four years ago, for which Maleev switches momentarily to an old-school, newspaper comicstrip format and style, Natasha kidnaps Count Oscar Khronus, an essential part of her endgame. But even in this violent, significant scene, she finds time for levity: while charging toward him, she corrects Khronus' husband and bodyguard Kongo, saying, "He's not a real count."
     When I said before that Ellis' script turns into the driving force behind the issue, this is the kind of thing I was talking about. As another example, Natasha's wry, semi-serious "I hate you" relationship with the Escape Hatch computer is developed early on and quickly demonstrates her intelligence and her ability to stay cool in the face things overwhelming. The same is true of her brief scene with Beast, where she knows exactly what to say and, more importantly, what not to say in order to have him answer her questions without tipping her hand or otherwise disturbing the time flow. She's a professional, is the point, a top notch super secret agent, and while it is clear she appreciates the gravity and delicacy of what she's doing, she never lets it fluster or derail her. There is no break down, no moment of I can't do this on my own! Black Widow is too experienced, too self-assured to let a little time travel and the possible death of her entire team shake her, and every step of the way, right up to her closing line, she remains confident, strong, and sure.
     This is not to say that she's emotionally detached from her mission. In fact, Ellis & Maleev do an excellent job of letting their protagonist's feelings shine through. The panel where she cries at Khronus' grave is the strongest single example, but really it is the care and concern Natasha has for her teammates that fuels everything she does. She may not express this out loud---because quite frankly that would be a waste of time and I don't get the impression that wasting time is Black Widow's style---but her goal is, first and foremost, to keep her friends from dying.
     Of course, she accomplishes that goal by the issue's close, and manages to tie up all of her loose ends along the way. Sometimes, a story can feel too tidy when there is nothing left hanging, making things seem unrealistically wrapped up for the purpose of reaching an ending. In the case of Secret Avengers #20, though, the tidiness of the conclusion is key. Because at the start of the story, and most of the way through, the reader has to live with a certain amount of confusion, unsure of how long this all has been going on or how, exactly, it will be resolved. But once we reach the final scene, the details of Natasha's plan have sneakily become clear to us, as well as how her actions and their influence on history have made that plan both possible and necessary. The Escape Hatch was built only because she commissioned it, she can disable the Shadow Council's guns because she's the one who made it possible for them to obtain the weapons' design in the first place, and so on and so forth in the infinite, head-scratch-inducing time loop Ellis so skillfully builds. By the time Natasha comes to the rescue, her doing so has shifted from being seemingly impossible to totally inevitable. It's tight and impressive storytelling from Ellis and company, landing on a note of utter satisfaction for Black Widow and the reader alike.
     Despite its title, Secret Avengers #20 is a Black Widow comicbook, and it makes a strong case that the world could do with more of the same. I'd like to see this character in any and every situation I've ever seen other superheroes in, because she's got a much more interesting approach to it than the rest of them. She uses deception, careful dialogue, and strategy more than any of her combat skills (which she also has plenty of) to get this job done, and all without ever questioning it, or even really straying off track. In 18 weeks she modifies the course of history, but with a class and subtlety, not to mention a total lack of desire for credit or recognition, that is charmingly, disarmingly rare in mainstream comicbook protagonists. This is a high-stakes, grand-scale adventure told in a through a more low-key main character, but that doesn't detract from the overall urgency, excitement, or quality one bit.

Secret Avengers #20 was published by Marvel Comics and is dated February 2012.

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