One of the pleasant aspects of the “Secret Wars” event is that it provides Marvel Comics the opportunity to tell some weird stories they normally would not. “Hank Johnson, Agent of HYDRA” #1 is a very funny and enjoyable detour away from the grim overtones of many line-wide restructuring tales, a “Curb Your Enthusiasm”-style comedy set in the Marvel Universe which follows the life of a grunt-level agent of the villainous organization. David Mandel — who has written for “Saturday Night Live,” “Seinfeld” and currently serves as showrunner of HBO’s “Veep” — gives readers a glimpse into the world of the faceless henchmen who scream “Hail Hydra!,” the men who typically serve as cannon fodder for superheroes. Michael Walsh illustrates the issue with the same subtle eye for comedy he developed in “Secret Avengers,” with lots of entertaining character acting throughout. While the female characters in the story don’t quite get an opportunity to break out of service roles in this one-shot — Hank’s wife doesn’t get much personality development despite playing a large role in the story — it gives readers a glimpse of what could be if this were turned into an ongoing or miniseries.
Mandel’s script is tight, broken into smaller, focused chunks that tie together by the end. Instead of weaving major plots together, the writer smartly takes one thing at a time, allowing his dialogue and scenes to focus on the characters at hand. Good comedy stays present and Mandel, a veteran of the craft, does just that. The opening scene hilariously recasts a classic Nick Fury moment from Jim Steranko’s era, as Walsh recreates the scene panel-for-panel until Hank sits up and comments on what has happened. From there, Mandel casts the lead as a middle management type, struggling to cope with the family at home after taking a pounding all day and night at work. Johnson is relatable and likeable as a protagonist, though he’s prone to fits of headstrong stupidity like taking his children to the wrong birthday party or packing peanut butter sandwiches for them even though Wolfgang Von Strucker Elementary School is a peanut-free zone.
There’s an amazing scene where Walsh gets a chance to draw MODOK once again, this time leading the funeral of a fallen coworker in singing of “Amazing Grace.” Johnson is often put-upon by his own actions and the artist does a great job portraying the various moods of the character, the best being his wide-eyed realization. His panel layouts are straightforward and clean, which isn’t a bad thing when trying to deliver on a dialogue-driven comedy. Matthew Wilson continues his successful collaboration with Walsh, identifying Hank with splashes of green in every scene.
The writer has stated in interviews that this comic felt like a pilot for a television show, and it certainly does a great job of covering almost 360 degrees of Johnson’s life. There are threads to be followed throughout, from Johnson’s work life to his best attempts at parenting. It feels like something that could certainly be on the air now. Editor Jon Moisan, himself no stranger to developing great comedy in comic books, oversees the creative team well, but it is disappointing that the women, especially Becky, don’t get a lot of development in these pages since this is a one-shot. There is a lot of potential in the idea of the wife of a mid-level villain but readers are only given a character that reflects whatever the lead is currently experiencing. One could see how, given more time, Becky could develop into a crucial part of the story, but that is not to be here.
“Hank Johnson, Agent of HYDRA” is a funny issue that shows the potential of Mandel as a comic book writer, at least if he wasn’t already employed on one of television’s funniest shows. Readers looking for a fun one-off break from the tragedies of Doomworld should definitely check out this book.